Ecclesiology and Its Discontents

Albert Furtwangler, in his book Bringing Indians to the Book, noted that once missionaries showed up in the Americas with their religion, native religion became a matter of choice, not simply a matter of people’s habits or traditions, and thus defenders of native religion had, in many respects, to develop their own sort of missionizing language to keep people in the fold. In many respects, the process of the Protestant Reformation, and later the various waves of secularization in Europe (and the United States), made Christianity a choice. Where previously one went to church because everyone went to church, and one went to the local church because it was closest and everyone went to church, now one chose a church, and that choice spoke to (or was supposed to speak to) deeply held beliefs, beliefs that often separated one from one’s neighbor. Church became like a book club or group of hobbyists–congregations of people who shared similar interests (in this case, apparently similar doctrinal views). So now, even among Christian populations, “home missions” became a preoccupation, because even in a Christian culture, not everyone might be the right kind of Christian.

Lost during this cultural shift was the ability to take things for granted, to take things as a given, when it came to “matters of the spirit.” Even if you were raised in a church, your adherence to church was regarded as a matter of choice, for there were so many other options available to you.  Of course, many believers would say (and this was the substance of Protestantism) that the “laxity” of previous generations of Christians simply spoke to the need for revival and reform, for one must always strive for the truest interpretation of God’s Word and not simply relax into habits because they tend to be the habits of the population at this particular time and place. But even though I am no longer a Christian, I can’t help but to feel that something was lost in this shift–namely, the existence of an institution in which one connects with one’s neighbors outside the cloud of ideology, which can easily poison those relations. What has been lost is the language and symbolism that allows interpersonal connections to flourish in a shared context, especially beyond the ongoing struggle for the necessities of life.

These days, I am absolutely committed to a secular worldview. I find the very idea of church to be unfulfilling, to say the least, because I do not think that religion embodies any form of truth. In fact, my eventual estrangement from all things religious was based upon a developing understanding of the nature of truth and the realization that the truth claims upon which religion is based had no relationship to a reality that could be independently verified–and that I much preferred the uncertainty principle to the “cloud of unknowing.” However, I have realized here lately that my departure from the social enterprise of church has allowed the mental preoccupations that guide my paid employment to creep into more and more facets of our life, and that I have not had much socialization beyond co-workers and comrades in the same field, loosely defined. I have a Swedish-speaking group that meets every other week, but that’s about it unless I make a specific effort.

So while I find the ideology of religious congregations anathema, contrary to the precious idea of truth, I have to recognize that there was another aspect of church that had value–the part of church outside religion, if you can separate those in your mind. There is a bit of a feedback loop going on in the history of religion, with the process of  secularization driving the church toward more and more explicit ideology, in order to justify its existence and retain its adherence, which, in turn, drives yet a further wave of secularization, as people distance themselves from this ideology. Certain conservative voices are not wrong when they claim that secularization has left people lonely, but that is simply because what was socially valuable about church has not been replicated in another setting free of ideology. Sweden has largely escaped the secularization blues, but that’s because the nation actively promoted membership in athletic clubs, book circles, and more, thus driving people into groups that could compensate for what was missing.

So here’s the thing. Parishes used to be not only the seats of ecclesiastic authority but also the sites of local governance. Parish councils operated like city councils before systems of government became nationalized and professionalized, and in some places today the parish council still makes decisions about local ordinances. Parish councils organized access to common lands (“the commons”). Parish councils were organizations of great import for people who lived an explicitly local life, bringing neighbors together for tackling issues collectively or debating the future of the community. And so maybe what we need to replace church is not church but, instead, democracy at all levels of our lives: neighborhood associations and town councils and school boards.

After all, only democracy can really bring you together with all of your neighbors to work out your real-world problems. Should we really be surprised that it is under attack so fervently by conservatives?



Educated and Education

My wife occasionally complains that I don’t buy books like other people. Most of my reading material for the last several years has consisted of various academic books, though if I found myself at a used book store I would certainly browse a bit for some out-of-print novels. For many years, whenever a new academic volume after which I lusted appeared on the market, I would try to figure out how to get a free review copy of it. Buying seemed like a failure, like a defeat, and as a consequence I’ve reviewed a ton of books for more journals than is really sensible, all to save on the price of purchase. Here lately, perhaps either because I have a little more money or a little less time for writing reviews, I will buy the odd volume if it’s not prohibitively expensive. When I decide I have to have a new book, I e-mail our local bookstore and go pick it up when they call me about it. I don’t browse, just get my book and go.

But my friend Bill Lindsey, who blogs over at Bilgrimage, has been writing recently about the book Educated by Tara Westover, and it sounded a worthwhile read, especially as I recently finished Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of MisogynyEducated is the memoir of a woman who grew up in a strict, rural, paranoid survivalist Mormon household, overseen by a patriarch who believed that public education was socialism. Despite having never attended any sort of school during her young life, as well as being denied any real home schooling, Tara managed to get into Brigham Young University and, from there, go on to receive a doctorate in history from Cambridge University. It sounded quite the book, and I had that title in the back of my head when I found myself at the Barnes and Noble in Jonesboro, Arkansas, over Easter weekend. Now, when I am in a bookstore like that, I might go in with the idea of perhaps buying a book, and there may be one that I am contemplating, but then I’ll see another, and another, and another, and soon my intended purchase has to compete with all these other worthwhile volumes, and in the end I give up and leave without getting anything because who needs a new book when I already have so many back home that I haven’t read. And, in fact, we had driven away from the bookstore when I began to regret not having gotten a certain book, and so we went back, but the indecision re-emerged, and I was going to leave bookless yet again until the wife forced Educated into my hands and scooted me over to the register.

And a good thing, too, I’ll admit, because this book has been the source of many a thought since Saturday. One of the recurring themes in the book is the conflict between what Tara recognizes as truth, from her own experience and her own learning, and what she has been taught to perceive as truth through the influence of her family, especially her father, who has shaped her reality for so many years. As she writes, when this starts to come to a head: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs” (p. 197).  But she never breaks completely free. Even at Cambridge, where she is surrounded by people re-affirming her own worth, she still has to contend with the voices planted inside her own head by her family, voices telling her that she has no place there and that her chosen studies have no bearing upon the real world.

Worse are her attempts to narrate her own life to her parents. What ends up forcing the total separation from her parents and most of her siblings is her insistence that older brother Shawn abused her repeatedly.  Her mother, especially, witnessed Shawn beating Tara, and her friend Charles saw Shawn push her face violently into a toilet bowl, but her simple efforts to get her parents to acknowledge this reality proved fruitless, for they insisted that any fault was hers. If she would only be the meek and submissive woman their faith demanded, then she could see that any violence between the siblings was provoked by her, for wasn’t Shawn a holy patriarch like her father? Her insistence on remembering what she remembered was the real stumbling block: “All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family” (pp. 299-300).

Watching these dynamics of physical and psychological abuse play out in the Westover family throughout the span of the book, I’ve been put in mind of our broader history, and how the struggle for emancipation encounters the same patterns of gaslighting and torture at the collective level. Any emancipatory movement struggles to define its reality against those in power, whose actions easily parallel those of patriarchal abusers:

Slavery wasn’t like you say at all! Masters cared for their slaves like members of their own families. We never saw any abuse on southern plantations, and we were there. Besides, such a primitive race needed a guiding hand to prepare itself for civilization.

Sure, lynching is bad, but you people provoke it. All this talk of equal rights makes the negro think himself the equal of any white man, and so he wants to take his place, even in the bedroom. This talk of equal rights turns negro men into rapists, so it’s really your fault that lynchings happen.

How dare you talk about police like that! Don’t you know that they are the ones protecting us from anarchy? I saw that same video, and that dude was clearly provoking that cop to shoot him. The only people who think otherwise have some kind of agenda.

Many of the struggles over history actually follow the same pattern as does the struggle for selfhood in an abusive family. Near the end of her book, Tara Westover relates that her parents visited her at Harvard University, where she had a fellowship, as her father wanted to give her a priesthood blessing that would drive the evil from her. As she writes:

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me” (p. 304).

Education is the process of self-creation, which means it is the process by which relationships between self and other are redefined. No wonder, then, that elites and conservatives work so hard to abolish education for the masses or reduce it to the technical knowledge allegedly necessary for the job market. Their motivation is the exact same as that of the abuser, being a fear of the loss of power and authority. They fear having reality defined against them. They fear losing the custody of our collective minds.


The Book of Jasher

Having children is often cast as a sort of immortality, sometimes literally in the transmission of genes through time. You may wither away into nothingness, but some part of you, some cluster of molecules, still lives in coming generations. But from a material perspective, from the perspective of the gene, this is false. When you and a mate create a child, you each contribute half of your respective genomes, and likewise that child passes along half of hers to the next generation. But this does not mean that an even twenty-five percent of you survives in your grandchild. Some does, but each individual passes along half of its genome irrespective of which parent it came from. In fact, the proportion is likely to favor one grandparent over another. Even assuming a 49–51 split, with enough generations, there will not be any of your genetic contribution detectable in your distant descendant. The last remnants of the material you will have ceased to be.

But this does not mean that your existence was not relevant to later generations. Sure, none of your genes may have continued in circulation, but there still remains a huge family tree that will come crashing down if you are removed from the equation. Your existence was necessary.

In a similar vein, there is a lot of literature that is no longer extant but whose historical existence, we know, influenced the creation of what survived. The Hebrew Bible, for example, makes reference to a Book of Jasher, likely a collection of poetry. In his City of God, St. Augustine regularly quotes a pagan philosopher by the name of Varro, and those quotations are all that survives of the man’s work as we know it. Throughout history, various works of philosophy, history, medicine, poetry, and more have been lost to us, but we can recognize the influence they had upon audiences through the centuries during which they were still in circulation. The fact that they don’t exist in our present time does not mean that their influence does not remain. Take out all of those cultural artifacts that did not make it to the present era, and you would likely be dismantling all of our history and heritage.

What has me mediating in this vein is the search for some solace. Right now, the institution which employs me is undergoing some radical transitions, and I simply do not know if the project to which I have devoted the last fourteen years of my life has that much of a future left before it. And the thought that it may simply vanish fills me with dread and despair. This is, admittedly, because I have rather failed in recent years at keeping work and life somehow separate, but that, I understand, is rather normal when one’s job takes on the qualities of a “calling,” when one has a “vocation” in that religious sense of the word. And I’m working to carve out a little more life for myself, to rediscover the person I was (or create the person I could be) beyond my job title.  Part of this project has been a meditation upon mortality and immortality, a realization that death does not render meaningless the life that existed, be it of a person or a cultural artifact.

Chaos theory makes the butterfly as great a mover upon the plain of history as the mightiest general or wisest leader. Every little thing we do exerts its influence somehow, changes the shape of the future. And our work lives on, sublimated in the lives and labors of others. The individual cannot attain immortality unless we all do.

The Physical and Mental Inferiority of White Supremacists: Hypotheses to Guide Future Inquiry into the Evolution of a Unique Hominid Group

At this point in our history, the objective inferiority of white supremacists—inferiority that encompasses both the physical and mental realms—can no longer be doubted. Naturally, this assumption would be rejected by white supremacists themselves, but the irony is that even by their own metrics, they fall short in all ways possible. White supremacists posit themselves as defenders of “Western civilization” and “European culture,” but where among their own ranks can one find true adherents to ostensible European values, much less the exemplars of the supremacy they claim to exhibit? Where are the literary giants and Nobel Prize–winning mathematicians among their ranks? Despite their alleged devotion to “Western” culture, the white supremacist who can quote Shakespeare from memory or explain Newton’s three laws of motion is a rare beast indeed, even if such beast exists. Moreover, these white supremacists consistently reject other artifacts of European culture, such as Darwinian evolution or Marxist economics, likely because they are simply unable to grasp such complex, overarching concepts. The irony is that the white supremacist is the creature least capable of understanding, much less defending, the rich inheritance of European literature, philosophy, and scientific thinking.

For what reasons, then, has the white supremacist failed to rise to the level of culture and ability at which stands the rest of Homo sapiens? This is a question that has indeed engaged the scientific community for many years, and my intention here is not to offer a definitive answer but, instead, to summarize the, thus far, two most common approaches to this problem with the aim of guiding future research—research that will hopefully determine whether or not the white supremacist is simply a benighted subgroup of our own species that may, through a concerted campaign of integration and education, be lifted up from its dismal state, or whether the white supremacist population functions as essentially a subspecies of our own and is perhaps destined to devolve (if it has not already) to a point where any hybridity becomes unfeasible, if not impossible.

Of course, any inquiries into the divisions of mankind typically break along the nature-versus-nurture axis. Nature, these days, encompasses one’s genetic inheritance, as well as any influences upon the developing individual in the womb of its mother. Are there signs that the white supremacist suffers from genetic defects common to its particular subgroup? And if so, were these adaptive traits that developed in response to environmental change, or are these traits maladaptive? Perhaps answering the first question will pave the way toward an approach to the second, because yes, it can in fact be argued that the white supremacist does suffer from some form of genetic defect. In this modern era, we understand that many learning disabilities (and even what, in a former age, would have been dubbed forms of “mental retardation”) have a genetic foundation, and this could explain the white supremacist’s unique inability to understand complex subjects. For example, those people who have Down’s syndrome find abstract thinking and higher-order mathematics difficult, and it could be that the white supremacist suffers from something similar. But is this adaptive? It defies logic to believe so. The counterargument will be, of course, that white supremacists continue to reproduce, thus allegedly showing some form of Darwinian success, but our modern society, fortunately or unfortunately, facilitates the continued existence of many individuals who would otherwise have failed to survive in a more Hobbesian state of nature “red in tooth and claw.” Dachshunds find it impossible to reproduce without human assistance, yet they remain, and it could be that some group within the species of Homo sapiens regards the white supremacist with the kindness extended the mental defective or the housepet, or perhaps otherwise finds the existence of the white supremacist of benefit to itself in some way or another, and thus continues to facilitate its reproductive success. But survival need not necessarily indicate fitness, and by any metric, the white supremacist is an unfit individual, both mentally and physically.

Next, let us consider the “nurture” side of this argument. By “nurture,” we mean not exclusively parental care but, instead, the complete array of cultural influence. It should not be controversial to assert that white supremacists possess a most defective culture, especially when compared with other cultural divisions within the species of Homo sapiens. First and foremost, the white supremacist lacks the basic drive toward industry that is common among human beings. Instead of seeking to better himself and his community through employment in some beneficial enterprise, the white supremacist, instead, devotes his time to railing against the advantages bequeathed upon other groups. Although the white supremacist regularly makes reference to something called “white pride,” the deadly sin of sloth, not pride, arguably afflicts this culture to a much greater degree. It is a staple of white supremacist culture that the individual white supremacist need not assert himself in the physical and mental training needed to attain praise and/or employment in some worthwhile endeavor; instead, the white supremacist believes that all social praise and economic advantage belongs to him by right of his pale and wan physical appearance, that this mythical “whiteness” somehow trumps the more tangible assets of education and physical fitness, not to mention a developed morality and an ethical approach to human interactions. In other words, the white supremacist is inherently lazy but justifies this laziness by reference to a framework of superstition centered upon the ostensible “purity” of a melanin-poor epidermis. Some anthropologists investigating white supremacist culture have elevated this superstition to the level of an ideology, but such a categorization cannot be maintained with any credibility and perhaps reveals more about the tendency of anthropologists to romanticize the subjects of their research than it does the true nature of white supremacist ideas. The Neanderthal, as we know from recent archaeological findings, engaged in the coloration of the body with certain pigments, especially the bodies of the deceased, but we cannot realistically ascribe to this population of semi-sapient beings a coherent ideology, with all that implies. There is a categorical difference between the individual who wears around her neck a crucifix as a reminder of the soteriological and redemptive nature of the death of Jesus Christ, and a young boy who wears his “lucky shirt” on game day because once he hit a home run while wearing the same shirt. Even animals, such as birds and mammals, have exhibited superstitious behavior. The white supremacist simply believes that his skin tone constitutes a lucky shirt, and much of the violence to which he is given perhaps results from a disappointment in the failure of this luck to manifest itself.

Of course, culture can shape nature. Once white supremacist superstitions have taken root in this particular subspecies, its inherent genetic diversity could have become artificially limited, allowing maladaptive traits to persist over time. White supremacists are notorious for their unwillingness to interbreed with the various cultural groups that constitute the species Homo sapiens. Assuming that there was a time when interbreeding was possible, before white supremacists as a group degenerated past the point of even hybridity (if they have), the introduction into the proto-cultural group of a superstition regarding the “purity” of skin coloration could have created an artificial barrier to cross-breeding, resulting in these proto–white supremacists separating themselves from the concourse of humankind, and thus when certain maladaptive traits (discussed above) arose, population in-breeding would have ensured the success of those traits; in fact, it could be argued that in-breeding was the genesis of these maladaptive traits, just as in-breeding in the Hapsburg line resulted in Charles II of Spain, who exhibited some of the physical deformities and mental defects that have been observed in white supremacist populations. But it is just as possible that the ancestors of modern white supremacists developed as a separate branch of the genus Homo, albeit one that has managed to acquire some of the abilities of actual human beings, such as language, and that the superstition of white supremacy emerged as a psychological defense mechanism to shield individual white supremacists from the reality of their degenerate state.

The answers to the cladistic conundra that white supremacists pose to the disciplines of physical anthropology and evolutionary biology are, we hope, forthcoming in the near future. The emerging field of genetics, for one, should be able to reveal in greater detail the relationship between Homo sapiens and white supremacists. Even linguists hope to offer some contribution to this field of inquiry. Fresh off their successes in teaching sign language to chimpanzees, some linguists hope to teach certain abstract human concepts (such as fairness and hard work) to white supremacists. Such research will probably have to be restricted to confined laboratory settings, given that white supremacists in their native environments exhibit the most repulsive behavior and communicate largely through the violent propulsion of excreta. But the scientific method offers us hope that we can unravel the most tenacious of puzzles, and I have the utmost confidence that, one day, perhaps not too far in the distant future, we will have a more complete picture of the physical and mental nature of white supremacists. May this brief essay help to inspire our search for answers.

Marked Men

1) I have a friend, let’s call her Nina, who is of mixed Haitian and German extraction. But she lives here in the United States, so she is black. Anyhow, while a graduate student, Nina often went to parties with her classmates, and at these parties she tended to be the only person of color around. When she would invite her student friends to her own parties, which included a lot of her non-student friends, the ratio was a bit different. And, as you might well regard as an inevitable development, eventually one of Nina’s student friends expressed the sentiment that he felt really uncomfortable being one of the only white people at a large party. Words said without any sense of irony whatsoever, given all the times Nina had been the only person of color in a social gathering. The real privilege of whiteness is its invisibility.

2) In her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez shares an anecdote about the British pound. In the UK, the central bank occasionally chooses new cultural figures to go on all of its currency as part of a general redesign, and some years back the latest selection would have been all men, eliminating the one non-royal woman to have ever been featured on a British bill. Of course, the central bank authorities insisted that they did not intend to eliminate the only example of female representation on pound notes but that the latest selection was conducted by entirely “objective” measures, and no women really amounted to great significance. Perez was part of a group organizing against this change and recalled being in conversation with a man about it when he erupted, “But women are everywhere nowadays!” Just one woman to be on some unit of currency, just one, and he already thought that too much, a case of special pleading or affirmative action run amok. Because the real privilege of maleness is its invisibility.

Paul Campos, a blogger at Lawyers, Guns & Money, recently posted a piece titled “Marking the Unmarked Category,” in which he wrote:

What “identity politics,” so-called, has done is to slowly and painfully and partially transform being a white man in America into a marked category.  And [that] makes a lot of the people who have become white men rather than members of society’s invisible default category very uncomfortable.  And when people get very uncomfortable, they often get mad at whoever they blame for making them feel that way.  And then they vote for Donald Trump.

The Swedish stand-up comedian Özz Nûjen, who is of Kurdish background (his parents having fled Saddam Hussein), had a bit in his 2014 show Statsminister Özz Nûjen  (Prime Minister Özz Nûjen) about how Americans in Sweden will be praised by natives for saying no more than one or two words correctly, even if they have lived there for years, while someone of apparent Arabic extraction who speaks fluent Swedish, but with a slight accent, will be told to go back to his own country. White Americans could pass as Swedes, and Swedes generally speak enough English to communicate, so the Swedish-speaking Arab is more objectionable than the white American because the latter does not make the Swede feel a marked category. For so long, in both American and Swedish society, being white or being male was not a category worth noting but, instead, a given, the background against which everything else stood out. But now, as cultural environments and general workforces are more diversified, white males in particular are being regarded as their own grouping with perhaps their own group interests and dynamics. And these people who are now marked assert, instead, universal principles as a means of asserting their non-markedness. (Or as my mom asks me, “Why do people insist on calling themselves African American instead of just American?” She now also writes down “American” as her race on any required forms).

But universalisms can offer their own forms of oppression. Brazil is occasionally lauded as a land free of the racial categories that typify American social life, but as Howard Winant observes in his book The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II, a society that celebrates its “mixedness” can still prove oppressive, especially against indigenous groups and African groups, for such a society can condemn a failure to blend into the mainstream and thus deride efforts to protect localized or marginalized cultures. In other words, “universality” can constitute its own oppressive frame of identity if contrasted with some other group pitched as not so universal. Religion scholar Denise Kimber Buell observed something similar in Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity when she argued that early Christians positioned themselves positively compared to Jews in that their community potentially encompassed all humankind—all one needed to do was to be born again—while Jews were a more narrowly defined group.

Of course, what universalism means is not necessarily being able to accept other people and cultures but, instead, being able to accept this “other” so long as it is reinterpreted via as an un-marked category. And thus did Elvis Presley bring musical sensibilities long common to African Americans to the white mainstream by virtue of being white himself. And thus are folks from the various “Jews for Jesus” groups in great demand in evangelical circles, for they, by both theology and deed, present Jewish-ness not as alien to the Christian experience but as part of a continuum. One of the ironies of Brexit is that there are companies selling large containers of canned food should the worst happen with a no-deal Brexit—supplies you need to survive the shortages to come—and one of the British “classics” you can get large canisters of is Chicken Tikka Masala. Of course, Chicken Tikka Masala is a curry dish—not native to India but created by Indians in the UK to accommodate the British palate—but it has been around long enough that Brits have essentially baptized it as British and make it themselves. Vote Brexit to drive all the foreigners out but stock up on canned Chicken Tikka Masala to survive the apocalypse Brexit will create.

In The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah observes that heretics were never killed for arcane theological points but for challenging authority. Think about the fact that there are many Catholics in American politics who have voted for expanded contraceptive mandates or other policies which run directly against Church teaching (such as, on the more conservative spectrum, the death penalty) but who are still allowed communion in the Church because they do not challenge the fundamental teachings of the organization within that organization. Or the many gay and lesbian members who were even employed by the Church in some capacity (or were lay ministers or musicians), with everybody knowing they were gay, but who were only outed and expelled and fired after getting married to their same-sex partner, because marriage challenges the authority of the Church as it is a Church sacrament.

Ta-Nehisi Coates dubbed Donald Trump “the first white president” as an expression not only of Trump’s explicit commitment to white supremacy but also the fact that he would not be president were he not white; he would not be president were not white Americans so terrifyingly invested in making America white again. Because what Barack Obama did was to mark the whiteness of the presidency by having the audacity to not be white. He made being a white man a marked category by not being one and yet still rose to the highest political office in the land. This was a heresy of deed.

But here’s the problem. Because whiteness has only been allowed to remain an invisible, unmarked category through an overarching system of exploitation, the system of white supremacy, that touches all spheres of life from the cultural to the economic. Its invisibility is not some artifact but is, in fact, a key mechanism in the system, fostering what the philosopher Charles W. Mills dubbed an “epistemology of ignorance,” whereby whites who have benefited from the system of white supremacy remain ignorant of the means by which these advantages have accrued to them and thus can attribute everything to their own individual goodness. So one can only regain invisibility–one can only remove the mark–by re-instituting the system that made that happen. Or as Steve King asks, “What’s so wrong with a term like white supremacist?” If you want to know why so many people can insist that they are not personally racist even as they spew forth the more racist garbage imaginable, or that they are not sexists even as they say that they just believe women should be back in the home, it’s because they just want to be unmarked again, universal again, and they don’t understand how much their social comfort depended upon the reality of exploitation.


We all make assumptions. Whether based upon someone’s clothing, accent, gender, race/ethnicity, mannerisms, or whatever, we tend to make fairly instant assumptions about the various people we encounter in our daily lives, or view on television, and sometimes it takes work to counter those instant assumptions, to learn to stop classifying people in our minds one way or another based upon physical appearances. But we also judge upon the basis of information that we learn from somebody, information that may not be readily accessible via the senses. Occupation, education, religion, etc. And these can sometimes counter the immediate physical impression. You may see a slovenly man in sweatpants and think little of him until you learn that he’s a lawyer, for example.

But my point here is that, with regard to this latest scandal pertaining to rich people bribing elite universities to take their dimmer than dim offspring, no one should make the assumption that a graduate of an elite university is gifted in any way. In fact, just the opposite–when you learn that somebody new to you graduated from Harvard or Yale, your very first assumption should be that they are water-headed morons too dumb to get into any school whose raison d’être is actual education rather than providing the scions of the dimwitted elite the diplomas they need to lay claim to their one percent of the world economy. Your first assumption should be that they are absolute fucking imbeciles until proven otherwise. An elite education is only worth the dollars daddy will give to the  university lacrosse team. Remember, Bertie Wooster was an Oxford man.

A friend of mine visited Harvard some years ago and brought me a tumbler with their crest, which includes the Latin word Veritas (Truth) on it. The truth will set you free, but Harvard ain’t. Nice glass, though. Perfect tumbler for my boxed wine.

The Evolutionary Antidote to Fascism?

Given the multiplicity of political views available to the average human, I find myself regularly confounded by the fact that political groupings tend to fall along two particular axes. Where are the white supremacists who are also feminists? The anti-racists who disapprove of homosexuality? The evangelical voter who also supports unlimited immigration? Given the buffet of political opinions that exists, it has long seemed odd to me that the customers’ tastes have them typically (with occasional exception) lining up on opposite sides and rarely sampling (at least openly) the dishes opposite them.

But maybe there is a reason.  Richard Wrangham’s new book, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, holds that Homo sapiens is a self-domesticated species, and that this pre-historical process of self-domestication has determined what might be called our “success” as a species. Domestication, as a process, entails breeding animals that exhibit less reactive violence, especially toward humans (the ones doing the domestication). It is not the same thing as taming—one can tame an animal like a lion with use of punishment and reward, but that is a behavior modification for one individual, while domestication is a form of selection that changes all future individuals born along that line. (Reactive violence, which is gradually eliminated during domestication, is the sort of display of aggression that typically occurs when two adult individuals of the same species encounter each other for the first time, like chimpanzees howling and beating their chests, and though you might encounter that among other humans in certain seedy bars, as a species we typically exhibit a low level of reactive violence.) So domestication is the process of breeding out a tendency toward reactive violence, and it comes with a host of other effects—minimized bodily dimorphism between males and females, a general feminization of features across the species, neotony (or the maintenance of child-like physiology into adulthoodhood), and the persistence of homosexual behaviors (which perhaps have their origin as a kind of play) into adulthood.

Wrangham, to illustrate the differences between a self-domesticated and an undomesticated species, compares the evolutionary history of chimpanzees and bonobos. These are favorites for comparison because, even though they were not recognized as separate species until the early twentieth century, they exhibit wildly divergent behaviors. The chimpanzees are patriarchal, with an alpha male controlling the reproductive potential of all females in his group, and all the females isolated as individuals subject to significant violence. Infanticide is common, for when a new male takes over, he will likely murder the young he can in order to bring about the estrus of their mothers, who are not ready to mate so long as they are nursing. Violence is the order of the day. The bonobos, by contrast, lack clear rulers, but at the heart of any grouping are female elders, and should any male become violent, they will, as a group, chase him away or even beat him. Bonobos exhibit great sexual variety, often pursuing sex as a form of play, and homosexual behaviors are quite common. Most tellingly, a bonobo introduced to another of the same species will tend to share food automatically and invite that other individual into his/her space, even if it means less food for the first.

Wrangham explains this divergent behavior among two very similar species as a product of environment. The two species are separated by the Congo River, and on one side, the chimpanzees found themselves competing for food with gorillas, which necessitated individuals to forage for food by themselves. By contrast, the bonobos existed in a site of relative abundance. Females did not have to isolate themselves so regularly and so could band together to ward off common threats. This provided the means for a different kind of selection—the selection of mates not for their power but, instead, for their ability to accord themselves to female empowerment. Thus did the bonobos self-domesticate, breeding out the capacity for reactive violence.

According to Wrangham, a similar dynamic underlay the evolution of human beings, as demonstrated by our relatively mild bodily dimorphism and other characteristics that betray a legacy of domestication. Moreover, domestication can build upon itself. As early human ancestors became less reactively violent, they were able to work together on shared projects. And this ability to work together helped further to domesticate the species, as human ancestors could cooperatively eliminate from their tribes those aberrant individuals who relished in violence and abuse.

Now, it was outside of the scope of Wrangham’s study, but because I read a lot about the nature of fascism and the politics of alterity, I could not help but to recognize the horror with which fascist types would read his book. For one, fascism emerges as an elite-driven alternative to socialism, seeing economic equality as a threat to the operations of traditional society. And it was an environment of comparatively equal access to resources that made bonobo self-domestication possible. Fascists say that socialism will entail the “feminization” of society, and the process of self-domestication not only ensured that male and female bodies, over time, become more alike, but also facilitated the elimination of alpha-male hierarchy for a much flatter polity in which females determined group boundaries. Moreover, fascist ire toward the “feminizing” of society often expresses itself in attributions of “unmanliness” and even homosexuality to its enemies, and the domestication process makes homosexuality as a behavior less aberrant. Fascists hate the stranger, the immigrant, the other, but the very aim of domestication is to make the species less reactively hostile to the stranger, the other.

Now, it would be a stretch to say that the shape of our current political debates reveals a fundamental anxiety as it relates to our long-term evolution as a species… or would it? Too much pop evolutionary psychology has been written for me—an expert in neither evolutionary biology nor psychology—to be comfortable issuing a declaration about the relationship between humanity’s self-domestication and contemporary politics. However, we can perhaps say that the myriad political issues debated in the public tend to fall into two general categories because they center around one basic question—are we afraid of “the other” or not? The fascists are afraid, and that absolute, trembling, pants-wetting fear leads them to embrace a host of policies that line up along the non-domesticated axis, especially the denigration of all things feminine. The fascists are united in their vision, while those of us on the other side of that buffet have often struggled to unite cogently our own rather divergent issues. But perhaps we can take a line from an ancient text and say that our politics—and, indeed, the politics of all human advancement, for the tendency toward reactive violence would never have made it possible for people to work together and map the human genome or touch the face of the moon—can be summed up in three little words:

“Be not afraid.”