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The insidious racism of the Left The desire that we all submit to the same cultural rules threatens the diversity that the Left proclaims as one of its objectives

Credit: Vickie Flores/In Pictures via Getty

September 26, 2019   5 mins

Brexiters are racists. That is the contention often thrown about in the debate about Europe. And it cannot be denied that a number of those who voted to leave the European Union did so as a way of preserving a certain – largely imagined – narrowly ethnic construction of the nation as they have come to understand it.

As some Remainers have rightly pointed out, we are, and have long been, a nation of immigrants. And the idea that we can or should be protecting something ethnically pure and unique about our society is not just a fantasy, but a form of racism that must rightly be called out for what it is.

What I want to explore is whether there is also a largely unacknowledged racism in one of the intellectual tributaries to the Remain instinct, and one that, because largely unacknowledged, is dangerously insidious — not least because it is often dressed up as a positive thing. I will call this instinct ‘universalism’.

In writing about the racist traditions in his own country, the French Marxist philosopher, Etienne Balibar, tries to explain what he describes as “historical fact that is difficult to admit”:

“There is, no doubt, a specifically French brand of the doctrines of Aryianism and biological geneticism, but the true ‘French ideology’ is not to be found in these: it lies, rather, in the idea that the culture has been entrusted with a universal mission to educate the human race. There corresponds to this mission a practice of assimilating dominated populations and a consequent need to differentiate and rank individuals or groups in terms of their greater or lesser aptitude for — or resistance to – assimilation. It was this simultaneously subtle and crushing form of exclusion/inclusion which was deployed in the process of colonisation and the strictly French (or ‘democratic’) variant of the ‘White man’s burden’.”

In other words, just as there is a racism of wanting to maintain some sort of ethnic distinctiveness and difference, there is also a type of racism implicit within universalism too – that all the peoples of the earth ought to submit to a common set of moral and political standards. One might put it this way: there is a racism of over-emphasising the importance of cultural difference and distinctiveness, but there is also a racism of wanting to obliterate difference in the name of some common universal framework: be it ‘democracy’ or ‘Western values’.

When I spoke to the Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony for Confessions, he made the point that the God of the Jews is unique in not imagining universal peace to come about through a process of conquest. All other gods in the ancient world, he maintained, thought that universal peace would come about when everybody else in the world thought the same way they did. Nebuchadnezzar and his god did not seek to conquer enemies because he believed in war but because he believed in peace though sameness. To use a more modern formulation, they believed in a ‘world order’. Their armies wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Today we might call it ‘liberal interventionism’.

In contrast, Hazony maintains, the God of Israel believed in borders. Not as a form of ethnic exclusivism — there is much in the Hebrew scriptures about welcoming the stranger and those in need — and nor as a way of maintaining that ‘my people are better than your people’, but rather more as a type of political humility. In a world of borders, distinctiveness is maintained. In a world without borders, distinctiveness is obliterated. And the obliteration of difference, even if done with the best of intentions, easily amounts to the domination of a backward people by an enlightened one.

And I write enlightened advisedly, because nothing has given the universalising instinct more impetus than the enlightenment. Kant is a case in point. He imagined ‘Perpetual Peace‘ as the implementation of enlightenment values. But these values also carried within themselves clearly racist estimations of those who did not share these values. He maintained, for instance, that the Chinese, Indians, Africans and the indigenous peoples of America were incapable of doing philosophy. Here is one example among many:

“The race of Negroes .. [is] full of affect and passion, very lively, chatty and vain. It can be educated, but only to the extent of servants, i.e they can be trained.”

It is because of examples such as this that Kehinde Andrews, another Confessions guest, has described the Enlightenment as “white man’s identity politics”. But these days we know better, the universalist maintains. Well, tell that to the woman on the beach in France arrested for wearing the burkini, thus offending against western values. Or those banned from wearing a headscarf in school.

Religion is often at the root of the trouble. Critics of religion of the Dawkins school often maintain that it counts against religion that faith in God is subject to so much local colour. They point out that those born in one particular place are likely to believe in the gods of that place, as if this is some sort of gotcha observation, clearly undermining the claims made by that religion.

But this is a gotcha only by the standards of modern, i.e. post enlightenment, notions of universalism. Faith does not aspire to the same sort of universalism as mathematics, for instance. Faith is stubbornly rooted in place and time. It grows out of shared experience. It is an expression of local forms of imaginative solidarity. That, to me, is not a weakness; it is precisely its strength.

I write these words sitting in a café in Tel Aviv, a relatively new town that is an expression of the desire of the Jewish people to maintain their distinctiveness. The way I see it, part of the reason the Labour party in Britain gets Israel so wrong, and the reason it continually falls into anti-Semitism despite its repeated protestations of anti-racism, is not so much that it wants to protect Palestinians from Israeli occupation, but that it refuses to recognise that the desire to maintain religious and cultural distinctiveness is a legitimate aspiration in the modern world.

To return to Balibar, Israel is the political expression of a refusal to assimilate, to be assimilated – and not least because many of its citizens are still only a generation away from a murderous project to eliminate difference, designed and executed in the very heartlands of the enlightenment.

I do not deny – and nor does Hazony – that borders often mean border disputes and therefore conflict. We live in a fallen world. But the desire that we all submit to the same rules, the same cultural framework, is the far greater danger, threatening as it does the very diversity that the Left so often proclaims as one of its objectives.

“This universalism is indeed a form of racism”, writes the brilliant Rabbi Daniel Boyarin. Until the Left begins to recognise that its own version of ‘one size fits all’ universalism contains within itself “coercive discourses of sameness”, and various forms of implicit – sometimes explicit — racism, it will never begin to address, or even understand and recognise, the anti-Semitism that it promotes.

How can we be racists, when we want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, thinks the leftist, not appreciating that, as with the gods of old, this desire for harmony through sameness is the very root of the trouble.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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David Barnett
David Barnett
3 years ago

I can’t dispute this analysis, but would make one observation. Woke-ism seems to be the philosophy of the mediocre. They may have attended elite institutions but seem incapable of making a logical case for their views and merely resort to ad hominem arguments.

By contrast there is a small cadre of articulate, penetrating thinkers with a classical liberal or conservative viewpoint. As pointed out STEM professors are more balanced (politicised subjects climate modelling excepted). So, perhaps the real hope for the future lies in the more balanced view of truly competent thinkers.

This essay is very suggestive that we are headed for a dark age when the wokerati politic our civilisation into collapse.

Perhaps the small cadre of the competent need to establish a Foundation ready to rebuild (echoing Isaac Asimov). Or perhaps they will withdraw to a Galt’s Gulch (Atlas Shugged by Ayn Rand) until the wokerati, unable to repair anything, scream for help.

3 years ago

I think the first direction I would comment from is the failing of the conservatives. Would anyone in the US mention Socialism if modern Capitalism didn’t seem like not just a failure, but also immoral. Besides the absurdity of the medical system, housing, etc. costs are so high that many consider trying to raise a family as impossible. That’s a failed society and might just cause … angst.
The Left is weak though. They have idealism and something of a system in Socialism, but they have huge problems down that path. What if the Left had more than idealism? What if there was a way to make it work? I mean the Conservatives have that, their system tends to work. It’s really not much different than the tribal societies based on endless competition and last man standing, but someone is left standing. I’m not sure that is a given now though. It’s not just that the cooperative win-win strategies are overall more efficient than the competitive win-lose strategies, but also while technology has enriched the ownership class it has also empowered the rest that are able to use it… and they are many. What if they were given a realistic path and goal? Conservatism is or is getting morally bankrupt. Could you imagine if it hit a real viable moral alternative? Ugggg… I should finish writing it instead of nattering on here out of boredom. Transition To A New Human Ecology

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
3 years ago

Like David Barnett, I cannot dispute this analysis. It had never occurred to me that the seemingly irresistible spread of left-liberalism was connected to prestige and fashion; but maybe that’s because I have one of the worst dress-senses of any man I know. Just ask my wife of 41 years. I have never been interested in following the crowd. That’s why I’m here.

I would, however, question the equivalence that Mr West repeatedly makes between the Conservative Party and conservatism. As the late Roger Scruton put it, conservatism has far less to do with creed or dogma than it does with disposition. Instinctively, a conservative knows that good things are easy to destroy and hard to create.

The current Tory Party (I’ll evade its formal title, for obvious reasons) keeps destroying institutions, policies and long-standing social values because it keeps passing legislation that paddles in the shallows of left-liberal policy. And it passes that legislation simply to keep itself in office. Within the Tory Party there are honourable exceptions ” men and women who consistently have campaigned and voted in the interests of true conservatism. But most have not, either because they have no truly conservative principles, or they do not understand the implications of what they are doing, or they toe the party line like Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore.

What is almost entirely lacking in this country ” most obviously in England, but also in Wales and, in a different way in Scotland ” is a party that combines the fiscal policies of classic liberalism (entirely different from modern left-liberalism) with social conservatism. One can argue about the extent to which any government of the last hundred years or more demonstrates the workability of that combination. But that’s another subject, albeit a fascinating one.