White Like Me

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I have never seen Ireland, but, anchored decades ago aboard R.M.S. Saxonia in a foggy night redolent with the odor of burning peat off Cobh while the tender came and went between the ship and the dockside several miles portside, I have scented her.  Queen Mary 2 does not call at Cobh, and so on a recent voyage to Britain our first sight of land was Bishop’s Rock off Land’s End, the pencil-thin lighthouse, tall as a solitary factory chimney, that alternately marks the commencement or the end of a North Atlantic crossing.  Arriving in England is like coming home to me—by sea especially, which is as much the Briton’s native habitat as the Surrey Downs or the Scottish Highlands.  I had never seen Scotland when I first encountered the high plains of Wyoming and was entranced by them, and it was not until many years afterward that the shock of recognition prompted me to speculate on the possibility of the phenomenon of genetic memory.  I have always felt the same genetic disposition at work on the high seas, watching the displacement wave cream outward from the bows across the ice-blue water, the high-speed orogeny of the liquid swells heaving upward into peaks and subsiding again in troughs, the spume blown in bursts from the crests of the waves.

Like Churchill, I am half-American and half-English, though he was American on his maternal side, and I British on mine.  I recall thinking of myself while growing up in the Northeast as British and American in about equal parts; later, after moving to Wyoming in my early 30’s, quintessentially American.  About 15 years ago, that self-perception began to change again—a thing I felt viscerally without understanding it clearly, until recently.  It is often hard to distinguish what one loves truly until one sees it threatened, and responds instinctively and with an intensity of directed emotion that clarifies everything.  I felt just such a response while in England last December.  We had just come from Sunday Mass in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street, London, where Evelyn Waugh was converted and later married to Laura Herbert, and were crossing St. George’s Garden behind the church toward Scott’s Restaurant in Mount Street when the thing happened.  The architecture in this neighborhood is late 19th century in the Flemish and Renaissance style, salmon-colored brick relieved by white marble trim set off by the brilliant green lawns of an English autumn, and there were gravel walks across manicured lawns and those sturdy wooden park benches, the same as one used to find aboard Cunard liners, and pigeons and a squat fat-boled palm tree surrounded by a circle of gravel, and I seem to recall bow windows on the ground floors, though I can’t find them in photographs—and suddenly, in the midst of so much peace and beauty, and after receiving Communion, I felt a sudden access of fury, struck by the thought that had been gathering all week in the new semi-Asiatic London, that all this storied historical loveliness is on the verge of being inherited by barbarians who did not create it, know nothing of the civilization of my people from whence it sprang, and have neither interest in knowing it nor attachment to it.  And I recalled, immediately afterward, an opposite but directly related experience several years before when, gazing at sunset from the summit of the Gianicolo across the golden city of Rome west toward the Apennines 50 kilometers or so off at the purple horizon, I became fully aware of the massive and moving breadth and integrity of the historic Western Christian civilization, broadly conceived, of which I am both product and inheritor, and of my acceptance of, and loyalty to, the whole as well as its component parts.  And I understood also that I am equally at home in Italy, Britain, France, and America, speaking their languages, reading their books, hearing their music, conversing with their people, eating their food, walking the streets of their cities, and exploring their countryside.

This is why, not long after, I read with bemusement the statement on an American website that “the Italians are not really a white people.”  Not a white people?  What does that mean?  What could it mean?  The Italians are most obviously Europeans, and among the most illustrious of them to boot.  For centuries, indeed—from even before the Renaissance—Italy has been regarded as the cradle of modern European civilization.  Certainly Giuseppe Verdi, that ardent nationalist, would have found the remark meaningless, since it would never have occurred to him to imagine, let alone advocate, a racial or ethnic basis on which to unite the Italies, whose southernmost kingdoms were—and still are—populated by the descendants of Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, Africans, Normans, Frenchmen, and Spaniards, as well as “Italians.”  (Verdi didn’t need to worry about who was an Italian and who not, the question being so plainly a matter of recorded historical association.)  On what basis, then?  Opera, of course, for one thing: the socially universal art of the Italian peoples.

It is no good pretending, as some leftist academics and writers do, that “race is a social construct,” which empirically and biologically it demonstrably is not.  But whiteness, at least as white nationalists imagine it, is largely an ideological construct rather than a biological one, based on a more or less arbitrary system of classification that includes Nordics, Celts, Germans, Caucasians, Aryans, and Pan-Aryans, all supposed to be genetically superior human beings.  To my knowledge, I haven’t a drop of non-British blood—English, Scottish, Irish, probably Welsh—in my veins.  Still, it is an historical certainty that, somewhere in my genetic background, I have ancestors who belonged to none of these groups—if only because the English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh are themselves descended from other peoples whose genetic inheritance my white skin, pink cheeks, and blue eyes do not betray at so great a distance.  But even if I were somewhat darker skinned and brown eyed, would that really make me “whiter” than Verdi—or Michelangelo, or Cervantes, or Montaigne, or John Sobieski, or Beethoven, who was swarthy?  The racialists of the white-nationalist persuasion begin by inventing the terms by which their pseudoscientific political game is to be played, and end by gaming their own game, partly by playing bait-and-switch between scientific terminology (“Aryan”) and an empirically descriptive one (“white”), ignoring the fact that dark-skinned subcontinental Indians and white-complected Northern Europeans are both taxonomically “Caucasian.”  The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this is that white nationalists begin by defining as “white” people who look like themselves (or as they wish they looked), and work backward from there to determine who is, and who isn’t, “white.”  The significant fact, of course, is that all of the above-mentioned figures, whatever their relative degrees of whiteness, belonged equally to a coherent historic culture in its various stages of chronological development and that, had they known one another, they would have met on the common ground of a shared cultural and intellectual understanding of exactly the sort that made the “nations” so prized by white nationalists possible.

Whiteness is one of those observable but otherwise indefinable characteristics wise men—politicians and political theorists, especially—will not examine too deeply, nor take with undue seriousness.  Whiteness indeed is not a myth or a construct, but it is in part a subjective identity.  It has to do with history, not political science, and it should not be regarded as a science, if only because there is about human beings something that science can neither understand nor explain, for the simple reason that it cannot touch it.  That white nationalism is not a political concept at all is demonstrated by the fact that while many predominantly white countries are known to history, no white-nationalist one has ever existed, though an attempt at creating such a country was made in Germany in the 20th century.  There were indeed white tribes in premodern times, but no white nations built up from exclusionary, pseudoscientific principles.  No such project has ever, indeed, been contemplated until recent times.  (White nationalists do not consider the Jews to be whites, and in any event Israel is basically a religious undertaking.)  Tellingly, the white Nordic British, in particular those of the upper classes, in their colonial days held racial views that were nearly the opposite of their white-nationalist admirers of the present day.  The English historian David Cannadine records somewhere an anecdote in which the wife of a high official in the Raj remarks with condescending amusement to a friend that her children’s British nanny considers herself superior to the native aristocracy, her social superiors in British eyes.  And he describes elsewhere a debate between several of Edward VII’s staff on whether a visiting Polynesian prince should be permitted to associate with the king on terms of social equality that ended by deciding that His Majesty’s guest’s princely status trumped his racial one.  Contrary to their reputation as imperialist racists, the British have traditionally discriminated by class rather than by race, and indeed they still do.

White nationalism further politicizes an already hyper-politicized culture dominated by mental abstractions and ideological thinking by encouraging people to accord priority to social and political concerns that are secondary or tertiary at best.  Identity politics, whether for whites or for others, is a form of narcissism that focuses the mind almost exclusively on the self and its vanities, precluding a true apprehension of society, solid intellectual activity, and a true understanding of the proper nature and limited scope of political life.  White nationalism is an ideology like any other, claiming to provide the key to history by revealing its end in the dominance of the white race, not of the working classes.  This accounts for its hostility to all but the most tribal Nordic religions, such as certain of the more primitive Protestant sects, and especially to the Church Universal, which it despises for not being a “white religion” and for its advocacy of generous Western immigration policies.  Like every ideology, white nationalism is a heresy that cannot be reconciled with Christianity in any form, if only because it subordinates religious imperatives to pseudopolitical programs.  I do not mean to imply that the views of the various churches are prudent and intelligent ones, or that they should be placed beyond criticism by Christians and non-Christians alike, merely that, if the Christian defense of immigration could be proven to have been divinely inspired, white nationalists would persist in opposing it anyway.

In fact there is no reason to suppose that liberal policy in respect of immigration reflects the Divine Will, while even the Catholic Church (often despite appearances to the contrary) allows the subject is not a matter of faith and morals but is open to free and conscientious debate.  Rejecting white nationalism does not entail the abandonment of a restrictionist immigration policy, which can be defended, morally and otherwise, on nonracialist considerations including cultural incompatibility, density of population and overcrowding, the protection of natural resources, and many other things.  It is true that, in certain instances, race and culture are difficult to distinguish from each other, but often, too, they are not.  In the present crisis of Islamic jihad, the conclusion that Islam and the West are wholly incompatible things, and that immigration from Muslim societies should be denied altogether, is an humane as well as a culturally and politically sensible one.  Indeed, it is simply common sense.  So is a discriminating immigration policy that, though rejected by liberals as “discriminatory,” is the only one any sane government that takes seriously its responsibility for the present national welfare and a consistent and coherent future for the country it is entrusted with would think of adopting.

The conservative instinct for national and cultural self-preservation is a profoundly human one, essential to every society and to civilization itself.  But the aims of white separatists are geographical and political impossibilities, while the dreams of white supremacists are doomed by the demographics of the rapidly self-shrinking white world and by the facts of modern political life and the culture of the modern West, and of other cultures.  White nationalism is the final resort to unreality by people frustrated by the futility of their appeals to majoritarian white societies whose own highly attenuated connection with reality at least allows them to recognize the mental world white nationalists inhabit for the hopeless fantasy it is.  White nationalists are fond of comparing the nation to a family.  But families are not necessarily associations of exactly, or nearly exactly, similar people, nor are they established and perpetuated with similarity in mind.  Social clubs are—and the nation as a white social and political club is white nationalism’s ideal.  Hence it seems more than strange that so many partisans of white nationalism fail to marry and raise white families of their very own.               

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