American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 10: Kantian Euro-centrism

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

The three ideas—aesthetics, morality and truth—have been inter-linked in Western thought. One finds numerous instances where a judgment about one is superimposed to implicate another aspect of that culture. That this was an “enlightened” view held by some of the greatest liberal thinkers of the West is illustrated by Kant’s writings about Asians and Africans in this regard. Kant, like many other European Enlightenment thinkers, exerted considerable influence upon American intellectuals and leaders. 

Although Kant had little or nothing to say about Native Americans, he was offended by the non-European aesthetics of the Chinese: What trifling grotesqueries the courtesies and studied complements of the Chinese contain! Even their paintings are grotesque and portray strange and unnatural figures such as are encountered nowhere in the world. (Eze 1997, p. 55) 

He also attacked Asian Indians based on their art and aesthetics, which he found to be grotesque: 

The Indians have a dominating taste for the grotesque, of the sort that falls into the adventurous. Their religion consists of grotesqueries. Idols of monstrous form, the priceless tooth of the mighty monkey Hanuman, the unnatural atonements of the fakirs (heathen mendicant friars) and so forth are in this taste. (ibid.) 

Because of such a horrible state of aesthetics in their religion it was natural to find them oppressing their women, he explained. While the European had transformed relations between the sexes to go beyond the physical animal drive and toward higher levels of morality, charm and decorousness, the same was not true of Orientals: Kant wrote: 

Since he has no concept of the morally beautiful which can be united with this impulse [of sex], he loses even the worth of the sensuous enjoyment, and his harem is a constant source of unrest. He thrives on all sorts of amorous grotesqueries . . . he makes use of very unjust and often loathsome means. Hence there a woman is always in a prison, whether she may be (unmarried) or have a barbaric, good- for-nothing and always suspicious husband. (p. 57) 

To strengthen his case that Indians were aesthetically and morally deprived savages, he used whatever he had heard or read of sati to his full advantage. He made sati seem like a normative practice that could be used as the basis for making sweeping conclusions:

“The despotic sacrifice of the wives in the very same funeral pyre that consumes the corpse of husband is a hideous excess” (p. 55). 

While sharing prevailing views about Black “ugliness” and White “beauty,” Kant again extended aesthetics into moral judgments of Africa, and wrote:

“The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling” (Eze 1997, p. 55). Kant believed, along with a number of other Enlightenment scholars, that “all Negroes stink” (Eze 1997, p. 46). 

“Immoral Potatoes” and Other Savages 

Similarly, aesthetics were applied by the “enlightened” continent of Europe to make many irrational judgments. For instance, the potato had been first developed by Native Americans in South America but was rejected by Europeans for its bad aesthetics and for its association as a product of the “savages.” Many European thinkers argued that its odd geometry lacked symmetry, thereby suggesting that it was linked to evil, because God made the “good” food symmetrically shaped. The threat of a massive famine across Europe that could have killed as much as half its entire population finally forced farmers in Europe to grow potatoes as a high- yielding source of nutrition. The European sense of aesthetics considered beauty to be symmetry and an odd shaped potato to be ugly, and then linked this ugliness to evil and immorality, because God would not intend for us to eat ugly food, and hence they declared it a “dangerous” food. Potato’s reputation was also associated with the Native Americans from whom Europeans had obtained it, and who had by then been declared evil and uncivilized people—so the potato was also guilty by association. 

In its deep layers of myth, the Inquisition in Europe was about Order (usually imagined as masculine) becoming threatened by the feminine aesthetics of the pagan faiths, which were seen as chaotic and hence linked to evil. All sorts of stories were made up about their evil practices which, naturally, had to be seen as inspired by Satan. Rule books were written and officially sanctioned to provide the normative, orderly mechanisms for proving the guilt of those accused of such practices. This lasted several for centuries and spread to virtually every corner of Europe, killing tens of millions of women accused of witchcraft. Contrary to their claims of respect for individuality, Europeans were most intolerant of the women priests of native religions because they were declared a threat to Order. 

When I first arrived in the U.S. corporate scene in the 1970s, management training seminars emphasized certain normative body language: A strong handshake makes you seem confident and reliable; a limp hand- shake is seen by White culture as a sign of weakness and lack of moral certainty. Eye contact with confidence (almost to the point of aggressiveness but just the right level), yet balanced with a smile, shows being nice but in control. And so on. The notion of “power lunch” and “power breakfast” entered corporate culture, along with a series of bestseller books with titles explaining what “real men” do and don’t. Soon women followed with titles like “real women” do X and not Y. 

Cultural biases in aesthetics are important to understand. Lawyers advise their clients appearing in court to dress formally and wear their hair in a clean “orderly” appearance, because that is the aesthetics cor- related with being moral and truthful. Images of the “savage” look, on the other hand, are routinely used by media and by opponents to depict someone as a crook or immoral or dangerous. This is ironic when one considers that many of the crooks and criminals—such as the leaders of Enron, WorldCom, among others—have the perfectly orderly aesthetics. Neither aesthetics nor their superb intellects (i.e. Reason) kept them from being immoral! 

Frontier Encounters with Other Civilizations 

Black scholars have explained how racist ideas about Blacks’ aesthetics were linked to being evil and irrational, and hence in need to be con- trolled by the forces of goodness and truth which were identifiable by good (White) looks. In the 1930s, when Adorno criticized Whites for defining jazz as Black music, the prevailing White dominated discourse did view jazz as “primitive and perhaps even dangerous, its refinement best left to whites. . . .” (Steinman 2005, pp. 115–137). Record companies forced Black groups to adopt Frontier names like “The Jungle Band” and “Chocolate Dandies,” and were given labels like “Ethiopian Nightmare.” Mainstream critics described jazz as degenerate and something to be wary of. Later, in the 1950s, when Elvis crossed the line and appropriated Black music for White audiences, on the one hand it was seen as White (and thus civilized) by his fans, and on the other hand the orthodoxy declared it an invasion by the forces of Chaos. The Frontier threatened to take over Civilization. Elvis’ records were publicly destroyed and burnt and many governmental inquiries were ordered to find out ways of stopping this menace from attacking the realm of Order. Eventually, the threat of Chaos disappeared when jazz, rock, and other Black genres got captured and turned into an “orderly” product of the music industry. Adorno explained capitalism’s appropriation of Black music into “commodities” and “confusing parodies” that were “manufactured by the fashion industry” (Steinman 2005, pp. 115–137). 

When Americans decided to capture territories from Mexico, the Mexicans were depicted as “savages” lacking aesthetics not only in their looks but also in their grotesque symbols and art. These images were seen as a sign of their immorality and wickedness. Hence, there emerged the images of dangerous “banditos” which were further extrapolated as proof of their lack of reason. Naturally, White civilization had to conquer such devilish peoples. Today’s debates against Mexican immigration and America’s domestic policies that prejudice against Hispanic Americans are not explicitly racist. But scholars of race point out the underlying images and myths present in the discourse that involve one or more of the trio: lack of aesthetics, moral deficiency, and inferior reasoning. Thus there is implicit racism that is subtly codified. For instance, while cigarettes have become “civilized” as Wall Street capitalism, drugs belong to the darker races— marijuana to Mexicans, heroin to Blacks, peyote to Native Americans, and so we see the “War on Drugs” is a mythic war between Order and Chaos. 

Encounters that shaped National character

It is interesting to see how consistently the logic of these myths has been used time and time again in dealing with non-Western civilizations since first contact. The chronology of encounters that helped shape America’s deep culture is shown below. 

The three boxes represent three eras, which are roughly as follows: 

● In the first era, the early settlers were on the defensive in an isolated strange land, and the myth was for a positive build up for hope and ethical actions. 

● In the second era, expansion over the land mass became important. This entailed violent encounters with Native Americans and Mexicans for land. Slavery of Blacks was required to make the agricultural land productive and hence valuable. The Myth was constantly adapted to justify all this in the name of civilization. The corpus of frontier literature about the “savages” was vastly expanded and constantly fed by missionaries, fiction writers, theatrical productions, journalists, academic scholars, and political rhetoric. 

● Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Manifest Destiny idea was again adapted to take America across the oceans because the land mass had been taken over already. This overseas expansion involved violence against Filipinos, Caribbean peoples, Hispanics, Chinese (as laborers), Japanese (interned) and Vietnamese, among others. 

To be continued ..

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

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