Monday, January 21, 2013

Norm Allen on humanism, politics, Malcolm X

"On Conceptions of Humanism, Freethought, Atheism, Rationalism, Skepticism, etc."
By Norm R. Allen Jr., December 21, 2012

Although Norm's argument that there is no necessary correlation between nontheism & political positions is correct, there are further implications, in that "humanism" too is almost politically meaningless though it promises more, in a strictly definitional sense, than "atheism". This is true for "secular humanism", all of its manifestos and affirmations notwithstanding, and a fortiori for religious humanism, which stretches the meaning to unlimited flexibility and hence virtual meaninglessness.

Norm recognizes the entire political spectrum that nontheists occupy. Among black atheists, he singles out the group of nationalist bigots (my designation) Black Atheists of Atlanta.  He did not mention other black nontheists who do not only advocate a tie to social justice issues but demagogically presume they represent black atheism as a whole in contraposition to white atheism. But black atheists, however the percentages may be skewed, also span the spectrum of political philosophies.

Back to Norm: Groups that couple a primary interest in atheism (or any of its synonyms) with a specific political philosophy should label themselves clearly reflecting their position. But also, there are nontheists who engage their social justice issues in other organizations and don't wish to narrow the common agenda of nontheists & secularists by tying down that movement to a specific political orientation.

The term "humanism' brings with it a source of confusion not found in the other terms:
Many humanists focus primarily on atheism, freethought, and rationalism. However, politically, they rend to be liberal or progressive. This causes much consternation among conservatives, libertarians and others that attend humanist gatherings. Yet unlike most of the other terms that non-theists use to describe themselves, humanism means a belief in humanity, and implies caring and concern for human beings, which usually translates into support for progressive social, political and economic programs. Conservatives, libertarians, and others might want to exercise caution when considering becoming involved with a humanist organization.
Perhaps a statistically oriented survey will bear out this generalization. However, many nontheists are not very discriminating about the labels or organizations they affiliate with or consider themselves humanists no matter how reactionary their politics. And the good liberals are not necessarily so discriminating either when choosing their heroes.

The problem is that the intellectual basis of the humanist movement is basically identical to that of any of the other labels used, and is so threadbare that it can't nail down anything more specific than general abstract principles, or platitudes. As a rule, humanism articulates certain general principles of liberal democracy, which are compatible with a range of political positions from capitalist libertarianism to Marxist humanism. (And this is not to take into account hypocrisy whatever the position taken.) This flexibility allows "humanism" to be a strategic focal point for organization and agitation in a variety of contexts, and for strategic alliances. But this does not make "humanism" a complete philosophy or world view. Not to see this is to fail to recognize that "humanism" essentially functions ideologically in the pejorative sense, that its proponents do not understand the deep structure of their own ideas.  For historical amplification, consult my podcast Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology (11/17/12).

So whatever your conviction is as to what constitutes a true humanism, whether it be Barry Seidman's anarchosyndalism, which is as analytically vacuous and platitudinous as humanist liberalism, or something else, your efforts at hijacking the concept of humanism in general will be futile.

The threadbare intellectual character of the humanist movement in the USA can be seen in another essay:

MALCOLM X FROM A BLACK HUMANIST VIEW By Norm R. Allen Jr., September 10, 2011

. . . which contains this preposterous assertion: "As far as Black leaders of national renown go, Malcolm seems to have been the leading critical thinker."

This is not only nonsense with respect to the entire history of black American political thought, but also with respect to Malcolm's contemporaries. I am reminded of a remark C.L.R. James once made when questioned about Malcolm X, responding that the person who really matters is Paul Robeson.  This remark implies a whole lot more than it says, for it points to a larger historical perspective lacking among Americans, black Americans included, as James asserted in another speech.

Malcolm X emerged in a political vacuum created by the silencing of the infinitely more sophisticated black left in the McCarthy era. Malcolm trashed mainstream American liberalism not from the left but from the right. One can focus on the more intelligent components of his speeches, but his defamation of the civil rights movement coupled with his alternative separatist fantasy bespeaks a decidedly inferior politics. A disciple of Elijah Muhammed's fascist religious cult, Malcolm could only be considered a critical thinker in a limited sense. Malcolm's world view could only be considered compatible with humanism in the last year of Malcolm's life when he renounced the Nation of Islam and refused to make authoritarianism and racialism the basis of his political world view (though he became an orthodox Muslim).

Norm to be sure is no blind hero-worshipper. Yet a critical evaluation of Malcolm demands more than a criticism of his sexism, the blandest, easiest, and most politically correct criticism to make. As for critical thinking, I've argued elsewhere that there is only critical thinking in particular, not critical thinking in general, and that "critical thinking" is selective and content-driven. See my bibliography Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: A Guide.

Philosophically, "humanism" has always been quite feeble though its platitudes are salutary. Here we have further confirmation of this philosophical anemia.

No comments: