Print Edition - 2018-09-02  |  Free the Words

A suicide cult called whiteness

  • A wounded identity geopolitics puts the world in grave danger
- PANKAJ MISHRA

Sep 2, 2018-

White men, an obscure Australian academic named Charles Henry Pearson predicted in his 1893 book “National Life and Character: A Forecast,” would be “elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside” by people they had long regarded as their inferiors—“black and yellow races.” China, in particular, would be a major threat. Pearson, prone to terrors of racial extinction while living in a settler colony in an Asian neighborhood, thought it was imperative to defend “the last part of the world, in which the higher races can live and increase freely, for the higher civilization.”

His prescriptions for racial self-defense thunderously echoed around the white Anglosphere, the community of men with shared historical ties to Britain. In the years that followed, politicians and pundits in Britain and its settler colonies of Australia, Canada and the United States would jointly forge an identity geopolitics of the “higher races.”

Today it has reached its final and most desperate phase, with existential fears about endangered white power feverishly circulating once again between the core and periphery of the greatest modern empire. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” President Trump said last year in a speech

To understand the rapid mainstreaming of white supremacism in English-speaking liberal democracies today, we must examine the experience of unprecedented global migration and racial mixing in the Anglosphere in the late 19th century: countries such as the United States and Australia where, as Theodore Roosevelt wrote admiringly in 1897, “democracy, with the clear instinct of race selfishness, saw the race foe, and kept out the dangerous alien.” It is in the motherlands of democracy rather than in fascist Europe that racial hierarchies first defined the modern world. It is also where a last-ditch and potentially calamitous battle to preserve them is being fought today.

This “race selfishness” was sharpened in the late 19th century, as the elites of the “higher races” struggled to contain mass disaffection generated by the traumatic change of globalization: loss of jobs and livelihoods amid rapid economic growth and intensified movements of capital, goods and labor. For fearful ruling classes, political order depended on their ability to forge an alliance between, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “capital and mob,” between rich and powerful whites and those rendered superfluous by industrial capitalism. Exclusion or degradation of nonwhite peoples seemed one way of securing dignity for those marginalized by economic and technological shifts.

Seeking to maintain white power globally, Roosevelt helped transform the United States into a major imperialist power. Woodrow Wilson, too, worked to preserve, as he put it, “white civilization and its domination of the planet” even as he patented the emollient rhetoric of liberal internationalism that many in the American political and media establishment still parrot. At the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference, which Wilson supervised, the leaders of Britain, the United States, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada not only humiliated the many Asians and Africans demanding self-determination; they also jointly defeated an attempt by Japan, their wartime ally, to have a racial equality clause included in the Covenant of the League of Nations.

If right-wing Australian politicians were among the first to mainstream a belligerent white nationalism, the periodicals and television channels of Rupert Murdoch have worked overtime to preserve the alliance between capital and mob in the Anglosphere. A broad range of figures in the Anglosphere’s establishment, including some of Mr. Trump’s most ostentatious critics today, contributed manure to the soil in which Trumpism flourishes. Not surprisingly, these chieftains of white settler colonies are fierce cultural warriors; they are all affiliated with private donors who build platforms where political correctness, Islam and feminism are excoriated, the facts of injustice and inequality denied, chests thumped about a superior but sadly imperiled Western civilization, and fraternal sympathy extended to Israel, the world’s last active settler-colonialist project.

Mr. Trump appears to some of these powerful but insecure men as an able-bodied defender of the “higher races.” Other panicky white bros not only virulently denounce identity politics and political correctness — code for historically scorned peoples’ daring to propose norms about how they are treated; they also proclaim ever more rowdily that the (white) West was, and is, best. “It is time to make the case for colonialism again,” Bruce Gilley, a Canadian academic, recently asserted and promptly shot to martyrdom in the far-right constellation as a victim of politically correct criticism.

The low comedy of charlatanry, however, should not distract us from the lethal dangers of a wounded and swaggering identity geopolitics. The war on terror reactivated the 19th century’s imperial archive of racial knowledge, according to which the swarthy enemy was subhuman, inviting extreme and lawless violence. The rapid contraction of suffrage rights witnessed in early-20th-century America is now mimicked by Republican attempts to disenfranchise nonwhite voters. Hate crimes continue to rise across the United States, Britain and Canada.

A century ago, the mere suspicion of being thrust aside by black and yellow peoples sparked apocalyptic visions of “race suicide.” Today, the “preponderance of China” that Pearson predicted is becoming a reality, and the religion of whiteness increasingly resembles a suicide cult. Mr. Trump’s trade wars, sanctions, border walls, deportations, denaturalizations and other 11th-hour battles seem to push us all closer to the “terrible probability” James Baldwin once outlined: that the rulers of the “higher races,” “struggling to hold on to what they have stolen from their captives, and unable to look into their mirror, will precipitate a chaos throughout the world which, if it does not bring life on this planet to an end, will bring about a racial war such as the world has never seen.”

—©2018The New York Times

Published: 02-09-2018 07:45

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