Whiteshift — and Randolph Bourne

Fenster writes:

Eric Kaufmann’s book Whiteshift has gotten a lot of attention, and generally positive reviews.

This is the century of whiteshift. As Western societies are becoming increasingly mixed-race, demographic change is transforming politics. Over half of American babies are non-white, and by the end of the century, minorities and those of mixed race are projected to form the majority in the UK and other countries. The early stages of this transformation have led to a populist disruption, tearing a path through the usual politics of left and right. Ethnic transformation will continue, but conservative whites are unlikely to exit quietly; their feelings of alienation are already redrawing political lines and convulsing societies across the West. One of the most crucial challenges of our time is to enable conservatives as well as cosmopolitans to view whiteshift as a positive development.

In this groundbreaking book, political scientist Eric Kaufmann examines the evidence to explore ethnic change in North American and Western Europe.

The positive reviews are in some ways surprising since Kaufmann is willing to address some taboo subjects in ways that are ordinarily frowned on.  For instance, he argues that the idea of white identity can be defended. Or . . . that it is not to be scorned.  Or . . . that it should be taken seriously.  Or . . . at least that it might not be prudent to dismiss it out of hand.  Something like that.  It is not a criticism of the book to say that it eschews the polemical, and is not easily reducible to simple good/bad arguments.

Steve Sailer often points out that while diminishing marginal returns is an important insight from economics it is a poor fit with a human cognitive style that seeks out black and white answers.  And so if Kaufmann’s book lacks something in terms of being easy to summarize it has a lot going for it relative to nuance and insight.  If you want to understand complex things it is wise to be open to complexity and ambiguity, and Kaufmann is.

In a generally positive review at Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen writes:

On top of all of its other virtues, Whiteshift provides the best intellectual history of the immigration debates I have seen.

I agree.  At around 500 pages getting through the thing is a bit of a slog, especially since nuance does not go down as easily as polemics.  But the section at the early part of the book dealing with the roots of identity politics, diversity and multiculturalism is really splendid.

Kaufmann traces the complex interwoven by-play between ideas and interests for most of the country’s history.  Sometimes the promotion of immigration is crass from the get-go and reprobate to boot, as with Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest’s support of Chinese immigration as a way of keeping the black man down.  But memes play tag with actions as ideas play hide-and-seek with interests, and you can follow how high minded concepts also get stuck to the immigration idea.  It is not a one-dimensional story.

It is good to grasp the elusive idea-games since they serve as a reminder that today’s seemingly hard doctrines have odd and contradictory roots.

To me, the most interesting aspect of our recent history on the issue relates to Randolph Bourne, and to the brief period between 1910-1920 when his ideas gained currency.

Bourne’s essay Trans-National America, which appeared in the Atlantic in 1916, is eerily in line with modern day identity politics thinking.  We may think our recent harder edged identity politics flowed from softer concepts of multiculturalism in the 1990’s and from the openness that accompanied the semi-Great Awakening of the Sixties.  But here it is, in undiluted form, in 1916.

No reverberatory effect of the great war has caused American public opinion more solicitude than the failure of the “melting-pot.” The discovery of diverse nationalistic feelings among our great alien population his come to most people as an intense shock. It has brought out the unpleasant inconsistencies of our traditional beliefs. . . .

Assimilation, in other words, instead of washing out the memories of Europe, made them more and more intensely real. Just as these clusters became more and more objectively American, did they become more and more German or Scandinavian or Bohemian or Polish. . .

We are all foreign-born or the descendants of foreign-born, and if distinctions are to be made between us they should rightly be on some other ground than indigenousness. The early colonists came over with motives no less colonial than the later. They did not come to be assimilated in an American melting-pot. They did not come to adopt the culture of the American Indian. They had not the smallest intention of “giving themselves without reservation” to the new country. They came to get freedom to live as they wanted.

But that does not mean we are all equal in the fashioning of a vast new tapestry.  No, there remains a special White Man’s Burden.

It is just this English-American conservatism that has been our chief obstacle to social advance. We have needed the new peoples–the order of the German and Scandinavian, the turbulence of the Slav and Hun–to save us from our own stagnation.. .

If freedom means the right to do pretty much as one pleases, so long as one does not interfere with others, the immigrant has found freedom, and the ruling element has been singularly liberal in its treatment of the invading hordes. But if freedom means a democratic cooperation in determining the ideals and purposes and industrial and social institutions of a country, then the immigrant has not been free, and the Anglo-Saxon element is guilty of just what every dominant race is guilty of in every European country: the imposition of its own culture upon the minority peoples.

States with high immigrant populations are vibrant while the remnants of Anglo-Saxon culture are backwaters.  Diversity is good.

What we emphatically do not want is that these distinctive qualities should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity. Already we have far too much of this insipidity, masses of people who are cultural half-breeds, neither assimilated Anglo-Saxons nor nationals of another culture. Each national colony in this country seems to retain in its foreign press, its vernacular literature, its schools, its intellectual and patriotic leaders, a central cultural nucleus. From this nucleus the colony extends out by imperceptible gradations to a fringe where national characteristics are all but lost. Our cities are filled with these half-breeds who retain their foreign names but have lost the foreign savor. This does not mean that they have actually been changed into New Englanders or Middle Westerners. It does not mean that they have been really Americanized. It means that, letting slip from them whatever native culture they had, they have substituted for it only the most rudimentary American –the American culture of the cheap newspaper, the “movies,” the popular song, the ubiquitous automobile. The unthinking who survey this class call them assimilated, Americanized.

Something new is being born.

Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, it is certain to become something utterly different from the nationalisms of twentieth-century Europe. . .

America is already the world-federation in miniature, the continent where for the first time in history has been achieved that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun.

The role of the Anglo-Saxon here is a special one.  They are both dominant and enervated, and thus must lead by deferring.  Kaufmann speaks of Bourne’s reliance in turn on a kind of double consciousness, something that leads to the double standard prevalent today: other cultures may embrace their particularity but whites, singularly, may not.  It is worth noting that that notion, obvious to some but odd to others, came from a particular historical moment, one that might need to be checked against current realities for contemporary fit.

It is worth noting, too, the odd timing of Bourne’s expressive view.  The article was published in 1916, just before America’s decision to turn off the immigration spigot.  That might be seen as ironic but all irony disappears under the microscope.  In fact, it makes perfect sense that Bourne’s aesthetic vision would have flowered as immigration was at its high point, at a point of maximum ripeness.  Here, we see a pattern that is not uncommon in the by-play between memes and actions in history: we express something most forcefully and articulately just as its moment is passing.

Keep that thought in mind in terms of contemporary relevance.  Everyone is all hot and bothered about immigration, and the topic is at a theological fever pitch.  But while ideas can do 180s events seldom turn on a dime, a dollar, or a million dollars.  What seems to have happened, after all of Bourne’s sturm-und-drang, is that the nation . . . took a time out.

By the mid-1960s we did the opposite: endorsed a major change to immigration policy by backing into it, telling ourselves it would be a modest thing.  Funny how that works.

And so another half century later we find ourselves . . .  where?

It could well be that we are back in 1916, or at least as close to that place as the rhyming of history will allow.  If so once again we may find the ripest of rhetoric presaging neither a multicultural dream state nor a fascist crackdown on the Other.  It may just be time to turn the spigot down.



About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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