Lest We Forget

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The masses have never thirsted after truth. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

~ Gustave LeBon

Hardly a day passes in which the reporting of political events does not bring to mind the teachings of, perhaps, the greatest of all psychiatrists, Carl Jung. He reminded us of a truth that most of us reject, namely, that there is a "dark side" to our unconscious minds which can easily be mobilized for destructive purposes to which our conscious minds would never subscribe. We are uncomfortable with the thought that we might harbor inclinations for dishonesty, violence, laziness, killing, etc., and unconsciously project such traits upon others, against whom we can take action. Such forces often find expression when fears and perceived threats from others cause us to fall victim to mob-like thinking, capable of being organized into political or other violent undertakings. The state thrives on conflicts it has helped to generate among people, which accounts for the parallel proliferation of disputes and increased political powers. Such dynamics have been most evident during these past nine years, as the least reflective have found it easy to accept any group identified by political leaders as a threat to some imagined sense of security.

A virulent form of this pathology has arisen in recent weeks over the proposed construction of an Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. With the same irrational, self-righteous posturing that would lead white supremacists to react to a black family moving into their neighborhood, various groups have sounded like a Greek chorus in attacking the Muslims for their alleged "insensitivity" to the "feelings" of those still traumatized by 9/11. That condemning an entire religion for the actions of a handful of its members — particularly when the 9/11 attacks were driven by political rather than religious considerations — is a form of the collectivist thinking of which Jung warned. How far might such shrieking reaction extend? Would a modern businessman properly be criticized for his plans to build a sushi restaurant near Pearl Harbor? Should the Ayn Rand Institute be charged with "insensitivity" to the religious feelings of Mormons were it to establish a facility in Salt Lake City? Is anything which the most neurotic person finds offensive to be defined as a "hate crime," or an act of "insensitivity"?

Is there any purpose to this tirade against an Islamic cultural center other than helping U.S./Israeli warmongering efforts against the Middle Eastern enemy-of-the-month? Can these fomenters of hatred expect to be taken seriously in posing as agents of "sensitivity" on behalf of victims of past wrongdoing? If they are truly concerned with respecting gravesites — even though the proposed Islamic center would not be located on the World Trade Center land — the Islamaphobes might look further than just the dead of 9/11. They might consider providing due sensitivity to earlier victims of wrongs committed in the environs of Manhattan.

The Wall Street area is the site of an earlier cemetery that functioned for more than one hundred years. Known as the African Burial Ground, it was the final resting place for what some archeologists estimate may be as many as ten thousand former slaves and black freemen. This burial site was discovered fewer than twenty years ago, during the construction of a federal office building. Somehow, I do not expect to hear the political establishment or its mainstream media campaigning against the federal government’s "insensitivity" to the victims of slavery!

For reasons that the "sensitive"-minded voices of political correctness prefer to downplay or completely ignore, Manhattan had been a major center of the African slave trade into the nineteenth century. Slaves were brought into New York City ports, there to be sold. The book, Slavery in New York, published by the New York Historical Society, offers this encapsulation of this slave market:

For nearly three hundred years, slavery was an intimate part of the lives of all New Yorkers, black and white, insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of New York’s history. For portions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, New York City housed the largest urban slave population in mainland North America, with more slaves than any other city on the continent.

It has been estimated that, by the mid-1700s, some 25% of the workers in New York City were slaves, while half the work force beyond the city was so constituted. During this same period, about 40% of New York City homes were served by one or more slaves.

Many of the erstwhile slaves who had been set free prior to the Civil War saw the importance of owning property, rather than being the property of others. These persons formed a community in the mid-Manhattan area, called Seneca Village. Irish and German immigrants also bought land in this village. A number of white New Yorkers became troubled with the success of Seneca and, concerned about the impact this might have on the future development of Manhattan, called upon the New York City mayor — a Democrat — to use eminent domain to eliminate the village. The stolen land became a part of today’s Central Park.

The black property owners resisted being removed from their homes, and were forcibly removed by police officers. As with later "urban renewal" projects in various cities — programs that destroyed the orderly nature of established neighborhoods, thus contributing to the modern disorder of the inner cities — the residents of Seneca Village were left to fend for themselves. Will any organized campaign of "sensitivity" to these victims of urban renewal be forthcoming from the current trumpets of bigotry?

Private property interests have succumbed to the socialistic nature of eminent domain elsewhere on Manhattan. When Wall Street banking and other financial interests — particularly the Rockefellers — saw the enhanced property values that would come from having a World Trade Center constructed in their neighborhood, local government employed the powers of eminent domain to forcibly deprive small businesses and other property owners of their lands. Being driven more by political interests than market demand, the resulting WTC became a white elephant unable to sustain itself without the state government — then under the governorship of Nelson Rockefeller — moving numerous state offices to this facility.

I have often wondered whether some parcels of land might be affected by a "power of place," whose influences might continue from one owner to another, and from one time period to another. It may be no coincidence that the remains of thousands of slaves — whose claims to self-ownership were so viciously denied by state and federal governments — are buried in the same area as the dead of 9/11, lands from which subsequent owners were forcibly despoiled of their property in order to serve private banking interests. Perhaps there is added symmetry in the fact that Alexander Hamilton — whose inconsistent attitudes toward slavery, and whose politically interventionist predilections would have brought him down on the side of the Wall Street banking interests — lies buried in a churchyard not far from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Perhaps the sordid history that lies buried within this region is contributing to the playing-out of the "dark side" forces that now militate against the efforts of Muslims to build their recreation center. There is a long line of politically-generated abuses of people on Manhattan Island — and elsewhere — to be attended to before addressing the construction of a religious center that does not depend on violating the property interests of anyone. The inconstancy of the "sensitivity" to the claims of property ownership has been too unsightly and morally offensive for any of us to tolerate yet another denial of the principle of inviolability which, alone, can civilize us.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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