Another Example of the Idealist Method in Action

A Facebook discussion of a particular aspect of so-called cultural appropriation led quite naturally—perhaps inevitably—to an underlying difference in method that has vital ramifications for those of us who fight for a more just, egalitarian world.

Here is the remark that, in my opinion, expresses it best: “Lack of respect as people for black people is the root cause of police assassination of black people”. And, lest anyone think this just sloppy or careless expression, not really meant, the commenter goes on to say explicitly, “economic issues are a thin veneer — a cover — for implicit prejudices that are then built into the society.” She only neglects to explain why prejudices are implicit—presumably because of Original Sin.

The root cause is seen as lack of respect as people for black people. Not a contributing factor, not an expression of a deeper problem, not an effect of conditions, but the “root cause.”  “Respect” is an idea, or a set of ideas—the word describes a relationship between the thoughts in one person’s head, and another person.  Thus, the root cause, is, to the commenter, an idea.  This is a perfect example of the philosophical method called idealism—a method that sees conditions as a reflection of ideas, rather than the reverse. The materialist believes that, as Marx said, being determines consciousness, something recognized at least in a limited and confused way by those who say, “You just believe that because you’re white.”

“Race” as we understand it today (it previously meant nationality or ethnicity, eg, the “French race,” the “English race”) is a creation of the 18th Century, and only became popular in the United States in the early 19th when it was found useful for justifying African slavery and stealing the land of the American Indian–and speaking of, I believe the argument that tribalism is the same as racism, and is part of the human make-up, is refuted by, if nothing else, the generally friendly reception the American Indian gave the first Europeans.

The continued existence of racism—its promotion by the political Right, its acceptance as permanent by sections of the pseudo-Left—are just as much products of actual, material needs and wants as its use two hundred years ago. Then, it justified slavery and theft. Today, for the Right, it interferes with the working class unity that would challenge their property rights. For the pseudo-Leftist, it permits them to advance claims that will benefit themselves—a tiny, privileged section of the upper middle class—and ignore the genuine suffering of the masses.

Behind the idea, always look for the conditions that produced it.  This, by the way, applies to the materialist method itself: materialism, emerging in the 16th Century, is the result of improvements in the technology of discovery spurred by improved lens-grinding techniques (telescope, microscope) as well as by the needs of the newly emerging bourgeoisie to break free of the rigidity of the Church regarding social status and political power.

And here’s the rub: The two differing methods produce tremendously different results. If we are to fight oppression in all its myriad forms, we must, above all, understand it scientifically. The belief that racism is “innate” leads to whole groups that stop after pointing it out—they have no program for, or hope of, actually ending it. Their activity is confined to calling working class white women racists if they wear dreadlocks. To understand racism as a product of class society is the key to developing a program both for attacking the cause—that is, the destruction of capitalist property relations and the ending of social privilege—and also a guide for battling racism itself as part of that fight:

1. The continued killing of African-Americans is an attack on the entire working class, and the working class must unite under a socialist program to destroy the system the police are using violence to defend.  The fight against police violence and other forms of systemic racism has to be part of the fight against capitalism—not by (as some have accused me of advocating) “waiting until the revolution fixes everything,” but exactly the reverse: taking on the mechanisms that oppress our brothers and sisters is part of building a movement that can carry the revolution to victory.

2. Problems of racism within the working class have to be fought as part of the struggle for class unity: we must tirelessly point out, not how the white worker “benefits” from racism, but, on the contrary, how he is harmed by it—how it works in the favor of the class enemy.

This is a materialist approach to addressing the problem.  What has the idealist approach to offer?


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64 thoughts on “Another Example of the Idealist Method in Action”

  1. I can get into the rest of this at a later date, because I’m about to head out for the day, but may I note my annoyance with the conflation of pseudo-Leftist and upper middle class? Ideologically, I generally fall into the box you call pseudo-Leftist, and when it describes me accurately, I don’t mind it. But I sure as Hell mind being called upper middle class when I’ve spent thirty years with no support network, nobody in my family owns a home or a business, I’ve been homeless three times and spent years of my life under-nourished. Label my beliefs what you will, but my material conditions are hardly those of the privileged elite.

  2. Political ideas represent definite social classes. The class represented by the pseudo-left is the middle class, especially it’s upper sections. That everyone who subscribes to these ideas must be a member of this class is no more true than to say that everyone who votes Republican must be a member of the 1%–but that’s who it benefits.

  3. If ideas arise from material conditions, my ideas represent my conditions, which are not middle class.

  4. Ideas also arise from your aspirations. I often think privilege theorists focus on privilege because they want it. And they don’t talk about the point between privilege and oppression that the rest of us call human rights because that’s not where they want to be in their utopia.

    I haven’t tried to trace it, but I suspect there’s a fairly straight line between the first use of “noblesse oblige” in the 1830s, the birth of “social justice” in Catholicism in the early 1840s in anticipation of the threat of the revolutions that sprang up in 1848, and privilege theory today, with its obsession on giving people respect rather than aid.

  5. “If ideas arise from material conditions, my ideas represent my conditions, which are not middle class.”

    Those are hardly the only material conditions that effect you, are they? You live in a capitalist country, surrounded by pressures to go along with certain ideas. More significantly, I don’t recall saying that there is an exact one-to-one correlation between a individual’s particular circumstances and how those circumstances are refracted into his ideas. The ultimate source of ideas are always conditions–but between “ultimate” and “this is what I believe” there is room for conflict, contradictions, and complexity.

  6. Steve, thank you for your lucid analysis of philosophical idealism at work on the question of race. Also, your final comment on Matt Doyle’s argument is spot-on re “exact one-to one” correlations between material conditions and ideology. Those who reject Marxism (dialectical materialism) by pointing out “exceptions” are attacking a straw horse–the method of” “vulgar” or “mechanical” materialism , which Marx and Engels eloquently critiqued. At the risk of being simplistic , perhaps Mr Doyle represents and example of “false consciousness”. As for the latter as a concept, I admit a fair degree of ignorance. Perhaps you or other readers can talk about the use of this concept (false consciousness”) by Marxists. Do we find it in Gramsci?

  7. When we read about decedents of the Mongol conquerors being mis-treated in Czarist Russia, was that racism too? Or Jews being almost wiped out of Europe in the 13th century?

  8. Interesting questions, Howard. I admit that you’re speaking of an era of history I haven’t studied, so I speak only hesitantly, but didn’t the Czar’s attack on the Mongols come from a desire for their land? I don’t know what racial considerations, by the terms of the time, were involved. Certainly, the history of anti-semitism has always been closely tied to greed–witness the Inquisition. I should add, however, that considering “Jews” a race is (as I think you’re saying) much closer to the old use of the term than the current one.

  9. Just a data point: There are people coming out of the current social justice scene who insist European Jews were not “white” in Europe or the US. They have to ignore history to do that, of course.

  10. Whatever definition we use for “race” is a made up one. But the great grandchildren of the Mongol conquerors looked different, and were discriminated against.

  11. All right, I’ll bite. What is the root cause of police assassination of white people? Is it also the lack of respect as people for white people? I’d accept that, but then why talk about black and white at all?

  12. The history of Ukraine is extremely complicated. The myth of nationalism requires Ukrainians to imagine an unbroken line between Kievan Rus and the modern nation-state of Ukraine. In fact, the country depopulated into a few centers of Orthodox worship and roving bands of Tatar nomads. Later, there was a land rush from several sides: Poles, Russians from the Taiga; runaway slaves/serfs from all over. Some branded themselves as Cossacks, but this was actually a fairly diverse group with several different habits of life. Basically it was a melting pot and some of the descendants of Mongol invaders did relatively well for themselves and some did not.

    Shorter answer: nationalism is an idea that has become so powerful that we fit our understanding of history to suit it rather than the other way around.

  13. Nationalism as we know it is relatively recent. And it is very useful for the powerful to get us to believe all of the wars we have are done for us and ours as opposed to for them and theirs.

  14. It’s wonderful to be in a place where stating that nationalism is an invention of the Enlightenment is NOT greeted with shouts of “Alfred the Great.” Seriously, even relatively smart, sophisticated people learn some stupid things about history.

  15. Sometimes I think “relatively smart, sophisticated people” are especially susceptible to believing in stupid things, because they tend to be very aware that they’re relatively smart, sophisticated people, so they’re convinced they’re right, especially when their fellow relatively smart, sophisticated people believe the same stupid thing.

  16. Okay. I have time today to go back and pick at my other issues with this argument. Starting with the classicist in me insisting I point out that Epicurus, who died in 270 BCE, might have something to say about the idea that Materialism developed in the 16th Century CE… but really, that’s my problem all around. This post displays a lot of very compelling simplifications.

    The belief that racism is “innate” is a belief that racism is a part of our society which is ingrained in us the same way all our other kneejerk assumptions are, when we’re too young to critically analyze our environments. It is not an assumption that these attitudes and behaviors are not correctable or able to be combated. Merely that, like the peculiar focus Americans give to unrestrained free speech, like the religious beliefs of one’s parents, like our notions of appropriate dress and cultural taboos, they’re atmospheric, deeply ingrained, and most people do not analyze them.

    The belief that identitarians are only focused on call-out culture and not material change is also a gross oversimplification. On the internet, especially, of course the confrontational and outspoken nature of call-out culture is by far the most visible effect, and that’s unfortunate, not least because the call-out is a sloppy weapon that leads easily to exaggeration, vilification, and frankly a lot of toxic behavior that many people of many ideologies, including the ones that gave it birth, deplore. (There’s all kinds of writing to support this – google ‘toxic call-out culture’ and you will see countless feminists and antiracists decrying it)

    The people who fight for ‘respect’ are often the very same people doing work organizing- we Pseudo-Leftists do a lot of fieldwork, gathering groups of people to lobby for better legislative protections, to make visible protests against racist expressions of violence, to tear down Confederate flags outside of statehouses, to build a sense of community and unity which can be used as a tool in any practical battle for rights. And in these groups, all are welcome. Discussion of other causes, other methods is frequent. The only people who have trouble blending in are those who insist that – no matter what tangible gains can be pointed to, such as gay marriage going from unthinkable to the law of the land in a decade, that we are fighting the wrong fights and making no real difference in people’s lives. This argument will never resonate with people who possess rights and recourses they did not ten years ago, who are told that instead of fighting to empower themselves they should have been gathering others and waiting for the moment we’re ready for revolution. These are the people who were beside me on the streets gathering public support for the Affordable Care Act – gutted as it eventually was, it still represents progress. I know people who were saved from bankruptcy, or even from probable death, by it. And they know who organized and fought for them.

    It wasn’t revolutionaries.

    You cannot claim to lead and speak for the masses and then not actually make common cause with them, no matter if your approach is scientific and theirs is not. And you cannot claim they have never accomplished anything when they can see the benefits that their own organized effort provided.

    That’s what the idealist approach has to offer.

  17. Matt, I apologize for not having the time to give a proper long answer.

    I forget how many links Steve’s system will let me get away with, so I’ll just provide titles of online essays for people who think humans are naturally racist:

    * The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy By Thandeka

    * Where the Idea of “Race” Came From by Adolph Reed, Jr.

    * Slavery and the origins of racism by Lance Selfa

    * Race, class, and “whiteness theory” by Sharon Smith

    The first two are by black leftists. The last two are by white writers at a site Steve wouldn’t like (International Socialist Review), but I think he would approve of those articles.

    As for how “innate” racism is in the US, in my lifetime, we’ve gone from almost no one approving of interracial marriage and being willing to vote for a black president to where we are today.

    Now, as for the notion that identitarianism deserves the credit, since most of the work was done before the development of identitarian ideologies in the ’70s, and since those ideologies are still generally irrelevant in the world beyond academia and journalism by writers from expensive private schools, I reject the notion that they get the credit. Though I realize they desperately want it..

  18. Will – I restricted my discussion of identitarian contributions to those I have been specifically present for. What identitarian movements were doing or whether they existed in other decades is beyond the scope of my claims.

  19. Matt: Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I’m going to see how the discussion develops before jumping in, except to say that you’re right about Epicurus, and correct to call me on over-simplification on the origins of Materialism.

  20. Matt, I beg to disagree. If identitarians are in any way responsible for the current gains, they’re like the Americans showing up in Europe at the end of WWII and announcing they’re saviors. History matters if you want the credit for getting where we are today

  21. While I agree that racism and other forms of bigotry are often exploited and even cynically incited by the ruling class, IMO racism is not economic at its heart. It’s biological-tribalist, part of human programming to reject the “other”, whether the other looks differently, talks differently, has different beliefs, or behaves differently.

    Now it’s certainly true that some of the most important expressions of racism are economic and legal and that an economic/legal system which is designed to eliminate inequality will also tend to militate against racist expression. So that’s all well and good, but the idea that racism actually arises from class inequality doesn’t ring true to me.

  22. Miramon, please read at least one of the pieces I mentioned above. Tribalism is based on things like speech and belief, not skin color. There’s a reason the story of the tower of Babel is not about skin color. It’s about why the Greeks called outsiders “barbarians”–their speech sounded like bar-bar-bar to them. Yes, humans are very tribal, as identitarian outrage illustrates: they hate people who are not part of their tribe. This difference is essential: you can join a tribe, but you can’t join a race.

  23. Miramon: As I said in the OP, if you believe racism is “biological-tribalist” you need to explain the generally warm and friendly way the Europeans were welcomed to this continent by the American Indians.

  24. “The belief that identitarians are only focused on call-out culture and not material change is also a gross oversimplification. On the internet, especially, of course the confrontational and outspoken nature of call-out culture is by far the most visible effect, and that’s unfortunate, not least because the call-out is a sloppy weapon that leads easily to exaggeration, vilification, and frankly a lot of toxic behavior that many people of many ideologies, including the ones that gave it birth, deplore. (There’s all kinds of writing to support this – google ‘toxic call-out culture’ and you will see countless feminists and antiracists decrying it)”


    I haven’t seen that the people who do call-out culture online are the same ones I meet in person. Activists I meet in person are usually respectful to alien points of view.

    “Yes, I see where you’re coming from, and see how what I believe is not *that* much different….”

    Looking at the behavior it seems like it’s two entirely different people who share some vocabulary.

    When I saw ‘toxic call-out culture’ I was calling it ‘Social Justice Warriors’ because they tended to call themselves that. It looked like a horrible imitation of the people who were actually trying to do good.

    And they talked like they believed in their cause. As if they actually believed that the people they antagonized would be ashamed of themselves and would stop being themselves and become fellow SJWs, and that this would improve the world.

    “we Pseudo-Leftists do a lot of fieldwork, gathering groups of people to lobby for better legislative protections, to make visible protests against racist expressions of violence, to tear down Confederate flags outside of statehouses, to build a sense of community and unity which can be used as a tool in any practical battle for rights.”

    I’m undecided how much of this helps and how much of it hurts. In the long run, we need a consensus. We end racist violence when there is a consensus among the multiple cultures who coexist here that racial violence is wrong.

    It makes some sense that they will stop fighting you when you are strong enough to beat them. There’s a certain truth to the idea that white people only respect force, and will only treat blacks as equal when they are equally armed and dangerous. And it’s kind of true that men only respect force, and will not really respect women until women kill enough of them for lack of respect. And of course white men….

    But they didn’t decide on that just out of meanness. They learned that only force matters from their enemies. And their enemies learned it from previous enemies. If you let them teach it to you, who are you going to pass it on to?

    In the long run, you need to persuade these people not to be your enemy. Getting strong and threatening might be an important step toward that, or maybe not. Tearing down people’s flags doesn’t build community with them. It builds community against them.

    “… to build a sense of community and unity which can be used as a tool in any practical battle for rights.”

    Of course, practical politics says you need to build a strong community against the bad guys so you can win the practical battle. Maybe I’m being impractical trying to think about the long run.

    So anyway, call-out culture says when you find an excuse to think of somebody as the enemy, you make sure he knows he’s the enemy. If you drive him away, that’s a success. If he strenuously apologizes and does lots of self-criticism, that’s an even bigger victory. It builds community among your group, by increasing the number of people your group considers less-than-human.

    I thought it was Social Justice Warriors doing that. But now I see that instead it’s Call Out Culture warriors. So when I call them out for it, and tell them they are the enemy and explain to them that they are less-than-human, I will call them COCs and not SJWs.

    Thank you, I’ve learned something today.

  25. The thing is – J, Will – that there isn’t always a clear distinction. There’s a continuum. There’s generational divides, newcomers, converts, apostates… there’s no SJW monolith, no call-out monolith, no identitarian or idealist dogma which governs all. Some smaller groups embrace a single dogmatic approach, some start with one position and wind up with another – the distinctions are not, well, distinct. Man in his time plays many parts.

  26. “… there’s no SJW monolith, no call-out monolith, no identitarian or idealist dogma which governs all.”

    Sure, and there’s no racist monolith or sexist monolith or ruling class monolith.

    But when on a particular blog people pretend to be a call-out monolith, I’ll call it like I see it.

  27. Oh, Hell, absolutely! I meant more in terms of the question of whether these are or are not the same people and groups. Many civil rights activists became identitarians, many did not. Many Social Justice Warriors (a label that was originally external and pejorative, until SJWs went “isn’t this something to be proud of? isn’t social justice a *worthy* goal?”) engage in Call-Out Culture, many do not. Some call-out specialists are not SJWs. There’s no clearly defined non-overlapping group membership to any of these labels that may or may not overlap with others.

    But by *all* means, when you see people focused on shaming and ostracizing others, not on unifying for positive action, I encourage you to let them know they’re full of it.

  28. Matt, full agreement that humans exist on a spectrum, but it’s often easy to place them on that spectrum based on their deeds. I do believe that #NotAllIdentitarians are SJWs in the way the internet uses the term–identitarians who dox and bully and issue death threats because they think that’s the way to make a better world.

    Hmm. I wish I could believe all of those people were police provocateurs.

  29. Will, even among self-labeled SJWs, the majority revile doxing and death threats. I understand that this had not been your personal experience, and I’m sorry that it’s that vocal minority you’ve been exposed to.

  30. Matt, I wish I’d waited before posting my previous comment, because your response to J Thomas is a lovely place to end this discussion.

    ETA: I just saw your comment to me. Thank you.

  31. There were numerous incidents of massacres in early America in which settlers were killed by natives. It’s possible some of these were provoked by the settlers themselves, but it’s hard to imagine this was universal.

    Anyway, it’s certainly the case that racism and similar forms of bigotry long predate capitalism and indeed the invention of money. I believe the majority of prehistoric human remains for which cause of death can be determined appear to be murder victims, presumably the victims of inter-tribal conflict. Such behavior can be seen in many other species apart from humans, including dolphins and chimpanzees. In particular the common bottlenosed dolphin is well known for slaughtering populations of other dolphins who of course are not prey species.

    IMO to deny the effects of biology on modern human behavior is to reject evolution and our obvious status as animals. To deny the effects of economics on human behavior is equally foolish, of course, but I don’t believe anyone in the current discussion is doing that.

  32. Miramon, okay, please offer some examples of racism before slavery. (The standard socialist take on this comes from Eric Williams’ observation, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”)

    And honest, racism is not tribalism. Well, unless you think Rachel Dolezal is right, and we can join any race we want to.

  33. I think most warfare – and that’s what the native Americans were engaged in (we would do the same thing if our land was invaded) – can appear to be racist without actually being racist by our modern definition.

  34. Heck, I think the reason this is so confusing is we have dueling modern definitions of race. Sometimes I think the identitarian definition is a reversion to the pre-1680s definition (a group that can be of people or things, including wine), but then I see them rage at Rachel Dolezal and conclude it’s something else.

  35. Examples of racism before slavery? Do you mean American slavery only? Slavery has existed throughout history. Of course I can’t give examples of racism in prehistory, but there’s no reason to suppose it didn’t exist then. However prior to the development of sufficient civilization to enable something along the lines of national groupings and reasonably distant travel and trade I suppose there wasn’t nearly as much racism due to relatively rarer encounters between people of different races (whatever “race” means anyway.)

    But if you mean in classical times, the notion of “barbarian”, though technically based on language differences, appears to me to be essentially racist in character, and was often used to justify conquest and war. For some other random examples, the Japanese certainly adopted a racist stance with respect to the Ainu, who exhibited clear physical differences that Japanese writers considered ugly and indicative of barbarism. And surely Caesar’s writing about the Celts is essentially racist as well?

    Of course I agree the very words race and racist are vague and based on all kinds of historical bugaboos and scientific and social misapprehensions. So in many cases you can certainly argue that racism is a mere veil over some other form of bigotry or oppression that is more essential. But for the sake of the discussion let us just characterize it as negative attitudes towards people who appear to be physically different from our own group, whether it’s a tribe or a nation or whatever, and I think that is quite common throughout history.

  36. Howard, warfare among the peoples of the North American Great Plains was very much economically motivated. They warred like nation-states, for possession of property, control of territory, and expansion of influence. That many conflicts involved taking captives who were then incorporated into the tribe through marriage or indoctrination indicates pretty clearly that the forces at work didn’t operate or look like modern racism.

    When those same people engaged in warfare with white invaders, their approach was very similar to making war on other Native Americans: they attacked and killed the warriors, and often took women and children captive, to incorporate them into the tribe. The incorporation of adult women was less successful with European-Americans than with Native American captives, but I suspect that was less about Native American racism and more about the increased cultural differences between the captors and the captives. (Okay, and it can’t have helped that the white women had been told for most of their lives that the people they now needed to live among were bloodthirsty savages.)

  37. Miramon, sorry for the shorthand. First slavery had nothing to do with race. Then the African slave trade developed, and racism followed the restriction of slavery to black people.

    Physical appearance was noted in the past, but it was only one marker of many, a hint that someone might be of another culture. We don’t know the races of a number of historical figures because their race wasn’t important when they lived. Was, for example, the playwright Terence black? From all that’s written about him, we can say conclusively, “Could be.”

  38. “Some call-out specialists are not SJWs. There’s no clearly defined non-overlapping group membership to any of these labels that may or may not overlap with others.”

    Sure. Some call-out specialists are trolls. They talk about their credentials, the times they’ve been clubbed and tear-gassed and threatened and maybe raped or almost-raped, all the things that give them the right to say what’s true and what’s bullshit. But there’s mostly no verifying it.

    In my experience they mostly claim to be SJWs, but that might be because I mostly get thrown off of the blogs where their conservative opposite numbers would be hanging out, before I have time to interact with them.

    Anyway, it isn’t my business who they overlap with. The point is what they’re doing in the context where they show up, and not what they do in their secret identities.

  39. Matt: Thank you again for engaging on this in such a thoughtful way. You say, “The belief that racism is “innate” is a belief that racism is a part of our society which is ingrained in us the same way all our other kneejerk assumptions are, when we’re too young to critically analyze our environments.”

    It certainly is part of our society, and, yes, indeed, has taken on a life it’s own–I do not dispute that. But the commentor explicitly denied the the source of racism is economic. Do you agree, disagree, or believe it doesn’t matter? I believe that racism has its source in actual, material, real-world benefits–both those gained by the ruling class, and those gained by the upper middle class. To attempt to combat racism without dealing with the benefits it bestows to the elite seems like trying to put out a fire with watering can without stopping the fellow who keeps spraying gasoline on it with a garden hose.

    “You cannot claim to lead and speak for the masses and then not actually make common cause with them.”

    This is the most significant part of your comment, and reveals a method that I believe is extrememly dangerous. What does “common cause” mean, exactly? Being concerned with issues that affect and concern them? But of course. But “being concerned” doesn’t do a whole lot–the question is always, what is to be done? If a friend is about to walk off a cliff, it is my duty as a friend to save him–or at least warn him. The claim that, as a friend, I should walk with him is worse than spurious, it is a betrayal. By attempting to line the working class up behind a middle class program, you advocate leaving them defenseless. It is my belief that if the working class does not organize independantly of the parties of big business we face catastrophic results. The idealist method leads us, in my opinion, in exactly the wrong direction.

  40. WIll, I completely agree that modern attitudes toward racism (especially in the US) have been shaped extensively by the Atlantic slave trade and the economic implications and consequences of it.

    However I continue to believe that anti-other attitudes are programmed into us biologically, and that it has always been easier to believe people to be enemies who are obviously different from us. And one of the most obvious differences is in physical appearance.

  41. I believe that there is a strong economic/material/class *component* to racism, and that it should be fought. I do not believe the ultimate root of racism, nor the only way to make a difference against it, is through a class-focused approach. I also believe that every active part of the current movements I have seen is aware of this, and conscious of taking an intersectional approach. It seems much more common for the socialist argument to be focused on only one angle of attack, and while it might be functional, it is also sufficiently alienating in its tone and rhetoric to undercut its effectiveness – in other words, even if the intersectional approach is in fact tackling many symptoms or superfluous issues in addition to the good it does, and thus diluting its power (which I do not concede, but is certainly possible), I believe it is still doing more good than the materialist approach, because it does better at gathering people with different-but-related ideologies to work for common cause.

    As for the rest: I see what you mean. I accept that we are both people of goodwill who wish to do the best we can by the working class. But I don’t think the cliff is there – I think we’re *both* on slippery slopes full of unproven but deeply felt assertions, with both supportive and contrary evidence. In navigating those slopes, I think we do better arm in arm than going our separate ways. And I think it makes more sense for the outliers to join the larger group than the other way around, perhaps even if the outlier has a clearer view, because whether the goal is reform or revolution, it comes through group effort. If I agreed that one way was straight and solid, and the other was the cliff, then yes, I’d agree that to walk with your friend rather than warn him would be a betrayal. But as I believe we’re all walking on loose gravel on a steep incline, I still have to go with safety in numbers.

    This metaphor may have gotten away from me a bit, but I think what I’m staying is still clear?

  42. Miramon, just call that tribalism, and we can agree.

    Another historical data point: In Galatians, Paul never mentions skin color when he explains how the traditional divisions of humanity—tribe, class, and gender—are irrelevant: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one.”

  43. Yes, it is clear. I think you’re wrong, but I also think we’ve taken this as far as it can usefully go. Thanks for the comment.

  44. Agreed. Thank you for a thoughtful and civil discussion – I’d rather disagree with you than agree with many other people, :-). Same goes for everyone in this thread.

  45. @Miramon “There were numerous incidents of massacres in early America in which settlers were killed by natives. It’s possible some of these were provoked by the settlers themselves, but it’s hard to imagine this was universal.”

    The way I understand it, it used to be in the scottish highlands that young men would raid nearby villages for girls to take home and possibly marry. A young man might bring a bunch of his friends with him, and after the kidnapping the woman might possibly be given a free choice whether to marry or not, and possibly if she said no they might all rape her and then let her walk home. There’s a certain variation in interpretation possible, and likely a lot of variation in practice. How often was it a kidnapping versus eloping?

    Some native americans did the same thing.

    And the kids would stage ambushes too. Sneak up, shoot a few arrows, sneak away. It’s how they trained for things like being at war. Kids do that kind of thing if they aren’t prevented.

    The first english colonists at Jamestown had some of that. A friendly native american “king” told them to set up a palisade, and keep the grass mowed for a couple bowshot’s length around it. That mostly reduced the problem.

    That was just the normal state of affairs. Beyond that, the english settlers kept crowding people. You have to expect a few massacres with that sort of thing. They kept taking more land, and it’s only natural that sometimes people would push back.

  46. Say there are two different populations living in close quarters, with obvious racial differences.

    If they practiced random mating, those differences would randomize in a few generations. You would have a population with varying physical characters. Brazil does not do that but they have come much closer than other western hemisphere populations. America/Canada have done pretty well among whites. Nobody makes a big deal of it when somebody who’s “racially” Irish marries somebody who’s “racially” Italian.

    So OK, we don’t practice random mating. But the nonrandomness tends not to be along racial or ethnic lines particularly, except when they keep a lot of social separation. I think today it’s more by economic class. Middle class people tend not to marry lower class. Etc. People who go to college tend not to marry people who don’t. People who go to prestigious universities tend not to marry people who went to community college.

    The word “slave” in english comes from “Slav”, right? If you’re a viking selling slaves, doesn’t it make sense to sell slavs in england and english slaves somewhere distant?

    I can imagine that people might have inbuilt habits to restrict outbreeding. That’s important to control meiotic drive. But the proper population size to restrict outbreeding within is probably around 10,000, right? What we think of as racism would be utterly useless for that.

    To me it looks all mixed up. People tend not to marry people from other classes. Sometimes ethnic groups tend to get restricted to one class. It’s easier to keep slaves if they are racially distinct and take awhile to learn the language. (Like slavs in england.) Then they’re slave class. The small upper class may feel they benefit from frictions and general disunity among and within classes below them.

    It goes every which way. I say we are better off by encouraging everybody to get along. We’re all in it together, we want something that’s generally fair and good for everyone. Anybody that we declare is the enemy, is likely to become a worse enemy.

  47. Came across this quote by Barbara Fields in a recent Jacobin article:

    Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations — as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.

    No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analyzing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.

  48. Color is an easy way to quickly determine “race”. Accent is another way – when referring to the Irish race, or the French race. And certainly clothing can do it, whether it a yarmulke or a hoodie or a keffiyeh.

    When a “race” minimizes these differences, dressing like locals – or speaking with a “white” accent, someone can even be elected president of the United States.

  49. What is a “white” accent? Does anyone’s social standing improve by talking in any of the many dialects associated with “white trash”?

  50. It’s an accent that the white racist doesn’t notice as being “other”. Actually most of us do some accent adjustments – we talk differently at work than we do with some of our buddies. I remember a boss (who is now Bill Gates’ sister-in-law), phoning her mother in Plano, and talking with a Texan accent I never heard her use before. Someone who lives in a ghetto can find it useful to be able to switch accents depending on who he is with.

  51. “It’s an accent that the white racist doesn’t notice as being “other”. Quoted for excellence.

    I was thinking about the ways Americans use race to describe class, and “talking white” is one: it invariably means using a region’s middle or upper-class accent.

  52. Jonas: Yeah, I came across that quote, I think in one of Will’s blogs, or something he linked to. It is spot-on.

  53. Miramon: I am white, from a working class background, and live and was raised in south Louisiana – an area that has a fairly distinct culture by modern American standards. Unfortunately, I know many people with a similar background who will claim that they have more in common with a white non-English (or French) speaking European, or a white billionaire from New England than they do with a black person who was born and raised in this area, has a similar education, and works a similar job. And they will not realize how crazy that sounds.

    Racism has taught people that skin tone (which, by the way, is not the only or even the most easily visible physical difference people have) is the “most obvious” difference. The effect of racism is to obscure the *real* differences in culture and lifestyle, to the benefit of the elite. It is like racism actually has the opposite purpose of tribalism in many ways.

  54. Alex: “It is like racism actually has the opposite purpose of tribalism in many ways.” I’d never put it together that way. You’re right. Well said.

  55. I don’t say that racism is identical to tribalism. But IMO racism like other forms of bigotry emerges from the tribal urge to reject the other which is programmed into us as primates, and which some societies foster, while others perhaps wiser or more fortunate suppress.

    As only modestly intelligent beings who are also programmed by parents, teachers, friends, media, and occasionally if we’re lucky by our own rational decisions, it shouldn’t be surprising that our various forms of perverse and self-destructive anti-social behavior have little basis in logic or even in common sense.

    So it may be illogical for some white Louisianan to claim closer social alignment with a white New Yorker or even with a white Parisian than with a black peer from the same town or county who speaks the same dialect and is familiar with the same cultural referents. But the reason for the illogic has to do with the tribe to which they want to belong.

    I think this is why we see so many poor white voters in the US voting for leaders whose stated policies will reduce their status and deprive them not only of liberty and equality, but also of wealth. Because the voters would like to be in the tribe of the rich, which they have been programmed to associate with such foolish superficial qualities as skin color.

  56. Someone must be voting for the GOP in the red states, Will. And the 1% or even the 10% aren’t enough to swing the polls.

  57. Miramon, Krugman agrees. But the poor still tend to vote blue, as the studies he cites show. It’s always the goddamn middle class that thinks its interests are with the upper class.

  58. A question pertaining to one of your statements: “Behind the idea, always look for the conditions that produced it. This, by the way, applies to the materialist method itself…”
    Would the conditions that produce materialism be a person need/desire to show himself better than others?

  59. Jamie: No, you’re thinking of Christianity.:P Materialism is a product of, simply, having more knowledge about the world. It is true, as Miramon says above, the some of the Greeks in a limited fashioned moved toward materialism, but the level of understanding of the natural world was too limited. The more we learn about matter, the more we are able to understand it as primary to thought, and, indeed, to understand thought as one form of matter.

  60. Wasn’t me who said it. But yeah, it’s unfortunate that the Greek philosophers who had the most influence on future thought were anti-materialists. Of course there were many respectable Greek protoscientists who did excellent work considering the negligible basis they had to start with, but their voices were mostly drowned out by Platonism. And so we had a thousand years of Europeans just assuming Aristotle knew what he was talking about with respect to the natural world. Fortunately some Arab scientists (along with a few Europeans who picked up on their results) decided to actually do some experimental work during the period prior to the Renaissance.

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