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.