United States of America

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“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight- A prophet for then and now

[H]e is the lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. –Frederick Douglass (quoted on p. 361)

Frederick Douglass is one of the most important thinkers in the history of the United States. David W. Blight’s fantastic biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom shows the man in a way I hadn’t met him before, despite reading one of his three (!) autobiographies. I write in this post that he is a prophet for then and now because much of what Douglass had to say can still apply to today. His philosophical insight, his way of speaking, and his life’s devotion to a cause are things we can think on and emulate to this day.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, took help where he could, taught himself to read and write, and escaped from slavery. He became one of the most traveled people of his century, a prolific speaker, writer, abolitionist, and philosopher. Blight uses the term “prophet” in the way that highlights Douglass’s words to moral persuasion, just as so many of the Old Testament prophets did. And Douglass was a deeply Christian man who saw two faiths that were incompatible co-existing in the United States: the religion of slaveholding and the religion of Christ.

Douglass existed in a place where few others did. A former slave, he told firsthand accounts of the brutality of that horrific system and its injustice. Working with white abolitionists, he favored more radical views and even, at times, the perfectionism of some aspects of the abolitionist movement, while also moderating some of his positions depending upon the crowd to which he spoke. An insightful, lucid thinker, he called injustice to account and pointed out the true hypocrisy of people calling themselves Christians while perpetrating awful deeds. One example of the clarity of thought he provided united with his “radical” persuasions about antislavery can be found in his philosophical argument about the morality of the slaveholder and slave: “The morality of a free society can have no application to slave society. Slaveholders have made it almost impossible for the slave to commit any crime, known either to the laws of God or to the laws of man. If he steals, he takes his own; if he kills his master, he imitates only the heroes of the revolution” (quoted on page 57). This kind of sharp logic is revolutionary and world-changing, and many saw it as such.

Douglass’s life would be impossible to summarize here. Blight’s biography is one of those which goes for a fairly comprehensive look at the life of its subject. A few notes along the way: Douglass reacted to and changed his view on some things over time. His bootstrap-type thinking for African Americans was moderated in later years as he saw how inequality could be enforced through Jim Crow laws and the like. He married a white woman after his first wife died, causing no small amount of controversy and showing his–and Helen Pitts’s–commitment to the equality of all people regardless of skin color. He leveled vicious attacks on slaveholders and their cruelty but later in life moderated some of these claims, perhaps in order to try to assist with the reunification of a country he saw as died and resurrected after the Civil War. There is no shortage of rich detail to his life. Blight points out how Douglass was, as any would be, prone to shaping his personal narrative to fit current needs. He was also one who enjoyed the spotlight and did not wish to cede it to other rising stars, though he did help mentor many African Americans and was generous with his often overestimated wealth.

Though Blight does little reflection on Douglass’s application to our day, the parallels could be drawn out. For one, racism continues to exist to this day. Organizations that are white nationalist, KKK, and the like continue to exist. Less overt racism continues in supposed color-blind laws that are unequally applied. Moreover, the co-existence of true faith–the faith in Christ–with radical heresy and anti-Christian beliefs continues to this day in movements like the Prosperity Gospel. Any Christianity which tears people down rather than freeing them with grace, which divides rather than unites (as in Galatians 3:28) is a Christianity without Christ. Let us allow Douglass to continue to be our prophet of freedom and listen to his words today.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a truly monumental work on the life of a monumental human being. Douglass is a name that every American ought to be familiar with. He was a prophet of our country and one whose words should continue to stir us to fight inequality on every level. Biographies that truly shake and shape the reader are few and far between, but this is one that did so for me.

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SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Last Call for Liberty” by Os Guinness

Os Guinness issues a call to question ourselves and what we mean by “freedom” and “liberty” in the United States in his book Last Call for Liberty. He argues that the United States must work to restore its faith in the “covenant” of the Constitution and help preserve liberty through its republican system.

Perhaps the most prominent theme throughout the book is that of 1776 vs. 1789. The dates refer to the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Guinness never really delves into defining this alleged conflict, though he does stick with the definition of “classical liberal” vs. “left/liberal.” The pervasiveness of this theme would lead readers to think that there would be some elucidation of the specifics of this distinction, but those readers are left wanting. Guinness simply refers to those dates throughout the book as though readers will just know and agree how horrible the French Revolution was for “liberty” (however defined) and how wonderful and perfect the American Revolution was for liberty. That is supposed to be obvious to anyone reading the book, apparently, because there is no point at which Guinness argues the point. In the introduction, for example, when he first introduces the theme, he writes:

Either the classical liberalism of the republic will prevail and 1776 will defeat 1789, or the Left/liberalism of 1789 will defeat 1776, and the republic will fail and become a republic in name only. (4)

Those are some dire words. Probably they should have some basis in argument, definition, and reality. But readers will never know if this distinction has a reality from the arguments presented in the book, because Guinness blithely assumes readers will go with his argument, despite never actually having made it.

The 1776/89 theme is pervasive throughout the book, and is continually used either as the point of an argument or as a way to hammer opposing views. For example, at one point Guinness states that “There can be no truce between 1776 and 1780. The clash of freedoms has to be settled in favor of one way or another, for they lead in entirely different directions” (179). Readers won’t really have a firm idea of what those directions are beyond 1776 is good and 1789 bad; but beyond that point is the absurdity of the actual statement made. “No truce” between the two can exist? How about the fact that, historically, the United States did, in fact have a truce with the Revolutionaries of 1789 and ultimately even an alliance? Sure, the relationship between the two countries soured to the point of a pseudo war, but it healed again shortly thereafter. Why? Because the United States was more favorably inclined towards a French country that had thrown off its monarchy than other countries that were dedicated to preserving theirs (eg. Britain). I admit I have simplified things historically, but even this analysis provides more historical background to the two years than Guinness does in close to 300 pages of text! Not only that, but Guinness had, at an earlier point, argued that history is the test for different systems to work, citing, of course, the worst possible examples of political systems that are different from a republic in his argument. But if history is the test for truth claims, his absurd claim that there can be no truce between 1776/1789 has been tested and is false.

Much of the rest of the book is filled with vague or explicit notions of American exceptionalism. The United States has the best system because it does, right? For example, only pages after Guinness condemns Athenian democracy for its limits on freedom because it only gave certain men the right to vote and Athens didn’t give in to reasoned arguments against slavery (77-78), he goes on to praise the United States for its own wonderful adherence to liberty. I don’t know whether to be amused by the irony or saddened by the apparent intentional ironing out of history’s wrinkles. After all, the 1776 liberty and freedom-loving republic Guinness wants us to all to hearken back to as the best example itself only allowed certain men the right to vote and endorsed and made laws for slavery. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply conflicted Guinness’s words are with his own thesis throughout the book. Whose liberty and freedom is Guinness really concerned with here? I can’t help but ask the question, because his ignoring of the wrongs of slavery and limited votes in the earliest days of the republic are set alongside nearly worshipful praise of the wisdom of the Founders demands that we ask whose power Guinness is concerned with.

Another major problem with the book is the style of writing Guinness has. At very few points was I able to draw out a thread of an argument. Rather, throughout the work, waxing eloquently is taken in the place of argument. It’s the kind of writing style that will pump up an audience already firmly in agreement with the thesis, but it doesn’t advance the argument or really even state it in any way. Alongside these vague statements that nevertheless provide good quote-mining is the notion that the United States somehow, in 1776, did something akin to making a proper covenant with God by being “under God” in the formation of the nation. I am still not sure I understand Guinness’s point here, but neither do accept fault for not understanding it. Like most other points in the book, this covenant/constitution/under God unity is never explained but merely assumed and orated upon.

Guinness apparently also felt the need to jump on the bandwagon of at least referencing the concept of calling younger people “snowflakes” and restating some of the mockery directed towards those who were upset by results of an election. For a man who literally wrote a book about how we must work to preserve freedom and liberty, it is deeply ironic to read condemnations of people feeling passionately about the results of efforts to do so. Sure, Guinness probably disagrees with how these others are voting, but for him to complain about the passion people felt about elections is asinine. How can Guinness seriously place this complaint having just written a book trying to put forward a passionate cry for liberty? Oh, and don’t forget to blame 1789 for people not conforming to Guiness’s standards of how people should react to elections, as well. Not content to stop with that self-condemning thought, Guinness also equivocates between the notion of political correctness and “newspeak” from the book 1984. It’s not a sick take down of the “Left” (or the Right, really) unless we bring up some of our favorite dystopic novels, right? This equivalency is stunning, because it seems to imply that Guinness actually believes that calls to, say, use accurate language for people groups is the same as literally changing truth to falsehood. Maybe he does believe that, in which case his own position seems much more dangerous to liberty than those he condemns.

Really, the entire book reads like someone who is having to face the fact that his position–that of an elder white male–is no longer valued simply by virtue of being an elder white male. Liberty is easily defined into power for his own position, and this definition is made almost explicit when he, as noted above, praises the United States’ republican system that excluded all non-white people, females, and non-land owners from voting in the glorious year of 1776. It’s hard to take seriously a man who can make such a heartless statement in praise of that system who then turns around and complains about others not liking his viewpoint.

Last Call for Liberty is the kind of alarmist and elitist work that Guinness purports to condemn in the book itself. By aligning himself so closely with the notion that the United States is under (or should be under) some kind of divine mandate and “covenant,” Guinness preaches to the choir of American exceptionalism. By sweeping the faults of our form of “liberty” under the rug, he engages in the very immunization against facts that he criticizes the “left/liberal” of doing. It is at times baffling to see such contradictory sentiments contained in the same book. Unfortunately, I believe that its primary audience will find it as faultless as they find our country.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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