The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Academic Stasi Protecting Students From White Supremacist Menace of (Checks Notes) 18th-Century Scottish Philosopher

Posted on | July 23, 2022 | Comments Off on Academic Stasi Protecting Students From White Supremacist Menace of (Checks Notes) 18th-Century Scottish Philosopher

David Hume: A premature neo-Confederate?

“Don’t worry,” they told us, “it’s just a few Confederate statues.”

Next thing you know, the woke mob has come for . . . David Hume?

The University of Edinburgh has seen its donations slump by almost £2 million after it “cancelled” the philosopher David Hume over his slavery links.
The institution said that 24 donations and 12 legacies had been “cancelled, amended or withdrawn” in response to the September 2020 renaming of a prominent campus building dedicated to its former student, one of the leading figures of the Scottish enlightenment.
While he argued against the institution of slavery, Hume was condemned by student activists largely for a footnote in a 1758 essay in which he said he was “apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites”.
The David Hume Tower was rechristened 40 George Square with the university claiming that while Hume’s opinions were “not uncommon” when he wrote them more than 250 years ago, they “rightly cause distress today”.

(Hat-tip: Ed Driscoll at Instapundit.) Years ago, when the SPLC (and the once-influential Little Green Footballs) tried to “cancel” me, I took solace in knowing that my many friends would reject this smear and, more than a decade down the line, everyone now sees how this Thought Police tendency has run completely amok — as some of us predicted it would.

Once you incentivize witch-hunting, you can be sure that some people will begin seeing evidence of witchcraft everywhere. Thus it is with “white supremacy,” a term which once was chiefly used to describe the Jim Crow regime, but which has since lost all meaning by being slung around irresponsibly as an all-purpose smear. Orwell once observed:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracysocialismfreedompatrioticrealisticjustice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. 

To accuse someone of being a “white supremacist,” it ought to be necessary to prove they have advocated genocide or, at least, have spelled out a political platform for creating a latter-day apartheid. That is to say, unless someone is engaged in actively promoting violence and oppression, the accusation of “white supremacy” is erroneous, and perhaps “consciously dishonest,” as Orwell says. When we see this kind of Thought Police activity — people on the Internet claiming to have “exposed” such-and-so person as guilty of Wrongthink — rather than focusing our attention on the person accused of “white supremacy,” we should instead carefully scrutinize the accusers. What is their motive? What do they seek to gain by denouncing others as “extremists”?

Most of the time nowadays, it’s just partisan politics — Democrats trying to frighten voters by smearing Republicans as dangerous. But what could possibly be the motive, beyond virtue-signalling, for besmirching the character of David Hume, who died in 1776, and is therefore quite unlikely to endanger anyone? Hume’s unforgivable Thought Crime, we are told, involves a footnote in his essay, “Of National Characters.” Now, I daresay that not one in a thousand students at the University of Edinburgh has actually read this essay, which begins thus:

The vulgar are apt to carry all national characters to extremes; and having once established it as a principle, that any people are knavish, or cowardly, or ignorant, they will admit of no exception, but comprehend every individual under the same censure. Men of sense condemn these undistinguishing judgments: Though at the same time, they allow, that each nation has a peculiar set of manners, and that some particular qualities are more frequently to be met with among one people than among their neighbours.

Hume’s purpose is to argue against prejudicial generalizations about the character of people based upon their nationality. We might suspect that Hume was engaged in a bit of special pleading here as a Scot, given the sort of anti-Scottish stereotypes then prevalent in England. Still, the point he was trying to make is that it is “vulgar” to make such assumptions about any people. In arguing against the (then-popular) belief that conditions of climate shape “national characters,” Hume makes several enumerated points before reaching this paragraph:

If the characters of men depended on the air and climate, the degrees of heat and cold should naturally be expected to have a mighty influence; since nothing has a greater effect on all plants and irrational animals. And indeed there is some reason to think, that all the nations, which live beyond the polar circles or between the tropics, are inferior to the rest of the species, and are incapable of all the higher attainments of the human mind. The poverty and misery of the northern inhabitants of the globe, and the indolence of the southern, from their few necessities, may, perhaps, account for this remarkable difference, without our having recourse to physical causes. This however is certain, that the characters of nations are very promiscuous in the temperate climates, and that almost all the general observations, which have been formed of the more southern or more northern people in these climates, are found to be uncertain and fallacious.

It is at the end of this paragraph that Hume adds a footnote:

I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

Certainly, if Hume were alive and running for public office, his authorship of this statement would make it difficult for him to get elected, to say the least. As it is, we’re dealing with a 179-word footnote in an essay about “National Characters.” Hume writes only that he is “apt to suspect” — that is to say, offering his best guest, based on however much direct observation and study he had done — as to the “original distinction between these breeds of men.” Supposing that any student at the University of Edinburgh had actually read this 1758 essay (which I doubt many have), are we supposed to imagine that they were offended by it? Or, conversely, that this footnote by Hume had persuaded them that “negroes” are indeed “naturally inferior”? We may imagine the serious-minded sophomore philosophy student who, poring over the collected works of Hume, find this footnote and suddenly cries, “Eureka! This explains everything!” No, of course not. Don’t be absurd.

But this is how the Thought Police operate, you see — the life’s work of Hume, comprising many tens of thousands of words written on a variety of subjects, must be cast aside because of this one footnote of less than 200 words and, rather conveniently, the author is not alive to defend himself. Hume is, in this sense, kind of like those Confederate soldiers whose reputations are posthumously besmirched by “activists” and “intellectuals” engaged in virtue-signalling at their expense. Knowing what kind of men those soldiers were — “of gunpowder reputation,” as was said of my great-grandfather’s regimental commander — one doubts any of these pipsqueak “activists” would dare insult them if they were alive, but defaming the dead is easy work. Hume was a man of formidable skill in argumentation, and if anyone at the time had found fault with this footnote in his essay, certainly Hume would have been capable of defending himself. As it was, of course, no one in 18th-century Europe had any reason to question Hume’s judgment on this matter. How many avid believers in racial equality were there in England in 1758? Few, if any, I’m sure, and probably they had more important matters to deal with than accosting a Scottish philosopher about a footnote.

Really, why was this deemed important enough to rename a building at the University of Edinburgh? Is it any wonder that donors are canceling their bequests? What a silly tempest in a teapot — “Ban the dead racist David Hume!” — yet the Eminent Scholars in charge of a university evidently took it seriously. Everyone involved in this disgrace ought to be ashamed of themselves, but our latter-day “intellectuals” don’t seem to have any sense of shame. “Get woke, go broke,” indeed.



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