Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Afghan Robotics Team and Trump's Victory

When Trump's travel ban went into effect, one of the consequences was that a girls' robotics team from Afghanistan was unable to come to the U.S. to compete. This caused uproar, and eventually Trump made an exception for the team. Now he is trying to take credit for being large-hearted.

Of course this is obnoxious and disgusting. But I want to point out how it fits into the racial dynamic that got Trump elected in the first place.

The key here is the distinction between people asserting their rights, on the one hand, and begging for largesse, on the other. Racists don't mind when minorities benefit from the latter, but they can't stand the former. It grates on them like nails on a chalkboard.

So for instance, I believe that if a big-city police department announced that it would no longer engage in aggressive tactics like stop-and-frisk, racists would largely ignore it. They might even nod appreciatively and say something like, "See? The police department can be trusted to do what's best. We're not hateful, we just want to make everyone safe."

But if the change in policy were court-ordered, or if black people were out in the streets protesting against police brutality, then racists would be aghast. The word "uppity" is probably the most concise way to capture the sentiment. Once people are demanding to be treated fairly as of right, it robs white people of the feeling of munificence that a largesse-based system enables. It upsets the racial and social hierarchy that is so important to the racist worldview.

To give you an example of how stark the difference can be, consider this passage from Michael Ignatieff's review of Countrymen by Bo Lidegaard:

Such general support across Danish society seems to have empowered the Jews of Copenhagen. When the Gestapo came to search the Jewish community’s offices in September 1943, the community treasurer, Axel Hertz, did not hesitate to ask the intruders, “By what right do you come here?” The German in charge replied, quite candidly: “By the right of the stronger.” And Hertz retorted: “That is no good right.” Jews in Denmark behaved like rights-bearers, not like victims in search of compassion. And they were not wrong: their feeling of membership in the Danish polity had a basis in its political culture.
Of course, Denmark's Jewish community had a famously high survival rate, largely (I believe) because Danes didn't think of them as mendicants but rather as fellow Danes. It didn't occur to them to treat Jews as charity cases. (By the way, this adds a little complexity to the fact that Danish fishermen charged money to transport Jews to Sweden. Facially that seems greedy, but in a sense it may just reflect that the Jews were not regarded as charity cases. I'm not defending it, I'm just saying it's more complicated than it first appears.)

Anyway this is the dynamic that was playing out in the run-up to the 2016 election with Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick, etc. Trump's basic pitch was, "Put the white people back in charge, we have very big hearts, the best hearts, everyone wins." (An important point is that Trump would occasionally say something nice about Mexicans or black people or whatever. People would act as though this might alienate his base, but of course it wouldn't. It was a display of "generosity" that fit perfectly into the racial dynamic these voters were trying to restore.)

Clinton's pitch was, "It's time to reform our society as a matter of justice," that is, to give full recognition to the rights claims asserted by black people and others. Unfortunately in this case I believe Trump's message resonated with a larger audience (this is partly, but not predominantly in my view, a function of Clinton's poor communication skills). (I realize Clinton won the popular vote, but I think a lot of her supporters weren't responding to her message on race, whereas I believe a substantial number of Trump voters were responding to his.)

And so here we are. Trump has "put the Muslims in their place" by making it illegal for them to travel here, while giving dispensations to particularly photogenic or popular groups. This is exactly what the racists have been craving, not so much to keep Afghan girls out of the country, but to make them beg for it and to congratulate ourselves for letting them in.


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