YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 8, 2010

Racism, Modernity, Modernism

Columbus taking possession of the New World

[Added: Columbus Day, 2010. Because Herman Melville’s great-grandson Paul Metcalf had associated Columbus with Captain Ahab, it occurred to me that what the “anti-imperialist” anti-expansionists feared most was discovery as such. Finding out new things–for instance that admired authorities have been lying to you, or painfully over time finding out new truths in science and medicine–can get you fired, not hired, thrown out of graduate school or your profession or worse, much worse. So let us celebrate today the risky process of discovery, and honor those of our ancestors and contemporaries who are making the Ahab-ish leap from light into darkness that few of us would imitate. This is such a big subject that I wrote a recent blog about it: https://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.]

I have linked the problem of “race” and “racism” to “modernity” because numerous scholars and other writers on the Left blame modernity for racism. For them, the modern world begins with, and is defined by, the gold and resource-driven Western expansion into Asia, the New World, and Africa. Hence the primary feature of expansionism (i.e., imperialism) is the subjugation and exploitation of non-Europeans. Racism was said to originate in the need to explain the contradiction between Christian ethics and the cruelty and degradation visited upon native peoples, for example in the notion of “the White Man’s burden”—the moral imperative to uplift and rescue pagans through the superior religion of Christianity. But other voices would have preserved the pagans, either as primitivists or perhaps holding to the theory of polygenesis: the idea of separate creation. In that theory, humanity evolved separately in the different regions of the world—hence “races.” For these racists, there was no original set of homo sapiens in Africa that wandered the earth, mutating and adapting to drastically different environments. There are some white supremacists today who probably adhere to this polygenesis view of human evolution, and I have come across some on Facebook who call themselves by evocative names including the word “renaissance” but their aim is not humanism or the unity of our species, but the secession of white people from a multiracial polity (they are also interested in the subordination of women). These latter men are impressed by such as Carleton Coon, and the specter of miscegenation must give them hives.

Although it is true that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D. witnessed European expansion, there is another way to define modernity, and when I use that term, I refer to the transition from feudalism or other pre-capitalist economics to market economies.  That transition remains far from complete, as I have written here numerous times. The postmodernists/post-colonialists  believe they have not only dredged up the “submerged” cultures of native peoples, but have transcended the modernity that spun nativism (WASP supremacy), bureaucratic rationality and hence the Holocaust, but have they?  Was Nazism “the revolt of the masses” and the excrescence of modern Jacobins? Moreover, the Great Chain of Being or similar hierarchies of “interdependence” remain intact because the scientific revolution and the rise of industrialism and a burgeoning middle-class challenged  former ruling aristocracies with a newly literate class that was educating not only itself, but the lower orders. Enter team playing, the lovable fatherly Leader, and hierarchies would be preserved against the threat posed by the too-curious literate masses, including women. (For a perfect example of a model hierarchy see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/15/the-christianization-of-ziva-david-ncis/.)

Don’t scratch your head about the deficiencies in our public school education.  There is no moral imperative for those who identify with aristocracies, new or old, to give students the analytic tools they need to judge their superiors or elected officials. If there was serious education in our country, all students would study the sciences, economics (including the basic elements of accounting), the history of every social movement in the U.S. and the conflicts that they addressed, the wily ways of those who have governed us, and how to decipher the propaganda that urges deference to corrupt authority—from pre-school on through graduate school! (And I am not exempting the scrutiny of both high and popular culture from this menu. See the Ibsen excerpt here: https://clarespark.com/2009/11/02/a-ride-through-the-culture-wars-in-academe/.

Modernity, then, is founded upon the invention of the printing press and the spread of mass literacy and numeracy. It is about the growth of competitive markets, and the hatred of the bourgeoisie expressed by aristocrats threatened by displacement. Many a New Left “cultural radical” was a would-be aristocrat, spurning the middle-class, and getting down with the lower orders (who were viewed as less uptight—indeed as the source of instinctual liberation). In came George Orwell, folklore and rock ‘n roll, out went classical music and the bourgeois entertainments that were related.

    Primitivism—a habit of mind in both the pre-war and post-Great War modernist movement in the arts—is a form of racism, though it is not the nasty kind that we associate with lynch mobs, institutional exclusion, segregation, and worse. Primitivism and irrationalism are overlapping categories: we let in what Freud called the Id forces to relax that persecuting, insomniac, maternal Hebraic puritan superego, just enough to keep us “balanced” and ecologically hip.

(See Freud’s 1933 topography of Superego, Ego and Id: the Superego reaches down and connects to the Id.* Or see the sequence of Picasso drawings elsewhere on this website: https://clarespark.com/2009/11/02/picasso-drawings-dreamy-mother-and-son-to-entwined-peasants/.) But since primitivism is a release, not a way of life that takes up the challenge of modernity in order to improve everyone’s material condition, it cannot help non-whites achieve the American Dream: rather primitivism idealizes the lives of “carefree” non-whites and helps recruit middle-class kids from authoritarian families (or subtly authoritarian) to support for “wars of national liberation.”  At least that was the 1960s-70s protocol. So when the elite universities and the national government instituted multiculturalism, accommodating and supposedly defusing militant cultural nationalist movements among minorities, the hipper white kids got on the bus, not bothering to look back upon the history of racial theory.

Had they done so, they would have quickly discovered the origin of “multiculturalism” and its associated moral relativism in the theories of J. G. von Herder and the German Romantics who followed. They would have discovered that there were two Enlightenments: one promoting the careful and exhaustive empirical study of this world; its competition—the pseudo-Enlightenment–reacting to the proto-jacobin “mechanical materialism” of the Enlightenment with corporatism and the notion of national or racial character, a “different” Enlightenment or Aufklärung that preserved hierarchies, favoring the Greek way also known as “socially responsible capitalism.” There was nothing democratic or egalitarian in the rooted cosmopolitan thought of Herder, Goethe, Fichte, and the hordes of social theorists who followed. The omnipresent word “diversity” today refers to the mystical organicism of Herder, Goethe, and their neoclassical, “tolerant” successors (e.g., Saint-Simon as elucidated by Frank E. Manuel, in his The Prophets of Paris). As I have said before, multiculturalism is an elite strategy to micromanage group conflict with their version of reparations; MC has nothing to do with unifying our species or spreading the skills that will help all of us to survive the numerous looming emergencies that beset us. It is collectivist and pseudo-functionalist at its core, does not lift up non-whites (but demeans them with administrative pseudo-remedies like affirmative action that recognize “race” as something real in the world, not as a category that has been socially constructed and reconstructed), and will marginalize or destroy discovery, other innovations, and all dissent.

*The (tentative) diagram may be seen in Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Hogarth Press, 1967): Lecture 31, p.105. “You will observe how the super-ego goes down into the id; as the heir to the Oedipus complex it has, after all, intimate connections with the id” (p.104).


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