Friday , April 26 2019
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The deplorable word (updated)

Summary:
Back in 2004, I wrote that There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist. It’s OK to say that Adolf Hitler was a racist, and that apartheid was racist, but the idea that any actual Australian could be a racist is utterly taboo. (Update): 1. That hasn’t changed. As the comments to this post illustrate, even describing the taboo is sufficient to trigger it. 2. As is always the case with pejoratives, those who don’t like them being used object on the grounds that the terms aren’t clearly defined. So, I’ll define racism as “seeking the preserve the dominant position of your own racial/ethnic group, typically by means including stoking fear, hatred and derision of others. 3 That

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Back in 2004, I wrote that

There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist. It’s OK to say that Adolf Hitler was a racist, and that apartheid was racist, but the idea that any actual Australian could be a racist is utterly taboo.

  • (Update): 1. That hasn’t changed. As the comments to this post illustrate, even describing the taboo is sufficient to trigger it.
  • 2. As is always the case with pejoratives, those who don’t like them being used object on the grounds that the terms aren’t clearly defined. So, I’ll define racism as “seeking the preserve the dominant position of your own racial/ethnic group, typically by means including stoking fear, hatred and derision of others.
  • 3 That definition clearly applies to everyone mentioned by name in this post, as well as to apartheid and Southern US segregationism. To forestall objections, remember that neither apartheid (separate development) nor Jim Crow (based on the Plessy v Ferguson “separate but equal” decision) claimed superiority for whites, so this claim is not essential to racism (End update).

Fifteen years later, the taboo is still in place, but has become increasingly untenable with the rise of overt racism, in Australia, the US and elsewhere. It’s worth thinking a bit more about why it’s so hard to name racism when we we see it.

The central point I think is that nearly everyone gives at least verbal consent to the view that racism, and racists (as defined above), have no place in public life. To call someone a racist, then, is to say that they are unfit to hold public or elective office or to be given a media platform of any kind. A string of US politicians found to have worn blackface or shared racist jokes have been forced out of public life.

That’s bad, but not nearly as bad as the serious advocacy of racism that has re-emerged with the rise of Trumpism and related movements. What we see is continuous pushing of the boundaries of acceptable debate. To avoid the obvious inference that the person involved is unfit for any public role, the media reports these events with euphemisms like “racially charged”. Every now and then, however, one of these racists crosses the (invisible and shifting) line.

This has played out in the cases of Fraser Anning in Australia and Steve King (Iowa Republican) in the US. These two have reached the point where they can be described as “racist”, in news reports and by other politicians, without any pushback from their former allies. The result is that their position in public life has become untenable. Anning was expelled from the Katter Australian Party, and his vote in the Senate is clearly tainted, though that won’t stop the government accepting his support. Similarly, King was stripped of all his committee positions and will face multiple primary challenges in 2020.

The problems is that there is hardly any distance between the racism of Anning and that of Pauline Hanson (who put him into the Senate), or between King and Donald Trump. But the LNP in Australia can’t break with Hanson and her supporters any more than the Republican party can dump Trump. So, the application of the word “racist” to Hanson or Trump implies that the entire political right in Australia and the US is complicit in a position that is supposed to be beyond the pale.

That’s not true universally. In Germany, Merkel has refused to deal with the racists of AfD and Pegida, and in Sweden the parties of the right have gone into opposition rather than form a government with the Sweden Democrats. And, after some hesitation, the LNP broke with Hanson on her first go-round in the 1990s. It’s a pity they didn’t do so this again.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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