The Race Project(ion)

2020, Sep 15    

The album for this post is Dark Tranquillity’s Character. Nah, I’m just kidding, it’s projector.

There’s an excellent movie, Kundun, about the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet to India, which contains among other great quotes (“Monks have guns?”), this one: “I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.” Pushing one of our own attributes onto another or pulling one of their’s into us is one of the elementary mechanisms we use to examine the world and grow as people. We do it in an attempt to find commonality, universality even. It is only when those things fail to fit in our little boxes that we challenge our view, change the idea that this other thing is the same as ourselves.

Carl Jung introduces a useful phrase for us - the Shadow. A portion of our own psyche and behavior which we do not want to acknowledge as being an inveterate part of us. The ‘bad’ part, by our own moral values. An unacknowledged Shadow in a Self that is unwilling to acknowledge it’s own badness will project that badness onto someone else. “I am not a fascist…the true fascist is the other side!”. This projection becomes so essential to integrity that they will never challenge this view of another onto which they have pushed all of their badness. This is, projection, in the psychological sense. A defense mechanism to maintain the good Self in the face of a (possibly internalized) societal system that punishes some portion of the human’s being and doing. It can be extremely damaging to the recipient, especially if the projector has the combination of political power, moral code and belief in exceptionalism.

The Moynihan report was a work of early sociology on the African-American community by a white Democratic senator from New York. It laid the blame of African-American poverty on absentee fathers and single-mother-headed households rather than systemic discrimination. Unsurprisingly, Moynihan and his mother were abandoned by his father when the child was only 10 years old. Moynihan is a perfect example of a believer in the American system - he could not believe that it had disenfranchised African-Americans to their economic destitution. No, his moral faith in America and its systems meant that the badness had to be elsewhere - within the suffering people themselves. And the villain? Well, the villain is universal, the psychic trauma is universal to one who doesn’t address it. If you don’t speak about the ways you’ve been hurt, they’ll find a way to speak in everything you do. The universal villain was not the state, but his parents and specifically his father for leaving the family destitute after an initially comfortable life in the suburbs.

From a NY Times book review by the um… inimitable David Brooks, who doesn’t pick up on this pattern at all:

Moynihan was born in 1927 and grew up poor. His father abandoned the family when the son was 10. “Both my mother and father — they let me down badly,” he wrote later. “The interesting thing is that I have almost no memory of Dad — and no emotions — on the other hand I find thru the years this enormous emotional attachment to Father substitutes.”

Compare this quote to the report by Moynihan where he quotes Pettigrew talking about the Nazi concentration camps and relates that to the African-American male experience:

The profound personality change created by Nazi internment, as independently reported by a number of psychologists and psychiatrists who survived, was toward childishness and total acceptance of the SS guards as father-figures—a syndrome strikingly similar to the ‘Sambo’ caricature of the Southern slave.

Moynihan never connected the dots to blame the powers that be for the disastrous economic outcomes that led to the disintegration of his family. He lacked that sophistication of thinking. He remained mired in his own personal trauma and dragged a generation of African-Americans into it as well. The folks across the pond took it to another level.

Victorian British society was not just a classist society, but also riven by several other divisions: dialect, language, religion and of course politics. An industrializing Britain was a horrible place to live - with rivers of sewage and a completely failed public infrastructure that left millions sick and dying. Roving bands of people left to fend for themselves and an upper class of nominal Normans that to this day benefits from all of the chaos. Speaking about the ills of Victorian British society was quite difficult. The owners of the East India Company and the captains of industry dominated the political scene. Intrepid anthropologists of that time were censored by their own society. Instead, they set out to far flung lands such as India to observe, create orders, make liminal what was sub and publish treatises that were ostensibly about their own fucked-up country of origin. It is no surprise then that to speak about the unfair hierarchy of Britain, scholarship about caste was voluminous.

Caste, while a very real problem in India, overflows the simplistic model of early British scholarship. The word caste itself is from the Iberian casta, as in casta paintings and in Hindi, one can find words such as varna and jati which are translatable roughly into race and birth. The Urdu nasal which might be more analogous to race. None of these terms made it into English, despite the supposedly unique nature of Indian caste, while words such as monsoon and loot did. The confused definition of caste and race is continued in this quote from General Niazi (no relation to current Pakistani PM Imran Khan Niazi, a superficial coincidence played on in bad faith by Indian UN attaches) on 1971:

Main iss haramzadi qom ki nasal badal doonga

I will change the race/pedigree of this illborn country [the Bengalis]

Niazi himself was a believer in the British Martial Race Theory, which ranked Bengalis low on the racial hierarchy for military admission. This racial hierarchy however was modified, with Bengalis slipping ever downward as nationalist movements arose in Bengal. The martial race theory was a supposedly scientific theory based on proximity to Europe and European features, but was in essence a stratification based on compliance with the center. Niazi’s quote serves to highlight that caste-conflict is not as central a feature of subcontinental politics as the racial hierarchy of the empire was. At least back in 1971.

Caste is similar to race, especially in the way it is about compliance with a center - but there isn’t one convenient word or structuring paradigm (or one center) for understanding the phenomenon of caste in Indian languages. Except for the exonym - caste - and the accompanying diagram of the hierarchy recorded by a few British officers in one portion of India. Caste, as understood by Anglophones, is a mess of a projection of the racial hierarchy of European coastal empires (Spanish, Portuguese, French and British) onto a differently hierarchicalized society. And sometimes the European notion of race overrides the caste organization. None of this is an excuse for or defense of caste on my part. Caste is far more fucked up than you can imagine and the Europeans only further fucked it up.

British scholarship on religion and religious identitarian conflict in South Asia is similarly marred and informed by the religious conflicts in the UK’s history. The dark years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule are nearly 400 years past, yet linger on in the collective consciousness of the Catholics of the British isles and Anglophones in general. The Gunpowder treason is still remembered as a holiday. The Anglican church is loosely tied to the organs of the British state, and while mostly symbolic in modern times, it retains some legitimacy and could one day resurge in importance. Especially as nativist ethno-nationalism rises across the world, historical storytelling in the UK has taken public stage. Createing a common definition of ‘religious’, ‘secular’, ‘sacred’, ‘profane’, ‘us’, ‘them’ that was popular during the times of empire. This, I believe will result in many more ‘critiques’ of Islam and the ‘Orient’ which are largely just projections of the unsavory elements of Britain’s own national character and history.

I quote Winston Churchill:

Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.

And today we can produce a map of countries invaded by the UK. I don’t think there is much evidence I need to present to talk about the proselytizing attitude of Anglican Christianity or Anglican neoliberal capital or Anglican socialism or hell, the English language itself. Britons are amongst the worst at learning other languages, preferring to push their linguistic preferences on others.

Britons writing about their own country or culture by displacement is not a new occurrence. Shakespeare’s Denmark in Hamlet is filled with palace intrigue - usurpers, mad royals and the conflicts with tradition that have little to do with the real Danes and much more to do with the politics of the world of the Virgin Queen.

Back over to the Americans - American media is filled with projections of the enemy as mindless hordes seeking to absorb and assimilate all. The Persians in Gerard Butler’s 300 are comically villainous (because, after all the inspiration for the movie is a comic book) - but if we were truly to ask ourselves who is the Goliath of the current world stage, would we point to the mountains of Afghanistan and the Taliban? The Greeks of 300 are a far better fit for the scrappy insurgents fighting against a gargantuan power with endless resources than they are for America. America is the villain of 300, without a doubt.

Similarly for the Borg of Star Trek - a technologically advanced, continuously improving collective that seeks to absorb individuality and even whole cultures to improve the collective? That reminds me more of the nature of American capitalism than anything else.

Over and over, we find the projections of a few can change the fates of billions. The stories that those in power are bathed in, their internal struggles, become the paint poured onto the canvas that is those without power. The moral code that the powerful believe they follow, which forces them to excise the portion of their being which commits the horrors needed to maintain power, becomes obviously hypocritical to those who are subject to the violence of their psychic balancing act, rendering the world amoral and hopeless. I don’t know where that leaves us though - are we always doomed to produce media and sociological studies that are less about the subject than about the unresolved and unresolvable inner turmoil of the authors? I don’t think so, but perhaps we should take the subjectivities of others, especially as they pertain to us, with a grain of salt and a tacit understanding that it’s more about them and who they need us to be than us.