Thursday, February 2, 2017

Tolerance, acceptance, enrichment… once again

Dear Dr. Hage,
I'm an assistant professor in the department of political science at Simmons College (in Boston, Massachusetts) and a longtime admirer of your work. As a graduate student in the early 2000s, White Nation was a badly-needed intellectual and political wakeup call. I teach the book regularly in my courses on race and contemporary political theory. 

Provoked in part by the nightmarish reality of US politics at the moment, and, in particular, the experience of attending a rally yesterday to protest Trump's Muslim ban, I'm hoping you might have a moment to share some insights. I was unsurprised to observe at the rally much "good white nationalist" discourse. Many white people held signs proclaiming that Muslims "are welcome here"; "This is your home too"; "I love my Muslim neighbors"... that sort of thing. One question that came to mind is: what happens when the fantasy of the white nation becomes the reality of the white state? In other words, do the operations of power behind the white assertion that non-white people are "welcome" shift at all when even the perfunctory multiculturalist message of the state is gone? Or alternatively, are these messages of welcome badly needed when political conditions are such that the white fantasy of control is rapidly becoming the founding principle of the new proto-fascist regime? I guess I'm wondering if, in your view, the argument in WN holds even in contexts when the disingenuous, but formal multicultural messaging of the state gives way to white supremacy altogether. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope to meet you in person one day.

Lena Zuckerwise

Dear Lena,
Thank you for your mail and for the very pertinent question that you raise. It is actually something I am very much thinking about at the moment and somehow, the way you have formulated the problem, has been very helpful to me. I'd like to try to write and publish my reply to it on my blog. I would also like to include your email if you have no objection.

Although part of White Nation was written and published following the rise of Pauline Hanson and during the Prime Ministership of John Howard, an era which represented the beginning of a conservative attack on multiculturalism and its institutions, what is perhaps the core critical moment of the book, the attack on the conceptual structure of white multiculturalism (the tolerance, acceptance, valorization of the other triumvirate) was a critique formulated during the Hawke and the Keating era which represented the height of the multicultural era: when the state moves from thinking of multiculturalism as something that one does, on the side as it were, to centering it as a core feature of the Australian identity. In some ways, White Nation’s critique of white governmental multiculturalism took this high ground for granted and aimed at pushing it towards a more radical future, a kind of ‘we can’t stop here, we ought to aim higher’ type of critique. Unfortunately, this critique was ambushed by reality which moved ‘lower’ rather than ‘higher’ as it were and it soon became a struggle to even maintain the multiculturalism we had, let alone improve on it.

What is important for the question raised above is that this high point of white governmental multiculturalism is the point where tolerance, acceptance and valorization finish moving from being reactive anti-racist moments against what was seen as institutionalized racism (lack of tolerance, lack of acceptance and devalorization of the other) to becoming institutionalized and, importantly, ossified, governmental structures themselves. I don’t think tolerance-acceptance-valorization is the only ideological formation that is radical when deployed oppositionally but loses its radicalism when it becomes an institutionalized governmental structure. My argument then was that it is ok to say ‘long live hospitality to the stranger’ when there is institutionalized lack of hospitality. But hospitality still carried within it the seeds of a power structure between the welcoming and the welcomed subject. And while it is ok to deploy it in opposition to lack of hospitality, it is not ok to institutionalize it as the reality one is aiming for. This is especially so when the structural relation between the welcoming and the welcomed subject articulates itself to the racial/colonial structure such that the welcoming subject is always white and the welcomed subject is always a third-world-looking person.

I guess what we have today is the same situation. While from the very premise of White Nation it would be wrong to assume that today we have a regime of white fantasy while earlier we didn’t, nonetheless, the difference is clearly important. A regime of White restoration is in power: a regime aimed at re-valorizing the cultural capital derived out of the mere possession of whiteness (whether it will succeed or not is a different question –  personally I don’t think it will). It is re-introducing a politics of lack of hospitality (non-acceptance), lack of tolerance and devalorization of the third world looking other.  So, we are seeing the bad white nationalists gain power and the good white nationalist discourse re-emerge again as part of the language of opposition, as you point out: ‘Muslims are welcome’ etc…

It seems to me that we have to do the same all over again. We cannot be overcritical of the good white nationalist’s ‘you are welcome’ in so far as it is opposed to the ‘you are not welcome’ but we have to continue to be critical of it as a final fantasy of society: we don’t want to go back to a situation where people think that the best we can get to is a society of tolerant White ‘welcomers’ who think that the third world looking other is valuable and ‘enriching’.  Already, the sight of all these third world looking American immigrant ‘spokespeople’ trying to valorize their community in the face of the bad white nationalists is quite demeaning. Looking at how they try to pump up the value of their communal capital by listing how many doctors, lawyers etc… have come out of them is particularly sad for those of us who have seen this happen and have criticized it again and again. How to avoid this repetition is an urgent task.

At the same time, nothing ever repeats itself completely. It is easier to recognize what is repeating itself because we have the intellectual means of perceiving it. There is still the task of recognizing and processing what is new and that is perhaps the hardest of the forms of intellectual labor facing us.

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