Hating the Left Isn't Racism
James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt
Man, we have got some problems. Have we ever. And they're not going to start getting better until the Left stops confusing the Right's hatred of the Left for racism.
Cops are shooting people, and to believe the insistence of the Left, they are disproportionately shooting black people in the line of duty. Murdering them, in fact. Black lives matter! The Right counters by arguing back about leaving race out of it: All lives matter! The Left doubles-down, getting more angry and taking to what seems to have become their favorite sport: racing to racism. Black lives matter, you racists! The Right counters the charges of racism and points out thugs and the dangers faced by police. Blue lives matter!
Meanwhile, people are getting shot, protests become increasingly disruptive, the media feasts on the drama like pigs who just discovered that if they vigorously roll in their slop it somehow dramatically multiplies, and, again, riots are taking place, in some cases merely when a black man presumed to be innocent gets shot by police for any reason, even before the reasons can be clearly determined. The problem isn't even necessarily that people are rioting (as the Right is fond of complaining about). It's more that people are rioting literally on presumptions without giving it so much as two days to find out what might have happened. These are mobs who want (mostly metaphorical) blood and will not, cannot be placated by reason, discussion, nuance, or even a simple urge to wait to get all the relevant facts. And to all appearances, these problems are getting worse, not better.
Lines have been drawn, and the people on either side of these lines continually grow further apart, less likely to listen to one another, less likely to hear the truth in the other side, and both sides grow more and more uncompromising. Amidst all the din, one word boils to the top again and again and again: racist. It does so as though the single most divisive, most difficult-to-assess potential factor imaginable is also the only possible way to talk about our problems.
The thing is, a lot of things aren't racist. For example, the Right hates the Left. That's not racist, although lots of issues connected to that hatred have race as a component. The Right hates the Left because it's the Left. That's enough.
Still, the Left-end knee-jerk reaction is to identify racism in that natural tribal hatred, whether it makes up a component of it or not. And it isn't enough merely to make the misidentification. The Left lately seems to thrive on elevating that racism to the status of the most important component possible. For example, many not-racist people on the Right hate President Obama for not-racist reasons. They hate him because he's a Democrat (particularly, one in power). Sure, some hate him for racially motivated reasons, but a whole lot of them don't. To just brand it racism and move on, mission accomplished, is one of the Left's most enduring failures in approach.
This problem runs pretty deep because "racist" has become one of the Left's favorite weaponized terms.
We should approach this problem with another example. Many of us now laugh at the meme that has become Ben Affleck's far Left-typifying statement to Sam Harris while they shared the stage on Bill Maher's show Real Time: "It's gross! It's racist!" Affleck was responding with nothing short of fully developed moral disgust at Harris's effort to state some uncomfortable facts about Islam as dispassionately as possible -- ironically in the midst of a conversation about how it is nearly impossible to have such a conversation without being shouted down. Should Harris's statements be discussed on their merits? Should someone disagree with Harris, should he have it explained to him carefully why he might be wrong, or why another point of view is crucial to getting the full story? To today's Leftist: No! It's gross! It's racist! Speaking that way about Islam violates Leftist orthodoxy, so discourse and reason don't matter. Push the racist button!
The problem is, quite literally, that the Left has taken to using the word racist not just as a sword, however injudiciously applied, but rather as an open-bolt, blowback-operated submachine gun, a class of weaponry typified by the Uzi, which sprays bullets with a firing rate of 600 bullets per minute. Everything the far Left hates has become either racist or tinged with racism.
Leftists have come to reach this astounding conclusion astonishingly quickly too, as fast as a knee can jerk. For them, there can no longer be any other variable that might explain what's going on. Unless it's some other kind of bigotry, like sexism or homophobia, whatever is wrong must be wrong because of outright racism, systemic racism, covert racism, casual racism, or the kind of racism that only Joseph McCarthy could discover if he was reincarnated five years into a Ph.D program in critical race "theory." But it's not always racism. And I say this as a left-leaning liberal who lives in a red state in the South that happens to be home to a fair proportion of actual racists (though, quite obviously, far fewer than a couple of decades ago).
Is there racism on the Right? Oh, definitely. In some private conversation or another, living where I do, I'm treated to the N-word at least once every two or three weeks, nearly always after my interlocutor gives a quick glance around to make sure we's in good company. That word is still here, and the people saying it know full-well it isn't acceptable -- sometimes they even remark to the fact or then "correct" themselves by stating their claim again, this time replacing the N-word with "Mexicans." While sometimes this is mere, if profound, racial insensitivity, there is most definitely still racism afoot in far-Right USA, and not just from the alt-Right and other kinds of outright racists. The ones I mean are mostly casual racists these days, and the way they are has political consequences (mostly in that they're really easy to rile up against social programs if conservative lawmakers or media figures play to the "Southern strategy" -- that is, creating a narrative that the beneficiaries of the programs will disproportionately be poor blacks, especially ones who don't work or might use drugs).
There's systemic racism on the Right too. Absolutely. In fact, it's hardly a surprise that there is, too, since at least one peer-reviewed study, appearing in the journal Psychological Science in 2007, demonstrated that conservatives are happier than liberals, on average, because they are better at rationalizing inequality. Add that trait to a certain nervousness to abandon the status quo (or worse, a far more rare but not-absent outright nostalgia for the "better days" before Civil Rights, the New Deal, Women's Suffrage, and Emancipation), and you can bet your bottom dollar that these very people will perpetuate systemic racism (or vote to do so, at any rate). They'll even casually participate in it without realizing they're doing it, or sometimes knowing they are.
There are definitely racism and systemic racism -- which, for the love of productive dialogue, Leftists, we should be extremely eager to disambiguate between as often and clearly as possible -- that present disproportionately on the Right, that appear even more disproportionately in the South on the Right, and that have important political consequences that are driving an important debate that is finally coming to a very ugly head. This is a debate that should be had, and the problems involved should be named for what they are: racism when racism, systemic racism when that instead, and remedies should be sought. In a sane world, this admission would allow any of you reading me from my Left to know that I'm well aware there is a legitimate problem, but it isn't clear that ours isn't a sane world at the moment.
One large part of the reason that we have such an insane and divisive sociopolitical climate right now is because, despite it's love of the term, not everything the Left calls racist is reducible to racism. Getting this wrong also has consequences.
The example involving Ben Affleck and Sam Harris should be instructive to that point. Stating facts about Islam, say about proportions of Muslims who are not peacefully interested in secular fellowship with others in a modern world but who are instead Islamists, isn't racist. Neither is talking about the connection between beliefs and actions that makes the extremist fringe within Islamism particularly and uniquely dangerous. Not only aren't these racist, they cannot be racist, as none of the variables in play involves race. Getting this wrong and shutting down debate about the unique problems of Islamism prevents us from being able to address one of the most important geopolitical problems of our time. (And, as no one will have forgotten this week, Islamist-driven terrorism is killing people too while achieving more insidious effects like boosting Trump's numbers at the polls.)
To make it clear, Islam is a set of beliefs and doctrines. Muslims are a diverse set of people who share at least nominal adherence to some take on Islam. Islamism is a political ideology that seeks to make Islamic theocracies politically dominant. Jihadist Islamism is an extreme variant of Islamism that is willing to achieve its ambitions via war and terrorist violence. As Islam is a distinctly both a not-racist religion and one that is anti-racism, it actually requires racism (something readily done on both the Right and the Left, to be sure) to associate the Islamic religions strongly with a race, usually Arabs. It's a uniquely Leftist trait, however, outside of far-Right Islamist Muslims (with whom the Western far Left has unfortunately allied itself) to use the word "racist" against thoughtful critique of anything concerning Islam. At least some of Donald Trump's electoral chances, and whatever apocalypse might follow his potential election, is absolutely ascribable to the Left's eagerness to get this simple point dead wrong.
Since many Westerners aren't terribly familiar with Islam, that it is an inherently anti-racist religion may need some elaboration, so we need to step to the side before I get to another, more relevant example. First, as anyone may have noticed, Islam wants to be the globally dominant religion, and it can only achieve that aim by being welcoming to every race. It goes further, though, and actively disavows racism (preferring to discriminate by belief instead). Ayatollah Jafar Subhani, an influential Iranian theologian, states categorically in The Islamic Moral System: Commentary of Surah al-Hujurat that Islam has nothing to do with race or racism:
The Qur'an has denounced any sort of superiority - whether it be of race, language or skin colour and even today, this subject is one of the most complicated issues within the society which even in the most important industrial centres of the world (such as America) is still a source of confusion and since the (the industrialized centres of the world) feel that this is an issue that can never be solved, they have brought this discussion to a close. The Qur'an explains this issue with simple logic and by explaining the origin and creation of man, clearly demonstrates that such an imaginary belief that one's race or colour is what makes him superior to others is false.
The document from which this extract is taken is truly a fascinating read, but it's outside of our purposes here. The relevant point for us is that a far-Left knee-jerk to call someone like Sam Harris a "racist" for approaching Islam as he does is utterly preposterous and even more poisonous.
Now, turning to matters of race in America, and noting that we should perhaps hesitate on forming a habit of drawing important social commentary from so-called "memes" on the Internet, I'd like you to consider a meme I saw yesterday.
First, perhaps it isn't too out-of-bounds to turn our attention increasingly to Internet memes. For all the depression it induces to take them seriously, doing so is becoming increasingly important. Memes have in many respects become the dominant form of communicating an idea quickly on social media. As they have become an integral part of our conversational currency -- despite the almost perfect probability that they will be demonstrably false either directly, by omission, by attempt at humor, or by propagandist misinterpretation (being perhaps the only kind of conversation that can make Twitter appear genuinely nuanced) -- we have also arrived at a point where we have as a culture become sufficiently insane to have to look at them to see what kinds of messages really resonate with people.
I saw one the other day, shared by the decidedly "progressive" Leftist Facebook page called Occupy Democrats (whose name implies that the Democrats are insufficiently Leftist, riffing from the Occupy Wall Street anti-establishment movement). The one I have in mind, as the page is a veritable trove of Leftist moral superiority, typifies a tendency by the far Left to identify racism where racism isn't.
It depictes President Obama standing with his hand over his heart on one side, and it showed San Francisco Forty-Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling on the other. Of course, Kaepernick has vaulted himself to fame far outstretching his role in a popular NFL franchise by making a pro-Black-Lives-Matter statement, including the symbolic gesture of refusing to stand for the national anthem when it is played before football games. The message of the meme depicting Kaepernick and Obama was clearly directed at reactionaries -- whom we should all take trouble to distinguish from conservatives. It reads, "They boo a black man who doesn't stand for the American flag [Kaepernick]. Then they boo a black man who does [Obama]. Could it be the flag isn't the reason they're booing?"
There's absolutely no question what is being intimated here: they're booing something to do with a black man -- that he's black, in fact. Perhaps, should the tiniest bit of nuance be allowed to be injected, one could steel-man their case by claiming they're booing a black man being somehow involved in political something. It's gross. It's racist.
At times like these, I'm immediately drawn to ask myself an important question: can I think of anything else, besides the awful thing that seems potentially obvious, that explains what I'm seeing?
In this case, it's easy: both Obama and Kaepernick are now symbols of Leftism, and the Right hates the Left. They're booing Leftism. Maybe the reason they're booing, especially given their love of Kaepernick regardless of his race until he made a Leftist political statement, is mostly that they just hate the Left. Something tells me that the symbolism both have taken on for Leftism is what the Right is really booing about (or, more accurately, if I understand my right-wing friends correctly, they're booing what they see as the excesses of Leftism, which much of the Right, it must be granted, takes to be essentially all of it).
(Another reason, so far as it goes for Kaepernick, which I explained previously, is that by refusing to "respect" the national anthem, the quarterback offended the sensibilities of the Right on a moral axis they consider sacred, respecting the symbolism of the nation they identify with, which has absolutely nothing to do with race. For those keeping score, we're now up to an outrage against a Leftist orthodoxy, don't say anything negative that we can interpret racially, and a Rightist orthodoxy, always respect country.)
Let's be real, though. Perhaps it is a racially motivated display in a lot of cases that "they" (meaning conservatives, or reactionaries, or some ambiguous blend thereof) boo President Obama and Colin Kaepernick. It probably is sometimes, definitely in Obama's case. What will calling the people booing "racists" achieve at this point, when things have become so intensely politicized on that term? In times like these, brandishing, intimating, or hurling such an overwhelmingly charged word like "racist" makes our problems worse, not better.
Appreciate for a moment that this inflammatory effect of accusing wide swaths of people of being racists persists even if their motivations are racist. Sure, almost nobody likes to be called a racist, but the stigma of it no longer outweighs the political fervor surrounding it. The term is now inflammatory and divisive to the point of curtailing any hope of serious debate to make such a serious accusation unless the proof motivating it is almost ironclad. This is, of course, because being a racist has for decades been so heavily stigmatized -- for what seem to be very good reasons -- that it can ruin careers to become branded with it. Ask Paula Deen. Accusing someone of behaving in service to racism, like the justification of the use of deadly force by police, should require clearing a standard of proof that the Left too often simply isn't even interested in considering anymore.
Let me explain. Even if the people so accused are casual racists, as many may well be, that racism is kept quite carefully behind a screen of plausible deniability, and we can fully expect the casual racists involved to respond vehemently to any McCarthy-esque attempt to sniff it out. On the other hand, Leftists don't want conversations with racists. They want them to shut up and go away. How will dialogue be achieved on either end of a term like "racist" today?
Whether right or wrong, if our goal is to have a productive conversation about the issue at hand -- which it must be if we don't want our attempts to discuss it to recourse to violence, riots, and whatever societal degeneration will follow -- we must be willing to admit that getting people's backs up defensively, tucked behind a wall of almost perfectly plausible deniability against one of our culture's most damning stigmas, is no way to proceed. It is, in fact, madness.
There is no other way to say it. The longer the Left keeps mistaking the Right's hatred of the Left for racism, the longer our country's race problems will escalate. And that's just one example of our culture's left hand haven taken to hovering, twitchy with excitement, over the "Call him a racist!" button. Illegitimately calling people racists cannot cure racism. If we want these crucial conversations to proceed, and to proceed with as little violence and enmity as possible, we on the Left must learn to rein in our out-of-control impulse to find racism in almost everything.
Note: This essay underwent minor edits for clarity after its original publication. The author appreciates your understanding.