Tag Archives | Antiracism

Chambers Film in the Works?

I see that this website lists The Repairer of Reputations as an upcoming film, but gives no further information.

The King in YellowThe Repairer of Reputations” is a short story by Robert W. Chambers, written in 1895 but set in 1920; it also serves as the first chapter of Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a collection of inter-related fantasy stories that exercised an important influence on H. P. Lovecraft.

“Repairer” takes place in a future in which something vaguely resembling World War I has occurred and the American progressive movement has achieved political ascendancy under a President Winthrop, who has introduced a comprehensive program of centralised bureacucracy, aggressive nationalism, extensive public works and urban renewal projects (with an emphasis on neoclassical marble edifices), a nationalised police force, severe racial cleansing laws (including “the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of self-preservation”), and tax-funded euthanasia chambers in every town (to encourage the unhealthy and maladjusted to relieve the community of their presence).

The Wikipedia page for the story says that these features of the projected future society reflect “the author’s xenophobic tendencies.” I wonder what the basis for this latter bit of speculation is. For all I know Chambers did have xenophobic tendencies, but I don’t think this story by itself is evidence of them. Are the wikipedists assuming that Chambers approves of the society he depicts? Admittedly the narrator obviously approves of it – but the narrator is also pretty clearly intended to be recognised as unreliable, and in fact insane. It seems at least as likely to me that Chambers is satirising the proto-fascist political tendencies of his day. But I await correction from those who have read more of Chambers’ other works than I have.

Three Anarchistic Tales

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

For he, like a man or a star, lives in a universe
shut in by walls of the things he knows.

A late Christmas gift for you: three hauntingly beautiful and politically subversive early 20th-century tales – all searing indictments of the brutality of the state – have been posted in the Molinari Online Library: Voltairine de Cleyre’s fiction-disguised-as-memoir “The Chain Gang” (1907), Gertrude Nafe’s mordant fable “The Law and the Man Who Laughed” (1913), and Rose Wilder Lane’s journalism-disguised-as-fiction “A Bit of Gray in a Blue Sky” (1919). (This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time that the Nafe and Lane pieces have been available online.)

chain gang De Cleyre and Lane were of course leading writers of the libertarian anarchist tradition (representing that tradition’s “socialist” and “capitalist” strands respectively, if it matters). I haven’t been able to learn much about Gertrude Nafe, except that she was an associate of Emma Goldman’s, that she was active in John Reed’s Communist Labor Party, that her short stories were well-regarded by the mainstream, and that she was dismissed from her post as a Denver schoolteacher for refusing to take an oath to “promote by precept and example obedience to laws and constituted authorities.” Specifically, I don’t know whether she was an anarchist; but “The Law and the Man Who Laughed” is certainly anarchist in spirit.

Despite its obvious antiracist intent, “The Chain Gang” is marred by some unconscious racism (beneath all her beautiful metaphors, de Cleyre is in effect characterising blacks – or black convicts, anyway – as congenitally ignorant but naturally musical, comparing them to idiots savants), but its haunting beauty survives this flaw.

“A Bit of Gray in a Blue Sky” isn’t explicitly an antiwar story, but it’s hard not to read it as one, or to see an analogy between the fate of Lane’s carrier pigeon and the fate of human beings dragged from their ordinary lives into the jaws of a war machine they know and care nothing about. (Incidentally, see the true story behind Lane’s account. Sadly, by the time “A Bit of Gray” was published, the pigeon had already died of its wounds.)

People Who Live in Glass Steakhouses …

At Geno’s Steakhouse in Philadelphia, a sign with a big American eagle says:


The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations calls the sign intimidating and discriminatory, and wants to force the owner, Joey Vento, to take it down. Vento’s lawyer says the sign expresses concern for the plight of immigrants and that Vento is trying to help them by encouraging them to learn English.

Speak English or my eagle will bite you Okay, two easy questions and one harder one:

1. Is Vento’s sign obnoxious, nationalistic, and bigoted? Yes, of course.  (I mean, just look at it. Concern for immigrants, my ass.)

2. Is Vento nevertheless within his rights to post the sign? Yes, of course.

Those were the easy questions. Now the hard one:

3. Why is “SPEAK ENGLISH” in quotation marks?

Perhaps Vento’s grasp of correct English usage isn’t as strong as he supposes – which suggests he may not be ideally positioned to be lecturing others on correct linguistic behaviour.

A Dark Faith

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Selwyn Duke thinks that those who question the biological basis of various psychological and behavioural differences among races are “practitioners of a dark faith” (pun intended?) incompatible with the teachings of science:

It seems especially odd when you consider that most of these inquisitors [Duke’s term for the antiracist left] are secularists who subscribe to the theory of evolution. Yet, despite their belief that different groups “evolved” in completely different parts of the world, operating in different environments and subject to different stresses, they would have us believe that all groups are identical in terms of the multitude of man’s talents and in every single measure of mental capacity. Why, miracle of miracles, all these two-legged cosmic accidents, the product of a billions-of-years journey from the primordial soup to primacy among creatures, whose evolution was influenced by perhaps millions of factors, wound up being precisely the same. It’s really the best argument for God I’ve ever heard, as such a statistical impossibility could only exist if it was ordained by the one with whom all things are possible.

Duke’s argument as stated is flailing at a straw man, since few of the people he’s criticising have made the extreme claim that different races are “precisely the same” in “every single measure.” But Duke’s claim can be restated in a more moderate form: given the different evolutionary histories of existing races, isn’t it plausible to suppose that more of their differences are genetically based than the antiracist left is prepared to recognise?

eugenics chart The answer is no. Even staying at the level of empirical considerations, we might say that skepticism toward attempts to base behavioural differences among groups on biological grounds is inductively justified for the same reason that skepticism toward attempts to defend astrology is justified: because such attempts have been made over and over for centuries and have all proved spectacularly wrong. Asking us to consider the latest iteration of such theories in dewy freshness and innocence without attention to the long embarrassing history of such claims and their subsequent refutation is, well, unscientific, like asking Charlie Brown to trust Lucy to hold the football one more time. (Such history goes back a long way. Aristotle, for example, thought the failure of the Celtic and Germanic peoples to rival the cultural achievements of Greece was a sign of an innate intellectual defect. It’s ironic that the chief proponents of this type of argument in the 19th and 20th centuries were themselves of Celtic and/or German descent.) And this is before we even get to the social horrors that this sorry history of scientific failure has been used to justify.

Here’s an analogy: suppose that the next time a child goes missing, I say, “hey, maybe the child was kidnapped by Jews who wanted to use its blood to make matzohs.” When criticised for this suggestion, I exclaim indignantly, “Isn’t it possible that this is what happened? Shouldn’t we consider every possibility? Don’t you politically-correct inquisitors care about truth?” Well, of course my suggestion is possible in some abstract sense. But in light of the actual history of such speculations – their empirical ungroundedness, plus their horrific results – such a suggestion on my part would properly be assigned to the “pointlessly offensive provocation” file rather than to the “serious scientific hypothesis” file. And the fact that I find such hypotheses salient, despite their empirical weakness, reveals my own biases. (Of course all this applies to gender as well – which is why I was glad to see Larry Summers booted out of the presidency of my alma mater.)

But there is more involved here than empirical considerations, because empirical science deals only with the enabling conditions of mind, not the constitutive conditions. (For this distinction see here, here, here, and here.) In short, there are truths about what mind is that are accessible only to philosophical inquiry, not to empirical inquiry; and such truths place constraints on what sorts of empirical hypotheses about mind, and differences among minds, are admissible. Different races may indeed have reached mindedness by somewhat different evolutionary paths, but as long as it is mindedness they have reached, then whatever is philosophically knowable about mindedness will apply to all races equally. (It’s certainly not an astonishing statistical anomaly, calling for appeal to divine intervention, that widely separated and diverse cultures have converged on, for instance, the proposition that 7 + 5 = 12.)

As an example, it used to be popular in racist circles to say that certain races lacked a moral sense. Duke might say, “well, that’s an admissible empirical hypothesis – there’s no evolutionary guarantee that all races will have the same capacities – let’s do some tests and find out.” But suppose that it turns out, via philosophical analysis, that having a moral sense is part of having a mind – that mental and moral capacities are conceptually linked. In that case the suggestion will not be an admissible empirical hypothesis; its coherence has already been ruled out on conceptual grounds.

There is thus a sad irony in the fact that Duke’s argument is receiving favourable press among some praxeologists, because Duke’s complaint that antiracists’ dismissal of evolution-based arguments is an expression of “faith” is strikingly similar to the frequent mainstream characterisation of Austrian praxeology as a “cult” for dismissing empirical approaches to economics in favour of a priori considerations. From the materialist/empiricist/psychologistic/scientistic standpoint, any appeal to philosophical rather than empirical considerations counts as “faith” rather than science. But this simply evinces a lack of understanding of the nature of philosophical reasoning. Praxeologists recognise such critiques as bogus when directed at praxeology; they should recognise that such critiques are equally bogus when directed at the antiracist left.

I’ve argued in previous posts (see here, here, and here) that a number of popular hypotheses about genetically grounded behavioural differences are simply ruled out by philosophical considerations. In addition, there are cases where although certain hypotheses are not absolutely ruled out, their a priori probability is lowered. For example, one reason for stressing environmental (as opposed to biological) determinants of mentality as much as antiracist thinkers do is that mentality itself consists to a significant degree in transactions with the physical and social environment rather than merely what is going on inside the skull. This discovery, however, was reached by philosophical/conceptual rather than empirical means (the “externalist revolution,” as we may call it, of which Wittgenstein was the principal herald), and has gone largely unrecognised by those working in the empirical sciences – which is one reason that empirical researchers continue to proceed as though everything relevant to mentality were located in the brain. The externalist dimension of mentality does not absolutely rule out innatist hypotheses, but it does give us a reason we would not otherwise have had to look more closely at environmental determinants of mental features than we otherwise might.

In short, then, when a hypothesis is either impossible or relatively unlikely for a priori reasons, has a poor track record a posteriori as well, and has the inferiority of certain groups as its principal upshot, the suggestion that the hypothesis might have been prompted more by prejudice than by fearless scientific inquiry seems less like the “political correctness” about which Duke wails than it does simple common sense.

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