Saturday, November 12, 2016

Du Bois and the Alt Right

In the Proceedings of the 1909 National Negro conference there is a W.E.B. Du Bois paper called `Evolution of the Race Problem'. Since I have seen some of the arguments he is addressing put forward in slightly adapted modern contexts I thought I would relay some of his reasoning here, and give a little commentary of my own at the end. I note that, first, I am not going to cover all the material in this essay and, second, philosophyheads may be interested to know that Dewey also has a short piece in this volume.

Ok so Du Bois is concerned to argue against the following line of reasoning, popular (he says) in America and gaining increasing sympathy in Europe in the wake of growing acceptance of Darwinism: the white race is generally superior, and superior owing to some biological facts about white people that make them as such. In order to secure the advantages of a superior people governing and contributing what they can to world culture, we should use legal and social sanction to prevent whites and non-whites interbreeding, and secure the military and political superiority of white over non-white nations through Imperialist foreign policy and segregationist domestic policy (including formally denying black people the ballot).

Against this Du Bois launches three lines of counter-attack, each of which build upon the previous and which are interesting in the extent to which they concede various parts of the above argument. First, there is an argument from risk aversion. Our present [1909] understanding of the relevant biology is so limited that ``it is indefensible and monstrous to pretend today that we know with any reasonable certainty'' (pg.151) who exactly the superior stock are.

Second, Du Bois points out that there are undoubtedly individuals from various races who are clearly of a superior or exceptional sort -- and that the effect of white supremacy at home or abroad is to render the Best of the non-white races subordinate to just all members of the white race. The point being that if you grant that there is not a strict dominance argument, that it is not the case that every white person is superior to every non-white person by whatever standard of civilisation you are interested in, then suddenly white supremacy as a foreign and domestic policy looks too crude. Even if in general white folk have the greater part of the Superior people, or produce a disproportionate share of them, Imperialism and White Supremacy still cut at the wrong joints, by forcefully elevating white folk over non-white folk. As Du Bois memorably puts it, this theory `makes the possession of Krupp guns the main criterion of mental stamina and moral fitness' (pg.154). White supremacy, in short, is insufficiently discerning, it s a sledgehammer where a scalpel is needed.

Third, there is an appeal to the superior humanity of a kind of liberal or soft eugenics. As he puts it on page 156:
The civilised method of preventing ill advised marriage lies in the training of mankind in the ethics of sex and childbearing. We cannot ensure the survival of the best blood through the public murder and degregation of unworthy suitors, but we can substitute the civilised human selection of husbands and wives which shall ensure the survival of the fittest. Not the methods of the jungle, nor even the careless choices of the drawing room, but the thoughtful selection of the schools and laboratory is the ideal of future marriage.
Whereas, in contrast, white supremacy and imperialism are sure to foster violent resistance, and thus lead to misery and bloodshed.

These arguments, I think, build on each other to get a consistent picture of 1909 Du Bois on eugenics and social Darwisnism. He does not doubt that we should attempt to self-consciously breed for human improvement, and place the superior stock in control of political, economic, and cultural life. He even (pg.152) writes quite movingly on the matter:
What the age of Darwin has done is to add to the eighteenth century idea of individual worth the complementary idea of the physical immortality of the human race. And this, far from annulling or contracting the idea of human freedom, rather emphasises its necessity and eternal possibility -- the boundlessness and endlessness of possible human achievment. Freedom has come to mean not individual caprice or aberration, but social self-realisation in an endless chain of selves, and freedom for such development is not the denial but the central assertion of the evolutionary theory. So too the doctrine of human equality passes through the fire of scientific inquiry not destroyed but transfigured: not equality of present attainment but equality of opportunity for unbounded future attainment is the rightful demand of mankind.
Here, then, is our chance, to take control of our destiny as a species, and through wise breeding create the conditions for a future utopia. What he objects to in White Supremacist and Imperialist arguments is, in fact, the degree to which they don't take this seriously. Rather than, with a patient scientific spirit, trying to work out a rational plan for ensuring The Best are able to breed with The Best, and in the mean time have control over political and social life, they simply give blanket military and cultural superiority to one group defined by its physiological qualities and without regard to merit. In fact they take great risks with our future, not engaging in serious social and biological inquiry as to who is worthy of Elevation and how we can ensure this comes about, not being nearly discerning enough in who they elevate and who they demote and subjugate, ignoring policy options that could ensure the Best breed with the Best without engendering resistance to the eugenicist programme. The problem with the white supremacists is, in effect, that they are not eugenicist enough.

This, then, is 1909 Du Bois. People who know of my great interest in Du Bois' work are often somewhat surprised by how harsh I can be towards him, how negative my judgements of him often are. This sort of thing is why -- whatever the soaring egalitarian rhetoric he could produce from time to time, Du Bois could be astoundingly elitist. How liberal and humane, for instance, will his soft eugenics really be towards disabled people?

W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``Ok I kind of see it but I
still basically think it was just click bait to use
the word `Alt-Right' in the title of this post.''
But he was also a smart bloke, and this stuff is worth taking seriously. I have seen in various online forums people expressing arguments very similar to the one Du Bois was responding to here. The difference, I should say, is that modern exponents of the view don't tend to have the position that the white nations should attempt to conquer the rest of the world, focussing instead on a kind of `fortress Europe' or `White Australia' or `Neo-Jim-Crow' style hopes to create enclaves of whiteness. But beyond that its similar premises and argumentative strategies applied within these enclaves -- white folk are the superior stock who produce the best stuff, we need to implement policies to a ) ensure they selectively only breed with white people and b ) are elevated to positions of cultural, economic, and political superiority, in order to gain the benefits of that superiority. What this Du Bois piece shows is that you can (just as Du Bois did) agree to the general eugenicist picture, and even agree that on average white people tend to be producing the better stuff (well it's not quite that Du Bois agrees to this he just doesn't contest it in this essay), and still block the conclusion.

I don't think we should grant those premises, I don't think we should adopt eugenicist social goals, and I don't think the science since 1909 has tended to favour the social Darwinist view. But internal critique has its place, and more generally even if I disagree with Du Bois' strategy I think that now is the time for us as intellectuals in America to actually start trying to address these overt white supremacist arguments which have gained some currency in the population, whether we like it or not.

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