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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, February 01, 2008

the new racist

Yesterday I talked about reading Sven Lindqvist's book "Exterminate All the Brutes", which I continue to enjoy very much.

After writing my post, during the day, I came to a realization. Something in Lindqvist's book has caused me to look at things in a new way. The specific event was this: I discovered my own definition of the word racist: "someone who believes in the existence of races".

This was a further step in a series that was launched during my investigation into the thematic ideas of my story--specifically the idea of identity.

Before I started that research, I took it for granted that races were real--that something called race actually exists in nature. What could be more obvious? There are groups of dark-skinned people, and groups of light-skinned people, and groups of people sharing similarly formed eyes and hair-texture. They're strikingly different from each other.

Three things budged me off my conviction (which I held quite strongly) that races exist:

  1. Reading about the discovery that all human beings currently on Earth are descended from a single woman--a literal Eve

  2. Reading in Scientific American and other places that no clear genetic basis for race has been found--nor is it likely to be

  3. Reading the book Us and Them by David Berreby, in which Berreby shows that race is a mental category created, like any mental category, to fulfill a purpose. And in the case of race, that purpose has always been to rationalize unjust treatment of others

Plus there are the obvious holes caused by the simple fact that people of different "races" can have children together--who then belong to which race? They have to choose one, like Barack Obama!

Those things pushed me away from the belief that there is such a thing in reality as race. I still assumed that the idea of race was a useful tag for certain purposes, and certainly it's a widespread notion.

Yesterday that notion too dropped away for me. Lindqvist in his book documents the long debate that existed in the European scientific community of the 19th century in which anthropologists wrestled with the question of why contact with Europeans led to the extermination of native populations everywhere: Australia, Africa, the Americas. The consensus came to be that it was "natural selection": that the strong "races" were killing off the weak--a natural and inevitable process.

Lindqvist's key point is that genocide, blame for which is now customarily laid at the feet of the Germans under Hitler because of the Holocaust, was actually already a firmly established process, if not policy, of colonialism, starting, he maintains, with Spain's colonization of the Canary Islands in 1478. The indigenous people were wiped out, every last one of them, in what was to be the type case for colonization.

In short, Hitler did not by any means "invent" genocide. Rather, he was jumping belatedly on a bandwagon that had already been rolling for hundreds of years. What made it shocking to Europeans was that it was carried out right in Europe, and not far out of sight and out of mind in the remote wilderness of other continents. The Jewish "race" could be identified, isolated, branded "inferior", and selected for extermination. The "Slavs" were also an inferior race--and likewise slated for destruction, so that their farmland could be taken over for the benefit of the master race.

Berreby shows in his book that our "tribal mind"--the part of us that divides the world into them and us--is very deep-seated, and not really liable to simple reprogramming by conscious decision. It seems to be more automatic, more visceral. But nonetheless, it's not supported by either facts or logic, and still less by the idea of justice. We put people into races when we want to control them or exploit them.

In Bernard Knox's excellent introduction to the Iliad, he refers to the writer Simone Weil's characterization of the Iliad as the poem par excellence about force as the center of human history. And Weil defined force thus: "force is what makes the person subjected to it into a thing."

The concept of race helps turn people into things. And things we can push around, move, destroy, and dispose of as we choose.

So I intend to stick to my new realization: there is no such thing as race, and anyone who believes that there is, is, by my definition, a racist.

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