The Desolation of Smug

In case you’re not familiar with the work of Kevin Macdonald, let me summarize. In analyzing the recurrence of anti-Semitism through history, he found the usual explanations wanting, and hit upon one that, while not new, had been oddly absent from almost all recent academic discussions: they deserve it. Jews really are awful, he observed: clannish, avaricious, and amoral, with disdain for societal norms and non-Jews in general that makes them a cancer on any society foolish enough to admit them. Anti-semitism is an entirely natural response, in effect the immune system working to fight an infection.

Much of the reaction to the recent election has included a similar insight, which, much like Dr. Macdonald’s, is moving beyond the area that once hosted it. Trump’s popularity among voters is explained by the fact that liberals are smug. Of course voters dislikes liberals: who wouldn’t? They’re whiny losers, overeducated but lacking any sense, haters of patriotism, religion, and everything genuinely American, nanny-staters, Godless socialists, baby-killers, special snowflakes who need safe spaces. And worst of all, smug. No wonder their political fortunes are slipping; no one can stand them. (Even worse for fans of Dr. Macdonald, liberals are often… Well, you know.)

At best, liberalism is a movement that has lost its purpose. Before racism ended in 1945 1954 1964 2008, liberals reminded America (endlessly) of a genuine issue, even if every remedy they suggested was wrong-headed and more racist than the problem it was (supposedly) intended to solve. Lacking the intelligence to proceed from that fact that racist practices are a competitive disadvantage to the obvious conclusion that the free market would end it quickly and once and for all, they insisted on using the heavy hand of government for pointless exercises like “fair” housing, as if “government” and “fair” were in any way compatible.

And perhaps that’s the real point. Trump’s election makes it clear what Americans really want, and liberalism is as obsolete as the other group whose purpose is gone now that we live under a new covenant.

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Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever. ...more →

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66 thoughts on “The Desolation of Smug

  1. Here’s what I think is closer to the mark. All political orientations have advocates that practice or convey a smug style. And that style often turns off certain people who might be otherwise won over into a workable coalition. (I tried to make a similar argument here.) I think it’s worthwhile investigating what role smugness may have played in turning off voters who might have otherwise been convinced.

    All of that is conditioned, of course, on not giving smugness too much power. Trump and his supporters bear the principal blame for Trump and Trumpism. You’re right that some make the the arguments your OP is arguing against, and you’re right to advise us not to overemphasize smugness.. And of course, Trumpism has its own brand of smugness.

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  2. More seriously, people are really bad at understanding the academic or expanded definition of racism that includes subtle aspects of domination and exploitation. Most people stole hold to the old definition of racism as meaning a sense of racial superiority rather than the dominate group being privileged over other groups. When you try to explain systematic racism to them, they will role their eyes.

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    • I think sometimes it has to do with how it’s explained.

      Someone can say, “okay, I see your view of ‘racism’ as implying a sense of racial superiority and/or race prejudice. That’s a reasonable and commonly held view of the matter. But I ask you to consider it in a slightly different way. Think who actually has the power and who is most likely to hurt by others’ prejudice and sense of racial superiority. If you look at it that way, you might see why some people might see the issue either differently or with more immediacy than you do and why they might even adopt views that seem racist in the sense that most people think of the term.”

      Or….someone can say, “don’t you know that racism is REALLY about positionality and intersectionalism and that whites can’t be victims of racism?”

      The first conversation is a lot harder. It takes a lot of time and at the end of the day, it might lead to the same reaction as the second conversation (almost inevitably) will. It might not even get far enough to be rejected. But it has the virtue of starting where the interlocutor is, instead of insisting that their definition is the wrong one and ours it the right one.

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      • You need to have a very particular background to make the academic definition of racism make sense upon first hearing about it. It can seem counter-intutitive to many minorities. I think one big problem is that the people who talk about systematic racism are so sure of themselves that they adopt a tone of voice that comes across as at best condescending to people without the right background. Its also generally not a good idea to call some people privileged like down on their luck unemployed white blue collar people privileged even if they are.

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        • You need to have a very particular background to make the academic definition of racism make sense upon first hearing about it.

          If you need a very particular background for the definition to make sense, perhaps the problem is in the definition.

          The effort to turn into a sin (a Racist for sure is a bad person, nay, an evil person) what on many, many, cases is nothing more that unconscious actions based in the relative social/educational positions of the participants, will neither help bring the unconscious actors to “consciously check their privilege” nor help root out those who really hate and despise the Other.

          I’m perfectly fine to acknowledge that historical processes have put the black community in a situation where, just by being white, im born ahead of them, and will probably die ahead of them. I’m perfectly fine to implement policies that would try to correct this situation. I hope that, decades from now (regretfully it will take generations) this situation is no longer.

          I’m not fine calling Racist a white person that acts reasonably and takes advantage of the opportunities that he/she has (including those that correlate with him/her being white). I was born white in an upper middle class family that valued education very highly. I was born elite. I’m even blue eyed. I was born already in third base. The same societal priors that hurt the Black community have favoured me all my life. I have unconsciously moved through life making use of these additional opportunities that are not available to Black people. This makes me very close to the academic definition of a Racist.

          Should I call myself a Racist?

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          • If you need a very particular background for the definition to make sense, perhaps the problem is in the definition.

            You have a problem with technical jargon?

            I mean it’s right there with the “academic meaning of the term”. Every academic field, hard and soft, repurposes words, narrows or specializes definitions, in order to be more precise in applicable meaning.

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            • The problem isn’t that the academic and popular definitions of racism are different. Its that attempts to educate non-college educated people about structural racism, sexism, or homophobia seems to be done in the most bone-headed fashion possible.

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              • Possibly.

                However, having personally dealt with the most…problematic…folks on that issue short of outright white supremacists, I’m gonna go ahead and say “Tone don’t matter”.

                An epic-level bard couldn’t convince those people, because their entire worldview is pretty much built on it. What’s worse, is they often DO have black friends, as it were. It’s just “those guys” are okay, it’s “all the rest” that are the problem.

                Again, from Texas, we also have that additional Jim Crow legacy that undoubtedly shapes the structural issues even further, but there’s this sizable strain of embedded, cultural racism that boils down to “Better a poor white than the richest black” — attacking that racism is literally punching them square in their pride, telling them that they’re lower down the status pole than they think.

                No campaign ad, frankly no educational campaign, is gonna break through that.

                It’s not burning crosses racism.

                It’s cultural, and it’s a culture that goes back a long, long time.

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            • The problem isn’t with the academic meaning of the term.

              It’s with the whole conversation in which two people are using the same word and one of them is using the academic meaning of the term and the other is using the casual meaning of the word and talking past each other.

              Or worse, when one of them knows that there are two meanings and is jumping back and forth between the two meanings in the conversation when the other one thinks that they’re only using the one.

              It’s actually pretty classist of you to not have noticed this phenomenon.

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            • I don’t have a problem with technical jargon in technical fields..

              I have a huge problem using technical jargon when we are trying to talk to non technical fields. And then having to revert to “oh, the problem is your ignorance. See, this word that for you muggles means A, that word really means B”

              The Catholic Church is very good at that, when it tells people that they are “inherently disordered” and then, graciously, explain that neither inherently nor disordered means what the populace thinks they mean. It just means that you are acting in ways that under no circumstances align with the telos. See, no need to feel insulted, you inhererently disordered acting person.

              If you want to speak outside the Academia, and want to engage people outside the Academia, and want to change the culture outside the Academia, calling people inherently disordered, or racist, doesn’t help.

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          • Should I call myself a Racist?

            Probably not, as that (1) is pretty essentialist, and (2) implies something internal to your mental states or processes. I mean, there is probably some of that too – I know that, having grown up in Saskatchewan in the 1980s, I inevitably have some racist mental habits. It would just be impossible not to. The best I can do is try to be on the lookout for them and hope they don’t overly influence my outward actions.

            You might call some of your actions racist if, on examination, they come out that way.

            You can certainly call the social structures in which you live racist.

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      • I’ve had some successful conversations around this. In them, I didn’t try to redefine the word “racism”. I just describe, for instance, the effect of 200 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow as meaning that very few white people can think of black people as “somebody like me”. (That too is changing). I don’t think calling someone a “racist” accomplishes anything. Behavior is what matters, not whether somebody “is” something or not.

        I went a few rounds with Coates on this one, but only later I realized that I am much better positioned, being white, to have this kind of discussion with another white person, than he is.

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  3. Its going to be a long four years for Jewish Americans like other minority Americans. Making matters worse is that a significant percentage of people on the liberal side of the aisle still insist on seeing Jews as a strange type of white person at best. Getting to mention the words Jews or anti-Semitism when it comes to talking about the bigotry among Trump supporters is nearly impossible. They are so used to thinking that Trump is white and that Jews are not to be included in the wretched of the earth column that they just can’t bend a bit.

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    • “Making matters worse is that a significant percentage of people on the liberal side of the aisle still insist on seeing Jews as a strange type of white person at best.”

      Is this the only possible interpretation for people on the left who might see the matter differently than you?

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      • Considering that these are people who seem to deeply understand how the past effects the present and things like systematic racism are real but somehow also think that Jews should be over 2000 or so years of persecution like it was nothing; than yes I think that this is the only plausible explanation. They are apathetic towards Jews in the extreme because we don’t fit neatly in their cosmology.

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        • I’m struggling to understand who, exactly, you are describing.

          Again: If people on the left feel differently than you on this particular matter, is the only explanation apathy towards Jews and a belief that they should “get over 2000 or so years of persecution like it was nothing”?

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      • I don’t know how common this is. I do recall a commenter over at LG&M who favored self-determination for all peoples, except Jews because they’ve shown they’re going to misuse it, and how I was the only one who pushed back on that.

        Jews do seem to be called white by people who think that’s an insult but not by people who think it’s a compliment.

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        • When you say “self-determination”, do you mean the right to self-identify?

          I don’t doubt that there are many liberals with shitty views on Jews. In fact, I’d agree with Lee’s broader argument that there is a tendency on the left to have a blind spot regarding Jewish issues. What I’m objecting to is the idea that anyone on the left who doesn’t toe a particular line with regards to Jewish issues is guilty of holding those shitty views.

          I’ve seen threads here where Lee has insisted a Jewish person wasn’t white. Which seems just as wrong as insisting that that Jewish person is white. Self-determination/self-identity is just that… done by the self. Insisting that a Jewish person who has not weighed in on the matter isn’t white because it suits a certain argument isn’t all that different from insisting that the person is white.

          I know many Jewish people who identify as white. In fact, many of them would laugh at the idea that they are not white. Does that mean that all Jews must identify as white? Hell no. Only that the matter is complicated and insisting that their is “one true way” to think feel fallacious.

          To the specific matter of whether Jews with European ancestry are white… I submit that that isn’t for me to say. What I will argue is that — independent of how they might self-identify — many Jews with European ancestry benefit from white privilege in certain circumstances and that this can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. This doesn’t also mean that they can’t suffer from anti-Semitism, that the ill effects of anti-Semitism can’t outweigh the benefits of white privilege, or that their suffering — historically or contemporarily — is somehow less.

          Am I necessarily right in these views? Obviously not. But does the fact that I hold them mean I necessarily “insist on seeing Jews as a strange type of white person at best” and “that Jews should be over 2000 or so years of persecution like it was nothing”? Hell no.

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                  • Israel was created as a refuge for the Jewish people, as a result of the Holocaust, which the rest of the world showed complete indifference to. The US was not created as a refuge for white people, who are, by the way, not in any sort of peril.

                    If we’re not talking about race, immigration means new Americans, which is a good thing.

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                      • I mean, this is effectively calling THE REST OF THE WORLD anti-Semitic!

                        More seriously, if you find yourself saying the “14 Words” (except for people of Jewish descent rather than “white”), you may find yourself making a mirror argument to some exceptionally ugly arguments.

                        Yes, I know it’s different when you do it.

                        There’s an additional dynamic from recent decades where “victimization” itself provides some sort of moral authority. I think you may have noticed this when the support for Israel changed somewhere around the Six Day War. (Slogan: “Six Days, Bitches!”)

                        Israel went from being the regional underdog to being the regional guy who proved he could stand up for himself.

                        Well, in the last couple of decades, the narrative has once again flipped and the Palestinians are the… what do we want to call them? The Mexico to Israel’s USA? The Puerto Ricans?

                        It’s weird that it’s so very difficult to come up with a decent analogy but, at the end of the day, it’s not so weird that under a moral theory where victimization provides some amount of moral authority in its own right that Israel finds itself being called a bully and the Palestinians are in the position of the bullied.

                        Yes, yes. I know. The nightclub was bombed and that Sbarro and all of those suicide bombers on buses and whatnot.

                        (Dude. I argued on Israel’s side during the 2nd Intifada. I am familiar with all of these arguments. I argued on Israel’s side on Libertarian grounds comparing Israel to Sharia States and questioning the Liberal bona fides of the people criticizing Israel. Seriously: I GET IT.)

                        What I am telling you is that the dynamic has flipped and you’re finding yourself in a place where you’re asking for two standards for two different peoples based on the race of the people you’re holding the standards for.

                        Additionally, since “Muslim” has, apparently, become a “race” in the last decade or so, this isn’t an argument about competing cultures or ideologies anymore.

                        It’s about racism.

                        Note: I don’t know what the solution is.
                        I do suspect that indignation at people saying “we just want to do something similar to what you’re doing” will do more to drive wedges than actually make progress.

                        For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Israel has quite as many allies among the intellectual and academic left as it used to. Which is weird.

                        The best allies seem to be among the White Evangelical Right. Which is weird.

                        The future is going to be weird. Indignation at that will accelerate it.

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                        • The solution is mending fences. The solution is lasting peace, and a haven for the Israelis when they have to flee their country.

                          The solution is not calling Palestinians traitors for BDS, which is a peaceful movement.

                          I support BDS — anything that works out frustrations without killing people is a good thing.

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                          • BDS is psyops. Israel is an island of civilization in a sea of barbarism.

                            I, personally, think that a 3-state solution is the only thing that will kick the decimation of one side or the other down the road but that has never been on the table.

                            The problem is that the current solution is not sustainable and it’s either going to change and make things worse or make things a *LOT* worse.

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                        • Original response: But it’s 2016!

                          More reasonable response: “It’s reasonable for me to care about this sort of thing for me and mine but it’s unreasonable for you and yours to care about this sort of thing” is going to play well with only you and yours.

                          Are we going to be hopping back and forth between “on a moral level, *THIS* is the truth” and “on a pragmatic level divorced from moral judgments, *THAT* is the truth” for a while?

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                      • Do I see Israel as no longer being the country it was created to be if Jews cease to be a majority there? Let me say it this way:

                        Canada is a fine country. I’ve enjoyed every trip I’ve taken there, and I can’t recall any Canadians I’ve spent time with who weren’t absolutely lovely people. If I had the opportunity to live and work there for six months or a year, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

                        Before WWII, when European Jews needed desperately to find places to emigrate to, you know how Canada responded? “One is too many.”

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          • Kazzy,
            I assure you that plenty of my Jewish relatives aren’t white. I’m caucasian, but we aren’t ALL caucasian. They deal with plenty of racism in Israel too.

            A religion is not a genetic thing.

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  4. It’s the smugness and the “I know what’s good for you” tone/attitude. Again, it’s “I can’t believe YOU think like that.” Well, sister, a lot of people do and disparaging our beliefs/opinions/views really isn’t the way to either have a dialogue or convince anyone to change their potion. It just hardens it.

    And I think there is a “infantile-ness” sometimes with liberals. My VERY LIBERAL friend, who’s Jewish (non observer) said she had 3 anxiety attacks in the day after the election. This is a 46 year old woman who is otherwise extremely resilient. Her living in a bubble of group/similar think isn’t the reason for the attacks, but it’s not helping. I think I’m the only person that she has a relatively close relationship, who has a view differing from hers and she’s routinely “shocked” I could disagree with her on even the smallest political detail.

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  5. It seems like the point of this article was to stack the concepts of liberalism, smugness, and anti-Semitism on top of each other in so many combinations that it will seem like anyone who accuses liberals of smugness is anti-Semitic.

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