March 6, 2013

"Racism" as witchcraft: Insights from anthropology

[It looks like fleshing out the idea will take three separate posts -- this introductory one, one for the main argument, and a final one with a contrasting case.]

We no longer need to put quote marks around witchcraft because nobody takes it seriously anymore, so there's no need to signal our skepticism or dismissal of the idea. But the concept of "racism" is still entrenched enough that we need to. Well, I've already signaled my dismissal twice, so I don't need to make the text unreadable by continuing to put it in quotes.

Too often conservative thinkers (if they can be called that) would rather score yuk-yuk points in a nerd pissing contest than understand what's really going on. It doesn't matter if clouded thinking leads us into oblivion because, hey, I really showed that son-of-a-bitch who's boss, didn't I? A recent example was the spread of the term "Islamofascism," when the main ethnic groups within Islam -- Semites and Indo-Aryans -- are more lawless than law-and-order, small not large in their organization.

Still, even a misguided approach will hit close to the mark every now and then. The closest we've gotten is in describing mass hysteria about racists as modern-day witch hunts. That analogy actually goes much deeper than is suggested by the casual use of the term to describe any form of mass hysteria directed at identifiable groups.

The insights come from anthropology, another shameful blind spot for a group that considers itself more aware of human nature than the social engineers. This continues to leave conservatives utterly impotent to respond to liberal retards promoting this or that policy, or pushing one or another ideological point, on the basis of "In non-Western cultures..." Typically the conservative does nothing more than plop out a canned zinger -- "Yeah well if the jungle's so great, why don't you go live there?" Nobody following the debate ever took the liberal to be promoting such an extreme action, so they ignore the har-dee-har-har rejoinder and shift their views mildly more toward the liberal than the conservative.

Having concluded the opening motivational speech, this series of posts will go into point-by-point detail drawing parallels between beliefs and practices about witchcraft and about racism. In the second post, I'll focus on racism against American blacks and witchcraft in sub-Saharan Africa because those are the two prototypical cases of each.

The common factor of Africa is no accident -- in the final post, I'll contrast those cases with the way that (primarily Arab) Muslims conceive of and express their grievances with a hegemonic culture. They do not invoke anything like the concept of racism and do not show the features of witchcraft hysteria. Instead, they show the pastoralist's vigilance for slights against his honor, and his thirst for vengeance.

Hence, aggrieved minorities deal with the dominant culture in ways deriving from their own traditions, and it pays us to recognize these differences, the better to deal with them as reactionaries. "How to" would take us too far afield, apart from being more speculative; the purpose here is simply to illuminate crucial unseen patterns.

The basis for discussing African witchcraft systems will be E.E. Evans-Pritchard's classic ethnography Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (1937). Of course, I don't expect you to read even the abridged version, so here is a Word-file summary of the main ideas to chew over in the meantime. Evans-Pritchard was a seminal figure in mid-century social anthropology, and the work is neutral and sympathetic toward their beliefs and practices. He wished for them to adopt more rational systems, and believed that understanding what made their existing system tick was the first step.

In this way, he fits into the larger project of mid-century liberal social science, exemplified in America (to take the most relevant example) by Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (1965), which sought to understand how poverty kept on going within the American black community, and concluded that it was their lower rates of forming nuclear families.

The point is that the basis for what follows is not a caricature from either a dismissive or romanticizing field worker. The mid-century faith was that if experts could figure out how something worked, they could change it for the greater good. But, that required them to take a cold, hard honest look at the thing to begin with.


  1. Agnostic,

    I highlighted your comment (from Steve's thread) about Gen X cohorts being the instigators of those hoaxes in a Rod Dreher thread on the subject.

    Since, I believe that is what has inspired your coming series, I wanted to comment.

    I believe your very original insight on the cohort is correct. Beyond that, other things need to be taken into account. Charlie Rogers, a lesbian, commited a hoax anti-gay crime against herself last year. Also, it seems most of the perpetrators are women. Michelle Malkin also highlighted an eastern Asian male who commited an anti-Asian hoax while she was at Oberlin.

    Charlie Rogers, too, was a fellow Gen-Xer, but was white. Malkin's Asian guy was probably a Gen-Xer, too.

    They are rarer among these other groups. What needs to be teased out is how much depends on the power of the "aggrieved minority" to perpetrate such an aggressive act as to cry some -ism or commit a hoax versus some innate characteristic of the group.
    And make no mistake, they are hostile acts that only the powerful can get away with.

  2. I vaguely recall you tying these racial incidents to the seasons (was it last year during Trayvon?), Spring in particular. Nicholas Stix noticed that racial hoaxes always occur in the Spring.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading your series.

  3. I decided to look up the Charlie Rogers hoax to see if it at least conformed to the time of racial discontent.
    No. July 22.

  4. Thanks for the link.

    There is also the possibility that the myriad superstitions attributed to hunter-gatherer societies never even existed in the first place. They could have been exaggerated to make non-modern lifestyles seem paranoid and miserable.

    In general, "falling-crime" anthropology emphasizes superstition and the idea of "taboo". Rising-crime emphasizes general principles and commonalities between different cultures.


  5. H-G's don't seem to be very occupied by magic, oracles witchcraft, shamans, etc. Julian Jaynes points to those as the fall-out from the loss of the bicameral mind and becoming self-aware.

    Now that we no longer have our own inner god-voice to listen to / guide us, we need divination, witchcraft, etc., to find our way.

    The Azande are horticulturalists, though, not h-g's. The Bushmen (h-g's) don't believe in witchcraft, but their Bantu neighbors sure do. Same with Arctic h-g's -- very little witchcraft hysteria. Perhaps none. But you find a lot of that out-there stuff further down into the Americas where they were horticulturalists, or even agrarian societies in a few spots.

  6. "I vaguely recall you tying these racial incidents to the seasons (was it last year during Trayvon?), Spring in particular."

  7. "Charlie Rogers, too, was a fellow Gen-Xer, but was white. Malkin's Asian guy was probably a Gen-Xer, too."

    Ha, wherever you look, they turn up. Along with helicopter parenting, it's the most shameful part of Gen X culture.

    You were born in the late '70s right? Do you have any stories from around the early '90s like Malkin's, only for high school? Sometimes they don't blow up big enough to make the news.

  8. The term "islamo-facism" is indeed non-sensical, it was part of the attempt to associate Saddam with bin Laden. Baathism indeed has linkages with fascism (as did another political movement associated with Arab Christians, phalangism), but in practice such regimes didn't really compare to the European dictatorships. Arabs seem less organizable than even southern Italians.

    Valorizing non-western cultures doesn't seem that big with liberals these days. European social welfare states (particularly northern ones) are the example we're supposed to aspire to. Often enough they don't even need to look beyond the north America, and just compare northeastern states (or Canada) to backward southern ones.

  9. what are some good books to study all of those cultures?


  10. Forgot to mention Henry Harpending on "institutional racism" and "white privilege" as a form of "sympathetic magic".

  11. Yes, living in north Florida.

    I remember 1992 as the year when blacks suddenly turned into extreme racists and it was explicitly tied to the Malcolm X movie. They had always behaved badly, but now they acted extra sullen. But that was the extent of it.

    I don't remember for how long it went on, but every other black kid school wore some hostile, in your face, Malcolm X shirt. I'm not exaggerating, they were everywhere.

    The very worst kind of grievance agitation I heard, and it was during this time, was when some black girl got bumped accidentally by a white girl, who didn't apologize, and yelled out, "These aren't slave days!"

    I had forgotten all about the change in blacks until I looked up the music video for "Tennessee". I thought it was catchy, we all did, but didn't even understand it. Whoa! That video made all those memories come back!

    Our reaction? We ignored them. Weren't afraid nor intimidated by them. We certainly didn't wet ourselves over their choices.
    I don't recall having a single conversation with a single person about it.

    Even with huge chips on their shoulders, there were far more racist fights in middle school when nothing was out of the ordinary. White boys did not put up with them, ever.

    They would act like the "boys" a woman sics on the insulters in this video, not staged:

  12. I love that Top Gear video.

    Here, they actually discussed the incident with the rednecks with 60 minutes calling it their scariest experience:

    Gotta say, it makes me proud that they don't put up with such flagrant disrespect.

  13. How come belief in the evil eye is so strong in the Middle East?

    Henry Harpending's post at his blog on witchcraft (where the racism - witchcraft connection was frequently mooted) may be useful-

  14. Mideasterners scale higher than average for "Agreeability". They tend to be friendlier and warmer.

    But those high in Agreeability tend to lack predictive ability. When your natural inclination is to give strangers the benefit of the doubt, you can't predict what that person's intentions are.

    So I"d expect that cultures high in Agreeability tend to develop weird superstitions or rituals to determine if someone means them harm or not.

    Whereas a culture low in Agreeability, such as China, is the opposite. They have a taboo about displaying open suspicion of someone else, and few rituals to determine the motivations of someone else. But this is because individuals themselves are naturally paranoid and mistrustful, and can figure out if someone is their friend or not.


  15. I expect that may explain the success of Islam as well. When your natural inclination is to be warm and trusting to people, you need a system of regulations to explain things to you, so that you are not continuously fucked over.

    Once again, we see a contrast with China. The Chinese have historically had weak religious behavior and moral codes. Individuals were low in Agreeability, but had enhanced analytic ability and paranoia. They were cunning enough to protect themselves.


  16. I have arrived at the "racism as witchcraft" position on my own and went looking in Google for other versions of it and found you.

    Great minds! :)

  17. I'd recommend a book:

    Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
    by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields

    I have some passages from it in these posts:


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."