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One of the subtexts running through the current meta-debate between the Left and the Right is a constant volleying back and forth of accusations and refutations of racism. The Left accuses the Right of racism for a variety of reasons that I partially capture below. The Right indignantly denies it, retaliating with accusations back, insisting that “playing the race card” is the real expression of racism.

Personally, I think this discussion is generally overdone and often distracting, but the thread of validity in the criticism by the Left of the Right, and the reinforcement of irrationality and counterfactuality in the Right’s response, motivates me to give it a comprehensive treatment.

First, it is important to explore the concept of “racism” itself. If, by “racism,” we mean only explicit, overt, self-conscious antipathy toward members of another race, then I’d say that only a small minority of politically active people of either major partisan camp are “racist.” The vast majority denounce such crude racism, and the extant but dwindling population of such unreconstituted racists in the population at large are not a significant political force anymore.

Before I turn to the more implicit forms of racism that I think do continue to play a significant, if not central, role in political affairs, I’d like to emphasize that I think that the ideological thread most prominent in right-wing thought isn’t racism proper at all, but rather what I’ll call “quasi-racism,” an intense in-group/out-group bias, informing a set of beliefs and positions that are very tribalistic, and very dismissive of “the other.” The antagonistic attitude toward numerous non-racial outgroups (though sometimes with strong racial associations), such as gays, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, foreigners in general, the poor, atheists, and, basically, anyone who isn’t perceived to be an in-group member, is one of the most prominent defining characteristics of modern right-wing thought.

Explicit racism, however, is not absent from the right-wing echo-chamber. On a Facebook thread following one posting of the statistic that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be the instrument of the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense, for instance, one commenter responded to another by referring to “a group of n*****s raping your boyfriend” (the point being that you’d want to have a gun handy in that apparently representative scenario). On another thread at another time, a southern Tea Partier included among the problems besetting us “ungrateful blacks.” These are not isolated examples: While such explicit expressions of racism are not the norm, they recur at a constant rate on such threads, always, of course, by right-wing commenters slipping over a line many others approach without crossing.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, there was a Facebook wall post of a news story about a trio of “scary” black violent offenders, apparently being used to make the argument that it is understandable that armed vigilantes should go out in their neighborhoods and pursue unarmed black teens walking home from the store  –even if the price of such “liberty” is the occasional shooting death of one such unarmed black teen– because, in their unself-aware but deep-rooted world view, it’s rational to be afraid, it’s rational to presume that a hoodie-wearing black teen walking through your neighborhood is up to no good, and so it is, implicitly, rational to provoke a deadly encounter with said black teen under those circumstances.

In other words, the right-wing insistence that it’s a non-issue that their ideology can lead to instances of overzealous vigilantes pursuing and killing unarmed black teens walking home from the store is an astounding illustration of an underlying –and effectively racist– defect in their ideology. (The contention that it’s a non-issue because it was allegedly self-defense on the shooter’s part neglects the fact that the alleged need for self-defense was indisputably created by the decision to go out with a gun and pursue the arbitrarily “suspicious looking” unarmed black teen in the first place.)

These same people champion Jim-Crow-like voter suppression laws (on a discredited pretext and repeatedly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional), use code words like “Chicago politics” and “ACORN” and other allusions to blacks-as-inherently-corrupt, advocate discrimination against Muslims (and denial of their first amendment freedom of religion rights), frequently vilify and denegrate Hispanics, want to deny civil rights to gays, and, in general, are committed to a tribalistic orientation to the world, in which the small in-group of overwhelmingly white, mostly male, almost exclusively Judeo-Christian bigots opposes the rights and aspirations of the myriad out-groups surrounding them, denying the reality of a legacy of historical injustices and of current inequities, fighting for a regressive, aggressive, compassionless, irrational, barbaric society, in which those who feel well-served by the status quo (or, more precisely, by the status quo of a previous era) fight to recover an archaic -if all too recent– social order more preferential to their in-group statuses.

And they do so by disregarding fact and reason; by dismissing as bastions of liberalism precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information (which, as a liberal, I take as a complement and as an affirmation of how much more rational our ideology is than theirs); by selecting, revising, and ignoring historical data to serve their fabricated ideological narrative; by ignoring the weight of professional economic theory and analysis (prompting the free-market-advocacy Economist magazine to label them “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical”); by cherry-picking, reinterpreting, and selectively disregarding constitutional provisions and phrases in service to that same ideological narrative; and, in general, by defying fact and reason in service to ignorance and bigotry.

Whether we emphasize the racist overtones, the more explicit in-group/out-group tribalism in general, or just the prevailing ignorance and brutality of their ideology, the final evaluation is the same: It’s a perfect storm of organized irrationality in service to implicit and explicit inhumanity. And it’s not who and what we should choose to be as a people and a nation.

So, how much racism is there on the far right? It’s a moot point; the racism is enveloped by so much more that is the very cloth from which racism is cut that the accusation of racism is too narrow a focus and too much of a distraction. Emphasizing the broader irrational inhumanity that defines this ideological camp both captures and goes beyond the identification of the racist overtones within it.

(For more on these themes, see The New Face Of American Racism, The Tea Party’s Neo-”Jim Crow”, The History of American Libertarianism, The Presence of the Past, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, and “Sharianity”)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Synopsis: Political ideologies do not exist simply on a left-right continuum. To capture the full complexity of political ideological variation, we would need to consider a multidimensional space defined by multiple axes. As a starting point for such a conceptualization, I offer here a two-by-two table defined by one distillation of the left-right dichotomy in terms of substantive beliefs, and a similar distillation of the corresponding dichotomy in form of expression that does not necessarily match the substantive positions.

Cooperatively Expressed Combatively Expressed Cooperative Ideology 1 2 Combative Ideology 3 4

This two-by-two table is, of course, a gross oversimplification, in many ways: The political ideological space is defined by continua rather than simple dichotomies; it is defined by far more than two axes; and there is more nuance and complexity even in these two dichotomies than I am incorporating into them now. But I provide it as a frame of reference to develop and refine. And I want to emphasize that I am using the words “cooperative” and “combative” in broader and more inclusive ways than they are normally used, to incorporate related emotional, attitudinal, and expressive modalities; inclusivity v. exclusivity; and nuances that are not immediately easy to assign to one or the other (e.g., creating a vibrant, competitive market committed to fairness and sustainability is “cooperative” rather than “combative” since it serves everyone’s interests, whereas creating a market rigged or left unregulated in ways that lead to an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and opportunity is “combative” rather than “cooperative” since it is predatory rather than committed to our shared humanity).

Some directly related dichotomies include civility v. belligerence, compassion v. indifference or hatred, strong in-group bias v. tendency toward global humanism, violent v. peaceful, and inclusive v. exclusive (all variations on the same theme). Some more indirectly related dichotomies include rational v. irrational, analytical v. ideological, evolving v. stagnant, predominantly hopeful v. predominantly fearful, and long time horizon v. short time horizon. These dichotomies could define axes in the more elaborate analytical framework alluded to toward the end of this essay.

Though those who identify with the ideology substantively associated with “combative” in this grid are not likely to embrace my characterization of their ideology, keep in mind that I am referring to the ideas and manners of expressing them, rather than to the character of the individuals who serve as vehicles for both. (While there may generally be a strong relationship between individuals’ character, on the one hand, and their ideologies and modes of expression, on the other, they are not always perfectly aligned; what’s in a person’s heart and what underlying emotions motivate them may be very different from both the nature of the ideologies they profess and the nature of their form of expressing them.)

During the many blogosphere discussions on the topic of the postulated (or refuted) possible relationship between, on the one hand, combative political rhetoric and imagery, and, on the other, actual acts of violence (particularly but not exclusively political violence), I found that it’s important to make a distinction between the way we communicate our political ideological convictions, and the substance of those political ideological convictions. In terms of how we communicate our convictions, there is enough vitriol across the spectrum that trying to argue that one side is more guilty than another ends up being more of a distraction than a source of illumination, easily debated and not really very productive.

But when you look at the substance of the political ideologies, you see a clearer distinction: There is a basic competition between, on the one hand, an ideology which almost fetishizes deadly weapons and their use, strongly believes in retributive justice (“revenge”), idolizes the military, vilifies outgroups, and opposes empathy-based social policies; and, on the other hand, an ideology which takes seriously the harm inflicted by deadly weapons, favors restorative justice (prevention, rehabilitation, and compensation for harm done), considers the military the recourse of last resort, recognizes shared humanity with all human beings, and favors proactive policies based on the notion that a society is about lifting one another up rather than knocking one another down. These substantive differences can be understood in many ways, one of which is in terms of a difference in reliance on combative attitudes and combative means.

Now, when you combine this substantive difference with what might be called the expressive similarity among ideologies, you get four basic categories: 1) a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed; 2) a cooperative ideology combatively expressed; 3) a combative ideology cooperatively expressed, and 4) a combative ideology combatively expressed. I would argue that category 1 is the one to which we should all strive to belong, and category 4 is the one which should cause us all the most concern. (Between categories 2 and 3, frankly, I find category 3 more benign: Gun-loving, militaristic extreme individualists arguing their beliefs without rancor and with a modicum of humility and civility are preferable to dogmatic progressives wantonly spitting venom and bile, the latter group being far more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.)

It’s important also to recognize that the substance and the form either mutually reinforce one another, or are mutually inhibiting to one another. So, a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed (i.e., expressed without rage and vitriol) is a powerful message, full of credibility and inherently persuasive, while a cooperative ideology angrily expressed loses credibility, and seems to be a false belief in service to a destructive emotional inclination. Similarly, a combative ideology combatively expressed is particularly frightening, boding ill for society and for people caught in the cross-hairs of that substantive belligerence expressed in belligerent terms, whereas a combative ideology argued by people striving to be reasonable people of goodwill holds the promise of eventually yielding to reason and goodwill, of being dominated by the good nature of the people arguing it rather than by the bad nature of the ideology they are persuaded by.

One important caveat to the desirability of aspiring to the ideal of a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed: a commitment to “civility” (the form of productive discourse) should never trump a commitment to “humanity” (the substance of productive discourse). When the allies invaded the European mainland, for instance, that was very uncivil of them, but also very humane of them, for defeating Nazi Germany was essential to our shared humanity. And there are times when laying bare the irrationality or inhumanity of a position seems impolite, but is essential, in order to create a more powerful narrative that attracts more people.

This model can be refined in various ways. A slightly more elaborate version would be to conceptualize an ideological plane defined by two axes: how substantively combative an ideology is and how combatively it is expressed, representing the dichotomies in this grid as the continua that they in reality are. Further refinement would involve unpackaging what I lump together into “combativeness” here, creating various substantive axes (e.g., “mutual indifference v. mutual support,” “nationalism/tribalism v. humanism,” “retributive v. restorative justice,” “reactive v. proactive,” “collectivism v. individualism,” “dogma v. humility,” etc.). Ultimately, such continuing refinement of this model would involve both broadening the range of independent variables included, and including dependent as well as independent variables (e.g., rates of violent crime, poverty rates, homelessness rates, children’s educational performance, unemployment rates, access to health care and health outcomes, etc.). Such a model would try to explore how changes in independent variables affect changes in dependent variables, using a dynamical systems analysis (the paradigm of which I begin to delineate in the series of posts in the first box on the Catalogue of Selected Posts page).

In some cases, maximizing human welfare requires moving as far as possible along one continuum; in others (such as “collectivism v. individualism”), it involves striking optimal balances in relation to other variables (e.g., economics, morality, social responsibility). But however we conceptualize this political ideological space or these political ideological categories, the challenge remains the same: To continue to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, both in what we are advocating, and in how we advocate it.

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