Kathleen was a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex for nearly 20 years. Last fall, she resigned under duress following a vicious campaign to have her fired for questioning the policy goals of radical trans activists. Her latest book is Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. We bonded, to be honest, I think because we’ve both experienced the sting of harassment and caustic criticism from our peers among gays, lesbians and trans people, in different ways and for different reasons. And we’re both from England.
You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above. For two clips of my conversation with Kathleen — on whether being transgender is “natural” and if that matters, and on the homophobia baked into radical trans ideology — head over to our YouTube page.
A reader comments on last week’s episode:
Thanks so much for your conversation with Johann Hari. It was refreshing and challenging — refreshing to hear about a topic we all need to be thinking about, regardless of our politics, and challenging as I think we all struggle in the area of attention discipline and focus.
Here’s a clip from that convo:
Another reader “thoroughly enjoyed your podcast with Johann”:
I was already planning on reading his book, but your conversation prompted me to order it today. He is funny — particularly at the beginning, while talking about the Dalai Lama, and his crazy family.
I’m not sure if this is an observation worth sharing (and I can’t make it without seeming cranky), but our decreasing ability to focus is alarmingly apparent in young people. I’m a professor of recent American history, age 51, so I’ve been teaching long enough to observe this.
It is nearly impossible, nowadays, to get the average college student to read a book (particularly a long one). They won’t read an entertaining novel (such as Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities), or a masterpiece of literary nonfiction (Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground), a hilariously funny political book (Thomas Frank’s What's the Matter With Kansas?), or one of the 20th century’s most impactful memoirs (The Autobiography of Malcolm X). I mention these titles because they are books that I greatly enjoyed and learned from when I was younger, which is partly why I’ve assigned them in my courses. But they all flopped. They flopped despite addressing topics students profess to be interested in! (They will, however, watch loads of television. Tony Kushner’s six-hour miniseries Angels in America was a big hit last semester.)
Sometimes I wonder if the streaming miniseries model is our new novel. Meanwhile, many readers are continuing the debate over Whoopi Goldberg’s comments last week. This first reader runs through many good points:
The mistake that Whoopi made is that she was trying to express something we can all agree with (Nazis are bad), but she didn’t have a very good understanding of where Jews fit into the picture. I recommend you read Yair Rosenberg’s reaction to her, as it explains that Jews are, all at the same time: a race (the Nazis certainly thought so), a religion, an ethnicity, a culture, a nation, and therefore perhaps the best way to view Jews is as a very diverse family. Whoopi was viewing the Holocaust from a very narrow, US construct where the term “racism” refers to views between whites and blacks.
I think that’s what she meant to say, and that’s fine. As a Jew, I’m not offended by that. I’d take it as an invitation to explain the nuances of anti-semitism and Jews — how the Nazis were all about race (you know, Aryans), and viewed Jews as an inferior race. There are white Jews, but also black Jews (for example, Ethiopian Jews). Jews can lead entirely secular lives and still view themselves (and be viewed by others) as very Jewish. All these things. I don’t think that Whoopi meant to offend or insult, and I don’t for a minute think she’s anti-semitic. I just think she was out of her depth.
And you did touch on this a little: many American progressives try to impose their racial constructs on Jews, and then on Israel. For example, they view Israeli Jews as “white European colonial oppressors” and Palestinians as the “black oppressed.” They ignore that there are Ethiopian Israeli Jews, who are black, and Yemenite Israeli Jews, who are very dark-skinned, if not black. And more than half of Israel’s Jewish population has its origins in North Africa and the Middle East. These are the mizrahim — Jews from places like Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran — who were expelled en masse following the establishment of Israel.
US progressives would have a hard time distinguishing an Israeli Jew from a Palestinian based on skin color alone. But this complexity and nuance doesn’t fit their preconceptions that Israel must be European, white, and colonial, and that you can just graft the US black-white experience on a different population thousands of miles away.
A reader highlights a classic scene:
Your column on whiteness and Jews reminded of this clip from the ‘90s television show “Northern Exposure” — still relevant to discussions we’re having today:
Another snippet of pop culture from a reader:
Or as Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, “My grammy never gave gifts, you know. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”
Some history from this reader:
You are absolutely correct that out-group prejudices and suspicion of “the other” is deeply ingrained in all of us through human evolution (hell, we spent 99% of our existence living in small bands on the African savannah and fighting off other bands who threatened us or our resources). In that sense “racism” as the term is colloquially used is ubiquitous and universal.
However, it is also true that the concept of “race” developed in Europe (and European colonies) in the early modern period. The example I always give is that in a pre-racial world, the 16th century Venetians have no problem giving their most important command to General Othello, but it would be centuries before a black man achieved four-star rank in the US military, in a society constructed around race and white supremacy. As you observe, the concept evolved differently in the old and new worlds. Thus, by the mid-20th century, the Nazis believed Germans, Jews, Poles, Italians, and the English were different races, even though all would be considered “white” in North America.
The book Race: The History of an Idea in the West provides a comprehensive and exhaustive history (though it’s not, unfortunately, well-written or an easy read). One interesting tidbit: the English word “race” is derived (through Italian) from the Arabic al-ras “the head” and originally referred to social hierarchy. This is why a road “race” with its hierarchy of first, second, and third place uses the same term. The first known use of the word “race” to refer to pigmentation is from the late 1600s. This is also around the time that the term “white” replaces “Christian” in the New World to refer to European immigrants/settlers.
So it is true that “racism” as prejudice against outsiders is universal, it is also true that “race” and “racism” is a specifically modern way of slicing and dicing the human family. This gives one hope — the concept is actually relatively recent and can be undone (though the tendency toward prejudice will require ever-constant vigilance).
Agreed. And I’m grateful for the distinction. But the shifts in our genetic understanding of human evolution offer another, less fraught, future possibility. We all have different genetic ancestries that show how genes cluster in populations in regions over aeons. That’s how we are able to spit in a cup and find out our roots from 23andMe and the like. That’s how we are quite good at seeing resemblances between people from the same regions. But this isn’t “race” and it sure isn’t “hierarchical.” It’s just difference — not in kind, but in complex and subtle degree that we do not yet fully understand.
This may well mean different outcomes in different areas for different genetic clusters. Some of this maps clumsily onto crude understandings of “race” and “ethnicity,” and can thereby generate old-school racism. And we should guard against this vigilantly. But the key, it seems to me, is to accept the empirical reality — because it is true — but not to essentialize or in any way moralize it. The only way to do this is through individualism, seeing people as unique, precisely because the varying blends of nature and nurture do indeed make each of us unique, and attempting to create more and more equality of opportunity for every individual. Color-blindness may be impossible, but it is surely an admirable goal, a pole-star to navigate by.
And it may be, in this rubric, that overall, we see some genetic cluster-groups do better in some areas of life than in others. While we should be concerned this is a function of racism, we can’t assume that all variation is entirely a function of discrimination, and constantly attempt to regulate society to achieve total equality of outcome across all groups. That’s a recipe for endless failure, a government powerful enough to intervene in every human relationship, and metastasizing social conflict. We have to find a way to acknowledge genetic differences — individual and population-wide — without succumbing to race essentialism or racism itself. Maybe this is beyond us. But for me, it’s the only intellectually honest and morally just approach.
Another bit of history from this reader:
Your excellent piece on anti-semitism and anti-whiteness left out a glaring example of non-white racism: Japan. Not only was Japan an imperialist nation, there was a strong racial element to that imperialism — that is, the Japanese race was superior to other Asian races. Even now, Japan looks down on non-Japanese, using the common pejorative “gaijin” to refer to foreigners, particularly white ones.
Obviously, none of this squares with woke theories of race.
Another reader takes extreme CRT thinking and turns it against itself:
You quoted a CRT catechism: “How did the Holocaust shift Jewish Americans’ position in American society?” The correct answer was: “gained conditional whiteness.’” When I read that, I wondered if someone could argue something similar about American Descendants of Slavery Who Are Black. They are arguably the most affluent and influential group of Black people in the world. (I believe it was Dr. Glenn Loury who made that economic observation.) Did slavery do something similar for these Black people in the US — “gain conditional whiteness”?
Another reader also focuses on that “conditional whiteness” quote:
First of all, I agree with your statement about the parochialism of viewing racism as white-on-black oppression. I’ve written to you several times in the past about how ludicrous it is that my $2T tech company asks us to take classes where we’re told of the dangers of white people oppressing black and brown people — in a company where an Indian American is a well-regarded CEO, and Asian Americans of all backgrounds are represented way above their fraction of the population. If this is white supremacy, we’re not very good at it.
Secondly, you wrote:
In California’s proposed mandatory class in critical race theory, for example, one original curriculum question was: “How did the Holocaust shift Jewish Americans’ position in American society?” The correct answer was: “gained conditional whiteness.” Yes, this is the upshot of the mass murder of millions of Jews, according to CRT: it gave them a leg-up in America!
I think you err in making fun of that statement. In a real sense, the extreme racism of the Nazis put a “quick” end to eugenics and eugenics-based laws in this country, and the Holocaust started Americans down a road of viewing people of all ethnic backgrounds as “conditionally white.” Within 20 years of WW2’s end, we have LBJ passing the Civil Rights Acts, the Immigration Act of 1965, and the end of segregation in the South. In 1968, restrictive covenants became illegal, and in that same year the Fair Housing Act made discrimination in housing illegal (though we’re still fighting that battle today). So, if you’re willing to buy a definition of “quick” as 20-25 years, this answer isn’t that far off the mark.
I take your point. The impact of the Holocaust on Americans’ understanding of race and racism is a rich topic. My mockery of the ethnic studies curriculum was less about its accuracy than its American parochialism, and its seeming indifference to the horror of the actual Shoah. More on the Nazis from this reader:
There is a Yiddish expression that “Jewish wealth is like snow in March.” Before Hitler came to power, the Nazis pointed to Jewish success in Germany as detracting from “Aryans.” Jews were parasites — even decorated German Jewish veterans — who fed off the German nation. Roosevelt himself “understood” German resentment towards Jewish “success,” as if people are successful as a group, not as individuals.
It is frightening to me that some of the extreme left has adopted this neo-Nazi system of categorizing people based on “race” and not as individuals. Pretty clearly, with the collapse of the USSR, the left has lost faith in the class war and has adopted a theory of racial minorities as the vanguard of the revolution. Today’s leftist race theorists classify Jews as white, some Arabs as people of color, Latinos as people of color and Asians as white — or at least white adjacent.
As a Jew, I’m pretty despondent about America and the future of Jews in America if this ideology isn’t thoroughly defeated in the near future.
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