The Land of Smiling Children

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“Komm ins Land der lachelnden Kinder,” “Come to the land of smiling children,” intones a voiceover to the tune of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” at the beginning of a popular German YouTube video. The video is a montage of some of the most grotesque elements of American culture: a smiling JonBenét Ramsey in full beauty-queen regalia, children using firearms, police beatings and shootings of unarmed citizens, celebrations of conspicuous consumption and contempt for the environment juxtaposed with videos of street people combing trash cans, an execution chamber, a row of Klansmen, and, finally, a man accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

“Alles Spitze in Amerika!” “Everything’s great in America,” the refrain announces over and over again as one horrific scene after another assaults the viewer. The video, “Ein Lied für die USA,” or “A Song for the USA” begins and ends with someone accidentally shooting himself. One could argue that it’s heavy handed, but it makes a devastating point: We are destroying ourselves.

We have arguably always lacked the veneer of civility that typically characterizes older cultures, and yet it seems that public discourse has recently taken a particularly savage turn. The left is as responsible for that as the right. Trump didn’t become “evil” until he ran for office. Before that, he was merely a buffoon. Now, suddenly, he’s “Hitler” and his supporters are uniformly denounced as “racists” and “fascists.” Don’t get me wrong, Trump was not my candidate. He’s not who I want to see in the White House, but he’s not Hitler. Obama said himself that Trump’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Democrats dismissed well-reasoned arguments against Clinton’s candidacy, or her positions on various issues, not with similarly well-reasoned counter arguments, but with charges of “mansplaining.” Nothing shuts down dialogue so quickly as hurling invectives at your opponents. British comedian Tom Walker makes this point brilliantly in the viral video of his alter ego U.K. newsman Jonathan Pie’s commentary on the election.

A recent case in point is the infamous Christmas-Eve tweet of academic George Ciccariello-Maher: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” The tweet was characterized by Mike King in “George Ciccariello-Maher vs. the White Power Alt-Right” as “inflammatory.” The point, Ciccariello-Maher explained in The Huffington Post, was to “mock” people who believe in the concept of “white genocide.”

King writes that “the anti-racist message and satirical intent [of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet] is clear to anyone familiar with the term [white genocide] and its longstanding usage within the political culture of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the U.S.” Fair enough, but was it reasonable of Ciccariello-Maher to assume that all of his 10,000 plus Twitter followers would understand the term in this way? Was it reasonable of him to assume that everyone to whom his tweet would be retweeted would have a similarly sophisticated understanding of the term and hence grasp the satire?

King calls Ciccariello-Maher a “vibrant anti-racist voice.” Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet was apparently not his only inflammatory one, at least not according to the conservative websites that have expressed outrage over it. Unfortunately, I can’t check that because only confirmed followers now have access to Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter feed.

Inflammatory rhetoric goes over well with many college students. It gets them excited about “scholarship” because it makes it seem “sexy” in this culture where sex and violence are inexorably intertwined. It goes over well with young people who are already sympathetic to the cause it purportedly serves. Unfortunately, it tends not to go over well with anyone else.

Demonizing people who disagree with you isn’t very effective at persuading them that you’re correct. It can, in fact, even push people who are on the fence over to the other side because it is ugly. It evinces the same lack of respect for the basic humanity of one’s opponent no matter which side in an argument does it. It’s a kind of bullying and engaging in it further erodes what semblance of civility we have left in this country.

King refers to the “outrage” of “white victim politics” as “contrived.” No doubt some of it is. But, sadly, there are legions of white people in this country for whom the outrage, even if misguided, is genuine. The situation of working-class white people is not so different from the situation of working-class men described so well in Susan Faludi’s books Backlash and Stiffed. Nearly everyone is losing ground economically. There is no rising tide now to float all boats. Nearly everyone is sinking, but instead of banding together to effect positive economic change, we have begun drowning one another in savage efforts to stay afloat.

The line at the beginning of “Ein Lied für die USA,” “Come to the land of smiling children” is an allusion to “Das Land der Lächelns,” or “The Land of Smiles,” a romantic operetta by Franz Lehár. The title is an ironical reference to the purported Chinese custom of smiling even when one is unhappy. One doesn’t need to know that, however, in order to recognize the irony in the video.

We are a nation of desperately unhappy people. Though racism still exists, most working white people have little direct experience of it. They look around even as they are sinking and see affirmative action for everyone but themselves. Compounding their sense of injustice is what sometimes appears to be contempt on the part of the liberal elite for their plight.

Enter George Ciccariello-Maher. I don’t mean to suggest that Ciccariello-Maher is really indifferent to the plight of white working class people. It is not so hard to see, however, why many might think he was. Ciccariello-Maher is righteously angry about racism, so he lashes out at those he views as racist. But is that going to reduce racism? He purports to be a socialist, but his is not the rhetoric of Tolstoy or Gandhi. Rather than serving to make clear to all working people that their interests are in fact allied, messages such as the one delivered by Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet drive deep divisions among them––which ultimately serves the interests of the wealthy few who control this country.

I agree with Ciccariello-Maher and his supporters who argue that that a commitment to free speech is more important now than ever. There is another commitment, however, that is also important: the commitment to decency and civility. Without that, free speech will simply fan flames of anger and outrage that will end up consuming us all.

The problem is, you can’t legislate a commitment to decency and civility. Drexel is right to stand by Ciccariello-Maher’s right to express his views in whatever way he sees fit. There’s no formula for determining what’s offensive and what isn’t. That’s why we need vigorous defenses of free speech. I’m offended, for example, when Richard Dawkins makes public pronouncements that effectively associate religious belief with feeblemindedness. The prospect of censorship based on taste is even more frightening to me, however, than is the specter of inflammatory rhetoric and the damage it can do.

I’m not comfortable giving anyone the right to curtail speech based on his or her subjective conception of what is offensive. Neither am I comfortable, however, with granting the unrestricted right of free speech to people who are not only indifferent to whether their speech gives offense, but whose rhetoric is deliberately designed to inflame. Rights, philosophers tell us, bring obligations. The right to free speech brings with it the obligation not to abuse it. The right to free speech is believed to rest on the foundation of the inherent rationality and dignity of all human beings. It is necessary to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard. But when it is abused, it creates a din that drowns out many of the voices it was designed to protect.

Plato thought the freedoms associated with democracy would ultimately destroy it. I explain to my students, however, that that is because there are no other values in Plato’s democracy than freedom. Democracy, I argue, combined with a commitment to humanistic values, with respect for the dignity of individuals, of all individuals, can work.

No progress will be made by spewing venom at one another in the name of free speech. On the contrary. When we use speech as a weapon rather rather than as an appeal to reason it is all too easy to injure ourselves with it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch. The illustration is by Marie Schubert. It comes from a book by S. Weir Newmayer and Edwin C. Broome entitled Health Habits (American Book Company, 1928) from The Health and Happiness Series .  I am indebted to Gui Rochat for the reference to Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles,” and to Catherine Goetze for correcting the errors in the German.)

Racism and Terminology

I do not like the expression “African-American.” It’s patronizing, condescending, and racist. It was coined, rumor has it, to help counteract the corrosive effect of racism on the self-esteem of black Americans. But how is that supposed to work? In practice, I would argue, the effect is unavoidably the reverse. White Americans are never referred to as “European-Americans,” so to identify black Americans as “African-American” is to suggest that they are only half American and that constitutes what is now fashionably referred to as a “microagression.”

Do a google search on the term “African-American” if you want to see how many black Americans feel about it. Check out the Facebook page “Don’t Call Me African-American,” or Charles Mosley’s guest column in in the February 12, 2013 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “By using the term ‘African-American’ to refer to black people,” Mosley writes, “columnists, readers, TV hosts and commentators perpetuate and embrace Jim Crow racial stereotypes, segregation and historical distortions. … Africa is not a racial or ethnic identity. Africa is a geographical identity.”

In fact, you almost never hear black Americans refer to themselves as “African-American” unless it is to please a white audience, and there is a good reason for that: Most do not think of themselves as African-American. They do not identify with Africa, at least not until we remind them, by referring to them as “African-American,” that they are supposed to.

By referring to black people as “African-American,” we are effectively suggesting that they should not feel too at home here because, really, they are only half American. Hyphenated designations may be fine to apply to people who strongly identify with another culture, but they are offensive and insulting when applied to people who do not and who actually have greater claim to being fully American than do most white Americans.

Most black Americans do not identify with Africans and most genuine African-Americans (i.e., people who recently emigrated from Africa to the U.S. or who divide their time between two continents) do not identify with black Americans. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made this point very movingly in a talk she gave at the Free Library in Philadelphia as part of a tour she is on to promote her new book Americanah.

IMG_0906“American,” Adichie explained in response to a question about what race she had in mind when someone was referred to simply as “American,” “is a mark that culture leaves, never a physical description.” She said that when she came to the U.S. she did not want to be identified with black Americans and even “recoiled” when a man in Brooklyn referred to her as “sister.” I’m not your sister, she thought to herself. I have three brothers and I know where they are, and you’re not one of them!

She said she did not, at least originally, identify with black Americans, that she did not understand their experiences. Her friends, she explained, when she first came to the U.S. as a university student, were other foreign students. She felt she had more in common with them than she had with black Americans and suspected this feeling was shared by most Africans on first coming to the U.S.

Adichie explained that she had come to have enormous respect for American blacks, for the “resilience and grace of a people who had weathered a terrible history.” She said that now, if she went back to Brooklyn and someone there called her “sister” she would be pleased, that she would think YES! It took “a journey,” she explained though, “race in America,” she said, “is something you have to learn.”

White Americans could learn something important about black Americans, or more correctly, about American culture, by listening to Adichie. Adichie said she thought James Baldwin was the best American writer of the last two hundred years. Not the best African-American writer, she emphasized, but the best American writer.

She has a point. Go Tell it on the Mountain is not simply, as Wikipedia states, a novel “that examines the role of the Christian Church in the lives of African-Americans, both as a source of repression and moral hypocrisy and as a source of inspiration and community.” It is a novel that examines the role of the Church in the lives of Americans more generally in that the Church has had those dual roles in the lives of Americans of all races.

Yes, Go Tell it on the Mountain is a novel about a black family, but it is also a novel about an American family, not a Nigerian family, or Kenyan family, or a Somali family. Until we acknowledge that we will continue to live a lie, a lie that diminishes not merely black Americans but all of American culture, a culture of which black Americans are an inexorable part and to which they have made an immeasurably positive contribution.

(An earlier version of this article article appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

The Rhetoric of Entitlement

Portrait caricatureThis piece was originally published in CounterPunch on March 27, 2013. Given the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, however, I thought it was appropriate to post the piece to this blog.

There’s been a lot about affirmative action in the media recently because the Supreme Court is considering a case that challenges the constitutionality of any consideration of race in university admissions decisions. The poster girl for the case is 23-year old Abigail Noel Fisher who charges that she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because she was white. No matter that her GPA (3.59) and SAT scores (1180 out of 1600) were not particularly distinguished and that there were black and Latino applicants with even better SATs and GPAs who were also denied admission. Ms. Fisher and the conservative nonprofit Project on Fair Representation, which is funding the lawsuit, believe she was effectively punished by the admissions committee for being white.

Well that is just it! I cannot take any more whiney white people arguing that they are “victims” of reverse discrimination. Aren’t the conservatives behind the Project on Fair Representation the same ideological group as contemporary social Darwinists? Don’t they think we’re all just supposed to be duking it out without any protections whatever in order to ensure that the fittest of us survive? So what if life is sometimes unfair? That’s just part of the old Hobbesian state of nature, the situation into which we’ve all been thrust. Aren’t we just supposed to learn how to deal with it?

Babies can’t help being born to poor parents, but conservatives have no problem condemning these “innocent lives” to overcrowded and underfunded schools. Poor kids are supposed to find some way out of that situation without any help from the government.

Conservatives have never cared economic unfairness, so why this sudden concern about racial “unfairness”? Are legions of exceptionally well qualified white people being denied entrance to the university of their choice by crazed liberals who are giving unjustified preference to less qualified minorities? Now that would be a frightening thought, wouldn’t it! Fortunately, it’s a myth. How do I know this? Because Abigail Noel Fisher is the best example of purported reverse discrimination conservatives have produced.

A 3.59 GPA-are you kidding me? I know a kid with a 4.9 GPA who’s hired a college admissions consultant to help improve his chances of getting into the institution of his choice. I’ll bet you didn’t know there was such a thing as a 4.9 GPA (apparently made possible by advanced placement and/or honors courses). Obviously neither did Ms. Fisher, or she might have thought twice about parading herself before the public as a victim because her 3.59 GPA failed to get her into one of the top universities in the country.

Since the Project of Fair Representation is interested in issues of fairness that relate to race, how come they’re not concerned about the over-representation of blacks in U.S. prisons? There’s a much higher proportion of blacks in prison than in the general population. There’s actual documentation that shows that when juries are white, blacks are more likely than whites to be convicted of a crime even when the evidence that points to their respective “guilt” is effectively the same, and that when convicted, blacks receive harsher sentences than whites convicted of the same crimes. That doesn’t seem very “fair.” How come the folks over at the PFR aren’t fuming about that?

Oh yeah, conservatives aren’t really concerned about racial unfairness in general. They’re concerned that WHITE people might be being treated unfairly. They don’t care if other races are being treated unfairly, but WHITE people should never have to suffer “unfair” treatment!

As a white person, I have to say that I find this pathetic display of white entitlement disgusting. I hope that I speak on behalf of decent reasonable white people everywhere when I say that white people do not necessarily expect that life will always be fair. Government should address gross injustices–I think most of us agree on that–but it is ludicrous to suggest that the government step in to correct the situation every time life is less than ideally “fair.”

I think it is unfair that I don’t look like Demi Moore, that I don’t have long legs, and that I was not raised in a bilingual household. I think it is unfair that my husband and I are forced to live in different cities if we wish to practice our chosen professions. It is unfair that I do not make enough money to be able to pursue all my interests, and indeed that I don’t have enough time to pursue them all.

There are things the government could do to redress at least some of these “injustices.” Obamacare could cover plastic surgery. The government could mandate higher salaries and lighter work loads. There could be all kinds of federal incentives for employers to hire spouses, etc., etc. I’m not holding my breath, though. Those things simply aren’t important enough to warrant government action, and neither, I submit, is failing to get into the college of your choice when you are only a moderately qualified applicant.

Show me the bona fide genius who can’t get into Harvard because her spot was taken by some academically unqualified minority and I’ll start to become concerned. I haven’t seen that yet, and I’m not going to see it, because it doesn’t happen. White people who are deluding themselves that it does are simply looking around for someone else to blame for their own mediocrity.

When did white people become so pathetic? Black people have had to live for generations under a system that is demonstrably unfair to them. There’s plenty of documentation for that. Where do white people get off thinking that they are entitled to ask the government to redress a “wrong” done to them that would appear to be no more than a figment of their fevered imaginations?

Where has this sense of white entitlement come from? When Jeil 2 Savings Bank of South Korea came under investigation for alleged irregularities by its executives and major shareholders, its president, Jeong Gu-Haeng, committed suicide. When white guys in the U.S. run their banks into the ground, not only do they take no responsibility, they expect the government bail them out. That is no more, nor less than they feel they are entitled to. White people can’t handle having to deal with the consequences of our own actions. We can’t handle anything that is really difficult. Difficulties are “unfair”!

This sense of white entitlement is increasing. Even as our achievements are diminishing, our sense of entitlement is growing. It’s not just an unattractive character trait (nobody, after all, likes a whiner); it’s morally offensive. It’s also dangerous. It’s making us stupid. It’s making us lazy–dare I say shiftless? It’s part of the reason, I would argue, for the precipitous descent of the U.S. from its former position of world economic dominance.

White people have benefitted from the handicaps placed–both intentionally and unintentionally–on minorities for as long as the country has existed. Unfortunately, this is now coming back to bite us, and by that I’m not referring to reverse discrimination. You know how you make somebody strong, how you make them smart? You handicap them, put a lot of obstacles in their path. Many minorities have had so many obstacles in their paths for so long that they’ve become smarter and stronger than we are.

This situation puts me in mind of a remark by Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong when he learned about child labor practices in the U.S. while studying for his citizenship test:

“Hang on–those kids got PAID?”

That’s the kind of mettle we wimpy white people are up against in this cold new world. We’re on our way to becoming a minority in all but the least skilled and least demanding of occupations and institutions of higher learning, and not because of the phantom menace of reverse discrimination, but because we’ve made ourselves too damn stupid and lazy for anything else.

White people better hope the Supreme Court doesn’t decide in favor of a “colorblind” constitution–we’re going to need affirmative action!

All Over America the Lamps are Going Out

Agee photo finalThese are bad times. I thought of James Agee’s beautiful and heartrending work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I heard the verdict in the Zimmerman case. There’s an account, very near the beginning of the book, of Agee’s and Walker Evans’s encounter with a young black couple that made me think, when I first read it, how far we had come from those dark days. Agee and Evans had found a church they wanted to photograph. The church was in a relatively deserted wooded area and was locked. As the two men were wondering whether to force their way in, a young black couple came walking by. The couple, Agee writes,

[w]ithout appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, … made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. (p. 36.)

Agee decides to go after the couple to ask them if they know where to find a minister or someone else who could let them into the church. Agee, being Agee trails behind them at first simply observing them “taking pleasure… in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, … and in the beauty in the sunlight on their clothes.” They are obviously courting, both dressed in their Sunday best. He in “dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow soft straw hat,” she in “a flowered pink cotton dress” and “freshly whited pumps.

“I was walking more rapidly than they,” explains Agee, “but quietly.” Still, before he had gone far, the couple, as if they could sense his presence, turned back and looked at him “briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field.” Agee waved at them, but they’d already turned away again. He began to walk faster, but was impatient to catch up to them, so he “broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel,” writes Agee

the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, … [said] ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. …. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn’t scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking. … I …  asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and … again, … I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back. (pp. 37-39.)

I remember when I read this passage the horror that came over me to think that anyone would ever have to live with such constant fear. That couple had been frightened, even if only briefly, for their lives.

I knew what it was like to be pursued. I was one of the very few white children at my school for most of my childhood and though the black children who knew me were almost always kind to me, the ones who didn’t know me, the ones I might encounter at recess or walking to or from school, were not. I’d been chased before and been called names and had things thrown at me. I once had a glass bottle thrown at me. It shattered just in front of me so that I could feel the force of the tiny fragments against my shins. I’d learned very early to keep walking, no matter what what was going on behind or in front of me, I’d learned somehow by instinct, I think, not to display fear. Of course I couldn’t ignore people either. I had to acknowledge them, but I couldn’t appear to be afraid. I don’t know why, exactly, that worked, but it did and I knew somehow, even as a child, that it would.

So I identified with that couple. I knew what it was like to affect nonchalance when you are really very afraid. I knew the intricacies of the subtle etiquette of self defense and how it kicks in automatically at such times. I identified with this couple. But still, I had never been afraid for my life.

There are not words to describe what it must be like to live that way, to live with an ever-present fear for one’s very life. I remember when I read that passage I thought to myself, thank God, thank God black people do not have to live like that anymore.

These are bad times.

(This piece was originally published in Counterpunch, 24 July 2013.)

On Race and Intelligence

My fifth grade class photo.

My fifth grade class photo.

One of the readers of this blog, who came to it after having read a piece in the online political magazine CounterPunch, suggested that I should post, after a suitable interval, all my articles from CounterPunch to this blog. I published a piece recently in CounterPunch on racism, so I thought perhaps I should post an earlier piece I did on racism here. I think it is a good piece to follow the post “On Teaching” because it relates to that topic as well. This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.

Race is in the news again. First it was the Jena Six, then Nobel laureate James D. Watson’s assertion, that blacks are less intelligent than whites, and finally, a series of articles two weeks ago in Slate arguing that there was scientific evidence to back Watson’s claim.

The reaction to these recent developments was predictable. There have been a number of heated debates on the internet concerning not only race and intelligence, but also the appropriateness of studying race and intelligence. Two crucial points have yet to be made, however. The first concerns the contentious association of intelligence with  IQ score and the second is the equally contentious assumption that we have anything like a clear scientific conception or race.

Let’s take the first one first. What is intelligence anyway? We have no better grasp of this than we have of the relation of the mind to the brain. Sure, some people can solve certain sorts of puzzles faster than other people, but everyone knows people who are great at Scrabble, or crosswords, or chess, or who can fix almost any mechanical or electrical gadget, but who seem unable to wrap their minds around even the most rudimentary of social or political theories. Then there are the people with great memories who are able to retain all the elements of even the most arcane theories and who can undertake an explanation of them if pressed, but whose inability to express them in novel terms betrays that they have not really grasped them after all. Other people–I’ve known quite a few of this type–have keenly analytical minds. They can break individual claims, or even entire theories, down into their conceptual components, yet they appear to lack any sort of synthetic intelligence in that they are unable to see the myriad implications of these analyses. Still other people are great at grasping the big picture, so to speak, but have difficulty hanging onto the details.

Some people plod slowly and methodically toward whatever insights they achieve and others receive them almost effortlessly, through flashes of inspiration. But the insights of the former group are sometimes more profound than those of the latter group. Then there are people who are mostly mistaken in their beliefs, sometimes quite obviously so, but correct in some one belief the implications of which are so staggering that we tend to forget they are otherwise unreliable.

I’m inclined to put Watson in this last group. Perhaps that’s not fair. After all, I know of only one point on which he is obviously mistaken. That mistake is so glaring, however, that it leads me to think he is probably more like an idiot savant than a genuinely intelligent human being. I.Q. scores represent something. It just isn’t all that clear what. To suggest that they represent intelligence in any significant sense is thus to betray that one has less than the ideally desirable quantity of this quality himself.

Sure the mind, and therefore intelligence, is intimately connected with the brain. Read Oliver Sacks if you want to see just how intimate that connection is. Sacks is one of my favorite authors not simply because the substance of his writings is so fascinating, but also because he is himself so clearly intelligent. Not only does he not go leaping to conclusions on issues that lie outside his area of professional expertise (though I have to say I’d be more interested to hear Sacks’ social and political views than Watson’s), he doesn’t go leaping to conclusions about the implications of what he has observed in his own work in neurology. He’d be one of the first people, I think, to defend the claim that we do not yet have a clear enough idea of what intelligence is to be reliably able to quantify it. We don’t even understand it well enough yet to be able to say confidently that it is quantifiable. At this point, all we can say is that it appears so intimately connected with the brain that it can, in some sense, be associated with, or represented by, we-know-not-yet-what neurological activities or tendencies.

Okay, so far, so little. But what is a black brain and what is a white brain? Most blacks in the U.S., as opposed to blacks in Africa, have a great deal of white blood, or whatever you want to call it. If whites really were more intelligent than blacks, that would mean African-Americans would be that much more intelligent than Africans. (I’m sure my friend, the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, would be interested to hear that one.) There may well be people who believe this. I am not aware of any empirical evidence, however, that supports such a conclusion. My own experience does not support it. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and attended predominantly black schools from fourth grade to college. Since that time I have also met more than a few Africans. I couldn’t detect any difference in intelligence. I’m unaware of even anecdotal evidence that would support the conclusion that there was such a difference. Do you see what I’m saying? We’re not looking at a slippery slope here, but at a meteoric descent down into a pile of deep doo-doo.

From what I’ve read, there is no clear scientific definition of race. “Race” is just a name we give to a collection of physical characteristics such as eye and hair color and degree of pigmentation of the skin. There is no race gene. There are just genes that encode for these individual characteristics. So how many, and what sort, of  characteristics does one have to have to be either black or white. It is some kind of ineffable sum isn’t it? Blacks sometimes have very pale skin, some whites actually have darker skin than some blacks. Blacks even occasionally have blue eyes, or straight hair, just as whites often have brown eyes or tightly curled hair.

In the past, we just arbitrarily determined what made a person black, and, by implication, white. Since, presumably, we have gotten beyond the point where we would say that even one drop of black blood makes a person black, the only reasonable definition of race (even given its circularity) would, therefore, appear to be one based on the statistical representation of the various races in one’s family tree. That would mean people with predominantly white, or perhaps I should say “white-ish” ancestry would be considered white. Have you ever seen a photo of Charles Chestnut or Anatole Broyard?  Not only are these guys clearly white, according to this definition, there are a whole lot of other people walking around this country who call themselves “black” because of the social environment into which they were born, but who ought properly to consider themselves white.

Since when have scientific studies been undertaken on ineffable, or arbitrarily determined, classes of thing? It’s like trying to determine whether people with purportedly good taste are more intelligent than people with purportedly bad taste, or whether people who live in Chicago are more intelligent than people who live in L.A. You might undertake such a thing as a sociological study with some arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what would constitute good and bad taste, or for how far out into the suburbs you want to go before you decide you have left Chicago, as well with some equally arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what constitutes intelligence.

You cannot undertake such a thing though as a scientific study (no matter how convinced you may be in the genetic superiority of people who live in Chicago), and to think that you could betrays that you have a very weak grasp of what constitutes natural science. Given that race, at least from the standpoint of natural science, is nothing more than a collection of certain physical characteristics, the view that white people are more intelligent than black people is not uncomfortably close to view of the Nazis that blue-eyed blonds were inherently superior to everyone else–it is essentially the same thing.

As I said earlier, I spent a huge portion of my life in the almost exclusive company of black people. I’ve been around black people and I’ve been around white people and I haven’t found any general differences in terms of intelligence. My experience has led me to believe that most of what often passes for intelligence is actually intellectual self confidence, confidence in one’s own reasoning powers, confidence in the value of one’s insights. Teachers, of which I am one, will tell you that you can just see some people’s brains seize up when they are confronted with tasks they fear may be beyond them but which sometimes later prove not to have been beyond them. This fear, however, that certain tasks are beyond one, is a substantial obstacle to completing them. One stumbles again and again, fearing his “guess” is just that, a guess, rather than understanding. One fails to pursue an insight for fear that it is not genuine, or from fear that it is so obvious that others have come to it long ago.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are not innate differences in intelligence among human beings. I’m sure there are, but I agree with what I believe Noam Chomsky said somewhere about how these differences, measured relative to the difference in intelligence between human beings and their closes relatives the apes, are simply vanishingly small.

I construe my job as an educator not to impart knowledge, but to nurture intellectual confidence. (Of course this could be partly a defensive mechanism because I am a philosopher, which means I don’t have any knowledge to impart.) I try to teach critical thinking skills, of course, but even more important to me is somehow to get my students to believe in their own intellectual potential because even these skills, I believe, can, at least to a certain extent, be acquired naturally by people who are confident in their ability to acquire them.

I say, teach people to believe in themselves and then see what they are able to do with that faith. But be very careful when you start judging the results because if anything of value has emerged from the recent debates on race and intelligence, it is that many of us in the U.S. are much closer to the edge of idiocy than we would like to admit. Noted intellectuals have failed to grasp even the most basic facts about what constitutes natural scientific research and failed to understand that to parade this ignorance in the way they have before a public still marked by social and economic inequities that cut along racial lines is offensive in the extreme. The whole thing has been very humbling. It has shown, I believe, that racism is still very firmly entrenched in the American psyche.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.)