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Racism & Multiculturalism

Last night I ran across an old post from Beliefnet days, in which I discussed a great book I was reading, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” S.C. Gwynne’s stunning history of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, and the struggle between Comanches and white settlers for control of the West. With apologies for […]

Last night I ran across an old post from Beliefnet days, in which I discussed a great book I was reading, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” S.C. Gwynne’s stunning history of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, and the struggle between Comanches and white settlers for control of the West. With apologies for length, here’s part of that blog post:

To read this book is to have romantic illusions about the settlers and/or the Indians shredded. I keep trying to impose a Good vs. Evil narrative on the story — this, as an emotional response — and the facts simply don’t fit.
There can be no doubt at all that the Comanches were exceptionally savage and imperialistic. I knew — we all know — that the whites were viciously imperialistic towards the Indians, but what I did not know is that the Comanches treated other Indian tribes with the same imperialistic savagery. Even the fearsome Apaches ultimately turned to the Spanish for protection against the Comanches, who approached other tribes genocidally at times. Once the Comanches mastered the Old West equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction — the horse, which they taught themselves to fight from (while Apaches and white armies dismounted for battle) — they became the imperial masters of the southern Plains. And though most Plains Indians were relatively ruthless, no tribe matched the Comanches.
If you come to this book thinking of the Comanches merely as poor, pitiful victims, it will set you straight. But if you come to this book thinking of the Texan settlers merely as brave, noble souls facing down the bloodthirsty savage, this book will also set you straight. In fact, Gwynne argues that the reason the Texans prevailed over the Comanches while the Spanish did not was because they were prepared to be as tough with the Comanches as the Comanches were with them.
I’m not yet done with the book, but so far, it seems to me that what both “tribes” (it is more helpful, I find, to think of the white settlers as one tribe among others) had going for them was an absolute belief in themselves as a people, and their mission to subdue the land and alien peoples within it. More darkly, they believed that the other was less than human. That whites saw Indians as subhuman is well known. I did not know that Comanches saw anyone outside the Comanche tribe — whites, and other Indians — as subhuman. If your enemy is not fully human to your mind, you can easily justify treating him with remorseless cruelty.
And both whites and Comanches did that to each other. The whites prevailed, of course, because they had greater resources, technological and otherwise. But that wasn’t always the case. Comanche horsemanship was so spectacular — Gwynne says they were at one point likely the best light cavalry on the planet — and their skills at tracking and evading capture in the Plains environment so superior, that they dominated their territory. The Old West story, then, is a narrative of the clash of empires, in which one tribe was overcome by another tribe as tough as they, and eventually more powerful. This is a story you see over and over again in world history, throughout the globe: tribal cultures and civilizations believing unquestionably in their own righteousness, and in the subhumanization of their enemies, conquering others ruthlessly.
My friend David Rieff writes about how believing the lie about one’s own intentions can lead to all kinds of trouble, re: intervention in foreign people’s affairs. But what I find more troubling is the thought that one might be compelled to believe lies about the manifest destiny of one’s own culture, and the humanity of the enemy, in order to survive as a culture. If you were a Comanche in 1850, you didn’t have the luxury of being broad-minded and humanitarian towards the white man. He was coming to take your land, which would destroy your civilization. You had to fight; softness meant cultural extinction. So you fought the best way you knew how, which included gang rape of the enemy’s women, kidnapping, and gruesome tortures. A broad-minded Comanche was a dead Comanche. (Similarly, if you were an Apache, you couldn’t afford to stop to think about what the world must look like from the point of view of a Comanche.) If you were on the Plains as a white settler in 1850, you couldn’t afford to be thoughtful and humane about the Indians. That would have been a great way to die. Perhaps your father ought not have moved you and your family out to the territory, but there you were, and you had to fight for your life. The only way you could do what you had to do to survive, and ultimately prevail, was to cast out all doubts about your people and their mission, and to harden yourself against the enemy.

That resonated with me this morning reading Kenan Malik’s unsettling lecture in which he contends that racism and multiculturalism are two sides of the same coin. There are far too many thoughtful passages in it to excerpt effectively here; I really hope you’ll read the whole thing. Both liberals and conservatives will find Malik’s points provocative. Here are a couple of paragraphs that, I think, summarize his main point:

Kymlicka is liberal to his bones, resolutely hostile to such reactionary arguments against immigration. But once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist anti-immigration arguments.

Herder, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut observes, has become the cheerleader for both sides of the political spectrum. ‘He reigns supreme inspiring at the same time… unyielding celebrations of ethnic identity and expressions of respect for foreigners, aggressive outbursts by xenophobes and generous pronouncements by xenophiles.’ The two sides have ‘conflicting credos but the same vision of the world’. Both see ‘cultures as all-encompassing entities, distinctly different, one from the other.’ Multiculturalists, like racial theorists, fetishise difference. Both seek to ‘confine individuals to their group of origin’.  Both undermine ‘any possibility of natural or cultural community among peoples’. We believe we have discredited the concept of race but, Finkielkraut asks, ‘have we really made any progress?’

Malik argues that both the contemporary left and the contemporary right base their conceptions of culture and identity in Romantic ideas. To explain:

The philosopher who perhaps best articulated the Romantic notion of culture was the German Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder rejected the Enlightenment idea that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws that rational investigation could discover. He maintained, rather, that every activity, situation, historical period or civilisation possessed a unique character of its own.

David Hume had suggested that ‘Mankind are so much the same at all times and in all places that history informs us of nothing new or strange.’ Herder, on the contrary, insisted that history (and anthropology) reveals many things new and strange. Mankind was not the same at all times and in all places. What made each people or nation – or volk – unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment. The ‘grand law of nature’, Herder proclaimed was  ‘let man be man.  Let him mould his condition according to what he himself shall view as best.’

Herder occupies an ambiguous role in modern political thought.  In the eighteenth century, Herder saw himself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but also as someone forced to challenge some of the basic precepts of the philosophes – such as their stress on universal law and on the universal validity of reason – in order to defend the cherished ideals of equality.

You can see where a certain kind of cultural conservatism — the Kirkean strand that cherishes difference and tradition — finds in this the grounds on which to defend itself against the Enlightenment-inspired homogenizers. But you also see where a certain kind of cultural liberalism — the multiculti sort that fiercely defines and defends cultural identity, and seeks to use the law to perpetuate it — derives the sentiment and principles with which it agitates against laws, practices, and institutions (e.g., free-market capitalism) that threaten cultural identity.

One big problem, as Malik discerns, is that once you conceive of cultures as in some sense bearing rights, and declare that the identity of a member of that culture is bounded by the culture’s rules and practices, it becomes very, very difficult to deny racism. That is, one man’s racism is another man’s attempt to defend his culture. If you were a Comanche in 1870, you would almost certainly see the savagery perpetuated by the men of your tribe as justified. And if you were a white Texas settler of the same period, the atrocities committed by your people against the Comanche would be simply a matter of self-defense.

You would both be right, or at least more right than wrong.

Today, many conservatives get angry — and rightly so, I must say — at multiculti liberals because conservatives understand quite well that liberals are happy to keep two sets of books on matters of race. They permit, and even license, patterns of thought privileging racial minorities, and encouraging racial minorities to think of themselves in terms of race and culture, that they would condemn in whites. When I was growing up in the 1970s, you could still hear old-style segregationists claim that white culture was going to be fatally compromised now that the barriers between whites and blacks came down. How this is essentially different from race-conscious liberals who wish to erect barriers of privilege in matters of employment, college admissions, and in academic habits of thought, around Hispanics, blacks, gays, and others, I fail to understand. You could say that these groups have been historically marginalized by majority white culture, and that drawing and enforcing these boundaries is a matter of justice. In fact, that’s what multiculturalists do say. That does not obviate the fact that these policies unavoidably provide moral license to racial discrimination. Besides, multiculturalists cannot and will not say when justice will have been achieved, and we can stop judging and processing people on the basis of skin color, gender, and so forth. In the end, it’s all about power politics, a power politics based in race. Which, it seems to me, is precisely Kenan Malik’s point.

And yet, conservatives aren’t so easily let off the hook. Conservatives like me, for example, love to defend local traditions and customs against the power of the state, or against the hegemony of capitalism (e.g., unrestricted development, mining, and so forth). But it is not the case that every local tradition and custom should be protected. More crucially, the protection of Our Culture can easily tip over into demonizing alien cultures and the bearers of alien culture. Like Jews, for instance. It is not always clear how we can keep a right and proper love for our own culture from degenerating into a hatred for the other cultures — and persecution of those living around us who are thought to be threats to our culture.

Malik delivered this lecture in the Balkans. Note that he didn’t offer a solution to this problem, only pointed out how both the contemporary left and contemporary right are both implicated in its ugly manifestations.




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