Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Ever since the ancient Athenians, the debasement of language has been a sign of political corruption. Describing the horrors of civil war in Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides linked them to the corruption of language: “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” Twenty-three hundred years later, George Orwell concurred: “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” It was Orwell who also saw this corruption as the tool of totalitarianism, one necessary to perfume the mountains of corpses left in communism’s wake. For the tyrannical, words are not communicators of meaning but goads of emotion that replace thought with incitement.
The progressives’ current hysterical hatred of Donald Trump has taken this corruption of words, long a feature of their whole political and social agenda, to new levels of “passionate intensity.” And no word is more meaningless and useful for stirring up partisan passions than “racism.”
Racism is a peculiarly modern idea. Its modern form developed from Darwinian evolution and its notion of “fitness,” traits and physical structures that contribute to survival. As with much of modernity, this idea is a category error: it applies to human beings the explanations for differences that are more suited to animals. It depends as well on gross simplifications of what people are––not unique minds, but similar bodies. Finally, it ignores culture, the true source of inequality and difference: customs, mores, social habits, political institutions, religion, history, geography, and traditions.
To say that someone is “racist,” then, properly understood is to accuse him of believing that every member of one race is by nature superior to every member of another race. To admit even one exception is to explode the whole implausible theory, for an exception suggests that something other than immutable physical characteristics contributes to what a person is. The early 4thcentury B.C. Athenian orator Isocrates expressed this repudiation of racialist definitions of people in one of his orations. “The name ‘Greek,’” he said, is “not a race, but a mentality,” and applies to “those who share our culture rather than to those who share a common blood.” Even the racist expression “a credit to his race” is a confession that how people live, and what actions, virtues, principles, and morals they individually possess, are more important for understanding and judging people than how they look.
Darwinian “scientific” racism was popular with the progressive movement and its belief in “human sciences” that could develop techniques for improving a society. Eugenics was applied scientific racism: the inferior “races” comprised a hierarchy with the Anglo-Nordic and Germanic “races” at the top, superior to the Slavs, Poles, Armenians, Chinese, and southern Italians who Woodrow Wilson in A History of the American People argued had “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence” necessary in an enlightened, scientifically advanced society. They were “beaten men from beaten races” MIT President Francis Amasa Walker earlier had written for Atlantic Monthly, possessing “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government.”
Modern racism flourished in the first half of the 20thcentury because it was deemed a “science” and thus superior to the beliefs of religion or tradition, an assumption still a hallmark of progressive ideology today. Indeed, like climate change, back then “Scientific racism” and the eugenics it spawned were considered “settled science,” and “eugenic ideas were politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream,” as Thomas C. Leonard writes. “The elite sprinkled their conversations with eugenic concerns to signal their au courant high-mindedness.” It took the Holocaust to make graphic the wages of dehumanizing one’s fellow human beings. It was the gruesome but logical culmination of the idea expressed by Charles Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin, who said, “We know enough about eugenics so that if that knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation.”
The Civil Rights Movement was the other historical event that helped discredit racism. The delegitimizing of segregation and Jim Crow laws slowly anathematized at least public expressions of racial bigotry, as the older generations who had grown up with racist thinking slowly died off. The stage was set for lessening the influence of old racist ideas in government and law, and removing with the Civil Rights Act the legal impediments to black and minority advancement.
But the rise of multicultural identity politics in the sixties compromised this process. Identity became founded on grievance about historical wrongs, which were leveraged for social and political advantages denied to those deemed the “oppressors” perpetrating injustices: Caucasians, further specified as straight white males as more identity groups like women and homosexuals joined the conga-line of victimhood. At that moment of one faction’s political aggrandizement of political power, “racism” became the favorite question-begging epithet for smearing an enemy, for it summoned up lurid images from America’s benighted past: from lynchings, pogroms, and night-riders, to segregated schools, buses, and lunch counters.
So now racism no longer means the old belief in innate superiority, but any belief or opinion or behavior that challenges the tenets of identity politics and progressive ideology. Human and political rights are no longer “unalienable,” as the Declaration of Independence has it. They can now be ignored or violated as long as the perpetrators belong to the oppressor “race,” immutably tainted with historical crimes, just as blacks once were by skin color and hair texture. And the white oppressor does not have to be personally guilty of any racialist act or crime, no more than an average black did, who often was lynched or beaten simply for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Finally, this updated version of original sin was buttressed by pseudo-scientific ideas like “disparate impact” or “institutional racism” or “unconscious bias,” which transferred the agents of racism from individuals to impersonal institutions, or from freely chosen conscious acts, to the subconscious where repressed evil urges lurk and pull the strings of our behavior. Once again, the individual’s agency, unique mind, and responsibility for his actions were swallowed up in a vague, crude stereotype like “white privilege.” “Racism” became the shorthand for this whole mélange of junk-science, bigotry, and political expediency.
But as Thucydides and Orwell both knew, the degradation of the word’s meaning is directly proportional to its usefulness as a political tool. Multiculturalism and identity politics are about power, the ultimate prize in the competition for factional influence. The left that once fought against racism discovered that it was too useful to let disappear. Clients comprising voting blocs defined by a spurious “identity” predicated on victimhood and recycled stereotypes can be united by their common grievance against the white oppressor, and by the promise of fiscal and social benefits through redistributive policies. The election of Barack Obama seemingly demonstrated the success of this strategy.
And it is no coincidence that identity politics is compatible with the centralized, concentrated, technopolitics of progressivism. The federal government and its policies have been the instrument of forcing multiculturalism on the whole country, from laws and policies to school curricula and popular culture. It has also weakened the balance of power among government institutions, and between the states and the feds, that hinders the aggrandizement of power necessary for dominating the whole nation. Rather than the factional competition that Madison considered the bulwark of political freedom, we have one faction that has colonized not just the government, but popular culture, the media, and the schools.
Indeed, it is the extent of identity politics domination, made obvious during the eight disastrous years of Obama’s presidency, that made Donald Trump possible. He scorned the niceties of the bipartisan elite that accepts the invidious narrative of identity politics, and coarsely exposed its hypocrisies and internal contradictions. He showed for all to see the Democrats’ allegiance to gaining and keeping power by any and every means possible, including the corruption of federal agencies like the FBI and DOJ. And his continuous barrage of insults has goaded them into making even more obvious their ignorance, arrogance, juvenility, and unbridled lust for power.
The rest of us, however, need to reject the use of politicized words like “racism.” Calling an air-head like Sarah Jeong, who was just put on the New York Times editorial board, a racist for her tweets against white males is validating the race industry's distortion of that word. I doubt Jeong believes each and every white person is inferior to each and every member of other races. After all, she exists in the mostly white redoubt of American privilege, enjoying its high status and income, and socializing with her similarly privileged white colleagues, from whose opinions and tastes she is indistinguishable. Her childish tweets are mere pranks for her similarly childish progressive cohorts. They are bigoted, but not “racist” properly understood.
By all means, scorn and ridicule Jeong, point out the hypocrisy and the semantic emptiness of her language, excoriate the Times’ double standard, and dismantle the specious arguments behind her opinions. Attack her degraded ideas, but don’t attack her person by misusing the same word she and her ilk have drained of meaning. The defense of precise language is part of the defense of our political principles.