Recognising racism (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Back in 2004, I wrote that

There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist.

This was one side of an unspoken agreement among mainstream politicians, the other being that no one would ever make a statement that was overtly and undeniably racist (this was the central content of “political correctness” in its normal usage). Both the use of overtly racist language and the use of the term “racist” in political debate put the speaker outside the Overton Window. The official debate was undertaken in terms of “dog whistle” coded appeals to racism on one side and euphemisms such as “prejudiced” or “racially charged” on the other. The peace was maintained by the fact that the political class as a whole shared a broad neoliberal[^1] consensus in which marginal differences over economic issues were central, and where social/racial issues were primarily seen as a way of motivating the base to vote the right way.

With the rapid rise of tribalism on the political right this tacit agreement is breaking down.

While tribalism (roughly, an identity politics of solidarity with “people like us”) need not, in principle, imply support for racism (I plan more on this soon), the distinction is a fine one, and has broken down completely in practice. There are at least two reasons for this:
* Political tribalism throws up demagogic leaders like Trump, Farage, and (in Australia) Pauline Hanson, whose appeal relies, in large measure on their rejection of political correctness, that is, on their willingness to appeal openly to racism.
* The centrality of migration to current political debate, inevitably bringing race issues to the forefront.

For the same reasons, it seems clear that overt racism is going to be a significant part of politics for the foreseeable future. Individual demagogues like Trump may (or may not) flame out, but the existence of a large base of support for overtly racist policies and politicians is now evident to all, and the agreement that kept this base from having its views expressed in mainstream politics has now broken down.

In response to this it’s necessary to recognise racism as a substantial, if deplorable, political tendency. First, and most obviously, that means abandoning euphemisms, explicitly naming racism and, even more, naming people like Trump and Hanson as racists.

More importantly, identification of policies, parties and politicians as racist needs to be the start of the analysis, not the end. It’s important to recognise that there are different strands of racism, often intertwined in the same political groups, and to distinguish their approaches and potential appeal. To give just a few examples, there’s
* “Scientific” racism epitomized, in the modern period, by The Bell Curve
* “anti-PC” racists, focused on the demand for consequence-free expressions of racist sentiments
* “separate but equal” segregationists, overlapping with
* supporters of racist immigration policies

Even more importantly, it’s important to take racist arguments seriously and respond to them, rather than regarding the fact that they are racist as putting them beyond the pale of serious discussion. As with climate science denial, we might wish that to be the case but it isn’t. On the other hand, also as with climate science denial, there’s no value in engaging with racists.

The problem is to discuss the issue in a way that influences those who can be persuaded, both on the merits of specific issues and on the need to dissociate themselves from racists. That includes people who might be sympathetic to some racist arguments such as “foreigners are stealing our jobs”, but are also open to an explanation of how neoliberalism hurts workers. Again as with climate science denial it also includes professional centrists in politics and the media who need to be pushed out of their preferred position of evenhanded superiority.

There’s lots more to be said on this, and doubtless it will be said in comments, so I’ll leave it at that.

[^1]: As usual, I’m relying on the “three-party analysis” of contemporary politics I put forward here.

93 thoughts on “Recognising racism (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. This thread has turned into chatting over the back fence. Nothing wrong with that. I have contributed in that vein myself. But it is off-topic. Now, has someone created a blog called “Over the Back Fence”? I bet they have. Must have.

  2. @Ikonoclast

    However, I have answered the question for myself. I think I would cope by radically simplifying my life at home (minimalism it’s called) and taking up some new interests which brought me into more contact with other people.

    What a wonderful list… Penelope Keith and the Good Life this definitely demands deconstruction:

    1. You want to not have an oven or a fridge and washing machine….but you want a car!? Time to do some LCA maybe.
    2. What happenned to heating, plumbing and insulation and all the stuff inbuilt into this new house? And power – even solar PV and solar hot water need to be on the wish list? Or do you plan a bush shower from Ray’s outdoors (bucket of 10L is feasable but you need to heat the water).
    3. 600 m2!? Where are you? They seldom sell blocks that big these days.
    4. Your dream house sounds like ours……about 100 m2…..leaving 500 m2 for veggies etc. but you dont discuss (the limits of) self-sufficiency, nutrient cycling etc. necessary for it to be sustainable.
    5. What about the water cycle…..composting loo? rainwater? (needs a big tank for sustainability). Good luck with council. And rubbish/waste. Backyard constructed wetlands? (Do a nutrient balance first here as well).
    6. “take advantage of their meals as prices are a bit subsidised by the drinkers and gamblers” Have you been to a club lately? They are all gentrifying.
    7. Council/state infrastructure especially roads which like it or not you own and need directly or indirectly especially for the car?
    8. Coolgardie safe…remind me not to drink your milk during summer especially if its raw/natural

    Dont get me wrong Ikon. I sympathise and you are part right in principle. Certainly we can live more simply that others might simply live and share this country on much much less per capita …..(bringing it back to the primary topic of racism borne of illusions of people who will never think they have enough).

    But how to get to Ecotopia without being a masochist is the question…..and convincing the rest who see McMansions as something to aspire to? The hippies of the past found how little you can survive on. But was it sustainable?

    Consider some full blown efforts in this direction which illustrate the complications like 1) 2) and 3) . Leaving Ted Trainer aside

    no. 2) is interesting for all the high tech inputs to permaculture which are illustrated or implied…..there are windmills and water tanks implying high tech electrical systems, probably batteries for storage, house wiring etc…..and a plastic industry to make the tanks and trucks to transport them. Then there is the wood fire/stove. Needs steel and glass industries and these even when efficient will churn through woodlots in a way a city could never sustain.
    as to no. 3) the legendary CAT. I visited the place a few months back. Surficially it was similar in aims to when it commenced 35 years ago. But their oral history revealed the collapse of the original green/anarchism dream and the rise of managerialism as a result of the books not balancing.

    So regarding your final conclusion

    It would be easy to live simply and economically.

    While it sounds simple and looks surficially possible its not quite that easy in reality/as an alternative to thecurrent industrial system. And for the whole of society to do it will require sometime akin to a revolution in human civilization.

  3. @Julie Thomas
    Your #75

    I had a quick look at the Centrelink site and the Disability Pension didn’t seem to be quite the same as the Aged Pension, but maybe I just didn’t look carefully enough.

    Marie Antoinette is mythically supposed to have recommended not cake, but brioche.

  4. @Newtownian

    The minimalism I was suggesting was more about selfishly simplifying my life if living alone and not about saving the planet. Perhaps it should have been about the latter more. However, your criticisms imply a completely unrealistic approach to sustainability. It would only work (maybe) if the global population went back to about 1 billion and we went back to an 18th C lifestyle. Are you volunteering to be one of the six billion to die off? That actually all might happen if we have seriously overshot limits. In the meantime, realistically, we need to plateau populations, switch progressively to renewables and seek a soft landing not a hard landing. We need to do all this while realising that 3.5 billion people cannot move back to the country, backyard veggie gardens cannot feed 3.5 billion people in cities and composting toilets in cities would be a worse ground and water table pollution crisis many times over compared to a properly run mass sewerage system. Not saying our current systems do the right thing environmentally though.

    However, re the deconstruction.

    1. I would have an oven as it would probably come with the house as standard. I simply wouldn’t use it. I hate cleaning ovens and a pyrolytic one would chew power. When I could bicycle to the supermarket each day via short bush tracks (easy where I would live in the scenario) I wouldn’t need a fridge, maybe,. I would have a washing machine and use it. I would have a car while I could still drive. It might be a small electric car.

    2.I live in Queensland m8, so no need for heating. Solar hot water and solar panels would do for hot water and power. I have them now. I would buy an existing house, not build anew. Plumbing and insulation and all the stuff inbuilt into the house? Already there, mate. Anyway, passive design requires insulation for example. Are you implying insulation is bad even when it saves energy use above energy cost of manufacture, transport and installation?

    3. Fringe of Brisbane. I currently live on 6,000 sq m so 600 sq m would seem quite modest. Not sure I want to be that close to other non-family people but that’s just a personal choice. I’m a misanthrope.

    4. Veggie gardening individually is highly inefficient. If 7 billion people lived like that… well half of them would die.

    5. What about the water cycle…..composting loo? rainwater? Again, not realistic since over 3.5 billion people already live in cities.

    6. I haven’t been to a club or pub for yonks. I imagine I could buy a meal there and get a glass of water or juice. I’ve boycotted them for 30 years. It didn’t stop them. It ain’t my fault they exist mate. If the average person had boycotted them as I did, they would have all gone broke long ago.

    7. If 3.5 billion plus city dwellers can’t go back to cottage sustainability living what use would my tokenistic effort be? Sustainability needs to be envisaged realistically from our current situation, which means maintaining sustainable cities and centralised services. Do you really think say 2 million composting toilets in Sydney is realistic or efficient or environmentally sound? But I have covered that point.

    8. Coolgardie safe…etc. Milk would be pasteurised. If it became a problem I would get a small fridge. I am not that fanatical.

    Overall, dark green fundamentalism (I flirted with it myself for while) is not going to cut the mustard of dealing with our mass civilisational problems. We need a realistic plan from where we are. Of course a combination of dark green and doom prepper survivalism might be on the cards if we have overshot the natural limits badly enough. If anyone over 40 survives into that era, they will wish they hadn’t.

  5. @GrueBleen

    Good news then I can have expectations for more of that terrific taxpayer money that I just love to steal from hardworking people, when I get old. Can’t wait to be vilified some more for my lack of ability to climb the ladder of success and support myself.

    It is very difficult to find out anything from a Centrelink site for people who don’t do that sort of language.

    Understanding the rules is another problem for people needing social support and also for those working at Centrelink who have to deal with the frustration and tears and worse from their customers. I do believe they burn out pretty quickly.

    Filling in the forms to claim for any of the benefits requires a level of reading comprehension that is above that of, I think I read once, about 30% of the general population. And being organised enough to keep track of ones documentation while leading a disorganised life that is all that so many of we dysfunctiona, lazy and stupid people deliberately choose is another problem.

    Having a pet is another of the things that poor people can’t afford these days because the standard of care has just escalated and yet pets are very good for improving the health of lonely and sick people but vets are very expensive and so clever at insinuating that more expensive care is needed.

    All these little insults to people’s dignity and the assaults on our freedom to live without being told what to do and what to buy by those who want to make a profit from our lives, have taken away the hope for future prosperity that we did have in the ’70’s.

    And Marie Antoinette was just as deluded about the reality of the lives poor people lead as a well off neo-liberal economist today who never associates or even sees the hoi polloi or former working class in their environment and can’t understand the problems that that ideology has caused for some of us.

    But I think she behaved well throughout the ordeal of her imprisonment and her execution.

  6. @Julie Thomas

    I worked in the old Social Security and then Centrelink. I am now retired and have been for nearly a decade. My knowledge of particular technical issues re welfare policy and practice is now dated. My knowledge of the welfare question and its fundamental issues is not dated. Indeed, the value of such knowledge and experience will endure while our current mass society endures. The essential principles remain the same. Of course, society threw me and my experience and knowledge on the scrap heap. I was not wanted because I was an internal dissenter in the system. I am not complaining personally. I am in a comfortable situation.

    I would like to refer to your main two points. They resonate with me as substantially correct. I can say this from having been inside the system, looking out at people forced to use it.

    1. “Can’t wait to be vilified etc…” Yes, this is correct about the system. The current system as political economy ideology and administrative practice routinely vilifies and denigrates people without a personal income and/or without a job. First, it sets up a system where there is a failure to provide an adequate number of jobs. It does not have to be that way. Theorists from heterodox MMT economists to orthodox Keynesians have demonstrated and know how to generate full employment for all able people who wish to work (and most do). Second, the system then vilifies and denigrates people forced to endure the systemic failure to provide adequate jobs and adequate welfare. Sure, personal failures exist too but they are mostly due to pre-occuring misfortunes. Staff did their best. The great majority were and are people of good will who do want to help people who need welfare. However, the governments (mainly Howard and the Libs) put us in a straitjacket of ill-conceived and heartless policy while cutting costs and staff.

    2. “Understanding the rules is another problem” That is absolutely correct. When I was there, many staff in Centrelink ,even experienced ones, could not understand all the rules all the time. The entire system of legislation, policy, interim policy directives, manuals, computer systems, system releases and endless change was bafflingly complex even for the smartest person on the inside.

    The need for such complexity and obfuscation in policy is not really there. It is an ideological overlay intended to again put people in straight-jackets of control and save money for less worthwhile things like unnecessary overseas wars and multi-billion dollar costing refugee gulags in the Pacific. The intended savings from complex policy were overtly meant to come from fine targeting to welfare need. Part of the real savings came from not meeting real welfare needs at all. We know payments are unrealistically low and hard to qualify for, for people especially on the unemployment and invalid benefits.

    But on the issue of fine targeting for welfare need, I made the statement in a meeting “We cannot target finer than our measurement error.” That went over like a lead balloon. Being tactless, I said to a bunch of managers, “You do know what measurement error is don’t you?” Policy is too complicated, forms are too complicated and people provide poor data because they don’t understand the forms etc. A radical welfare simplification is possible but not ideologically acceptable to neoliberalism. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of that here. That’s more a sandpit thing.

  7. @Ikonoclast

    Thanks for being you back in the social security and early Centrelink days.

    I did come across some really decent people back when I was very dysfunctional who helped me to survive until I did manage to work out what was ‘wrong’ with me and how to live with it without causing too much grief to other people.

  8. @Julie Thomas

    The bulk of ordinary people are okay, speaking of kindness etc., towards people they identify with or understand. There is a problem sometimes when they don’t understand or identify. The bulk of people who rise to the very top of our society management-wise and politically are not okay. Part of it is the selection process. A bad or compromised system, the latter which is what we have, selects bad people. This is pretty much axiomatic. Others who were once basically good get corrupted. Excess wealth and power corrupt people, again almost inevitably. The only way to deal with this is to distribute power and wealth much more democratically and evenly. This would actually unleash stocks of human potential which would made our current system look horrendously dysfunctional and inefficient by comparison.

  9. @Ikonoclast
    Your #79

    Psst Ikono, what about UHT long life milk ? Good for months before being opened and weeks after – though you do need to keep it cool.

    However, and here’s a truly radical thought, what about milk powder ? Just a teaspoon with some water now and then ? Or condensed or evaporated ?

  10. @Ikonoclast
    Your #83

    I remember a scene in the 1965 movie ‘The Collector’ when the Samantha Eggar character (ie the ‘collected one’) muses on the Terence Stamp character (the collecting one) and his capacity for empathy, or even just sympathy. She opines that face to face with a poor suffering human being, he is capable of sincere sympathy and charity, but faced with the more ‘abstract’ notion of ‘suffering humanity’, he is simply unable to identify with peoples and unable to support ‘safety nets and social services’ in general.

    Sorta like Julie’s ‘poors’ – see one in the street begging and he might generously contribute. Have to vote on setting up systems to attempt to address poverty in general, and he can’t approve. I find myself being a bit like that at times, but at least I can kinda recognise it and adjust accordingly. Most of the time.

  11. @Ikonoclast
    Your #81

    Hmm, so you had managers who had probably never even heard of the concept of ‘measurement error/uncertainty’.

    Personally, I find that this is due to intelligence deficient kids being taught by intelligence deficient teachers. And not only intelligence deficient, but greatly skill and knowledge deficient also. Not that I entirely accept the old saw about “those who can, do …” but neither can I entirely disbelieve it, either.

    Some numbers courtesy Wikip:

    Mean (and modal and median too, IQ being a Log-Normal distribution) = 100 (standardised)
    Standard deviation – 15 points.

    Less than 85 IQ = 5%
    85 – 115 IQ = 66.7% (ie 2/3rds within mean +/- 1 sd)
    116 – 125 = 22.3%
    Above 125 = 5%

    In my old days in EDP/ADP/IT/ICT (whichever name you prefer) which is an IQ ‘top heavy’ profession (at least it was back then), I used to reckon that in a project of about 100 people, only those above mean + 1 sd knew what they were doing (ie less than 1/3rd), and only those above mean + 2 sd really knew what they were doing – ie roughly 4 people per 100. And it was on those 4 giving sensible and capable lead to the less than 1/3rd who could intelligently follow that lead, that the success or failure of the project depended.

    But never mind, now we have -tada – the Flynn Effect ! In another millennium or three, the human race will all be geniuses !

  12. @GrueBleen

    Sigh 🙂 “Personally, I find that this is due to intelligence deficient kids being taught by intelligence deficient teachers. ”

    You would have regarded me as one of those intelligence deficient kids. Everyone thought I was stupid at school and my father kept telling me I was very smart so I thought he must be stupid too.

    But as it happened the social worker at the Social Security office who practically blackmailed me into enrolling in a degree course was right when she assured me that I wasn’t stupid. It turned out that I am really good at things like understanding complex and abstract concepts and even stats especially multivariate stats . Not any more though 🙂 It’s all gone and now I just look at pictures of hats.

    Anyway so despite being expelled from kindegarten and spending most of my school life outside the class room in disgrace, I did well enough at Uni as a mature age student to graduate with distinction and then first class hons and then be asked to do a PhD funded by an Australian Research Council Postgraduate Grant.

    I don’t think that my ‘poors’ are unintelligent and I don’t think it is stupidity that creates bad managers or bad workers; it is the system; an economy without a society allows for the creation of hierarchies with so many levels that those at the top can’t even believe in the people at the bottom.

  13. @Julie Thomas
    Your #87

    Maybe I would, Julie, and maybe I wouldn’t – have regarded you as ‘intelligence deficient’. But as you were once proficient in multivariate statistics, I think that you can understand that you were (and are ?) just one of many hundreds. When I commenced ‘High School’ in 1955, there were about 230 other kids in ‘Form 1’ (aka Year 7). By the time we got to Matriculation (aka Year 12) there was a mere 35 left, of which about 20 actually passed the matriculation exams (and nearly all went on to Uni).

    I’m happily impressed that you went on to success at Uni. I, as I may have previously mentioned, did not. I do not know why your talents were ‘under a bushel’ nor whether that significantly contributed to your early life difficulties, but I kinda suspect it might have.

    Anyway, I don’t believe that ‘poors’ (yours or anybody’s) are inherently ‘intelligence deficient’ – intelligence is very likely to be, like IQ, a ‘Log-Normal Distribution’. But perhaps you might take note of what Alfred Binet – the ‘originator’ of testing intelligence – was actually doing. A quote from Wikip:

    The French Ministry of Education asked psychologist Alfred Binet to devise a method that would determine which students did not learn effectively from regular classroom instruction so they could be given remedial work. Along with his collaborator Théodore Simon, Binet published revisions of his intelligence scale in 1908 and 1911, the last appearing just before his death.

    So do note that Binet was not testing for ‘IQ’ – that gross reification came much later in the hands of the likes of Lewis Terman and his very long ‘longitudinal study’ of so-called gifted American High School students – and after his creation of the ‘Stanford-Binet IQ Scale’.

    But of one thing I am very convinced: incompetence is all about us, ineffable and ineluctable. For instance, imagine creating highly dysfunctional hierarchies and then wondering why they fail. Imagine electing highly dysfunctional politicians to government and then wondering why government so often fails. Imagine selecting highly dysfunctional managers and business ‘experts’ and then having to sell of and close Dick Smith, or Masters, or, my favourite (it having been ‘immortallised’ in Kubrik’s 2001), Pan American.

    So it goes.

    And if you’re at all interested in any of this, may I recommend the post titled “On Incompetence” from the blog “Stumbling and Mumbling” which I recently commended to Ernestine.

  14. @GrueBleen

    Yes I do know about Binet and the development of IQ testing. A fellow PhD back then was and still is – she’s a professor now – working in that field. We talk and I was a participant in some of her experiments that involved measuring cognitive abilities.

    It was the murcan’s who ruined the idea of testing for deficits and instead used the concept of testing to work out who is the alpha male and who should win. I tried to read “The Bell Curve” by that charlatan Charles Murray but threw it across the room when I read in the introduction how he imagined primitive men sitting around a fire discussing who was the most intelligent.

    My lack of intelligence in some areas is real though. In some ways and I have accepted it now, I am quite stupid while still having a very high IQ. I don’t believe that the current understanding of high functioning autistics is anywhere near reliable or finished but it is useful to keep up with the trends. And there is a lot of interest in atypical neurological functioning; as if there is a neuro-typical brain.

    But don’t you see that the incompetence that you see, is just another judgement you make that is made on the basis of the belief that there is one way to do things. Of course we are incompetent at building competitive and exclusionary structures and institutions. That is not the way that our brains work and the systems that we have been building are not systems that will give all of us what we need to be happy and healthy and not need to create some of our neighbours as enemies.

    I did do really well at uni but it was a regional uni but it was a regional institute that had become a uni and when the Dawkins money ran out my prof who had come from a real sandstone deserted ship to go back and I couldn’t go with the lab because I did not and do not have the organisational ability or the support and finances to manage such a big event.

    So being over educated – very little demand for someone who likes playing with pivot tables and SPSSx where I live and being so socially inept and I suppose weird, nobody would give me a job and so the Centrelink psychiatrist gave me a diagnosis that put me on the disability pension. I did do a lot of marking but it drove me nuts trying to be absolutely fair and then the funds for marking got less and less and eventually dried up.

    So now I make hats and live in a small town in the country and read lots of blogs. I actually have heard of the stumbling and mumbling blog but there are so many really really good blogs around being written by so many really really interesting and intelligent people. It has to be a good thing that people like you and I can talk like this.

  15. @Julie Thomas
    Marie Antoinette was just as deluded about the reality of the lives poor people lead as a well off neo-liberal economist today

    If not more. Her chances to interact with French peasant were probably much less that a neo-liberal economist encountering a “gasp” taxi-driver.

    Note however she was not the person who (translation) said, “Let them eat cake”. That was just a slander and then libel.

  16. @Julie Thomas
    Your #90

    No, I’m not of the opinion that there is “one way to do things”, I’m just of the opinion that there should be one outcome: that the things we do should work a lot better than they do. But we seem to be trapped into that old cycle: doing the same thing over again, hoping it turns out better this time.

    Yes it is good to be able to talk like this, and if Ikono keeps his promise above (his #89), we can continue to, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. In Sandpit, where we should.

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