Binaries for Me, Spectrums for Thee
There are some inherent contradictions between our gender politics and our racial politics.
Dear Reader (Including those of you who think “Thighland” would be quite the interesting amusement park),
I’m writing this while sitting on a concrete slab outside the Jackson Hole Welcome Center. It’s the only spot I could find where it was:
A) shady (as in, protected from the direct gaze of damnable Helios, not as in Jerry Falwell’s “What I did on my Summer vacation” Instagram feed)
B) possible to smoke a cigar legally
C) possible to do so without bothering people
I bring this up because, like Jacob Wohl overdosing on Novocaine because someone told him it was an anabolic steroid, my ass is going numb and I don’t know how long I can keep this up.
The Washington Post has done something remarkable: It’s made me want to join the Marxist team.
Oh, let me be clear: I don’t mean that now I suddenly think history is governed by immutable “scientific” laws leading inexorably to a classless society. Nor do I believe that capitalism is evil or any of that stuff. Rather, in the generations-old debate of race versus class, the Post is pushing me into Team Class.
For those who don’t spend much time on such things because they have better priorities, let me explain. For decades there have been two big camps (and many smaller camps, which we’ll ignore) that have warred over the central explanation for American perfidy. One camp claimed race as the Rosetta Stone for deciphering America’s sins. The other, older camp clung to class-based explanations. It’s not necessarily the case that the socialists didn’t think racism was a problem, and it’s certainly not the case that the racialists (for want of a better term) didn’t think class and capitalism, etc. weren’t constructs of oppression. The debate was simply over which paradigm should take precedence and explain or illuminate the other side’s concerns or the central challenges to be overcome.
By way of analogy, it’s a bit like the argument in Big Bang Theory between Sheldon and Amy over which discipline—physics or psychology—ranks higher in the ordo cognoscendi:
Socialists to the rescue.
When the 1619 Project came out, a bunch of people were shocked when the World Socialist Website (published by the International Committee of the Fourth International) did some of the best early work debunking its thesis by interviewing some of America’s greatest living historians. If you thought “the left” was a homogenous block—much the way many on the left view “the right”—this seemed odd.
But it makes total sense if you understand this somewhat ancient fault line on the left between race and class.
Now I want to be very clear, I think both approaches are wrong. That doesn’t mean I think everything either camp argues is wrong or without merit. I just don’t think either paradigm is nearly the Unified Field Theory the respective partisans claim. (Nor do I think intersectionality—which tries to reconcile the two by basically taking the points system of a frequent flier program or a repeat customer at Subway, and applies it to victim status—is the bees’ knees either.)
But if I gotta choose sides (and I don’t have to, save for purposes of this “news”letter), I choose the Class crowd.
But even here I have caveats. The champions of prioritizing race always had the better argument when talking race. If you’re writing or thinking about the history of blacks in America, race just seems like an obviously more useful prism than class. But it doesn’t work the other way around. When writing about “whites” in America, race is much less useful a construct than class. Why? Because for obvious—and not at all laudable—reasons, the political and cultural fault lines within “white America” were not primarily about race. Class, region, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. had more impact on how whites treated other whites than race did. I think that should be obvious.
More on that in a minute.
The Washington Post’s “W”
A few weeks ago, the Washington Postannounced that it would follow the AP stylebook and capitalize the “B” in black when referring to black Americans “to identify groups that make up the African diaspora.” At first, I didn’t love the idea, but I’ve come around to it because one can make a pretty powerful argument that Blacks are a distinct cultural and ethnic group in America.
But in the next breath they announced that the paper would also capitalize the “W” in white when referring to white people.
This style change also prompts the question of how America’s largest racial community should be identified. Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States. In American history, many White Europeans who entered the country during times of mass migration were the targets of racial and ethnic discrimination. These diverse ethnicities were eventually assimilated into the collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation. As such, White should be represented with a capital W. In accordance with our style change, people who do not want to be recognized as a color also have the choice of representing themselves by their cultural background, as they currently do, identifying as German American, Irish American, Italian American or other representations of national heritage.
This is where I get off the bus.
If there were some international headquarters of the alt-right, I could imagine them issuing a press release hailing the news.
As the Post actually acknowledges, the notion of some monolithic white identity is fairly ahistorical in the United States. Oh sure, some white racists held the view that “Whiteness” was a thing. But many of those same racists didn’t include “white” ethnic groups in their definition. Southern and Eastern Europeans were not considered white for a host of reasons—phrenological, pigmentational and, most importantly, religious. The Klan may have hated blacks the most, but they weren’t all sweetness and light when it came to Jews, Italians, and other swarthy, Catholic (or swarthy and Catholic) immigrants, allegedly subservient to the “Pope in Rome.” Read up on how the WASPy progressive elite talked about the unfit masses of white people they wanted eliminated or sterilized from the garden of humanity. You’ll not find much evidence of monolithic “White” solidarity.
Notice the Post’s use of “assimilation” here. Normally, or at least traditionally, when we talk about assimilation we talk about becoming American. Here, the Post uses assimilation to mean, becoming not only white but “White.”
Now I get all the arguments that whiteness and America go hand in hand, like two white hands on top of a Faber College homecoming parade racial-unity float when someone forgot to paint one of the hands brown. But traditionally, this was a criticism of America—one usually leveled by liberals and other further to the left. That criticism obviously has some merit, even though it’s not nearly as simplistic as many claim, as the Marxists were always happy to point out. They’d note that if you came here poor and uneducated, you were locked out of the rich white people party down by the lake with glorious noodle salad and Chablis, too.
But the important point is that saying whiteness and Americanness were synonymous was a criticism. By which I mean it was something you said about how America is to distinguish it from how America ought to be. Content of your character rather than the color of your skin and all that, remember?
Not only is the Post—and all the folks celebrating its decision—now saying the criticism is true, they’re also saying it’s a permanent thing. Out with the lamentable bug of our society, in with the future!
In my experience, there are only two kinds of people who unironically and voluntarily say anything like “As a white person, I think X.” The first group are very sincere racists of the traditional variety. The second are very sincere anti-racists, desperate to expiate their sins and confess their privilege.
But for most white people, if you derive a huge amount of meaning and identity from your whiteness, you probably don’t have much else going for you. There are very few ways for me to finish a sentence “As I white person, I think …” simply because it’s not how I think about myself very often. I can fill in sentences that begin, “As a father …” or “As an American …” or “As a conservative …” or even “As a dog owner …” all day long.
People tell me: Well, not having to think of yourself as white is a form of white privilege. Ok, maybe, I dunno. Sometimes I guess. But shouldn’t that be the goal for everybody? Shouldn’t the goal of society be to create space for people to find more meaningful and admirable sources of meaning and identity than the color of their skin? If black people suddenly all had the same skin color as Scandinavians, they would still have a cultural history and identity that would justify a capital B. “White” people don’t have that and I’m at a loss as to why we should force it on them.
The limits of class.
My problem with the Unified Field Theory of Class was always similar. Class is a thing, to be sure—but it has always been much less important in America than elsewhere in the world. This is why the standard answer to Werner Sombart’s question, “Why is there no socialism in America?” has long been because America never had a feudal past. In America, there were interlacing lines of identity moving vertically and horizontally. The Marxists thought that the only thing you needed to know about factory workers was that they were united by their exploitation. Two factory workers should have solidarity with each other that trumped all other considerations. But one of those factory workers might be Catholic and the other Jewish. Or one could be an educated immigrant taking the best job he could get and the other an uneducated native-born American who saw nothing wrong with him having the same job as his dad, or his son having the same job as him.
Heck, one could be in Cleveland and the other in Minsk, and under the theory that workers of the world should unite, their employment status should transcend language, culture, nationality, etc. This was always stupid, which is why national-socialist movements grew up in opposition to international socialist movements.
There is a good kind of intersectionality. The kind we talk about today is a coalition of the oppressed in opposition to an imaginary white hegemony of the prosperous pale penis people. The American kind of intersectionality is a coalition of possibility, of progress and prosperity. It doesn’t define itself in negative terms—against oppression or capitalist exploitation.—but for various things.
The American intersectionality says the individual can find meaning where he or she finds it. A rich person can go to a church full of poor people and find community and solidarity along religious lines. A black person and a white person can find solidarity and meaning at work, in an Army unit, in a neighborhood or simply in some passionate interest. An immigrant can strive to transcend the categories others apply to him or her.
The move to turn white people into an identity runs against all of that. It takes the openness of liberalism and the tangible benefits bourgeois values and says that such things are part of “White culture.” It’s also analytically flawed because, as the Post acknowledges, lots of non-whites assimilate into the American meritocracy. Where do Asian-Americans fit in this schema? While some do in fact identify as white, their comparative success doesn’t derive from accepting that label, but from embracing and personifying the habits of the heart that lead to success. I loathe calling bourgeois values “white values” because I think those values are the key to success for everybody. Why advance the argument that hard work, family cohesion, delayed gratification, thrift, decency, honesty, and more. are “white” values when, A) they so clearly aren’t, and B) when doing so creates a dumb cultural barrier to embracing them?
One last point: At some point in the future people will look back at how the left made two contradictory arguments at the same time. When it comes to sexual identity, the word has gone forth to oppose “artificial” categories, “false binaries,” etc. People can define themselves sexually without any regard to medical science, never mind tradition or political or cultural orthodoxy. I’ve lost count of how many genders there are now. Just last week, CNN was so scared of using the word “women” it tweeted that “Individuals with a cervix are now recommended to start cervical cancers screening at 25 …”
Meanwhile, when it comes to race, it’s all about new artificial categories and enforced binaries. White people who pretend they’re black are committing theft. Heck, white people who cook non-white food or pay homage to non-white art forms are committing theft. Cultural appropriation is evil. But gender appropriation is something to be celebrated. Biological males can collect all the women’s track and field awards and that’s fine. But don’t you dare wear dreadlocks if you’re not black?
That’s just weird. But these are weird times.
Various & Sundry
Human update: This “news”letter will go dark next week. I am going on a rafting trip on the Snake River with my wife’s side of the family and there will be no cell service or anything of the like until I finish.
Canine update: The doggers are staying with Kirsten and they are loving it. That’s the great thing about having someone who loves your dogs—and whom your dogs love—watching them when you’re away. There’s no guilt involved. Or at least very little. I do miss the beasts terribly. And this is such amazing dog country, we feel it’s wrong to be here without them (I really don’t get the point of hiking without dogs). In a couple days, though, the canines will be moving back into my house with Nick, my research assistant, who has been minding the store and the cats. Kirsten has to board some other dogs for a few days, before she takes the doggers back. Hopefully, they won’t rend him apart like velociraptors.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images.