A few days ago when I was catching up on some of the recent news in radical nationalism around the West, I discovered a very enlightening Twitter thread by New Yorker reporter James Surowiecki.
|There's a synergy to my own work with contemporary|
issues, but I've also thought for years that I want my
non-fiction (and my fictional work) to engage with
the problems that drive my society and my world.
He argued that, even though the word ‘racist’ is usually (and rightly) used as a pejorative, we must also be open to using it as an objective description of an actual political ideology. Right now, the Trump campaign is leading a mainstream movement of openly racist politics in America.
His most dedicated supporters and activists – especially those in the alt-right who’ve been raised in the brutal message boards of Reddit and 4Chan* – openly identify as white supremacists. Or at least they sincerely believe that listening to the concerns of minorities and women expresses hatred of white men.
* And I’m sure quite a lot of them know their Moldbug.
I've been thinking a lot this week about the conflicts of our hopes and ideals with our often cynical need to be realist in our lives. So I want to think about this very insightful series of ideas from Surowiecki through that lens.
That the term ‘racism’ is today a straightforward insult is a sign of progress – It’s an ideal that’s become reality. Even the most enthusiastic evangelicals of race’s reality and racism’s rightness have to soak their expressions in irony to permit a sympathetic reading.
|That means writing philosophical texts that engage just as much with|
ideas in daily media as in traditional academic sources.
Maybe more so.
You can't just openly say, “This is why racism is correct!” the way you could decades ago. That’s even too pleasant a sheen on how Western society was back then – only a few decades (and definitely a century) ago, you didn’t even need to try to prove it. You started an argument from racism’s truth as a basic fact. You could take for granted that everyone was a racist, and that this was an ordinary and true worldview.
In that sense, an ideal has overcome a concession to realism. And political realism is very much a concession. You take as a given that the world can’t fundamentally change, that we must accept its nature, and that all attempts to change the world for the better are fool’s errands.
Being realistic doesn’t necessarily mean you capitulate your dreams to a shitty universe. When you’re talking international relations theory, the attitude of ‘realism’ typically implies a kind of cynical quietism – there will always be war, conflict, power games, imperialism in different forms, and so on.
|Here is a journalist thinking very radically, saying what needs to be|
said in our current political environment: We have to take racism
seriously as politics, and he walks through its profound implications.
That attitude of blunt acceptance is a backbone of Surowiecki’s argument. There’s always been a significant stream of American culture that defines itself in racist terms. And racism is more than just an insult – it’s still, and inherently is, a fundamental political stance. We can’t just cast racism out of the realm of politics as such because it’s horrible.
Political thinking is about the principles and concepts that form the framework of how we understand our societal and institutional relations and structures, and how we think of new relations and structures.
You can build moral norms and principles around racism. There are plenty of examples to demonstrate it – Jim Crow and American plantation slavery, the race theories and political movements popular in Europe from the late 19th century to the Second World War, and the racial business and citizenship hierarchies of contemporary Persian Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
|Few things have thicker political significance than the structure and|
makeup of your community. Your community is the field of politics
itself. So if you don't want blacks in your community, it means
that you don't want to share your fields of political activity – let
alone your highest political institutions – with black people.
Now, all of these moralities are pretty horrible. But they’re still moral and institutional systems.
If you don't engage with that viewpoint – that someone can consider racist norms and principles legitimate moral and political frameworks – as a real political principle, you aren’t going to grapple with racist ideologies and all they can do. You’ll think of them as cartoon Nazis from some old Biggles book.
To achieve your ideal of a world free of racism, you have to deal with racism as it really is – the sincere ideology and moral/political beliefs of real people. That’s the uncomfortable tension between realism and idealism.
If you don’t engage with racists and racism as authentic political actors and ideology, they’ll run circles around you. You’ll engage only with phantoms, and your enemies will still be real people.
Real flesh hurts when it hits you.