Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Eternal Present Tense of the Liberal Mind

Out of all the critiques that Neoreaction makes of modernity, one of the most compelling is the sheer lack of historical knowledge (let alone perspective) that most people today have. The modern world is incredibly left-wing over any perspective longer than about 50 years, but how many people even know that? Liberalism is an ideology that exists only in the eternal twilight of the present tense. The past, to the extent that it exists at all, is merely a collection of evil ignorant attitudes and actions occasionally brought up in order to emphasise the righteousness of modern attitudes (that is to say, the righteousness of our liberal interlocutor).

But as I pointed out here in the context of colonialism, the actual level of knowledge about these matters is usually sparse to the point of being nugatory. Figures in the past are never actual people who might have had serious reasons for their views, no matter how far outside today's Overton Window they sit. There is no examination of why they thought the things they did, other than that they were deluded or evil or both. And because the signalling spiral must continue, even yesterday's liberal heroes are currently at risk of being thrown under the bus for being insufficiently progressive. Witness, for instance, the portrayal of LBJ in the movie 'Selma' about Martin Luther King.

For the left, this process of only focusing on the present views and preoccupations has the useful effect (for liberalism) of keeping people from noticing just how recent many of these ideas are. Despite being ardent cultural relativists in theory, the left's devotion to the absolute humorless eradication of the world's -isms is fanatical. These are deadly serious issues, you understand, and it would be inconvenient to note that it's only very recently that anybody even bothered to notice them.

Don't believe me? Consider the following.

Listen to the song 'Bourgeois Blues'. It was written in 1937 by Lead Belly, aka Huddie William Ledbetter, an American Folk Singer. It chronicles some of the treatment that Lead Belly received when on a trip to Washington DC. It's a great song - personally I like the Pete Seeger version, but I've given you the original. Pay attention to the story, and how he chooses to describe it.

Listen here people, listen to me 
Don't try to buy no home down in Washington DC 
Cause it's a Bourgeois Town, 
Ooh, it's a Bourgeois Town. 
I got the Bourgeois Blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.
Me and my sweet wife Miss Martha,
We run all over that town 
Everywhere we go the people would turn us down 
Lord, in a bourgeois town 
Ooh, it's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around. 

Some white folks in Washington, 
They know just how 
Call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow. 
Lord, in a bourgeois town. 
It's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around. 
Me and my sweet wife Miss Martha, 
We were standing upstairs 
I heard a white man say we don't want no Negroes up there, 
He was a bourgeois man 
Living in a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.
The home of the brave, 
The land of the free, 
I don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie, 
In a bourgeois town, 
Lord, it's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.

Okay, got it?

So what strikes you about the song? Not about the story - that's obvious. What seems out of place in how Lead Belly describes the mistreatment he receives?

I'll give you a hint - what is the one word that you would use to describe the actions of the people here?

It's obvious - the word is 'racist'.

Now go back and look at the lyrics again - the word 'racism' is (along with its derivations) conspicuously absent. It's possible that this is a rhetorical or lyrical choice, and maybe he just decided not to use it. But the rest of the song doesn't feel that way. Consider again - you have a white man who calls at a married black couple 'we don't want no Negroes up there' (in other versions of the song, the man uses the word 'nigger' instead, suggesting extra malice in the nature of the demand). Now, faced with such a man, think of the list of words you might use to describe him, starting with racist, then bigoted, then ignorant, then whatever synonyms you want. Would you have thought of him as a 'bourgeois man'? Would this have even made top 20? It's inconceivable.

So what the hell is going on here?

The first point, which is the more obvious one, is that as late as 1937, the word 'racist' simply did not exist in the popular lexicon. This mirrors the history of the word racism - some attribute the first use to Leon Trotsky in 1930, and the first use in English to Lawrence Dennis in 1936. What seems hard to refute is that in 1937, it had not filtered down to Lead Belly when he was describing a situation where it pretty clearly applied.

And as George Orwell noticed, language tends to shape thoughts. It's not only that the word didn't exist. The concept simply didn't exist as an organising principle with which to critique various actions and views. Lead Belly knows what he doesn't like about the behaviour, but doesn't have a clear way of describing it. The most deathly important social injustice in the modern world, the worst sin and stain on character possible in today's society, the most important concept ever, dates all the way back to... some time after 1937. It's not only that people tolerated racism. It's that people didn't even have a clear concept of racism as a thing to be condemned.

There are many fascinating aspects to this worth pondering. One might wonder how it was that millennia of humans managed to live and die without even noticing the most important crime one can ever commit. Seems odd, no? If modernity is right, and all of history is wrong, racism is the worst injustice one can commit, and is evident in everything from requiring voter ID to banks failing to issue home mortgages at the same rate for all neighbourhoods. So how come nobody even noticed until the middle of the 20th Century? Don't hold your breath waiting for an answer from today's progressives.

But the song actually does give us a partial answer. It's not just that Lead Belly doesn't describe the behavior as racist, it's that he describes it as 'bourgeois'. Google tells me this means 'of or characteristic of the middle class, typically with reference to its perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes'.

What's going on, in other words, is that in 1937 the left was preoccupied with class, not race. 'Bourgeois' was an all-purpose slur for behaviour that the left disapproved of. Hence, it gets slung around in the same way when other words might be more appropriate.

These days, class is on wane as an organising principle of critique. The Cultural Marxists have displaced the Economic Marxists as the leaders of the left, and in the process 'materialism' and 'capitalism' have been shunted to the back of the '-ism' bus, elbowed out by racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia etc etc.

In 1937, the worst possible sin you could commit was to be a capitalist who was exploiting the poor. But times change. While being a capitalist exploiting the poor is still not ideal, in 2015 it pales into utter insignificance next to the currently unthinkable prospect of a hotel proprietor casually telling someone 'we don't want no Negros up there'.

Of course, if you think about this too long, you might begin to wonder whether in 2087, racism will have lost its place as the Worst Possible Thing Ever, and something else that today we don't even have a word for will have taken its place. This may also cause you to second guess whether the current emphasis is in fact misplaced.

Better to not think too much about it, you might end up too far down the rabbit hole, reading Moldbug and scorning modernity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Brazil as the Racial Bizarro-verse

Gary Brecher once pointed out, in a podcast I think, that American exceptionalism dominates the American mindset. As he noted, this actually takes two forms. The more remarked-on form is from the right, whereby America is the last, best hope for everything good in the world. But there’s a left-wing version too – that America is the source of everything bad, and that the world would all be right except for the uniquely bad influence and history of America.

And while both are silly, the latter version seems somehow less studied. Which is a pity, because a broader view about how America compares with the rest of the world is actually quite illuminating.

The largest of the American Original Sins is of course racism. America is, so the story goes, not only the most racist country on the planet, but uniquely cursed because of its long legacy of slavery. This has forever poisoned the relations between the races, leading to the never-ending garment-rending and hysteria that characterises any discussion of race in the US.

The USA had slavery, it’s true. Over 300,000 slaves were imported from Africa. This creates a difficult legacy, it’s true. But just how uniquely difficult is the US experience with slavery? How much, in other words, could this actually explain?

Well, fortunately history has furnished us with another much larger slave power in the Americas. Brazil over its history had over 4.9 million slaves arrive. If the USA's slavery history is responsible for the stupidity of modern day race relations, surely Brazil must be many times worse!

In fact, race relations in Brazil are much, much better. Brazil actually manages to achieve what most of US claims to want to achieve – a mixed race country that is largely harmonious in terms of race relations. When you walk around here, it's striking how many genuine mixed-race groups of people there are - not only couples, but larger groups of men chatting away, covering all complexions from white to olivey to Hispanic-looking to black. In America, the vast majority of genuinely mixed race groupings you see are in commercials. When was the last time you saw a black guy, a Hispanic guy and white guy all hanging out together in real life?

And if you ask Brazilians, they'll mostly tell you that they don't have a race problem. Does this mean that every outcome is distributed identically across every possible combination of ancestry? No, but then again, neither is geography. The north is poor and black, the south richer and whiter, but with plenty of variation in both cases. More importantly, if “identical distributions” is your definition of 'no racism', I'll thank you for providing me a single socioeconomic variable of any importance that's so distributed, in any country on earth, in any period in history. No hurry, I'll wait for you to come back.

One of the things that's hardest to explain to Americans is just how stifling is the atmosphere of debate about race in the US, poisoning honest discussion of such a large range of topics and fueling antagonism and resentment at every turn. I suspect it's hard for Americans to see just how striking this phenomenon is, because it's just what you've grown up with. It's only us foreigners that tend to notice.

If there's one thing that Brazil teaches, it's that you cannot simply attribute this to slavery. Race paranoia, notwithstanding the observations at the start of this essay, actually is a very American pathology. It is also one that it is eagerly exporting to the rest of the world, with wholly deleterious consequences.

So if it's not slavery, what is it?

Well, here's one thought. Maybe the way to get people less pissed off about race is, ooh I dunno, stop encouraging them through the media, schools, and universities to view every single issue through the prism of a race war.

Maybe the solution to hypersensitivity is not actually encouraging ever more sensitivity. Maybe the solution is for everybody to chill the hell out. At the moment, the fact that people have resentments along racial lines is consider the most important reason for permanently fretting over racism. But what if this is actually the source of the problem? What if the permanent hypersensitivity is actually a significant source of the antagonism in the first place?

Perhaps this sounds too simplistic. Perhaps it is. There is a certain ‘don’t think of an elephant’ aspect to it, I’ll admit. But at a minimum, perhaps dial down the permanent ELEPHANT WATCH RED ALERT ELEPHANTS ON THE NEWS 24/7 if you want people to do so.

Or if you dislike my answer, come down here and figure out your explanation of why things seem to work so much better. Because ‘America has a uniquely racist past’ simply won’t cut it.