Thursday, May 04, 2006

Clear as Day

It's rare to see racist ideology presented as clearly in today's day and age as it is in this Mark Noonan post. Wowzers.

Before I begin, I want to stake out my position on the use of the terms "racist" and "racism." There are people (though far fewer than the Right would suggest) who throw at the label "racist" at any hint of anti-progressive ideology dealing with racial matters. There is also a section of academia which wants to expand the definition of racism so that it encompassing all acts which preserve racial hierarchy, while concurrently recognizing that not everybody who participates in such an act should be subjected to the type of social ostracism that typically accompanies being tagged "racist."

I subscribe to neither camp. I believe that the term "racist" should only be used in the most serious cases, either in terms of specific acts of hate, violence, or prejudice, or ideologies which overtly proclaim one race to be manifestly superior to others. I think that more "moderate" cases should still be addressed, and addressed seriously, but I think that they are best met with terminology other than "racist." Using racism to address the non-extreme cases, in my view, devalues the term and reduces the credibility of the anti-racial hierarchy movement. If you want more on this, check out Lawrence Blum's spectacular book: "I'm Not a Racist, But...".

So basically, I'm not a raving leftist who tags people as "racist" at a drop of the hat. When I use it, I take it seriously. And this definitely qualifies.

I'm just going to excerpt from the parts that are the most, well, insane. Which, to be perfectly frank, is just about all of it:
There was, though, a certainty in the world in ages past - a century ago, it was taken as a natural that Europeans (and their American and Australian offspring) had developed not just a high civilization, but the highest civilization - a civilization so manifestly superior to all others in existence that it must be the result of some special ability on the part of those who built it[....]

It had its good and bad points, as all human constructs do - the most glaring bad point, of course, was the disgraceful way it treated non-white people, and even those white people who didn't measure up to an alleged Anglo-Saxon ideal. The largest good point, however, has been lost entirely - what has been lost is a conviction that the civilization is fundamentally good. Confronted with the crimes of racism and imperialism and deformed by the monstrosities of communism and Nazism, that European - or white, if you will - civilization has entirely lost the ability to look at itself and see something good. This sort of attitude is more prevalent on the political left, but I think that nearly all white people feel it to some degree...some sense that we got from point A to point C only by walking all over people at point B. Our success, as it were, is ill-gotten and thus not something we should ask anyone to emulate...better, especially in the mind of the leftwing elite, if we just leave well enough alone and, indeed, pretend that we've something fundamental to learn from other civilizations whom we once oppressed.

As Mr. Steele points out, this has led to a bit of half-heartedness on the war - We are, in a sense, afraid to apply our full might because that would seem to be a bullying approach...and unfair way to deal with people from other civilizations which never managed to advance themselves until they were forced into modernity over the past century.

As it is, I believe in the civilization I belong to - I believe, indeed, that it is a dispensation granted to mankind by a benevolent Providence. Our civilization is designed, especially in its American form, to liberate and advance all of our brothers and isisters [sic] who continue to labor under oppression, ignorance and poverty. It is this belief of mine which sustains me through the difficult day to day of the War on Terrorism - just because my civilization is excellent, it doesn't mean that the barbarians don't have a trick or two up their slieeve [sic], but knowing that my civilizations produced civilized soldiers while their produces nothing by murderous villians, I am encouraged.

In reading Mr. Steele's piece I began, I think, to better understand my leftwing readers - at bottom, they simply must be of the opinion that we are not the best, that American civilization, far too tainted with guilty white people, simply cannot be correct, and thus anyone we fight must have right on their side. Its a default mental mode, and I don't think we'll be able to shake them out of it - but at least Mr. Steele has given us a way to understand them, and thus work around them if we can't work with them.

The emphasis is my own--the ellipsis not in brackets are Mr. Noonan's in the original.

There are really two types of idiocy present above--the blatantly racist stuff, and the shoddy argumentative maneuvering that supports it. They're interconnected, but distinct in that the first is a moral failing on Noonan's part, and the second is a logical failing.

I object to three specific claims by Noonan in the "moral" category. First:
Our civilization is designed, especially in its American form, to liberate and advance all of our brothers and sisters who continue to labor under oppression, ignorance and poverty

The problem with this statement is that it is empirically denied, rather harshly, by the facts of the last two centuries. I don't even need to make the radical claim that the War on Terrorism is just Western imperialism run amok (because I believe the exact opposite in fact). Let me just run through the list that nobody denies: Slavery, colonialism, lynching, Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the slave trade (which, given its likely 8-figure death toll, deserves independent recognition from slavery), communism, the My Lai massacre, fascism, anti-semitism, misogyny, spousal rape exemptions, segregation, the Native American genocide, reservations, the Dreyfuss affair, the eugenics movement, Japanese internment, and child labor. I could go on. All had relatively prominent roles in Western civilization at points in the last 200 years. This isn't to say that any given one of those wasn't present elsewhere. But it's just not intellectually plausible for Noonan to dismiss all of this as a historical footnote or aberration from Western civilization. We're talking about procedures of death and destruction that led to a body count well into the 9-figures. One can recognize positive contributions made by the West to the global community while still realizing that these horrors cast doubt on the West's claims to being designed for liberation (more on this later).

Second:
pretend that we've something fundamental to learn from other civilizations whom we once oppressed.

and
people from other civilizations which never managed to advance themselves until they were forced into modernity over the past century.

The former claim is almost too idiotic to address. I'll just give out a reading list: W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Fredrick Douglass, Kenji Yoshino, Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. should get you started.

As to the latter, I'm tempted to just refer Noonan to W.E.B. Du Bois, but I'll chime in with a few points of my own (still--read Du Bois. You might learn something from a person we had oppressed). For starters, I don't know what "modernity" means in this context. I'm assuming that Noonan is referring to the Enlightenment philosophical model developed from the 17th through the 19th century, focusing on individualism, the autonomous self, and the rights of persons. If that is indeed what he's talking about, then he is probably right that South America didn't have was not "modern." But then I have two questions.

First, with the Enlightenment model under attack from both the right and the left as being philosophically insufficient, why are we so happy to claim it as a perk? Again, there are loads of good things about the Enlightenment, but as commentators from throughout the political spectrum have noted, there are problems too--the emasculation of religion, the devaluing of communities and traditions, the destruction of solidarity, the myth of an atomic self, the inability of negative rights to secure positive liberty, and the persistence of subordinating ideologies even amongst the most "enlightened" civilizations. Why are we proclaiming our owe for a philosophy we (Republicans and Democrats) are in the process of rejecting--or at least heavily modifying? That moves me to the second problem: sure, Zanzibar probably didn't have a full panoply of rights prior to European colonialism, but it didn't have them during it, nor after it. And more importantly, neither did we. America was not and cannot be described as a "liberal" (in the philosophical sense) state while in the throes of Jim Crow and segregation. The response is always "well, we were liberal except for that," as if the official political suppression of millions of American citizens was just some afterthought we can cast aside. I'm sorry, but there is no way that can be considered a compelling argument. At best, the enlightenment model is an ongoing project that nobody has come close to achieving. And listening to the voices of oppressed peoples, their stories and analysis, might teach you that.

Third:
knowing that my civilizations produced civilized soldiers while their produces nothing by [sic] murderous villians, I am encouraged

How on earth does Noonan justify this without admitting naked racism, I have no idea. "Nothing [but] murderous villians"? If racism is defined (and I think this is a pretty restrictive definition) as the belief that a given civilization as a whole is completely and totally inferior to one's own, then saying that other civilizations produce only murderous villians leaps the bar without trouble. It's not even clear if Noonan is restricting this sweeping generalization to only Arabs (if not, see the above list), but even if so it's hardly warranted. Ibn Khaldun springs immediately to mind, and Saladin was without question both less murderous and less villainous than his Crusader counterparts. I'm not an expert in Arab history, but I'm sure I could go on here as well with only a cursory review. But there is no justifying this statement. At all.

The logical failing is simply an inability to grasp a middle ground between "always being the best" and "always being wrong". It's present in several places throughout the piece, but this excerpt works particularly well because the slide occurs within a single sentence:
at bottom, [liberals] simply must be of the opinion that we are not the best, that American civilization, far too tainted with guilty white people, simply cannot be correct, and thus anyone we fight must have right on their side.

Let me spell it out. We aren't always "the best", which doesn't mean we "cannot be correct." I think we've been correct on plenty of issues--one of which, incidentally, is overthrowing oppressive regimes like Hussein's and the Taliban. We've also been wrong (incorrect) on plenty of cases--like enslaving millions of people. So I can applaud the introduction by the West of a canon of Universal Human Rights, while decrying their introduction of the ideology of scientific racism and the blueprints for gas chambers. Recognizing that we've been both right and wrong, liberals believe that American policies should be evaluated a) case-by-case, rather than just assuming that because America does it, it's correct and b) with humility, because (inter alia) six million Jews, over a hundred million of Blacks, and countless other peoples know what happens when we get it wrong.

Burke might call this sort of prudence and caution a virtue. But what would he know about conservatism?

This is the rare post of its type that left me, not angry, but horrified. Here's where a more partisan blogger would go into the "this represents the modern Republican party" rant. I won't indulge, because I don't believe that most Republicans fit this mold. I'm willing to believe that most Republicans, presented with this throwback to our most evil ideologies, would be quite willing to codemn it as immoral. I take a lot of flack from my liberal pals for being more willing than they to ascribe good motives to most conservatives, and their deep opposition to racism and racist ideology (even if I think their tactics on opposing it are misguided). I know conservatives read my blog, so I'd appreciate a chance for some confirmation. Prove me right, and my critics wrong.

10 comments:

ParisGuy said...

Very good read. Bravo !!!

Icepick said...

I oppressed WEB DuBois? That's funny, because I was SURE he had died several years before I was born. Wow, I really am a bastard, oppressing people like that before I was even conceived!

Icepick said...

If racism is defined (and I think this is a pretty restrictive definition) as the belief that a given civilization as a whole is completely and totally inferior to one's own....

Civilizations can be multi-racial, for example the Muslim civilization (current and past) and the modern USA. What you have defined is a form of chauvanism, but not racism, as you have not included an actual racial component to your definition. Race actually matters when you're discussing race, correct?

Worse still is your exclusion of people from "our" civilization based solely on skin color. Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. were certainly oppressed in the USA, but they were also clearly a part of US civilization. They didn't come from somewhere else with their ideas fully formed only to find themselves oppressed on these shores. They were born here, raised here, and took the best of what they found in this civilization and beat their oppressors over the head with ideas they had learned here. To say they don't get to be a part of "our" civilization merely because of their skin color is as bad as anything you decry in Mr. Noonan's writing.

David Schraub said...

First of all, note the past tense when referring to Du Bois. That kind of negates your first point. Since I don't think race is reducible to skincolor, but (as Alain Locke argues) is an ethnic group that has an imagined united history, I think that the manner which I use "civilization" is contigious with race. What else is an "actual racial component" beyond this sort of identification, given that race is biologically unreal?

As to the second, you've got it backwards. You treat the American civilization as this honor that I'm withholding from Douglass et al. I'm saying that since the Euro-American civilizaton refused to include Douglass, King, and Du Bois, we don't get to retroactively claim their accompolishments. Their accompolishments can be chalked up to the African-American civilization. If we want them to fall under our umbrella, then we have at least a threshold obligation to include them completely, not pick and choose when its convienant. It's only "bad" to "exclude" Douglass from the Euro-American civilization if it is seen as inherently superior to Afro-American civilization--in which case, I'm depriving him of an "honor" he is due (see Cheryl I. Harris, Whiteness as Property, 106 Harv. L. Rev. 1707 (1993)). But since I actually do think that Afro-American civilization is equal to Euro-American civilization, I'm not doing anything wrong.

This isn't to say that I wouldn't like to eliminate the hyphen and have an overarching "American" civilization that includes both (and hopefully preserves the diversity of each). But we can't just create it ex post facto. We have to lay in the bed we've made--that means that White America doesn't get to claim the accompolishments of African-Americans as their own.

jack said...

"For starters, I don't know what "modernity" means in this context. I'm assuming that Noonan is referring to the Enlightenment philosophical model developed from the 17th through the 19th century, focusing on individualism, the autonomous self, and the rights of persons."

I actually think he may have meant industrial modernism, ie. we had trains, factories, rifles, steel etc. before we showed them all how. Of course that myth of European supremacy is proven wrong in Intro. World History. Guns, Germs and Steel is the obvious text though. Long story short we a) had geographic and climatic advantages the rest of the world didn't b) European civilization wouldn't have advanced the way it did without the knowledge of non-European Civilizations c) China and the Islamic World were greatly superior to Europe for almost a thousand years.

The probligo said...

"...Civilizations can be multi-racial, for example... the modern USA."

A civilisation may be "multiracial", but that does not in any way imply that it is not racist. Take as a first instance that of South Africa and its apartheidt policy. Take as a second example Australia and the "europeanisation" programmes.

If you want a picture of how this fits into current American society, go read the blogosphere on the current immigration debate. Note in particular how frequently the sentiment is expressed that "immigrants are fine as long as they become Americans - speak our language, do things our way, leave their alien ways behind them". That in my opinion is the form of modern racism.

No, hang on. It goes further than that. And, I will agree that it goes without saying, it is not somethng limited to America.

There are all manner of words that can be applied - xenophobia, prejudice, even chauvanism.

It goes beyond race and colour - in its greatest form today one could point to Christianity vs Islam. It is as pernicious as discriminating against people because of dress, culture, food (talk to a Brit about "currymunchers").

Icepick's second para is too long to quote in full but his conclusion that "To say they don't get to be a part of "our" civilization merely because of their skin color is as bad as anything you decry in Mr. Noonan's writing. " is in fact a denial of the truth.

Picking on two examples to prove a point is fine, but one must consider the application of your conclusion to the remainder of their race.

After the "physical" barriers of discrimination are removed - the separation, the "whites only" signs, the legal barriers - apparently everything becomes sweetness and light. Equal opportunity appies to all.

Well, very sorry Icepick, but it don't work like that.

There are the mental, psychologial and cultural barriers to be overcome as well. That could take several generations. Those barriers exist in both directions. They are the "You can't..." and the "I can't..." barriers.

I regret that oppression of a people, whether it is blacks in America, Christians in Indonesia, Muslims in India or whites in Zimbabwe, is not something that I can make jokes about.

jack said...

Here's where a more partisan blogger would go into the "this represents the modern Republican party" rant. I won't indulge, because I don't believe that most Republicans fit this mold. I'm willing to believe that most Republicans, presented with this throwback to our most evil ideologies, would be quite willing to codemn it as immoral. I take a lot of flack from my liberal pals for being more willing than they to ascribe good motives to most conservatives, and their deep opposition to racism and racist ideology (even if I think their tactics on opposing it are misguided).

I don't know of any bloggers, partisan or otherwise, who would suggest that this one person proves the entire Republican Party is racist. Seriously, no one with any sense things that, just claiming partisan bloggers do is absurd- at least take the time to search out one partisan blogger so you can generalize based off of one example.

Randomscrub said...

I'd take issue with your separation of civilization from the state and you conflation of civilization with race, but I'm not feeling articulate enough to be clear on it.

I will, however, question your rejection of the United States as a philosophically liberal state. It is my understanding that liberalism rests mainly on the basis of individual rights. But that does not answer the fundamental question of what constitutes an individual (and thus who has rights). We all agree that rights are much fuzzier in the case of children and the insane.

Are we illiberal for denying them the full complement of rights? If not, why were Americans illiberal for denying Blacks/Women/[Insert oppressed group here] such rights (most importantly the franchise). Many racists/sexists/etc claimed that the oppressed groups were simply not fully rational, etc, and thus must be "taken care of" by their intellectual betters. Practice belied that reasoning, but the fact that they were forced to couch it in such terms is significant. Simply because we have come to a better understanding of what constitutes a moral person does not mean that the philosophical foundations have changed all that much. I'm interested to hear what you think.

jpe said...

Wow, a blog with intelligent analysis. I didn't know such things existed.

The Constructivist said...

Randomscrub's point that liberal political theory can lead to illiberal results for those excluded from a particular liberal society's norms of personhood is paralleled by the ability of those who rely on republican political theory to exclude those who don't fit their definition of those capable of forming a "virtuous citizenry." (Cf. Whiteness of a Different Color, in which Matthew Frye Jacobson points to doubts over the "fitness for self-government" of various groups being used as a common justification for slavery, immigration restriction, denials of access to citizenship and voting rights, expansionist wars, and so on, throughout most of American history.)

As it's a commonplace among American historians that both liberal and republican political theories informed the American revolution and constitution (for a nice recap see Eric Foner's The Story of American Freedom, which expands on his point from earlier works that the Civil War and Reconstruction formed a second American revolution), I think there is some basis for disagreeing with David that it wasn't until the post-WWII period that the US became a truly liberal society. Since both liberal and republican political theories provided rationales for all kinds of all-American exclusions and discriminations, I don't think it's fair to say that American society failed to live up to the ideals implied in its founding political theories. I think the problem is more profound than that, as David's comments on the Enlightenment imply. The theories themselves have problems "embedded" within them--if the theories themselves don't necessarily presuppose what we would call racism today, they certainly provided grounds for racism to be legitimated.

So I would gloss David's "At best, the enlightenment model is an ongoing project that nobody has come close to achieving" by adding that, at best, what these political theories have facilitated are ongoing and fundamental contestations over the nature of the "rights-bearing individual" and the "virtuous citizenry" that have given oppressed and excluded groups a foot in the door and a chance to change societal norms in the West. (In other words, I'd like to differ from David's implied invocation of Habermas and his interlocutors on the Enlightenment legacy and signal my sense that people like Stuart Hall, Claude Lefort, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Thomas Keenan and others who have wrestled with the ambiguities of democratic political theory in recent decades have a lot to offer on these issues.)

I wouldn't go as far as Jacobson when he suggests that we have never fully confronted America's colonial legacy in which citizenship was defined by an ability to put down a slave revolt or fight off an Indian attack, but I do think that in examining processes of racialization and deracialization of mid-19th-C-to-early-20th-C immmigrants, he offers a more productive means of discussing the strengths and weaknesses of American civilization than either the "manifest destiny nostalgia" of Noonan/Steele or the classic "what, me, racist? you're revealing your own prejudices by making that accusation!" deflection strategy that their supporters will no doubt invoke.