The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!

fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

The UK has announced plans for a new set of laws on migrant spouses, which will see them tested on their English skills after 2.5 years, and their visa terminated if they are found to be lacking English skills. David Cameron is selling this as both a law to empower Muslim women, and also to help fight terrorism.

This law is so stupid and cruel it is unbelievable, and the language being used to justify it is so heartless and idiotic it’s hard to believe that anyone takes it seriously. Is this a paper-thin veneer on another stupid racist law, or are the Tories genuinely so stupid that they think this law is worthwhile in any way? Sadly, I think it might be the latter. In any case, the law is both cruel and pointless.

The law is a heartless abomination

I don’t know if Cameron can speak any second languages (most Brits can’t) but if he can my guess is that he’s passable in some kind of dialect of English, like French. I live in a country (Japan) with a language completely different to English, which any adult learner (like me) has to really battle with, and which is absolutely essential if you want to really enjoy the life this country has to offer. I know a lot of people who manage to contribute significantly to this country without every learning a single word, and I know a lot of British migrants here – many with spouses – who contribute nothing to this country but still haven’t learnt a word of the language. There are many reasons why adult migrants to Japan don’t, won’t or can’t learn a word of the language, but here are a few:

  • Some people just can’t learn languages: In my intensive course I had a good friend, Ali, who was fluent in Arabic and English but couldn’t learn a word of Japanese no matter how he tried, and he really did try. I had another friend, Rana, who was a great reader and listener who couldn’t speak a word. This isn’t because they were stupid or ignorant – both knew at least two languages already, and were qualified doctors – but because learning a new language as an adult is really fucking hard. Sure, if the language is basically just a variant on your existing tongue – like Korean to Japanese, or French to English – it’s not hard, but if it’s genuinely different – like English is to a lot of people – then learning it is really challenging
  • There are no opportunities: I cannot stress what an exhausting waste of time it is to try and learn a language in all its depth and complexity from a few hours a week of poor-quality teaching at a night school. In a country like Japan it is almost impossible for most people to find a class for more than an hour or two a week, it’s even harder to find a class that is taught well, and it’s even harder to stick with it when you have a full time job, family, etc. Many of the white people in Japan are English teachers, which means they work evenings and weekends in an exhausting job. The idea that they will put in hours of intensive study at weird times to pick up a language is really stretching it. In the UK, the Cameron government has massively cut funding for English teaching. What are the chances that a poor migrant spouse who doesn’t need the language will be able to find a class?
  • Learning languages sucks: It’s tiring, boring, and often humiliating and the teachers are often really poor quality. There’s always someone else in your class who should be in a higher class and humiliates the students with his (it’s always a he!) skills, and a lot of what you learn is irrelevant to actual life. Many classes require you to perform your piss-weak language skills in front of others, and you’re constantly screwing up and embarrassing yourself. Then you go out into the real world and none of the language people use with you is taught in class (this is a universal problem). Try to keep that up for 2.5 years!
  • You don’t need the language to contribute to society: A challenge for shallow Tories like Cameron to comprehend, but you can actually contribute to society without being able to speak a word of its weird gobbledigook. From the trivial – working hard and paying taxes – to the culturally deep – writing books that introduce the culture to other societies – it’s possible to contribute without ever learning a word. In Japan I have known people who are having multiple children (a big contribution here), who are working wonders in their chosen field, or who are big figures in a movement to popularize the works of a famous writer. I know people who have lived here for years, never learnt a word, and have children who are fluent in Japanese, speak no English, and are really engaged with the local culture. How do those parents compare to a wife-beating Japanese pachinko addict who speaks perfect Japanese? Language is a useful tool but a welcoming and accepting society doesn’t need you to speak it in order to contribute.
  • Adult life betrays your efforts: No doubt whatever patois of crappy French Cameron speaks, he picked up in high school, when he had all the time in the world, and anyway it was easy. But could he learn Pakistanian if he lobbed up in Pakistan as an adult, living with his wife and kids, working a 40+ hour week and only hanging around with Pakistanis who spoke fluent English? I think you might find that he could not learn a word, because he doesn’t have time for serious study, none of his friends expect him to, it’s embarrassing to struggle to say hello in Pakistanian to someone who can debate the Quran with you in English, and when he’s at home he speaks English exclusively because wtf?

For all these reasons, it’s really common to find adults who are really committed to the country they moved to but who don’t speak a word of its native language, or are only dabblers in the complexity of that language. Even people who are determined to learn, as adult learners, will be struggling to get their language together in 2.5 years. But despite all their efforts and the vagaries of life as an adult in the modern world, Cameron aims to deport these people. His reasons are so horribly shallow, as well. Today he said:

If you’re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh

This is a hilarious piece of stupidity. If you’re staying home, not learning a word of English, and a woman in a traditionalist Islamic family, chances are that you have a very strong identity centred around hearth and home, and there’s almost zero chance you’ll be susceptible to extremist ideology. It’s fascinating to see a party that has traditionally respected the role of housewife (and criticized feminists for undermining that role) suggesting that such an important and powerful cultural figure would “have challenges understanding” their identity. Is this really the party of Thatcher? Was Thatcher ever so cruel? Because rest assured this law is cruel. But it is also pointless.

This law is pointless

Cameron seems to think that deporting the wives of Muslim migrants after 2.5 years is going to prevent terrorism. Maybe he really hates his wife, so much that he wouldn’t resent the government if it took her from him after 2.5 years, or maybe he’s just really ignorant, but does he not think that separating families on completely arbitrary grounds might possibly be a source of radicalization? Even putting aside the obvious counter-productive images (and court cases) we’ll be seeing in 2.5 years’ time, there are so many reasons why this law is targeted at all the wrong people. For starters, all the people we know of who were radicalized in the UK appear to have been born there, and seem to speak really good English that the “intelligence” services try to track down by using a database of regional British accents. Secondly, it’s likely that the standard they set for staying in the UK is going to be pretty low, and well below the level at which it is possible to debate nuances of religious theory, so it’s unlikely that whatever English skills the spouses learn will be sufficiently advanced to enable us to engage with them to prevent radicalization, or for them to be exposed to anti-radicalization messages by chance. Thirdly, if the reason they’re being held back from learning English is “patriarchy” as Cameron suggests[1], it’s unlikely that the spouses are the people we have to worry about in the first place.

Finally, of course, Cameron previously introduced a law that requires migrants to the UK to have a certain minimum amount of savings before they can bring their spouse. This amount is high enough that it’s unlikely your average Middle Eastern migrant will be able to bring their spouse over in the first place unless they’re from a social class that already speaks English really well – or are a refugee. Which means that this law is going to break up refugee families in 2.5 years’ time – as if they hadn’t been through enough hoops just to get to the UK. A cynic would suggest that was his purpose all along …

This cruel stupidity would make UKIP blush

Immigration policy under the Tories has been moving into the gutter over the past few years. The savings requirements for bringing one’s spouse over are vicious, nasty policy that achieves nothing at the expense of perfectly legitimate relationships between British people and their foreign lovers. These laws are absolutely reprehensible, unjustifiable nastiness. The new proposal simply adds a new level of viciousness to a migration system that is vindictive and petty beyond all reason. All of this is being done because Cameron is desperate to show he is tough on migrants without actually touching the main source of UK voters’ apprehensions about migration: Europe. Cameron is campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU even though most of the British public are skeptical, and even those who want to stay in the EU want to see the end of the rules on free movement. He can’t do that and keep his business mates happy, so he needs to try and show he is doing something to keep out migrants to counterbalance his weakness on this issue. But the real source of British fears about jobs and benefits is EU migration, not a couple of badly spoken Muslim wives. Publicly humiliating those women will work for him in the short term, but will it fool grassroots Tories in the referendum? Or will we see the UK leave the EU even as it introduces ever harsher, ever stupider rules on non-EU migrants?

I think we will. And I think those rules will be a disaster to ordinary families, and will do nothing to prevent extremism.

fn1: Good to see a once radical idea becoming a mainstream conservative principle. I’m looking forward to mandatory gay sex abortions for all British citizens now that the Tories have found their radfem groove.

Something Hollywood could learn from ...?

Something Hollywood could learn from …?

This week Vox posted an article on “Japan’s blackface problem,” which aimed to give an American perspective on the practice of Japanese actors putting on black faces, and to discuss what the author calls Japan’s “bizarre, troubled relationship with race.” I wonder what Japanese people can learn about how to treat race from that sophisticated bastion of cultural critique and racial neutrality, America?

Before I look at yet another nuanced and authoritative insight into the world’s problems from a racially enlightened American, I thought I’d share an insight from this month’s print edition of The Economist magazine, which I happened to pick up in my travels. In an article on racial inequalities in access to selective public schools in New York, an American documentary maker is reported as follows:

Curtis Chin, who has been filming New York teenagers preparing for the SHSAT, adds that all some black and Hispanic families want ‘is that their kids don’t get locked up in jail. It’s hard to measure that against an aspiration of going to Harvard or working for Goldman Sachs

I can say with considerable confidence that there is no black, Hispanic or indeed non-Japanese community of any race living in Japan now who are concerned about their kids going to jail rather than university. Which makes one wonder – what does America have to say to the rest of the world about race that it shouldn’t be saying first and only to itself? Let’s see what Vox has to say.

What does blackface mean in Japan?

The article is centred on concerns about a phenomenon that has no associations with colonialism or racism in Asia. Blackface has a long history of racist associations in the USA, and probably Europe and the UK, but in Asia it has no association at all with discrimination against black people. Black people in East and south-East Asia are basically just a different colour of foreigner, and discrimination against them stems from the same well spring as discrimination against all other foreigners. In some countries (Japan, probably Korea, I don’t know about China) black skin has an ancient association with demons and evil outsiders that predates Asian knowledge about the existence of black humans, but the extent to which this figures in Japanese attitudes towards black people is hard to say. The existence of the yamanba phenomenon in Japanese youth culture suggests that deliberately darkening the skin for fashion is shocking in a similar way to dressing as a Goth in the west (with associations of death and horror), but the leap between this and discrimination against black people is pretty weak sauce – weak sauce that the Vox article applies through an “analysis” of ganguro culture. The article cites an American living in Japan as describing this and the associated “b-girl” phenomenon as “exotic othering” and suggests that it’s potentially racist even though it is specifically cited as being done in “appreciation” of black American culture. It describes hip hop being culturally appropriated by taking American hip hop and running it through a J-pop machine.

This makes me think that the author and probably the American in Japan who they quote have never been to a Japanese hip hop club, or paid attention to the music there. There is a big difference between “cultural appropriation” and performing a foreign style, and if you don’t get this difference you’re pretty clueless about the music you’re describing. It’s also funny to read concerns about cultural appropriation from an American community that has engaged in one of the most breathtaking pieces of such appropriation in history, describing people with no cultural connection to any part of Africa as “African Americans” simply because of their skin colour. Newsflash, America: Africa is not a country.

American critiques of blackface centre on the fact that your intent does not change the racism of the representative behavior that blackface performs. That is, a white person putting on blackface just so that they can do an authentic portrayal of a black character at, say, Halloween, is still being racist even if their intent is simply and honestly just to do an authentic portrayal of a black character. The Vox article wants to apply this ideal outside of America in a culture that has never had a history of lynching, segregation, slavery or colonialism in Africa. Is this going to give a useful insight into how Japanese people think about black people, or how they should behave towards them?

A “recent” history of fascism

It appears, based on the Vox article, that I left a key word out of that paragraph. I should have written about a recent history of lynching and segregation. The Vox article writes

the national government has done stunningly little to prohibit racist hate speech, particularly given Japan’s recent history of fascism

The “particulary” in this sentence is clearly intended to stress the link between Japan’s “recent” history of fascism and the government’ s intentions, but this is laughable. Japan’s fascism was precisely 70 years ago, and Japan is the only country on earth with a constitution that forbids it from going to war. America’s segregation laws ended less than 50 years ago, but this government report on Obama’s speech at Selma doesn’t refer to heroes who changed “recent” history there. The last lynching in the USA was (depending on how you look at it) in 1998 or 1951, and laws were still being passed against it in 1968. So when we discuss racial problems in the USA should we refer to their “recent history” of lynching, segregation and Jim Crow? Their “recent history” of communal violence against native Americans (Wounded Knee was in 1972)?

When was the last time you read an article on Germany and Greece that referred to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism? Even articles explicitly about the Nazi occupation of Greece and recent demands for reparations don’t refer to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism. This sentence is a really jarring reminder that Japan is held uniquely victim of its historical actions in a way that Germany and especially the USA are not.

If we are going to talk about the influence of Japanese colonial history on its attitude towards race we should make sure that a) we assess all countries by the same historical attitudes and b) we recognize that Japan has no history of aggressive colonization of black nations. This is a uniquely white, European phenomenon.

Misinterpreting Japanese legislative intent

The article notes that Japan makes no efforts to ban hate speech or control the behavior of its racial extremists. The article fails to note that Japan also took a long time to move on child pornography, that it generally has a very liberal approach towards protecting speech, and that there are many countries in the world that don’t care to pass hate speech laws. Indeed, the article manages to gloss over America’s own tortured conversation on this issue – lots of Americans see hate speech laws as an affront to their own constitution, and while disagreeing with hate speech think that it should be protected. To present the absence of a law that is contentious in your own country as proof that another country is racist is disingenuous to say the least.

The article also exaggerates the role and position of racial extremists in Japan. I once had the pleasure of standing at the Shibuya hachiko meeting point waiting for a friend while a fascist stood nearby on a black van, yelling hateful slogans about how foreigners who complain about Japan shouldn’t live here. Why was I comfortable about this? Because I know that almost every person passing that black van sees those people as crazy weirdo, and as a result they are generally excluded from public conversation, to the extent that they have to drive around towns in black vans blaring out their hate speech. The same ideas that are seen as extremist in Japan are widely disseminated in the English press by, for example, the leader of UKIP, who has a column in a Sunday newspaper. The Economist recently had to withdraw a book review of a history of slavery that complained that too many of the white characters were portrayed as immoral and too many of the black characters as victims. The kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric you hear from mainstream politicians in France, the UK, Australia and America is not usually uttered by Japanese politicians or newspapers (though it does sometimes creep in).

Any article describing Japan’s famous “racism” needs to recognize this, and give at least some time to the myriad ways in which Japan treats its foreign residents better than many white countries do. I bet, for example that my reader(s) doesn’t know that in some parts of Japan I can vote, even though I’m not even a permanent resident, and there are moves afoot to give non-citizen residents the right to vote in national elections. One-sided depictions of racial politics in Japan give a misleading impression of how strong it is here.

Misinterpreting Japanese attitudes towards multiculturalism

The article cites an associate professor from Temple University saying that

The blackface thing is emblematic of a larger problem of Japanese politics and civil society in which diversity is not recognized, or cultivated, or respected

I think this is an overly simplistic understanding of Japan’s attitude towards diversity, also based on a misunderstanding of Japan’s legislative intent. Yes, Japan doesn’t have an official policy of multiculturalism (although some towns such as Osaka do), but this is because Japan generally doesn’t have a practice of legislating cultural movements. In fact, Japanese people implement a kind of basic principle and acceptance of multiculturalism that is staggeringly simple in its open-mindedness. Japanese people naturally assume that foreigners who come to Japan will continue to live their foreign ways, speak their own language at home, and pursue their own cultural traditions, while obeying Japanese law. This is essentially multiculturalism. For example, if I am in a majority Japanese environment (e.g. kickboxing) with a single other foreigner, and we speak in Japanese, the Japanese around us will laugh and ask why we aren’t speaking our natural language, because it seems strange to them that we wouldn’t. Japanese often ask whether living in Japan is difficult, because they accept that we will be trying to continue our own traditions in a society that doesn’t necessarily accomodate them. They are remarkably forgiving of foreigners who don’t learn Japanese, and they respect that learning to read Japanese is an extremely burdensome task for adults. They assume that we will want to continue cooking our own food and accessing our own cultural goods in our own homes, and are surprised if we do Japanese things. This can sometimes appear as racism – e.g. the assumption some landlords make that foreign residents will wear shoes inside – but it also reflects a basic assumption of multiculturalism underlying the Japanese approach to foreign residents of Japan.

It’s worth noting that a lot of Japanese cultural movements are determined outside of government, through corporations and local community activities. Reporting on racial issues in Japan needs to respect this, and look beyond government legislative activities to understand how Japan is responding to major cultural issues. I would add that this is important in other areas of cultural relations too, such as Japan’s attitude towards world war 2. It is not enough to say “the Japanese government has not done enough”[1], one also needs to look at the broad groundswell of support for global engagement, maintenance of the ban on war in the constitution, and other community-level activities to draw Korea, Japan and China closer.

In general, however, foreign commentators on Japanese cultural issues don’t bother to look deep, or don’t know how, and take Japanese government actions as the sole representative of Japanese attitudes towards those issues – which is particularly ironic in this Vox article, which makes the point that Japanese people see themselves as culturally homogeneous when they’re not. Perhaps the article could start by not assuming that the actions of a few people or the absence of an American-style legislative pattern represents the homogeneous view of the whole society.

You Americans … you talk too much

In closing (and paraphrasing Monty Python), Americans need to stop lecturing the world on race until they have sorted out their own house. Combined with Vox’s generally patronizing tone, an article that misrepresents or misunderstands aspects of Japanese legislative and cultural attitudes, in discussing an issue that is of zero relevance in Japan and is not capable of reflecting a Japanese racial attitude, comes across as hectoring. Furthermore, in assuming that Japanese people should have the same view of race as Americans, and invoking a history of colonialism that is older than America’s own more recent fraught issues, and ascribing to Japanese people views that are uniquely American, the article is itself flat out racist. It might make Americans feel better in light of their own recent disturbances in places like Ferguson, the huge disparities in economic wellbeing between races in America, and the massive incarceration of a whole community on the basis of its skin colour, but it doesn’t make America look better when it lectures other countries as if their racial issues are the same as America’s. Americans should shut up about racial issues in other countries until they have sorted out their own house, and non-white Americans should recognize that they too can be racist when they present their unique cultural perspective, leveraging the unique power of America’s cultural exports, onto other countries.

I have written on this blog before about how culturally toxic I think American feminism has been for feminist movements in other countries, exporting a unique blend of conservatism and identity politics to countries that don’t need it. I think the same thing applies when people in other countries listen to America on racial issues. Yes, America has had some inspiring and powerful black figures who dragged American racial politics out of a deep, dark place. But most other countries were never in that place to start with, and in admiring those figures we should be careful not to also draw too deeply from the font of American exceptionalism and christian conservatism that they often drink from. Too often American “progressivism” is conservative by international standards and flounces about the world trying to teach others how to behave from a perspective of American exceptionalism rather than genuine intercultural respect. This Vox article is a classic entry in that ledger of American cultural exceptionalism, telling Americans nothing about race in Japan and giving Japanese nothing useful to learn about their own racial issues.

fn1: As always on this blog I would like to remind my reader(s) that Japan has repeatedly and thoroughly apologized for its wartime activities, and has paid reparations.

Be careful going outside in London, there’s foreigners everywhere

There are millions of undocumented asylum seekers in this country

Maybe you didn’t feel welcome in London because they don’t want more foreigners there?

Once David Cameron’s elected, them blacks’ll get what’s comin’ to ‘em

Your new girlfriend’s not aboriginal is she?

You’re not English, you’re British

What race is your friend?

Enoch Powell was right you know!

These are the kinds of things my family and friends have been saying about immigration and race in the UK for as long as I can remember. By “family” I mean not just my immediate family, but also the extended family – uncles, Aunts, grandparents and cousins – and all of the family friends I have ever met. Most of my family and their friends now vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), but they used to be classic Tory working class. They’re indicative of the political groundswell that is lifting UKIP up in the polls, and are the reason this new and toxic party came first in the European elections a week ago. If ever it occurs to you to naively wonder why it is that so many UKIP candidates get caught out posting terrible things on social media, just have a look at what my family and their friends – almost all UKIP voters – think of race and immigration. Is it any wonder their representatives have some hairy ideas?

My family are pretty much entirely lower working-class or lumpen proles. My father left school at 15, my mother at 13 (I think); my Grandfather was a Spanish refugee (oh the irony!) who left home at 15 to fight fascism; I was the first person in my entire extended family to get a university education, and probably also the first person in my entire extended family to complete a higher school certificate (my brother got O levels rather than A levels, and only just scraped them in). My father was a tradesman, until he lost his job and spent the remaining 10 years of his working age collecting benefits (and fraudulently using them to pay for a mortgage on a trailer park home, against the housing benefit rules, while complaining about foreigners cheating welfare). Most of the rest of my family are unskilled labourers or tradespeople. They should therefore be the natural constituency of Labour, but their unpleasant views on race make them natural victims of parties like UKIP. My father believes everything he reads in the Daily Mail (he lives in terror of gypsies paving his yard in the night and then presenting him with the bill in the morning), and basically my entire extended family have been slowly seduced into voting against their economic interests by appeals to their racial biases. As an example of how they vote against their interests, my father has a lifelong disability brought about by polio, but he sneers at people with disabilities campaigning for their “human rights” (his quote marks, not mine) even though these people are the reason he has special disability benefits and parking rights. He has always refused to join a union because “they don’t do anything for me” but then he was sacked and blackballed by his employer, so he couldn’t work anywhere in the city where he lived – and then he asked the union if they could help him with legal action (they said no, somewhat unsurprisingly). This is the quality of my extended family – always wanting certain socialised benefits, but refusing to share in the responsibilities and costs of those socialised benefits, and as people like them slowly undermine the strength of the shared social systems they rely on, blaming foreigners for the resulting degradation in public services and benefits.

It is my opinion that the modern leaders of both major British political parties are too shallow and too caught in their own little bubble to understand how people like my parents think. As a result they cannot understand why these people are drifting away from the major parties to the lunacy that is UKIP. I think Margaret Thatcher understood these people – it was her understanding of this class of people that enabled her to construct what is now referred to as the “Tory working class vote” in the first place – and her political opponents from before Blair also saw how these people think, but failed to stop the drift away from class-based solidarity to race-based solidarity. The modern Conservative party is dominated by young Bullingdon club economic radicals, who have absolutely no conception of what it is like to even be a grocer’s daughter, let alone to be an unemployed typesetter living in a trailer park. The modern Labour party is dominated by political lifers, who may mean well (a difficult proposition to support when one looks at the 10-year-long mistake that was Tony Blair) but have no idea how the working class they are supposed to support really think. The few remnants of old labour still left in the party – people like John Prescott – are far out of touch with the modern working class after years of snorting cocaine off of babies’ bottoms in Blair’s cabinet, and their response to UKIP’s rise has been to fall back on 50-year-old concepts of economic protectionism.

In the face of this choice – between obviously out of touch Bullingdon toffs and a clique of political apparatchiks to a vampire – is it any wonder that UKIP have been able to make such gains with the Tory working class? With a complete lack of trust in the political system, having been levered away from an class consciousness during Thatcher’s era, but left rudderless with only their racial consciousness to guide them, the class of British people my family are drawn from are natural targets for UKIP. Labour had 10 years to get these people back into the fold, through restoration of the industrial economy, improvements in benefits and efforts to reduce inequality – practical solutions to the living cost and economic challenges consuming this class of people – but instead they focused on being “intensely comfortable about people being incredibly rich” and were too busy sucking up to the banking industry to bother looking at the little people.

So now both political parties are waking up to realise that a sizeable proportion of the votes they thought they could rely on are drifting away, following the lure of Farage’s racist anger. Both parties have lost the knowledge of how these drifting voters think and what they are worried about, and both parties are unwilling to face a central fact: that these voters they are losing are deeply, unpleasantly racist. This is the party whose leader referred to non-white voters as “Nig-nogs” and whose representatives have a disturbing habit of being caught out saying genuinely horrible things on Facebook – but no one in the leadership of either of the mainstream parties seems to have considered that this might be related to the success of the party. Until they do, they aren’t going to be able to craft a strategy to deal with UKIP’s central anti-immigration theme. How can they? So long as they keep fooling themselves into thinking that the average UKIP voter is a non-racist person with genuine but misguided concerns about European workers taking his job, they aren’t going to get anywhere. Because these people are deeply racist, and race is what is driving their vote. They don’t like foreigners, they don’t want them in the UK, and if foreigners are to come here they want clear assurances that their stay will be temporary, they will be treated badly and paid worse and they will never be given the same rights as the “indigenous” population. If David Cameron doubts that, I recommend he spend 10 minutes trying to discuss labour market reform with my Grandmother.

This also means that the debate about whether to call Farage a racist is irrelevant. UKIP voters aren’t offended by being called racist – they revel in it. My father doesn’t start a conversation with “I’m not racist but …” – he is deeply past that kind of self-equivocation. He refers to black people as “niggers” and starts conversations with proud declarations of his own racism. The inferiority of non-whites is a simple and accepted fact in my extended family. Worrying about whether these people will be offended by being called something they proudly claim for themselves is really angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff. The mainstream parties are going to have to do better than that.

And the truth is, I don’t think they can. A large minority of British people don’t want to be part of Europe, and another large portion don’t care either way. A lot of British people want foreigners out. They were willing to vote Tory or Labour despite the incongruence of their aims and the parties’ aims, because they still trusted those parties, and UKIP was not yet a national force. But now that UKIP has begun to be taken seriously, making consistent electoral gains, an in the wash-up of the financial crisis (which destroyed Labour’s credibility) and the expenses scandal (which tainted both parties irrevocably), the stranglehold of the major parties on the neck of the average British racist prole has been broken. I don’t think they’re going to get those people back, and they should be counting their blessings that it’s only UKIP, not BNP that is benefiting from 20 years of mainstream parties’ stupidity.

In the short term I think Labour will be the major beneficiaries of this trend to vote 1 on race. Labour has a natural constituency based on unionism and class issues that the Tories lack, and the Tory vote has been declining for years. Tory success at the polls has relied on some crafty dog-whistling to ensure that some proportion of the working class vote is prized away from Labour, and they have done this through race (see e.g. their broken promise to keep immigration at 100000 a year). These voters they pry loose from Labour on that basis are fair-weather friends, and will easily be drawn away by a credible racist alternative – and now that alternative is here. Even if UKIP don’t win a single seat at the next general election, they’re going to completely screw up the Tories’ electoral strategy, and I don7t think a more openly racist Tory campaign will save them – nobody believes them on European issues anymore, and since they have consistently failed to meet their pledge to reduce immigration, nobody thinks they’re going to do what they say they will. This is going to make Labour’s task much easier at the next election, but if UKIP don’t implode after that then I suspect Labour will face increasing difficulties in the future. The tide has turned. The racist genie is out of its box, and now there isn’t much either of the main parties can do. Unless Labour can find a way to return the political conversation to a genuine, strong position on inequality and complete reform of the British economy to benefit the poorest and the working class – regardless of what happens in Europe – then both mainstream parties are going to be left desperately hoping that UKIP implodes. If it doesn’t, the tories are toast, and unless they can find a visionary to lead them through this challenging new landscape, my guess is that Labour will have to return to 1950s-style anti-European protectionism.

It’s possible that UKIP may win everything they want without ever winning a seat in parliament … simply by dominating the conversation. This is what happens when the working class vote for their racial interests over their class interests. Let’s hope that this madness remains confined to the UK, because it isn’t pretty to watch and let me assure you, you do not want my extended family’s racist imaginings  being treated as a serious policy framework …

Japan's light puts all in their place...Continuing my series on War Without Mercy, Professor Dower’s analysis of race propaganda and its role in World War 2, we get to the last main section, on Japanese racist propaganda. This is a very different section to that on US propaganda, because the Japanese approached the problem of how to portray their enemies very differently to the Americans, and had a very different historical perspective on the bad guy. The section also includes a dissection of a fascinating piece of wartime Japanese research, a massive document setting out a vision for Asia and ultimately the world if Japan won the war. This document was written by an obscure section of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, was almost 4000 pages long, and was only discovered in 1981. It essentially sets out the racial policy of the future East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, so gives a meticulous insight into not only how the wartime authorities viewed race, but how they intended to enact their race policy in the future.

Dower portrays the Japanese as having their own race trap, deriving from their admiration of America and Britain during the Meiji era, and the fact that many of their achievements in the 50 years since the restoration were based on western industry, technology and ideas. So they couldn’t dismiss the source of these ideas as necessarily inherently inferior, and instead had to find an ideology which would enable them to strip the best out of the western way of life, while making it somehow appear undesirable. They did this through the application of ancient folklore and imagery that had a strong social acceptance in Japan: establishment of the Emperor as direct descendant of god; exaltation of the concept of purity, and its links to race, emperor and war (and death); and depiction of the enemy as demons and outsiders.

The Emperor

I don’t want to talk about this in too much detail, because it’s not the focus of the book and the Emperor remains a much-revered part of Japanese life; a lot of western interpretations of the Emperor’s role in world war 2 are wont to cast the institution as eternally bad, when it’s more a case of the position being forced into service to a militarized state. I have mentioned before that Basil Chamberlain identified the exaltation of Emperor to religion, and the uses this religion was going to be put to, in a famous essay in 1905, and Power’s book reiterates this point. To quote Chamberlain:

Mikado-worship and Japan-worship—for that is the new Japanese religion—is, of course, no spontaneously generated phenomenon. Every manufacture presupposes a material out of which it is made, every present a past on which it rests. But the twentieth-century Japanese religion of loyalty and patriotism is quite new, for in it pre-existing ideas have been sifted, altered, freshly compounded, turned to new uses, and have found a new centre of gravity. Not only is it new, it is not yet completed; it is still in process of being consciously or semi-consciously put together by the official class, in order to serve the interests of that class, and, incidentally, the interests of the nation at large.

The purpose, of course, and “the interests of the nation at large” was war, military dictatorship, and the subjugation of the individual to the state. Indeed, in some ways Japanese racist propaganda served not so much to make the Japanese hate the enemy, as to bind them together against the enemy. As Chamberlain put it, in his foresightful essay:

On the one hand, it must make good to the outer world the new claim that Japan differs in no essential way from the nations of the West, unless, indeed, it be by way of superiority. On the other hand, it has to manage restive steeds at home, where ancestral ideas and habits clash with new dangers arising from an alien material civilisation hastily absorbed.

Professor Power observes too that Japanese wartime propaganda didn’t aim to make the Americans look lesser so much as it aimed to make the Japanese look better. And it did this through the Emperor and the notion of the Japanese as unique, of divine descent, and pure. These concepts were all embodied in the emperor, and the propaganda had it that they could be preserved through filial service to the emperor; indeed, the entire vision for the future was of the Emperor as father of the nation, and by extension as the guiding hand over all the races of the world, set into their proper place according to a theory of racial superiority that had Japanese as the only “pure” blooded people on earth, pre-destined to lead all the others.


Purity is an important and enduring concept in Shintoism, and was reconceived in political and nationalist terms by Japan’s propagandists. Foreign social ideas – especially those of individualism, freedom, and the self – were portrayed as impurities in the Japanese body politic, and Japan’s citizens encouraged to purge themselves of such filth. War, of course, would be the purifying fire into which this slag would be melted down. One powerful image in Power’s book shows a woman brushing the dandruff out of her hair, and the dandruff as it falls turns into American and British political ideals – selfishness, liberalism, etc.

Japanese racial theory also had Japan as the only “pure” race, untouched by significant immigration or miscegenation and thus retaining a unique set of characteristics. Maybe such an ideal doesn’t have to be prima facie racist, but the pretty clear understanding in racial theory in Japan was that this purity of heritage (which was almost certainly fictitious anyway) made them superior, and the picture in this post shows pretty clearly how they viewed the “impure” south East Asian races – as dark-skinned labourers beneath the light of Japan’s sun. And the report from the Ministry of Health and Welfare makes this goal clear, in the section entitled An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus. The Japanese, pure through divine right and selective isolation, were best placed to “lead” the other races of Asia into the future, and the other races would have their future direction and role decided according to a racist doctrine based on foolish 1940s conceptions of what each race was good at. Largely, they were to be consigned to the role of labourers and suppliers of resources to the advanced Japanese economy.

There’s nothing of exterminationism in this propaganda, but a lot of material that skirts close to advocating slavery and colonialism. It doesn’t really differ from the views of many colonialists in Europe at that time, I suppose – I’ve even heard defenses of slavery on the “it’s for their own good” line – but this is the nature of the grubby racial politics of the west in the interwar era. A newcomer to the global scene could make up a fanciful political theory based on a silly superstition and a fabricated history, and elaborate a systematic process of enslavement and exploitation for half a hemisphere, and in their defense they would be able to say “it’s no different to what everyone else is doing!” And in fact a lot of Japanese propaganda presented the “purifying” light of the Japanese sun either driving out the colonialist westerners, or revealing their true form as demons, necromancers and evil interlopers.

Demons and Strangers

This brings us to the third and most prevalent part of Japanese propaganda, the representation of Americans, British and Dutch as demons and outsiders. Power describes the role these creatures play in Japanese folklore as two-sided: they can be forces for evil, or they can be helpful. This makes them the perfect double-sided image for the western powers, whose technology the Japanese imported (and in many cases improved), but whose ideals they wanted to cast out, along with their physical presence in Asia. In propaganda aimed at their Asian colonies they could portray the west as colonialist and outdated powers being driven out; but to their own people they portrayed them as demons with two faces, presenting a human or pure image to Japan while hiding an evil face. They could also present them as outsiders, a powerful concept in Japanese that can be both liberating and terrifying. Thus they can (literally) demonize their enemy without reverting to any of the forms of scientific racism that infected western depictions other nations, while at the same time excusing their enemies’ former teaching role. In some ways this image hasn’t changed – the ideas outsiders bring to Japan are often seen as simultaneously threatening and empowering, and Japanese people’s fascination with foreigners is often mixed with fear and trepidation. After the war ended, Power observes that this propaganda proved remarkably malleable – the demons and outsiders just changed their face, and went from being the terrible demonic other to the helpful, inspiring, slightly strange other – just as American propaganda turned the Japanese from petulant children who couldn’t be reasoned with to a young democracy in need of tutelage and guidance.

This demonization of the other also shows that you don’t need to construct directly exterminationist, vile racist propaganda to convince a people to fight bitterly to the very end. A complex synergism of religious imagery, faux history and carefully-adapted folklore ideals will do the job just fine, if you tune it correctly. In fact, I think this has many elements in common with a lot of the propaganda we see in support of the global war on terror. The better stuff (I am referring here to that which our more reasonable supporters of the war give us, not the loony American right) doesn’t tell us that muslims are animals who need to be put down; the village doesn’t have to be destroyed to be saved. Rather, we are presented with a (mythical) ideal of western liberal democracy as pure and perfect, built up through long trial and testing, yet fragile and vulnerable to the influence and impact of the other. If we attack them and overcome them in the correct way we can guide them to a society like ours, and lead them forward to a better tomorrow – which is what we’re trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan now, and failing at in both cases (probably). On the way, of course, just as the Japanese did, we reveal ourselves to not be the pure and ideal society we pretend – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and regular wedding party slaughters in Afghanistan prove that our society is not quite what we say it is – but our propagandists overlook these small inconsistencies and the faux history (divorced of the native genocide, colonialism and extermination that made our societies rich in the first place) in order to present the greater myth. And, just as at some times and some places in Japan’s 15 year war in the Pacific, these images really did seem to present a better future, so too the simple story of liberal democracy shining a light into the darkness can present the same hope for a better world. But the Japanese experience perhaps shows us that better worlds aren’t made through war, or if they are it probably isn’t worth the suffering, and certainly isn’t the only way.

The Japanese propaganda of the war liked to present them as purer than Americans, driven by greater ideals and united by stronger bonds, and also depicted the Japanese as liberators casting colonialism out of the Pacific. Power points out that they really did serve this role in some ways, showing the people of the Pacific that the colonial powers weren’t invincible and that sufficiently energized Asians could turn the colonialists’ own tools and technology against them. At the same time their scorn for the moral inferiority of Americans led the Japanese to completely misunderstand America’s willingness to fight – just as American propaganda overestimated Japanese obstinacy in the last year of the war. Both sides’ propaganda may have worked against Japan, leading to a situation of frenzied violence where both sides refused to believe what the other side really wanted. But there’s a lesson in this that is particularly compelling – the propagandist really does believe their own work. Propaganda goals are set on high, and propagandists listen to a lot of material being written in their own and other countries about the enemy – they don’t form their opinions in a vacuum. In the pre-war era, and during the war, this material was facile, shallow and wrong, but it was incorporated into the propaganda and really seems to have been believed by the planners and policy-makers of the era. American and British military planners really did believe that Japanese pilots were inferior due to Japanese child-rearing practices; Japanese war planners really did believe that the Americans would give up after 6 months because they were morally weak and lazy. For my next post on this book, I’ll look at how propaganda serves to reinforce rather than reflect prevailing views, and can be a negative form of information in a war. Certainly in world war 2, it appears to have served the role of reinforcing a vicious spiral that was circling in towards genocide, and although fortunately for the Japanese cooler heads prevailed, the experience of that war shows that propaganda of this kind isn’t just a tool of war, but can become a driving force and, at its worst, a self-fulfilling prophecy. What does this tell us about the decision-making that led to the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and ultimately the use of nuclear weapons? What would the Japanese have done with nuclear weapons if they had them, given their use of images of purification through fire and death? This is also something I want to explore in a future post about this book.


"Let the punishment fit the crime"

Back from Beppu and continuing my reports on the book War Without Mercy that I introduced here before my travels commenced. I’ve finished the section on allied and Japanese war atrocities, which were numerous and terrible on both sides, and which I briefly mentioned in my previous post, and now I’ve also read the section on allied representations of the enemy. This section makes clear that the allied response to Japanese aggression was both furious and exterminationist in its content. That is, the allied war planners and propagandists, and allied media, made clear both their deep hatred of the Japanese, its racial origins, and their belief that the only solution to the problem of Japanese aggression was extermination of the Japanese as a race. Obviously since the Japanese survived this goal was not enacted and cooler heads prevailed,  but the propaganda that was driving the allied war effort in 1943-45 was genuinely disturbing stuff.

Exterminationism, US style

However, the nature of allied propaganda began to create uncomfortable contradictions in both internal political struggles in their own countries, and between them and some of their less “enlightened” allies. This is because it called on fundamentally old-fashioned racist tropes, but its connection to exterminationism and the defence of the colonial project led them into tricky political terrain.

The Eternal Racist

In an illuminating section of the book, professor Power points out that the allied anti-Japanese propaganda used in WW2 drew on a wealth of existing racist caricatures with almost no change or originality, simply substituting Japanese for Native Americans or black Americans. In fact, Roosevelt’s own father had been saying almost exactly similar exterminationist things about Native Americans, and the common images used to describe Japanese were borrowed directly from the racist lexicon: they were animals, apes, children, insane, cunning, treacherous and had special “occult” powers. The accusation of “occult” powers was particular to anti-Asian racism and had previously been used against the Chinese; but all the other epiphets and images could have been used for any previous racial enemy of the US or Britain – and Power observes almost exactly equivalent language being used against Native Americans, black Americans, Mexicans, Chinese migrants and the Chinese nation, and then finally the Phillipines, over the course of just 150 years. He also points out that the original Spanish descriptions of the Native Americans of South America were interchangeable with the allies’ claims about the Japanese; and to this he could undoubtedly have added the British defense of their colonial practices in India, and western descriptions of Aborigines and Maoris[1].

The Colonial Project Continues

The other aspect of allied propaganda that was quite surprising was its open acknowledgement and approval of the colonial project in the Pacific and Asia. The US even had a popular song, To Be Specific, It’s Our Pacific that summarized western ideas about the war. Political and opinion leaders didn’t shy from defending their right to own territories or colonies in Asia, and their anger at Japanese temerity in attempting to either establish its own colonies, or to take theirs. The war now is seen as a war to preserve freedom, but the western peoples of the 1940s were comfortable seeing it as a war to preserve their overseas colonies. One report to war planners even observed that many Asians in the fighting territories saw the war “cynically” as a war between fascists and imperialists. How very cynical of them! Churchill openly stated his aim as the preservation and continuation of Britain’s colonial possessions, and many war leaders saw the Pacific war specifically as a race war, between “white supremacy” and the “coloured races.” They worried that the “coloureds” were stirring, and explicitly saw the Japanese attack as a threat to the long-standing world order. Having portrayed the Japanese as apes and animals, they now had to face the fact that these “apes” were capable of besting the “superior” races in military activity, and were setting an example that other Asians might choose to follow. Some of the more alarmist planners saw in this the germ of the long term collapse of the white race, and openly stated so.

These worries were acutely seen in two areas: fear of the effect of the war on black Americans, and fear of the collapse of China.

Racism at Home

It’s well-established (though not often discussed) that the US was extremely racist in its dealings with black soldiers. Black Americans were not allowed in combat roles until very late in the war, were not allowed many promotions or the best or most skilled jobs in the army, and were even required to maintain a separate blood plasma supply: that’s right, black blood couldn’t be used in white soldiers, even though the people writing this policy knew that the scientific evidence was that the blood types were indistinguishable. Some racists portrayed plans to amalgamate the blood supplies as an attempt to weaken the white race by merging its blood with black blood. Black American blood. In Australia, the US government sought (and was granted, I think) special permission to maintain its segregation laws in the housing of US soldiers in Australia, and conflict regularly occurred between US and Australian soldiers in public places when Australian men and women failed to observe American ideals about segregation – particularly, Australian women would date black soldiers and the soldiers would be punished by their white colleagues for miscegenation[2]! Black Americans were acutely aware of their unequal status as combatants for “freedom,” as exemplified in these two slogans from black freedom activists:

Defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito by Enforcing the Constitution and Abolishing Jim Crow


I want you to know I ain’t afraid. I don’t mind fighting. I’ll fight Hitler, Mussolini and the Japs all at the same time, but I’m telling you I’ll give those crackers down South the same damn medicine[3]

One black soldier upon enlistment gave as his suggested headstone “Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of the white man.” This distinction between racism at home and race-hate abroad created a problem for the white authorities, a problem they were aware of and, sadly, not particularly interested in addressing: how can you call for the extermination of a race of apes overseas, using exactly the same language you use to describe a group of people you are oppressing domestically, and expect loyalty from those same people? And how can you maintain your theories of superiority over that domestic group, when the people you paint in the same language overseas are kicking your arse in an area the size of the Pacific?

Loyalty from black Americans was a source of worry for American war planners, who broke up a few groups that may have been getting support or information from the Japanese, and the Japanese certainly attempted to use the Jim Crow laws as propaganda against America (in Japan). However, black American loyalty was largely to America, and the bigger worry for US policy makers was that the Japanese might provide black Americans with inspiration in their own struggle. With Japanese defeat looming, a large number of Americans would be returning from the front armed with the certain knowledge that “inferior” races could defeat “superior” races, and that the racial policy of the past 50 years was hollow; but at the same time they were exhorting white men to exterminate Japanese men with the same underlying logic of white supremacy that was being used to hold black people down in the US. Would this not make US blacks extremely uncomfortable? By using this language, the government had basically shown itself to be of a piece, ideologically, with the supremacists who still murdered black men in the South.

The US response to this appears to have been weak, with no real effort made to amend domestic laws or to move towards the end of segregation and Jim Crow. The only efforts they made were security efforts, to arrest domestic activists and look harder for evidence of connections between Japanese and militant black movements. They showed a little more foresight in dealing with the problem of the “coloured races” rising up abroad, but even there they were complacent and had great difficulty shaking off basic racism, as is shown in the case of the allies’ dealings with China.

The Collapse of China and World War Three

The allied war planners’ biggest fear was that China would collapse or surrender, freeing up 2 million Japanese soldiers to advance into Asia and lending all of China’s economic, industrial and manpower resources to the Japanese. Almost as devastating would be a peace treaty between China and Japan, and the most likely cause of such a treaty – besides China’s exhaustion after 7 years of war – would be their treatment by their allies. Churchill had made it clear he intended to maintain British colonies in the Far East, and the allies refused to rescind a special treaty which prevented China from trying foreigners in local courts. But worst of all was US racism toward Chinese migrants in the US, who were placed in a special category of undesirables and refused both admission and naturalization rights. The catalogue of racist laws applying to the Chinese in the 1940s is quite horrifying, and saddening, and shows an intense and abiding anti-Oriental racism in the west at that time. It was impossible for Chinese to become US citizens at the start of the war, and almost impossible for them to enter the country at all, or only at a very high price and often with extreme difficulty. These laws were a big issue to Chinese in China, and it was obvious that the threefold combination of British imperialism, US racism, and allied special privileges in Asia could turn Chinese attitudes against their western allies. But it was extremely difficult for the US to give up its anti-Chinese laws, and in 1944 as a comprise it allowed a quota of just 105 Chinese a year to become citizens, provided they were new migrants. This was the WW2-era Americans’ idea of a compromise to a lower race. Even though they were fighting a huge and terrifying war in the Pacific, whose outcome at least partly depended upon their treatment of their local allies, they couldn’t properly give up their racist ideals. Similarly Britain, which was highly dependent on its colonial armies as a bulwark against Japan and knew that at least some of the countries it relied on were shaky, refused to give up its colonialist policies in Asia. By this time India was beginning to rebel against white rule, the Burmese had at one point showed allegiance to Japan, and the Japanese were using the language of the East Asia co-prosperity Sphere to claim that they were liberating Asia from white imperialism. Had they behaved less like colonialists themselves this propaganda might even have been successful.

This toxic mix of rebellion by the “inferior” Japanese, activism in colonial provinces, black activism at home, and fears of Chinese collapse, led many commentators in the West to fear that the world was on the brink of a new war that might explode from the ashes of WW2 – a war between the races, with the Eastern “coloureds” rising up against the “superior” whites. The fear of Americans was that the Chinese would fall behind this rebellion and the west would be both outnumbered and outgunned. They spoke of Japan “winning the war by losing” and of the “rising wind” becoming a hurricane.

The Pacific War as a Missed Opportunity

Very few western commentators and politicians saw either the logic or the principle of the obvious measures required to prevent this hurricane – rescinding racist laws, voluntarily withdrawing from their colonies, and ushering in a newer, fairer world order – even though many of Japan’s reasons for entering the war were connected to its racist and unequal treatment between 1905 and 1937. So it was that the war came to its end with the West still convinced of its superiority – perhaps even reassured, after putting Japan “in her place” – and unwilling to consider the wholesale changes that would be required to restore peace to half the world. So it was that over the next 20 years we saw colonial territories throw out their masters, often violently and with huge death tolls in India, Indonesia and Malaysia, the establishment of new and fucked up Juntas in Burma and Africa, and the collapse of economies through war and the scorched earth policy of the colonial masters. Following this was the civil rights movement in America and the sad and terrible disgrace that is the US invasion of Vietnam. Instead of seeing Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour as a wake up call and the ensuing war as the final battle over racist ideology, that they must inevitably lose, the colonial powers mistook it as a chance to reassert their grip, and in tightening the screws they just increased the pain that those countries were willing to bear in order to gain their freedom. As the universe’s most famous freedom fighter once said – the more you tighten your grip, the more they slip through your fingers. This means that the Pacific War was not just a catastrophic and avoidable mistake at the time it happened, but the one useful lesson that could have been gained from it was missed, and a teaching moment for Western Imperialism was overlooked. The ensuing history of Asia was written largely in blood, much of it probably avoidable if the allies had not cleaved so strongly to the racist ideals that underlay their ideology in both war and peace at that time.

(Note: Illustrations are from the text).

fn1: As an interesting aside, our approach seems to have become much, much more mature in recent years – descriptions of Afghani and Iraqi enemies are generally much less dehumanizing than those used in World War 2, even though al Qaeda’s treachery on September 11th was comparable with – or worse than – Pearl Harbour.

fn2: I’m taking this information from an ABC documentary on segregation in Australia, not from Power’s book.

fn3: Note here a subtle effect of the racist tone of war propaganda. The western European enemies (Italy and Germany) are identified with their leaders; the Pacific enemy are identified as a race

Comments on my last post have become bogged down in a debate that makes it hard to think clearly about the things I’ve been discussing in this series of posts about Tolkien and racism. Specifically, I think we’ve drifted off the main thread of the arguments, and become distracted from the issue of racial essentialism in Tolkien by a nasty debate about whether Tolkien’s work was fascist. So this post is an attempt to regather my thoughts (I find the cut-and-thrust of internet debate can cause me to drift off of the main thread of a thought).

I think my interlocutors have become a bit bogged down in defending Tolkien against a misinterpretation of scientific racism, which gives it a stronger set of conditions than it actually and historically carries, so I’m going to try and clarify that. In this post I will remind my readers of the way scientific racism works, and discuss the additional properties of Nazi racism. I’m also going to try and set out a method by which an author can unintentionally make a Nazi racial model for their work through combining two quite separate narrative ideals, and I’m also going to try and set out an alternative plot for Lord of the Rings that would be almost exactly the same as the original but substantially less concerned with the inherent moral differences of races, in an attempt to show how a very similar text could be less vulnerable to scientific-racist interpretation.

Scientific racism and racial essentialism

The fundamental property of a theory of scientific racism or racial essentialism is that it ascribes moral properties to a race, and assumes they’re racially inherited. This is different to, say, racism, which ascribes moral properties to a race but assumes they’re not genetic; or scientific analysis of cultures, which assigns certain properties to a culture and assumes that you have to grow up in the culture to get them; and connects this to a race only inasmuch as a race is connected to the culture.

When scientific racism assigns a moral property to a race, that assignation isn’t absolute or invariant – it’s an average level around which the race is generally assumed to deviate, and in most models it’s not absolute. As we’ll see, the exception to this is Nazism which (pretty much) assigns immutable, eternal and unvarying evil motives to a single race (Jews). So in general a scientific racist theory will make statements like

  • [Race A] is less moral than [race B]
  • [Race A] is inclined to savagery and barbarism [with the implicit contrast to race B]
  • [Race A] cannot rise above their base instincts, and will never aspire to the higher art or culture of [race B]

These statements tend to allow for diversity within the framework, and specifically they allow members of race B to be degenerate. In fact, the concepts of degeneracy applied to [race A] tend to be grounded in discussion of the “worst types” of [race B], and historically they’ve often been taken from descriptions of the poor and working class members of the society of [race B]. Saying [race B] is better than [race A] is not a statement that is everywhere and absolutely true; it’s sometimes (or often) the case that members of [race B] behave like [race A] or can be corrupted to so behave – this is the essence of the fear-mongering and salacious marijuana scare books of the 50s, for example.

Further, it’s important to note that a lot of scientific racism is based on an underlying fear of [race A], and especially of [race B] becoming like [race A]. For such a fear to be viable, there has to be some real life risk that [race B] will occasionally (or frequently) behave like [race A]. This is especially evident in racial essentialist arguments against cultural mixing. The fear isn’t just that the races will interbreed, but that the mere presence of large numbers of [race A] doing bad things will cause [race B] to do more of them.

As a concrete example, consider some more modern racial essentialist theories based in pop pscyhology. Under these theories black people have “poor impulse control.” This means that, for example, young black girls can’t resist the urge to have sex, and get pregnant as teenagers. This theory doesn’t preclude white teenage pregnancies, because it allows for the existence of white girls with poor impulse control (usually it sees these girls as poor or working class, often living in neighbourhoods with lots of black people). But it is used as an explanation for high black teenage pregnancy rates (and is often followed up with an argument that special funding for programs to reduce teen pregnancy in black communities are a waste of money because the problem is “biological”). This racial essentialist theory will be stated as “blacks have poor impulse control” but it doesn’t actually exclude poor impulse control in whites.

Nazism’s special additions

Nazism is unique among these theories for adding a narrative of purposeful evil and corruption to the racial model. Jews are seen as not just immoral but always and everywhere evil, as represented in the essay The Eternal Jew. This evil is racially inherited, so immutable, and the deviousness and evil of the race is seen as such that mere exclusion is insufficient – extermination is the only solution. This model does not, however, preclude the possibility of evil in the “superior” races of whites. It presents a heirarchy of corruption, in which Jews are, for example, much better able to manipulate blacks than whites, and Germans and British are much more resilient to manipulation than, say, slavs or (sub-human) Russians. In fact, this racial theory was adapted quite neatly to explain the importance of Jews in American life, and a theory of cultural isolation and racial and cultural mixing was used to explain the “special vulnerability” of Americans to Jewish manipulation.

Nazi racial theory doesn’t assume that all white people are pure though; in fact, it allowed for the possibility of genetic flaws in whites, and had eugenic programs to manage them; and it had a criminal justice policy which, though racially-oriented, also assumed that white people could do bad things. The key point here is “could.” The Nazi view of race was that white people could do good or evil according to their free will (though they were always looking for genetically eradicable causes of propensity to do certain things); but Jews could only do evil. This kind of model is essential to explaining the presence of gay Aryans, and of Aryans who voted against their racial interests (i.e. voted Social Democrat).

Nazism also has a narrative of corruption, with the Jew whispering in the ear of the white man to corrupt him from good. Such a narrative doesn’t preclude people choosing to do evil acts by themselves, but the big movements of the time were all seen in the light of Jewish corruption: Bolshevism was Russians being corrupted by the international Jewish plot of Marxism; British views of Germans were the fault of the Jewish media; and Germany’s defeat in world war 1 was the fault of Jews corrupting Germans at home through fear and hunger.

Tolkien and racial essentialism

Tolkien’s work fits perfectly into a racial essentialist model, presenting tiers of morality in the races. Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and humans have the power to do good or evil by their own free will; Orcs and Southrons do not, with Orcs being always and everywhere evil and Southrons somewhere in between. Amongst humans, levels of goodness are genetic, with the Rohirrim and Gondorians at the top, then the men they interbred with, and then the Dunlendings, and then Southrons etc. (all the servants of Sauron). These traits are clearly presented as racially inherited – even halflings’ resistance to the siren song of power is racial.

Note here that “level of goodness” is defined as a propensity to do good; a race doesn’t have to be presented as everywhere and always good in order to fit a racial essentialist model. It simply has to be more moral than other races.

Tolkien’s model has the further unfortunate property of mapping these genetically-inherited racial differences to a geographical and morphological scheme that fits our real world, making the races very easily interpreted in real-life terms.

Tolkien and Nazi racial theory

In addition to presenting a race as immutably evil, just as Nazis do, Tolkien’s work includes an additional narrative of corruption, which brings it closer to Nazi racial theory. The evil races are corrupted by a pair of evil Gods, and the most evil movements in human and elvish history are related to corruption and deception by these evil Gods. From a Nazi racial theory perspective, this is Morgoth as Marx and Sauron as Lenin. They deceive and corrupt other races to following an evil creed, but unlike the real-world versions, they don’t rely on races being created inferior; they corrupt them with their magic so that those races become their permanent servants. The inclusion of this additional magical element to a fantasy text doesn’t rescue the racial theory from the interpretation it deserves; and the use of supernatural figures to do the corrupting, rather than representatives of the evil races, is simply a device of the genre. These points don’t fundamentally change the narrative, which is one of corruption of basically good peoples by the representatives of an evil race. In this case the representatives are magical, not political activists; but the effect is the same. The single difference is that these representatives pre-date the races they control, and created the (genetically-inherited) corruption in those races, rather than arising from it. This is not a hugely important element of the narrative structure of the Nazi racial theory represented in the text, though it suggests a way in which a Nazi racial theory can be constructed by accident.

Creating and recreating racial stories

In this section we will consider narrative structure and intent, but by inferring possible intents we shouldn’t assume that we’re commenting on the author’s actual intent or character. It’s generally assumed, I think, that because Tolkien put a great deal of thought and work into his world then any representation of racial essentialism must also have been intended. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. All Tolkien had to do to put a racial essentialist context in his books was to a) want to put non-human races in and b) recreate the social and cultural theories of his time uncritically. Having spent years developing the languages, geography and histories of his world, it’s entirely possible that he didn’t put any specific effort into thinking about the underlying racial cosmology; he just assembled it unthinkingly from the standard model of his day. Just as today many sci-fi authors unthinkingly write the democratic and liberal structure of their own culture into their novels, so he may have reproduced the racial theory of his time.

I think this seems hard to believe to some people because of the detail of his effort, but I’ve been reflecting on gender and fantasy recently and I don’t think it’s so unusual. Ursula le Guin put a great deal of thought into the race of her protagonist in A Wizard of Earthsea, she outlined the geography of the world and the peoples therein, and she is generally respected for creating a detailed and internally consistent magic system that formed the core of the narrative of the stories; but when she sat down to write the book she unthinkingly reproduced the gender conventions of the genre even though she’s a feminist. By contrast, Tolkien seems to have been a bit of a radical in women’s issues and I think this shows in the text – I think he consciously chose to eschew the gender politics of the genre he was writing in (which at that time was not fantasy). In order to eschew the conventions of a genre or a social order, you have to make a decision. Reproducing them merely means writing within the genre without effort. If le Guin could do this with one of her central political ideals (feminism) I don’t see any reason to believe that Tolkien wouldn’t have done it with a political ideology that may or may not have been his central concern (I don’t think it was). The result is a powerfully racially essentialist narrative.

Unfortunately for Tolkien, he also put in a narrative of corruption and downfall, probably based on his Catholic principles (though again he may not have thought about this). I think it’s very easy to write two separate themes – one of corruption, and one of racial essentialism – in a text and produce by accident a Nazi racial theory. That’s pretty much what the Nazis did – they combined pre-existing religious ideas about corruption and downfall with a particularly strong racial theory of evil, and the result was an exterminationist racial theory. They did this deliberately, but I think you could do it by accident and get a quite similar politics. If you unthinkingly reproduce racial theories of the interwar era and consciously put in a narrative of corruption, you’ll probably get Nazi theory.

Another way of looking at this is to consider a modern version. Suppose you write a fantasy book in which one race – from amongst whom you select the protagonists – go to war to save another race from an evil magical ruler who has enslaved them. Now, without thinking about it at all, simply make the society the good guys come from be a democratic liberal society – that’s what you know and politics isn’t your central concern, so you just write it that way. Then, because you’re really concerned with censorship, or because you want to make the evil magical ruler an allegory for the Wizard of Oz, or because you want to make a feminist comment on beauty culture, or for some other similar reason, suppose that you write into your story that the evil magical ruler has banned all images of himself. Without meaning to, you’ve produced a fantasy text which is a perfect image of modern liberal interventionism, with the bad guy a model of the Prophet. It’s US vs. Iraq all over. Having done this, I don’t think you can complain if your novel is trumpeted by the Hitchens and Abramovitch’s of the world as the next Orwell.

An alternative racially neutral text

Now I’m going to present a slight modification of the original story which would make it less racially essentialist, though I don’t claim this version would be better – I’m doing this just as an example. First, suppose that Tolkien had written the Orcs as humans, whose savagery was caused by a curse invoked on them by Sauron. This curse is tied up in the one ring, which has been lost. The one ring maintains all its other properties, too. So long as this ring exists, any descendant of the original nation cursed by Sauron is reduced to barbaric savagery – i.e. behaves like an Orc, but is human in form. The books proceed in exactly the same way, except that at the end when the ring is destroyed it undoes the curse, and the cursed humans resume normal human traits. This provides an explanation for the sudden victory at the Black Gate, it allows us to understand what happens at the end of the story, just as does the original, but it removes the genetically inherited trait from the Orcs. Even if the enslaved humans at the end of the story remain evil, their children will have free will. In such a story the inherited evil is a transient curse, rather than a genetic property. I think this version probably still is open to criticism, but it’s also much more defensible because an inter-generational curse that can be lifted by killing the magical source is (within the genre) completely different to an inherent trait that is genetically transferred and renders a race of “mongoloid” people evil by birth.

A final note on racial theory and free will

It’s important to understand that in all of its incarnations racial theory isn’t just a piece of pointless propaganda or a catechism to be invoked in foxholes. It’s a model of how society does and/or should work, and as such it has to take account of the real properties of the people it describes. This is why the Nazis had to write a special pamphlet explaining why the Japanese are superior to other Asians, and this is why racial theories in all their hideous variety have to accept that the “good” races aren’t purely good. This is usually done by ascribing to the “good” races more control over their baser instincts, and the free will to choose between evil and good, between delayed impulses and immediate drive, and between their personal desires and their racial survival. But such free will has to include the possibility of being a traitor to one’s race; being an impulsive criminal; or being evil. All racial theory arguments – even in their purest form under the Nazis – rely on acceptance of variation between individuals within a race, and build a structure based on averages and tendencies. The singular exception to this is the representation by the Nazis of Jews as especially and unavoidably evil; and this is a trait that the Nazis’ imaginary Jew shares with Tolkien’s imaginary Orcs. If the parallel stopped there then it would be meaningless, but the additional tale of corruption in the novel, and the geographical and morphological similarities to Europe, make it ideal Nazi propaganda, which is what we see in action today.


One doesn’t have to accept the similarity between Tolkien’s model and modern Nazi theory to accept that the races in the Lord of the Rings are based on a racially essentialist model. It’s important to note that Nazi racial theory gives no explanation for the genesis of Jewish evil (or black/slavic/Russian inferiority) – there is neither a natural selection nor a religious depiction of this. This means that the order of corruption in the Lord of the Rings – Morgoth corrupts the orcs, rather than being a political leader of that corrupted race – is not an important determinant of whether this book’s racial model is essentially Nazi. There is only one racial model in history which assigns one race to be pure evil, on a genetic basis, and sets them against a race capable of moral judgment and attainment of superior moral qualities. That model is Nazism, and Nazi racial theory has a lot in common with the racial theory of the Lord of the Rings.

This commonality, however, should not distract from the broader, and more insidious problem of scientific racism. Racial essentialism survived the Nazis, and has been reborn multiple times – most recently in the contentious IQ debates in the US. Tolkien’s works accept racial essentialism in full, and make it an essential part of the story; and there is nothing in the novels that contests this.

As a follow-up to recent posts on race in the Lord of the Rings, I think I should have a look at the possible multicultural symbols in the books. This is both a nice counterstory to my recent criticisms of his politics, and provides useful background information on the politics of Tolkien’s fascist admirers. How can fascists appreciate Tolkien if he’s mulitcultural? By what sleight of hand do they overlook the central role of the fellowship in the story? Was the politics of racial interaction in the Lord of the Rings ahead of its time, or not?

The possibility of the Fellowship being seen as a multicultural was raised by commenter Paul as a possible alternative explanation of the racial politics of the story. I confess I hadn’t thought of it.

What is multiculturalism?

The first thing to note is that multiculturalism is not just a random word meaning “lots of different races” (though maybe semantically it should). It is a specific political philosophy adopted in Australia in 1972, and an accompanying theory of political integration for diverse races. It can be characterized as “a bunch of different racial and cultural groups living together under a single law, while retaining their own unique cultural and linguistic practices.” In Australia the law is Australian, the shared language is English, and everyone is welcome to do whatever they want in their personal lives. In fact, they’re openly and actively encouraged to, because their culture is assumed to be important to them. Multiculturalism was originally envisioned (in 1972) as “a society in which equal
opportunity is accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance” and is now presented in essentially these terms:

Australian multiculturalism recognises, accepts, respects and celebrates cultural diversity. It embraces the heritage of Indigenous Australians, early European settlement, our Australian-grown customs and those of the diverse range of migrants now coming to this country.
The freedom of all Australians to express and share their cultural values is dependent on their abiding by mutual civic obligations. All Australians are expected to have an overriding loyalty to Australia and its people, and to respect the basic structures and principles underwriting our democratic society. These are the Constitution, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language, the rule of law, acceptance and equality.

It’s important to note that before Canada adopted this policy, there was really no such thing as a concept of multiculturalism, and if Tolkien had propounded such a theory he would have been well ahead of his time (though not unique – various other peoples across time have advocated this idea, especially anarchists and libertarians).

Multiculturalism is not the same as “cultural diversity” or easy immigration policy. In fact Australia has quite a strict immigration policy, setting specific barriers to entry, though the policy is non-racist (in keeping with its multicultural practice).

Multiculturalism in the era of Tolkien

Contrary to the claims of people who love London a little too much (e.g. the crew from London Timeout), London has not been a multicultural city for long, and it certainly wasn’t in the interwar period. It definitely has always been a famously diverse city, perhaps reaching its pinnacle of diversity in the late Victorian era[1]. But this is not the same as multiculturalism, and in fact London is generally quite intolerant of foreigners, and compared to Australia has quite a strong culture of guest workers – a kind of “come here while we need you and then fuck off home please” attitude. At the time that Tolkien was writing it was likely that London was at a low point in its diversity (I don’t know) but pretty certainly areas outside of London were not diverse at all. And we know that Tolkien’s country of origin, South Africa, has a pretty poor history of handling cultural diversity. So, Tolkien could be excused in the context of his time for writing a book in which any form of cultural mixing was seen as bad.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The central organisation of the first book is of course the Fellowship, which consists of the peoples of 4 races, joining together on a desperate quest. They overcome some fairly serious obstacles by working together, and they fall apart ultimately because a human turns on a hobbit in the interests of his nation. But is this a multicultural fellowship? From the background material on the Lord of the Rings we know that it doesn’t represent the natural social structure of any of the societies from which the Fellowship’s members hale. There are no elves or Dwarves or humans in Hobbiton, no humans in the Grey Mountains, and very little evidence of racial diversity in Gondor, the capital of the age. There is one and precisely one foreigner in Rivendell. In the scene where the Fellowship is formed (in the council chamber at Rivendell) the formation is clearly described as a unique event – as races putting aside their differences to fight a common foe. This is no natural extension of the social order of the time in the way that, say, a New Zealand rugby team represents 3 races working for the glory of the Fern, or a lesbian with Chinese parents represents Australia in international climate change talks. This is a special moment in Middle Earth history, just as the gathering of humans and elves at Mount Doom 2000 years earlier was also special.

This is not a multicultural phenomenon; it’s a political alliance. And like most political alliances, it falls apart when one of its members decides to privilege the interests of his own nation over the rest.

Tolkien of course had experience with political alliances, in World War 1, when people from all over the Commonwealth (and Frenchies) joined together to kill Germans. And Turks[2]. And this model is pretty congruent with the structure of the Fellowship.

The races of the Fellowship as “white”

It seems pretty likely from Tolkien’s stories that the only races in the Fellowship that can interbreed are elves and humans. There is no evidence of Dwarves breeding with anyone, and who would shag a halfling? Women with hairy feet are so 80s. This is a pretty strong qualification for “different races.” But in their analyses of Tolkien’s racial politics, Nazis tend to overlook this. I think this is because the races of the West, even though incapable of interbreeding, are established in Tolkien’s world as roughly equivalent to those of Western Europe. They share so much in cultural familiarity that their profound racial differences are overlooked. This occurs in the books and in Nazi ideology, where Nazis from all across Europe see each other as allies even though they’ve spent the last 200 years fighting. The atmosphere of old conflicts set aside in the late third age is also the atmosphere of the modern fascist movement. They look for their true enemies to the East and the South, and see Europe as a single entity under threat from enemies without. This is exactly how the people of the Fellowship see their world. This commonality is sufficient for the races of the Fellowship to be seen as a common unit. After all, they united against a common threat. Isn’t that sufficient definition by which to assert a common political interest?

Additionally, Tolkien presents a set of conservative tropes – hereditary kings, absent and virtuous women, colonialism rewarded, the downfall of races through interbreeding – to enable sympathetic readers to see a model of Europe in the peoples of the West. Even the geography bears a resemblance. So it’s no surprise that the Fellowship’s genetic incompatibility is overlooked in favour of its cultural similarity, even as its enemies’ cultural differences are ignored in favour of their racial similarity (corrupted by Morgoth, dark-skinned, foreign).

Other examples of racial mixing in Tolkien

The general model of racial mixing in Tolkien is that they don’t. There is precisely one foreigner in Rivendell, that being Bilbo; and he is only welcome because branded by a powerful magical item and so rendered culturally closer, if not racially radically different. We spend much of two books reading about Gondor, but see little or no evidence of any foreign races. There are no foreigners in Rohan. Rohan was gifted to the Rohirrim by the Gondorian king, and rather than sharing it with the Dunlendings, they drove them out (along with the Woses, whose eventual extinction is presented as a sad inevitability). This is no multicultural model, but one of races staying firmly separate. The only model of racial mixing is Arthedain and Gondor, which used to be occupied by a race of pure common men. When the Numenorians arrived they took over the land, despite being tiny in number, and formed a hereditary ruling class. This class slowly degraded with contact with the locals, but retained their hereditary power. Essentially, the only long-lasting racial mixing model in Tolkien is a caste-based system – it’s a fairly pleasant one, but it’s still a caste system. It’s rather like England after 1066, where a new power has taken over the country and maintain their own language (Dunadan) and hereditary line, but occasionally interbreed with some of the pre-existing local aristrocracy. But unlike that model, the invading power is seen as a separate race that slowly declines in time (but still lives 4 times as long as the locals after 2000 years, and retains special magical powers).

The only common racial mixing in Tolkien is between Orcs and Goblins, about whom its dubious to maintain that they’re even separate races. Sure, the evil armies are made up of (roughly) 5 races, but they aren’t drawn together as part of a multicultural society – they too are a political alliance. There is no model in Lord of the Rings for the natural interaction of races.


The model of racial mixing in Lord of the Rings is one of political alliances built out of expediency, either through mutual defense or desire for power. This is consistent with the real-world great power politics of the time, but does not reflect the politics of multiculturalism. The fellowship is not a natural outgrowth of multicultural societies, but an alliance of disparate interests thrown together out of desperation and destroyed when one of its members chooses base national interest over common defense – it is formed and collapses along the model of a treaty. The only political model based on racial mixing is a caste system in which a powerful race rules over a weaker one. Although there is a temptation to describe the Fellowship of the Ring as a multicultural model, such a comparison relies on a misreading of the politics of multiculturalism, and a false interpretation of the causes and political meaning of the alliance that the Fellowship represents.

fn1: I get this idea from A.N Lee’s The Victorians, and also from an article in London Timeout about how modern fears about Eastern Europeans very much resemble Victorian fears about the same people

fn2: Though from the perspective of the Australians involved, it was the Turks who did most of the killing

While I was travelling my blog attracted the attention of a Danish Fascist group, the Danish National Front, for its posts on Tolkien and fascism. A post went up on their message board indicating that the Tolkien books are recommended reading for fascists and giving my post on Tolkien’s racial theories as an explanation of why. I’m not, of course, going to give a link to the message board, since I don’t want to give them traffic (from my thousands of readers, ha!) and neither do I want to draw their attention (more than I have). The post about my blog only has two replies but one of the replies, translated in google translate, gives an excellent insight into how fascists and nazis think about Tolkien. Here it is, post-google:

There is no doubt that Tolkien’s books based on a Germanic mythology, even his linguistic inventions are rooted in language studies.

In contrast, Harry Potter pure fiction mixed with Marxist ideology of equality. I would never let my children read Harry Potter, but even read Tolkien’s books aloud to them – there is a readily available version of them as suitable for children and adolescents.

The post above this one also claims CS Lewis for the fascists, because

CS Lewis, author of the Narnia series, was surely also a racist or at least accused of it (especially for being anti-Muslim and producing Middle Eastern people as bad guys, etc). May I look at a time.

These two comments also give support to some of my claims about the conservative appeal of high fantasy.Note as well that this stuff transcends any individual national interpretation of Tolkien – now I’ve found it in the UK, Italy, America and Denmark. All strands of fascist thought in the Western world seem to have a strong appreciation of Tolkien’s racial and hierarchical themes, and see them as excellent propaganda material to expose their children to. They also don’t seem to have any concerns about the putative multiculturalism of the Fellowship, presumably because they see all the races of the West as representative of “white” men, and don’t care about the (huge) differences between dwarves, elves, halflings and men. The fact that there are no black men or “mongoloids” (Tolkien’s term) is more relevant to them than the fact that elves and dwarves are so racially different that they can’t even inter-breed[1].

This last point perhaps also is relevant in defense against the claim that the colours of the antagonists in Lord of the Rings are not symbolic of anything. Fascists take the whiteness of dwarves and elves as symbolically more important than the fact of their racial difference. This is a pathological level of focus on the real world notion of race, since their perception of skin colour transcends the very real, “scientific” differences described in the book. But they are largely only able to do this in the works of people like Tolkien and Lewis. I think that this ability to transcend the actual racial codification in the books, and to map onto it their own models, is made possible by the reassuring conservative environment of the books, and the germanic mythology underlying them. These books contain a lot of coda that reassure fascists that they are reading the “right” type of conservatism, and thus able to draw the “right” conclusions about the racial messages in the book.

I’ve read a lot of apologies for Tolkien’s worldview in my various posts about the racial theories inherent in them, but I think the way fascists view him and his work is a pretty clear sign that his politics is not worth rehabilitating. It’s possible to read Tolkien critically without losing enjoyment of the books, and it’s possible to play the fantasy RPGs that inherit his conservatism and racism with the same critical eye, without losing enjoyment of them (or indeed, enjoying those unrealistic aspects of their racial theory that make them so different to the real world). What it’s not possible to do, as far as I can tell, is read Tolkien while somehow claiming he is presenting a world devoid of racial theory, or even (as some seem to want) a world that is at least neutral with respect to modern standards of racial equality and racial determinism. This view of the books is only possible through sleight of hand (e.g. pretending the Fellowship is a multicultural symbol) or outright deception (e.g. claiming, as regularly happens, that the Southrons weren’t meant to be black). Fundamentally, it’s a text on scientific racism, and needs to be read as such.

Which doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great book. It just means that it’s a product of its times and, seen in a certain light, a work of virulent conservatism and racism. But so what? It’s still a fun read.

fn1: as far as we know…

Today I discovered an interesting interview with one Stephen Shapiro, University of Warwick, which was conducted in 2003 by the German Tolkien fanclub (at least I assume that’s what it is). At that time it would appear he had been working on a research theme similar to that which I’ve gathered here and here, about whether Tolkien is racist, racialist, or vulnerable to interpretation as such. The interview contains support for the claims I’ve made before about how Tolkien can be read, and contains some interesting information I hadn’t previously found about the way in which Tolkien is used by the far right in Europe[1]. The interview came out in 2003 and is, I think, a bit unfair on Peter Jackson – I think Shapiro has a very uncharitable reading of the poster advertising The Two Towers.  I’m no film critic so I can’t say anything about the claim that

In visual terms, there are also uncanny references to both Leni Riefenstahl and DW Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation, the film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.

If so, that’s a bit disappointing, but it’s also maybe not unexpected – Leni Riefenstahl is supposed to have done revolutionary stuff, isn’t she?

Shapiro also suggests that Jackson’s film could have been tolerably done in a more multi-racial fashion, and says

For Jackson’s part, he gives viewers too little credit, since many contemporary fans in the “fantasy and role-playing community” of games like Dungeons and Dragons and Everquest often encourage players to avoid racial stereotypes in their games, Jackson makes no concession to ethnic heterogeneity and often seems not to have considered if a non-white viewer would feel that her or his dignity had been degraded by the film’s representations.

I don’t know if I agree with this – D&D et al are games which, while they superficially “avoid racial stereotypes,” tend to also err strongly on the side of making the protagonist white[2]. Also, these games strongly encourage racialism, and I’m not sure that racialism is compatible with “avoid racial stereotypes.”

Shapiro also states that he is aware of someone else (internet link now dead) who claims to have proof that Tolkien subscribed for 20 years to an extremely right-wing, racist magazine called the League for Empire Loyalists. I don’t think this claim can be tested from the comfort of my armchair, so I’d like to add that I know someone whose dog has eaten someone’s homework, and on that homework it was clearly written that Tolkien was a member of NAMBLA.

There is s sizable section of this interview which backs up my earlier evidence about how Tolkien is used by the far right. For example, the Heathen Front (some kind of long-since collapsed British organisation of right wing “volkists”) admired him as “racialist”, and he was also extremely popular on the far right in Italy. One far right movement even ran paramilitary youth groups called “camp Hobbits”, and infiltrated the Italian Tolkien Society in the 80s. The modern Italian far right developed from a rump movement that survived Mussolini, but it developed along very different lines – it eschewed the modernist futurism of pre-war fascism and instead developed a philosophy based on sacred fascism, in which a traditional and a modern world view are in constant conflict, with the traditional worldview slowly decaying but then reasserting itself. This decay is associated with a decline due to racial mixing and loss of religious strength. This ideology of the “sacred Right” is consistent with the themes in Tolkien’s work, and is a very common view across much modern extreme right thought – David Duke espouses it, it’s crawled all across the pages of Stormfront and the other far right websites[4], and the people who are closest associated with it also seem very likely to be Tolkien admirers. The links between the spiritual fathers of modern Italian fascism and Tolkien are well described in this essay, which also points out that modern fascism is now so diverse that it is difficult to ascribe it a single guiding philosophy or even to define it clearly as “fascism” anymore.

I think that had Tolkien’s work been popular in the ’30s it would probably not have been popular with the Italian fascists, who were much more into futurism and total war than they were into romantic recreation of bucolic rural utopias. It might have influenced those who wanted religious re-development under the regimes, but these people were never popular with their leaders[5].  Had it been associated with Fascism then I doubt it would be very popular now, either, so it’s all round good luck for us that he published just a tad late. But I think in the post-war age there are clear parallels between the mythology and cultural history of the Lord of the Rings and the tale of cultural decline and racial mixing which the modern far Right want to tell. It’s not a coincidence, because like his fellow fantasy authors (and pretty much all of the white world) in the pre-war era, Tolkien believed in the Aryan mythology, the now-discredited model of Aryan archaeology, eugenics and the dangers of racial mixing; and he was, apparently, on the right-wing of British literary activity. Because he wrote such a detailed, lyrical and evocative world based around these ideals, he has become the literary standard for those elements of the modern far right who subscribe to the same mythology. I think he would probably see a lot of things in the modern far Right of which he would approve, but I think he would also see a lot (particularly in Berlusconi’s Italy) that horrifies him, and I think it highly unlikely that he would ever have supported the goals or politics of any fascist organisations in the 20th or 21st centuries. But his writing supports their ideals and he has been used shamelessly to reinvigorate their cultural background in the last 20 years[6]. Given the influence of Tolkien on role-playing and the fantasy world today, I think it’s fair to say that role-playing has a cultural heritage in these fascist ideals, and the closer one hews to the work of the pre-war canon that was steeped in them, the closer this heritage is to one’s game.

I don’t wish to draw too many conclusions about what this says about people like me who enjoy playing in these worlds. Some choices:

  1. It’s actually really easy to sterilise artistic work of nasty meaning if you like the work itself
  2. Good literary work can transcend even very powerful politically objectionable ideals (Nabokov, anyone?)
  3. The reader’s intentions and goals are much more important in the interpretation of the work than even the most blatant political intent on the part of the author[7]
  4. I’m an outrageous fascist who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes

I do think, though, that there must be some extent to which this racialisation in standard fantasy and role-playing has to make it seem exclusionary to non-white readers. Even if 1) were true, some proportion of non-white readers who would otherwise enjoy the work must be put off by their obvious placement on the wrong side of the story in the pre-war canon (and by extension, much of the post-war canon). I wonder how many role-players in the creation of their own worlds unconsciously move away from the outright racialism in the early work, or subvert it in some way. I know I have done by, for example, making Orcs noble (I did this long before I knew about this critique of Tolkien) or by making Elves fascist (in my 4th Age Middle Earth Campaign)[8]. But it’s really hard to preserve D&D in any original sense without keeping the racialism, and I think this must be a turn-off for some people, and I would guess particularly for non-white readers who are perhaps more aware of the consequences of racialism than a lot of white readers are.

fn1: For those who don’t want to wade through all the other crap I’ve written on this, I should point out that although I think the association of LoTR with the far right is evidence that it is easy to read as racist, I don’t take it as evidence that Tolkien was racist and I don’t care if he was[3]

fn2: There is a whole literature and 15 years of internet debate over whether making your protagonists white is a sign that you, your story, your game, or your movie, is racist. I think that it’s better if, where race is an explicit motif, the races in question are inclusive. I don’t think in early D&D they are. I don’t take this to mean Gygax (or anyone else) was racist

fn3: In the sense that, I think it’s bad to be racist, and I think it’s bad if a book sets out to tell a racist story, but it doesn’t change my appreciation of all the other appreciable elements of the book. And I think it’s interesting to investigate the politics of a book and of its writer, but that doesn’t mean I think every book should be PC, etc. blah blah, insert other ritualistic disclaimers about not being a killjoy here.

fn4: As ever, I’m not going to link to these sites, because they’re evil and I don’t want them coming here!

fn5: Am I the only person who thinks it highly suspicious that “hyperborea” and “hyborea” sound very, very similar? I might have to investigate Howard, who wrote “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

fn6: It’s worth bearing in mind that after a movement engages in the level of monumental fail that the fascist movement fell to, they need some serious help reinvigorating, and a completely new ideological direction. It’s a miracle really that they’ve managed to survive in any way, shape or form and I’m sure any kind of long-term survival depends on their finding a new ideological basis.

fn7: Again, I’m not saying here that fascism was Tolkien’s intent. It’s worth noting that Orwell is consistently misused too, and loved by people on the right, even though he’s obviously a ferociously left-wing writer

fn8: This is really piss-poor subversion, because it doesn’t change the inherent racial essentialism of the framework, just reverses who gets what trait. Is this better? I would argue not… it’s just fun. I think Stephen Donaldson may be a good example of a popular canonical fantasy writer who screwed with the racial essentialism in the most obvious way – by writing a recognisable fantasy world mostly devoid of racial structures.