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The Word

The Word

There’s a word in the English language that’s so taboo that it is only ever referred to by its first initial, and even then it stands in a class by itself alongside other initialed words casually dropped: F-, C-, etc. Unlike these other initialed words, this is the only word that, among most people, can never be spoken in public or even private life. It’s a word that destroys reputations and careers, makes headlines and ends friendships.

It is, of course, a word with a despicable racist past and carries with it a weight and power that is unmatched in the English language. It’s a word that everyone knows but almost everyone is afraid to say.

You know the Word, so I don’t need to write it here, but I have written and said it elsewhere on very few occasions. I’m sure most people of all races have, whether they admit it or not. When I have used it, it has only ever been in reference as a refutation of the power falsely ascribed to language and in defending my very strong belief that words are not, in themselves, evil, but depend on a context and a speaker (and even using the Word in making that point has caused trouble). I have never used the Word against someone or in hate or used it casually as an epithet, and most of the time when I have heard the Word used in this manner—fortunately not on many occasions—I have found it obligatory to say something to the person using it. So I have participated, willingly and non-willingly, to the aura of power ascribed to this Word.

I don’t believe any word should have this power. It’s a scary thing to think that uttering one word has the potential to cause so much damage, both to the listener and the speaker. Therein, I suppose, lies the essence of taboo: something that presents itself as so unthinkable that it beggars belief why anyone would cross it.

I think I understand. Taboo is toxic to human brains. Humans hate to be prisoners, and nothing is worse than a prison of your own mind. In many ways we are wired to challenge convention, to be independent, to break things. To me, the taboos of everyday life are like desperate parasites clawing at the inside of my brain. They are sometimes all I can think about—not because I want to break them, but just out of a desire to unburden myself from thoughts I am not allowed to have.

When I hear people using the Word, I sometimes think that they’re doing it because they simply can’t accept a world where they don’t have the freedom to say something they want to say. I wonder how many people out there use the world without any malice but simply out of a desire of expanding their expressional arsenal?

I bring this up because recently I had an experience at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants. I had become friendly with the GM there, but nothing more than casual pleasantries when I patronized his restaurant. This one time I was there with some friends and he came and sat down at the table toward the end of the evening. The conversation ranged, but eventually he found a way to steer it to his favorite topic: how much he hates, well, you know.

It was weird. The last time I had—in the words of a friend—”put a quarter in a racist” was in South Africa, but that was a different experience altogether. I’ve written about South Africa’s frank and refreshingly honest ongoing conversation about race before. At first, it was shocking to an American ear, but after a while you start to realize that South Africans are far closer to the racial discussion than we are. They say what they’re thinking outright and it is probably even cathartic for them. But here in San Francisco, to hear this sort of prejudice is quite surprising, and offensive to say the least. And it was made more offensive by the fact that he didn’t think about how his usage of this word made us dirty by comparison; he made us listen and be complicit in his prejudice.

One of the things the GM at this restaurant said, even as we tried to change the subject and leave the restaurant awkwardly, was that the Word “is my favorite word because I’m not allowed to say it.” That struck me as an odd thing to say. Obviously he had no problem using the Word (although he checked around to make sure there was no one else around when he said it), but the reason he liked using it was its taboo power. Because he’s not allowed to say it. He may have even felt justified saying it, being an immigrant and surely himself a victim of prejudice.

I often have wondered if we ascribe too much power to the Word, and here I received some confirmation. It was, indeed, a powerful word, and made more so by its forbidden nature.

(For the record, my friends and I now boycott this restaurant.)

Here is the strangest thing about the Word. It is perhaps the only word in the English language whose usage carries the privilege of being casually acceptable to some and brutally unacceptable to everyone else. In fact, the Word’s most frequent practitioners are in two diametrically opposed camps. In one, you have some of the worst kinds of people, whose determination to hate, cause pain, oppress, de-legitimize, and fear makes them a fearsome silent minority. The other frequent practitioners of the Word are those people whose livelihoods, freedoms, hopes, dreams, property and fortunes are frequently under real or implied threat by a society borne of the history and culture represented in the Word itself.

Thus, ironically, the Word is likely the only major commonality between how these two groups communicate; yet one group’s usage of the Word represents the past, and the other, the future. Herein lies the power of the Word to unite rather than divide.

I should hope that we all can agree: one day, we want to live in a universe where the racial prejudice and hatred bottled up in the Word have been forgotten to history, and the Word has been stripped of its undeserved power to outrage and offend.

October 7, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More
Ferguson is America

Ferguson is America

I apologize in advance for invoking Godwin’s Law, but as always, Nazism is such the prime historical example of snowballing fascism it’s hard not to bring it up. So I’ll get it out of the way with a brief look at Martin Niemöller’s well known and probably over-quoted poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We know the poem, and we know the message of the poem is supposed to be “speak out before it’s too late.” But I think a more important message of the poem is that fascism never announces its arrival with jackbooted stormtroopers marching down the town square. It arrives slowly, with the creeping support of legitimate and well-intentioned citizens who desire greater safety, more control and maybe more comfort. Friendly politicians with ambitious plans are far more the province of fascism than angry men with beards. There’s that old nickname the Egyptians had for their dictator of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, “La Vache Qui Rit,” The Laughing Cow. It’s easier to convince people to surrender their liberties and critical faculties with a smile on your face and a plan to eradicate undesirables in your back pocket. If these undesirables are socialists or trade unionists or Jews, all the better.

It is also a fact of fascism that ideology comes long before cults of personality dominate the scene. We are historically trained to look for dictators who seek to create fascist societies, but if you read the biographies of dictators it is as likely the dictators are created for the society they live in. They fill the power vacuum created by inept government or a weak economy, or they take advantage of scripture which demands a strongman to usher in a god-fearing society. The fascisms of the world today in full force–whether it’s the monarchical fascism in T h a i l a n d or the Islamofascism of Boko Haram or ISIS or Hamas–started as ideologies in need of leadership. We know where to look when we seek out the hot spots for burgeoning fascism: places where ideology trumps individual liberty, or threatens to do so (Zionism certainly falls into this latter category, as does Russian exceptionalism/Putinism and a host of other almost-fascisms).

Which brings me to another quote from author William Gibson:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

It is this quote that has had me thinking the most since protests and the violent police crackdown erupted in Ferguson last week, and the world has been watching images of our country the way we often look in disbelief at images from oppressive regimes all over the world.

I will for the moment suspend my judgement on what happened in the Michael Brown shooting, because we are always too quick to jump to conclusions about things we don’t know based on what the media has told us. I’m not going to participate in speculation about motives or racism. This is what I care about right now:


I am not in the out group this time. I’m not black, I’m not poor, I don’t live in a place where police suspect me and everyone around me, and I don’t think I’m likely to even commit a petty crime that would get the police called on me in the first place. But I see this picture and the first thing I think is, how hard would it be for those guns to become pointed at me? What laws have I broken that no one knows about yet? What situation in this country could lead for more security such that such scenes become commonplace?

The future is here already, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Despite the fact that most of us remain isolated from this sort of show of force, we’ve known that local police forces in small towns like Ferguson have been acquiring military grade gear for years, including tanks, grenade launchers and assault rifles. And we know that SWAT teams are becoming more and more normal as responses to small crimes, with the inevitable consequences of innocent causalities. And even agencies of our own government are stockpiling ammunition. What does the Department of Homeland Security need with its own military?

The fact that they’re coming for poor black people concerns me, not only because of the wrongness of it on its own, but because I know that somewhere down the line, I’ll be on their target list, too. There’s a long list of types of Americans that other Americans, if they had the means, would love to lock up or outright execute: everyone from petty thieves to looters to drug dealers to the homeless to Muslims to “the 1%” to meat eaters. Do you really want to sit here and take your chances that the police next week don’t have something against you? Especially if we’ve handed them all the tools they need to make your life miserable?

Most Americans are fortunate that we don’t encounter police every day, or situations don’t become tense enough to merit this sort of military presence on our own streets. But we saw during the Boston Marathon Bombing that it takes very little to panic Americans into creating a police state around themselves. And when you create a police shield for yourself, you have to find someone to shield against.

I don’t think the problem is “speaking out.” We all know it’s a problem, and the media–since we have a blissfully free press in this country–has reported constantly on overmilitarization of the police. The problem is despite the fact that we see the images on TV, and we know that one day it’s very possible that our own worlds will be turned upside down by a SWAT raid or a bad shooting in our neighborhoods that tips off a riot or police crackdown, we don’t do anything about it.

And what can we do? Knowing your rights is a good place to start. But what’s the best response as citizens to an omnipresent, obviously growing threat from the police of America to our own freedoms? Should we all buy guns, as people near Ferguson are doing right now? Other than arming and waiting patiently, how do we stop the rising tide of police violence and intimidation in America? Or do we just hope that at some point, our politicians come to their senses and limit their own power? Historically speaking, I don’t think that’s very likely.

I welcome ideas in the comments for immediate, actionable things that citizens can do right now to stop the tide of police militarization in America before we all get swallowed up by it.

August 25, 20147 commentsRead More
We are Obsessed with Race, Not Racism

We are Obsessed with Race, Not Racism

Our obsession with race has surpassed and perhaps even magnified our problems with racism in America.

Let me explain what I mean. Since I’m white, I can’t speak to the personal experience of racism, and I wouldn’t try to do so. As an American, I am part of a society that has made identity politics a most incessant and obnoxious trope, and I have observed that the more opposed to this drivel people get, the more the boundaries of politically acceptable discourse solidify to exclude them (or should I say, us). There are things that just can’t be said anymore, things that we need people to say because without dissent, race politics becomes an orthodoxy, and orthodoxies are dangerous. That said, I have travelled to a very many places and interacted with a great deal of people of all backgrounds, ideas and identities. Almost every person I have met has been full of opinions about racism, despite the fact that few of them are people whom I would consider to be racist themselves. And I’m beginning to wonder if our obsession with race has reached a boiling point and we might need to rethink how we approach issues of race in this country before it boils over and causes some real problems.

For reference, I always look to South Africa, where I studied abroad, and to the particularly virulent, open racism that persists there 20 years after apartheid. In South Africa, everybody talks about race, all the time. It’s talked about with an openness and frankness that is surprising to an untrained American ear. I think we can learn a lot from South Africans in how they openly confront their racist past and spend every waking minute talking about it–as a result, there are no secrets, no closet racists, no sinister feeling of power behind a veil of magnanimity. In South Africa, racists white, black and coloured proudly declare their racism. It truly lays bear the shocking reality of racism; that it exists in droves, that it is self-perpetuating, that it results in bad justice, erosion of social cohesion, etc–these are things we know. But because South Africans talk about it so much, because they confront it and it is politically acceptable for public figures to say some of the most shockingly racist things, I found it oddly refreshing and somewhat hopeful. That maybe there is a post-racial future in South Africa after all.

But it is hard not to contrast the South African free discourse over race with our much more regimented, yet simultaneously boiling, discourse in America. We have confined ourselves to a very narrow and troubling politically correct discourse where the only thing it is permissible to talk about is how bad racism is and how racist white people are, and it has become completely impermissible to talk about the identity politics and tokenism which have resulted from this myopic obsession. As a result, the conversation about race and racism in America is troublingly one-sided. When I am engaged in a discussion about race, it is almost always about racism, the ism being the domain of racists and a racist society (depending on your worldview, this defines a relatively narrow or a very broad band of Americans). But in all this talk about racism, we are engaging in a more important discourse, a discourse on and around capital-R Race. The difference is that while “racism” can be easily used to segment the undesirables in our midst, race is considered not only an important preoccupation but a necessary one in order to combat racism, and thus race, not racism, is what enters the national consciousness and infects our discourse. In short, we no longer are obsessed with racists, we are obsessed with race.

What form does this obsession with race take in our society? We are racial compartmentalizers. We count minorities in positions of power and obsess over racial balance. We talk about racial “firsts” (first African-American so-and-so). We still can’t decide on a good definition of Hispanic. We try to “fix” racism with countless race-specific philanthropies and entitlements. When we encounter people or public figures that challenge our assumptions about race, the we get cognitive dissonance and the discourse gets wrapped up in it. Black men like Herman Cain and Michael Steele were commonly derided as Uncle Toms during their pinnacles of influence. (This isn’t just a racial problem–we even blame women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg for not being feminist enough, which is eerily similar to the time when Sarah Palin was being attacked by the feminist movement who apparently wanted a woman in power but only a certain kind of woman.) This systemic compartmentalization is rampant. We castigate white people with success for ignoring and/or not admitting their privilege. We castigate “minorities” (I hate that word) with success for not doing more to help other minorities. In the latter case, it is very discomfiting to see the expectations of people when it comes to diversity unhinged on those who are providing solutions.

If there’s ever a better exemplar of the problem of race in America, it’s President Barack Obama. Obama is our first black president, but he’s actually half black. It’s interesting how his mixed racial heritage rarely gets as much attention as his blackness. It’s as if there’s an unspoken rule that being biracial is too confusing for a racial narrative. He must be black, or maybe conservatives wouldn’t hate him as much, and he wouldn’t be different than every president that came before. But he’s also a possessor of a litany of American privileges that we usually associate with whiteness. He was raised in a white household by his white grandparents. He went to white colleges. How do we as Americans square that circle? Do we dare create a definition that challenges our inborn assumptions of race, or do we call him black and leave it at that? And if we have decided that a half-black man is either all black or all white, what sort of example is that supposed to set to mixed race children growing up in America, that they have to choose one or the other in order to have a place? Of course, if we make too much of a deal of his white heritage, we have also failed black kids in telling them that you can be successful if you’re black, but only if you’re actually white.

Our race discourse is about constantly deconstructing and reconstructing our racial narratives in order to make the most sense about ourselves. We all think about these things, even if we don’t talk about it. We are conditioned from an early age to internalize notions of race and culture, to be aware of racism, to know our racist history, to understand it. We embrace “diversity” and engage in an uncomfortable amount of social engineering in order to achieve some utopian post-racial future. At the same time, we are conditioned to only speak about race in euphemisms, to avoid offending (which often means avoid discussing) and to tread lightly in the public sphere on the subject. We also are very happy to shut down discussion of race, especially by white people–an uncomfortable ad hominem lobbed at white people who dare to criticize identity politics in America.

A bigger challenge to egalitarianism is that we can’t be satisfied as Americans all seeking for our piece of the American Dream. We can only be satisfied if every person fits neatly into a box on a census form and into a race coalition with its own community spokespeople. We need to conflate race and class, because the alternative is too unsettling. This is a problem because using “white” as a synonym for privilege ignores a very important factor of what constitutes racial “normality” in a society. It is fair to say that white people have a privilege in a white society. It is more accurate to say that X people have a privilege in an X society. Whatever X is in America, it isn’t strictly white. There’s a combination of looks, language, culture and history involved in X. There are plenty of white people with southern drawls who couldn’t land a job on Wall Street even if they had straight A’s. Our culture doesn’t work like that. There are also plenty of black kids growing up in Fairfield County, CT who often act, talk, and subsequently succeed like any white kid growing up in the same circumstance. Incidentally, they are often accused of “acting white.” This is part of the problem: that we use such terminology speaks to a very sad conflation between race and class in contrast to America’s multiracial, diverse reality.

X isn’t necessarily the same thing as white, and indeed, if we want there to be any progress on the racial front, we have to insist that X shouldn’t be white and it is possible, and desirable, to deconstruct the “white privilege” paradigm. This isn’t unthinkable. The definition of “white” itself has changed in history. One of the more interesting books I read last year, Nell Irwin Painter’s The History of White People, tells a fascinating story of how “white” has come to express different ethnic makeups in America. In the last 200 years alone, white has excluded, and then included in turn, people of German, Scandinavian and Irish origin. Imagine that in the late 19th century there was an entire contingent of scientists who didn’t consider Nordic people to be white enough!

I would have to mention Michel Foucault at this point because the parallels of racial discourse in today’s America to sexual discourse in yesterday’s England are too obvious not to bring up. Foucault observes that the people whom we regard to be the most uptight about sexuality were the most obsessed with it. People who spent every waking minute restricting new sexualities and perversities and in doing so opened up sexuality to a whole new universe of intrigue in science, the law, and medicine, in what he calls the Perverse Implantation. Rather than sexuality becoming more subdued, it became more accessible, with the prudish Victorian discourse on sex merely a catalyst for an unprecedented interest in sex, and indeed, it is often misunderstood to have been prudish in the first place.

We have a similar situation in America with race: we spend every waking minute thinking about it and in doing so create more obsession. We can’t get enough of race. Instead of pushing past racism, we are recycling racism into a new paradigm in which all facets of the racial puzzle are reconstructed, pushed into avenues of politics, art, science, the humanities, and thus continually re-examined, obsessed over. Call in the Racial Implantation. Instead of defeating racism, we are creating a new class of racists who, like the racists of old, believe their solutions to the race problem are progressive. They also tend to be inside an echo chamber where challenges to their outlook are deflected, often, ironically enough, with charges of racism.

Given these issues of race in our discourse, racism itself isn’t surprising. I would be surprised to find myself in any modern society today without racism. It either is an extremely natural human instinct in complex societies, or it is going to be a very bad habit to break. I think everyone will disagree on the best “solution” to racism, the discussion of which I think may be part of the problem, but c’est la vie. You can’t argue with the facts: America has racists, and whites sit at the top of the racial hierarchy. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including whites. White people, like myself, find it difficult to square their belief in an egalitarian society with the racial realities of our still predominantly white society. And that’s something that we can and should address, and there are plenty of ideas on how to do so. But the first step to solving a problem is recognizing a problem. And the problem, I believe, needs to include our obsession with race. We need to realize that our race discourse has added to, and perhaps even compounded the racism problem. I would like to see racism become just one part of a larger discourse where we look at ourselves first and foremost as perpetrators of a perverse race logic. Only then can we really begin to address the dreams of a post-racial future.

Thanks to Danilo Campos and Frances Low for reading drafts of this.

May 18, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
On Same-Sex Marriage

On Same-Sex Marriage

I was at the first same-sex civil union performed in Connecticut, and for that I consider myself privileged. After the brides slowly walked down the aisle to the altar, the Unitarian pastor performing the ceremony told us, through tears, that they symbolically took their time getting to the altar because it has taken them a long, long time to be able to get married. For a couple that had been together for more than 20 years, and had each spent a lifetime fighting for their right to get married, it was about bloody time they were allowed to openly, proudly declare their love for one another and have that love recognized by the state.

enhanced-buzz-21299-1355130638-5That was in 2005. It would still be three more years before Connecticut became only the third state to enact same-sex marriage legislation. Other states followed suit, but not without problems. In 2008, California’s infamous Prop 8 banned same-sex marriage in my current home state, rolling back a right that had been granted to gay couples previously, and prompting a litany of suits that have now reached the Supreme Court. But even in 2005, although it was still an uphill battle for millions of gay couples in the United States, it wasn’t unthinkable that the nation was at a tipping point. In just seven years’ time, a blink of the eye in legislative terms, nine states now allow same-sex couples to marry, with the first to allow it by popular vote in the last election. The president of the United States, for the first time, publicly acknowledged his support of the issue. Multiple Republicans and GOP insiders have acknowledged that there is little they can do about the eventual legalization of same sex marriage nationally. And in a stunning symbolic blow to the sadomasochistic social conservative movement, conservative-turned-libertarian Glen Beck is joining Bill O’Reilly and the ranks of the right who finally acknowledge that small-government conservatism means the government should stay out of love as well.

Pictures of couples marking their 40 years of commitment to each other with wedding rings say more about the necessity of righting this fundamental injustice nationally than I ever could, but it’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how we got here, and just how important this is to the nation. There are people today who still remember when “miscegenation” was illegal, and when blacks couldn’t marry whites. Hell, there are people today who were around when women first got the right to vote. It is a painful legacy of our history that only until recently have all people, of all kinds, truly been a part of the national project. And nothing is more odious than the interjection of government power into private lives of citizens (if you ask me, we’re going in the wrong direction: we should be ending government involvement in marriage altogether). But especially when sex and love have been used by countless regimes in history to drive wedges between people of different races and faiths (especially where religion is concerned), it has finally become somewhat of a banality at this point to stand up and declare openly, “I can love who I want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

enhanced-buzz-13310-1355130194-9I could say a lot about this, particularly about South Africa which went from apartheid’s strict regulations on sex and marriage to full-blown marriage equality within 20 years, but it is amazing how steadfastly civil liberties can be protected as long as people keep speaking out for them. For there are plenty of people who would like this “sin” to be punishable by death. There are plenty of people who would like to see gays “cured” by the state, or see religion in general imposed upon children in classrooms. And, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of our friends on the left who would like to tell people what foods they can eat, or what lightbulbs they can use, or what is appropriate to say and in which fora. There will always be people who believe they have a right not to be offended by someone else’s personal choices and beliefs, and they will work to take away our rights in turn.

The test of the immutability of the right to marriage is not whether it becomes national law in 5 years, but whether in 30 years, or 50 years, people take it for granted, the way I fear many people today take their right to a fair trial for granted. Whether people realize how difficult it was to acquire these rights, there are always sinister forces looking to defeat them. We must be vigilant and continue to fight to protect our natural rights, rights that should and will belong to us even if our universe has been clouded with totalitarianism.

The wedding bells today in Washington are a welcome sound to all who can hear them. And may they soon ring out in Mississippi and Georgia and Idaho. And may they soon ring out in Indonesia and Iran and Uganda. And when they do, let us not forget how hard it is to gain our rights, and never fail to protect them.

As an aside: if you are a supporter of gay rights, but also believe in conservative ideals like small government, free minds and free markets, I recommend donating to GOProud, an conservative gay rights organization that supports states’ rights (that wonderful feature of federalism that has allowed gay couples to get married all across America even while many people oppose it). Whereas they are a little controversial on their narrow line on same-sex marriage, they get points for fighting discrimination and pushing for more acceptance in the conservative movement.

December 11, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Immigration Attacked from Both Sides

Immigration Attacked from Both Sides

Ignoring the fact that the decision was extremely political (let’s face it, what presidential decision isn’t?), the move made by the Obama Administration to stop the deportation of children of illegal immigrants is, in Obama’s words, “the right thing to do.”  Today’s decision solves an important problem that needed to be addressed.  Children of illegal immigrants occupy an awkward space between the illegal alien and naturalized citizen: after all, why should a child who committed no crime pay the price?  Critics of amnesty for “DREAM-ers” will say that giving amnesty to children up until the age of 16 will encourage more parents to bring their children here illegally, and give them more time to do so.  Is it true that this act will encourage more illegal immigration?  Probably–it is hard to see how it wouldn’t.  But decriminalizing marijuana might lead to more drug use and that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do either.

The greater problem in this controversy is the continued hatred of immigration in general from the xenophobic right, and the weak economic opposition put forward by the protectionist left.  As with so many things in our politics, the right and the left often find themselves strange bedfellows when it comes to questions of innovation and growth.

To the xenophobes, it cannot be emphasized enough that cliché assertion that we are a nation of immigrants.  Hearing the anti-immigration movement spew the same nonsense as the nativists and Know-Nothings of the past reveals a shameful part of our national discourse: a discourse that in countless ways has been built on oppression and exclusion.  As with all immigrants in our history, this latest wave faces opposition from an entrenched majority that believes they constitute the “real” American, even though the ancestors of these “real” Americans faced the same opposition on the same arguments.  In America, there should be no such thing as a foreigner, and yet, we find ourselves every generation with new definitions of foreign-ness to fall back on.  Since 9/11, our discourse has welcomed a new breed of foreigner, the Islamic fundamentalist, with all his attached stigma: terror, oppression of women, and anti-Christian theology.

Now, there is an economic argument, a weak one, against immigration, which the now-infamous Neil Munro heckled Obama with: “What about American workers who are unemployed while you employ foreigners?”  The first, easy response to this argument is that these children aren’t foreigners in anything but name.  If anything, a whole new generation of Americans has just been re-born in their own land.  But the second, economic response is that immigrants aren’t taking American jobs.  There are generally two kinds of immigrants: skilled immigrants who move to the US for a job (and thus are no different than economic migrants who move from state to state for a new job), and unskilled immigrants who come to the US in search of opportunity, safety, asylum or freedom.  Skilled immigrants are certainly not taking American jobs, and in many cases are the only qualified people to do those jobs.  One of my coworkers recently went through a 8 month visa approval process to move to the US to do his own job, and part of the process involved having to prove that he was the only one who could do his job (and not an American).  The logic is overwhelmingly bad.  If we could find someone else to do his job, we would have–it’s obviously cheaper and more efficient to hire someone in the same city and get them to work right away.  Skilled immigrants come to the US to fill holes in our labor market, which are holes created by our own protectionist policies and market inefficiencies–hardly an immigrant’s fault.

Unskilled immigrants, on the other hand, are a different story.  While it is true that immigrants who come to the US with no experience or no existing connections may very well be taking jobs that could be worked by Americans, the fact is that immigrants are often willing to work at a much lower wage than Americans, and undocumented immigrants of course are often willing to work at less than the legal minimum wage.  So a protectionist’s immediate response should not be to limit immigration, but to ask how Americans can compete for jobs in their own country, which of course entails repealing said minimum wage and let people work for the value of their work and not an inflated value that bars Americans from greater employment.  But that issue aside, the fact is that immigrants face natural barriers to employment (language, culture, experience) that native Americans do not face, and if employers are willing and able to legally employ these immigrants instead of Americans, that is, again, a problem with Americans: we lack, on the whole, a range of skills that we are either unwilling or unable to do.  Immigrants have no such prejudices.

Now, it is also the case that many immigrants cannot find employment in the workforce, which is why so many immigrants make a living for themselves by catering to other immigrants, creating new companies and new jobs.  These jobs benefit not just the largely new immigrant workforce (for instance, in Chinese restaurants), but provide a host of goods and services that Americans can buy at low prices–once again bringing the benefit of free markets to laborer and consumer alike.  Are these immigrants taking American jobs?  No, of course not.  If anything, they are creating new American jobs and Fortune 500 companies.  There is also a question of locale.  The idea that an immigrant busboy in Houston is stealing the job of a factory worker in Detroit is ludicrous, as are most ideas emanating from the protectionist left and xenophobic right.

Finally, Obama isn’t employing any foreigners while “Americans are unemployed.”  The whole free-markets thing makes it difficult for Obama to favor one worker over another.  The fact is that Americans are employing immigrants above Americans, and that should tell you just how valuable immigrants are to the economy, as a necessary population to supply needed skills and create innovation.  And if there need be any more proof, look to the people who are trying to build a ship off the coast of San Francisco in order to attract immigrants to our shores to start jobs, while trying to get around outdated immigration policies that threaten to stagnate our economy.

June 15, 20121 commentRead More
On the History of White People

On the History of White People

Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is wide ranging in scope and historical depth, covering the history of those people we deem “white.”  In short, it is a remarkable work, taking a historical long view of the perception of the white race and its race discourse throughout history, starting with the ancient Greek perception of the light-skinned Scythians and Celts, through the Roman period, skipping over a thousand years of medieval race-mixing and slave trading, and then focusing her historiographical lens on America, where her work delves deeply into race theories, racial sciences, anthroposociology, eugenics, anti-immigrant nativism and black civil rights.

In the nascent field of whiteness studies, this book is critical to understanding the delicate interplay of race and class that is at the core of how “white” evolved as a social concept in the United States.  The story begins with the ancients, as the civilized Greeks looked at the barbarian Scythians and Celts with their lighter skin and brutal lifestyles.  (Of course, no sources survive from said barbarians, and Painter is fair to moderate her reading of the sources she does have with humor and skepticism throughout the book.)  The Scythians and Celts quickly expanded into many varieties in the eyes of the Greeks and later the Romans:  Colchians, Celts, Gauls, Germani, and in turn these peoples had their own subdivisions.  Painter is quick to establish that “race” as it is perceived today (i.e., of the pigmentation of one’s skin) mattered little to naught to the ancients, who saw peoples primarily in terms of their sexuality:  the virility of the men, the beauty of the women, various mating rituals real and imagined.  Bloodlines throughout Europe undoubtedly mixed a great deal throughout the Roman period and beyond, culminating in an extended period of slave trading throughout Europe that saw as many as a third of Europeans in captivity in the middle ages.  The tradition of slavery as it relates to sex and beauty is carefully examined, and the particular appeal of the light-skinned girls from the Caucasus region plays a significant role in the shaping of white perception of beauty later on.

It is here that Painter turns to the history of racialism in the figure of J. F. Blumenbach, the pioneering German scientist who made a thorough investigation of over 200 skulls from around Europe, Asia and Africa to determine the measurable structural characteristics inherent in his races.  Classification and taxonomy were all the rage for natural scientists in the 18th century, so it is no surprise that a compelling narrative of humanity developed that could explain the races scientifically, culminating as Blumenbach’s study did in the “Caucasian” race, which curiously enough did not include many light-skinned people in Europe including the “Slavics” and “Laplanders.”  It is a theme throughout history that racial differences were not only presumed predetermined, but they were required by the rigid rules of scientific taxonomy to be free from intermixing or impurity, and of course always prone to inherent prejudice.  It is not surprising that certain light-skinned people were not classified as “Caucasian” until well into the 20th century.

From Blumenbach, Painter takes us to the bulk of her scholarship, and a third of the book, which traces the white racial theories and Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism of countless scientists and anthropologists of the 18th and 19th centuries such as Germaine de Staël, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Z. Ripley.  As the scholarship begins in the intellectual center of Europe, Germany, in the 18th century, it is not surprising that the most preeminent racial theorists were also Teutonists who traced the superiority of German stock from Roman times.  Germaine de Staël, a woman before her time who excelled intellectually and politically in high academic circles, took the Germanic history and expounded about German superiority and greatness, connecting the success of German, or Saxon, breeding, with the success of the industrializing English-speaking world.  The “Anglo-Saxon” link was a particular favorite of future American race theorists as it made complete the path of superiority in the white race throughout history.  The Anglo-Saxon superiority was trumpeted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who looks at the English history as a story of a superior German stock supplanting the inferior Celts, who were less civilized, poorer, and, incidentally, Catholic (not surprisingly the political environment in Emerson’s time was highly anti-immigrant and virulently anti-Catholic).

We see several explosive political cartoons from Thomas Nast, the famed cartoonist (and inventor of the modern Santa Claus) who apparently harbored some violently anti-Irish views.  The preeminent racial reading of the tail end of this age was the 1899 book Races of Europe by William Z. Ripley, which expounded on the taxonomy of the white race to minute levels of detail including eye color, hair color, head shape and face length.  Ripley’s work gave even more scientific validity to the racial hygienists of the 20th century who sought to put racial theory into practice, advocating eugenics as a means to population control.  (The focus of white racism on other white people occupies a substantial portion of this book, which is what might distinguish it from other histories of racialism.)

At the core of Painter’s thesis is the evolution of “white” from a very narrow definition covering the so-called direct blood descendants of Saxons and excluding pretty much everyone else–including Irish, southern Europeans, Jews, and of course Africans–to an increasingly widening definition as the political and social needs of whiteness grew.  With waves of American immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whiteness encountered several enlargements that not only affected how those within the Anglo-Saxon “pure” whites saw themselves, but created an easier social and economic opposition to blacks.  Of course, she does not ignore the Civil Rights movement which played a crucial role in altering the political consciousness to see “black” and in doing so, see “white” as a much more expansive category opposite to “black.”  But she does not drive this point home as well as she could, that whiteness until very recently had very little to do with blackness as a social construct.  Whereas today, we view “white” as being in many ways the antithesis of “black,” the race theorists of the 19th century were not preoccupied with blacks at all.  In fact, Emerson himself was a well known abolitionist.  The intellectuals in the 18th and 19th centuries who sought to create and define races were more concerned with the races among white people than the races aside from white people.  To be white was not to be non-black, insofar as an Irish immigrant in New York was often seen as being as little deserving of inclusion in the white race as a black man from South Carolina.

Painter cuts a sizable swath out of white history, but by the author’s own admission, the book is mistitled.  Past the colonial era, it addresses exclusively the history of white people in America, and more importantly focuses on the successive enlargements of American whiteness as it relates to class, economics and sociology.  The book does not, sadly, focus on the peculiar postcolonial state of whites in the non-Western world, including the unique case of the Afrikaners in South Africa I have researched in the past.  The book also does not delve deeply into perceptions of whiteness or anti-white discourse past the 19th century, preferring instead to focus on the white perception of white identity, making the book, ironically enough, too white-centric.  In most histories of a race, the focus is on that peoples’ placement in society as an agent and erstwhile victim of change (or focus on the discourse or influence of that group on society at large).  In The History of White People, we are more interested in the development of American nativism, the modern perception of whiteness as it differs from earlier perceptions of whiteness, and of course the retelling of a very old story indeed:  a story of how people love to compartmentalize and control their own identities through artificial definitions with dubious historical consistency.

June 14, 20121 commentRead More
Valley of the Afrikaners: Orania and the Making of a Post-Apartheid White Identity

Valley of the Afrikaners: Orania and the Making of a Post-Apartheid White Identity

Note:  This was originally published in the Hypocrite Reader in May 2011.

In a subtle valley among the rolling green hills of the South African veld, there is a rural village enclave known as Orania. Established on private land by a small group of South African citizens, the village is a bastion of memory for its 800 residents, within which they have attempted to recreate a failed 20th-century sociopolitical experiment architected by the man whose statue overlooks the town square. That man was H. F. Verwoerd, and that experiment was apartheid, arguably the most brutal and sustained violation of human rights since World War II.

Although Orania maintains a somewhat isolationist policy due to its decidedly awkward status in modern South Africa, I was given the opportunity to interview the residents of Orania and its leaders in order to study the realignment of the South African white identity after apartheid.

*              *              *

Apartheid is often misunderstood, by Americans in particular, as a system of segregation not unlike that in the pre-Civil Rights southern United States. In reality, apartheid was an absolute, undeniably fascist, fully compartmentalized system in which arbitrarily designated racial groups were not only relegated to separate citizenships, but operated within separate economies, polities, and juridical systems. (In one telling example, at one time during apartheid there were ten separate departments of education—one for each “race,” and one for each dependent “homeland” territory.) The Afrikaners were a white, Dutch Calvinist population that settled in South Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and developed their own linguistic, ethnic and cultural heritage, so much so that by the time of the British colonization in the nineteenth century it was the Afrikaners, not the native African populations, who put up the most resistance to British rule. Apartheid’s underlying philosophy was born of the political determination of the Afrikaners.

The Afrikaner dream of an independent volkstaat (“people’s state”) was delayed during the period of British colonization. It had to wait until 1948, when the National Party came to power. Its first order of business was the attempted establishment of a utopian, linguistically and culturally pure Afrikaans nation, in a political system that came to be known as apartheid. In 1960, Verwoerd, then Prime Minister, tried to fulfill the Afrikaner dream of full independence by separating from the British Commonwealth and establishing the Republic of South Africa.[1]

Increasing international isolation and internal demands for reform led to the demise of apartheid, and in 1994 the new multi-racial and multi-party democracy promulgated a new constitution that outlawed racism and guaranteed recognition of all South African ethnic identities. The new constitution offered many oppressed South African ethnic groups, such as the Zulu and Xhosa, who had been relegated to poverty and insignificance in the “native” homelands set up during apartheid, the opportunity to practice their linguistic and cultural heritage freely, and participate in the South African democratic project as equal citizens. But for some, like the Afrikaners, this constitutional provision was necessary to allay their fears of post-apartheid marginalization. After their protected status under apartheid ended, they feared the loss of their national and linguistic identity as they suddenly became a disempowered minority. Although most Afrikaners adapted to the transition by embracing non-racialism as an essential component of the new national order, some felt a compelling urge to entrench themselves further in the land, reaffirming their belief that Afrikanerdom constituted a culturally distinct and uncompromisingly African heritage.

Enter Carel Boshoff, grandson-in-law of Verwoerd himself, who, along with his wife and 30 Afrikaner farmers, professors, missionaries and clergy—and along with Verwoerd’s 92-year-old widow—spent half a million dollars on a ghost town in the Northern Cape to found Orania in 1993.

*              *              *

Orania, as a constitutionally legal self-governing entity with its own currency, banks, schools, and farms, occupies a fascinating position in the new South Africa: a group of Afrikaners, wishing to extend the nationalist project of apartheid, created a self-determined nation unto themselves, by citing their constitutional right to cultural advancement. Indeed, Oranians are overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, conservative Afrikaners who support a return to the ideals of Verwoerd and apartheid.

That sentiment in itself is not surprising. What is surprising is the nostalgia of these Afrikaner purists as it relates to their own self-determination. Frequently the residents express discontent over the “sapping of Afrikaner identity” and their fears of marginalization in the new South Africa, and they suggest that the Afrikaner ideal could be lost due to “Afrikaner pragmatism.” Observed Carel Boshoff IV, the grandson of Orania’s founder, “What was once a resolute community that demanded respect has now developed into a loose bundle of individuals that totter between nostalgia and opportunism.” However, Oranians do not consider themselves to be victims, but cultural crusaders who seized the opportunity of the transition to found a self-determined community of proactive, proud Afrikaners. Oranians hope to practice Afrikanerdom in all its purest linguistic, racial, religious and cultural forms free of outside molestation. Only Afrikaans is spoken, the only church is the Dutch Reformed Church, and no non-Afrikaners are allowed to live in Orania—not even white, English-speaking South Africans (unless they identify as Afrikaner).

The community, to them, is not about racism but about the continuance of Afrikanerdom as a legitimate cultural project. They see themselves therefore less as racial purists than as cultural purists, and view their town very much as a bastion of Afrikaner purity. Said one Oranian teacher:

Orania’s growth depends to a large extent on the situation in the rest of the country. If Afrikaners feel threatened in [South Africa] Orania will grow quicker, but fear should not be the driving force for people to move to Orania—neither racism. Orania cannot be seen as a place to escape—it may not be a negative action, but proactive and a positive challenge.

Furthermore, Oranians are surprisingly willing to engage in the national political discourse. They consider themselves to be citizens of South Africa, and are proud of the Afrikaner contribution to its history. Most moved to Orania because of what they perceived to be their victimization by the government when it came to employment, and fear of white-targeted crime. (It is a matter of debate among scholars whether the high crime rate in South Africa disproportionately targets whites.) They take a stance against the assertion that Afrikanerdom is merely a racial identity, and defend their right to exist in a closed community. Finally, they believe that living in such communities should be a goal of most South Africans. Said an Oranian engineer:

True peace can only be found in the co-existence of the different peoples of South Africa. If each group can find peace with themselves and peace with their neighbors then South Africa will be a good place to live in. You can only found peace with yourself if you respect your own identity and be prepared to protect it. The only way to protect it is to group with your own people.

This sentiment is echoed by another resident, who told me:

Yes, I think there should be more towns like Orania, as we are a bit far from our families, I would say, one Orania-type town in every province, maybe. No, never will the whole of SA ever be like Orania, as it is a rainbow nation, but to have a few places for each nationality in and around SA where your own culture is kept, will be a good idea, I think. [emphasis mine]

Certainly, this concept is nothing new—apartheid itself was an experiment in “Bantustaning,” the practice of allotting land to different ethnic groups. The Bantustans were legally treated much in the same way that American Indian reservations are today—separate governments, with little to no assistance from the apartheid government. The Bantustans, which date back to the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, were the government’s solution to the problem of the black majority. By giving them “homelands,” it was hoped a large-scale demographic catastrophe would be averted. The Oranian position, for this reason, has been challenged by South Africans who reject separatism and see echoes of the racist apartheid project in Orania. Orania has been criticized by many South Africans for being a racist enclave and continuing to support and teach apartheid-era ideas. One professor observed that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) opposes places like Orania because it fears a trend toward the Bantustaning of South Africa.

*              *              *

What is to be made of this group of rural settlers whose primary goal is the continuation of an apartheid system in the face of overwhelming national opposition? Are they to be celebrated for their commitment to a nationalist cause, or ridiculed for their refusal to assimilate into an increasingly democratized South Africa? Are they politicized? Whom do they represent, if more than just themselves? And finally, are they merely racists? Or do they represent a complex identity crisis, where whites have been forced to reexamine their own conceptions of themselves?

White introspection is not a peculiarly Afrikaner phenomenon in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a common discursive theme in the collective white experience, drawing from feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness in the new regime. After apartheid, the white identity in the new South Africa is no longer seen as a specifically racial concept, but as representing a complex relationship between culture and class. Whites have experienced a dismantling of their own worldview, a correction in their previously assumed conception of themselves. In response, many have created an environment of collectivism tied to a common history, in an attempt to legitimize whiteness as a compelling identity. The narrative of whiteness has become one of separation, of delegitimization. In other words, whites have finally had to come face-to-face with their minorityhood.

For Afrikaners, the identity crisis gains another level of complexity. Afrikaners have always had a strong conception of their own national heritage, born of religious persecution, anti-colonial resistance, rugged pioneering, and entrepreneurship. They were the first European settlers in South Africa, and they feel the same right to their country as white Australians feel to theirs. The deconstruction of apartheid, to most South Africans (including white non-Afrikaners), was the deconstruction of a racist aberration; for many Afrikaners, it was the deconstruction of a dream of independence and self-determination. Thus, many Afrikaners have been unable to adjust to their new post-apartheid minorityhood, but instead have found themselves to be a shadow in search of a form—a stark contrast to the previous regime, where the definition and elaboration of an Afrikaner national identity was an accepted dogma of state policy. In this search for recognition as a new minority, they have been met by a hostile South Africa that cares more about lifting the disenfranchised masses out of desolation than protecting a privileged few.

Thus it is not particularly surprising that since apartheid, a sentiment has emerged among Afrikaners that racism, while still very much active, has been turned on its head. A 2009 documentary, “Poor Whites/Rich Blacks,” depicts a poor Afrikaner family faced with the realities of the new South Africa. The man tells the interviewer that apartheid still exists, but in reverse: “Yes, we were in the good position, that was apartheid. Now it’s the opposite, but it is still apartheid.” The conception of “reverse apartheid” has become a rallying cry for Afrikaners. One Afrikaner wrote: “I continue to be against it [apartheid], also now that the role players have been swapped around and the policy of race differentiation is being labeled ‘affirmative action.’ Under the policy of apartheid, particularly the Afrikaners sought to obtain certain privileges and protection for themselves. Today the black majority seeks to do likewise.”

The use of the term “new apartheid” is particularly controversial because it draws an equivalency that is not historically or sociologically accurate. However, it is a common theme in interview responses from Afrikaners, especially those in Orania, to state their objection to the apartheid system, then draw a moral equivalency between apartheid victimization and their own experience. In doing so, they hope to legitimate their own position. It does not follow that white racism and black racism are morally equivalent, or that the white “victims” of the new order occupy the same historical position as their black counterparts. The compulsive desire to be sympathetic while simultaneously apologetic is reflective of a new type of white identity characteristic of the new South Africa, which has become ideologically linked with the persecution ethos of previous generations. Within the Afrikaner pro-nationalist and pro-white historiography, South Africa has always been a land of racial conflict, from the natives to the English, and now from black nationalism to black power. Thus, while it is hardly possible to demonstrate a moral equivalence between white racism and black racism, there may nonetheless be a relationship between the white fear of marginalization and the black fear of marginalization. Certainly this undercurrent runs through Afrikaner discourse on their experience, and it has permeated the modern Afrikaner society, causing it to reevaluate its own status in a post-apartheid world.

Many Afrikaners feel that to see evidence of their victimization, they need look no further than the systematic dismantling of Afrikaner institutions and linguistic heritage after apartheid. This was a bilateral process: not only did Afrikaner influence in government, education, and law wane, but after apartheid, Afrikaans-language publications, Afrikaans-identified businesses, and traditionally Afrikaans-identified political parties started to downplay their Afrikaner roots and integrate with mainstream society. Afrikaans festivals and cultural organizations saw a drop in funding, and the previously unabashedly Afrikaner bank, Volkskas, diluted its stake in Afrikanerdom by making the first “black empowerment” deal, courting Coloured management and selling its insurance policies to majority non-Afrikaner customers. Even the National Party, whose roots lay solidly in Afrikanerdom, disassociated with Afrikaners in an attempt to form new coalitions, notably merging with the ruling ANC in 2005.

However, despite a persistent fear among most Afrikaners in South Africa about delegitimization, Orania is one of only a couple such Afrikaner enclaves in the country, suggesting that on the whole, most Afrikaners participate in civil society and seek to protect their interests through the democratic process within public, diversified communities. This phenomenon is nowhere more apparent than in the activities of AfriForum, a major white advocacy group. Its charter draws heavily from the post-apartheid South African constitution and stresses the importance of minority rights vis-à-vis the rights of the majority, a common theme in the philosophy of liberal democracy. AfriForum’s commitment to the democratic process and its belief in the constitutionalism of the new South Africa legitimizes the organization, allowing it to be accepted, if begrudgingly, not as a fringe group seeking extremist or racist goals but as a lobbying group interested in advancing the interests of the white minority. (AfriForum is currently embroiled in a national controversy over the hate speech trial of Julius Malema, president of the African National Congress Youth League, who has been criticized for his use at rallies of the apartheid-era fight song “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer,” which has been used in the past to incite violence against Afrikaner farmers.)

AfriForum’s foremost concern, according to their literature, is the “apathetic withdrawal” of whites into their own political disenfranchisement, which leads to further non-involvement and lack of influence in the political process. In describing this apathy, they refer not just to the citizens of Orania, but to the attitude of the white minority in general, which they feel is a victim of its introspection as well as that of the ruling majority. They advocate a “Come Home” campaign, seeking to bring disaffected whites back to South Africa, and a campaign “for the protection and consolidation of civil rights,” which seeks to address specific policy points in the new race discourse, including employment inequity and crime.

*              *              *

Are Oranians merely racists? Indeed, many Oranians admit, even insist, that they are racists. However, the point of divergence with mainstream society, observed one foreign reporter, occurs when they insist that “There’s nothing wrong with racism.” The society of Orania has coalesced around a modern, and virulent, sort of racist white exclusivity—it is a way of life. However, unlike their white counterparts in the rest of South Africa, who live their lives in a “bubble” within a sea of black labor, whites in Orania do all of the work themselves. As a British journalist observed, “It’s not a photo opportunity in Britain to snap a white person holding a spade. For Afrikaners—hell, most of white South Africa—it’s a shock.” Orania can be viewed as a microcosm of the newfound white identity in South Africa, where racism lives on, but where new expectations regarding racial roles are being accepted. The racism of the people of Orania is almost a nostalgic throwback to an earlier era, to which they cling to retain cultural legitimacy. However, unlike some right-wing Afrikaner reactionaries who seek to dismantle the new democracy using violence, Oranians seem to be content living their lives in their cultural bubble, seemingly without ill will toward the larger South African state, with most actively participating in national elections as supporters of the Freedom Front Plus (FFP) party. As one resident told me, “I don’t mind being part of South Africa and having a loyalty toward the country as long as it does not mean that I have to sacrifice my own identity as Afrikaner.” Greater South Africa has not been as hostile as might be expected toward this community: Nelson Mandela, Julius Malema, and current president Jacob Zuma have all visited Orania.

So one has to ask: is it not so much a return to apartheid they crave, but a return to cultural independence? Is it minority rule they seek, or minority acceptance? Maybe in their search for their own apartheid, they hope to capture what control they can achieve: self-determination, self-government, and, if possible, self-respect. However, many Oranians hope that such a system will one day be unnecessary, and they can live in a greater South Africa free of the burdens of the past. One of my respondents wrote:

If there were ANY cure for this ugly mess in our lovely country called crime or violence, the necessity for an Orania would not have happened, as we are not people for hatred, fights and murders, no, no, no, we are loving people, that would only like a place in the sun, and a haven for our children and old people, where we can live like normal people, and not locked up in our houses that became our jails! If ever there is a cure for all of this, please let us know, and we will implement it immediately, so that we can have a SAFE and LOVELY SOUTH AFRICA again, which we love so much! Where else can we go, where can we hide, nowhere, so we will just have to stay, and pray to our Lord that all will end well!

It is hard to see these residents as anything but the people they have become: a minority—now perhaps an unprotected minority—who feel, sincerely, that their salvation will come not in their assimilation but in their separation. They do not view themselves as whites: that is a racial identity they would rather subordinate to their Afrikaner heritage. Instead, their very definition of Afrikanerdom is intertwined with their idea of cultural uniqueness, of rugged individualism, and above all else resistance to domination. As one of my respondents wrote,

What is an Afrikaner? To be proud of your heritage as a group of people that was forced out of their original mother country, to regroup in a foreign continent, and to build a community with strong Christian living norms, create their own language and norms and use it to better the living conditions not only of themselves but also the other people of South Africa.

The question today for the residents of Orania is how they can reconcile their new identity with a new nation that is also striving to identify itself—how they can be reabsorbed into the new South African identity without losing their own.

[1] It goes without saying that a true volkstaat never did—and never could—exist in South Africa. This is both because 80% of the population was non-white and because half of the white population was English-speaking non-Afrikaners, who were needed to form a white power coalition.

May 25, 2011Comments are DisabledRead More
Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

The apartheid museum presents itself as an attempt to educate and renew, not to shock and horrify.  It stands in stark contrast to museums which chronicle other instances of human suffering such as the Holocaust and slave museums;  the Apartheid Museum is designed to provide a path backwards into history, yet simultaneously put history in the present.  It cannot properly be called a post-apartheid museum because its goal is to preserve the memory of apartheid and its living history.  It is a museum of current events as much as it is a museum of the past.  It is a commentary on the present.

The Apartheid Museum presents a barren face and an optimistic interior, perhaps an attempt to recapitulate the horrors of apartheid against a backdrop of renewal and reconciliation.  Emotionless concrete pillars frame the entrance, tall, cold—yet symbolically representative of the pillars of the new South Africa.  Visitors are immediately forced into arbitrary apartheid-era categories of “white” and “non-white” and enter one of two doorways of the museum accordingly.  These first divided entrances are enclosed, claustrophobic, caged, lined with a mosaic of identity cards, an imposing presence of a system of classification and serialization:  Cape Coloured.  Malay.  Manlik.  Vronlik.  Republick van Suid-Afrika.  It is a direct assault on the visitor’s sense of comfort.  There is no escape.  And then the paths merge.

Aside from this first division, the museum embarks on a process of non-racialism, an attempt to explain apartheid without resorting to revisionist, emotionally charged or explosive history.  Visitors are presented with what can only be called an effort at completeness and accurateness—thus, unlike the District Six museum in Cape Town, or the Voortrekker Monument from the other side, the Apartheid Museum makes an effort, in theory, to address the foundational political and economical issues surrounding apartheid, and not merely to extract outrage from its visitors.  This is not to say the museum is emotionally lacking.  But the presentation of exhibits within the museum space allow for discussion, controversy, and emotion without imposing a nationalist, anti-Afrikaner or other agenda; it documents and presents.

That being said, a couple of biases and omissions were apparent in the presentation.  The museum seems to have a heavy pro-ANC bias, and pays little attention to the struggle of the PAC, SACP and other groups against apartheid.  Most notably, the struggle of black activists is presented almost in the complete absence of references to colored and white activists.  The liberation struggle is framed as an opposition to the National Party and only the National Party—thus, a lot of attention is paid to apartheid-era footage of government officials, propaganda from filmmakers reminiscent of Birth of a Nation recalling the Great Trek and the Voortrekker Monument, and facist constructionist films regarding the rise of the Afrikaner right and the nationalist movements that look more like Triumph of the Will and American neo-Nazis than anything else.  What is more surprising is virtually none of the exhibition focuses on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a watershed moment in the reconstruction, although the museum concentrates heavily on the process of political renewal.

However, several exhibits were provocative and succeeded in bringing across the enormity of the efforts of South Africans of all stripes to end apartheid peacefully.  Most notable was the array of television screens showing leaders at the 1993 constitutional convention discussing the process to peaceful political transition, while large windows beneath the screens showed the gallery in the next room with large projections of 1990’s violence during the same process.  It was meant, and it succeeded, to show the struggle of political leaders to overcome the destructiveness, yet appeal, of violence to come together and construct a new government.  This exhibit makes the blown-up photograph of the first free South African parliament, with President Nelson Mandela sitting in the front row, even more poignant:  it highlights the remarkable journey of a country from civil war to revolution to peace in a few short, relatively bloodless years.

And this was the museum’s greatest triumph.  It did not seek to create anger, nor to implicate the past in the travails of the present.  It sought to show the process of power and politics and the promise of South Africa through the audacity of its leaders and liberators.  It is not a museum of the past, says Steven C. Dubin: “That presupposes that museums are exclusively the domain of the defunct and the antiquated, rather being places that can initiate dialogue and stimulate debate about past as well as contemporary issues.”  The Apartheid Museum does stimulate debate, and seeing the museum in the context of the current election makes it even more meaningful.  One of the last exhibits is a glass case filled with newspaper articles—current newspaper articles—regarding politics, the election, and national South African issues.  The most recently dated one was February 27, two days before we visited the museum.  The attention paid to the present, in the context of the past, was the singular goal of the exhibit, and brought the entire museum full circle.  This is not a post-apartheid experiment but a modern exhibit detailing the colorful and diverse range of the South African population, across all political divides, and the promise of the future.

March 1, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More
The Slippery Slope

The Slippery Slope

The most disturbing story to come out of the news of late has not been the Michael Pfelger videos (although, unlike Wright, he has managed to issue a somewhat sincere apology).  Lost in the Politico’s election analysis and the media’s echo chamber has been a little-noticed story about Dunkin’ Donuts, who just pulled an ad from the air which included Rachel Ray wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabic scarf.

Facing severe criticism that the wearing of the scarf was symbolic support for Islamic terrorism, Dunkin’ Donuts, as the BBC reports, issued a statement that the scarf was not intended to offend and that “given the possibility of misperception the commercial was no longer being used.”

What misperception?  The wearing of a traditional dress, cultural dress, is somehow a support of Islamic extremism?  Conservative bloggers have pointed out, correctly, that the scarf was worn by Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian liberation movement until his death in 2004, and is routinely worn by Islamic extremists and Palestinian nationalists.

True.  But the scarf is also worn by millions of Arabs, and non-Arabs, around the world, and an overwhelming majority of them would rather not perform extreme and violent acts of terror, thank you very much.  Most people who wear the keffiyeh are not extremists, and are certainly not terrorists (and I’m sure Rachel Ray would agree).

Not only do Arabs wear the keffiyeh, but Urban Outfitters sold the scarves until January 2007, when, responding to public pressure, they pulled it from the shelves.  In their statement:  “We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.”

What’s next?  The pulling of Middle East products off store shelves?  The sacking of Arab journalists?

This is symbolic of a much larger undercurrent of American Islamophobia that has swept the United States (and much of Europe) since before September 11.  Indicators of this movement have been rampant: Brigitte Bardot’s incendiary anti-Muslim comments that recently got her fined, riots in the streets of Paris, the Danish cartoon fiasco and of course, conservative commentators’ incessant ranting about the “Muslim problem.”  Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are especially to blame.

Of course, now that Barack Obama, a black man with the middle name Hussein, is running for president, the ugliest of the hatred of Muslims in America has come out in full force.  In all the talk about racism in this Democratic primary season, the mainstream commentary has forgotten about the real issue of race in this election—not whether Obama is “too black” to be President, but whether or not he is a Muslim.

It was Barack Hussein Obama’s connection to Islam—through his father—that led to the Fox report, later proved to be false, that Obama had attended a radical Islamic school as a schoolboy in Indonesia.  It was this false religiosity that led to the famous “Madrassa Hoax” email, which circulated the internet widely in the early months of the primary and has since emerged again.  The email implored Americans “Let us all remain alert concerning Obama’s expected presidential candidacy,” and that “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level – through the President of the United States, one of their own!”

Remember Hillary Clinton’s famous “3AM” ad, in which she asked who would best be able to answer a 3AM phone call to the White House in the midst of a catastrophe?  Orlando Patterson wrote for the New York Times that the ad played on subtle racism and the classic white fear of “the outsider within”—the criminal black man infiltrating the safe neighborhood:  “The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.”  However, the more subtle sub-message, the one that did not have to be stated, was the fact that “Something is happening in the world,” and the terrorists behind that “something”—well, you get the picture.  The very idea that a Muslim—a guy who shares a name with the late Iraqi dictator—could be the one answering that call in the White House came across clear enough.  Clinton’s margin of victory in Ohio, much larger than the pre-election polls, suggest that late-deciding voters broke for her, and whether the subtlety of the “3AM” ad had something to do with this final push will never be known for sure.

A Pew poll taken in late March found that one in ten Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim.  The number is telling in part because 10% of Democrats—most of whom already were Clinton supporters—believed this fact, and because 8% of Independents—a group who Obama needs to depend on to win the election in November—believes it as well.  Furthermore, a whopping 19% of rural voters—that’s one in five—believed this to be true.

The fact that the son of a Muslim Kenyan joined a radical black Chicago church, and then stayed in that church for 20 years, does not help diminish the rumor that he is a Muslim.  America is familiar with images of radical black Muslims like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, and should now be equally familiar with Jeremiah Wright’s praise of Farrakhan.  The tendency to equate Islam with radicalism of course has been swollen since 9/11.  But the underlying assumption is that it is Islam that implies radicalism—not blackness.  The fear of Islam “penetrating” American society cannot be understated.

It is disturbing that I have received these emails about “Barack Hussein Obama” being a “secret muslim” who “joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.”  These claims are not only outright false, but they force Obama to sink to the level of divisiveness by having to respond.  “No, I’m not a Muslim!” he has had to say, as if being a Muslim were somehow like being a bunny eater.  Such stringent, politicized denial only reinforces the claims, not diminishes them.  It reminds me of the high schooler who insists “I’m not gay!” when he is hit with the G-word in a routine downsizing of his character by his peers.  (Harry Truman, when we was running for a judicial seat in Missouri, was rumored to be Jewish due to his close ties with a Jewish childhood friend and business partner.  “I’m not Jewish,” he is reported to have said, “and if I was, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.”)

This is a major problem, and one that shows no sign of letting up.  Let the keffiyeh remind us that hatred of Muslims has increased in recent years.  How would America respond if, tomorrow, a skullcap-toting news anchor stepped down because “given the possibility of misperception Mr. ____ will no longer be working with us,” because, after all, “we don’t want anyone to think that we work with Jews.”  It’s unacceptable.

Milton Friedman wrote that in the long run, the free market will work against discrimination.  It’s in the best interest of industry economically, he said, for employers to seek the most qualified people regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.  However, the free market in this case has spoken in another direction:  “Don’t sell this item because people associate it with terrorism, and thus we will lose business if we keep it on the shelves”–this might be good business, but morally it stinks of bigotry.  The underlining assumption is fed, not starved, and thus the evil wheel of bigotry continues to turn, turn, turn.

June 3, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More