Monday, November 13, 2006

smooth brains and small towns

Some years ago, around 1980, I was watching a documentary on television about racism and hate speech in Canada. The documentary featured an interview with a modern-day spokesman for the Ku Klux Klan, who explained that intelligence could be measured roughly by the number of whorls in the surface of the brain, the theory being that a greater stretch of coastline meant more real estate for cognitive fishing. He went on to explain that 'the brain of the Negro' (I remember clearly that he always referred to black people as 'the Negro,' with audible capitalization) was smoother than the Caucasian brain, which demonstrated that 'the Negro' was congenitally less intelligent than 'the White Man'. It was both explanatory and predictive, at once excusing slavery and intimating that the lot of 'the Negro' in the future would continue to be one of servitude and deprivation.

My nine or ten year old self was intrigued and astonished by this piece of scientific information. I went and told my father that 'the Negro' had a smooth brain. My dad grew very quiet and then told me, in carefully measured words, that the man on television was motivated by stupidity and hatred, and furthermore, that he had been lying.

I didn't understand - how could he be lying? I was prepared to believe that brain texture made no appreciable difference in intelligence, but I couldn't wrap my young mind around the idea that a person could appear on television and calmly cite facts that could, with a little checking, be easily refuted. The man on television had appeared completely confident in his words, his tone pedantic but faintly friendly and intimate, as if he were imparting knowledge to a bright but misguided child. I recognize the tone now as condescension, the patter of the televised preacher when the subject shifts from oracular pronouncements to edifying truths.

I also recognize now that I came from a highly privileged household, one in which books were regularly consulted. Almost any conversation with my familu usually ended with one of us getting up and crying out, "To the dictionary!". I have vivid memories of poring over the 1971 New York Times Atlas of the World - the entire world! - picking out blue threads of rivers and consulting the minuscule print of the index to settle some question. All our reference books had split spines and loose leaves. The net result of all this was a low tolerance for bullshit, although it never quelled my love of horrendously sloppy thinking, or my habit of building elaborate logical scaffolds to buttress up my dumbest ideas. It is a surfeit of humility, not intelligence, that keeps me grounded in my adult life.

Given our family habit of putting assumptions to the test, it seemed strange that the Klan speaker could get away with spouting crap, without someone simply opening a book and pointing out his error. They have their own books and studies, my parents explained, to bolster their lies. It followed, then, that the authors of the books and the people who conducted the studies, the people who gathered and collated the information, were either seriously stupid or just as wilfully evil as the speaker. I realized that the head of the Klan was the visible tip of an iceberg, that a much larger unseen body of people were devoted to a lie, a body of lies, an exercise in scholarly untruth dedicated to proving the inferiority of an abused class.

If my intellectual habits at home did not prepare me for this kind of deception, neither did my experience of cruelty and hatred in the village where I grew up. It was a profoundly rural place living in close proximity to wealth, where the disenfranchised were made keenly aware of their status by the parade of self-satisfied heirs of wealth who invaded our town every summer to race yachts and drink. The local rednecks needed no justification for their cruelty. They didn't care about sin or the smoothness of brains; they just wanted to kick some ass.

Racial slurs were thrown around, but it didn't mean very much; they could say all they wanted about black people, or indian people, or Torontonians, but they would likely encounter no more than a dozen of each in the course of their lives. Sometimes I was foreign enough for them, small and dark-complexioned, and I'd end up in an afterschool or weekend fight, but by and large my differences were suffered. Even with the threat of violence, this was a kind of hatred I could understand - a mix of boredom and basic teenage posturing, an outlet for kids who didn't want to go home to their shitty family life, so they hung around in front of the donair shop and waited for something exciting to happen. And when someone new or different came to town, they beat on him until he was no longer different. They beat him into a shape they could recognize - a victim like themselves.

I almost miss that genial cruelty (almost). I have a sense that the world has grown meaner over the last twenty-five years, as whatever cultural impetus - and genuine affluence without loads of consumer debt - from the 1970s evaporates into the arid air of 21st century capitalism. Discontent rules the discourse, and a vague suspicion of being cheated hangs over every issue. During my time as an interviewer I traveled around the world, but in parts of Canada and the States I found myself constantly amazed at the number of people who would, without prompting, tell me what the problem with society was. Invariably, the problem was small-l liberals, or black people, or immigrants. Occasionally it was sinners and infidels. Quite often it was the spectre of Bill Clinton, who even in 2004 was still ruining the country from his secret country-ruining base in New York. It was never the freeway that had sucked the heart out of the downtown and reorganized it into a row of strip malls and box stores straddling the county line. It wasn't the draining of the local oil wells, or the relocation of a factory to Mexico (under NAFTA, for which you can handily blame Clinton). It could not be one of their own, or a result of the decisions that they had made. That was a given.

Oddly enough, talking with so many bigots reinforced my faith in people. No one, I realized, can hate without justification, or revel in power for power's sake (that privilege is afforded to the upper classes). Like the head of the Klan with his talk of smooth brains, people need an intellectual armature for their beliefs. The Texas couple who refuse to do landscaping work for gay clients cannot admit to the mixture of revulsion and arousal that the thought of homosexuality excites in them; therefore they cite a stray passage from the bible and imagine that this affords them a reprieve. Hatred thrives on false divisions and will take any authority, no matter how nutrient-poor, as its medium. Even fundamentalist Christianity understands that, at base, their theology is a compound of Hebraic folklore and myth with infusions of hearty Greek mysticism, now thousands of years past its freshness date. The entire structure of anti-Darwinian pseudoscience functions as a tacit admission that literal and 'Dominionist' interpretations of the bible are little more than an excuse to indulge in a kind of hind-brained simplicity.

My point is, none of the elaborate justifications would exist without an abiding knowledge of right and wrong. No one but the most cartoonish of racists will hate without some set of reasons, whether the justification is scriptural, scientific or myopically anecdotal. Bruce Chatwin points out in The Songlines that populations are exceedingly difficult to brainwash because you need to keep up the effort with each generation. It's a shame that we're so good at brainwashing ourselves.


see emm said...

To the dictionary? I love that!

Once when I was a kid, my Dad made us stop Thanksgiving dinner so we could get the *family encyclopedia* and learn the difference between a Watt and a lumin. Turns out, they're each equivalent to a candlepower, just measured in different ways.

palinode said...

I didn't know that. I'm going to invent a third way of measuring illumination, based on how much a given light source makes me squint first thing in the morning. I'll call this unit palpathin. Or maybe I'll call a new squint-inducing drug I'm developing Palpathin.

Palpathin! For eyes too wide. Which is bad.

sgazzetti said...

I love it when you stop being wilfully ridiculous and begin being wilfullyly great.

Perhaps my proudest moment was when my father accused me of having stolen his copy of "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information". I hadn't taken it, but the idea that he thought I might have...

dreadmouse said...

An excellent post, Mr. Palinode. I don't find the same hope that you do in the "science" of racists, but I can see your point. Your post also makes me wonder how much of what I've read and believed is 100% wrong.

My Head Is Too Big said...

Aiyah. Even I don't have some silly thing to say to this.
Well written. Cheers.

Mother Bumper said...

I grew up in a great house of books and this conversation you had with your dad was very familiar (not that I had it with your Dad but with mine - just in case you were wondering). But I gotta know - did you grow up in Chester and are you talking about waste week - I mean race week?

mathew said...

i like that anal sex and bees are listed next to each other in your sidebar

savia said...

I wish I had grown up in this kind of a home. I remember being taught at a young age, through an obscure interpretation of the Bible, that The Negroes were responsible for the Fall of Man (apparently, the serpent in the Adam and Eve story was actually a black servant - the snake thing was a typo - who knew?) I eventually had to find my own path and my own truth and learn that sometimes, the people you love and trust are full of shit.

I'm glad you have such an awesome family.

ozma said...

Fundamentalist Christianity of the American sort doesn't have its roots in anything like the Hebraic/Stoic soil. It's a homegrown kind of xenophobic/patriotic/capitalist sort of thing with a little bit of that New Testament flavor (but they all love the old Testament better even if they won't admit it). Anyway, the free enterprise center--that's what makes it so fresh. It's fresh like a Twinkie.

God, there's nothing more bizarre than trying to explain to a lover of lies what counts as a factually reliable statement.