Jacques Barzun on race

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) wrote a doctoral dissertation on class and race in pre-revolutionary France. Race, A Study in Modern Superstition (1937) charted the protracted dispute in France over the “race” of the nobility versus the bourgeoisie that was one of the divisive factors that contributed to the French Revolution.

He suggested that “race-thinking” persisted after the Revolution 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, the socialism of the communists and nowadays the radicalism of Black Lives Matter. “Marxist doctrine at its purest is in form and effect racist thought. Indeed the class struggle is but the old race antagonism of French nobles and commoners write large and made ruthless. Marx’s bourgeois is not a human being with individual traits but a social abstraction, a creature devoid of virtue or free will and without the right to live.”

The book was reprinted in 1965 and the Preface “Racism Today” makes interesting reading half a century later. He wrote “As long as people permit themselves to think of human groups without the vivid sense that groups consist of individuals and that individuals display the full range of human differences, the tendency which twenty-eight years ago I named ‘race-thinking’ will persist.” Individuals should be treated according to their personal characteristics such as their fitness and qualifications for particular tasks but as long as the qualities required for the tasks are not race-related there is no need to make race an issue. If it is made an issue then “race-thinking” will continue to generate muddled thinking and inappropriate actions with potentially dangerous unintended consequences.

He urged that giving up race-thinking means equal opportunity but not affirmative action. 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. The victims of oppression do not turn into angels by being emancipated… Race-thinking is bad thinking and that is all.”

On the topic of 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. A contingent of white writers and artists led by Negro writers and accompanied by French and American students had 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.

Barzun went on to address the situation when a representative of a group is depicted in a work of art or literature in a way that some people find offensive. He instanced the repeated attempts to have The Merchant of Venice banned and Huckleberry Finn removed from library shelves. Nowadays he would be referring to the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians. “This anxious wrangling which goes on about books and plays seems at times trivial but it is in fact fundamental. If democratic culture yields on this point no prospect lies ahead but that of increased animosity among pressure groups…In social and cultural relations the law rarely intervenes effectively; the protection of rights and feelings only comes from decency and self-restraint.”

Windwatch. At 7pm Wind & Other were contributing almost 4% of demand.

This entry was posted in Cultural Issues, Politics of the Left, Rafe. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Jacques Barzun on race

  1. Roger

    If democratic culture yields on this point no prospect lies ahead but that of increased animosity among pressure groups…

    I believe the US, outside of certain hold out regions, has yielded on this point…and we are not far behind.

    Morrison’s thought bubble on a national public holiday to celebrate the putative achievements of an indigenous, animist culture that never devised a means to boil water is a bad omen of what is to come.

  2. Suburban Boy

    Poor Jacques, for an extremely intelligent man you could be so very naive.

    The idea that “race-thinking” (preference for one’s own kind, whether of race or class or some other social category) is some error to be avoided, rather than an enduring characteristic general to human beings, is touching in its innocence.

    Sorry to break it to you, pal, but with rare exceptions (you among them) that’s how humans think and behave. Act accordingly or suffer the consequences.

  3. Dr Fred Lenin

    Any government I led would liberate aboriginals of all colours from socialist opression and give them exactly the same rights and obligations as all other Australian citizens . We would also nominate a National Day ,call it Australia Day perhaps, on the 26 January to celebrate the arrival of civilisation and national unity in Australia . Of course only Australian flags would be flown at all times ,state flags would be only for state buildings , and all would stand for our new National Anthem to the tune “Waltzing Matilda , “ not the elitist dirge that no one knows the words to .

  4. Rafe Champion

    Boy, he is not talking about preferring your own kind, it is about demonizing people who you have decided to treat as sub-human on the basis of any criterion that works for you.
    That may not be apparent from the piece that I posted but it is very clear in his book.
    He pointed out that we are not obliged to like or admire others, to seek their company, sample their food, or their music or whatever, we just need to leave them in peace.

  5. yarpos

    Leaving them in peace is fine, the problem is they dont want to leave us in peace. They invade and bring their screwed up lives and habits with them, as the Europeans and anybody unfortunate enough to face a rampaging mob Swanston St have found out.

  6. Roger

    Leaving them in peace is fine, the problem is they dont want to leave us in peace.

    The paradox of tolerance is something our political class is yet to grapple with.

  7. Ƶĩppʯ (ȊꞪꞨV)

    He pointed out that we are not obliged to like or admire others, to seek their company, sample their food, or their music or whatever, we just need to leave them in peace.

    If only they left us in peace.

  8. DrBeauGan

    It’s quite simple. We let them in, try their cooking, talk to them as equals, and listen to their ideas. If they behave themselves, despite having dotty ideas, we more or less ignore them. If they make a nuisance of themselves, we kill them. Nothing racist or collectivist about this. I favour applying the same principle to politicians.

  9. Driftforge

    Individuals should be treated according to their personal characteristics such as their fitness and qualifications for particular tasks but as long as the qualities required for the tasks are not race-related there is no need to make race an issue

    And yet there is a widely spread ‘personal characteristic’ whereby individuals views themselves as belonging in a non-trivial manner to some grand heritage shared with others. Furthermore there is this grand process of selection that culture imposes over generations that gets immutably transcribed into the very DNA of those who have been within that culture.

    The pretense that race is not real, and where real, not significant, is simply that – a pretense. Now if such a pretense is required for some arbitrary framework of human interaction to persist, the tendency would seem to be that the framework will eventually give way in the face of reality rendering it farcical.

    Which would appear to be what is happening now.

  10. Boambee John

    Racism is a form of tribalism.

    Tribalism leads to division.

    Division all too often leads to war.

    The left is extremely tribal.

    Ergo, leftism often leads to war, civil or international.

    Sinistra delenda est.

  11. Driftforge

    Tribalism is formal recognition of divisions that exist. Formal divisions that match reality lead to optimisation of the freedoms people can enjoy.

    Thus the effectiveness of the nation-state.

  12. pbw

    Rafe,

    …it is about demonizing people who you have decided to treat as sub-human… That may not be apparent from the piece that I posted but it is very clear in his book.

    In that case, Rafe, you yourself have confused the issue with this comment.

    …there are no positive or negative traits that are race-related…

    If we avoid some disagreement by looking only for positive race-related traits, we can find plenty, and if my memory wasn’t such a sieve, I could give you a nice quote or two delineating some. An often-sed example would be, selecting a basketball team. Closer to home, have a look at the teams contesting the NRL premiership this weekend. How about high school and university academic performance, both here and in the USA?

    If there are positive race-related traits, then there are negative ones as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.