Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Quote of the Day: Shklar Translating Montesquieu on the Cruelty of the Spainards

Judith Shklar is my great-grand advisor (that is, she was the Ph.D advisor of the Ph.D advisor of my Ph.D advisor). I just picked up a copy of her book Ordinary Vices, and am reading its opening chapter on cruelty. Referring to the abject cruelties the Spainards imposed upon the indigenous population of the "New World", she writes (quoting Montesquieu):
Once the Spainards had begun their cruelties, it became especially important to say that "it is impossible to suppose these creatures [the indigenous population] to be men, because allow them to be men a suspicion might arise that we were not Christian."
Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices (Harvard Belknap Press, 1984), 12. She's translating Montesquieu's De l'Espirit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), but it's her own translation.

It has become a refrain of progressives commenting on the Trump era that "the cruelty is the point" -- especially towards migrants being kept in inhumane conditions along the border or immigrants who've been quietly living in America for years terrorized by immigration enforcement. The contention that this behavior is "un-Christian", as a searing critique of the hypocrisy of the Christian right, is a common one, albeit one whose merits I'm ill-equipped to judge.

But it strikes me that the dehumanizing rhetoric towards immigrants that emanates so regularly from the right -- or perhaps, more "generously", the failure of the right to take seriously the full human robustness of immigrants as the sorts of persons who can experience fear, panic, and terror that is a regular accompaniment to the immigration regime they endorse -- is necessary precisely because of what would be implied by the reckoning. For if they are acknowledged as human, a suspicion might arise that those who endorse such terrible terrors upon them are not Christian. Or -- from my distinctly non-Christian vantage -- that they remain Christians, but that this is what Christianity is, or can be.

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