Wanting to Be Special

Tom Nairn

  • The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science by Marek Kohn
    Cape, 311 pp, £17.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 224 03958 X

Writing in the London Review of Books in 1994 (8 September) I was incautious enough to make some remarks about alternatives to Eurocentrism that history might have generated. For example Progress, like Homo sapiens himself, might have erupted out of Africa rather than from the areas north of it. In which case, instead of indulging in what Edward Said calls Orientalism, there might well be present-day pallid-skin observers – ‘fulminating over Septentrionalist delusions about colourlessness: the vacant brain-pans supposed natural to the pigmentally-challenged, with their slime-grey eyes, ratty hair and squeaky-voiced irrationality’. Or again, industrialisation might conceivably have emerged in primarily Chinese shape – from the human Middle Kingdom or heartland, rather than the remote archipelago-coast of Europe. Had this happened, there would today be critics on both sides of the 2000 AD development gap (no doubt differently dated) contorted with guilt and indignation over the romantic delusions of Occidentalism.

Having read The Race Gallery I feel retrospective embarrassment at my own ignorance. It was meant only as counterfactual musing. But some readers must have known that there already are commentators given to fulmination about pigmental challenge and the inherent defects of Northernist intelligence, sensibility and general irrationality. They are described at some length in Chapter 7 of Marek Kohn’s invaluable but sobering new encyclopedia of racial twaddle and counter-twaddle.

He deals there with Afrocentrism, a strain of devotion which inverts pale-skin racism rather than attacking it. Everything decent is seen as coming out of black Africa, and all non-blacks are held to be genetically handicapped by melanin deficiency. Melanin is ‘black people’s Kryptonite’, the secret of their social and cultural superiority. Northerners by contrast are deemed to have lost important faculties and become squeakily over-aggressive in order to compensate for their lack of melanin. This is seen as ‘the price Europeans had to pay for the light skins they needed in order to synthesise vitamin D in the gloomy North’. Thus gunpowder, compasses and Newtonian science betray an ingrained genetic inferiority. The ‘electromagnetic pull’ of negritude, on the other hand, impels culture towards the great contemporary norms of communal feeling, multiculturalism and musical attunement to the ecosphere. These are the views of Richard King, who is responsible for the Afrocentrist pages on the World Wide Web. Not myself a devotee, I can only quote the electronic address at which surfers should be able to check for themselves: http://www.melanet.com/melanet/ubus/melib.html

In a sense now discredited by biology and genetics, white racism always claimed to be scientific. The victims of such claims have in turn always been tempted either to construct their own counter-science or else (distinctly easier) to deny special authority to science. The ‘scientific view’ then appears as merely one perspective among others. It can be freely disowned in spite of its imperialist pretensions, and treated as no more than a ruling mythology or religion. If most (white) people regard it as truth that may only be because it suits them. Alternative belief-systems have at least an equivalent validity – equal or (from our Negroid, Inuit, East Asian or other point of view) actually superior or more useful.

A striking example is cited by Kohn in the same chapter. As part of their campaign to recover ancestral remains that have been moved or placed in museums, some Native Americans deny the scientific hypothesis of an early migration from Asia into the Americas over the Bering Straits land bridge. The Lakota Indians insist that they were created around the Wind Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Hence their forebears could not have come from anywhere else and if science states that was so, too bad for anthropology and palaeontology. In this way a campaign for ethnic respect and the restoration of dignity seeks help from philosophical relativism. In a general sense, any one tribe’s worldview is as good as another’s. In the particular or concrete senses more important to people like those mobilised by the campaign, the creation myth must in fact be pragmatically more true than the theory of evolution. It represents our universe as against theirs: a fact not susceptible to disproof by any amount of further evidence on early migratory movements or the DNA of hunter-gatherers.

Actually, such philosophical assistance is fool’s gold. If the denunciation of pseudo-science comes to include that of science itself, then much more disappears than Aryanist bigotry and pink suprematism: the very foundation of non-racial (and anti-racist) development itself vanishes. After all, if national or civilisational belief-systems are really equivalent, and there is in principle no principle involved in preferring one to another, on what grounds would the ‘Return Our Ancestors’ campaign ever be heeded, let alone succeed? The reigning Wasp ideology of South Dakota would be ‘justified’ in disregarding it because white Americanism reigns. As the expression of a de facto dominant authority, archaeological and museum culture could then treat the relics of Native America any way it pleases without anxiety about later disproof or historical retribution. Where contrasting cultures no longer inhabit the same universe, what right can there be but transient might?

If, on the other hand, all cultures do share a single universe, then there must be some common rules. The timbers of humanity may all be crooked, as Immanuel Kant thought. But looked at in another way, what matters is surely that all are crooked. If there is at bottom one single story – that of warped human development – one would expect there at least to be some elements of shared narrative through all the variously deformed chapters. Science is only a way of isolating and explaining these – not perfect, often dim, but the only serious candidate.

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