On Race & Identity Politics

Most wars don’t start soon enough. This is one of my little reflections on history. That’s why they go on too long. Had the “allies” (whomever gentle reader might choose, for the war he finds most enthralling) had the foresight to strike earlier, they might have wrapped it up quickly. Instead, they dawdled (sloth is a sin), giving the enemy more time to prepare. Advantage: bad guys.

I am thinking here not only of full-scale “foreign” or international wars, but of the civic or civil varieties. And, not only of physical wars with guns and ammo, but also of the political, pre-violent.

Regardless of party affiliation, from the moment the good guys had noticed that the bad guys were fixin’ for a fight, they should have risen to the occasion. Here I am thinking of disorders that befell both American and European society from the 1960s; more specifically of the first appearance of serious “identity politics.”

In my view, you don’t allow that kind of stuff to get started. In a fully civilized country, “the people” are not organized into favored or disfavored racial and ethnic classes.

But already I have to explain something, which a foreigner may perhaps see more clearly than a native, in a country such as the U.S.A. I refer to that old business of slavery, and wish to stress a point that becomes obvious in a larger historical view.

In one sense, the United States was unlucky. Your country imported less than half a million slaves, out of the twelve-million-plus shipped to the New World. (Over a million died in the “middle passage.”) More were landed in Jamaica, or in Cuba; far more in Brazil. These poor people came predominantly from West Africa, and thus from among the darkest-skinned of the many sub-Saharan races. (Africa remains the planet’s most racially diverse continent.)

The visible contrast, in the old cotton-plantation South, with the ultra-white slaveholders, of north European ancestry, made the color issue stick. Generations later, it was obvious who had and had not descended from slaves, with all the resentments and counter-resentments that entails.

In the larger history of world slavery, the race question could not enter to the same degree. Consider for instance the five or so million of (mostly southern) Europeans captured by Arab slave-raiders over the centuries of Islamic advance. Their descendants are today mostly assimilated Muslims. They cannot be told apart on the streets of Tunis, Algiers, Cairo, Baghdad. Only in Arabia does some contrast persist: and there from the history of slave raiding in more eastern parts of Africa. Or in the Maghreb, where West African slaves were imported across the Sahara, but in proportionally smaller numbers.

Veteran in a New Field by Winslow Homer, 1865 [Metropolitan Museum, NYC]
Veteran in a New Field by Winslow Homer, 1865 [Metropolitan Museum, NYC]

Racism, we might say, is mere optics. A Christian is taught (when he is actually taught) to accept a form of equality that follows from the sanctity of all human life. In the Christian view, there is, from conception, no human being who is less than absolutely significant to God. All eugenic ideas are thus absolutely abhorrent.

But humans are sinful. They are responsive to temptation. They can be frightfully shallow. Americans had, and still have, a greater temptation – from Ku Klux Klan to Black Lives Matter – to postulate some existential distinctions that, as Christians, they should never have entertained. Even when denied on the surface, this evil is lurking beneath, until it is spiritually dredged, confronted and eradicated.

The racial conflict that followed from slavery is often taken as the “original sin” of American society. As I have just suggested, it is less “original” than, say, European observers suppose. But on the other side, I think it is more pervasive.

We are often told that America is “a land of immigrants.” This is dangerously untrue. Regardless of race, color, or creed, the overwhelming majority was born here, of parents also born here. They are not immigrants, or, if we are going to look back farther, everyone in the world is an immigrant from our distant nomadic past, and the long universal history of tribal then national conquests.

Neither is the “melting pot” exceptional to America. The assimilation of immigrants and refugees is a commonplace throughout world history. The English, for instance, who might seem racially interchangeable, became so through centuries of miscegenation now mostly covered by the sands of time. The pagan Romans, were they to return, wouldn’t recognize the people who today pass for natives, in the British province they thought they would rule forever; they who cared more for culture than for race.

What I find most discouraging, on this side of the Atlantic, is not merely the survival of the Race Thing – or its subtle export through the triumphs of American popular culture. Rather, the mutation of this racial heritage into the new, and utterly poisonous ideology of “multiculturalism,” or  “identity politics.”

It should have been seen coming, but was not, because humans have scant ability to anticipate mutations of that sort. In retrospect, it was the inevitable product of the Great Society “reforms” of the 1960s, in which the metastasizing welfare state embraced the notion of “group rights.” What began as an arguably well-intended effort, to help the descendants of past racial injustice, metamorphosed into a jungle of tribal issues and responses.

And by no coincidence, I think, this new monstrous ideology has turned expressly against the Christian notions that previously held America (both black and white) together. We now see precisely the opposite of what that memorable Christian, Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for – enshrined as principle in one of the country’s major political parties, and advanced by its “base” in the most noxious form.

From abroad, and even from many places within, it is as if the United States were now descending into another destructive civil war – curiously with Trump cast as Lincoln. But the battle should have been joined from the moment that the stench of identity politics was detected.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.