Breaking symmetry

There used to be a rather lame concept called “reverse racism” – does anybody still deploy that any more? It was popular in the 1970s, when people were pushing back against affirmative action in school admissions and hiring and so on. The idea being that it’s “just as bad” or “just the same” to “discriminate” against white people as against black people. Of course it’s silly, for the obvious reason that the relation between “white people” and “black people”, however you want to theorize it, is in any case not a symmetrical one; sauce for the goose is not, in this case, sauce for the gander.

The same might be said about the relationship between men and women. Clearly it’s not the same as the relationship between white and black, and I would say it’s very different indeed; but it too is not symmetrical, and affirmative action for women in admissions and hiring doesn’t amount to misandry. One might go on to make a similar observation for gay and straight, etc.

But one doesn’t have to postulate symmetry in order to observe that some exercises of asymmetry are, to say the least, misplaced or ill-advised.

For example: it’s clearly impermissible for “white people” to make sweeping blanket statements about black people, and so it should be. But in the present cultural climate, it’s not only permissible but almost obligatory to make such statements about “white people”. Especially for woke white people, who having deplaaared their own whiteness, get credit for wokeness, but go home no less white than they were.

Now I maintain that one doesn’t have to posit symmetry in order to argue that this is a bad idea. It’s bad on the intellectual plane, and it’s downright imbecile on the political plane.

I’ve written a bit elsewhere about how “white people” are the reification of a negative, and thus by definition not a thing, so talking about a non-thing as if it were a thing is apt to create confusion. That’s the intellectual part, and I won’t belabor it further.

The political part is perhaps less abstract and more interesting.

There have always been several ways to approach the matter of black liberation. One is what you might call “Afro-pessimism”, which is perfectly respectable and indeed rather compelling. To summarize, and I hope not to vulgarize, this is the view that there is a great gulf insuperably fixed between white people and black people; the whites, besotted with their whiteness, will never accept the blacks as men and brothers, so the blacks need to circle the wagons and prepare for a more or less permanent state of siege from the whites.

Depressingly enough, there is a lot to be said for this view. But it seems to me like a counsel of despair.

Of course there’s a lot of vulgar integrationism going round – we should all be color-blind, I don’t care what color somebody is, etc. etc. It’s always a lie. The first thing anybody notices in actually existing society, in the US anyway, is what color somebody else is. Even sex is secondary. It’s the first question the cops ask, if you make the mistake of calling the cops; and of course the cops are the blunt but cutting edge of cultural norms, in practice. So color-blindness, for the moment anyway, is a non-starter.

But I would like to think there’s a way open which avoids both the blithe imbecility of post-racialism and the glum hopelessness of Afro-pessimism; and I would like to think that it relies upon the remarkable capacity of human beings to focus on a shared project. And in the process come to value and love each other as comrades and brothers.

Suppose, for example, that the shared project were, quite simply, “equality” – equality in some breathtakingly broad sense, not just racial, not just sexual; a sense inimical to any attempt to re-found inequality on some other, supposedly better basis, like merit or talent or deservingness. Suppose we took the view that Einstein and the village idiot really are equal, and the one deserves as much consideration and respect as the other? And the white guy and the black guy are equal, absolutely radically equal, not just in the abstract qua white and qua black, but any two white and black guys chosen at random, equal as actual living breathing individual human beings? No matter who did better on the SAT, or who went to prison and who didn’t: men and brothers alike, who were born of woman and suffer and rejoice and love and die like human beings.

Okay, it’s a wild idea. Though a good one, I think. But as a by-product, surely it sidelines all these other group-based inequalities? If radical equality is the project and that’s what we’re after, then surely we want all the comrades we can find, black or white, male or female, gay or straight?

The trouble is that any such positive shared project – like radical equality – comes up against some mental reservations and purposes of evasion that even the most woke cherish in their heart of hearts. The identitarian cherishes his own particular grievance; the meritocrat worries what will become of us all if the rabble take over. Suppose my grievance were subsumed in the immense, immemorial grievance of all the dispossessed, the immiserated, the beaten-down, the innumerable host of the slaughtered and the slaves? I don’t seem so special any more. On the other hand, suppose my well-earned eminence, which I have worked so hard to attain, were toppled like a Confederate statue? Then I too don’t seem so special any more.

There is more than one kind of property that needs to be expropriated.

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