Three Moral Heroes Who Were Also Ethical Culturists

Three Moral Heroes Who Were Also Ethical Culturists

Platform address by Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County

Dec. 4, 2011

 In 2002, a 32-year-old Irish-born American journalist won the Pulitzer Prize for a monumental book documenting the history of genocide in the 20th Century. Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell narrates in elegant prose the litany of mass atrocities from the Armenian genocide to the slaughter in Kosovo, book-ending the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacre of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein, the murder of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing and mass murder that was the War in Bosnia.  No rendition of mass atrocities, whether in print or cinema, can hold an audience unless it focuses on specific individuals, which Samantha Power does, while never sacrificing the documentation of the larger tragedies nor providing a hint of sentimentalism.

 Among the themes threaded throughout the book is Power’s depiction in each of the genocides of the heroic deeds of a single individual who was witness to mass death and felt morally compelled to warn the world of the horrors that were going on around him or her. And in each of those cases, the witness then brought their astounding stories to officials in the American government. The response of the United States was to rationalize, temporize and do nothing while masses of humanity were slaughtered time and time again. Although as a sober historian, Samantha Power seldom moralizes, there is a powerful moral message that comes through, namely that our country, the world’s greatest power, has a moral responsibility to intervene when genocide is about to occur or is ongoing. I should say, parenthetically, that Samantha Power has had the opportunity to put her moral principles into action. She went from being a writer to being a director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She got to know Barack Obama, and today is a member of Obama’s National Security Council. Though it did not get any appreciable press, I know for a certainty that America’s recent intervention into Libya, which arguably helped save the lives of untold thousands from the vengeance of a madman, was a policy developed and promoted by Samantha Power and a few others close to the president.

The initial chapter of A Problem From Hell deals appropriately with the Armenian genocide that was perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks against their Armenian Christian minority. There had been precedents, in that in the 1890s, 200,000 Armenians had been killed by a Turkish sultan.

Ambassador as witness: Power’s identified witness to the genocide was the American ambassador to Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau Sr. Morgenthau went on to be the progenitor of a distinguished American family in that his son, Henry Morgenthau Jr. became the Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin Roosevelt and a major formulator of the New Deal, and his grandson Robert Morgenthau recently retired after 35 years as Manhattan’s district attorney. Barbara Tuchman, a prominent historian, is his granddaughter.

Henry Morgenthau Sr. was born into a prosperous Reform Jewish family in Germany in 1856 and emigrated to the United States with his parents and 10 siblings when he was 10. It is not incidental to our story that Morgenthau had a background not dissimilar from that of Felix Adler, Ethical Culture’s founder. Morgenthau graduated from City College and got a law degree from Columbia University.  As a major supporter of the Democratic Party, he came to the notice of President Woodrow Wilson, who appointed Morgenthau ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1913. His responsibilities as ambassador were extensive. It included looking after Americans, including missionary groups, American corporations and ships,  the Jewish minority in Turkey,  as well as diplomatic duties of Britain, France and Russia, which as belligerents during World War I, withdrew their ambassadors from the Ottoman Empire. From a moral perspective, it is noteworthy that Morgenthau took an active interest in protesting what was then called the “white-slave trade,” which today we refer to as “international sex trafficking.”

In 1915, as World War I was raging, Morgenthau began to receive fragmentary reports from American consuls posted around the Ottoman Empire and from missionaries, of atrocities committed against Armenians. At first, he could not distinguish the killings from the usual collateral damage of war. But by July of that year, the desperate reports from an increasing number of Armenians, many who wept before him in his office, caused him to realize that what was happening was not the usual fallout of warfare. Though the word “genocide” would not be coined for another 20 years, Morgenthau correctly identified what was happening to the Armenians as “race murder.”

Morgenthau did whatever he could to save the Armenians, but he was constrained by two majors factors. The first was that Wilson wanted to keep America out of World War I and to steadfastly maintain a position of neutrality. Picking a fight with the Ottoman Empire was not a good way to do this. The second relates to the way in which the international community has organized itself for the past 500 years, namely around the doctrine of sovereignty. Each nation state is sovereign to treat its own citizens as it sees fit and it is presumed to not be the business of other  nations how they do so. The doctrine of sovereignty has broken down somewhat since the Nuremburg trials and the growth of human rights worldwide, but sovereignty was the doctrine in 1915 during the slaughter of the Armenians.

Inaction maddening: So it is no surprise that in his cables back to Washington, pleading with his superiors in the State Department to do something to intervene with the Turks to get them stop the massacres, Morgenthau recognizes that they would do nothing. As Power notes, he found this commitment to non-interference to be maddening. But he took whatever measures were left to him within these huge limitations. For example, he met in his office with Mehmed Talaat, the Turkish Minister of the Interior and a foremost architect of the genocide. Samantha Power recounts that when Morgenthau would confront Talaat with eyewitness accounts of the slaughter, Talaat snapped back by saying “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew, these people are Christian…What have you to complain of? Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?” Morgenthau responded that he was not appealing as a Jew but as the American ambassador and not in the name of a race or religion, but merely as a human being. On other occasions, Talaat even boasted of killing the Armenians rather than trying to hide it.

With direct intervention with the Ottoman Interior Minister leading nowhere, and the American government being unresponsive to his please, Morgenthau worked around the government. An old friend was Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, who saw to it that in 1915 the Times published 145 stories on the massacre of the Armenians. By year’s end headlines would read, “A Million Armenians Killed or Exiled” with content stating that what was transpiring was “nothing more or less than the annihilation of a whole people.” 

Morgenthau got help from religious organizations that raised money for relief. Congregationalist, Baptist and Roman Cathlolic churches made donations. The Rockefeller foundation gave $290,000. A Committee on Armenian Atrocities raised $100,000 and held public rallies denouncing the massacres.  In 1915, Morgenthau offered to raise $1 million to help transport the Armenians who survived the slaughter to the United States. He urged the western nations to raise money to equip a ship to transport to the U.S. and care for Armenian refugees. The Turks originally agreed to the plan, but then reneged and blocked the exit of the refugees, and Morgenthau’s plan, as Power notes, went nowhere.

After 26 months in Constantinople, Morgenthau left in early 1916. As Samantha Power notes, “He could no longer stand his impotence.” And as Morgenthau himself said, “My failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians had made Turkey for me a place of horrors–I had reached the end of my resources.”

 Subsequent mass atrocities: By the end of World War I, it is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered in massacres and on forced marches. The world did almost nothing to stop it, and it has done little to stop subsequent mass atrocities that have killed millions of innocents. In the midst of that horror the conscience and the voice of Henry Morgenthau Sr. stand out almost alone in the service of doing what was right, even when others did not care to notice or to act.

I tell this story because Henry Morgenthau found a home in the Ethical Society. He was one of the coterie of young men who surrounded Felix Adler and helped found the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1876.  He participated in assisting Adler in constructing model tenements on the Lower East Side, and he helped in establishing the Ethical Culture Schools. And when it came time for the New York Society to build its magisterial meeting house on Central Park West, it was Henry Morgenthau who helped purchase the land on which it was built.

Henry Morgenthau Sr. was a dedicated member of Ethical Culture for several decades and by his own testimony was deeply and personally devoted to its ideals. In my opinion it should be a source of great pride and inspiration for us that his values are our values.

Born three years after Henry Morgenthau and into a very different social milieu, Florence Kelley’s theater of action was very much at the center of Ethical Culture’s early social-reform efforts. The mainstay of her activism was in militating against the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution and winning protections for its most vulnerable victims, namely women and children.

Florence Kelley was the daughter of a Congressman and the only one of five daughters to survive childhood. She studied at Cornell University and then in Zurich. While in Europe, she befriended socialists, corresponded with Friedrich Engels and translated one of his books into English. After returning to the United States in 1891, she settled in Chicago and lived at Hull House, the famous Settlement House founded by Jane Addams. In Chicago, she got a powerful sense of the conditions of factory labor. Perhaps her most important contribution to social justice was developing specific strategies to combat discrete evils. In ways that have a resonance in today’s anti-globalization campaigns, she organized consumer boycotts of clothing produced in sweatshops. She had made mandatory the labeling of clothes to verify that they were legally produced. To combat the exploitation of child labor, she fought for the requirement that states register births and that employers, not desperately poor parents, document the age of people applying for work. She also agitated for mandatory school attendance to keep children out of factories.

Kelley toured factories and tenements and found children as young as 3 years old working there. As a result of her pioneering work in documenting the abuses of factory labor, Illinois passed the first factory law prohibiting the employment of children under 14. Kelley was appointed by Illinois’ progressive governor, Altgeld, to be the state’s first factory inspector to ensure that new laws were complied with. It was a vey unusual position for a woman to hold in the 19th Century. In 1899, Florence Kelley moved to New York and took up residence at the Henry Street Settlement, founded by Lillian Wald. Upon her arrival she helped found the National Consumers League, a radical pressure group, which was primarily committed to establishing a minimum wage and limiting the working hours of women and children.

Setting legal precedence: In addition to organizing, protesting and public speaking, one of Kelley’s major contributions to the struggle for justice was to inform new law and judicial decision through the careful garnering of empirical data. Among her victories was the Supreme Court’s decision in a case known as Muller v. Oregon, which established the legality of the 10-hour workday. What was significant about this case was that Kelley worked long and hard with Louis Brandeis, a brother-in-law of Felix Adler and a future Supreme Court justice, in marshaling reams of scientific and social data regarding the harmful effects of long working days on women’s health. What was known as the “Brandeis Brief” became a model for a legal approach that was employed perhaps most famously in Brown v. Board of Education, but also in innumerable other court cases since. 

In addition to her commitment to labor rights, Florence Kelley was active in the cause of women’s suffrage, was a founder of the NAACP, and was a colleague of W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American luminary and intellectual of the period. Kelley was also a good friend of Josephine Goldmark, who ws the sister of Felix Adler’s wife, Helen Goldmark. Her life is memorialized in her biography, Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley’s Life Story, written by Josephine Goldmark.  In 2010, The Nation magazine named Florence Kelley as one of the 50 most influential progressives of the 20th Century. Florence Kelley, to our collective ethical credit, also found kindred spirits and a spiritual home in the Ethical Culture Society.

My final moral hero brings us back to the cultural environment that nurtured Henry Morgenthau and Felix Adler. Franz Boas was the founder of modern anthropology. He was also a lifelong foe, both in his pioneering academic work and in his life outside the academy, of racism and ethnocentrism.

Boas was born in 1858 to a free-thinking German Jewish family. In the 1880s, he took a course in anthropology, traveled to Baffin Island in Canada to do fieldwork among the indigenous groups that lived there, and decided to devote his life to anthropology. He traveled to New York in 1884, returned to Germany and in 1886, decided to emigrate to the United States, and remained here until his death in 1942. In 1896, he got a position at the Museum of Natural History and at Columbia University. He continued to do fieldwork mostly in the Pacific Northwest with native Canadians.

Revolutionized anthropology: Though he was not politically active during this period of his life, what he did academically was revolutionize the field of anthropology in a way that bore extraordinary consequences both politically and in the way in which we view humanity. What he did in the field of anthropology was totally in accord with his deeply held convictions that science needed to be employed to improve the human condition and that anthropology was an important tool with which to fight for the rights of the oppressed and the mistreated.

Anthropology as an academic field came into being and found a place in the universities after the middle of the 19th Century in England and the United States. Classical anthropology was built on the premise of what was called evolutionism, laced with a heavy dose of Social Darwinism. In other words, it was assumed as virtually a given that the various cultures around the world evolved through stages from the most primitive to the most advanced and civilized. We could thereby compare cultures to each other and draw conclusions about which were backward and which were advanced, which were morally superior and which inferior. Needless to say, white, European culture was construed to be the most advanced and civilized; the cultures of the Pacific islands, Africa and indigenous cultures, the most backward and primitive. In the field of physical anthropology, the 19th Century was obsessed with phrenology, that is, the comparative study of size and shape of the cranium of people from different groups in order to draw conclusion about their relative intelligence. Such were the deliverances of what was accepted to be normative science.

It should be no surprise that such scientific conclusion nicely comported with such politically realities as imperialism, racial segregation, Jim Crow laws and anti-immigrant crusades–both comported with those viciously prejudicial political realities and validated them.

Each culture stands on its own: It was this notion of evolutionism, with its conclusions about superior and inferior racial and ethnic groups, that Boas radically attacked. He held to the view, which ultimately transformed anthropology, that the notion of the evolution of cultures is false, and with it that the establishment of racial and cultural hierarchies is wrong-headed. Boas argued that it is wrong to compare one culture with another. Each culture, he maintained, stands on its own and needs to be assessed by its own internal criteria. Moreover, he argued that there was no difference between the mental capacities of so-called advanced cultures and so-called primitive people. All people, he argued, maintain a common humanity. There is no difference between “our minds” and “theirs,” he maintained. He argued that “achievements in race do not warrant us that one race is more highly gifted than another.” He also asserted what now has become common knowledge: That each race contains so much variation within it that the average differences between it and others are much less than each contains within itself and that racial prejudice is the most formidable obstacle to a clear understanding of these problems.  When it came to the concept of race, Boas’ research led him to deny the usefulness of the concept, to stress that each person needs to be assessed as an individual and not as a member of a race, and that socio-economic conditions greatly affected the well-being and achievement of various populations. Among other things, Franz Boas’ research called into question 70 years of “scientific” racial determinism, which was the intellectual justification for segregation. Quite astoundingly, I believe, in the late 19th Century, Franz Boas was advocating intermarriage between blacks and whites.

Perhaps many will notice in Boas’ anthropology what has come to be known as cultural relativism, which was a basis both then and now for under-girding the value of tolerance, and is a precursor of what we refer to as multiculturalism. But it is extremely important that while he believed tone should not assume that one’s culture, be it German, American, western, or whatever is superior to others, he did not feel that one should suspend judgment on matters of ultimate values. He was a cultural relativist, but he was not an ethical relativist. He believed that there are fundamental truths that are common to all humankind, even as they may find different expressions in different cultures. Such norms as equal rights, equal opportunity, freedom of expression, the pursuit of truth, were universal values that needed to be defended and preserved.

Disciples were women: One final observation about Boas on the academic side. At a time when only a few women went to college, Franz Boas’ best students and primary disciples were all women, researchers and writers who became the pillars of anthropology in the 20th Century. The most notable were Ruth Benedict, Margaret Meade and Zora Neale Hurston, a folklorist and novelist, who was the first African-American to attend Barnard College. It was these illustrious women who carried forward Boas’ work with a deep appreciation for other cultures and their distinctive contributions.

While Boas was not a barricades activist, he did take his commitments outside of academia. Early in the 20th Century, Boas became aligned with black causes. He worked together with such luminaries as Alain Locke, Booker T. Washington, and especially W.E.B. DuBois. He assisted African-Americans in finding jobs, gaining foundation support and supporting studies in African-American history and culture.  At DuBois’ invitation, he lectured at the all-black Atlanta University in 1906, urging a pride in the accomplishment of the peoples of West Africa. As a result of his relationship with Dubois, Boas became deeply involved with the NAACP. He wrote for years on racial issues for the NAACP magazine, which Dubois edited. He later fought against the poll tax, which made it difficult or impossible for blacks to vote in the South, and lent his name and gave money to the defense of the Scottsboro boys.

When anti-immigrant and nativist backlashes emerged in the early decade of the 20th Century, Boas wrote and spoke out often against the bigotry. Indeed, he was committed to anti-racism throughout his life.

Boas was reflexively an anti-militarist and spoke out and wrote continuously urging the United States not enter into World War I.  He vociferously defended colleagues who were accused of disloyalty for opposing the war and who lost their jobs because of it. He spoke out against imperialism and colonialism and such American ventures in Latin America, and he early on condemned Nazism and Fascism when it arose in Europe in the 1930s.

Herbert Lewis, a retired anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, said of Franz Boas, “He was as far-sighted and clear-eyed as anyone in his time, an opponent of racism, ethnocentrism, chauvinism, imperialism, war and censorship….Franz Boas both professed and acted upon the highest and finest ideals of his (and our) culture and time. These are: concern for the dominated and oppressed, respect for “others” as individuals as well as for other cultures; tolerance and humane dealing; and respect for the eternal quest for knowledge about ourselves and the world.” 

Franz Boas found a hospitable environment in which to nurture his ideals at the New York Ethical Culture Society as a member and associate for 30 years. In 1911, Felix Adler organized the first International Congress on Race Relations, which was held in London. Adler and DuBois were the American representatives to that Congress, which attracted delegates from five continents. But the inspiration for it was the path-breaking work and influence of Franz Boas.

Moral conviction: What Henry Morgenthau, Florence Kelley and Franz Boas had in common as members of Ethical Culture was no doubt the substance of the ideals for which Ethical Culture stands, though they expressed those ideals in very different ways and through different avenues.  But beyond the ideals they possessed it is apparent that they held them with conviction; they truly believed in them and the moral correctness of the causes to which they dedicated themselves.

Let me say that the lives of illustrious men and women are certainly of historical interest, but this is by no means dead history. We can use those lives and deeds to inspire us in the challenges that we confront. These are times that call for such inspiration. We live in an era when our political lives are in the grip of huge and powerful corporations, wherein market interests and not human interests and needs hold sway, and big money buys out politicians, turning us into an oligarchy and not a democracy at all. We live in an era when the division between classes has never been greater, in which financial institutions have acted criminally with obscene impunity at the top, while law-abiding and economically oppressed citizens bail them out. We live in a time when government is being gutted, from education to environmental protection to scientific research to basic humanitarian services–those things that made us a civilized and hopeful nation.

Ours is a time that calls for idealism, for smart organizing and for militant struggle in order to bring our society back to where it ought to be. I think we can learn from the examples of these illustrious Ethical Culturists, who believed in the power of standing for the right thing and acting on it. These people were our people. We can do no better than to appreciate their faith in their ideals and in themselves, and make it our own. 

Dr. Joseph Chuman, Dec. 4, 2011




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