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Deserts of the real: on ‘race’ and foreign policy

At Harry’s Place, a commenter introduces himself by calling himself a race realist. Interesting. That he subsequently complains of the “looming threat” posed to the US by “uncontrolled low-IQ immigration”, resulting in “a USA almost half brown and black by 2031”, shows exactly what his true perspective on “race” is.

But let’s try to take race realist at face value, and reconstruct the logic behind it. Of course racism is bad and stupid, the “race realist” might say, but unfortunately the great unwashed masses are racist. So if we don’t take account of their views, bad things will happen. (A river foaming with much blood, etc.) This is the “realist” part: a pretended pragmatism about what people actually believe. The problem is that it subsequently implies we should order the world such that these racists, although foolish, will be kept happy, presumably for overriding reasons of public order. And the analytical problem is that recommending policies to keep racists happy is in the end indistinguishable from recommending policies that are actually racist. They will be, surely, the same policies. So “race realist” inevitably collapses, it seems to me, into simply “racist”.

Let’s compare the school of “realism” in international affairs, often attributed to Henry Kissinger . . .

As I understand it, foreign-policy “realism” goes like this: all countries will act purely in their self-interest, therefore we should act purely in our self-interest too, otherwise we’ll be fucked over. That the second part does not necessarily follow from the first, especially if “we” have the biggest stick, is usually ignored.

A claim to “realism” is a boast of clear-eyed, sober knowledge, a superior empirical way of looking at the world, and as good Unspeak it automatically downgrades opposing points of view to the categories of idealism or utopianism. Even if we grant its epistemological claim, however, we know from Hume that an “ought” does not follow from an “is” – ie, that no set of facts by itself recommends any one course of action, absent an explicit moral principle. But the incantation of “realism” silently unspeaks this truth, passing slyly from a knowledge-claim to a recommendation to act in a certain cynical way. Are there any other contexts in which claims to “realism” are similarly suspicious? Or, indeed, any in which they aren’t?

  1. 1  dsquared  September 4, 2006, 11:25 am 

    this was the central theme of my dear departed lost review of Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism”. He keeps on having a go at the “realists”, but fails to make a distinction between the kind of realism that says that countries follow their own interests and there is nothing we can do to promote democratic values, and the kind of realism that says that troops who are in Afghanistan cannot simultaneously be deployed in Iraq.

  2. 2  SP  September 4, 2006, 11:36 am 

    Your second definition has much to recommend it.

    I haven’t read Berman. Is your review really lost, or can we have a link?

  3. 3  dsquared  September 4, 2006, 12:16 pm 

    It is really, really lost. I was writing it in a notebook that got left in a pub in Frankfurt.

  4. 4  abb1  September 4, 2006, 1:06 pm 

    I don’t think your interpretation of Kissinger’s realism is correct. It’s not “we shouldn’t bother to be ethical because the others aren’t”, rather it’s “we shouldn’t bother to be ethical, period.” Moral nihilism doesn’t need any special justification; it’s a perfectly rational and logical concept on its own. You either accept it or you reject it, but I don’t see how it unspeaks any truth.

  5. 5  abb1  September 4, 2006, 1:26 pm 

    Now, as far as the racial thing goes.

    I haven’t read the original comment, but I think — assuming for the sake of argument that masses are indeed racist in a mass-movement-like manner — I think it would indeed be realistic to aim for a compromise of some sort rather than to risk provoking a violent uprising or something. No?

  6. 6  sw  September 4, 2006, 2:13 pm 

    I think that “race realists” see themselves as confronting the hard truth of racial difference, the hard truth of conflict between the races, whereas their opponents, the politically correct crowd, have soft, fuzzy wishful/deceitful claims about everybody being equal, everybody wanting to live together, etc. In other words, ‘race realists’ are facing a reality about the races that the Hollywood Liberal Elite and Islington chatterers refuse to see; they do not see themselves as caving in to racism, but as having a pragmatic, realistic, empirical view on racial difference and compatibility, uninflected by sentimentality. I.e., they’re racists.

    Now, to answer your questions.

    Obviously, Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield is able to follow through on the Reality of any Deal with a punch that likely would tear through the heads of the entire Unspeak community if all were lined up, head to head. I would not dare question the Real in his Deal. Even now.

    Artistic claims to “realism” are often deeply misleading, or are themselves a commentary on artistic relations to reality, but I suppose you don’t really want to go there.

    Keep it Real!

  7. 7  SP  September 4, 2006, 2:49 pm 

    Ouch! Sorry to hear it, dsquared.

    SW, as usual you make me feel mighty real. It’s a good point that “race realists” might actually be claiming to be “realistic” about the inferiority of some “races”, etc. Re, artistic realism: you are right, I so don’t want to go there.

    abb1, I was rehearsing Kissinger’s argument as I understood it; you seem to be saying what you think of his actual policies. Not the same.

  8. 8  bobw  September 4, 2006, 4:17 pm 

    I think you’re right: “realistic”, “get real” and “Really!!!” are usually used as put-downs of some supposedly naive position. And “realism” is often used to bludgeon acceptance of the current situation (racist, consumerist, militarist, whatever), without argument.

    Curiously, foreign policy neo-cons think they’re being “realistic” by flexing our pre-eminent military power, while “realists” like Scowcroft and Pat Buchanan think the neo-cons are reckless and naive. Yet, Ron Suskind’s informant(who sounds like Karl Rove), in the 2004 NY Times article, claims that masters of “empire” create their own reality, while we in the “reality-based” community scramble to keep up.

  9. 9  SP  September 4, 2006, 5:07 pm 

    Good example, bobw: “Get real!” is the contemptuous snarl behind many a supposedly objective call for “realism”.

    We love that “reality-based community” quote here in what SW regularly calls the Unspeak community. In my book, I was driven to hypothesise that the opposite of a reality-based community must be a faith-based community.

  10. 10  bobw  September 4, 2006, 5:19 pm 

    No, in that case, the opposite of “reality-based” is power-based. Reality people are those who fuss about consequences. Power people say (paraphrasing Keats) “power is truth”.

  11. 11  SP  September 4, 2006, 5:36 pm 

    Er, yes, I know that is the explicit meaning of the quote. But I made another point too. Perhaps you’d have to see it in context.

  12. 12  sw  September 4, 2006, 6:19 pm 

    I’m still delighted over dsquared’s comment: “It is really, really lost. I was writing it in a notebook that got left in a pub in Frankfurt.”

    The transition from active (“I was writing”) to passive (“got left”) is one we all make frequent use of, proud of our own constructive agency but subjecting our flaws or faults or mistake to the larger agency of outside forces; a “fact realist” would insist upon you saying, “I was writing in a notebook and then I left the notebook behind in a pub in Frankfurt”. Wherever somebody takes the position of a “realist”, we should ask, what are they being so “realistic” about: where are the flaws, faults, and mistakes being located? “Realists” are often locating these flaws, faults, and mistakes in other people, and saying that they are simply responding to this, innocently and naively but honestly and sincerely. “Realism”, then, becomes a play between locations of agency. As such, the “realist” is often unspeaking his or her own agency (“I’m just calling it like I see it”, essentially as passive observer), while locating the failure in another (“Other countries are all engaging in real politik”, “Other races have lower IQs and are swarming here”, it is their actions that are causing this problem). So, yes, dsquared, “It is really, really lost”. You lost it. ;-)

  13. 13  bobw  September 4, 2006, 7:44 pm 

    Back from my morning hike, I realize that Kissinger (usually called a “realist”) and the neo-cons (now opposed by the new “realists”) are really branches of the same trunk. Both descend from Machiavelli, whose realpolitik really means machtpolitik. They are realists in the sense that they debunk any other grounds for acting than possession of power. The neo-cons however confuse the issue by saying they are about “spreading democracy” — but that’s par for the course for people advocating war.

    Your original comment was about how the term realism is used to discredit the other side, not who is or who isnt a realist, so I may have gone off subject here.

  14. 14  DanA  September 5, 2006, 11:50 am 

    I think if you have to proclaim your realism, then you are not very real. The most real people just get on with it.

  15. 15  SP  September 5, 2006, 12:45 pm 

    But, SW, can you really be sure that dsquared didn’t entrust his notebook to a leather-clad fräulein for safe keeping, and that it was the leather-clad fräulein who subsequently left it in the bar? In which case the passive voice would surely be more realistic.

  16. 16  SW  September 5, 2006, 1:05 pm 

    Should one not take responsibility for entrusting valuables to leather-clad fräulein who has other things on her mind, as well as seven steins of lager in each hand?

    Your argument is just another case of passing the book.

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