Ethno-nationalism is a form of racism. If you needed to be told that, here’s your basket.

Paul Gowder
Sep 22, 2016 · 9 min read

There’s this classic Bill Engvall comedy routine. It’s an extended rant about people saying and doing dumb things, and how much simpler it would be if we just made stupid people wear signs. The punch line is always the same: “here’s your sign.”

These days, I really want to walk around with a bunch of baskets, and then when I find a deplorable, I can just say “here’s your basket.”

So here’s a pretty solid deplorable. One Damon Linker has written an article for some internet rag called The Week with the ominous title “Liberals keep denigrating the new nationalism as racist. This is nonsense.

As you might expect, “the new nationalism” is the wave of nightmarish race-populism movements that seem to be sweeping the world, including Trump, Brexit, the French National Front, the Greek Golden Dawn, etc. etc.

According to Linker, these movements aren’t racist. They are just perfectly ordinary “particularistic instincts” that “are natural to human beings and even coeval with political life as such.” And we liberals who oppose them are motivated by a kind of unnatural universalist cosmopolitanism, or, in Linker’s words:

Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but “racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” — is the desire to delegitimize any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic. As I explained shortly after the Brexit vote, cosmopolitan liberals presume that all particularistic forms of solidarity must be superseded by a love of humanity in general, and indeed that these particularistic attachments will be superseded by humanitarianism before long, as part of the inevitable unfolding of human progress.

As best as I can discern from Linker’s argument, he thinks this is basically a form of unnatural fantasy, and not only that, but a fantasy that originated less than 100 years ago, and that has provoked this nationalist backlash with its own cluelessness. Here’s Linker’s own words again:

Earlier forms of liberalism were politically wiser than this — though the wisdom came less from a clearly delineated argument than from observation of human behavior and reading of human history. “Love of one’s own” had been recognized as a potent and permanent motive force in politics all the way back to the beginning of Western civilization, when Homer and Sophocles depicted it and Plato analyzed it. It simply never occurred to liberals prior to the mid-20th century that human beings might one day overcome particularistic forms of solidarity and attachment. They took it entirely for granted that individual rights and civic duties needed to be instantiated in particulars — by this people, in this place, with this distinctive history and these specific norms, habits, and traditions.

About that cosmopolitanism.

Let’s start by talking about that last paragraph. Two things that should just leap out at you.

First, supposing it was true that liberals all of a sudden discovered this theory in the middle of the 20th century. Can you think of why that might have been, Damon? Is there anything that happened, say, roughly in the early part of the middle of the 20th century, that might have given us cause to think that “particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic” might be pretty dangerous?

Second, it’s just factually untrue. At the latest, we can easily trace the ambition to unite humanity back to Dante, who understood political unity both as a reflection of Christian unity under God and as a path to peace.

In fact, it’s particularly bizarre that at various points Linker appeals to the “historically Christian” identity of Europe to justify the resistance to Muslim immigration, all the while ignoring the fact that one of the core ideas of Christianity itself is universalism. (One interesting way to describe the early history of Christianity is: “Jewish Messiah says that the Gentiles get saved too, sends out missionaries to unite the world under a previously ‘particularistic’ God.” Anyway. I’m neither a Christian nor a theologian, so I’d better stop speaking out of school here.)

But this isn’t actually the most ridiculous thing that Linker says.

Yes, Virginia, wanting to get rid of people who aren’t the same ethnicity as you is racist.

Here’s the passage that really reveals what’s going on here. Linker attempts to mock us cosmopolitan liberals by pairing what he seems to see as sympathetic descriptions of various elements of the “new nationalism” with mocking one-word descriptions of how us liberals would characterize it:

Concerned about immigrants disregarding the nation’s borders, defying its laws, and changing its ethnic and linguistic character? Racist!

Worried that the historically Christian and (more recently) secular character of European civilization will be altered for the worse, not to mention that its citizens will be forced to endure increasing numbers of theologically motivated acts of terrorism, if millions of refugees from Muslim regions of the world are permitted to settle in the European Union? Islamophobe!

Fed up with the way EU bureaucracies disregard and override British sovereignty on a range of issues, including migration within the Eurozone? Xenophobe!

Let’s just focus on the first paragraph. The obvious implication of this hamfisted attempt at satire is that resistance to a change in a state’s “ethnic and linguistic character” isn’t racist.

(And we can ignore the “linguistic” red herring. That is, unless Donald Trump would be perfectly happy letting as many Mexicans and Syrians in as want to come, just so long as they speak English. Also, don’t give me some drivel about ethnicity being different from race, unless you’re willing to find me basically any instance in the entirety of human history where racialized physical characteristics and ascribed ethnic cultural identities were cleanly distinguishable, especially in the discourse of the people doing the excluding.)

First of all, let’s just step back for a minute and think about that one. Linker appears to be flat-out saying that it’s not racist for people to get together, politically, and use the power of their states (which is, let’s not forget, backed up by people with guns) to deprive other people of rights on the basis of their having a dispreferred ethnic identity.

That’s just… there aren’t any other words for it. That’s just really fucking dumb. And wicked. Deplorable, even.

Let’s think about a few examples of people trying to use political power to get people with guns to kick out other people from their countries on the basis of those others having a dispreferred ethnic identity:

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act. Not racist?!

Well, no. All those things were/are super-racist. And the reason we call them racist was because the governments in question chose to pick people out by their ethno-racial identity and exclude them from membership in the civic community. That’s what racism is.

Two kinds of racism.

How could someone think that ethno-nationalism isn’t a form of racism? Well, here’s one story you might tell. “Racism is believing that people are superior or inferior on the basis of some kind of biological attributes that are attached to a racial grouping. At its worst, the racist denies that people of other ethnic or racial backgrounds share a common humanity. But ethno-nationalism needn’t be based on that kind of belief. Instead, it could be nothing more than a kind of opportunity-hoarding: the desire to reserve public resources for people like oneself. So it’s simple greed, not prejudice.”

That’s the most charitable possible argument that I can dream up for the proposition that Trump-supporter-style ethno-nationalism isn’t racist. But here’s the thing about that argument: it’s a total crock of shit.

The first thing you might say about that argument is “so why are you defining racism so narrowly?” Do we really want to be forced to say that, for example, choosing to specifically target Asians for immigration restrictions wasn’t even racist, just so long as it wasn’t based on a belief that Asians were inferior? “Screw these people because of their race” isn’t racist, but “screw these inferior people because of their race” is? That’s a pretty implausible view.

But even if you’re willing to grant that implausible view (and I’m not), the charitable argument is still a total crock of shit.

Here’s why: where did you get those categories from? To the surprise only of people like Linker, our pernicious beliefs about racial categories of other people are often formed as rationalizations or political props for our mistreatment of them. For example, the category of whiteness as a superior race in the United States, and the development of American racialized chattel slavery, at least arguably came about as a strategic move by the planter elite to split cross-color working class alliances. The Belgians invented racialized distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis in order to facilitate colonial rule. It’s not as if there’s two kinds of ethnic opportunity hoarding, the kind motivated by racist beliefs and the kind not motivated by racist beliefs. Rather, there’s just opportunity hoarding and then motivated belief-formation to justify it after the fact.

Second, if you’re going to engage in opportunity hoarding, what exactly is it that motivates you to do so along ethnic lines? When some Trump voter is casting about, looking for some category to write into the law to ensure that more resources get directed to him at the expense of people who are dissimilar in some relevant respect to him, why is it always about these categories like ethnicity and religion?

Why isn’t it age, for example? Why aren’t all the elderly Trump supporters chanting for laws to tax the millennials and give it to them? Or why isn’t it region? Why aren’t all the red-staters demanding more federal subsidies to their states and less to the blue coasts? Why is it always about race?

Well, here’s one tempting answer: because the Trump types, like the Brexit types, find it a lot easier to see the shared humanity in people who share their skin color and their religion, but happen to be in a different region, or happen to be of a different age. “Seeing the shared humanity” seems like a pretty good way to characterize that mysterious whatever it is that causes the elderly poor white person in Missouri to feel a sense of shared destiny with the young rich white person in Massachusetts, but to not feel a sense of shared destiny with the elderly poor Latino person near the border in Texas, even though it may be that on the vast majority of dimensions of compatible political interests the Missourian has more in common with the Texan than she or he does with the Massachusetts kid.

Oh, hey, wait a minute. That’s starting to sound really similar to the characterization that we gave earlier of the inferiority view of racism. What a surprise.

I’d go so far as to say that whenever we actually observe the desire to “preserve” resources or institutions for one’s own ethnic or racial grouping, we observe that it’s rooted, explicitly or implicitly, in the sense that there’s something special about one’s own group that requires protection. In, for example, some kind of purity dialogue that associates economic resource-hoarding with the enforcement of physical separation (“build the wall!”), social separation, and the like.

The United States Supreme Court saw this clearly in Loving v. Virginia, striking down Virginia’s prohibition on racial intermarriage:

[T]he state court concluded that the State’s legitimate purposes were “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,” and to prevent “the corruption of blood,” “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and “the obliteration of racial pride,” obviously an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy.

The southern racists didn’t have to say “and by this, we mean that white people are better” for the Court to be able to see that that’s what they meant.

So, Damon Linker. Let’s get this right. You want to defend policies of ethnic exclusion enforced by the armed might of the state, where the choice of ethnicity as the basis of exclusion can be based on nothing more than the inability of people to see that they have common interests with people who have different ethnic labels. And you want to claim that this is somehow different from racism?

That’s bullshit, and you know it. You’re just making frivolous arguments to defend racism. Here’s your basket.

Deplorability rating: 3 baskets.

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Paul Gowder

Written by

Law prof/political scientist writing about con law, political philosophy, data, professional ethics, and justice. And whatever I want.

Paul Gowder

Written by

Law prof/political scientist writing about con law, political philosophy, data, professional ethics, and justice. And whatever I want.

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