Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Social Consequences of Speciation

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sometimes, I don't know how to write about important matters. Please bear with me, because this subject is far more important than it might initially seem.

When most people encounter the word species, it is either in the context of a biological discussion, or the word is used as a metaphorical borrowing from discussion of that sort. It actually has more general meanings, the broadest simply being class of things of shared characteristics. But what concerns me here is indeed its biological sense.

Most people who have any notion at all of the word derive their understanding of the biological signification from a combination of observed use and whatever was told to them by middle- and high-school texts of alleged science. Many of them know that organisms are categorized hierarchically, and that species is a finer category than genus. But, if asked to describe the classification of animals as different, say, as are cats and dogs, far more people would descibe them as of different species than as of different family or as of different genus. There is an inferred sense that difference in species is rather fundamental.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the biological sense thus:

A taxonomic grouping ranking next below genus and subgenus, which contains organisms that are uniquely distinguished from others by certain shared characteristics and usu. by an inability to interbreed with members of other such groupings; such a grouping as denoted by a Latin binomial, and freq. subdivided into subspecies, races, varieties, etc.; the organisms of such a grouping.

That bit about inability to interbreed is a bit loose; for example, most biologists would classify horses and donkeys as of different species, though they can produce offspring. However, a striking characteristic of those offspring is that they cannot themselves produce further offspring. The infertility of those offspring is usually cited towards explaining the speciation.

In any case, The SOED hedged with that usu. because some biologists categorize animals as of different species though they can interbreed down through indefinitely many generations, as in the case of coyotes (C. latrans) with wolves (C. lupus).

Over some decades, anthropologists disagreed over whether to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, H. neanderthalensis, or as a sub-species of H. sapiens. As there was no way to observe potential interbreeding, early disagreement turned on issues of overt morphology — the shapes of skulls, dentition, &c. But then interbreeding became, in a sense, potentially observable as it became possible to extract and analyze DNA from remains of Neanderthalers. Initial results (quite surprising to me) suggested no interbreeding, and it became more commonly accepted that they should be considered a distinct species. However, when later genetic evidence began to show the presence of Neanderthaler genes in some modern populations of H. sapiens, the practice of treating them as a distinct species was not universally abandoned. It is still common to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, though this implicitly means that species is not being used with the usu. signification. And when, far more recently, a similar archaïc population, the Denisovans, were distinguished, it became fairly common also to categorize them as a distinct species, though their genes are likewise found in some modern populations of H. sapiens.

But, again, when most lay-people hear or read the word species, they are imagining a quite significant distinction. And when they hear and read of Neanderthalers or of Denisovans as distinct species, they infer that these people were not human. Here are three example articles that I quickly found of journalists doing just that in the case of Neanderthalers or in that of Denisovans:

As these archaïc populations are extinct, there may not seem to be any more of a social issue here than there typically is with misunderstood science. But a problem is coming right at us. And it's associated with the point that the genes of archaïc populations are found in modern populations — in different distributions. Take, for example, this article:

The author or authors blithely refer to the Neanderthalers, to the Denisovans, and to an additional, hypothesized archaïc population as distinct species without explaining whatever is there meant by the term. A large share of readers will regard the archaïc populations as not fully human, and infer that different ethnic groups have more or less genetic material that is not fully human. It will be inappropriately inferred that some ethnic groups are thus less human or more human than are others.

Anthropologists and biologists who talk with lay-persons, and especially with journalists and with other informal educators, need to emphasize the arbitrariness in use of the word species, and these scientists need to impress upon their audiences that the word should be avoided or explained in all popular-science journalism that touches upon our relationships with archaïc populations.

On the Meaning of Racism

Monday, 3 October 2016

The original definition of racism, and the one still found in standard dictionaries, is a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race

However, a few decades ago, some social theorists began insisting upon a new definition of racism, under which one could not be called a racist unless one not only were prejudiced against some racial group, but had social power. Devotees of this new definition variously baldly restate it, as if the restatement makes it so, or cite the theorists, as if such citation makes it so.

Those who make a special study of a subject sometimes take a term in popular use, and give it a peculiar, somewhat new definition. (For examp!e, we see that in physics, with the uses of energy, force, and work; and we see that in economics, with the definition of unemployment.) But what usually characterizes these redefinitions is that somewhat loose notions are replaced with more explicit, more precise, and otherwise more workable definitions. (For example, when an economist uses unemployment, she usually excludes people who have quit one job for another, but have not yet started that next job, because joblessness of this transitory sort is not typically considered to be a social ill.)

Alarms really ought to go-off about the redefinition of racism. The original concept was quite coherent and useful; if it were not coherent, then the redefinition (which essentially adds a condition) would inherit the incoherence. Racism on the part of people with little social power still has significant social consequences; any legitimate use of the new concept is far more sharply limited than that of the original concept.

Let's imagine that someone prejudiced against those outside his own major racial group makes a solo walking tour of Los Angeles. As he travels from one neighborhood to another, he gains or loses social power as the ethnic compositions of those neighborhoods vary. His beliefs about the relation between race and merit needn't change (and should not be expected to do so much if at all). Yet by the mere act of travel through a large city in which ethnic groups are not uniformly distributed, under the redefinition he would repeatedly go from being a racist, to not being a racist, to again being a racist. It would be extraordinary and dangerous to make a solo walking tour of all of Los Angeles, but a great many people regularly move across communities of different ethnic composition. Application of the proposed redefinition of racism would routinely become unworkable, under circumstance in which the standard definition remains quite workable.

There are certainly legitimate applications of the concept of socially empowered racism, but in those applications we can call it socially empowered racism or something similar.

When a concept loses its associated symbol, it becomes harder to discuss or even to think about that concept. Further, the response to symbols is largely emotive. Whether people learn by reason that something is good or that it is bad, or they are simply led to accept some valuation by imitation of those in their society, people come to associate positive or negative feelings with the words used for those things. Old concepts given new words don't provoke the same response; old symbols given new meanings carry with them some or all of the old feelings. Those who have adopted a new redefinition of racism can thus escape the recognition of racism, and the felt need to condemn some instances of racism, by allowing themselves to believe that some people simply cannot be racists, by virtue of their social standing.

We are simply dealing with an attempted hijacking of language, for purposes of subverting clear thought and discussion. That is most plain when the word racism has been introduced into some discourse with its standard definition, and in response it is insisted that something conforming to that original definition is not racism because it does not conform to the proposed redefinition. But any non-standard use that is not flagged as such is still a subversion of rationality. Those who have participated in the attempted hijacking are knaves or fools or both.

Let's Be Rational Here

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I got into an argument, about a real-world crime statistic, with another student who didn't have much math-sense. The mathematics itself is very simple, and yet at least one implication of it seems to run counter to the intuïtions of many people.

Let's say that a population p is divided into groups, each i-th group with population pi p = ∑(pi) And let's say that the i-th group has a propensity ci to commit crimes, such that ci · pi gives the sum of the crimes committed (however measured) by members of that population.

If criminals from within each group draw their victims with each person having an equal chance of victimization regardless of his or her own group, then the proportionate share of victims that they draw from the j-th group will be pj / p The total number of crimes then committed against the j-th group by members of the i-th group will then be (pj / p) · (ci · pi) and the ratio of i-on-j crime to j-on-i crime will be [(pj / p) · (ci · pi)] / [(pi / p) · (cj · pj)] = ci / cj So, if ci = cj, then the ratio of i-on-j crime to j-on-i crime will simply be 1:1.

The other graduate student had been sure that, if group i were the smaller group, then the ratio should be larger than 1:1, because group j furnished more potential victims. The proper intuïtion here is that, if one group is larger than another, then it furnishes proportionally both more potential victims and more potential victimizers; or, to say the same thing differently, if one group is smaller than another, then it furnishes proportionally both fewer potential victims and fewer potential victimizers.

If we see a very different ratio, then the difference implies that one group has a greater propensity to criminality than the other, or that one group is seeking (or avoiding) the other in its acts of criminality, or both.

It should be noted that members of the j-th group may be sought or avoided for reasons other than their being members of that group as such. For example, members of the j-th group may happen to have more portable wealth. Still, if one sees a ratio of, say, about 50:1, then it's hard to explain this lop-sided ratio in terms simply of the j-th group having more wealth, or of the i-th group simply having a greater propensity to criminality. With a ratio like that, one should expect that members of the j-th group are indeed being targetted for being in that group, by members of the i-th group.

In the Woodpile

Monday, 4 July 2011

Some weeks ago, the Woman of Interest spotted an interesting deck of cards on eBay. The deck was miniature, Disney-themed (Mickey Mouse on the backs and on the box), and dated from the late '30s or perhaps 1940. I later found a similar or identical sort of deck listed.

These decks are very appealing, but there's something disturbing about them as well. Here are the joker cards shown in the listings: [image of two cards, each showing Goofy with his head and neck sticking up from within or behind a woodpile] The two designs, of course, are basically identical except for coloration and for the presence of a background cloud in one and not in the other. I don't yet know whether these cards represent two designs found in each deck, or distinguish one sort of deck from another, but I believe that the latter is the case.

In any event, each pictures Goofy's head and neck sticking-up from within or from behind a woodpile.

There's an expression

a n_gg_r in the woodpile
It refers to a condition where something significant, typically undesirable, is believed to be concealed. This unpleasant metaphor is no longer current in America;[1] in fact, I had to relate and to explain it to the Woman of Interest, who had never encountered it, and I had to double-check on its exact meaning. But it used to be quite current here, and certainly would have been when those cards were designed and when they were released. I cannot help but think that in the mind of the designer, these graphics are meant to be an allusion to that expression, with the underlying notion being that Goofy is an analogue, within the Disney universe, of the stereotypical black character from that era.

I draw attention to the point that one cannot infer that this is how Disney or the rest of the firm conceptualized Goofy; an alien analogy would not be recognized as such, and the image could have been seen as simply silly.

[1] It evidently retains some currency in Britain, where state and corporate officials continue to let it slip in public!

and no sound came back of his going

Monday, 13 July 2009

Some weeks ago, I mentioned to the Woman of Interest my having looked, as a child, for rôle models in fictional heroes. She made the natural but mistaken inference that the Batman would have been amongst these. As I explained to her, when I was of such an age to look, the Batman was still morphed into Batman, a scientific detective who wore a bat suit for no particularly good reason; it was only later that Denny O'Neil brought back the Batman.[1] A character whom I then mentioned was Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane. My father had a copy of Red Shadows, published by Donald M. Grant, which collected a number of stories about Kane.[2] Kane, a wandering English Puritan, believes that, when he comes upon injustice, it is his obligation to set things as right as they might be. Although he is a tool that can be broken, he is none-the-less an instrument of G_d's justice. Howard described Kane as a fanatic.[3] Curious, the Woman of Interest located The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, a more recent collection.[4]

As I'd not anticipated her doing this, I hadn't mentioned to her that I'd liked the earliest stories a great deal, but the later stories far less. Frankly, I didn't and don't necessarily remember all these reasons for that opinion of my childhood. But, in any case, she likewise didn't like the later stories. More specifically, she was unhappy with the racism that began to surface in them, clearly with The Moon of Skulls.

Partly in response to her reäction, and partly because I recalled The Moon of Skulls as having thematic elements that I now recognize as drawn from Haggard's She and wanted to examine as such, I decided to get a copy of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane and re-read the stories.

Howard's racialism was not that of, say, Lovecraft. Howard's characters include black heroes as well as black villains. One black character, N'Longa, who seems sly and amoral or wicked in Red Shadows (originally Solomon Kane), is later developed in The Hills of the Dead as profoundly wise and on the side of the good. None-the-less, blacks are treated as, in general, less able people, as if intrinsically so.

The work seemed very old and very much superior to what might be expected of a tribe of ignorant negroes.


The black people who thronged that mighty room seemed grotesquely incongruous. They no more suited their surroundings than a band of monkeys would have seemed at home in the council chambers of the English king.[5]
And notion of intrinsic inferiority is unmistakeably present in the comparison of subtypes.
The girl was a much higher type than the thick-lipped, bestial West Coast negroes to whom Kane had been used. She was slim and finely formed, of a deep brown hue rather than ebony; her nose was straight and thin-bridged, her lips were not too thick. Somewhere in her blood there was a strong Berber strain.[6]
Meanwhile, the notion of Kane as somehow superior because he is Anglo-Saxon, because he is white, because he is Aryan becomes a recurring theme.
Kane stood, an unconscious statue of triumph — the ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth, whether he be clad in wolf-hide and horned helmet, or boots and doublet — whether he bear in his hand battle-ax or rapier — whether he be called Dorian, Saxon, or Englishman — whether his name be Jason, Hengist or Solomon Kane.[7]

The scary references to Aryan barbarians not-with-standing, Howard's racialism wasn't hate-filled. He was appalled by the Italian bombing of Ethiopia, and it's interesting to think what he might have learned had he lived into the post-war era, instead of blowing his brains out in 1936. His racialism strikes me as an expression of a combination of ignorance and of a childish longing for every-day magic. Howard had no formal education in the social or biological sciences beyond high school, and would have been informed by popularizations such as the Little Blue Books. At different points, he got enthusiastic about different ethnic groups — with later Solomon Kane stories, it's the Germanic conquerors of England; with other stories it's the very Celts whom they'd conquered.

I cannot tell you what my personal reäction as a child had been to the racism here. At that age, I read a lot of reprinted pulp fiction[8] from the inter-war period, and there's racism of various sorts and intensities in that stuff. I knew that the racism was rubbish, but I simply don't remember whether my response were to wince or to treat it as any other mythology.

What certainly put me off was Howard transforming Kane, from someone driven primarily by his pursuit of justice, into someone who'd felt some sort of call to travel across Africa, west-to-east; from an relentless avenger to a barbarian mixing it up mostly just because this, in Howard's mythologies, is what barbarians spend their time doing. I've never been able to work-up much enthusiasm for Conans or for Kulls.

Howard once listed Haggard amongst his favorite authors, and Haggard's influence on fantasy and adventure fiction are such that, in any event, one should not be surprised at seeing elements of She in The Moon of Skulls.

Both depict cities, each built by a pre-Egyptian civilization, hidden in the interior of Africa, now inhabited by dark-skinned savages, and ruled by a beautiful tyrant queen. The savage inhabitants make a habit of killing any who come into their land (though those in Howard's story will apparently make an exception for those who bear tribute). Haggard's Ayesha has foreseen the coming of white men, and ordered that they be brought to her unharmed; when an attempt is made to subvert and then violate this directive, she has the perpetrators horribly tortured to death. Howard's Nakari only learns of the arrival of a white man after her guards believe that they have killed him, but she is frustrated at word of his death and has the captain of the guards killed. Ayesha is about 2000 years old, and as near to immortal as one might be. Though the reference is unexplained, Nakari is called the vampire queen of the city in The Moon of Skulls, and is almost surely of her whom Kane speaks in Howard's poem Solomon Kane's Homecoming when he says

“And I have known a deathless queen / in a city as old as Death,[9]
Each queen derives her power from secrets pried from the last possessors of the secrets of the ancient people who built of their respective cities. Ayesha plans on world-domination once Leo is at her side. Meeting Kane, Nakari begins to dream of world conquest with him at hers. Ayesha is venomously jealous in reäction to Leo's concern for one of her subjects, Ustane,[10] while Nakari is venomous and jealous in reäction to Kane's concern for the slave-girl Mara.

However, Ayesha and Nakari are also markèdly different, in appearance and in character. Ayesha is an Arab with skin white as snow.

At length the curtain began to move. Who could be behind it? — some naked savage queen, a languishing Oriental beauty, or a nineteenth-century young lady, drinking afternoon tea? I had not the slightest idea, and should not have been astonished at seeing any of the three. I was getting beyond astonishment. The curtain agitated itself a little, then suddenly between its folds there appeared a most beautiful white hand (white as snow), and with long tapering fingers, ending in the pinkest nails. The hand grasped the curtain, and drew it aside, and as it did so I heard a voice, I think the softest and yet most silvery voice I ever heard. It reminded me of the murmur of a brook.


Though the face before me was that of a young woman of certainly not more than thirty years, in perfect health, and the first flush of ripened beauty, yet it had stamped upon it a look of unutterable experience, and of deep acquaintance with grief and passion. Not even the lovely smile that crept about the dimples of her mouth could hide this shadow of sin and sorrow. It shone even in the light of the glorious eyes, it was present in the air of majesty, and it seemed to say: Behold me, lovely as no woman was or is, undying and half-divine; memory haunts me from age to age, and passion leads me by the hand — evil have I done, and from age to age evil I shall do, and sorrow shall I know till my redemption comes.
But Nakari is, indeed, pretty much some naked savage queen.
A black woman she was, young and of tigerish comeliness. She was naked except for a beplumed helmet, armbands, anklets and a girdle of colored ostrich feathers, and she sprawled upon the silken cushions with her limb thrown about in voluptuous abandon.

Even at that distance Kane could make out that her features were regal yet barbaric, haughty and imperious, yet sensual, and with a touch of ruthless cruelty about the curl of her full red lips.
Haggard's Ayesha used her feminine charm to gain her near-immortality.
I heard of this philosopher, and waited for him when he came to fetch his food, and returned with him hither, though greatly did I fear to tread the gulf. Then did I beguile him with my beauty and my wit, and flatter him with my tongue, so that he led me down and showed me the Fire, and told me the secrets of the Fire, but he would not suffer me to step therein, and, fearing lest he should slay me, I refrained, knowing that the man was very old, and soon would die.
Howard's Nakari, went about things in a less winning manner, and what she has learned is mummery, rather than magic.
Listen, white man, the shackled one spoke with strange solemnity; I am dying. Nakari's rack has done its work. I die and with me dies the shadow of the glory that was my nation's. For I am the last of my race. In all the world there is none like me. Hark now, to the voice of a dying race.


As a child, she danced in the March of the New Moon, and as a young girl she was one of the Star-maidens. Much of the lesser mysteries was known to her, and more she learned, spying on the secret rites of the priests who enacted hidden rituals that were old when the earth was young. […] She alone of all the myriad black thousands who have lived and died between these walls guessed at the hidden passages and subterranean corridors, secrets which we of the priestcraft had guarded jealously from the people for a thousand years.


Torture could not wring these secrets from our lips, but shackled in her dungeons, we trod our hidden corridors no more. [….]


But Nakari discovered the secret, known before only to the brown priests, and now one of her Satellites mounts the hidden stair and yammers forth the strange and terrible chant which is but meaningless gibberish to him, as to those who hear it. [….]
Ayesha is cruel, deadly, and given to bursts of fury, but takes no sadistic delight in the hurt that she causes. When Holly pleads for mercy for those who had tried to kill his party, She replies
My Holly, it cannot be. Were I to show mercy to those wolves, your lives would not be safe among this people for a day. Thou knowest them not. They are tigers to lap blood, and even now they hunger for your lives. How thinkest thou that I rule this people? I have but a regiment of guards to do my bidding, therefore it is not by force. It is by terror. My empire is of the imagination. Once in a generation mayhap I do as I have done but now, and slay a score by torture. Believe not that I would be cruel, or take vengeance on anything so low. What can it profit me to be avenged on such as these? Those who live long, my Holly, have no passions, save where they have interests. Though I may seem to slay in wrath, or because my mood is crossed, it is not so. Thou hast seen how in the heavens the little clouds blow this way and that without a cause, yet behind them is the great wind sweeping on its path whither it listeth. So it is with me, oh Holly. My moods and changes are the little clouds, and fitfully these seem to turn; but behind them ever blows the great wind of my purpose. Nay, the men must die; and die as I have said.
But Nakari is plainly the sadist. When Kane rejects Nakari and demands to be released with Mara, Nakari thinks to kill him in her rage, but then says
Freedom? She will find her freedom when the Moon of Skulls leers down on the black altar. As for you, you shall rot in this dungeon. Your are a fool; Africa's greatest queen has offered you her love and the empire of the world — and you revile her! You love the white girl, perhaps? Until the Moon of Skulls she is mine and I leave you to think about this: that she shall be punished as I have punished her before — hung up by her wrists, naked, and whipped until she swoons!

In her embodiment of sin, Nakari may be closer to Haggard's original vision of Ayesha. Haggard set-out to write a story of an evil sorceress driven by an obsessive love. But the author himself was won-over by that love, and Ayesha transformed. Nothing redeems Nakari.

The illustrations for Red Shadows were done by Jeff Jones, one of the outstanding illustrators of the last few decades. Those for The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane were done by Gary Gianni. Gianni has, in fact, acquitted himself quite well. The interior pen-and-ink illustrations are outstanding, and reminiscent of some of the fine illustrations that used to be more common in books of adventure fiction.[11] The paintings are not as successful, but would simply seem satisfactory if only they weren't in proximity to drawings of such merit.

[1] The notion that it were Frank Miller who returned the Batman to his dark roots is simply ignorant.

[2] My understanding is that it contains all of the Kane material except the fragment Death's Black Riders.

[3] Years later, as O'Neil was embarking on his restoration of the Batman, I heard him speak at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and he used the same word, fanatic, to describe his notion of the Batman.

[4] Which collection includes Death's Black Riders.

[5] The Moon of Skulls.

[6] The Hills of the Dead. Though, again, it is in this same story that N'Longa's wisdom and goodness is revealed below his surface.

[7] Wings in the Night. The references to the demons of antiquity and to Jason are because Kane had just destroyed the last of the harpies, whom Ιασων had apparently driven from Europe into Africa. Kane manages to single-handedly destroy the harpies after the harpies have gruesomely exterminated two entire villages of hapless blacks.

[8] When I refer to pulps and to pulp fiction, I'm not referring to the cheap paper-back books of the post-war era. A pulp was a sort of perfect-bound magazine of fiction, typically about 7in (18cm) × 10in (25cm), printed on cheap pulp paper. Some of these have continued into the present, though in changed format; for example, Astounding is now Analog. The real relationship between these pulps and the cheap paper-back books that appeared later is that those books both reprinted stories from the pulps and were a rival market for new work.

[9] The poem continues

“Where towering pyramids of skulls / her glory witnesseth.
“Her kiss was like an adder's fang, / with the sweetness Lilith had,
“And her red-eyed vassals howled for blood / in that City of the Mad.
and, at the climax of The Moon of Skulls, the inhabitants are indeed gone mad with lust for killing.

[10] For the love of G_d, Ustane would be pronounced /usˈtane/, not /usˈten/.

[11] There is a slip in the next-to-last illustration for part I of The Children of Asshur. Gianni has drawn Kane with a sword and scabbard, in a fight in which he was armed with only an axe.

Bronx Cheer

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Half a block from where I live is Bronx Pizza, which looks like a hole-in-the-wall place, but has a really great pesto pizza, usually available by the slice. One can get two large slices and a soft drink for US$6. (The soft drink choice isn't great, but it's passable.)

To-day, I was there to get dinner. At a near-by table sat three blue-collar guys, my age or older. They looked as have white blue-collar guys for most or all of my life. But they were talking sincerely and unaffectedly about fighting a problem of sexism and racism at the place at which one of them worked, with the victim of the sexism being a woman. That's not the sort of conversation that such men would have had in my childhood.

The sun was going down, but my day brightened a bit.