PREFACE TO THE MEDITATIONS [republished from 2010]

The extend­ed blog entries called “Med­i­ta­tions” have proven to be the most pop­u­lar items on this web­site. While some of these essays have some schol­ar­ly trap­pings (cita­tions, etc.), they are pri­mar­i­ly per­son­al doc­u­ments, and thus may con­tain col­lo­qui­al prose, pro­fan­i­ty, or oth­er non-aca­d­e­m­ic ele­ments.

Any­one is enti­tled to reprint these pieces, as long as they are not altered, and cred­it is giv­en.

14-03-18 BLOG PREFACE TO THE MEDITATIONS (2010)[Fred­er­ick Dou­glass (1818–1895), born a slave in Mary­land, U.S.A., secret­ly taught him­self to read, and suc­cess­ful­ly escaped slav­ery in 1838. His auto­bi­og­ra­phy cat­a­pult­ed him to promi­nence in the anti-slav­ery move­ment. Wide­ly known as the “Sage of Ana­cos­tia”, Dou­glass was the most promi­nent and influ­en­tial African-Amer­i­can of his cen­tu­ry, and one of the great­est philoso­phers of free­dom in human his­to­ry. In both word and deed, he strug­gled for the free­dom and equal­i­ty, not only of African-Amer­i­can males like him­self, but for women, native Amer­i­cans, immi­grants, and all oth­er human beings. One of his favorite quo­ta­tions was: “I would unite with any­body to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”]

From A Nar­ra­tive of the Life of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, an Amer­i­can Slave (1845):

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kind­ly com­menced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assist­ed me in learn­ing to spell words of three or four let­ters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once for­bade Mrs. Auld to instruct me fur­ther, telling her, among oth­er things, that it was unlaw­ful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, fur­ther, he said, “If you give a nig­ger an inch, he will take an ell. A nig­ger should know noth­ing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learn­ing would spoil the best nig­ger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nig­ger (speak­ing of myself) how to read, there would be no keep­ing him. It would for­ev­er unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unman­age­able, and of no val­ue to his mas­ter. As to him­self, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him dis­con­tent­ed and unhap­py.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sen­ti­ments with­in that lay slum­ber­ing, and called into exis­tence an entire­ly new train of thought. It was a new and spe­cial rev­e­la­tion, explain­ing dark and mys­te­ri­ous things, with which my youth­ful under­stand­ing had strug­gled, but strug­gled in vain. I now under­stood what had been to me a most per­plex­ing difficulty–to wit, the white man’s pow­er to enslave the black man. It was a grand achieve­ment, and I prized it high­ly. From that moment, I under­stood the path­way from slav­ery to free­dom.

else­where, Dou­glas said:

To make a con­tent­ed slave it is nec­es­sary to make a thought­less one. It is nec­es­sary to dark­en the moral and men­tal vision and, as far as pos­si­ble, to anni­hi­late the pow­er of rea­son.

From Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man:

Man has no prop­er­ty in Man.

These med­i­ta­tions are con­struct­ed with a par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline. Every effort will be made to ensure that their ter­mi­nol­o­gy is con­sis­tent and mean­ing­ful. The read­er will prob­a­bly notice the con­spic­u­ous absence of some terms that are else­where accept­ed. The terms “cap­i­tal­ism” and “social­ism”, for exam­ple, are not used any­where because I con­sid­er them to be buzz­words with­out iden­ti­fi­able mean­ing. The terms “left” and “right”, sup­pos­ed­ly rep­re­sent­ing a “polit­i­cal spec­trum” of ideas and prac­tice, have nev­er been used in my work. This clas­si­fi­ca­tion of polit­i­cal ideas is per­ni­cious non­sense, and its use reduces any polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion to inco­her­ent gib­ber­ish. Instead, I will rely on a ratio­nal clas­si­fi­ca­tion of polit­i­cal move­ments and ideas. The terms “West” and “West­ern”, along with their reveal­ing­ly ten­den­tious cor­re­late “Non-West­ern”, are also renounced. They are embar­rass­ing rem­nants of a nar­row-mind­ed past, still used with annoy­ing impre­ci­sion and capri­cious­ness. Worst of all, they came into use because of a pro­found mis­un­der­stand­ing of the world’s mosa­ic of soci­eties. My rea­sons for these judg­ments will be expound­ed in an appen­dix to the Med­i­ta­tions.

Apart from this dis­ci­pline, I’ll avoid cre­at­ing an idio­syn­crat­ic jar­gon of my own. I pre­fer plain lan­guage. When I use a word or a phrase in some way that dif­fers from gen­er­al cus­tom, or the rea­son­able expec­ta­tions of read­ers, I will make every effort to make my mean­ing clear. How­ev­er, lan­guage being a slip­pery thing, I can expect to fail at this now and then.

Works of seri­ous thought are not writ­ten with­out an implied audi­ence. The writer can­not avoid hav­ing some men­tal image, how­ev­er vague, of who is like­ly to be read­ing their words. Often it can be eas­i­ly rec­og­nized, for exam­ple, that a giv­en writer assumes that the read­er resides in their own coun­try, or is of the same gen­der, or has a sim­i­lar social or edu­ca­tion­al back­ground. The more seri­ous the sub­ject mat­ter, the more nar­row this assumed audi­ence is like­ly to be. Occa­sion­al­ly, a “we” or an “us” will appear in a work that makes it plain that the author assumes that “we” or “us” excludes most of the human race. This is not one of those works. It’s intend­ed for all human beings, every­where on the plan­et. If I had my druthers, I would pre­fer it to be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly writ­ten in every lan­guage. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I can only write expres­sive­ly and pre­cise­ly in one lan­guage, Eng­lish. For­tu­nate­ly, that lan­guage is the world’s most wide­ly dis­trib­uted, and a work writ­ten in Eng­lish can find it’s way into the hands of a diverse read­er­ship, scat­tered across the globe. I am more con­cerned that my ideas reach peo­ple in places like Papua New Guinea, Tran­syl­va­nia, Bourk­i­na Fas­so, or Bur­ma than that I gain pop­u­lar­i­ty among my own com­pa­tri­ots. I have friends and acquain­tances in all these places, and the men­tal pic­ture of a read­er that hov­ers in my mind, as I write, includes them. They have big­ger prob­lems to deal with than my own coun­try­men. The sub­jects I dis­cuss are more urgent for them. I live in the aston­ish­ing­ly lucky coun­try called Cana­da. Com­pared to most places in the world, it has no seri­ous polit­i­cal prob­lems to speak of. I will try not to for­get that, and I will try not to glibly dis­miss the expe­ri­ence of peo­ple for whom the def­i­n­i­tion and appli­ca­tion of democ­ra­cy are life-and-death issues.

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