Thursday, June 5, 2014

On Asking "What if Race is more than a social construct?"

A friend recently sent me to an article "What if Race is more than a social construct?" by Margaret Wente in the (Toronto) Globe and Mail more or less a review of

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
The title of Wente's article: It takes aim at a troublesome postmodern-ish tendency of the last decade or so of calling race a "social construct".  One of its major themes is a favorite meme of the right: "Why can't liberals be rational about race?" Why all these taboos on what words are proper?  Why can't we just follow science wherever it leads (supposedly)?
   I can sympathize with one reaction to the "social construction" construct.  Aren't there really a lot of differences in skin color, hair, shape of facial features which we did not strictly speaking imagine?

But some on the right, as well, would like to stop talking about race and have "color-blind" laws.  Might such talk of "forgetting" race undercut affirmative action, an objective of both conservatives and libertarians?  So why pick on attempts to downplay race?  Maybe just because it's so easy?

  The biggest theme of the article though is really to treat as an irrational taboo modern western and esp. American society's (and esp. liberal's) strong negative reactions to racial generalizations.  Racial stereotypes, including anti- semitic ones, were completely acceptable in most of U.S. and European society before WWII.  Some time after that, "progressive" types began to see this as the source of  horrendous evils, notably genocide, and over the course of the 60s and 70s,  most of polite society was won over the the abhorrence of racial generalizations, and a sense of urgency about eliminating "prejudice" and "discrimination" (words that long ago lost most of their emotional charge).  Race became linked in the public mind with that most horrible episode of history, which I don't think most Americans really appreciated until the early 60s.  You can date its becoming a huge media theme to precisely that period, with the execution of Eichmann in 1962, the movie Exodus also 1962, and Fiddler On the Roof in 1964.  America's love affair with Israel was in full swing; midwestern girls were pounding out the Exodus movie theme in piano recitals, and movies and literature promoted the idea that Jews were just like the rest of us, only more so.

  The pendulum swings from pole to pole and never seems to settle on the most ideal rational position.  If the taboo on racial generalizations has emotional irrational elements, what happens if this, which we associate with "PC" or "Political Correctness" breaks down?  History if full of zealots  filled with confidence that everything will be wonderful once we break down this or that bit of irrationality, and it keeps not turning out that way.  Stephen Jay Gould had such a visceral loathing of science being used to justify racism that he campaigned against evolutionary psychology or sociology in quite an irrational way, and I can sympathize with his feeling that way as a self-conscious Jew.

  To me, a lot of the "Why can't liberals be rational about race?" thing looks quite a bit like pointless juvenile taboo-bashing, like teen-agers wanting to draw swastikas or detached eyeballs.  I'm basically happy that it's not PC to say "nigger" and "kike".  I think a lot of societal protections take the form of irrational taboos, which is one reason I'm not a "New Atheist" like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

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