Sunday, August 23, 2009

Racist schmasist

When, a friend and I were visiting a friend in Wellington (New Zealand) a few years ago, we got into a discussion with some of the latter’s housemates about Hamas’ recent election victory. I mentioned that one of the more sensible public statements on it had been made by President Bush. To which one housemate responded that Bush’s “racism” was more circumspect.

The man who appointed a black man followed by a black woman as the public face of American foreign policy and who thought Arabs are up for democracy (and appointed an Afghan-American as point-man in first Afghanistan and then Iraq) and is apparently obviously “racist”, he’s just clever about it. Indeed, so clever that President Bush acted precisely as someone who is not racist would.

Sad. So young and the flatmate’s mind had already turned to mush.

Not that he is doing much other than following contemporary academic and progressivist fashion, which is to label all sorts of things which are clearly not racism as “racism”: such as, for example, criticism of Muslims. Islam is a religion and a civilisation. Muslims are not a race: indeed, they are folk of all races. A general comment about Muslims, no matter how ignorant or bigoted it is, is not racism, just as a similar comment about Christians would not be.

What is racism?
Racism—in the sense of identifying continent-wide races (white, black, yellow, etc) and postulating a hierarchy between them—fully developed in the West in the C19th, though the term was not coined until the 1930s. Full-blown racism sought to explain European dominance. When medievals, for example, talked of “race” they normally meant Czech, Germans, etc: ethnicity based on language groups. The notion of the different descendant groups from the “sons of Noah” had no moral implications: indeed, faced with the existence of previously unknown peoples in other continents, the Papacy ruled that all peoples were equally human on very medieval reasoning.

But there were clear precursors to C19th racism in the Arab-Islamic world, in reconquista Spain and in New World colonialism. In each case, the move has the same purpose: to justify blatantly unequal treatment (the ownership of slaves and the subordination and/or dispossession of out-groups) in violation of otherwise egalitarian norms (Islamic, Christian, liberal). In the case of slavery, it also rationalised the lower enforcement costs in having slaves of a different skin colour.
Tribalism—identifying strongly with your own group—is a much older phenomenon than racism. Racism obviously feeds on our propensity for group identification, but not all group identification is racist. Indeed, in the absence of universalist norms, there is no reason to develop racism—the notion of inherently debased orders of humanity based on skin colour—as differential treatment of outsiders is taken for granted. Racism is a historically specific phenomenon in a way tribalism and xenophobia are not. Genuine racism is a relief from—in its extreme form a revolt against—the burden of moral universalism. It also requires some sense of visibly different populations. Which is why, for example, Arab/Berber Islam pioneered anti-black tropes. And why American racism was so virulent—both the norms of Christianity and of the American Revolution had to be subverted. (Something the Rev. Martin Luther King was well aware of and eloquent about.)

Things that are not racism
Then there is the wonderful concept of implicit racism. In the words of Prof. John Hobson
implicit racism locates ‘difference’ through cultural, institutional and environmental criteria than genetic properties. (p.220).
Which, of course, makes it so implicit it is not racism. The special noxiousness of racism is precisely that it picks on a characteristic that is unchanging. It not only says a group of people are deeply flawed in their humanity, it denies them any redeeming agency at all regarding crucial aspect or aspects of life.

Why misuse the term in this way? In Hobson et al’s case it is clear enough—it turns any claim of Western superiority into a thoughtcrime. The more widely one defines racism the narrower the limits of acceptable debate, with the definers of racism setting those limits.

But it also buttresses a wider sort of status claim. There is a joke in the US that being accused of racism is what happens when an (American) liberal is losing an argument. Afro-American conservative Thomas Sowell noted years ago the shifting use of racism:
If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 25 years ago and a racist today.
Consider the reaction to then PM Howard’s statement that many Australians find the burqa confronting. I live in the Footscray area, and its vibrant diversity of folk is one of the things I particularly like about it. One sees plenty of Muslim women in headscarves. But I have found the burqa a tad confronting—both because I don’t see very many and because of the assumptions about the role of women that lie behind it. But, apparently, feminism and its concerns don’t apply to Muslim women and Howard was a bigot, or playing on bigotry, for implying that they do (and that most Australians might think that too).

As Sowell's bon mot suggests, the game is to define things only the cognescenti would call 'racist' as racist in order to establish one is of the cognescenti. But it does more than that: one defines things as racist to justify discounting the opinions of one’s (moral and intellectual) inferiors. Thus the preferences of most Australians on migration policy don’t count because they are racist (no matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary on that). Any policy that expresses their preferences, no matter how popularly supported, is similarly illegitimate because it is racist.

Historically, there are typical beliefs of a group that defines its identity through possession of intellectual capital: the masses are vulgar, commerce grubby and the soldiering/policing professions thuggish. Which is modern progressivist politics in a nutshell. A set of prejudices that were old when Plato was a boy are laughingly redefined as “new” and “cutting edge” by various linguistic tricks based on 1066 and All That’s Irish-question principle (whenever the English worked out the answer to the Irish Question, the Irish changed the Question).

An example of such "Irishing" is when Pauline Hanson uttered a much milder version of what was “cutting edge” progressivist politics in 1900 when the ALP was getting underway and The Bulletin was the mouthpiece of intellectual opinion, she was treated as an utterly vile heretic. For, in the meantime, the proletariat had become rednecks and defining oneself against the surrounding populace had become the basis of knowledge class/progressivist politics: a pattern that has a clear medieval precursor.

There is also a striking ignorance of the interaction between racial prejudice and capitalism. In both the American South and South Africa it was precisely because capitalism could not be trusted to grade folk by race that the state intervened to do so. The actions of merchants and patterns of commerce are deeply subversive of hierarchies, except the unstable and contestable hierarchies of wealth and fame: which is why so many traditionalists, and anyone who wants a static social order, hate commerce and thus the commercial order known as "capitalism".

It is the nature of capitalism (as a system where the factors of production are exchangeable in markets) that it produces capital. So workers become richer (since overall wages are determined by the capital/labour ratio) and capital becomes more widely dispersed (which is why Marx was so spectacularly wrong in his predictions about capitalism). It is also in the nature of capitalism that what is cares about is profit, with the effects of not caring about various status-markers: for reasons Voltaire identified almost three centuries ago.

Yet, at a CERC seminar I attended on clashing nationalisms, it was taken as read by both the presenter and his academic audience that capitalism and racial prejudice went hand-in-hand. When, in private conversation, I commented to the nice young presenter that it would make sense, in terms of its constituency base's preference for commercial honesty, that the Lega Nord would have been ostentatiously anti-corruption, he looked at me as if I was from another planet. The notion that honesty in public officials helps commerce was clearly one of those does not compute ideas for the poor boy. Yet Venice, the Dutch Republic and England were noted for the comparative honesty of their public officials precisely because they were such commercial polities.

In the words of Jagdish Bhagwati (pdf):
familiarity breeds contempt but contempt does not breed familiarity.
As is sadly typical of much of humanities academe, they were not going to let their contempt for capitalism encourage them to become genuinely informed about it. Capitalism is evil, so naturally it is also naturally racist and naturally corrupt. (In fact, actually existing socialism was and is far more pervasively corrupt precisely because it creates such huge and pervasive value in official discretion: corruption being the market for official discretions.)

But ease of application is central to the appeal of status-through-attitudes. It requires no sacrifice of time, money or any annoying humility: particularly not the humility in the face of evidence, as it does not even require truth. Merely have the right attitudes, and you are a member of the moral elite. (Anyone who thinks much of contemporary academe would not prefer to be flattered than informed hasn’t been paying attention.) Used in such a way, the cry of "racist!", like racism itself, becomes a relief from the burdens of moral universalism, extending from words to who gets jobs, access to media, grants, etc.

Indeed, a pervasive intellectual dishonesty sets in. I have seen the pattern too often. Not matter how careful and specific the original formulation, dissenting arguments are simplified and misrepresented because dissent cannot be allowed to be reasonable, let alone correct, because it undermines the status-use of what is being dissented from.

One ends up with a humanities academy large sections of which do not serve truth, still less the society around it, with its “intellectual capital” being profoundly debased for self-serving purposes. In Camille Paglia’s words:
the humanities have destroyed themselves over the past 30 years…Through an obsession with European jargon and a shallow politicization of discourse, the humanities have imploded.
Such a humanities academy thereby becomes increasingly a bad investment for the society that is currently taxed to pay for it. (Even without considering rising prices or bloating in the pay and number of administrators.) This is not a stable situation. Either the society will begin to seriously notice, and stop paying (either through loss of students or budget cuts or both: which may lead to improved behaviour) or, as is much less likely, a widening pattern of cognitive failure will lead to the social order’s stagnation, even eventual collapse. (Which the Islamists would only be too happy to be the fortunate heirs of.)

Racism is a real evil. One of the sins of so over-using the cry of “racist!” as a device for shutting down dissent is precisely that it belittles a genuine evil. It also poisons public debate and intellectual discourse. Enough already.

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