Is This Racism . . . ?

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I don’t think I’d hear of Valerie Jarrett until CNN told me that Roseanne Barr had insulted her and lost her TV show as a result. The offending tweet was “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”

Valerie Jarrett

The story was accompanied by a photo of Ms Jarrett, in which she did bear some resemblance to the masks used in the Planet of the Apes films. But Google Images has no photos like that, and the one reproduced here shows her as 100% human.

I’ve since done some online research and found that a false rumour had once been spread by her political opponents, saying that she was Iranian (she was in fact born in Iran of US parents) and a Muslim and having proclaimed an agenda to “help change America to be a more Islamic country.”

But Roseanne’s offence was, according to the media, racism. And I don’t get it. Being a Muslim or an advocate of Islam is unrelated to race. Resembling a fictional non-human primate is unrelated to race. Roseanne was undoubtedly guilty of ‘passing personal remarks’ (which I was taught to avoid) and perpetuating a false rumour. But where’s the racism?

Populism

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The Cambridge Dictionary has chosen ‘populism’ as its Word of the Year. The word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary – only a definition of a populist as “a person who claims to support the interests of ordinary people.”

That sounds pretty admirable to me. So why are the words ‘populism’ and ‘populist’ always used pejoratively? Nobody ever says, “That Trump fellow is a real populist. Good for him!” Could it be that the political élite, the pointy-headed intellectuals, the upper middle class people who work in universities, newsrooms and government departments, really do look down on the unwashed masses as Trump and many others claim? Do those people really think they know better what’s good for the common people than the common people themselves?

I have just read an article by Cas Mudde (pictured) in the Guardian Weekly (wishing that I’d thought of that name to give one of my characters in The Eeks Trilogy) in which he argues that what is often called ‘populism’ is really nativism. He goes on to define nativism as “an ideology that holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state;” and characterise it as “nasty.”

This got me thinking about the concept of the nation-state and why it was regarded as such a good thing in the 19th and early 20th centuries; why political heavy­weights in the richest countries of the West now consider it anathema; and why the epithet ‘racist’ is routinely hurled at anyone who expresses a preference for living among people with similar cultural practices, beliefs, values, history and language.

I flipped through a recent issue of the Guardian Weekly and found stories about conflict arising from this preference in six countries: Cameroon, Cyprus, Hungary, Myanmar, Poland and Tibet. And there was a story about German politics, which was dominated for over 40 years by a desire to restore nation-statehood.

Perhaps it’s time for us to be more tolerant of this preference, which seems to be deeply embedded in human nature whether we like it or not.

White Australia Policy

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We’ve had a rash of news stories about employees being paid less than the legal minimum wage. In the most extreme cases it has not been an oversight or a one-off try-on, but a business model that works like this:

  • A small-time businessperson buys a franchise from a big company, such as Seven-Eleven.
  • The cost and conditions of the franchise make it impossible to pay legal wages and make a profit.
  • So the franchisee employs foreign students and pays them a fraction of the legal wage. The big company (the franchisor) may give a nod and a wink, or even informally explain how to do it.
  • People on a student visa are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week to help finance their studies, but they are induced to work 40 or more hours per week for 20 hours’ pay. How are they able to do this and study effectively as well? The likely answer is, “They can’t.”.
  • Timesheets are falsified to make the books look right, and the students don’t complain because they are as culpable as their employers: they are breaking the terms of their visas and could be deported.

In revelations of this law-breaking on TV most of the students and most of the franchisees appear to be of South Asian origin. None (that I have seen) appear to be of Anglo-Celtic origin. This observation sent me to my bookshelves to find an old publication called ‘Australia: Official Handbook’. It is dated January 1945 and it was sent by the Repatriation Commission to a new immigrant. The following passage is interesting:

“At the outset it may clear away misconceptions to give a brief outline of the immigration policy that is generally known as the “White Australia” policy.

“To the principle of “White Australia” all political parties in the Commonwealth subscribe, for the economic reason that the white man’s standard of living would be endangered by the introduction of coloured labourers who would be prepared to accept wages and to work and live under conditions that are not acceptable to a white workman.”

I share this without editorial comment.

Name-Calling

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If you want to put someone in a really bad light, call them a racist. This is what’s happening in Australia (and elsewhere) to people who express criticism of Islam.  I don’t get it.  Anyone can be a Muslim, regardless of their race.  Islam is an ideology, not an ethnicity.

A lot of people, especially people in advanced secular societies, don’t much like the beliefs and values that followers of the various branches of Islam adhere to. As an atheist I can understand why. What I can’t understand is why people should be howled down or insulted for expressing an honest opinion.

Racism

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If you want to damage a political opponent, call him or her a racist. But when I use the word it may mean something quite different from what you understand by it. I like to be precise, so let’s look at the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s definition:

Racism:

  1. the belief that there are characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to each race.
  2. discrimination against or antagonism towards other races.

So we have two quite different definitions, both with a respected stamp of approval. Am I a racist if I say that many Jews are clever, musical and entrepreneurial? Am I a racist if I point out that black Africans commonly excel at physically demanding sports? Am I a racist if I mention that the Vikings had a hugely disproportionate influence on European history?

Under the COD’s first definition I suppose I am. But under the second definition, unless I go further and believe that the innate qualities that I have observed should be the basis for either promoting or subjugating one race in relation to another, I am not.

Please notice that I used the word ‘believe’ in that last paragraph. Racism is a state of mind, an attitude, a belief. Hitler would have been a racist even if he had never breathed a word of what he thought about Jews, Africans or Gypsies, or taken action against any of them. Conversely, a political leader might have no racist beliefs but find it expedient to adopt racially discriminatory policies.

What about you? Are you a racist?