Dilemmas of Difference

by Kevin Currie-Knight


When confronted with those different from us, when should we notice and take the difference seriously, and when is it best to look past the difference and act as if it doesn’t exist? To use the language of a modern discussion, should we be “colorblind” and move to treat people of different “races” the same, or should we aspire to be antiracist even if that sometimes means explicitly noticing and adjusting our behavior based on another’s “race?” Should we raise our black foster-daughter any differently than we raise our white son, or if we treat them the same, does that effectively mean we are sweeping an important difference under the rug?

Legal scholar Martha Minow calls these dilemmas of difference for a reason. They are dilemmas; situations where one can make a plausible case for several ways of proceeding that are in some way mutually exclusive. As she puts it, treating everyone equally has a certain ring of fairness, but it can often come at the expense of either not offering appropriate accommodations or demanding that some people should sacrifice important parts of their identities in order to fit in. But when we treat folks differently, this also has drawbacks, such as drawing attention to and stigmatizing difference, or putting more importance on a particular difference than it deserves.

I hope I don’t disappoint by not providing “the answer” to such dilemmas. We must all work out solutions ourselves, based on the situations in which we find ourselves and their contexts. But what I can do is offer you reasons why I think we have these dilemmas. In the US, at least, we have inherited a history of civil rights movements, and the messages we’ve inherited have been mixed or conflicting. On one hand, black, GLBTQ, and women’s rights movements have proceeded by demanding the right to assimilate and integrate; to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., to be judged by the content of character rather than color of skin (or other trivial differences). On the other hand, these movements often became less about demands for integration and more about demands for recognition, where the idea was less about the right to integrate into “normal” society and more about the right to challenge and loosen up what can count as “normal” society. In the first case, differences in identity should be seen as trivial, and the goal is in some sense to ignore those differences in order that all may be equal. In the second case, the goal is to shine a spotlight onto differences, to allow differences to pose a challenge to the very idea of normality, where integration occurs not because differences are overlooked, but because they are increasingly affirmed and embraced.

The black civil rights movement provides the most obvious example. For most of its history, the movement involved pushing for black people to have the same rights as white people: the right to own the fruits of their labor; to vote; to eat at the same restaurants and shop at the same stores; to use the same facilities, be subject to the same laws, etc. It was a tall order, and involved the message that the differences between black and white were only at the surface. The goal was to convince white people that black people are more like white people than the latter generally realized.

We are rightly taught to laud these words and the role Dr. King and groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference played in gaining civil rights for black people. But as effective as this ideal was, it came at large cost. Simply put, white people were shamefully slow to accept this message, if they ever truly did. Many a non-violent march animated by this integrationist ideal was met with loud and violent resistance among white people who refused its offer to meet black people on an equal footing. Attempts to integrate schools by way of the Supreme Court’s 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decisions were often met with statewide resistance and even violence. This assimilationist approach did lead to robust legislation, like the 1966 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting things like discrimination in real estate practices, jury selection, and other areas. But things moved slow and there were costs to this approach.

Behind this generation of activists and their integrationist strategy, many young black people became frustrated. Repeatedly asking to be treated as equals only to be denied becomes infuriating. It grows to feel like a kind of groveling, and a groveling you increasingly resent, knowing that it will continually be met with skepticism. Also, for a minority group, integration can be self-effacing. It often means that one will be treated as fully human only to the extent that one adopts the dominant social norms. One can even grow to see the ways in which one differs from that norm as obstacles to one’s humanity. This became known as the “politics of respectability,” and it is understandable why it would lose its allure.

Stokely Carmichael, one of these young activists who helped develop and channel the idea of Black Power, put the frustration most succinctly.

Our concern for Black Power addresses itself directly to this problem: the necessity to reclaim our history and our identity from the cultural terrorism and depredation of self-justifying white guilt. To do this we shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms to define ourselves and our relationship to the society, and to have these terms recognized. This is the first necessity of a free people, and the first right that any oppressor must suspend.

One motivating idea of the Black Power movement was to modify the integrationist message. Proving to white people that our moral worth comes from being roughly the same as them means that black people grow to measure their worth by how well they conform to white ideals. Instead, said the movement, we will teach black people to love themselves on their own terms. Those differences we were previously (implicitly) told to de-emphasize – and were told by white people made us ugly and inferior – we will now claim as a source of pride. Compare any picture of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the group King predominantly worked with) to a picture of a Black Panther gathering and you will see it. King and colleagues are in suits with smartly cropped hair, with stances and facial expressions exuding Christian humility. The Panthers, by contrast, are famous for their black leather jackets and sometimes dashikis, wearing sunglasses and proudly worn afros.[1]

These are both parts of the American civil rights movements, and both achieved certain goals. The integrationist message won black people certain legal civil rights, and the Black Power movement won black people a certain sort of self-respect and the felt freedom not to have their value judged by dominant white standards. The difficulty is that as contradictory as their messages are – about how, whether, and when to integrate, and about the value of sameness and difference to self-worth – US culture has inherited both and has not resolved in favor of one over the other. We want colorblindness but worry that it means we won’t see people as they are. We want integration in a way that trivializes difference, but not if it means a one-way assimilation of minorities into the dominant norms. We want to treat everyone the same, but continue to celebrate differences.

These two themes can also be seen in the GLB movement (we’ll leave out the T, because its visibility came later). And the pattern is very similar. Formal efforts for GLB rights starts largely with the formation of the Mattachine Society in 1950. (Later, a lesbian sister group would form, called the Daughters of Bilitis.) Like the early days of the black civil rights movements, The Mattachine Society was primarily concerned with defending the rights of gay people to equal protection of the law. Gays were not allowed to serve in positions of federal government, were subject to sodomy laws that by intent and effect banned gay sex, and were subject to all sorts of discrimination.

Also like King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Mattachine society’s message was an assimilationist one predicated on what some now call “the politics of respectability.” The idea was to show that gay people were, in essence, like everyone else. In so doing, they could convince the wider society to give them equal treatment and respect.

This approach met with moderate successes, mostly in increasing the visibility of the need for gay rights. But it gradually led some members – like with the black civil rights movement – to be dissatisfied with the assimilationist message. While the Mattachine Society would go on strong through the 1960’s, members disillusioned with its assimilationist messages splintered off to form new groups, and this came to a noticeable head when, in 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York. While such raids were typical of the time, this one found frustrated patrons (and allies) fighting back in self-defense and protest against police. Historian Lillian Faderman depicts the rift this caused between older, more assimilationist, and younger, more assertive, members.

An unidentified representative of Mattachine Society New York was quick to chalk a message on Stonewall’s boarded-up window that betrayed the immediate response of many “respectable” gays: “We Homosexuals Plead With Our People To Help Maintain Peaceful And Quiet Conduct On The Streets Of The Village.” But a new generation had just ushered in a new gay era, and the Mattachine plea for “peaceful and quiet conduct” seemed to them nothing short of laughable. For Village gays, the riot had been the equivalent of Rosa Parks taking a forbidden seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The rest of the world might not know it yet, but they knew that there was no going back to the way things had been.

This led to more assertive groups being formed, most famously the Gay Liberation Front. For the GLF, as for the Black Panthers, assimilation was unacceptable if it meant – as they suspected it did – gays and lesbians (and any gender non-conforming people) masking any differences that challenged straight norms (what we might today call “heteronormativity”). Faderman writes,

By the end of July 1969, Gay Liberation Front members formulated a statement of purpose whose tone mirrored the uncompromising militancy of groups such as the Black Panthers, with whom many of the GLF-ers, especially the men, had a spiritual romance. GLF defined itself as a “revolutionary group of men and women” that had formed with the realization that “sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished.”

There is the same rough shape to these movements: what once starts as an assimilationist plea for the dominant group to ignore a perceived difference (skin color, sexual orientation), becomes an assertion that differences need to be affirmed rather than ignored, to pose a challenge to dominant norms rather than be absorbed existing ones. The same tension, by the way, can be seen in the women’s civil rights movement. There, the goal has often been equal treatment of women to men under the law, in workplaces, etc. Yet, feminists have often realized that this equal treatment has come at the demand that women act more like men in these spaces, which leads to demands that the norms in these areas change to recognize the ways in which women may differ from men.

As mixed as these messages are, they are both parts of our cultural inheritance. They both come to us as equally valuable pieces of civil rights struggles that have taken place in the US. And as contradictory as they seem, they are also complimentary in certain ways, each responding to an oversight in the other. To ignore difference or to celebrate it as difference? Culturally, the answer is (or the answers are) still up for grabs. And, in part, we have our mixed history to thank for that.


[1] Anyone interested in a history profiling the transition between these two ideals in the black civil rights movement should read Down to the Crossroads, by Aram Goudsouzian. It tells the story of the 1962 James Meridith March, which became the symbol for this transition. Here, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lose some of their moral authority, especially among young protestors, and the vacuum is filled by Carmichael and Black Power advocates.


42 responses to “Dilemmas of Difference”

  1. Peter Smith

    There is the same rough shape to these movements: what once starts as an assimilationist plea for the dominant group to ignore a perceived difference (skin color, sexual orientation), becomes an assertion that differences need to be affirmed rather than ignored, to pose a challenge to dominant norms rather than be absorbed existing ones.

    That nicely summarizes the issue. Thanks Kevin for a good introduction to the subject.

    But will the challenge succeed in the long run? Or is the weight of the majority such that a slow, inexorable assimilation takes place over a longer period of time?

    We need to differentiate between superficial differences, negotiable differences and core differences.

    Superficial differences will become more accepted in our increasingly tolerant society. We are learning to negotiate deeper differences in more or less amicable ways but core differences, which go down to the roots of society, cannot be negotiated or compromised. Here the only route is adoption and assimilation.

    Naturally there can be a lot of debate about what constitutes superficial, negotiable and core differences.

    And then the question must be asked, are we really becoming a more tolerant society? Or are we exercising intolerance in new, more imaginative and more malignant, toxic ways? The Woke movement with its attendant tools of silencing suggests that this may be happening. This writer’s experience of silencing also suggests this.

    The essence of the debate is about what the superficial, negotiable and core issues are that make up a stable, well functioning society. And how ‘should‘ they be resolved?

  2. henryharlow

    Thanks for publishing this piece. This type of analysis and thinking sure could bring down the level of conflict in the culture war sector. Then probably too many of the combatants (politicians, public intellectuals, podcasters and media personalities as examples) have too much invested in being right about their position and making others wrong about their position. There is a lot of gray in the way humans relate that is just invisible to many of us if not most of us. This piece does a great job of uncovering the gray. Having lived through all the various movements since coming of age in the 1960s I had never put together the way you have written about them in my thinking. Makes a lot of sense to me looking back at is now. Thanks again for broadening my thinking.

  3. Peter Smith

    Ex unitate vires or Unity is strength.

    I prefer the Dutch – Eendracht maakt macht
    which rises to a rhythmic, alliterative, euphonious crescendo.
    This represents the fundamental of any well ordered, prosperous, functional society. The deep, intricate, collaborative specialization(pace Alan Tapper) that has enabled our Western societies requires requires an organising consensus.

    This consensus, or unity, is what gives society its strength. Against that consensus are ranged the forces of diversity, individualism and self interest. And like maggots, the freeloaders, freeriders and scofflaws will feed on the body, weakening it and contributing nothing except their toxic faeces.

    As liberal societies we are searching for the appropriate balance between an organising consensus, on the one hand, and diversity, individualism, and self interest on the other hand, while repairing the damage caused by freeloaders, freeriders and scofflaws.

    For the most part, we have found a workable, if precarious, arrangement for balancing these opposing needs. It is called liberal participative democracy and the rule of law. Underpinning these mechanisms is something more fundamental and that is agreement about norms, or values. This normative agreement is an implicit understanding of the virtues, their desirability and their force. Alan Tapper has made a persuasive case for this.

    But, and this is a big but, the virtues have become falsely conflated with sexual restrictions. In a society whose gaze is mostly focussed on its groin(this represents the ultimate freedom), this is a large criticism. The result is that the virtues, and virtuous behaviour are increasingly discredited(for entirely the wrong reason), weakening their force as the foundational organising principle of societal consensus.

    And that is not good news. The radical political polarization that is taking place is one of the results, as we become more intolerant of each other. We have restricted our tolerance to that of each other’s groins.

  4. jofrclark

    Perhaps the wisest thing to think in the face of this (or any) dilemma is not found in the “or” but in the “and.” We are different “and” we are the same. This would require making peace with the tension created by the dilemma and accepting it, to be fluid in our assessments and open to the feel of circumstance to guide us rather than rigidly adherent to some objective universal norm. This would be human.
    Given that the DNA base pair congruity between all human beings on the planet is well north of 99%, I would say that, when in doubt, consider the other as much more the same as different. Society is founded on such notions of human commonality; that “all women and men are created equal” so that we may “form a more perfect union” in order to “promote the general welfare.”

  5. Animal Symbolicum

    To ignore difference or to celebrate it as difference? I don’t know either. But an unmentioned consideration comes to mind. Capitalism, along with its destructive neoliberal occupations of hitherto unoccupied sectors of society, certainly feeds off of the celebration of difference.

  6. Kevin and I disagree significantly on a number of things in this space of topics, so I won’t try to convince him. Just to add my own two cents:

    1. Integration, in my view, is the only legitimate and reasonable end of the kinds of activism and legislation at issue here.

    2. Integration can be done poorly, and we may have done it poorly.

    3. Integration done correctly does not mean the erasure of all differences. The alleged schism between “integration” and the maintaining of “differences” is a false dilemma.

    4. Differences *per se* have neither a positive nor a negative valence and are worthy neither of “celebration” nor condemnation. Whether they are good or bad will depend entirely on the circumstances.

    5. In my view, at this point, our biggest social problems are largely class- rather than “identity” determined, and I think this is empirically demonstrable.

  7. Peter Smith

    1. Integration, in my view, is the only legitimate and reasonable end

    Dan, I am sympathetic to your point of view. But these words, coming from a Jew, does raise interesting questions.

    In 1066 the French invaded Britain, dispossessing the old Saxon nobility and entirely taking over their power, possessions and wealth. And yet, within 500 years they had been completely assimilated into a new British society, to such an extent that their ‘Frenchness’ was no longer recognizable.

    Take now the example of the Jews. They have been dispersed for over 2000 years, and yet they have maintained their identity and practices with little change. They speak the languages of their host cultures and adopt some of their cultural practices and yet they remain recognisably and distinctly different, even after 2000 years. So much so,that, when given the opportunity, they easily recreated the original Jewish state in Palestine

    Is this not a contradiction of what you say?

    Just so that there is no possible misunderstanding of my motives when I write this, I will repeat what I have said many time before – I am a huge admirer of the Jewish people and absolutely support their right to a state of their own in Palestine, that of Israel.

  8. #3 addresses this.

  9. Peter Smith

    I presume you mean this:
    3. Integration done correctly does not mean the erasure of all differences.

    And yet they maintained such substantial differences that the host cultures had difficulty accommodating them.

  10. Peter Smith

    This difficulty of accommodation is what lies at the very heart of Kevin’s essay. You say the answer is integration, together superficial differences. But this is not what happened with the Jews.

  11. Don’t agree with this assessment. Certainly not in the US, which has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel.

  12. Peter Smith

    Dan, there is a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the US, as well as the UK and in mainland Europe. For example, look at the great problem that the British Labour party had dealing with almost incorrigible anti-Semitism in its own ranks. This is just plain undeniable.

    It is scary and it is downright wrong. What I am trying to do is point out the inconsistency of advocating integration when it is at odds with the lived Jewish experience.

  13. I don’t really see any kind of argument against integration, as I’ve described it, I’m afraid. All I can tell you is that as an actual Jewish person and a son of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe, you are just wrong about the Jewish experience in the US. We are among the most fully integrated immigrants in the country and have become very much a part of Americana culturally, in comedy, music, literature, and more. Indeed, I just recorded a dialogue with EJ, the entirety of which is about the Jewish influence on American comedy, through the lens of the Marx Brothers.

  14. Peter Smith

    don’t really see any kind of argument against integration

    Then you are blind to the perceptions that many have of you. It is a comforting illusion but the huge increases in anti-Semitism point to a failure of the host society to assimilate and integrate the Jewish people. This is not to point the finger of blame, since it is a complex, multi-faceted problem. But at its very heart lies a failure of assimilation and integration.

  15. Don’t agree. Not one bit. And I’m not “blind” to anything, thanks.

  16. Peter Smith

    We often reach the point of contradiction, so I will leave it at that. But please be assured that you have my best wishes.

  17. Well, it’s a *little* strange to have a non-Jewish, non-American tell a Jewish, American, son of immigrants what the climate in America is for Jews, but of course, you can think whatever you like.

  18. Peter Smith

    but of course, you can think whatever you like.

    Thanks, and I do, but mainly I follow the evidence, such as published data about anti-Semitism.

  19. Peter Smith

    Dan, I really don’t want this to become a bitter dispute when I have so much esteem for you.

  20. I think I’ll drop out of this conversation, before I start getting really irritated.

  21. s. wallerstein

    “To ignore difference or to celebrate it as difference?”

    I don’t see why a diverse society can’t do both. Some people will want to ignore differences and others to celebrate them.

    In this era dominated by internet, by a proliferation of media, by an incredible variety of lifestyle choices, society is not going back to the 1950’s when there was much more unanimity than there is today. I don’t know whether that is a good thing or a bad thing or maybe it’s neither good nor bad, just what has happened.

    Some people want to identify as member of a certain tribe, others eschew all tribes.

    Official agencies and bureaucracies should respect differences and should also respect the fact that some people, rather than identifying as a member of x, y or z tribe prefer to identify as a human being or as just themself.

  22. Azin

    It is not a question of Jews becoming integrated into a “host” culture/country. It’s a question of the host not accepting a minority whose religion denies the legitimacy of Christ, holds to its religious traditions, has become influential beyond their proportionate numbers and because of population size, vulnerable to every demagogue and hate group dejour. Other than religion, Jews have historically tried in every sense to be assimilated when not ostracized and ghettoized. Geographically, Jews even tend to closely resemble the majority population for obvious reasons.

    At the onset of the anti Jewish laws in Nazi Germany, old Jews would, when forced out of their homes to be gathered for transport, come out wearing their WWI uniforms bedecked with medals. This and other stories abound about Jews all of a sudden not being recognized in the country and culture of their birth. Your alluding to the 20thCentury Jew as packing up, moving to Israel and picking up right where King David left off is simplistic, naive and farcical and denies the unique position European Jews found themselves in before and after WWII and the nature of the modern state.

    There is nothing most Jews would rather be than accepted fully, equally and under the radar. America may have proven to be the favorable exception because of its uniqueness of secularism and multi ethnic foundation. In many respects it has proven to be the Promised Land.

    Strangely your first comments on this thread were very insightful and logical and if I could ever figure out how to give an upvote, I would have done so. But, you seem quite myopic about the Jewish “problem”. For one thing, and I don’t think it was given enough emphasis in the article, why should any minority have to be defensive or prove anything other than good citizenship to be accepted by tribalistic bigots and xenophobes? It’s not the Jew, blacks, Asians etc. who need be tolerant, its the racist and moron who has the onus of evolving past a Paleocene mentality. If the Jews or other groups are the problem by not being other than who they are, then what does it mean to be different in any respect other than personality. One size fits all seems impossible and boring.

    If Jews are different it’s only because they are no different than anyone else or any other group but, any group can be signaled out to be made to be different. And, you seem dead set on proving this thesis with what I think is flawed logic. I only question your reasoning and conclusion and do not imply any iota of antisemitism.

  23. Azin

    You obviously don’t get paid by the word but you managed to say mostly everything that need be said on the matter. The rest is recursive rabbit wholes dug by scholars and philosophers. The only salient consideration is what is it about most people and their ignorant recalcitrants that makes it necessary for struggle ensue to achieve acceptance and tolerance of difference? This is a question for psychologists and anthropologists.

  24. Peter Smith

    Strangely your first comments on this thread were very insightful and logical


    But, you seem quite myopic about the Jewish “problem”.

    I am hugely admiring of the Jewish people but don’t subscribe to the simplistic “the whole bad, bad world hates me” interpretation. That is just too pat and self serving.

    why should any minority have to be defensive or prove anything

    You are right. They lack the power that the majority have. The onus is, in the first place, on the majority, to use their power also for the good of the minority.

    You have wrongly assumed that I am blaming the Jews. I am not. But that does not mean they are free from blame, that would be much too simplistic. Like you, I think the majority must carry the (greater part of the) blame.

    However I am not into blame. I prefer to think instead in terms of root causes. At the end of my second comment I said that I attributed the problem to an absence of virtue thinking by the host society. I am talking about today and not ancient history.

    A host body has antibodies that stimulate the immune system to attack foreign substances. Societies work in much the same way. It is an ugly and most regrettable phenomenon, which we see in my native country in the form of xenophobic attacks on foreign workers. It is understandable but not defensible. It is not defensible since we have the concept of the good of the other person. This concept requires us to always act, not only for our own good, but equally for the good of others. It requires us to desire the good of other people.

    In the previous essay I quoted the Prayer for Peace(also known as the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi) as a beautiful example of desiring the good of others. It is the failure to desire the good of others which is the root, underlying cause of the problems. If we were really, sincerely and actively desirous of the good of others these problems would disappear. Working towards such a state of mind is the real solution.

  25. Peter Smith

    The rest is recursive rabbit wholes dug by scholars and philosophers

    Recursive rabbit holes are interesting things full of surprises, such as when you tweak the tail in front of you only to find you have tweaked your own tail.

  26. Dan,
    I agree with you on general principles. Frankly the turn toward “Black Nationalism” was a wrong turn. although I suppose inevitable in the cultural climate of the 1960s. Assuming an adversarial cultural position does not in itself generate any political power. Notably, despite the adversarial gay culture initially unleashed at Stonewall, gay/lesbian rights have realized their greatest achievement in the legitimization of same-sex marriage.

    However, there are a number of historical problems that we can’t get around here. First, the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s was the culmination of a century of efforts to assimilate, all of which were rejected by the majority white culture (socially, politically, economically, legally) until Brown v. Board of Education. (That’s because, in large part, the South lost the Civil War but won the Reconstruction.) Surely there could be no greater rejection of the Black effort to assimilate than to drag Black vets off buses, stripping their uniforms off and lynching them, as happened in Alabama and elsewhere after WWII. As Kevin noted, one not Black ought to be able to imagine the frustration this might cause. Even the adoption of Black music as the foundation of American music – in rock, jazz, even county – has not opened the door to a general acceptance of Black America as simply another sub-culture of the cultural whole that is America.

    It’s hard to say exactly what white supremacists wanted from African Americans after the Civil War. My guess is that their unspoken deepest hope would be for Black people to simply disappear. (There has never been any doubt in my mind that had the Confederacy won the war, genocide would have been inevitable.)

    There are bookshelves of research into this pathological antagonism to those with darker skin. I won’t go there. My point is that the struggle for true assimilation has been met with incredibly resilient and tough-minded resistance, often expressed violently.

    Could assimilation have been accomplished without the adoption of a Black Nationalist adversarial stance? I don’t know. And that’s the other problem here, that the Black Nationalist response to the whitw resistance to assimilation, however misguided, has, since its development in the late ’60s, thoroughly embedded itself into American culture, both at the highest levels of Academic thought (Afro-centrism, for instance), but deep into Black American culture at the neighborhood level as well. Black Pastors hate drug-peddling Black gangstas who threaten their congregation; Black gangstas hate the church pastors who condemn them as hypocrites. Both see themselves as adversaries of a dominant ‘white culture’ that seems committed to marginalizing them into irrelevance.

    Are they wrong? in some important sense, it doesn’t matter. This they believe, and recurrent events seem to support this, even if such events can be explained otherwise.

    My point here, then, is simply to express my profound (and sorrowful) pessimism on this issue. White supremacism is a religious belief, Black (separatist) Nationalism functions as a religious belief. Religion is resistant to reason, even when the faith is self-defeating or even self-destructive. I don’t see any resolution here.

  27. “So much so,that, when given the opportunity, they easily recreated the original Jewish state in Palestine” – The Jewish people – or some Jewish people, to be fair to Jews who opposed the establishment of Israel – did not “recreate” “the original Jewish state.” – ancient Israel was a theocratic monarchy; as far as I am aware, the modern State of Israel if is a representative democracy, created out of careful political maneuvers in England and internationally/

    Harry Truman, at whose direction the US government became the first gov’t to recognize Israel as a sovereign state, put it simply (in paraphrase, I can’t remember the exact words), ‘these people have been kicked around enough, they should have a home.’ and given the horrors of the Holocaust, and prior British commitments, Israel seemed a good idea in 1048. I certainly have always supported it on that basis. I certainly also reject any Christian eschatology that would demand of Israel that it fulfill some ancient prophecy. That’s not how history works; after all, the Muslims could be right… no, I don’t care if they are or not. Secular politics and real history have little to do with religious wish-fulfillment.

  28. s. wallerstein

    In Chile a constitutional convention is beginning to draft a new constitution.

    This constitution will surely declare Chile to be a “plurinational state”. Native-American languages will be recognized as official languages as well as Spanish and some degree of autonomy will rule within Native-American communities.

    Currently, in the south of Chile there is a certain degree of violent Native-American Mapuche activism. They burn trucks from timber companies and at times burn the homes of white settlers. They justify their violence on the grounds that their people have been the victim of 500 years of violence from first the Spanish and now the Chilean state
    and that the timber companies are destruying their sacred land. There have been deaths on both sides recently.

    13% of the Chilean population is Native-American according to the last census. The majority of Chileans are mestizos/as, that is, of mixed white and Native-American descent and there is a white minority (maybe 15% or 20%), who tend to be the wealthiest.

    Will Native-Americans be obliged to separate? No. Not all people with Native-American origins define themselves as such. An ex-student of mine, of Mapuche descent, has a masters degree in linguistics and is the author of several textbooks for English learning (nothing would be seen as more “imperialist” by Mapuche activists than English).
    She probably would be seen as a “sell-out” or “Uncle Tom” by many activists, but she doesn’t seem to care. When you take your own path in life outside of “your” tribe, you have to be willing to pay the consequences.

    Has she ever suffered racism because of her Mapuche descent? For sure. Chile is a very racist country and in addition, there is much discrimination against poorer people, who tend to have darker skin too and she comes from a poor household.

    When two cultures, in this case, the Western and the Native-American, cannot get along, sometimes it’s wiser for each to go their own way. In Chile at least people of European descent and those of Native-American descent are not going to learn to love one another and walk hand in hand into the sunset in the near future, no matter what well-intentioned programs are instituted in schools or by the government.

  29. Peter Smith

    Native-American languages will be recognized as official languages as well as Spanish

    Your account of conditions in Chile is fascinating. Your problems sound a lot like ours in SA. Our country has 11 official languages: Sepedi , Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu.

    Try and make sense of that. This could be the Tower of Babel. In practice English is the lingua franca of SA while Afrikaans is also widely used.

    there is a white minority (maybe 15% or 20%), who tend to be the wealthiest.
    Yes, that is exactly the same in SA.

    This first hand insight you have given me is very valuable.

  30. I want to apologize for posting this comment; I wrote it rapidly, I posted rapidly (1948, not 1048, surely). And the view that contemporary Israel somehow “recreates” ancient Israel, while misguided, is popular in certain quarters, and not simply among Millennialist Christians. Indeed, so many, and too many, nations are touted about as continuance of ancient or medieval political claims of right. Such claims, like serious commitments to tribalistic nationalism, strike me as dangerous. But then, I live in a nation only a couple hundred years old, and despite cant in certain quarters, little beholden to any divine destiny born in Europe.

    Tribalistic nationalism and ‘ancient’ claims of right to bits of geography tend to obscure the hard and complex tasks of practical politics and the real history of such politics and the struggles involved. Such claims have the stronger merit if they have such a history and leave a trail of agreements however observed or broken, and when the communities involved enjoy a kind of inertia – one reason I support the existence of Israel is because it simply does exist and trying to deny that or make it go away through violent or political means is delusional and self-defeating.

    However, human beings are frequently delusional and self-defeating; so the problems the Israelis and the Palestinians currently suffer just give me more justification for pessimism.

  31. Peter Smith


    I liked your comment because it drew attention to real and compelling differences, rather than the more superficial differences discussed in the essay. Finding solutions to these real and compelling differences is what matters. I can see, from your account, that Chile is grappling with such problems.

    Here in SA we were faced with an even more embedded and deeply intractable problem of irreconcilable differences. And yet a miracle happened and today we are still living in that miracle, even though it is somewhat imperfect.

    How did that happen? Let me give you an insider’s account. It may inform others how irreconcilable differences can in fact be reconciled.

    So how did it happen. First, a common narrative was that we, the Whites, lost the fight. Well, I was there, in the thick of the fight and I can tell you that we were handily winning the fight. We were superbly organized, very tough and very determined. We were a competent military force that acted with ruthless determination, even though we were under equipped.

    So, then, what did happen? In a nutshell, we, the general White population, lost the will to fight. And that was for a very surprising reason. We had begun to perceive ourselves as being in the wrong and that right, or justice was on the other side. This was an earth shaking realization, but it did not happen overnight. It happened gradually for a confluence of reasons. In part it was the sustained pressure of other European countries, although that acted mainly to harden our determination and spirit of resistance.

    The major reason this happened was the sustained opposition of the Christian churches to Apartheid. The South African Council of Churches was outspoken in this regard. Even more outspoken were the two Archbishops, Archbishop Desmond Hurley of the Catholic Church and Archbishop Dennis Tutu of the Anglican Church. Their strongly articulated, passionate and principled opposition to Apartheid slowly bore fruit, undermining the ideological basis of Apartheid until we no longer believed in it. And there were many more prominent Christian figures in the fight against Apartheid.

    At the same time other influences came to bear. Christianity had found a receptive audience among the black peoples and the black Christian churches were large and very enthusiastic. There was a special reason for this and that is because their native philosophy of humanism, Ubuntu(I am because you are), was close in spirit to the teachings of Jesus.

    As a result there began to emerge, on both sides, the possibility of a common, if inchoate vision, of reconciliation and forgiveness. All that was required was a visionary person to tap into this emerging mood of possibility and give it concrete form. That person was Nelson Mandela(and FW de Klerk). He correctly recognised the changed mood as a golden opportunity, abandoned his earlier intransigent militancy and entered into the negotiation process. The future form of the constitution and the government were the easy parts. More troublesome was how to reconcile the bitter enmities engendered by fierce conflict.

    Here the true genius of Nelson Mandela was shown. Rather than trying and punishing his enemies, he chose to start a peace and reconciliation process, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC. Prominent members that he chose to lead this process were the two churchmen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Alex Boraine(the Catholic, Archbishop Desmond Hurley had died long before). This clever move won support from all sides. The result was a resounding success and a new, vibrant nation was born from the ashes of decades old conflict.

    Today we have a Christian president, Cyril Ramaphosa, a well liked and respected figure. He was a leading member of Nelson Mandela’s negotiation team. He ends his addresses with the phrase, God bless South Africa.

    There were other influences that had a bearing on this result. The sponsors of the revolution, the Soviet Union and China, were distracted by their own problems and no longer had an appetite for the struggle. The growing integration of the world economy persuaded the then president, FW de Klerk, that a continued resistance would become increasingly costly. Nelson Mandela had aged and in the process become more amenable to a settlement.

    All these factors then combined in one golden moment to produce a miracle that transformed deadly conflict into reconciliation. This in turn allowed our many, disparate peoples, to live cooperatively in one country. The very foundation of this was the evolution of shared values. This is what made it possible. Of course it is not all a bed of roses and we are still struggling with many problems. But far better these problems than being devoured by the huge, all consuming flame of revolution.

    Others may tell this story in different ways, but this is my eyewitness account.

  32. s. wallerstein


    Thanks, very interesting.

    Your first observation about losing the will to fight rings true in Chile too. The armed Native-American activists, especifically Mapuches, would have been crushed in a week by Pinochet and the army. Today the army does not want to get involved, first, because they got the blame for human rights violations during the Pinochet dictatorship and have gone to jail for that while the rightwing civilians who cheered them on, got rich. Same thing with Carabineros, the uniformed national police force.

    And as in South Africa, as you describe it, there is a change in the moral perception of the majority of Chileans (of mixed race at least), that is, they now see the Native-Americans as the good guys and the white settlers (along with the timber companies) as the bad guys. The opposite of a Hollywood movie from the 1950’s. That, as you say, has been a long and complex process.

    It’s nice to converse with you about these things, because we’re both from peripheral societies and I have the impression that people from societies like that of the United States have almost zero interest in what goes on outside their country unless it affects them directly (as in the 9-11 attacks). They see themselves as the center of the world and economically and culturally they are, but the periphery also exists and who knows?, history has strange twists and turns.

  33. Azin

    Granted. I’m certainly not being dismissive of the disciplines that spelunk the unfathomable twists of human thought. Useful products are sometimes mined and it’s a living that keeps those so disposed busy. But, even Dan has on occasion opined that often such musings and esoteric investigations have very little relevancy to the real world or how the practitioners themselves live their own lives.

    This site is still quite new and perhaps I’m not qualified to make the following observation, but most discussions here, no matter the topic, after winding though the rabbit holes and tit for tat, always, or usually, from my reckoning, resolve in common sense middle of the road consensus. This topic for instance,after all the dust settles, is more or less going to conclude that minority and majority populations both have to give and take to various degrees depending on context, situation and circumstance. As many college professors would say, the truth is often somewhere in the middle.

    I had the strangest dream early this morning. I dreamt I tweaked the tail in front of me only not to be particularly surprised that it wasn’t a tail at all:)

  34. Peter Smith

    I have the impression that people from societies like that of the United States have almost zero interest in what goes on outside their country unless it affects them directly

    Yes, Americans are somewhat parochial. Even more parochial are the Chinese. But then perhaps they are right and China is the centre of the world.

    while the rightwing civilians who cheered them on, got rich.
    That is a real problem because hugely unequal distribution of wealth introduces strains that may fracture society.

    This is the problem that potentially can derail the SA miracle.

    The greatest of the “dilemmas of difference” is how to deal with unequal wealth distribution. Neither chequebook charity nor taxation is the answer.

  35. Azin

    The Chilean account was depressing, yours uplifting. I will never accept that there is never a road to reconciliation if the parties are willing. But, that has always been the problem, the desire, the willingness.
    How practical is it that all ethnic or special interest populations who so desire, have their own independent duchies? I don’t see how the economy or resources of the world can be so divvied up and also the very real problem, that the more voices there are with divergent wants, needs and desires the less chance to avoid even more conflicts than we now have?

  36. Peter Smith

    But, even Dan has on occasion opined that often such musings and esoteric investigations have very little relevancy to the real world or how the practitioners themselves live their own lives.

    I have often wondered about that. I think the relevance does not lie in the content but rather the manner in which we react to the content. By that I mean does the content exercise our minds? Does it stimulate us to inquire more deeply? Does it cause us to question? Does it arouse curiosity? It is this active engagement with the content that matters. It matters because our minds are roused out of indifference or apathy. It matters because if we think more about the world and think more deeply about it we are living to our fullest potential as cognitive beings.

    If even the most arcane analytical philosophy arouses our minds in this way then it is good.

  37. In Saul Bellow’s crazy 1964 novel “Herzog”, the eponymous character Herzog, despairing about the insolubility of his country’s problems, says “What this country needs is a good five-cent synthesis”. Officially, I think, western societies do in fact have a five cent synthesis. It is liberalism plus democracy plus rule of law. In Australia, for example, that is what “new Australians” commit to when they attain citizenship. More generally, they are our Enlightenment legacy.

    If we agree that these three are good things, and agree upon some operational account of what they mean, the question becomes how far they are adequate to managing the internal differences within our societies. Most debates about “identity” since the 1960s are framed in terms entirely different than these three: socio-economic status, race, sexuality, gender, indigeneity, and whatever else. This makes for two levels of debate: formal rights versus ‘true” identities. But real debate between these levels looks to be impossible.

    Hence the problem Kevin was posing. I only want to observe that the three good things should play some part in how we think about the problem. Generally, they get treated as too superficial to be of any use. But where the three are lacking (as in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and, regrettably, modern China) they suddenly become the critical issues.

    Writing this brings back memories of the letter-writing Herzog. I must read that novel again!


  38. Peter Smith

    a five cent synthesis. It is liberalism plus democracy plus rule of law.
    If we agree that these three are good things, and agree upon some operational account of what they mean, the question becomes how far they are adequate to managing the internal differences within our societies.

    As usual, your insightful comment cuts right through so much of the fluff we have seen, and goes to the heart of the matter. To build on your comment, I would observe the following.

    The word ‘liberalism’ stands for a group of similar norms and consensus about these norms is what enables the mechanisms of democracy and the rule of law to be effective.

    Differences tend to destabilize the consensus.. Our dilemma is how far we can tolerate differences while retaining a unifying consensus. What complicates this is the loss of a basic understanding about democracy, and that is we all have to give up something so that we can all gain something much larger.

  39. Thanks Peter. Yes, compromise is essential if cooperation is to be possible.

    On “the rising tide of anti-semitism”, which you observe above, may I mention Bernard Harrison’s new book, “Blaming the Jews”, which combines historical and conceptual analysis of the problem.

  40. Peter Smith

    may I mention Bernard Harrison’s new book, “Blaming the Jews”, which combines historical and conceptual analysis of the problem.

    Thanks, that looks good.

  41. I see a difference between immutable traits and behavior. I do not think skin color requires people adopt certain norms. But if you include conduct in “norms” then I think we can and should differentiate.

    People should not be treated negatively due to their immutable traits. As this is not their fault.

    But of course people can be negatively based on their behavior. That is the basis of our criminal justice system.

    For most of the discrimination laws we follow that path. People don’t choose their gender, race or to have a disability. I think most people would agree that sexual preferences are not really a simple choice either. But of course they are often linked to behaviors. People disagree about the morality of various sexual behaviors – but at least generally the view is if the behavior is not effecting another person that doesn’t agree with it then it shouldn’t be illegal. But yes now we are going further. Now we are saying not only should it not be illegal but it should be illegal for anyone to express the view that it is immoral. As happened in the Hammond case in UK https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Hammond
    or situations like the bakers case in Indiana.

    I think it can be rational to hold their own views about other people’s actions. (not that I agree with Hammond or the Baker). So I would draw that distinction between those cases and racism stemming from not serving people because of their race or gender or sexual orientation.

    The traditional exception that breaks my general view is religion. Religion often does come closely packaged with behaviors. Yet we say it is illegal to discriminate based on religion. I think this is why courts have (in practice) had to be less absolute concerning whether we can treat people of different religions differently.

    We can see that the framers had certain Judeo-Christian views of religion and that certain practices that people claimed a right to engage in due to their religion seemed preposterous to Jefferson and lead to the creation of our Navy.

    “In March 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman (or Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja). When they enquired “concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury”, the ambassador replied:

    It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.[22]”


  42. Rageforthemachine

    It’s interesting that you mentioned both racial and sexual minorities in the article because I think they actually represent two different problems. The issue with the gay population might more accurately be called the dilemma of sameness. Unlike racial minorities gay people were actually always well integrated in society just completely hidden. The slow march toward acceptance pretty much became inevitable when on the one hand more and more people’s friends and family came out, and also people retroactively realized that the nice old ladies who lived down the street weren’t “roommates”, and Uncle Ted wasn’t simply a confirmed bachelor. They realized gay people were already around them and they were pretty much the same. By the time the Conservative, Republican Vice-President gave his daughter away at her lesbian wedding only the hardcore religious were holding out for exclusion.

    The issue of the Stonewall riots is also intriguing because that highlights the hypocrisy of society more than anything. As we now know like most nightclubs at the time Stonewall was mafia-owned which was really the only way gay clubs could operate. Somebody with pull had to be both protecting the clubs and paying off the police so they could stay open. There was no onus on operating them because since they had a monopoly on them they were probably cash cows for gangsters and police on the take. So the mafia would rake in money bury owning the places, cops would bust them every once in awhile just to make a show of it, and gay guys who just wanted to dance and other things were caught in the middle.