Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘racism’

Absence and present values: A thought on monuments

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, and came upon this passage, that is relevant to current debates about maintaining monuments to once-admired figures who have now fallen into disrepute:

[The Republican Party] did gain the support of General James Longstreet, whose example inspired some Confederate veterans to follow in his footsteps… General Longstreet’s decision to join the Republican Party made him an object of hatred among Southern Democrats for the remainder of his life. When he died, in 1903, the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted not to send flowers to his funeral, and unlike other Confederate generals, no statues of Longstreet graced the southern landscape.

It’s incredibly naïve to say, monuments should stay as they are because they are part of history. They’re not. History is history, but monuments are present expressions of an attitude toward history. Sure, the statue of Robert E. Lee that was recently taken down in New Orleans was itself a historical artifact, and part of (a certain period of) city history, but the curatorial choice of what to keep is a statement about our current values. To the untrained eye, the statue was not a monument to 1884, when it was put up, but to 1863.

If you really want it to be a monument to 1884, and the intervening time when it has stood, so that the public could appreciate the “history” represented by the erection of a statue of Robert E. Lee (or of Cecil Rhodes), you would need to be able to make them see not only the statue that is present, but also the statue that is absent (of General Longstreet, say, or Olive Schreiner). But an absence can never compete with a presence in its impact on the viewer. So Lee and Rhodes must fall.

“Up to 500”

I’ve just been reading Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History. I don’t think there’s much new in the overall picture, but there are certainly many details that I was not aware of. For example, Rees discusses Himmler’s May 1940 memo “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population in the East”.

A large section of the memo dealt with Himmler’s plans to conduct a search among the Polish population in order to find children that were ‘racially first class’ and who ‘came up to our requirements’. These children would then be transported to Germany and raised as German citizens. Himmler believed this policy would not just allow Nazis access to more German ‘blood’ but deprive the Poles of the potential for a leadership class. As for the rest of the Polish children, they would receive the most basic education — taught only to count ‘up to 500’ and to write their own names.

It’s easy to fall into thinking of leading Nazis as ruthlessly efficient master criminals. Reading things like this is a good reminder of the extent to which they were actually kind of erratic and bonkers. It’s a sort of dilettantish megalomania that one sees in certain leaders today as well, with grand ideas that come from manipulating a vague picture of reality, decked out with a few random, nonsensical details. Why “up to 500”? Why not just say, “teach them to count” and leave it at that? How could anyone think that it would be possible to teach people to count up to 500 without learning the general principle of counting further?

This is why historians have emphasised the role of the proverbial Schreibtischtäter, the “desk criminals”, who worked hard to interface the lunacy with the proverbial railway timetables, that can’t be cajoled with blather about national will to power and providence.

“The blood of our youth”

So, here’s racist US president Donald Trump, presenting his notorious racist new attorney general Jeff Sessions, with infamous genocidal racist president Andrew Jackson glowering in the background.


And Trump announced that he was directing the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to

break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people.

This rhetoric doesn’t sound like usual presidential terminology, but it does sound familiar. What could it be? Maybe it reminds me of this:

Gift der Jüdischen Presse […] das ungehindert in den Blutlauf seines Volkes eindringen und wirken konnte

The poison of the Jewish press that penetrates without resistance and attacks the blood of the people

Or this

Er vergiftet das Blut des anderen, wahrt aber sein eigenes.

He [the Jew] poisons the blood of the others, but preserves his own.

From Mein Kampf.

Deplorable Boris

So now we know what was going on while Theresa May was off on her autocrat-ass-kissing tour, and refusing to join the civilised world in condemning the racist US immigration policy: Boris Johnson was negotiating a shameful special exemption for UK citizens. I think this is what they like to call “punching above our weight”.

Racism and forgiveness

It reminded me of the aphorism, popularised by the journalist Henryk Broder, attributed by him to an Israeli (commonly understood to be the psychoanalyst Zvi Rex), but without an identifiable original source:

Auschwitz werden uns die Deutschen nie verzeihen.

The Germans will never forgive us for Auschwitz.

One interesting lesson of the past year’s politics, particularly in the US, was learning how angry many white people seem to be about the legacy of slavery and racism. For example, when Michelle Obama spoke at the DNC about living “in a house that was built by slaves”, I had tears in my eyes, even as I rationally found it slightly mawkish and oversimplifying the trajectory of progress. Other people reacted differently, first doubting that that was true, calling it slanderous to mention the fact, and then dismissing the significance of the implicit criticism by saying that the slaves  “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
One typical survey in June 2016 showed that most white Americans — and 59% of white Republicans — believe that “too much attention is paid to race and racial issues”, with 32% of white Americans saying that President Obama has made race relations worse. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, only 46% of Republicans say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Black people in the US, while 30% (and 45% of “Tea Party” supporters) say there is a lot of discrimination against White people. 64% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

British values

From the BBC home page today:

screenshot-2016-12-05-08-32-11

And here I thought racial segregation was a core… oh, never mind.

Are we living in a David Mamet film?

I just had a frightening thought: Has the entire Trump campaign been scripted by conservative neozealot David Mamet? It’s House of Games, with politics and racism.

Before even being sworn in as president, Donald Trump has assured himself a place as probably the greatest con man of all times. And one of the most important skills of the really masterful con man (one learns from Mamet) is to know how to take advantage of people thinking they’ve seen through your con. A double con. There’s no one more gullible than someone who thinks he’s seen through you. (more…)

Tender-hearted racists

The only place I run into Americans here is in the synagogue. There is one loud-and-proud right-winger who gets treated to a lot of good-humoured deference. This past Sunday, naturally, he was feeling his oats. I mostly stay out of these political discussions, but after listening to him go on and on about the “elitists” in their “bubbles” who had failed to appreciate the world-historical significance of Donald Trump, I remarked that these were very large bubbles that contained more than half of the US population. He suddenly switched gears and accused me of accusing all Trump voters of being racists, a remarkable feat of projection, given that no one up to this point had mentioned race. No, I said, I’m sure some of their best friends are black.

But I was thinking of this when I recently read this passage in John Ferling’s Jefferson and Hamilton: The rivalry that forged a nation. (Overall, a pretty interesting book, if not especially elegantly or engagingly written) about Hamilton’s attacks on Jefferson in the context of the election of 1796:

Hamilton raised questions about Jefferson and race. He drew on passages from Notes on the State of Virginia to demonstrate Jefferson’s racism.

The context is a society that accepts enslavement of African-Americans, Jefferson owned dozens of slaves, yet evidence of “racism” was seen as a black mark on his character. And Hamilton needed to delve into Jefferson’s writings to find “evidence” that the slave-owner Jefferson was racist. For that matter, Hamilton himself had owned slaves in the past, and probably did even as he was polemicising against Jefferson’s racism.

Anti-racism is self-limiting. As soon as we accept that racism is a terrible thing, there is a natural tendency to absolve pretty much anyone with a name and a face of this evil. Racism exists in the past, or on the fringes of society. People like Trump are just clumsily saying some racist things or appealing to non-PC white voters. (And if he’ll just stop saying racist things for a week or two, problem solved!) Similarly, the NY Times has just today seemed to express sympathy for famous racist and likely Trump cabinet pick, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions:

screenshot-2016-11-17-12-01-28

The poor guy is being trailed by those nasty racial comments. Maybe he can get a restraining order against them!

If you’re not actually burning crosses you’re not a real racist, just as anyone who isn’t Hitler can’t really be an antisemite. (And anyone who recalls the fake-Hitler-diary furore may also recall the breathless coverage that noted the absence of any reference to the holocaust, eager to absolve the Führer of the worst crimes.)

I think often of this exchange from the second presidential debate in 2000:

GORE: …The governor opposed a measure put forward by Democrats in the legislature to expand the number of children that would be covered. And instead directed the money toward a tax cut, a significant part of which went to wealthy interests. He declared the need for a new tax cut for the oil companies in Texas an emergency need, and so the money was taken away from the CHIP program… I believe there are 1.4 million children in Texas who do not have health insurance. 600,000 of whom, and maybe some of those have since gotten it, but as of a year ago 600,000 of them were actually eligible for it but they couldn’t sign up for it because of the barriers that they had set up.

MODERATOR: Let’s let the governor respond to that. Are those numbers correct? Are his charges correct?

BUSH: If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hard-hearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.

The words don’t adequately communicate the smarmy expression of offence that Bush displayed. Gore accused him of taking insurance away from 600,000 children. Bush didn’t respond or explain, but simply contended that to mention this fact was to insult him, to call him a “hard-hearted person”.

Ulysses Obama

I’ve just been reading Ronald C. White’s wonderful new biography of Ulysses Grant, American Ulysses. Inspiring and depressing at the same time, it’s the story of a modest man with a peculiar foreign-sounding name. Possessed of enormous gifts of organisation and leadership, he rose from a decidedly modest background to become president. He was extremely popular during most of his eight years in office, and pursued vigorous high-minded policies as president, particularly focused on protecting civil rights of ethnic minorities, and repairing relations with other countries after a long war. At the end of his two terms he was still popular enough that he could easily have been re-elected for a third. 

His successors set about dismantling everything he had accomplished as president, and later generations judged his presidency an utter failure, partly in order to justify the racist policies that followed.

He was a talented writer, who wrote a celebrated memoir, but political opponents, who held his intellect in contempt, asserted without evidence that it had been ghost-written.

I’m not sure why this all seems relevant at the present moment.

Used and abandoned

Donald Trump has tried, with limited success it would appear, to convince African-Americans that they have been swindled by the Democrats, who use their votes but ignore their concerns. I don’t think that is actually true. We can argue about whether Democrats have done enough, or had the right priorities, and to what extent this is just another example of the Republicans blocking progress and then accusing the Democrats of not wanting it enough, not “leading” enough. But the needs of African-Americans — including affirmative action, housing integration, support for the poor — are clearly a significant concern of governing Democrats.

The people who were really used and abandoned by the Democrats were the white racists. The Democrats were happy to have their votes through the 1970s, and then abandoned them as the fraction of non-white voters made the racists seem electorally less significant. Shameful!

Tag Cloud