A place for new ideas to settle.

16 October 2014

Diagnosis of an overwhelming fear, pt. 2

In my previous post I wondered about the common feminist narrative of an overwhelming fear: that women face so many threats and imminent dangers that it's mentally exhausting just to get through the day.

Rather than diagnose that directly (because politics is war and arguments are soldiers) I want to examine another case of overwhelming fear: that of white male reactionaries. Why? Well, because I'm going to give a presentation on neoreaction later this month, but also because this is prima facie a "safer" discussion topic.

The last section of Nick Land's summary of neoreaction (also known as NRx or the "Dark Enlightenment") includes a "multi-part subdigression into racial terror," and attempts to explain the deeper motivations behind stuff like John Derbyshire (formerly of National Review) giving his son "the Talk" about basically avoiding black people unless a few prove themselves sufficiently safe to befriend. For the record, here's part of what Derbyshire had to say in that piece, which he wrote for the far-right Taki's Magazine:
(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.
It beggars belief to anyone even mildly acquainted with liberal values, but that's precisely the neoreactionary's point: that there exists a claustrophobic meme complex of "progressivism" which meets any challenge with overwhelming moral outrage.

In an interview with Gawker, Derbyshire laid out in a less bulleted-list form the narrative of white man's fear:
My own sense of the thing is that underneath the happy talk, underneath the dogged adherence to failed ideas and dead theories, underneath the shrieking and anathematizing at people like me, there is a deep and cold despair. In our innermost hearts, we don’t believe racial harmony can be attained. Hence the trend to separation. We just want to get on with our lives away from each other. Yet for a moralistic, optimistic people like Americans, this despair is unbearable. It’s pushed away somewhere we don’t have to think about it. When someone forces us to think about it, we react with fury. That little boy in the Andersen story about the Emperor’s new clothes? The ending would be more true to life if he had been lynched by a howling mob of outraged citizens.
Meanwhile, Nick Land and the self-identifying neoreactionaries lament the failure of civilization that has created the urban hellscapes that are anathema to white folk and something something basic human decency:
In much of the Western world, in stark contrast, barbarism has been normalized. It is considered simply obvious that cities have ‘bad areas’ that are not merely impoverished, but lethally menacing to outsiders and residents alike. Visitors are warned to stay away, whilst locals do their best to transform their homes into fortresses, avoid venturing onto the streets after dark, and – especially if young and male — turn to criminal gangs for protection, which further degrades the security of everybody else. Predators control public space, parks are death traps, aggressive menace is celebrated as ‘attitude’, property acquisition is for mugs (or muggers), educational aspiration is ridiculed, and non-criminal business activity is despised as a violation of cultural norms. Every significant mechanism of socio-cultural pressure, from interpreted heritage and peer influences to political rhetoric and economic incentives, is aligned to the deepening of complacent depravity and the ruthless extirpation of every impulse to self-improvement. Quite clearly, these are places where civilization has fundamentally collapsed, and a society that includes them has to some substantial extent failed.
The forecast is bleak; and according to at least one Gallup poll, the neoreactionaries may be on to something. (Note also that it wouldn't be so hard to transmute Land's quote to one about, say, rape culture, without too much word-swapping, and be not too far off from the kind of #YesAllWomen-type fear narrative from part 1. This is surprising—one would expect lefty feminists and hard-right neoreactionaries to disagree about everything—and should give us pause.)

We're at the point where 83% of non-Hispanic white people and 60% of black people say that differences in socioeconomic attainment between blacks and whites were most likely do to something else other than discrimination. Still, we should note that "something else" is a very big space of possibility; I tend to think that systemic differences are by now more likely to be the structural "fallout" from decades of overt and active discrimination in law, but the individual experience may well be dominated by petty, individualized discrimination (cf. the famous series of studies comparing otherwise-equal resumes or housing applications).

And yet, this part of Land's NRx summary is disturbing partially because it contains some not-obviously-false observations about cultural tendencies:
Question: What is America’s race problem?

Answer-1: Black people.

Answer-2: White people.
The combined popularity of these options is significantly expanded, most probably to encompass a large majority of all Americans, when is taken to include those who assume that one of these two answers dominates the thinking of the other side. Between them, the propositions “The problem would be over if we could just rid ourselves of black hoodlums / white racists” and / or “They think we’re all hoodlums / racists and want to get rid of us” consume an impressive proportion of the political spectrum, establishing a solid foundation of reciprocal terror and aversion.


Not that these ‘sides’ are racial (except in black or white tribal-nationalist fantasy). For crude stereotypes, it is far more useful to turn to the principal political dimension, and its categories of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in the contemporary, American sense. To identify America’s race problem with white racism is the stereotypical liberal position, whilst identifying it with black social dysfunction is the exact conservative complement. Although these stances are formally symmetrical, it is their actual political asymmetry that charges the American race problem with its extraordinary historical dynamism and universal significance.

That American whites and blacks – considered crudely as statistical aggregates — co-exist in a relation of reciprocal fear and perceived victimization, is attested by the manifest patterns of urban development and navigation, school choice, gun ownership, policing and incarceration, and just about every other expression of revealed (as opposed to stated) preference that is related to voluntary social distribution and security. An objective balance of terror reigns, erased from visibility by complementary yet incompatible perspectives of victimological supremacism and denial. Yet between the liberal and conservative positions on race there is no balance whatsoever, but something closer to a rout.
These are the sort of observations that engender small, nagging anxiety in my mind. Not because they might point at true facts about the relative states of "black America" and "white America," but because they seem just true enough, even when investigated to a certain degree. Yes, I worry at a meta level because I'm just that weird.

My more general worry is that our civilization's tough social-political problems are coated in a blubbery layer of ostensible facts that just serve to confirm biases, and that just below that layer (which few ever drill down to, because confirmation bias is a great and terrible power) are surprising facts that explode lots of preconceptions. Facts that, I might hopefully add, are happier endings than a death spiral of reciprocal terror such as neoreactionaries fear.

It's analogous to the history joke that "In elementary school you learn that the American Civil War was about slavery; in high school you learn that it was about states' rights; in college you learn it was actually about slavery." Or the not-actually-formalized joke that college anthropology departments spend most of their time disabusing students of the too-easy conclusions they reached in ANTH101 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. That is, what if some necessary facts are simply buried too deep in the literature to make it out to the general person on the street? I don't think there's any too-simplistic gloss of, say, Hilbert space, that I could explain to a middle-class, middle-aged person who probably forgot or else deep-cached 80% of their college algebra course.

The neoreactionaries take seriously the fears and anxieties of so-called bitter clingers: a fear that Real America (or civilization, for the ecumenical) is collapsing around them, that their quality of life will suddenly take a sharp nose-dive with no end in sight. That the Wrong Sorts of people are to blame, and that there's an unbridgeable gap between the fearful and the Wrong Sorts. Not just wrong, but alien. The modern situation is against Nature in a very basic, Great Chain of Being sort of way.

Because Land doesn't cite any actual studies, one might be tempted to dismiss his narrative as pure fantasy. But there are studies; for example, in mock trials with varying narratives of sexual assault, it has been found that reactionary-type women are the most likely to acquit a male defendant when the female plaintiff was said to have offered only "token resistance." Why is this? The Yale Law School's Cultural Cognition Project explains:
Roy Black famously secured an acquittal for William Kennedy Smith through his adroit selection of a female juror who met this profile and who ended up playing a key role in steering the jury to a not guilty verdict in her role as jury foreperson.

Experienced defense lawyers know that when the college football payer is on trial for date rape, the ideal juror isn’t Kobe Bryant; it’s Anita Bryant.

Women with these hierarchical outlooks have played a major role in political opposition to rape-law reform too.

These are Todd Akin’s constituents, “women who think that they have in some ways become less liberated in recent decades, not more; who think that easy abortion, easy birth control and a tawdry popular culture have degraded their stature, not elevated it.” Because of the egalitarian meanings rape reform conveys, they see it as part and parcel of an assault on the cultural norms that underwrite their status.
And we liberals, we progressives? We scoff and dismiss these fears as the phantasms of doddering old-timers on their way out, fundamentalist throwbacks who think everyone else catching up means they're losing ground. But why should we dismiss the fear? Why should we minimize and not try to diagnose? When did we liberals, we progressives, decide that some people are just beyond help? Especially when it's sort of expected that we uncritically accept the lived experiences of certain (the neoreactionary would call them "Cathedral-approved") identities?

Sometimes it's because we like that certain groups are afraid. Ezra Klein, of all people, wrote that the recent "Yes Means Yes" sex law passed in California helps women by making men afraid. Ffear in the Other Camp is taken as a sign that Our Side is winning, because arguments are soldiers, and no concessions may be made to the enemy. There are no Geneva Conventions for politics.

I say this is wrong, and not just wrong, illiberal. Fear is the currency and reaction fuel (ha) of reactionaries. The promise of liberalism is to free ourselves from fear; why should we try to instill fear in others? And so we should try to dispel and banish fear. All the better if the fear turns out to be mistaken (as the reactionaries' seems mostly to be), but we should take fear seriously.