Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Trouble with Separatism

The other issue I meant to write about yesterday was racial (and other) separatism, but I figured that post was long enough already.

One major item on the Nation of Islam's wishlist was a black-only state, possibly a state within the US to be handed over exclusively to the Black Man. As this idea recurred in Marable's account, I began wondering what it would have helped. In a racist country -- as the United States is, and was even more in the early days of the Nation -- a black-only state would have been isolated economically from outside. Would the Interstate Highway System have included the black state? I didn't quite figure out whether Elijah Muhammad had in mind an independent, sovereign nation, which would have been even more isolated. Even if the new black nation wasn't landlocked, its larger, richer, vastly more powerful white neighbor would have kept it under strict surveillance.

White racists would have been quite happy with such a situation. While black self-sufficiency was also a plank of the Nation's platform, self-sufficiency is largely an illusion. I imagine at least some traffic in "guest workers" from the black nation to the white, to maintain a basement for white workers' wages and working conditions. (Sound familiar?) It would also bring some income to the black nation. If we're talking about simply a black state within the Union, the permeability of the border would be even greater. No doubt there would also be frequent "incidents" at the frontier, blamed by each side on the other.

One of the selling points of this vision was that blacks would treat one another well in their own state or nation, and be able to live proudly by contrast to their lives in a white supremacist state. By comparison, maybe so. But Elijah Muhammad doesn't seem to have had much interest in democracy for blacks. He ran the Nation of Islam as his own personal fief, from the top down. Discipline was maintained by the paramilitary Fruit of Islam, with corporal punishment the norm. But I suppose it's less bothersome to be thrown down the stairs or beaten within an inch of your life by Your Own. No doubt the Bonus Marchers, white World War I veterans trampled by police horses and shot down in the streets by white soldiers, would have agreed.

Leave aside the question of intraracial conflict and oppression, though. I kept wondering about travel to and from the black state or nation. Would blacks be under an outright ban everywhere else in the US under this arrangement, and would whites be utterly excluded from the black state? (And what about people of "mixed race"? Malcolm X himself was light-skinned, and harped in his Autobiography on the blood of the "devil" he carried. Should he have been allowed into the Promised Land?) Would having a black state justify the other forty-nine's being all white? That wouldn't have been the result in any case: if all African-Americans magically disappeared overnight, the growing Latino minority would still be giving white racists the megrims, along with Asians and the traditional Irish, Italians, and Jews. One of the notable things about these kinds of exclusions is that they are ultimately a game of Musical Chairs: get rid of the blacks, and the remainder would still be divided against itself, as it had been throughout American history. It would then be necessary to expel one more group after another, until the Anglo-Saxons were driven back across the ocean. But in that case, shouldn't the entire human species return to Africa?

This is why the quest for separation makes no sense to me. The Nation of Islam, as far as I could tell, agreed that it was legitimate for people to reject those whom they defined as different from themselves, and to try to drive them out. Certainly this was a very American sentiment. But if one accepts the necessity of racially uniform states, it's longer valid to condemn whites for their racism: on this construction they are simply conforming to human nature, black no less than white. Yet no society, no country, is really uniform, and every society manages to deal with some differences. It's not clear to me what determines the threshold at which difference starts to matter; it varies within the same society from time to time under different conditions.

The same consideration applies to Israel, many of whose apologists postulate the universality and inevitability of anti-Semitism and claim that Jews, no less than Christians, are entitled to their own homeland, But Christians don't have their own homeland, and aren't entitled to one. The history of Christianity is marked by the same infighting between sects: Which Christianity? Were Catholics right to try to purge Protestants, Lutherans to burn Anabaptists, Anglicans to disenfranchise Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and other dissenters? Aren't Christians entitled to a homeland free of heretics? The Zionist claim only makes sense on the assumption that they are; but remove the Jews and Christians will be at each other's throats, and in their new homeland Jews will be divided among themselves. If Zionists want to argue that religious or racial uniformity is legitimate, then anti-Semitism (along with every other form of bigotry) ceases to be illegitimate. It's striking that Zionism should have borrowed the assumptions of racism and religious bigotry as justifications for its own national project. At a time in history when bigotry was under attack and pluralism became a desirable principle, Zionism came down on the side of the racists. (See, for example, Paul Breines's Tough Jews.) The black nationalism of the Nation of Islam seems to have come from the same sources.

The evolution of gay identity politics has exhibited the same contradictions. The mainstream of gay politics in the US has adopted a quasi-ethnic model, sometimes merely from expediency but also from conviction. This connects to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's universalizing vs. minoritizing schema: are homosexuals a discrete, even racially distinct human subgroup, or are we more like a religion, a potential for conversion that exists in every person? The minoritizing, quasi-ethnic model would seem to imply that we are cuckoos in the heterosexual nest, who must come out and rejoin our original group; yet the minoritizing gay movement also is assimilationist, embracing reactionary notions of family and social acceptability. The anti-assimilationists often share the biological model of homosexuality as a genetic difference, but (maybe more consistently) stress that it makes us different, invoking Jungian mysticism and notions of inherent gay culture. Given Jung's racial and racist mysticism, we come full circle. Harry Hay reportedly used to say that gay boys "smell wrong" to our fathers, which is why they reject us. Well, if we're biologically different, and if it's natural to shut out what is different, why shouldn't they reject us? Again, the differences between the assimilationists and the anti-assimilationists look less important to me than their similarity.

I don't really have a conclusion here. I wanted to highlight the contradictions that make it impossible, in my view, to follow these theories of racial / religious / erotic difference to any logical end. But as a Darwinian, I don't assume that underneath it all, human beings must have evolved to be able to come together despite our differences. There's no reason to believe so. It may be that we are driven by powerful, conflicting impulses towards inclusion and exclusion that can't be resolved. But it seems clear to me that these impulses produce division in any human group, no matter how uniform it may seem at first. For that reason, separatism won't work. We have two main choices: either to privilege separation, which ends in smaller and smaller warring communities, or to work toward connection and inclusion -- not to believe we're all the same, but to recognize what we have in common. I think it is possible through education and conscious social engagement to get people to embrace difference and incorporate more of it in any group, but it will always be a dynamic, ongoing process, never to be finally settled. Still, I'd rather proceed on the presumption that it can be managed, and that engagement with difference is both workable and satisfying.