Review: Ellison’s Invisible Man

Reading Invisible Man produced an odd sort of emotional whiplash. Ellison’s prose is wonderful, and the reader is brought to identify with the struggles of his protagonist, who is misled by a series of abusive, hypocritical, or simply thoughtless superiors – as might happen to anyone. But Ellison, being and writing a black man in America, constantly considers not only his individual circumstances but his – or the character’s – role in relation to the racially-defined classes of his America and the power relationships – equally hypocritical socially as individually where we have said “all men are created equal”.

The emotional difficulty is this: Ellison’s wonderful prose creates identity between his narrator protagonist and the reader. But much of the tenor of discourse about racism today suggests that the identity is false – that for a white reader to perceive an identity with a black author’s concerns, especially about race, is not possible. I don’t believe this myself – Seneca’s dictum that “nothing human is foreign to me” is the right approach – but it colors the cultural atmosphere from which I read. That we all can identify with Ellison’s lament is in fact the point, and what makes the additional abuses heaped on his narrator’s life purely by an accident of skin color so horrific.

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” So Ellison writes in the epilogue, and a lovely thing it is to have said. But I am not sure if Ellison believed it; and his protagonist surely does not. Or, does not at the end; or, has found the certain defeat too certain, and is content to abandon humanity. Society having failed to respect his manhood – having failed, in the metaphor begun in the title, even see his humanity – one can only pity the descent of gullible youth into paranoia or perhaps insanity; the novel is a classic tragedy in somewhere between three and five acts depending on your inclinations.

Ellison’s writing is magnificent, and I highly recommend this book to any mature reader prepared to deal with a certain amount of obscenity, not so much of language but in fact of scene, both sexual and otherwise.

Ideas & Stories Part 4 – All Men

Part 0
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In the previous most recent part of this series, I discussed the groundwork for re-asserting a view that in human fairs family must be the primary consideration and form in which to interpret the legitimacy of human activities and political structures. Yet this seems to conflict with the statement, taken in some form to be dogma by virtually every form of American politics today, “All men are created equal.” But – here we run into the problem that that phrase itself is, to some extent, an equivocation. There were unresolved tensions even as it was written.

While tacitly accepting the theoretical validity of that postulate, almost anyone today finds some shortcomings – at a minimum in its realization, but also in the actions of the men who approved it in the Declaration of Independence, and commonly even in the words it was written in. Without getting too far into the weeds, I am going to list some of the – at times competing – connotations bound up, even at the time of its publishing, with that phrase. This is merely those things that seem evident to my limited knowledge of the period: an expert could no doubt improve the list or even divide it differently.

1. Local Self-Government. The nature of the rest of the Declaration suggests that “all men” should be taken to mean something like “each self-recognizing independent society”. Not in quite those terms Jefferson does write that the colonies desired “to assume… [a] separate and equal station”, that is, the Declaration recognizes a change in status taking place – first claimed, and in the event then proved in war. Government is in the next paragraph claimed to be “the right of the people”, but not individual persons; but “the People” are seen not as all subjects of the British crown but particularly those American people represented by their Congress who authorized the Declaration. The key to this image is the fascination of the Founders with the Mediterranean city-states of antiquity.

2. Each Person. The English tradition of militating for civil rights; the Christian and especially Protestant insistence on individual conversion; the Enlightenment cogito: each of these and likely other influences can be linked to a strong – if often theoretical – insistence on the dignity and independence (ideally) of the individual, not on grounds of family or nation or accomplishment or anything but a common humanity. I think from the modern point of view it is easier to view this as more influential than it in fact appeared at the time but the influence of Locke and others cannot be denied.

3. All Free Men. It is evident historically that the American Founders for the most part would have expected – whether on theoretical, theological, or habitual grounds – some persons to take part in the governing of society and some not to. The ways this division can be represented are numerous, and – I want to emphasize – that it represents injustice inherently is not always clear. The contrast of the free man to a slave is obvious; but I also include in this category property owners compared to renters; recognized citizens compared to non-citizens; and, speaking generally, any rules put in place that state such-and-such a changeable status must be secured to participate in the government.

4. All Males. Because of the natural authority of fathers, monarchies and aristocracies (or if we wish to be less complimentary, oligarches) have generally tended to be male, with women holding a minority of these positions of authority in the historical record. The democratic ideal militates against this: but it is clear enough that few – indeed, hardly clear that any – of the Founders were advocates for pure democracy, however essential it seems to the modern world. In any case – even setting aside active suppressions of female involvment in politics – the mental habits and practical expectation would have been a continuation of a male-dominated, if not male-only political classes Europe would have been most familiar with.

5. All Whites. It is not clear that “race” had developed, at the time of the War for Independence, into the theoretical construct we would recognize today, or which we read defenses of even sixty years later. But the conditions – primarily America’s native tribes or nations being pushed away from land claimed by the colonies, and enslavement and trade mainly in Africans for the benefit of those descended from Europeans – which would harden into the next centuries’ racial theories were already practically in place.

Where the first two categories I outline here seem to me to illustrate the theoretical tensions, the later three cannot be forgotten as habits of thought. I have left out, but not forgotten, the idea of the head of household or head of a family, not because I think it was truly ignored, but because I think it was to some extent an assumption so used to being taken for granted socially that it seems to me to have been overlooked practically – not that I am an expert on the period. To the extent it had separate political import, that seems to me to have been very little, because of the social or legal assumptions that such a head would be male; but I am not actually familiar with the laws of the period themselves.

One could no doubt break down the possible connotations further. My point here is that the Founders had, to varying degrees of detail, considered these claims: but they had not resolved them, historically speaking, and certainly they were not prepared to treat particular conclusions as absolute principles. The Constitution in fact left citizenry to the states, and pushed even the end of the slave trade out to a convenient-seeming deadline which primarily served to further establish a more or less clearly delineated slave population. American political crises have been created mainly as the country seeks to resolve these conflicts.

Government and Personal Responsibilities

In his Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln called for a renewed commitment to “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. He offered this, on Northern ground as the Civil War raged on, as a goal of and justification for the Federal government’s prosecution of that war. Even those who find injustice in Northern actions during the Civil War would hardly disagree with the words: the actions, they must say, belie the words, and show they were no true belief.

“Government of the people”: that a community must have authority of some kind, to resolve disputes justly and oversee projects of general effect, is agreed virtually universally. The most strident monarchist or fascist is content so far: only the anarchist disagrees. The difficulties come in the remaining phrases.

“Government by the people”: it was not a new idea to suggest that community should be able to govern itself. In an American context, however, Lincoln could hardly mean anything by this phrase but the exposition of a more contentious idea: democracy, or the ideal of a people governing their own actions, and on larger matters coming together to debate, or personally select representatives to decide, what must be done.

Of particular note is the generality of Lincoln’s noun, “the people”. The implication is all people. It is hard to argue that the Federal government, in refusing the secession of the Confederate States, had any great moral goals: the practical question was Union or dissolution. To what extent the Constitutional intent of a “more perfect Union” can be set against the Declaration’s principle that “one people” can unilaterally “dissolve the political bands” they find themselves in is beyond my ability to decipher, or the scope of my current argument. That the Southern states largely seceded for fear their practice of slavery was endangered is a statement equally hard to refute: as a result, the actual result of emancipation is often seen as the actual Federal cause.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln had attempted to set aside slavery as a minor issue, focusing on the Constitutional legalities as he interpreted them: in the second, he very nearly states the received wisdom of today, that it was “about” slavery, leaving only the caveat “somehow”. But in the meantime, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation – affecting only the South, to be precise – and offered this speech at Gettysburg. Taking Lincoln’s transition as a guide to public opinion suggests that as the war went on, the North came to view it more and more as a crusade for abolition, while the South, with slavery not much in favor in most of the world, had to depend on their legal arguments to justify their actions, as Confederate sympathizers generally do today, and so set aside the question whether their culture as such justified secession and war to preserve.

That culture, at any rate, was set against this statement of Lincoln’s that all people were included in government properly conducted by “the” people. The principle implied is, stated negatively, that democratic or representative government is not preserved where some class or caste of those governed is shut out from participation in the government.

Admitting the principle, some implications follow which many might find curious. Children are generally prevented in all societies from participating in government by reason of immaturity: government, then, ought as much as possible not interfere with children. The ignorant might reasonably not be permitted to have a say in a decision – but if so, ignorance (at least of facts) can be cured in most cases, and the ignorant ought to be instructed. These “ignorant” are likely to be of two sorts – the younger generations, of course, but also the immigrants. Anyone held in violation of community standards ought not be forbidden future participation – unless his crime were such an offense that he would be removed completely, by death or (theoretically, though not exactly practiced in modern times) exile. Imprisonment is not enough: the prison is maintained by the community.

The idea sketched here is that the extent a community is defined not by the number of those who govern but by the number of the governed. With Roman citizenship, and the immigrant or resident alien, finding the privileges attractive, might have purchased such status for a considerable sum. An American, ideally, is a citizen primarily by virtue of being governed by the American government, with only such limitations as are found absolutely necessary for the controlling of human weakness and folly.

“Government for” this sort of people becomes a monumentally demanding task of restraint. There is first of all the assumption that these persons are on the whole capable of self-government: of controlling their own impulses, and constructing their own lives, so that it is demanded of the government not to interfere too much in any particular of life. (It might, inversely, be argued that a community in which the members are evidently not capable of such self-control will not be capable of self-government either, and history only serves to reinforce this idea with the added corollary that such a people will shortly no longer be self-governed.)

Secondly, it must be emphasized that government of this sort is to be conducted for the good of the entire populace. Laws which create castes or classes to be judged differently ought to be shunned. Remedial efforts ought to be absolute, not comparative. Any distinctions in difficulty or degree of duties must be limited in scope and based purely on objective resources or ability. These conditions must, most especially, be observed by the officers of the government – and so also the people must demand of themselves that they judge candidates for these offices strictly by such qualities.

It remains to be said that the government of a community is not the whole of a community. The Marxist dictum, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is in fact a sound statement of the goals of any community: but it is the fascist, statist, and even socialist mistake to assume that all effort be organized, and all goods be distributed, by the government of that community.

The difficulty is on the one hand one of logistics. Complete control demands complete information, which takes time. Any awarding of goods or services which cannot be done quickly will take additional persons to complete, which will prevent them from contributing what they might otherwise have done to the best of their abilities: the statist falls victim to proof by contradiction. This leaves aside completely the effect of inevitable disasters – natural, if not man-made – on a minutely planned course of action.

It is also a failure to properly account for communities within community. A nation is a large community: a family, the smallest possible. To the extent a smaller community has balanced ability and need, interference of the larger community government is an act of imbalance. The reverse is true, though one small community relative to a larger has less effect: take away a small contribution and it must be made up somewhere or the balance lost.

That balance is today widely felt to have been lost. The government officially established by the American community is not considered exactly trustworthy: individual officials, for the most part, even less so. We have been trained to look for a consensus to govern ourselves, and that much remains, at least: the result is that cases which ought to be for the government are now tried in the court of public opinion (and not infrequently, government, appealed to as force, is brought in where private opinions ought to be allowed to prevail on private matters).

As regards the government, the solution is simple in theory, though hard in fact to accomplish. The officers of the government must in fact govern in the agreed manner, which in America means by law and not by whim. Harder still is the communal duty: the American people must demand their government govern: that the officers act responsibly and that those institutions without consent be publicly validated or disbanded. Government is to act promptly where required: this condition suggests either that a great many laws ought to be repealed, or the processes of prosecuting cases simplified, or more officers employed in the government to be able to act quickly.

The more radical task comes in the re-conception of private spaces. Government is employed to resolve those disputes between people which must be resolved; the people are axiomatically (whether or not they are in fact) responsible to manage their own conduct; but there exists a space where individuals and small communities actually interact on their own.

The main principle stated above was that in the community envisioned communal responsibilities exist simply by belonging to the community. The secondary fact stated was that the communal force called government cannot effect all requirements of the larger community that exist between the family and the government. Persons included in the larger community do not all belong to the same small ones: they may in life move between smaller ones.

The government – the management of the large community – ought not therefore to impose the standards of any small community, but only such standards as are universal to the large one. If any standard supposed to be imposed needs for tranquility to have significant exemptions granted, it ought not be made law. Any government will make the decision not to enforce behavior which some, even a majority, of its officers would consider moral.

It is vital to understand this principle, because an overwhelming inclination today is to remove the private space: to impose the standards of a preferred small community on the large one. This is sometimes done explicitly, by laws demanding or forbidding behaviors positively. At other times this is attempted implicitly, by attempts to de-legitimize existence of persons as members of the larger community: now due not only to the class or caste mentioned previously, but at other times by virtue of their opinions.

There is in America a law by which religious exercise is protected from legal interference. This is sometimes treated today as granting the “significant exemptions” mentioned previously, but this is a misunderstanding of the principle even when it describes the practice. Religion, by definition, claims to have authority beyond the natural world. It is therefore easy to claim that a religious authority transcends the constraints outlined above.

If transcendent, then it claims the right to impose on the larger community the principles of the smaller: which is, if the smaller communities disagree with each other, a crisis. The American First Amendment, then, is not a creation of exception, but a statement of the principle as applied to the area where it was known a great temptation was found: the design was, by stating this application specifically, to protect the government from the smaller communities and the smaller communities from each other. If the government attempts to impose a law which the First Amendment would seem to demand an exception to (in the modern understanding), what ought to be concluded is that the law is a bad law.

And so for other laws and other small communities. What takes shape if this idea is followed out is diametrically opposed to the current tide of laws which extend government further and further through private spaces, but with exemptions within exemptions which render actual estimates of their application guesswork at best. If in fact a larger community extends to govern more and more smaller ones – what is called pluralism – it is more necessary to remove laws than create additional ones, because the remaining consensus covers fewer matters. It is the duty of the people as a whole not to repress in private spaces by government power behaviors unless they are prepared to remove that number of misbehavers from the larger community outright. It is also the duty of those in each smaller community to faithfully adhere to the standards of the whole. Lack of either promptly imperils both.