The world is more than two categories

A post from Kevin Drum, Once Again, a New Book Debunks Some History I Never Knew In the First Place,* made me wonder a few things. First, Kevin’s confusion:

Am I befuddled by history? Or by historiography? Or do I need a different word altogether?

Until five minutes ago, before I read this book review, it never would have occurred to me that white women were anything less than full partners with men in the white supremacy of the antebellum South. I have never read anything that even remotely suggests such a thing. And yet, apparently this has been a widely held belief—and not just by the masses, but by practicing historians as well.

Additionally, today I listened to the Extremeley Offline podcast where Zaid Jilani moderated a conversation between Liz Bruenig and Jon Chait, and Jilani talks about some of his confusion and discomfort with the racial dichotomies that have recently emerged in the United States (though our politics are very different it seems we have had the same experiences and reactions in relation to this). For example, all nonwhites are now “people of color,” set against whites. The three present a thesis that a dominant form of conceptualization of the world on the modern Left is between the marginalized and those who are not, and so you have dichotomies. People of color vs. whites. Women vs. men. The queer vs. straight. And, of course, the poor vs. the rich.

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It isn’t what you say, it’s who you are


Sarah Haider in the talk above outlines the reality that she has particular privileges in regards to talking skeptically and critically of Islam because of who she is, not the force of her arguments. More precisely, her status as an immigrant, woman, and a person with brown skin, inoculates her against the reflexive charges of racism or bigotry which get leveled against those who dare challenge Islam and the cultures with which it is associated.

And yet even here Sarah observes that she gets attacked and dismissed, whether through undermining her credibility, or suggesting that she’s a “native informant”.

I’ve been writing on the internet for 15 years. Long enough to see some trends emerge. This pattern of dismissal-by-identity has become much more noticeable on the Left over the past few years. Left-wing thought policing is operationalized through enforcing informational hygiene by segregation from unclean persons. I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m not optimistic.

But there is another group that engages in the same thing: the racist Right, what is now called the Alt-Right. In the early years of this weblog, most of the attempts of dismissal-by-identity came from this sector. Basically, the thesis is that nonwhites are constitutionally not intellectually creative, so their arguments were better than mine because they were white and I was not (this is a real position that was staked out by people who kept reading my writing).

A milder form of this stance would be that of a long-time reader, who I will not name in this post, who suggested that he understood the Bible better than I did because he was a white American and it was part of his culture, and not mine (nevermind that I grew up around white Americans and in white American culture, so he probably confused my brown skin for my cultural identity; again, something common among the identity politics Left and the racist Right).

Ultimately this form of argument-by-identity goes nowhere. Arguments are won through positional rank status within the tribe (you all know what “oppression Olympics” are), so they’re not arguments at all, but restatements of the nature of identity and its determinative character. If you are a white male, your job is to listen and learn, not talk back. If you are a white male and Alt-Right it is the job of others to listen and learn from you. If two people are of different tribes there is suspicion and incommensurability.  I, for example, am suspicious of engaging in discussions with liberals who I don’t know because tribalized arguments are usually just a waste of time (once they realize I’m not on their tribe they’ll just go full identity and everything will collapse). Similarly, many liberals probably feel the same way about #MAGA types.

The future seems to be more about power than persuasion. You are either in the Elect, or you are among the damned.

Meanwhile, someone like Sarah, who exhibits an old-fashioned fidelity and adherence to the idea and execution of truth is caught in the cross-fires of the two ascendent barbarian tribes.