Race & Morality

Jonathan Haidt writes:
Nationalists see patriotism as a virtue; they think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving. This is a real moral commitment, not a pose to cover up racist bigotry. Some nationalists do believe that their country is better than all others, and some nationalisms are plainly illiberal and overtly racist. But as many defenders of patriotism have pointed out, you love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others. Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries.
There is nothing necessarily racist or base about this arrangement or social contract. Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust. Having no such shared sense leads to the condition that the sociologist Émile Durkheim described as “anomie” or normlessness. Societies with high trust, or high social capital, produce many beneficial outcomes for their citizens: lower crime rates, lower transaction costs for businesses, higher levels of prosperity, and a propensity toward generosity, among others…
On closer inspection, racism usually turns out to be deeply bound up with moral concerns. (I use the term “moral” here in a purely descriptive sense to mean concerns that seem—for the people we are discussing—to be matters of good and evil; I am not saying that racism is in fact morally good or morally correct.) People don’t hate others just because they have darker skin or differently shaped noses; they hate people whom they perceive as having values that are incompatible with their own, or who (they believe) engage in behaviors they find abhorrent, or whom they perceive to be a threat to something they hold dear. These moral concerns may be out of touch with reality, and they are routinely amplified by demagogues. But if we want to understand the recent rise of right-wing populist movements, then “racism” can’t be the stopping point; it must be the beginning of the inquiry.
Among the most important guides in this inquiry is the political scientist Karen Stenner. In 2005 Stenner published a book called The Authoritarian Dynamic, an academic work full of graphs, descriptions of regression analyses, and discussions of scholarly disputes over the nature of authoritarianism. (It therefore has not had a wide readership.) Her core finding is that authoritarianism is not a stable personality trait. It is rather a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat. It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.
The answer, Stenner suggests, is what she calls “normative threat,” which basically means a threat to the integrity of the moral order (as they perceive it). It is the perception that “we” are coming apart:
The experience or perception of disobedience to group authorities or authorities unworthy of respect, nonconformity to group norms or norms proving questionable, lack of consensus in group values and beliefs and, in general, diversity and freedom ‘run amok’ should activate the predisposition and increase the manifestation of these characteristic attitudes and behaviors.

“So authoritarians are not being selfish. They are not trying to protect their wallets or even their families. They are trying to protect their group or society. Some authoritarians see their race or bloodline as the thing to be protected, and these people make up the deeply racist subset of right-wing populist movements, including the fringe that is sometimes attracted to neo-Nazism. They would not even accept immigrants who fully assimilated to the culture. But more typically, in modern Europe and America, it is the nation and its culture that nationalists want to preserve.”

Stenner identifies authoritarians in her many studies by the degree to which they endorse a few items about the most important values children should learn at home, for example, “obedience” (vs. “independence” and “tolerance and respect for other people”). She then describes a series of studies she did using a variety of methods and cross-national datasets. In one set of experiments she asked Americans to read fabricated news stories about how their nation is changing. When they read that Americans are changing in ways that make them more similar to each other, authoritarians were no more racist and intolerant than others. But when Stenner gave them a news story suggesting that Americans are becoming more morally diverse, the button got pushed, the “authoritarian dynamic” kicked in, and they became more racist and intolerant. For example, “maintaining order in the nation” became a higher national priority while “protecting freedom of speech” became a lower priority. They became more critical of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce.
One of Stenner’s most helpful contributions is her finding that authoritarians are psychologically distinct from “status quo conservatives” who are the more prototypical conservatives—cautious about radical change. Status quo conservatives compose the long and distinguished lineage from Edmund Burke’s prescient reflections and fears about the early years of the French revolution through William F. Buckley’s statement that his conservative magazine National Review would “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”
Status quo conservatives are not natural allies of authoritarians, who often favor radical change and are willing to take big risks to implement untested policies. This is why so many Republicans—and nearly all conservative intellectuals—oppose Donald Trump; he is simply not a conservative by the test of temperament or values. But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling “Stop!” Brexit can seem less radical than the prospect of absorption into the “ever closer union” of the EU.
So now we can see why immigration—particularly the recent surge in Muslim immigration from Syria—has caused such powerfully polarized reactions in so many European countries, and even in the United States where the number of Muslim immigrants is low. Muslim Middle Eastern immigrants are seen by nationalists as posing a far greater threat of terrorism than are immigrants from any other region or religion. But Stenner invites us to look past the security threat and examine the normative threat. Islam asks adherents to live in ways that can make assimilation into secular egalitarian Western societies more difficult compared to other groups. (The same can be said for Orthodox Jews, and Stenner’s authoritarian dynamic can help explain why we are seeing a resurgence of right-wing anti-Semitism in the United States.) Muslims don’t just observe different customs in their private lives; they often request and receive accommodations in law and policy from their host countries, particularly in matters related to gender. Some of the most pitched battles of recent decades in France and other European countries have been fought over the veiling and covering of women, and the related need for privacy and gender segregation. For example, some public swimming pools in Sweden now offer times of day when only women are allowed to swim. This runs contrary to strong Swedish values regarding gender equality and non-differentiation.
So whether you are a status quo conservative concerned about rapid change or an authoritarian who is hypersensitive to normative threat, high levels of Muslim immigration into your Western nation are likely to threaten your core moral concerns. But as soon as you speak up to voice those concerns, globalists will scorn you as a racist and a rube. When the globalists—even those who run the center-right parties in your country—come down on you like that, where can you turn? The answer, increasingly, is to the far right-wing nationalist parties in Europe, and to Donald Trump, who just engineered a hostile takeover of the Republican Party in America.
The Authoritarian Dynamic was published in 2005 and the word “Muslim” occurs just six times (in contrast to 100 appearances of the word “black”). But Stenner’s book offers a kind of Rosetta stone for interpreting the rise of right-wing populism and its focus on Muslims in 2016. Stenner notes that her theory “explains the kind of intolerance that seems to ‘come out of nowhere,’ that can spring up in tolerant and intolerant cultures alike, producing sudden changes in behavior that cannot be accounted for by slowly changing cultural traditions.”
She contrasts her theory with those who see an unstoppable tide of history moving away from traditions and “toward greater respect for individual freedom and difference,” and who expect people to continue evolving “into more perfect liberal democratic citizens.“ She does not say which theorists she has in mind, but Welzel and his World Values Survey collaborators, as well as Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, seem to be likely candidates. Stenner does not share the optimism of those theorists about the future of Western liberal democracies. She acknowledges the general trends toward tolerance, but she predicts that these very trends create conditions that hyper-activate authoritarians and produce a powerful backlash. She offered this prophecy:
“[T]he increasing license allowed by those evolving cultures generates the very conditions guaranteed to goad latent authoritarians to sudden and intense, perhaps violent, and almost certainly unexpected, expressions of intolerance. Likewise, then, if intolerance is more a product of individual psychology than of cultural norms…we get a different vision of the future, and a different understanding of whose problem this is and will be, than if intolerance is an almost accidental by-product of simple attachment to tradition. The kind of intolerance that springs from aberrant individual psychology, rather than the disinterested absorption of pervasive cultural norms, is bound to be more passionate and irrational, less predictable, less amenable to persuasion, and more aggravated than educated by the cultural promotion of tolerance [emphasis added].”

Writing in 2004, Stenner predicted that “intolerance is not a thing of the past, it is very much a thing of the future.”

…Stenner ends The Authoritarian Dynamic with some specific and constructive advice:

“[A]ll the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference—the hallmarks of liberal democracy—are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness…. Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes. And regrettably, nothing is more certain to provoke increased expression of their latent predispositions than the likes of “multicultural education,” bilingual policies, and nonassimilation.”

If Stenner is correct, then her work has profound implications, not just for America, which was the focus of her book, but perhaps even more so for Europe. Donald Tusk, the current president of the European Council, recently gave a speech to a conclave of center-right Christian Democratic leaders (who, as members of the educated elite, are still generally globalists). Painfully aware of the new authoritarian supremacy in his native Poland, he chastised himself and his colleagues for pushing a “utopia of Europe without nation-states.” This, he said, has caused the recent Euroskeptic backlash: “Obsessed with the idea of instant and total integration, we failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our Euro-enthusiasm.”


Nationalism on the other hand is common sense based in knowledge of nature: each species produces results based in how it behaves. If you have a group of dogs, you get dog-society; if you have pigeons, you get a different society than if you have hawks. With humans, this varies between groups.

This leads to realizations of this nature — that America was not the result of its laws, but of its founding Western European stock:

“The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people. “

Most people who are coming to Nationalism are not doing so through political means, but through cultural values and day-to-day revelations. In particular, they are seeing what a country run by the Other looks like, and whether we can “objectively” claim it is similar or “equal” to the old way, the fact is that it is not compatible with what we the majority need.

Throughout history, diversity has failed for this reason: with many groups occupying the same space, no group gets to choose a values system, and so the society is torn apart by internal conflict over individual values because it cannot select a values system as a whole. We are in that process right now.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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