Dawkins’s strange bedfellow
November 23, 2007
My interest in reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion began at zero, and if anything decreases each time I read anything about it by mistake, becoming a large stock of negative interest, so that I find myself actively interested in reading pretty much anything else in part because it is not The God Delusion.1
Still, I read something else about The God Delusion by mistake recently,2 which in itself was interesting to a degree. It was Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, by John Cornwell. The subtitular conceit is, of course, terribly twee; and many of its arguments are merely warm and fluffy.3 Where Cornwell does score, however, is on the subject of Dawkins’s methodology. Specifically, in the devastating chapter that focuses on Dawkins’s notorious claim:
Christians seldom realize that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. “Love thy neighbour” didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only “Love another Jew”.
As Cornwell shows (and as you can check via Amazon’s search inside feature), Dawkins offers a single source for this and the other assertions that cluster round it: what Dawkins calls a “remarkable” paper by one John Hartung, an anaesthesiologist with a doctorate in anthropology.
Cornwell argues persuasively that Hartung’s “remarkable” paper, “Love Thy Neighbor: The evolution of in-group morality” (here) has a peculiarly selective approach to citation from the Old and New Testaments. As one open-and-shut example: Hartung’s claim that “Jesus often used the words neighbor and brother without explicitly indicating that he meant fellow Jews whom he sought to unify” is quite demolished by simple reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells exactly in answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?” The anaesthesiologist John Hartung unaccountably forgot about this rather famous story, and to this day seems oblivious to its existence, even though the website version of his “remarkable” paper explicitly solicits “corrections and updates to the text and references”.
But the Unspeak point of my post is, rather, a different article by the anaesthesiologist John Hartung — one to which Cornwell also refers. It is this review of a book about “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy”. The review climaxes thusly:
History is replete with the consequences of that form of reactive racism which we call anti-Semitism, and MacDonald is in the vanguard of those who will broaden our understanding of its origins. The ancient Light unto the nations burned most brightly during Solomon’s reign over the entire Middle East. According to the original account, “the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred and sixty-six talents” (First Kings 10:14, RSV), or about 60,000 pounds – three times the amount that Attila was able to extort from Rome per annum before he sacked it.
Those figures are exaggerated, but the point remains, and contemporary figures need no embellishment. The modern state of Israel receives the monetary equivalent of more than 625,000 pounds of gold per year, primarily from the United States. Isaiah’s dream has come true and it rests on two pillars: (1) most of the citizens of most donor nations are Christian or Jewish, such that, the former religion being a form of the latter, to varying degrees they believe in a god who gave Palestine to the Jews, and (2) the most enormous act of reactive racism ever perpetrated, namely the Holocaust, has been presented, and so is perceived, as having been the psychotic swelling up of a form of evil that resides disproportionately in the souls of Goyim — and so they have been induced to irrationally atone for their special evil by enabling descendant and nondescendant coreligionists of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust to systematically purloin the land and property of people who were not those victims’ persecutors. MacDonald’s work will help us chip away at this second pillar, and that makes it very good work indeed.
You can imagine how fascinated I was by the phrase “reactive racism”. To call anti-Semitism a form of “reactive racism” surely means nothing other than that it’s the Jews’ fault. This is certainly what Kevin MacDonald himself appears to mean, in a paper cited at Slate:
[T]here are several important historical examples where increased levels of resource competition between Jews and gentiles have triggered reactive processes among gentiles, resulting in gentiles developing highly cohesive anti-Semitic group strategies in opposition to Judaism — what I term ‘reactive racism.’
Those “reactive processes among gentiles” — they must have been triggered by something the Jews did first, right? Right, as he writes in his 1994 book A People That Shall Dwell Alone, the book that Hartung was reviewing, as cited here:
Western anti-Jewish movements have tended to be in response to intense competition from Jews.
That’s clear enough. Clear enough, too, is the anaesthesiologist John Hartung’s description of the Holocaust as an “act of reactive racism”. It plainly means, I am afraid, that the Jews provoked it: perhaps, y’know, with their secret cabals that ran the world.
I’m not sure whether “reactive racism” holds any respectable currency in anthropology or related disciplines generally: Google finds a mere 158 usages when the search terms exclude MacDonald’s and Hartung’s names; and Google Scholar a mere 14. These are mostly in regard to historically recent examples of groups that were formerly oppressed or continue to be oppressed by whatever is considered the dominant “race”, and in turn set themselves against it. Even so, we are advised to be circumspect about the term, as by Thomas Teo in his 1999 paper “Methodologies of critical psychology: Illustrations from the field of racism“:
Yet, I want to emphasize theoretical caution here, as there might be good reasons to challenge reactive racism as a concept. Conceptual caution is required as one takes the societal power of construction and action into account. Who, within a given society, has the power to propose constructions and meanings that gain acceptance? Who has the power to evaluate these constructions? Who has the power to put these constructions into practice? Victims of racism rarely have the cultural or political power to make their constructions dominant.
Moreover, the phenomenon of reactive racism has been abused to render everyone equally a racist, so that the victims appear no better than the perpetrators. If everybody is racist, then why should there be a special effort to challenge the racism of any one group? However, this political strategy is used to maintain structural and societal forms of racism. Of course the basic error in such thought is the individualistic neglect of societal power. Yet, despite the danger that the dominant group imposes reactive racism as a concept, it seems appropriate — from a psychological point of view — to include this type of racism, while being aware of the problems associated with this concept.
Even with such cautious acceptance of the concept’s potential utility in mind, however, I regret to report that I cannot find an article by the anaesthesiologist John Hartung which offers to explain in detail just how Germans were in fact oppressed by Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust, in order to lend credence to his claim that industrialized genocide was an act of “reactive racism”. I conclude that the phrase “reactive racism” as used here is thoroughgoing Unspeak, attempting to perform an instant mitigation of the crime and to stab the finger of original blame in the direction of the crime’s victims. And so I am led inexorably to the view that the writing of the anaesthesiologist John Hartung is anti-Semitic trash.
As Cornwell concludes his chapter, addressing Dawkins with beautiful understatement:
In view of the controversial nature of Hartung’s views, including his espousal of MacDonald [...] I find it strange that you should have been so reliant on this single source for what forms such an important charge against Judaism and Christianity in your book.
But, you know, Dawkins is flying the flag for empiricism and truth. Isn’t he?
- I think Dawkins is a really wonderful science writer, even though I hate memes. But I don’t give a fig what he thinks about the existence or otherwise of a god, just as I wouldn’t hasten to read a textbook on genetics by Pope Ratzinger. ↩
- Well, not exactly by mistake: for my Et Cetera column forthcoming in Saturday’s Guardian, for which review I had space to make only a super-compressed version of this post’s point. ↩
- Not that there is anything wrong with warmth and fluffiness per se: they can be excellent qualities in a towel. ↩