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.

What is in any case so terrible about having come originally from somewhere else? The Lakotan Sioux feel the admission weakens their old historical case as ‘native’ or primordial inhabitants whose rights were abused by the later European arrivals. This attitude is comprehensible: they were around before their persecutors, and there is abuse. But their short story is also part of the longer-term narrative recounting how every existing population must have moved from somewhere else at some time in the (usually forgotten or mythologised) past. The same scientific hypothesis interprets ‘primordial’ as ultimately (though still only probably) referring to the area of the Great Rift Valley in Africa, the source of the oldest humanoid remains yet uncovered.

Part of this longer story happens to be that even Native Americans once moved to the continent from Asia. Far from undermining contemporary protests against discrimination and unequal treatment, this story provides the sole conceivable foundation for their validity. Had there been a truly separate creation in the Black Hills the result would have been a truly distinct species. Better or (by some awful accident) worse than deplorable Homo sapiens? Mercifully, this question has been relegated either to the realms of demented and semi-occult speculation explored in The Race Gallery or to science fiction. But we know from wretched 20th-century experience that creation parables depict their progeny in a favourable light. They tend to be Aryans rather than half-wits. The most pertinent image here remains that of George Steiner, in the conclusion to The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., his novella about Hitlerism. When the agents of Israeli retribution finally track down the Devil to his Amazonian lair, it is to find the verminous old git cackling hoarsely about the original source of his own ideas: the brilliant Judaic concept of a Chosen Race.

The truth is that the Sioux campaign of ancestor redemption appeals to a common human sense of guilt and responsibility whose whole basis denies relativism. Like the Hispanic-speaking Last (so far) Americans, the First Americans are only timbers from elsewhere – bent, but deserving better than the raw deal history has imposed on them in this century. One way of advertising that scandal may be to besmirch the Holy Grail of science, as shock-therapy for the slumbering conscience of the majority. But the tactic of provoking an overdue guilty start is one thing; pursuing the literal logic of multiculturalism is quite another. It is admirable solemnly to exorcise the thoughtless dominance of one culture from the front door: more serious to leave the back door wide open for any Post-Modern dosser to unroll his deconstruction-bag and drug-kit.

Deconstruction is mostly reconstruction. What then occupies the basement and hallway could be called post-racism, the astonishing herd of bug-eyed lodgers, pyromanes, scalp-fetishists and intellectual muggers portrayed in Kohn’s book. Hell itself is no more, but there are still neighbours from Hell unimpressed by the fact. Their numbers seem to be increasing. Racism may be returning in a lower-key, fragmented and piecemeal form, Kohn argues, but in post-Cold War conditions its influence can still be considerable. ‘The historical moment of race science as a dominant system of belief has passed,’ he notes, yet in the new dispensation

the prevailing mood is fatalistic ... Among the majorities faith has ebbed – in ideologies, in the power of governments to ameliorate social ills, and in the powers of people to change their lives by political action. This loss of faith has been accompanied by a shift towards the belief that human society is preordained to be the way it is; that nature shapes our lives more than nurture.

At the same time, ethno-national distinctions are rapidly mounting. When allied to fatalism and political apathy, thawed-out nationalism too may collude with the drift back to ‘nature’ as explanation. This will never amount to racism in the Heydrich-Himmler sense. Social Darwinism is deader than the skulls in the old race museums, and science has reached some real comprehension of how genetic inheritance actually works. Nevertheless, sub or pseudo or post-science may go on poisoning the social tissues. The new lunatics may be unlikely to take over the mansion, as their forerunners almost did in 1933-42. Yet they can go on making life damned disagreeable, and not just for minorities. Soon no family heirloom may be safe from their slimy attentions. Think of the chronic drain-odour rising from the basement, and of small hours rendered permanently sleepless by muffled incantations from The Bell Curve.

Kohn draws a parallel here with the reversion to fascism in Italy, France and Austria, where ‘by violence, by campaigning on issues such as immigration, and by commanding small but significant percentages of electoral support’ Fascist parties ‘may be able to govern as part of a coalition. Such elements have by definition entered the mainstream. Less tangibly, neo-Fascist groupings have drawn the mainstream towards them, reshaping political issues in their preferred images.’

Kohn does not mention the UK in this context, but it may be relevant to do so. Even without influence from a neo-Fascist grouping, it is possible for the political mainstream itself to tack in the same general direction. Guided by sheer decay, obstinacy and corruption, it can easily default into the decline-mode Kohn refers to. A fatalistic apathy then appears to shape its ends, as one preordained disaster follows another and blame gets pinned alternately on the enemy within (immigrants, minorities) or that without (Europe). Himmler’s effective legatees are less the tattooed street gangs of the British National Party than a novel strain of noxious, pin-striped populists (also known as ‘bastards’) given to a tongue-shrivelling mixture of monetarist rigour, Unionist beatitude and anti-Brusselsism. Such is post-Powellism, Great Britain’s perfidious footnote to post-racism.

Kohn argues that the resurrection is not entirely down to post-Cold War disorientation and ethno-nationalism. It was always implicit in certain traits of what he calls the post-Nazi consensus. The 1950 Unesco Statement on Race told the globe in no uncertain terms to snap out of it: ‘Scientists have reached general agreement that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, Homo sapiens.’ Races were henceforth to be ‘ethnic groups’ or ‘populations’. Racism had been a plan for new lords of humankind, under whom the rest would be helots or worse – sub-human, birth-cursed untouchables. Now no one was to be downgraded, especially from a mental angle. IQ tests were frowned on since ‘wherever it has been possible to make allowances for differences in environmental opportunities, the tests have shown essential similarity in mental characters among all human groups.’ Evolution had produced the one, culture had produced the bewilderingly many. Unesco’s worthies were unable altogether to ditch broad descriptive classifications such as ‘the Mongoloid/Negroid/Caucasian’ spectrum still used in American police and identity documents. However, ethnic origins neither implied nor made any genetic difference, and all groupings had to be considered equally valuable ‘human resources’ for the world’s economy and civilisation.

Kohn is worried by all this. The anxiety informs much of the most thoughtful parts of his book, and makes it into far more than a rogues’ gallery. ‘Many of those concerned with the ethical implications of genetics,’ he writes in his concluding chapter, ‘are working within a liberal paradigm which holds to an ideal of race-blindness.’ This is his main point: anti-racism has to stop entailing race-blindness or else post-racism (the recessive gene of racism) will continue its poisonous half-life.

Ostentatious indifference towards difference is of course preferable to abuse and exploitation. The trouble is that although intellectuals and legislators may cling to the grand ideal, non-eggheads and the legislated-for tend stubbornly to think otherwise. They are unlikely to return to anything like Fascism, but equally unlikely to bend over blackwards, or start affecting liberal indifference towards visibly distinct customs. Popular culture is not so advanced, anywhere. Crude suprematism was defeated in 1945; but the vaguer prejudices of ethnocentrism persist and may (as Kohn thinks) actually be gaining ground in the decentred world following the Cold War stasis. Unfortunately, liberation from the latter has also involved a partial freeing of communal dislikes, repressed grudges and resentments about ‘them’ displacing us, or threatening our dearly-purchased and fought-for values (etc).

Since the thaw has coincided with persistent depression, ‘readjustment’ and welfare shrinkage in the Western powerhouse economies, phenomena like Le Pen’s Front National, Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale and what I suppose UK-watchers will learn to call Portillismo are not too surprising. Had it coincided with a second Sixties, another golden age of expansive development, the triumph of the slogan Kohn favours – ‘Variation is our species’ wealth’ – might have been more likely. He is quoting the African-American biologist Fatimah Jackson, but perhaps her assertion can be generalised. The societal equivalent of bio-diversity is culture-diversity, which was in the past menaced by imperialism and may now be threatened – though in a different way – by globalisation. However, culture diversity is not easily separable from culture-trouble. Flourishing variations may imply equally luxuriant dislikes, prejudices and feelings of grateful superiority or resentment. Every wonder of cultural cross-fertilisation may be accompanied by a hundred offences against the Race Relations Act, and there seems to be no arithmetic for weighing one against the other.

Although Kohn does not use the phrase, what he is objecting to in the postwar liberal consensus should really be called ‘all-the-sameism’: the rejection of racist hierarchy led by reflex to a fall-back posture of unbending uniformity. As physical anthropology became a scientific backwater, he writes, ‘external appearances are regarded as an illusion; true wisdom lies in seeing beyond them, and beyond the superficial markers of race, to the genetic essence.’ It was comforting to feel that henceforth nobody would be downgraded. However, the obverse was that nobody could be upgraded either. And who in particular – any real, salty particular – can really be content with a ‘genetic essence’? All minorities, oppressed folk, nationalists and (as used to be said in Australia) ‘ethnos’ want to be something special. Being different means being recognised as different. It means having something to say or contribute, doing certain things differently and possibly better than others. It means not just speech, but having a voice – not the Chomskyan essence of deep grammar alone, but a particular resonance (and possibly a message) previously unheard in the world.

This point has become sorely familiar to protagonists of the world’s largest ethnic minority movement, women’s liberation. It is one thing to demand or legislate for strict equality, quite another to think that women’s powers would make no difference in any concrete sense. Yet if such a difference is to be made, it can come only from things specific to women: elements of their separate nature, beyond the shared genetic essence. Like all nationalists, gender nationalists want to be loved – not just correctly registered at the humankind data-bank. ‘Ethnic’ originally had the sense of ‘heathen’ – ‘relating to a people not Christian or Jewish’. In the generalised ethnic or multicultural world we have all become equally heathens. But heathenness is difference and surely ought to remain so. Only in hopeless dystopias is the world’s future imagined as homogeneous. In other words the very rigidity of all-the-same-ism preserved a sort of spectre or after-image of imperialism: its etherealised ‘one’ remained a responsible ‘he’, somewhat Judeo-Christian in hue (or at least reflective of high-civilisational aspiration).

Is relativism the sole answer to all-the-same-ism? Now that the centre no longer holds, must heathen ethno-anarchy be unleashed upon the world? No: but the intellectual answer has to be relativity, rather than relativism. It should be conceived as the socio-political equivalent of physical relativity-theory, not abandonment to the dossing classes. As Kohn shows, this would be the equivalent of foundering back into the arbitrary and the non-rational.

There are no longer fixed absolutes in the societal universe any more than in the physical one. But in the latter case this did not entail the serious rehabilitation of astrology or palmistry. Physics had to change the meaning of Newtonian principles in order to accommodate them within Einstein’s revised co-ordinates of space-time. Pursuing the analogy, social science has to alter and encompass the fixities of the Enlightenment credo inside a larger unified story the equivalent of a ‘field theory’ which recognises (without surrendering to) the steeply rising input of ethno-national claims and multicultural display. I think this is what the famous row between Edward Said and the late Ernest Gellner was really about.

Admittedly. Kohn’s survey also shows clearly how far social science is from being able to tell any such story. For example, one fundamental element of it will be the Human Genome Project. A 1994 document from this international project stressed its ‘enormous potential for illuminating our understanding of human history and identity ... by investigating the variation occurring in the human genome’ from ‘samples representative of all the world’s peoples’. It is also intended to provide information on genetic factors in disease and create ‘a unique bridge between science and the humanities’: ‘Most importantly ... the results of the project are expected to undermine the popular belief that there are clearly defined races, to contribute to the elimination of racism and to make a major contribution to the understanding of the nature of differences between individuals and between populations.’

Such aims have guaranteed denunciation of the enterprise by nativist romantics and Ku Klux Klan nostalgics alike. As Kohn observes acidly in his penultimate chapter, it gets harder to tell them apart. The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, for example, accused researchers of being like vampires bent on stealing ‘the genetic material that makes us Aboriginal people’. The implication was that the song lines were really blood lines and Aboriginal identity is essentially genetic. But is the same not liable to be true of ‘Aryans’? This is, of course, just what Klansmen have always been pining for.

Similarly, some gays have been tempted by the notion of the ‘homosexual gene’ as a natural explanation of their condition: if one can’t help it, shouldn’t that at least put an end to moral qualms and brimstone sermons? Possibly; at the same time, however – secure in its possession of the normalcy gene – a hetero majority might then see the point of dealing much more strictly with state-registered deviants and 100 per cent incorrigible queers. In this strange zone more than one sort of fool’s gold is on sale. Mercifully, apartheid has crumbled away in the land of its conception. This does not mean it could not reappear in other places and forms, if enough bigots are misled by enough techno-mystics, wino-prophets and plastic-bag-ladies. Speaking of whom, The Rare Gallery is liable to make most readers tire of these monkeys and almost long for the reappearance of the organ-grinder. I doubt if they will have long to wait. According to Kohn’s compass-points a strong Nietzsche revival must be overdue.

The defence against all this is not refusal of science but advance in real scientific understanding. In other words, understanding nature should not mean resorting to it. Indeed it means grasping, once and for all, why we can never resort to it. Which implies in turn a fuller understanding of how and why culture transcends nature – or, in Ernest Gellner’s metaphor, how the inherent variety of ethnicity’s wild plants is altered (as it must eventually be) into that of modernity’s garden, the cultivated world-terrain where variation will remain the species’ wealth – yet under very different rules, and with a more self-conscious guidance. This is surely the true point (and the real difficulty) of ‘globalisation’: the problem of history, beyond the end of prehistory.

Kohn repeatedly observes that biological science has always been affected by and occasionally derived from social and political agendas. This is even truer of the social sciences. The emergence of a rational relativity is certain to be conditioned by the development of ethnic and nationality politics in the post-superpower world. So far South Africa lies at one pole, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Rwanda at the other. But Kohn’s estimate is based on none of these: the longest study of one particular issue in his book is the treatment of the Romany population in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe. He chose this subject by guessing that the place to study contemporary racism most effectively would be ‘among the politically weakest of peoples’, the large Gypsy or Romany population in most of the region’s successor states.

‘East Central Europe is still a Romantic landscape,’ he writes, but one marked by the resurgence of völkisch ideas after the unbending managerialism of the Communist years. At that time the Gypsy Question was decreed soluble (and indeed solved) by a barrage of briskly integrationist measures including the removal of wheels from Romany trailers and compulsory residence in special apartment blocks: ‘Labour will directly change the Gypsies in miraculous ways ... They will adopt trades and take part in Socialist competition.’ One consequence was that by 1991 91per cent of Czechs and 79 per cent of Hungarians confessed in a survey to hearty dislike of the Roma, while about one third of the Czechs thought they ought to be either deported or kept in ghettos. Not surprisingly, right-wing populists like Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia and Istvan Csurka in Hungary have battened eagerly on this inheritance.

This dismal tale has two morals, in Kohn’s view: ‘Human biological diversity needs to be explored, not denied,’ and diversity needs some new political defences in order to survive. The Roma population has become a renewed scapegoat because it has no protection, nor any equivalent of the Zionism which served to rally and direct the identity of the other transnational population once so prominent in Central and Eastern Europe. ‘The newer era of nationalism and ethnic self-assertiveness has raised new political issues,’ he says, which are perfectly incapable of solution either by an abstractly metropolitan liberalism or by a futile fall-back on ethnic and racial stereotypes. The justification of nationalism has always been partly that it was a defence-work: raising the seawalls of diversity, enabling a redemption of particularity within the rising storm of Progress. Its accompanying follies have arisen out of the social sources for such constructions, and these were inevitably ethno-linguistic or ‘racial’ in the first instance (or, as anthropologists like to say, the ‘primordial’).

The Race Gallery suggests that this instance has ended. But no other has as yet taken its place. Dead and unable to be born respectively, the contestant worlds at the end of prehistory seem to be those of ethnic nationality politics and a civic or identity politics more worthy of modernity’s garden (or, to employ the other storm metaphor, more suited to the artificial break-waters of continuing nation-state construction). Unable to embrace the latter, globalisation finds itself sporadically drawn back into the former. A reheated race science revives because no more comprehensive social science is capable of relegating or resituating its claims.