I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous—from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. —Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies
The equal opportunity movement of modern times is valuable, but the shift from equal opportunity to affirmative action is practically irresistible for people who are impatient to better the lot of their fellows. The shift may appear to be modest, but it has converted the equal opportunity and anti-racist movement into a vehicle of racism, intolerance, division and destruction.
I suggest that some aspects of Plato’s thought have poisoned the well of Western thought, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement can be seen as one of the consequences. How do we get from the works of the greatest philosopher of all time, the Divine Philosopher, to a movement that has triggered a deadly rampage of looting and arson with almost overwhelming approval among progressive left-wing people around the world?
This essay appears in June’s Quadrant.
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Western philosophy has been described as footnotes to Plato, and among the footnotes is The Open Society and Its Enemies, with Karl Popper’s critique of Plato’s later works, especially Republic and Laws. Popper found at last four elements of totalitarian thought in Plato. First is “racialism”, or “race thinking” as Jacques Barzun called it. Second is the concept of collective justice that Plato proposed to replace individual justice. Third is revolutionary canvas-cleaning to sweep away everything old and start again. Fourth is fake news, which Plato dignified with the title of noble lies.
Starting with the last of the four, a noble lie can be defined as a myth or untruth knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda.
What is the empirical basis for BLM, the evidence that the deaths of blacks at the hands of the police are symptoms of racism?
In 2016, when BLM was two years old, Heather Mac Donald collated the official statistics in order to compare the homicide rates for blacks, whites and Hispanics. She found that blacks were being killed at six times the rates for whites and Hispanics. In Los Angeles blacks between the ages of twenty and twenty-four were dying at a rate that was twenty to thirty times the national average. That is an alarming disparity and it is very important to realise that it was a function of the black crime rate because blacks themselves were committing homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined and eleven times the rate of whites alone.
Overwhelmingly blacks were being killed by other blacks, not by the police. Only 4 per cent of black homicide victims were killed by police, compared with 12 per cent of all white homicide victims. On that basis Mac Donald suggested that a more appropriate slogan to raise concern about police killings would be “White and Hispanic Lives Matter”.
The point is that the “news” about systematic bias towards blacks, based on the statistics of black deaths, is fake. It has been transformed into a Noble Lie in the supposedly worthy cause of anti-racism.
Mac Donald explained that the main effect of the movement, two years on, was to reverse the decline in violent crime that had been achieved in some cities by innovations in evidence-based law enforcement, including rapid responses to incidents in problem areas and proactive strategies to defuse potentially dangerous situations. Violent crime spiked upwards, especially in cities with large black populations like Baltimore, Nashville and Chicago. She called this the “Ferguson effect” after Ferguson in Missouri, where the BLM movement started after police shot a black teenager. No charges were laid and this triggered weeks of protest across the country. After five months of re-examination of witness statements, forensic reports and other evidence, the Justice Department concluded that the officer fired in self-defence.
Last year the “George Floyd effect” went worldwide. The George Floyd case is supposed to be a paradigm of systemic racism expressed by white police killing blacks. The symbolism is powerful, especially when it is taken up by the mainstream media and social media as well, but at bottom it is a gross distortion of the bigger picture. Violent crime is rampant in some black communities, and police (black and white alike) have the thankless task of dealing with desperately dangerous situations.
Would the destructive and divisive activities of BLM be vindicated if there are genuine cases of racist crimes by white police? No doubt there are. If white police murder people, black or white, armed or unarmed, they need to face the full force of the law, with due process.
But the cases of black deaths that we know about do not even start to establish a case for systemic racism. The cases that we know about where white police kill blacks in dubious circumstances are rare. If they were not rare we would be told a lot more about them by BLM and its supporters and apologists. Some of the cases of unarmed black deaths at the hands of white police are tendentious in the extreme if you want to make a case for white racism. Consider the case of a black man who almost killed a police officer by running him down in a car before he was shot to protect the officer; the case of a black man who was killed after he kicked a policeman unconscious and turned on another officer; the case of a man wanted on firearms offences who took refuge in a building and threatened to blast the police to hell. When he ran out and charged the police he was shot because it was not immediately apparent if he was armed or not. Police have to be prepared to shoot criminals who are attacking them with knives because stabbing can be fatal, and police often have to make very quick decisions in desperate situations.
Taking up the first theme on the list, this is not to suggest that reading the Republic was the immediate inspiration for the protesters in the streets. We will get to that by way of Jacques Barzun.
Popper described what he called “racialism” in Plato’s plan for a stratified society ruled by an elite group of philosopher kings. The rulers are essentially a master race, and it was vital to maintain the purity of the race by selective breeding. “To this end, it is important that the master class should feel as one superior master race.”
The idea of a pure race of rulers combined with other ideas like the myth of the chosen people to produce the concept of the Aryan master race that underpinned the Nazi program of genocide and the thousand-year Reich. That is the best-known example of the pathological consequences of the “master race” meme, but it is much more widespread, as Barzun explained in The French Race (1932) and Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937).
He proposed that one of the inflammatory and divisive factors leading up to the French Revolution was a protracted dispute in France over the “race” of the nobility versus the bourgeoisie. Having identified the phenomenon that he called “race thinking” in that context he went on to argue that this way of thinking is a pervasive factor in the struggles between nations, political parties, religious faiths and social groups. For Barzun “race thinking” is one of the ways to justify collective hostility and it is most dangerous and powerful when it operates in partnership with other motives such as the nationalism of the Nazis and the socialism of the communists.
Another factor in the mix is “the landmine in Western thought” articulated by Paul Craig Roberts:
The 18th century Enlightenment had two results that combined to produce a destructive formula. On the one hand, Christian moral fervor was secularised, which produced demands for the moral perfectibility of society. On the other hand, modern science called into question the reality of moral motives.
These two tendencies might appear to be contradictory but they have not balanced each other. The first drives demands for the immediate and comprehensive rectification of all the forms of injustice and inequality which are attributed to our traditional mores and the institutions of democratic capitalism. The other undermines any defence that might be offered for those mores and institutions. The result is an explosive mixture of moral indignation and moral relativism or scepticism.
Barzun continued his appraisal of the situation in the United States in the 1960s, saying, “We should not be misled by the clamour and the wailing. It is our success that has caused it.” An example of success was the marked narrowing of the differential between white and Afro-American wages through the 1940s and the 1950s, before legislation for affirmative action. But a degree of success was not enough for the coercive utopians and they discovered the power of discovering social crises, even if the situation was improving, such as teenage pregnancy, poverty and the murder rate.
Thomas Sowell’s international study of affirmative action, Preferential Policies (1990), described the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of preference policies and the pattern of events which he found around the world. Generally the demand for preferential policies came from well-educated, “new class” members of supposedly disadvantaged groups. The same people also become the main beneficiaries of preference policies, which tend to further disadvantage most of their brethren. This was demonstrated in Malaysia, where the gap between rich and poor Malays widened in the wake of preference policies for ethnic Malays. One of the advocates of the program even admitted that this was the case but claimed that Malays prefer to be exploited by their own kind.
Collective justice, that is, justice for groups rather than individuals, is another Platonic theme in the mix. This fits neatly with racist thinking as Barzun described it: “thinking of human groups without the vivid sense that groups consist of individuals and that individuals display the full range of human differences”.
Traditional or individualistic justice, as described by Popper in his critique of Plato, “calls for equal treatment of the citizens before the law, provided, of course, that the laws show neither favour nor disfavour towards individual citizens or groups or classes”. There are three main demands or proposals, namely (a) the proposal to eliminate “natural privileges” (no special classes), (b) justice applies to individuals rather than groups and (c) a major function of the state is to protect the freedom of the citizens.
This means that individuals should be treated according to their personal characteristics such as their fitness and qualifications for particular tasks, and the quality of their performance. As long as the qualities required for the tasks are not race-related there is no need to make race an issue. Barzun warned that if race is made an issue in any process of selection or evaluation of people then “race thinking” will continue and will generate muddled thinking and inappropriate actions with potentially dangerous unintended consequences.
In 1965 Barzun’s book on race was reprinted with a new preface, “Racism Today”, to take account of the civil rights movement at the time. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Barzun wrote that giving up race thinking means equal opportunity but not affirmative action. He pointed out that because there are no positive or negative traits that are race-related it follows that “sentimental or indignant reversals of the racist proposition are false and dangerous … Race thinking is bad thinking and that is all.” On affirmative action, he wrote:
When injustice is redressed, the hitherto outcast and maligned group must not benefit in reverse from the racism they justly complained of. They do not suddenly possess, as a group, the virtues they were previously denied, and it is no sign of wisdom in the former oppressors to affect a contrite preference for those they once abused.
He recalled a report from a Fulbright scholar in Paris who witnessed a memorable celebration in the Latin Quarter in which a contingent of white writers and artists led by black writers and accompanied by French and American students ceremonially burned the white race in effigy! He regarded that as an emblem of suicide by both parties because inverting the racial hierarchy leaves race thinking intact and probably even stronger than before because it is sanctified by the self-righteous sense of correcting a great injustice.
That is the mood that has been engendered by the worldwide BLM movement. It has legitimised vandalism, arson and looting, as though such acts are going to correct injustice and benefit people of colour.
What is the case for collective white guilt and reparations for all blacks to be paid by whites here and now? That would mean transfers to many people who are not in difficult circumstances from whites who could be worse off, who moreover had no involvement in the activities that are supposed to earn reparations, for the benefit of people who have not personally suffered the disadvantages of the Jim Crow laws and the kind of naked prejudice that was rampant in generations past.
What about the “white trash”? Does their disadvantage matter? Is anyone suggesting affirmative action policies for poor white males?
As for equal opportunity, nobody can reasonably object to the elimination of barriers to the advancement of women and members of other disadvantaged groups. But affirmative action is racist, and it not only disadvantages white males, it also places a question mark over the merit of successful members of the favoured groups. Favouritism is generally regarded as a bad thing, for very good reasons. Affirmative action institutionalises favouritism and erodes the morale of organisations. It also undermines the integrity of the educational and selection systems that administer affirmative action programs.
Popper dealt with this in Chapter 9 of The Open Society, “Aestheticism, Perfectionism and Utopianism”, headed by an extract from Les Thibaults by Du Gard: “Everything has got to be smashed to start with. Our whole damned civilization has got to go, before we can bring any decency into the world.” Popper wrote about the way the Platonic artist-politician must proceed. He must eradicate the existing institutions and traditions. He must purify, purge, expel, banish and kill, with a reference to “liquidation” as a modern term for it:
Asked about the details of their draughtsmanship, Plato’s “Socrates” gives the following striking reply: “They will take as their canvas a city and the characters of men, and they will, first of all, make their canvas clean—by no means an easy matter.” Plato’s statement is indeed a true description of the uncompromising attitude of all forms of out-and-out radicalism—of the aestheticist’s refusal to compromise.
The idea of sweeping away the old to bring in the new in the most wide-ranging possible manner became a motif of the French Revolution and subsequent socialist revolutions including the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The current vogue of overturning historical monuments is a particularly vivid expression of the desire to clean the canvas and get rid of the past so we can start again, fresh and pure.
Consider the prima facie purpose of the BLM movement, to rectify the evils of racism, especially the shooting of unarmed black men by white policemen. Are the means suited to the end? What evils can be corrected by looting and arson, overturning historical monuments, suppressing free speech and taking the police off the streets?
People who are familiar with the work of Jacques Barzun on racist thinking will see that the most obvious feature of the movement in addition to violence and intolerance is flamboyant and blatant racism. Based on Barzun’s account of racial thinking, this movement is not going to eliminate or mitigate racist thinking, instead it is promoting racism and using it as a weapon for other agendas.
Rafe Champion lives in Sydney. His books include Reason and Imagination