June 5, 2024

Defining a hierarchy of knowledge-value: a necessity in EVERY discipline

 If you don't have some sort of hierarchy of knowledge-value in your discipline (a way to collectively distinguish good work from bad work from within the work itself, based on a set of criteria set by knowledgeable experts), you will end up with: 1) a hierarchy of celebrity (the people who are the most popular and well-known), a hierarchy of enrollment (whoever puts the most butts in seats calls the shots), a hierarchy of seniority (in which the olds stagnate the discipline into irrelevance, a hierarchy of newness (worship of the avant-garde), or even a hierarchy of admin proximity (whoever sucks up to the administration best gets the most cookies) The point is you WILL have some kind of hierarchy, whether internally agreed upon or externally imposed. It is always worse for a discipline or profession to have a hierarchy of knowledge-value externally imposed; it typically means the corruption and imminent demise of that discipline.

If a group of scholars faces that fact soberly they can assert more control over how and when the hierarchy functions, mitigate the worst aspects of how it functions, and check blind spots in their assessment. A denial of the need to assert and define a collective sense of value to define a discipline is a reactionary view. If you don't at least try to define, you have ceded your intellectual autonomy to much larger forces, and some sort of hierarchy will de facto impose itself, usually a kind all that much worse for there being no agency of actual scholars in its making.

I think humanities and social science scholars are much more reluctant to engage in this kind of process, partly because they have internalized a sort of shibboleth that all hierarchies of value imply oppression, and partly, because they do not feel the consequences of not doing it directly in the same way as, say, an engineer, a doctor, a farmer, an architect, or an airline pilot, to name but a few fields where hierarchy of knowledge-value is very important to their function. In these fields, there is a very clear distinction between those who know and those who do not, and distinguishing between good work and bad work is often a matter of life and death. Landing a plane is not matter of interpretation.

The idea that a discipline can skirt this necessity is a rhetorical illusion created largely by people who have had no experience of the hard work of trying to do it, or who weirdly think that all humanities knowledge is a form of aesthetics, or that Foucauldian canard that all truth claims are a function of hegemonic power. Some academic work is bad, really bad (even that by famous academics), and richly deserves to be called so openly. It may not be bad because the person doing it is a bad person, it may not be bad for lack of good intention, but it is bad nonetheless. Calling it thus will not save the humanities, nor should it be freighted with that expectation. But when one is brilliantly contemptuous of low quality and poorly designed research that lacks focus and rigor, one is expressing a yearning for something better that may keep the fire burning in the humanities a while longer.

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April 11, 2024

Coloniality, original sin, and progress

 While rather abstract and far-reaching, coloniality as a concept has historical predecessors within both western and non-western thought. There is something about how different human civilizations in different eras in their encounter with "others" along their borders were chauvinistic, violent, disruptive, and disastrously wasteful of human capital and human potential. The will to power of a particular civilization is experienced at its borders as the imposition of unjust and arbitrary punishments.

To myself as a thinker in 2024 examining and reading the works of decolonial philosophers, and looking at the ethical motivations held in common by these thinkers, I think that the terms "coloniality" and "coloniality of being" -the idea that the legacies of Euro-colonialism remain embedded in our consciousness after the end of formal colonialism- were an attempt to puncture liberal western triumphalism by analyzing western history with a repurposed theological concept of "original sin". This brief essay seeks to examine some of the contradictions of that move and the ideas generated by it.

The decolonial philosopher Anibal Quijano coined the concept of coloniality to analyze the postcolonial legacy of western European colonial expansion. As an idea, it sits uneasily between conservative and religious ideas of tradition and the secular idea of progress and universal history, a reflection of the educational background of its most active proponents who were all steeped in western theological and philosophical thought. The decolonial philosophers contribution to the western discourse of universal history took the form of a critique that is also a synthesis of religious and secular ideas. The emergence of the term "coloniality," and its resonance in secular spaces like the academic humanities, show the resilience of the religious idea of original sin, its transformation by a philosophical school of thought into a secular vision of progress, and the contradictions generated thereby.

With coloniality, original sin ceases being universal and becomes the turning back of claims to universalism into a form of negative particularity historically anchored in the last half millenia of human history. Let me "steel man" the critique they make. Whether one agrees with the decolonial scholars or not, it seems vital not to mistake western civilizational hubris and claims of progress for having really transcended essential human nature, notwithstanding the virtues of the refinements in rationality made by western thinkers. Artists of all kind have well portrayed certain types and dilemmas illustrating the folly and hubris of western man in the grip of his illusion of self-mastery through rationality and progress. It is vitally necessary to also recognize the fallenness and baseness of human motivations in the global expansions of peoples at the western end of the Eurasian peninsula since 1492, instead of merely celebrating them as an instantiation of universal human progress. European colonialism might be thought as the expression and legacy of human fallenness, a desire supercharged into a possibility by a punctuated acceleration in different kinds of technological and material progress of that world region.

If coloniality really does pervade our very being down to its core, this yields a rather pessimistic vision of the possibility of progress, more akin to a conservative religious view of humanity's baseness/fallenness/'at a loss'-ness.
One way the decolonial philosophers reassert a positive and progressive worldview, or some kind of redemption from the prison of coloniality, is through the promise of undoing coloniality through decolonial thought. If our essential natures as humans globally are overwhelmingly shaped by western contexts and ideas mostly of recent provenance (last 500 years), then these can be undone by contesting and challenging these ideas.

Many critiques have been launched against these ideas, particularly the misguided focus on Descartes as the epistemological key to western thought. Here I want to note that the whole theory is beset by unresolved questions resulting from the uneasy merging of conservative and progressive ideals. Simplified from the often high-flowing rhetoric of the theorists, this contradiction is evident in the progressive vision of decolonial theory: that human redemption lies in (contradictorily) undoing the epistemic legacy of the last 500 years. Two questions emerge: about the desirability and the possibility of such an undoing.

First to possibility: I do not think the particular version of coloniality in decolonial theory, nor its proposed philosophical remedies are in the last instance plausible, not least because they exaggerate the influence of philosophers in changing the masses. It is simply not possible to undo the epistemic legacy of such a long period of history, no matter how many thought reforms one engages in. Moreover there is something more permanent in our nature that is older than 500 years. If one abandons a sort of modernist/recency bias, it is evident that large parts of our nature (perhaps more?) have been shaped by not only human-created ideologies pre-1500, but also (still poorly understood) pre-linguistic patterns of behavior as a species in interaction with our early environments. These influences shaped the very structure of our brain and body. Many of our most essential contradictions of conscious existence as humans are grounded in these dynamics which it is not possibly to disavow at the level of concept or epistemology.

To desirability: We ought to preserve the essential pessimism and sense of tragedy inherent in coloniality's critical analysis, which contains a form of wisdom linked to the older idea of "original sin", regardless if we accept the underlying history or cosmology behind that older idea. I cannot help but note that our understanding of human behavior patterns in the above areas have been advanced due to the influence of science; it is not desirable to,undo the western contribution to what is now an epistemic legacy of every human society. Human civilization cannot really afford to part with the material and technical tools of western science and the insights they have garnered into the self and the species. To imagine one can do so is the naive and dangerous side of a romanticism, the "anti-progress" dogma opposed to the dogmas of universalism and progress. There is more than a little elitism in the idea. Knowledge of self for the philosopher requires one to maintain an aloofness from either extreme. We do not need a rather neologistic terminological invention, coloniality, to remain aloof from the baseness and status games of western academia. I think the ideas of "original sin" or "creaturely fallenness" or just some basic recognition of human fallibility, baseness, and selfishness are all more vital concepts for philosophy and social change, than coloniality.

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March 20, 2024

Film Review: "Origin" by Ava Duvernay

 I watched Ava Duvernay's "Origin" on a plane. My thoughts would no doubt be better having read the source material book for the movie, but here is my take.

This is a movie in search of a central theme. Its ambition is to tell three intertwined stories, two of them historical and one contemporary. However the two historical stories are very undertold; the main focus is author Isabel Wilkerson's journey to write the bestselling book Caste. It is definitely an unconventional choice to tell a story about the making of the book; I love that Duvernay chose to tell Wilkerson's story. But the short shrift to the other stories is unfortunate since it means that earlier attempts to theorize caste in a US South context are not substantially addressed; though Allison and Elizabeth Davis are portrayed, their intellectual contributions to theorizing caste are not incorporated into the theoretical framework of the film.
The movie is beautifully shot by Duvernay, the lead actor playing Wilkerson, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor brings emotional depth to her role as a writer dealing with the loss of her closest loved ones and embarking on a global exploration of oppression. In spite of the meandering of the narrative, the movie tells an effective story that holds viewers' attention throughout. As a meditation on loss, it is moving in its way. As a film about race and caste, it is deeply flawed in its historical presentation, its comparative framework, and the relentless didacticism of its mistaken conclusions.
The film's main issue seems to be the source material's main issue: it asserts that US Jim Crow racism, the Nazi Holocaust, and caste in India are "all connected" because they are all "caste." However, these connections are not really properly theorized, nor are the significance of these connections to practical action raised except in some general love for each other we all ought to have. nstead, caste is a poetic metaphor for the writer to affirm a radical Enlightenment view of human equality. In place of materialist theorization we are told that caste is omnipresent but invisible, which raises the question of how Wilkerson knows what is and is not caste.
There are attempts to theorize race and caste, but they are very muddled. Caste is defined in an amorphous way, as the phenomenon of placing one group above another in a hierarchy. This doesn't do adequate justice to the distinction within 'caste' between occupational castes (which do not necessarily imply hierarchy) and the spiritual hierarchy of the 'varna' system in India, from which the whole notion of untouchability flows.
Moreover, race seems quite adequate to understanding social hierarchy and social ranking in the US, but Wilkerson's character continually disagrees with her interlocutors who assert this. At one point, a character responds to Wilkerson's presentation of her comparative research, "It's all racism." To which Wilkerson's character responds, "No, it is caste...Why is the same thing happening in India, they're all brown? How is is racist if they're all the same race?" The movie attempts to drive this point home by arguing that in Germany both oppressor and oppressed were of the same race, therefore racism can't explain it.
This is a very contradictory even silly thing to assert if one has read the scholarship on the Holocaust or social dynamics in India. The reality is that both race and caste are categories of practice that have been wrenched into serving as categories of academic analysis, and are thus equally problematic for doing global comparisons.
Wilkerson's assertion on the centrality of caste seems arbitrary. The movie then misses the opportunity to tell viewers why 'caste' is a more explanatory comparative term; we are expected to trust Wilkerson, without being given compelling reasons to adopt the new term. There is an attempt to do this--a discussion of various comparative pillars--on which more shortly.
The film asserts that "the Nazi blueprint for the extermination of millions of people was directly patterned after America's segregation and enslavement of black people", that "America taught the Nazis", and that although the outcomes were different, the function of caste in America and Germany is the same. There is some evidence that Nazis studied US racial dynamics and laws, but the assertion that they needed a pattern to borrow from the US to exterminate the Jews is an exaggeration in the service of the film's American exceptionalism (of the negative kind).
Wilkerson's character then goes to India, where she meets real life Dalit intellectual Suraj Yengde, playing himself. This part bore out the US-centrism of the movie, since Yengde's prominence as an intellectual is almost wholly related to his proximity to US higher education institutions. There is some exploration of the life of the Dalit intellectual and activisit B.R. Ambedkar which is very interesting and welcome. However, the movie misses an obvious contradiction of caste-as-universal-framework in discussing Ambedkar's education: he went to school with upper-caste children in a way that would have never occurred in the Jim Crow South.
Duvernay has Wilkerson's character explore several pillars of comparison, but these pillars reveal the dissimilarity of Jim Crow segregation, Nazi Germany, and caste in India. The first pillar, asserts Wilkerson's character, is control over marriage and mating in the form of endogamy. To me this is a bizarre way to begin. Notwithstanding prohibitions on intermarriage, none of these systems originate primarily to control marriage and mating strategies. Moreover endogamy as an informal institution is fairly widespread in all human communities; not all endogamy is casteist. Finally, while endogamy might apply to Jim Crow segregation, it certainly does not apply to US slavery, which can only be characterized as an institution for protecting endogamy if one ignores the history of the sexual dalliances of the master class with their slaves.
The second pillar is terror, but again one is hard-pressed to understand why race isn't just as applicable a term here, given the centrality of violence to racial hierarchy. The third pillar is purity and pollution. However, this is contradictory because endogamy as a strategy is often based in purity and pollution, making pillar one essentially a sub-pillar of pillar three.
Wilkerson's character asserts that the connective tissue making all three situations (US, Germany, India) caste is 'deference', which again seems to ignore the central role deference plays in racial and class schema.
Indeed, the movie has almost nothing to say about class, which was a central theme in the work of earlier African American scholars who used caste as a category of analysis, like the aforementioned Davis and Oliver C. Cox. Wilkerson is presented regularly hobnobbing with elites who praise her intellect and encourage her to continue writing.
In conclusion, though the aesthetics and emotional tone of the movie are impressive, its substance is not. The concept of caste is rendered definitionally incoherent by its use to connect the three cases. We don't really learn anything about the actual history of US, Germany, and India. Complexity is sacrificed to the simplicity of a single explanatory variable to create an emotionally satisfying framework. And Wilkerson is presented as creating a comparative theory of caste whole-cloth, with short shrift given to previous scholars who tested (and often rejected!) the comparison Wilkerson builds her book around.

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March 4, 2024

Would a return to "indigenous religions" be a progressive move within US society?

 There are a number of people in the US who, discontented with their childhood religious indoctrination as well as the seeming soulless and anti-human character of our technocratic society, imagine if we only could remove Christianity conditioning of our consciousness, we could get back to some primordial pro-human reality in which indigenous spiritual tradition would provide a basis for new human flourishing, removing things like shame, guilt, and other “foreign” ideas.

Notably, a methodology for this recovery is rarely proposed or specified, so it typically takes a very idiosyncratic form and is often draped in a naive nostalgia, uninformed by history.


A scientific way to study the viability of such assertions would be to look at a contemporary society where rejection of Christianity and Islam in favor of some other religion are actually in ascendancy today and study the practical significance of such views. 


India is an ideal case study: the current government’s legitimacy rests on an assertive Hinduism, which is contrasted with foreign ideologies of Christianity and Islam. Elements within government and civil society assert that these foreign ideologies have had Indians in a mental chokehold for millennia and that only a return to a primordial idea of religious coexistence under Hinduism can revitalise society. Essentially the government is advocating a return to what Christians and Muslims would understand as neo-paganism, only this time with modern characteristics.


I really wish more critics of Christianity in the west, especially those in the wellness industry, would pay much closer attention to the practical consequences of the realization of the idea they cherish in Indian society. If they did, I think they would see there that an assertive and victorious non-monotheism has produced as dangerous a fundamentalist reaction as any monotheistic faith, complete with lynching, widespread religious persecution of minorities, and a thorough-going purity culture as virulent as anything produced in Christianity and Islam. One cannot really avoid the conclusion that the assertion and attempted implementation of Hinduism as the indigenous tradition of India has resulted in many of the worst dynamics present in Christian fundamentalism, and even the resurgence of several anti-human dynamics that Christianity as a belief system had attempted to eliminate or reform.


Unfortunately global dynamics militate against westerners developing a more critical understanding. The dynamic of muscular Hinduism in Indian society is obscured by the rebranding of Hinduism in the US as a tolerant New Age belief system, flattering the sensibilities of the many post-Christians and other lost souls who migrate to the wellness industry in search of meaning. Our New Age wellness advisors have fundamentally misdiagnosed the problem. But they are not the only ones misled. Put in terms familiar to decolonial scholars, modern Hinduism exemplifies the "coloniality of power", but absent any of the ideological geneaologies decolonial scholars impute to coloniality's origins. A similar geneaology of power's coloniality could be revealed in many to most non-western religions, suggesting in turn that decolonial scholars have fundamentally misread the historical situation, and that coloniality is not a historically specific situation but a perennial human dynamic inherent to our attempts to build social groups and create collective meaning. It might also be said to be an artifact of the development of consciousness in our species, inherent in our evolutionary descent from our nearest non-human ancestors.  This is something our decolonial scholars could profitably examine, if they were able to break from the romantic mental shackles imposed by the idea of 1492 and Descartes "cogito ergo sum" as epistemological ruptures producing the ideology of coloniality.


My personal belief is that most such projects of ideological “return”, not only Hinduism, are doomed to produce these types of dystopian outcomes. I believe the way is not to return to a past that only exists as an imaginary construct, but to look boldly forward and define the customs and values worth preserving from our various traditions and try to live by them. Tolerance will play a huge role here. However I will die on the hill that there is nothing inherently tolerant or utopian about pre-monotheistic traditions; their appeal to ex-Christians in the west says more about the psycho-dynamics of romanticism in our secular US society than it does about the practical consequences of reanimating the ethics of those belief systems. I think the decolonial turn is the academic version of these psycho-dynamics. We need a much more sophisticated approach.

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February 21, 2024

Review of Azad Essa, Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel

 Azad Essa has written a book critical for understanding recent right wing developments in India and Israel. Essa's book draws on, and is enriched by, reporting on the ground from multiple contexts, going back over the last decade. Hostile Homelands reviews nearly nine decades of history that begins with both countries under British rule and ends with the ascendance of right wing, religiously conservative, and xenophobic political parties to governance in both countries. Along the way Essa provides necessary historical context on the evolution of India-Israel relations: the way Indian leadership resolved its statements on Palestine with increasing interest in diplomatic rapprochement with Israel, how New Delhi used the war on terror as justification for labeling all internal dissenters to its militarizing policy in Kashmir as terrorists, how the election of Modi emboldened the Indian right wing, and how Modi's administration has extended its influence into diaspora. Essa explores the evolution of Hindutva, and its tangle of organizations as well as their diaspora arms, thus linking the issue of Israeli and India relations to their increasing influence on U.S. 'soft power'.

The book's ambition is to weave together a comparative narrative of accelerating relations with a particular emphasis on military and weapon sales between the two nations, alongside chapters exploring Hindutva and Zionism as ideologies of exclusionary ethnic nationalism. The stakes of the ambition to compare state relations and ideology shines through very clearly in a chapter on Kashmir, which compares its struggle not only to Palestine, but also to the Chinese state crackdown in Xinjiang on the Uighur population, as well as Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. The war on terror had the negative effect of causing the misrepresentation of nationalist demands made by Muslims as a form of Islamic extremism. 

At a moment when Biden is under heavy pressure from younger Democratic leaning voters to change U.S. policy towards Israel, particularly the disproportionate amount of military aid given towards its war in Gaza, Essa shows the historical background of Israeli and Indian militarization. These questions are particularly acute in both democracies, reflecting the fragility of the democratic idea of consensus in an international order still ruled by the de facto law of power and force.

Both India and the US will hold elections this year, and if Israel held elections, it is likely Netanyahu's government would fall, a not inconsiderable factor in the conduct of the war. The possibility of a second Trump term looms, as both India and Israel have been increasingly emboldened to conduct war near and far--Israel through an illegal bombing campaign, and India through targeted assassination of an Indian citizen in Canada. India has become the most populous nation in the world (In this way, Israel is very dissimilar to India), recently sent an expedition to the moon, and recently recorded fantastic levels of economic growth.  It has nuclear weapons (as does Israel). Its government increasingly understands itself as a global superpower. 

Another fascinating dimensions of the book is the way it portrays the 'roads not taken' in international statehood. On the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, India opposed the partition of the region between Arab and Jewish national interests and advocated a federal solution. Assuming for a moment that this road had been taken in the 1940s, would the resulting state still be anxiously dominated by a right wing Jewish voting bloc? Could there have been an alliance between progressive parties in both camps that could have aided the integration of newcomers without leading to violent displacement?

I will leave it to those more familiar with Indian politics than I to comment on the practical questions raised by the book on that topic. For me, the book raised the crucial issue of what a federal solution means currently to the issue in Palestine and Israel. This is an urgent issue for global stability, security, and peace, as well as being relevant first to the Palestinians (who have never had a state inclusive of them in their modern history) as well as to the existential identity of the Israeli state.





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February 16, 2024

Why read Zanzibar Was A Country?

Why should you as an English language reader from the United States (as a large portion of my friend circle is) choose to read a long(-ish) non-fiction book about two small islands off the coast of East Africa?

In truth, this book was written primarily for Zanzibaris, wherever they may find themselves. In particular, it is for a diasporic Zanzibari community--East African-born Swahili-speakers in Oman, with whom I did oral histories during a Fulbright fellowship in 2012-2013.
Second, the book is written for East African Muslims more generally. My hope is it might assist them in thinking about their historic relations with Indian Ocean states, religious and cultural pluralism, and comparative approaches to integration and dialogue within the civic arenas of those countries.
Third, historians may be interested in the book as a new historical synthesis of modern Zanzibar history, written emphasizing the interdependence of material and ideological factors and focusing specifically on the transnational, diasporic, and extraterritorial dimensions of Zanzibar nationality.
So what about the average reader then? Well, in essence, my approach has been to weave real life stories of escape, covert travel, border crossings, detainment, and dilemmas of separation, into the narrative. These stories are extremely compelling in their own right, though I have had to anonymize a number of them. I treat the subjective dimensions of experience of my interviewees as evidence for several interwoven theses about historical change in the littoral societies of the western Indian Ocean:
1. There was a notable economic divergence between East Africa and the Gulf between 1950 and 1970 which drastically shifted patterns of migration between the two regions.
2. The migrations out of Zanzibar after the 1964 revolution are connected to this divergence and reflect its growing practical effects: the movement of littoral communities, especially those of Arab descent, to the Gulf.
3. Zanzibar nationalism has had an extraterritorial dimension in the modern era, which is also connected to the deeper history of Oman in East Africa.

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January 21, 2024

Zanzibar Was a Country (UC Press, 2024)

 My book comes out with University of California Press April 9, 2024.

"Zanzibar Was a Country explores the transregional impact of the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 through the historical memory of its exiles. Thousands of former citizens of Zanzibar and their offspring live in Oman and are a significant contemporary example of an Arab community that maintains a living connection to Africa in diaspora. These “Zanzibaris” (as they are often known in Oman) speak Swahili, sustain community originally formed in Africa, and continue to remember Zanzibar’s history as an independent country. Drawing on their life histories, their historiography of Zanzibar, and the archival traces of their migrations, Nathaniel Mathews demonstrates how these exiles were important to nation‑building and economic development in Oman."

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January 9, 2024

On modern tactics of popular protest since the 1960s

 Andre 3000 had it right, "The game changes everyday so obsolete is the fist and marches. Speeches only reaches those who already know about it..."

Popular protest tactics in the US are still stuck in a 1960s hangover and suffering from a deficit of Alinsky-style strategic tactical thinking. Despite the diminishing returns of street actions in terms of real political gains, there is resistance to investigating the effectiveness of actions like blocking traffic, chanting slogans, pulling down statues, carrying signs, etc and instead pivoting to "well, at least we're doing something!" In part this is symptomatic of a broader multi-generational shift in the US, a wholesale erosion of civic institutions and the growth of hyper-individualism. There are fewer and fewer places where new tactics and strategies of civil disobedience might be born out of everyday community reflection. Instead protest has become something primarily confessional in nature, something one does to make oneself feel less complicit in injustice as an individual.
The question is what to do in this dismal interregnum and my answer would be to take the long view and try to preserve and renew existing bulwarks of community while building new spaces for people of different generations and backgrounds to come together in real life.

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July 26, 2023

short note on the 'coloniality of power' thesis

The scholar Anibal Quijano defined "coloniality of power" as a new way of organizing reality produced by European colonial expansion from the late 1400s.

 I understand the impulse behind it, it is a potent metaphor, and it does offer a few useful insights, but I differ from the decolonial theorists in that I do not consider 'coloniality of power' to have much coherence as a concept, much less to be the sin qua non of 'modernity'. The way it is phrased and used, it is as if violent coercion was invented in 1492, as if before that time, humans were acting and being in ways that eschewed civilizing projects, violent conquest, and permanent antagonism. You have to ignore large swaths of earlier history in order to sustain this idealistic view. Moreover it would seem to also commit one to the view that this mode of power has not fundamentally changed since that time, and that we are still living in it. I find that view a-historical. 

In the end, I find the idea of coloniality of power extremely Eurocentric, as if somehow Europe invented a new way to be powerful in the colonial Americas that was distinct from the absolute mess humans had been making of that endeavor since the dawn of complex societies.

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January 5, 2023

the diminishing returns of liberal anti-racism

 The concept of anti-racism has a much more limited utility than might be suggested by the place it holds today in US liberal discourse. These days it has become something of a moral status game for elites and a lucrative capital accumulation lane for some. I have become increasingly convinced of the inefficacy of many-to-most current approaches. 

One of the major contradictions of anti-racism pedagogy is that on the one hand it is posited that x individual is racist by virtue of their membership in a “dominant” group that “actively benefits” from racism, and on the other hand, the trainings often make asks of that same person to bear the burden of “actively dismantling” the system. If we step back we can see that not only is the term “dismantle” being used in a vague metaphorical manner, but there is a huge contradiction therein: people who actually are oppressors do not dismantle things they actively benefit from. Asking an individual to dismantle that which the group benefits from is thus an impossible (not to mention impossibly vague) “ask”, unless specific policies and laws are actually at stake. Not only that but no “dominated” group ever got free trying to convince the “sympathetic” oppressors to voluntarily dismantle oppression by changing themselves or altering the language they use. The civil rights movement was primarily about enforcing laws in a rights-based society, not moral suasion. Frederick Douglass had it right: Power concedes nothing without a demand. 

Anti-racism is effective in a limited set of circumstances: when it can hold a mirror to an individual to show how the “active benefit” they imagine they receive from racism is really an illusion, how it has damaged them spiritually, and how it is in their own self interest to change. Beyond that it is not really worth it (for trainers or participants) to engage in long secular struggle sessions with people to get them to admit their “hidden” racism, or to “perfect” the language they use to discuss these things. Most of that energy ought to be placed into 1) enforcing and protecting the civil rights laws made since the 1950s (which have been and are being eroded by right wing power within the judicial system) and 2) building real economic and political power within groups whose primary obstacle to success remains lack of power. 


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