Memorial Day and "Rememory"

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Written by Angela Harris

On this Memorial Day, I want to remember someone who is not an American, but who lived and died for ideals that continue to shape the lives of people around the globe. I am thinking about Jan Smuts.

In a recent book, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Mark Mazower notes that for the men who conceived of and built the League of Nations following the First World War, internationalism meant less a world of democratic nation-states, and more an idealized version of the British Empire. The objective of the League of Nations, in Mazower’s words, was a “liberal world order that would be compatible with empire and Anglo-American hegemony for decades to come.”

The League of Nations died, and the United Nations was born. But Mazower identifies important continuities.  Jan Smuts is one. As prime minister of South Africa, Smuts acted as a conduit between Woodrow Wilson and British officials in London when the League was being formed. He also helped draft the preamble to the United Nations charter. That text speaks of “the dignity and worth of the human person,” “the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,”  and, most importantly, of “fundamental human rights.”

Smuts was also one of the chief architects of apartheid in South Africa. In a speech given on May 22, 1917 called “The White Man’s Task,” he said:

We have started by creating a new white base in in South Africa and today we are in a position to move forward towards the North and the civilization of the African continent . . . . You remember how some Christian missionaries, who went to South Africa in the first half of the Nineteenth Century in their full belief in human brotherhood, proceeded to marry native wives to prove the faith that was in them. We have gained sufficient experience since then to smile at that point of view. With us there are certain axioms now in regard to the relations of white and black; and the principal one is ‘no intermixture of blood between the two colors.’  It is probably true that earlier civilizations have largely failed because that principle was never recognized, civilizing races being rapidly submerged in the quicksands of the African blood.  It has now become an accepted axiom that in our dealings with the natives it is dishonorable to mix white and black blood.

We like to imagine that ideals such as equality and human rights are fundamentally incompatible with racism. On this Memorial Day, however, as we remember our soldiers and the ideals they are said to have died for, we should remember that those ideals are seldom pure. Is it only a bizarre coincidence that Jan Smuts worked both for human rights and for apartheid? Or, as the historian George Frederickson argues, are the ideas of race and of equality inseparable — for one needs “equality” only after one acknowledges race? Was international law born, as Antony Anghie argues, from the need to incorporate theories of racial inferiority into the law of peoples?

In the same speech, Smuts asserted, “Natives have the simplest minds, understand only the simplest ideas or ideals, and are almost animal-like in the simplicity of their minds and ways.” Human rights, personhood, the rights of man and of the citizen: Does each of these political ideals, in creating a subject of legal rights, also create a denigrated opposite? Does the idea of the human make “dehumanization” possible, at once creating a holder of inviolable rights and a sentient being to whom anything imaginable may be done?

A number of social theorists, including Judith Butler, Martha Fineman, and Peter Singer, have attempted to move beyond the figure of the human as the ultimate subject of rights, and instead call upon certain universal experiences — mourning, vulnerability, suffering — and the moral and ethical responses they evoke. Can such experiences ground rights any better than the idea of the human? Or will we in due course find beings who “don’t feel pain the way we do?”

What haunts me this Memorial Day is a scene in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, in which Sethe, an enslaved woman living on the plantation Sweet Home, comes upon schoolteacher and his nephews holding a piece of paper down which a vertical line is drawn, making lists of her “human” and “animal” characteristics.  When she later slits the throat of her baby girl, her “beautiful, magical, best thing,” she does it so that “no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper.”