Not all that intellectual today, but two items of interest from the recent Arts & Letters Daily selections.
The first I immediately thought was another reactionary rant on its subject, but closer examination shows it is better than that. I was put off by the A&L’s intro:
Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. All in the name of progress… more»
Much better than that would lead you to expect. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.
The second is from The Atlantic Monthly: The End of White America? by Hua Hsu.
"Civilization’s going to pieces,” he remarks. He is in polite company, gathered with friends around a bottle of wine in the late-afternoon sun, chatting and gossiping. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?” They hadn’t. “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
He is Tom Buchanan, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book that nearly everyone who passes through the American education system is compelled to read at least once. Although Gatsby doesn’t gloss as a book on racial anxiety—it’s too busy exploring a different set of anxieties entirely—Buchanan was hardly alone in feeling besieged. The book by “this man Goddard” had a real-world analogue: Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920, five years before Gatsby. Nine decades later, Stoddard’s polemic remains oddly engrossing. He refers to World War I as the “White Civil War” and laments the “cycle of ruin” that may result if the “white world” continues its infighting. The book features a series of foldout maps depicting the distribution of “color” throughout the world and warns, “Colored migration is a universal peril, menacing every part of the white world.”
As briefs for racial supremacy go, The Rising Tide of Color is eerily serene. Its tone is scholarly and gentlemanly, its hatred rationalized and, in Buchanan’s term, “scientific.” And the book was hardly a fringe phenomenon. It was published by Scribner, also Fitzgerald’s publisher, and Stoddard, who received a doctorate in history from Harvard, was a member of many professional academic associations. It was precisely the kind of book that a 1920s man of Buchanan’s profile—wealthy, Ivy League–educated, at once pretentious and intellectually insecure—might have been expected to bring up in casual conversation.
As white men of comfort and privilege living in an age of limited social mobility, of course, Stoddard and the Buchanans in his audience had nothing literal to fear. Their sense of dread hovered somewhere above the concerns of everyday life. It was linked less to any immediate danger to their class’s political and cultural power than to the perceived fraying of the fixed, monolithic identity of whiteness that sewed together the fortunes of the fair-skinned.
From the hysteria over Eastern European immigration to the vibrant cultural miscegenation of the Harlem Renaissance, it is easy to see how this imagined worldwide white kinship might have seemed imperiled in the 1920s. There’s no better example of the era’s insecurities than the 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, in which an Indian American veteran of World War I sought to become a naturalized citizen by proving that he was Caucasian. The Court considered new anthropological studies that expanded the definition of the Caucasian race to include Indians, and the justices even agreed that traces of “Aryan blood” coursed through Thind’s body. But these technicalities availed him little. The Court determined that Thind was not white “in accordance with the understanding of the common man” and therefore could be excluded from the “statutory category” of whiteness. Put another way: Thind was white, in that he was Caucasian and even Aryan. But he was not white in the way Stoddard or Buchanan were white.
The ’20s debate over the definition of whiteness—a legal category? a commonsense understanding? a worldwide civilization?—took place in a society gripped by an acute sense of racial paranoia, and it is easy to regard these episodes as evidence of how far we have come. But consider that these anxieties surfaced when whiteness was synonymous with the American mainstream, when threats to its status were largely imaginary. What happens once this is no longer the case—when the fears of Lothrop Stoddard and Tom Buchanan are realized, and white people actually become an American minority? ….
Do make sure you read on. It becomes even more interesting, and it is very relevant to our thinking here in Australia, despite its US emphasis, and to our own past. In fact I’ve PDFed it too: Hua Hsu article. Of course there are major differences between the US and Australian experiences, but there is common ground in some of the thinking Hua Hsu alludes to.
Putting both articles together, you might say a 21st century Tom Buchanan would be running an ultra-Right blog! 😉
The relevance to our own past? See earlier entries here: That hypothetical Year 10 lesson on “White Australia” and Updating that hypothetical Year 10 lesson on "White Australia". My contention would be that in the context of the time, given what was “normal” thinking in much of the Anglophone world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it would have been very surprising if Australia hadn’t had a “White Australia Policy”. We don’t have to agonise about it, because we have moved on since then. Sadly, not everyone has moved on, as we know, but generally speaking there has been a lot of progress, especially here in Australia.
It doesn’t hurt our international reputation though to be frank about our own past, while equally assertive about the progress that has been made; I’d go further and claim it is very desirable so to do, setting an excellent example to others less honest about their chequered pasts. That’s why I don’t accept Keith Windschuttle’s special pleading on the subject. Our White Australia Policy was indisputably racist, whatever else it may have been – protective of labour, concerned with Empire and with internal social cohesion, inspired by distance and vulnerability, and so on – all part of the mix too. But it is really not surprising that racist thinking shaped much of the rhetoric at the time.
Jim Belshaw and I have thrashed this one out several times in the past, as visiting those two posts will show. 🙂