Thursday, April 28, 2005

On Being Irreverent

So for my semester project in my graduate history class I have been studying Hubert Henry Harrison, AKA "the black Socrates." Harrison is considered to be a race and class radical who was largely forgotten by history.

It is very likely that historians "forgot" Harrison for three reasons:

1) His personal philosophy of being true to his own convictions. Primary among these convictions was his intellectually honest and candid criticism of anything that did not fit with the evidence. This candidness inevitably offended many persons or organizations that should have preserved his memory.

2) Being a class and race radical, Harrison was involved with the Socialist Party of America. Consequently, eight years prior to his death Russia had a revolution which causes America's Red Scare. Thus, anyone who criticized our government or was associated in any way with socialism was automatically (and often unfairly) deemed a communist.

3) Harrison was an avowed freethinker. It is my personal opinion that historians are often unkind to those who openly criticize and reject the majority's religion. For example, historians HAD to remember the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin (all deists and freethinkers) because they were part of some major events in U.S. history. The same could be said of the philosopher Bertrand Russell (AKA "the father of analytical philosophy). Some of his many accomplishments can be found here.

However, other freethinkers who were notable in their day, yet were not part of some historically significant even are often forgotten. One such example would be one of America's greatest orators, Robert Green Ingersoll. Were it not for the work of a few diligent (and honest) historians, he would have been written completely out of history.
(First digression of the night: The original freethought movement was spawned in the Italian Renaissance and once was not associated with a rejection of religion. Rather, adherents encouraged a critical examination of all matters with the best science of the day. Eventually freethought turned it's critical eye on Christianity and the rest, as they say, is history.)
So, a combination of these three points coalesced and historians wrote Harrison out of the historical record. Luckily, an independent historian by the name of Jeff Perry rediscovered Harrison and is now sharing his work with the world.

This leads me to the second digression of the night: The value of being irreverent. The OED defines irreverence as: "The fact or quality of being irreverent; absence or violation of reverence; disrespect to a person or thing held sacred or worthy of honor."

Too many times people who are intellectually honest, open, and candid, OFTEN are described as "negative", "skeptical", or are accused of being "irreverent". In fact, more times than I care to count, I am often described in this manner. Interestingly, people who label me act as if they are omniscient--it's almost as if they think that they have a direct pipeline to what I am thinking.

Sadly they are quite mistaken.

While I am certainly no Hubert Harrison, he faced many of the same criticisms that I often have. Thus, it is with the words of Harrison that I respond to my critics:
“The old men whose minds are always retrospecting and reminiscing to the past, who are trained to read a few dry and dead books which they still fondly believe are hard to get—these do not know anything of the modern world…Get education. Get it not only in school and college, but in books and newspapers, in market-places, institutions, and movements. Prepare by knowing; and never think that you know until you have listened to ten others who know differently…Reverence is in one sense, is respect for what is antiquated because it is antiquated…Oldsters love ruts because they help them to “rub along,” they are easy to understand; they require the minimum of exertion and brains, they give the maximum of ease…If you wish to be spiritually alert and alive; to get the very best out of yourself—shun a rut as you would shun the plague! Never bow the knee to Baal because Baal is in power; never respect wrong and injustice because they are enshrined in the sacred institutions of our glorious land; never have patience with either Cowardice or Stupidity…Read, reason, and think on all side of all subjects…And set it before you, as a sacred duty always to surpass the teachers that taught you—and this is the essence of irreverence.”
Excerpt from:

Hubert Henry Harrison, “To the Young Men of My Race,” in Jeffery Perry, ed., A Hubert Harrison Reader. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 175-176.

Irreverent and PROUD of it!

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