Incoherence on Race and Culture

by A. Jay Adler on September 27, 2010
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Christelle Nadia at The Republic of Dissent begs to differ (dissent, as it were) with my post The Churchill Doctrine. Before I differ with her differing, let’s examine, first, how she does her differing. She begins by characterizing the post – or what she quotes of it; this point is unclear – as “self-indulgent fluff.” What precisely the indulgence is to the self in what I wrote goes unelucidated, just as the self-involvement in the indulgence remains unidentified. That I am fluffy I do not dispute. You would know if you were near me.

Nadia does not address the inciting idea of my post, or its final cause, so her reader will not know them, but they relate more than sufficiently to the subject of her excerpt for there to be no misrepresentation. Since her introductory criticism names no objective correlative, let’s look to her summary critique.

At some point, can we get over the fact that the artificial categories in our minds created by prejudices and received ideas that make us believe that change is about race, culture, and whatever are subliminal and nonexistent? When I read that Obama represents change because of his absent Kenyan father, the ways he looks and due to the fact the United States are changing because its ‘racial’ makeup is changing, I laugh  and shake my head in despair. I understand that some still have to understand that people aren’t no their ‘origins,’ their ‘race’ or their gender, that culture isn’t about genetics, and that people ‘are’  being for themselves because of their blood unless of course, they stop thinking.

Sometime during the period since Martin Luther King Jr., his moral injunction to judge people not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” became for some people bizarrely misconstrued. Somehow, some people became persuaded that this meant that we should not see color in people. See red planets, blue skies, and green valleys, but black, brown, and beige people thou shalt not see. How very odd. There are sociobiologists who argue that race is genetically unreal, a social construct. Okay. You’re still darker than I am, and she’s rather pale. When people tell me they are color blind, my only response is to advise them not to drive a school bus.

Ah, I suppose Nadia would argue – of course, the color is visible, but it is meaningless. However, difference is never meaningless. Identity and difference are the roots of all thinking. They are the very ground of mind. Without them: bzzzzzzzzz. The law of identity. The law of non-contradiction. Logic begins in identity and difference. They are the reason we do not sit on a plane and fly a sofa, why we stretch out on a sofa, but only sit on a chair. The Left has sometimes denied the apparent reality of race because it has seemed that if only we could prove it fundamentally illegitimate, that would be enough to cause all racial prejudice simply to dissipate into the atmosphere, a chimera recognized. The Right these days falls upon Chief Justice Roberts’ convenient piety that “[t]he way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Oh, now, you say – keeping in mind the first meaning of discriminate, which is to make distinctions, to recognize, again, at all, difference in the mind.

My post, though, was less about race than it was about culture. I never wrote that Obama represents change, as Nadia put it, “because of his absent Kenyan father, the ways he looks and due to the fact the United States are changing because its ‘racial’ makeup is changing.” The particular changes I addressed were none of these. What I spoke of is the fact that Obama is the first American President who is not primarily of European descent. He is the first President whose cultural origins are not primarily in a European, colonizing nation, but that are, instead, equally in colonized cultures – Malaysia and Hawaii as well as Kenya. (The Irish John F. Kennedy is a special case.) And the relevant colonial history here, that of Kenya, is not of centuries ago, like that of the U.S. and some other nations. It is within the lifetimes of people alive today – Newt Gingrich’s lifetime, to name a name, my own lifetime. Among the earliest impersonal memories I have from childhood is of learning to follow the news on television beside my father, and of watching, on Douglas Edwards with the News, reports of the Mau Mau Rebellion. Of course, as a very young white American child safe within the Eisenhower years – the years that were the final booster of American military and cultural ascendency – all the story was to me was of a dark, disruptive and alien force (Mau Mau, indeed) combated by familiar (British) people.

Nadia states that “people aren’t no [sic] their ‘origins,’ their ‘race’ or their gender, that culture isn’t about genetics.” There it is, the classic duality – nurture and nature. What a peculiar position to take – when we know, whatever the balance between the two, how much our environment and upbringing influence our very selves – to argue that we are not, in whatever way, in part the product of that from which we spring. To make such an argument is actually to argue against the very reality of culture: for what is living culture but its retention through time, from person to person, from generation to generation? So it is retained, so it is altered, through the imperceptible adaptations brought upon by each additional individual story, each new generation’s experiences. If it does not mean anything at all that we are a nation of immigrants and not of an identifying ethnic stock, does not mean anything that we are the inheritors of a European colonizing culture and not of – among the most bitterly – colonized African cultures, does not mean anything if our President, as I dreamed in that post, might someday be the descendent of a conquered American Indian nation, and not of their conquerors, then what does anything mean?

It is the essence of a narrowed univision, including that of dominance, to believe that the world perceived through the lens of any experience is the whole world as it is, rather than the world only in part, through that lens only, in just that experience. So the members of a majority, dominant race believe that race does not matter, and the people of a dominating culture perceive that their culture is the air of the earth and not the dress only of one tradition on it.

Nadia never mentions that my post began in response to the claim of New Gingrich that Obama could only be understood through “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.” The insidiousness of Gingrich’s broader comments were, indeed, their insinuation, in the spirit of so many of the vile attacks on Obama, that he is inherently, as if genetically, alien: African, not European, in his bloodlines and cultural genealogy, Muslim and not Christian in his inheritable, like a secret mark, South Asian upbringing. That is the sinister hate mongering in what Gingrich said. But that specific phrase – “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior” – was one I did not reject, but accepted, instead, for consideration.

Interestingly, Nadia had earlier blogged about the Gingrich comments, responding to Ilya Somin’s very common sense posting at the Volokh Conspiracy. Somin argued the point that is clear to most people on the Left, as well as it is to the Libertarian Somin, that Obama is a mainstream liberal in the mold of his many peers, with a not very incomprehensible (to hearken back to Gingrich) set of beliefs. Somin did not, as I did not, challenge the legitimacy of Gingrich’s sole idea. He rejected, instead, as I do, its application to Obama and his general political philosophy. However, the idea Somin and I dignify is the one with which Nadia seems to struggle. As Somin said, and Nadia quoted,

It’s not inherently bigoted to assume that a person’s ethnic background or national origin played a role in determining their politics.

I would put it a little differently: far from remotely bigoted, it is only unremarkably reasonable to anticipate, with exceptions, that a person’s cultural background will influence his view of the world. As Somin amplified,

It [national origin] certainly did for me. Given my personality and interests, I think it very likely that I would have become a liberal or a leftist had I been born in the United States. Growing up, I was the kind of young intellectual whom F.A. Hayek had in mind when he wrote “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” It was my background as a refugee from the Soviet Union (combined with the closely related factor of my parents’ influence) that prevented this natural affinity from taking hold and helped set me on the path that ultimately led to libertarianism. Because of the Russian background, my ideological trajectory differed from that of most native-born American libertarians.

It did for me, too. And so it is that there should be nothing exceptionable in Obama’s looking upon the brutal British suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion – which directly affected his own family – differently from Newt Gingrich, who obviously easily identifies with the suppression of a native people by their colonizers. And so it is, again, that there should be nothing beyond our empathy in Obama’s turning in disfavor from the likeness of the colonial Winston Churchill, which act was that final cause of my post that Nadia did not mention.



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