interesting times

Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It

Middlebury College students turn their backs to Charles Murray during his lecture on March 2, 2017. Photo: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Last weekend, a rather seismic op-ed appeared in the New York Times, and it was for a while one of the most popular pieces in the newspaper. It’s by David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard, who carefully advanced the case that there are genetic variations between subpopulations of humans, that these are caused, as in every other species, by natural selection, and that some of these variations are not entirely superficial and do indeed overlap with our idea of race. This argument should not be so controversial — every species is subject to these variations — and yet it is. For many on the academic and journalistic left, genetics are deemed largely irrelevant when it comes to humans. Our large brains and the societies we have constructed with them, many argue, swamp almost all genetic influences.

Humans, in this view, are the only species on Earth largely unaffected by recent (or ancient) evolution, the only species where, for example, the natural division of labor between male and female has no salience at all, the only species, in fact, where natural variations are almost entirely social constructions, subject to reinvention. We are, in this worldview, alone on the planet, born as blank slates, to be written on solely by culture. All differences between men and women are a function of this social effect; as are all differences between the races. If, in the aggregate, any differences in outcome between groups emerge, it is entirely because of oppression, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. And it is a matter of great urgency that we use whatever power we have to combat these inequalities.

Reich simply points out that this utopian fiction is in danger of collapse because it is not true and because genetic research is increasingly proving it untrue. On the male-female divide, for example, Reich cites profound differences, “reflecting more than 100 million years of evolution and adaptation.” On race, he is both agnostic about what we will eventually find out with respect to the scale of genetic differences, and also insistent that genetic differences do exist: “You will sometimes hear that any biological differences among populations are likely to be small, because humans have diverged too recently from common ancestors for substantial differences to have arisen under the pressure of natural selection. This is not true. The ancestors of East Asians, Europeans, West Africans and Australians were, until recently, almost completely isolated from one another for 40,000 years or longer, which is more than sufficient time for the forces of evolution to work.” Which means to say that the differences could be (and actually are) substantial.

This will lead to subtle variations in human brains, and thereby differences in intelligence tests, which will affect social and economic outcomes in the aggregate in a multiracial, capitalist, post-industrial society. The danger in actively suppressing and stigmatizing this inconvenient truth, he maintains, is that a responsible treatment of these genetic influences will be siloed in the academic field of genetics, will be rendered too toxic for public debate, and will thereby only leak out to people in the outside world via the worst kind of racists and bigots who will distort these truths to their own ends. If you don’t establish a reasonable forum for debate on this, Reich argues, if you don’t establish the principle is that we do not have to be afraid of any of this, it will be monopolized by truly unreasonable and indeed dangerous racists. And those racists will have the added prestige for their followers of revealing forbidden knowledge. And so there are two arguments against the suppression of this truth and the stigmatization of its defenders: that it’s intellectually dishonest and politically counterproductive.

I felt a genuine relief reading the op-ed because it was so nuanced and so low-temperature; it reflects precisely my own thoughts on the subject; and it’s hard to smear a Harvard geneticist for being a white supremacist (the usual gambit). Reich’s point about the importance of reasonably discussing these questions so as to avoid irresponsible abuse of the information is precisely the reason I remain proud of having published well over a dozen reasoned, eloquent rebuttals to Charles Murray’s core (The Bell Curve) argument on race and IQ in The New Republic. And so I waited eagerly for a response to Reich from “blank slate” left-liberals. They were quiet for a while, flummoxed perhaps, until Ezra Klein delivered an encyclical, rallying the faithful, in Vox.

What was Klein’s response to the actual scientific argument that genetics have a significant part to play (heritability ranges from 0.4 to 0.8) in explaining different racial outcomes in intelligence tests? I’ve read his essay several times and I’m afraid I can’t find a satisfying one. He notes that Reich is careful not to state anything categorical about racial differences and their origins, and that this humility appeals to him (agreed). (The point, of course, would apply to Murray as well, who has remained resolutely “agnostic” about the ultimate outcome of the debate since 1994. This is precisely what he stated in The New Republic and the book.) As to genetic influences on IQ? Klein only addresses those parts of Reich’s argument he agrees with, and hypes instead the fact (that no one disputes) that the environment has a big impact as well. This is, to put it gently, more like an act of intellectual dodging, rather than full engagement.

In fact, Klein seems to back a truly extreme position: that only the environment affects IQ scores, and genes play no part in group differences in human intelligence. To this end, he cites the “Flynn effect,” which does indeed show that IQ levels have increased over the years, and are environmentally malleable up to a point. In other words, culture, politics, and economics do matter. But Klein does not address the crucial point that even with increases in IQ across all races over time, the racial gap is still frustratingly persistent, that, past a certain level, IQ measurements have actually begun to fall in many developed nations, and that Flynn himself acknowledges that the effect does not account for other genetic influences on intelligence. Which is to say Klein doesn’t refute Reich’s argument at all. In an email exchange with me, in which I sought clarification, Klein stopped short of denying genetic influences altogether, but argued that, given rising levels of IQ, and given how brutal the history of racism against African-Americans has been, we should nonetheless assume “right now” that genes are irrelevant.

I guess that’s where I differ. I want to note first that I know many of the figures involved in this heated debate — most recently, Charles Murray, Sam Harris, and Ezra Klein — and respect each of them a great deal. None has a racist agenda. Each has a penetrating mind. Each of them makes important points. And this is a complicated debate. I stumbled onto this question decades ago, had no previous interest in it, but have been fascinated by its twists and turns over the years. My own brilliant conclusion: Group differences in IQ are indeed explicable through both environmental and genetic factors and we don’t yet know quite what the balance is.

My assumption, in other words, is not Klein’s. I assume that this is an open question. Klein wants us to assume it’s closed. I can see why Klein takes this position. He is worried that raising genetics in this context will lead to too much fatalism, will sap the energy and focus needed to change what we can indeed change, and there is so much to do on that score that it’s better to insist that genes play no part. It’s a perfectly legitimate worry, especially considering the uniquely foul history of slavery and segregation in the U.S. and how these debates have fueled real evil over the centuries. And there is indeed no reason to believe we have done enough to ensure equality of opportunity for African-Americans (au contraire), and anything that could stymie that effort is troubling. I’m with Klein on this.

At the same time, if we assume genetics play no role, and base our policy prescriptions on something untrue, we are likely to overshoot and over-promise in social policy, and see our rhetoric on race become ever more extreme and divisive. We may even embrace racial discrimination, as in affirmative action, that fuels deeper divides. All of which, it seems to me, is happening — and actively hampering racial progress, as the left defines the most multiracial and multicultural society in human history as simply “white supremacy” unchanged since slavery; and as the right viscerally responds by embracing increasingly racist white identity politics. A more nuanced understanding of race, genetics, and environment would temper this polarization, and allow for more unifying, practical efforts to improve equality of opportunity, while never guaranteeing or expecting equality of outcomes.

In some ways, this is just a replay of the broader liberal-conservative argument. Leftists tend to believe that all inequality is created; liberals tend to believe we can constantly improve the world in every generation, forever perfecting our societies. Rightists believe that human nature is utterly unchanging; conservatives tend to see the world as less plastic than liberals, and attempts to remake it wholesale dangerous and often counterproductive. I think of myself as moderately conservative. It’s both undeniable to me that much human progress has occurred, especially on race, gender, and sexual orientation; and yet I’m suspicious of the idea that our core nature can be remade or denied. I completely respect the role of liberals in countering this. It’s their role. I think the genius of the West lies in having all these strands in our politics competing with one another.

Where I do draw the line is the attempt to smear legitimate conservative ideas and serious scientific arguments as the equivalent of peddling white supremacy and bigotry. And Klein actively contributes to that stigmatization and demonization. He calls the science of this “race science” as if it were some kind of illicit and illegitimate activity, rather than simply “science.” When he ran an article slamming Charles Murray and Sam Harris for having a completely reasonable podcast conversation about this, the piece didn’t just try to counter their arguments, it claimed that Murray and Harris were peddling in “pseudoscientific racialist speculation.” Klein still misrepresents his opponents, by insisting that Murray and Reich and Harris are arguing in favor of “the idea that America’s racial inequalities are driven by genetic differences between the races and not by anything we did, or have to undo.” This is demonstrably untrue. Each of them fully accepts that environment has a role to play. He goes on to equate the work of these scientists with the “most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.” He even uses racism to dismiss Murray and Harris: they are, after all, “two white men.”

I cry foul. This is a cheap ploy, designed to chill debate and stigmatize those prepared to engage in it. Klein is very slick about this, but he cannot resist the low blow. He still refuses to believe that Murray’s views on this are perfectly within the academic mainstream in studies of intelligence, as they were in 1994. When the most eminent expert in the field, Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, a scientific journal, and author of the 2016 book The Neuroscience of Intelligence, offered Klein a piece making just this point, Klein turned it down in favor of yet one more attempt to deny genetics plays any role in any of this. (You can read Haier’s defense of Murray and Harris here.) Klein cannot seem to hold the following two thoughts in his brain at the same time: that past racism and sexism are foul, disgusting, and have wrought enormous damage and pain and that unavoidable natural differences between races and genders can still exist.

I know this is a touchy, fraught, difficult subject. I completely understand the reluctance to discuss it, and the hideous history of similar ideas in the past. But when people seeking the truth are immediately targeted for abuse and stigma, it matters. When genetics are in a golden age, when neuroscience is maturing as a discipline, and when the truth about these things will emerge soon enough, it matters that we establish a liberalism that is immune to such genetic revelations, that can strive for equality of opportunity, and can affirm the moral and civic equality of every human being on the planet. Liberalism has never promised equality of outcomes, merely equality of rights. It’s a procedural political philosophy rooted in means, not a substantive one justified by achieving certain ends.

That liberalism is integral to our future as a free society — and it should not falsely be made contingent on something that can be empirically disproven. It must allow for the truth of genetics to be embraced, while drawing the firmest of lines against any moral or political abuse of it. When that classical liberalism is tarred as inherently racist because it cannot guarantee equality of outcomes, and when scientific research is under attack for revealing the fuller truth about our world, we are in deep trouble. Because we are robbing liberalism of the knowledge and the moderation it will soon desperately need to defend itself.

The Left and Anti-Semitism

Have a look at this mural. Not a long look, but a quick one:

What would be your response to hearing that it was going to be removed?

My own would be relief and an astonishment that such a grotesque piece of neo-Nazi propaganda had ever been permitted to stay there for any length of time. But that was not the response of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party. He saw its removal as a strike against free expression and compared it to the work of Diego Rivera, whose 1933 mural for Rockefeller Center was removed after it was discovered that it included a portrait of Lenin. The anti-Semitic artist, Corbyn opined, was “in good company.” These comments made on Facebook in 2012 — and recently unearthed — have reignited the debate over anti-Semitism on the left in Britain. What on earth was Corbyn thinking? In response, Corbyn said he only glanced at the mural, didn’t see the anti-Semitism in it at the time and now denounces it. Only his loyalists have found this response in any way convincing, especially since Corbyn has been found to have been a member of no fewer than five virulently anti-Semitic hard-left Facebook groups. Bret Stephens has more:

Corbyn also met in 2009 with Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Belgian-Lebanese activist whose Arab European League had previously published a cartoon denying the Holocaust. Corbyn initially denied ever meeting the activist, then was “reminded” by a photograph of the two of them together. “We had, I think two times, lunch or breakfast together,” Abou Jahjah noted, “so I cannot say that Mr. Corbyn is a personal friend, but he is absolutely a political friend.” Abou Jahjah was later banned from entering Britain.


Then there was Corbyn’s association with the anti-Israel group “Deir Yassin Remembered,” founded by the Holocaust denier Paul Eisen. Corbyn attended multiple meetings of the group. More recently, he has claimed that Eisen was not a Holocaust denier when he knew him.

The wider problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is severe, and even Corbyn has conceded that it exists in “pockets.” There are a total of 70 complaints about anti-Semitism being reviewed by the party, with only a third under active investigation and most subject to endless delays. Another 130 are in the pipeline. Hard-left Labour Party Facebook pages are crammed with baldly anti-Semitic content. A former Labour Party mayor, for example, has argued that Zionist Jews are a “disgrace to humanity,” another activist has called Israel a “cess-pit nation,” and accused the Mossad of being behind the school shootings in the U.S. Most found guilty of this kind of bigotry are merely suspended and many are reinstated. The former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, a major leader on the British left, was suspended (but not expelled) from the party after remarking that Hitler favored Zionism before his outright eliminationist program unfolded. He refuses to recant.

And what’s even more remarkable has been the reaction of many Corbyn followers to the newly ignited controversy. After a demonstration against anti-Semitism in front of the House of Commons this week, Labour members of Parliament who attended have been subjected to foul abuse and threats to remove them from office; 2,000 Labour members signed a Facebook petition arguing that the protest was an “onslaught” of a “very powerful special interest group” using its “immense strength” and “history and influence” to “employ the full might of the BBC” to attack Corbyn. They didn’t seem to appreciate the irony. One Corbyn supporter even insisted that the Jewish caricatures on the mural were not anti-Semitic because although “they mostly have big noses, they don’t have hooked ones.” I kid you not.

Why, though, would anti-Semitism thrive on the British far left? I’m not sure. Some thoughts: anti-Semitism is everywhere, and also, disproportionately, on the far right, so it’s no surprise it’s also present among socialists; visceral anti-Americanism becomes fused at some point with anti-Zionism, which can easily morph into anti-Semitism; hostility to global capitalism is often imbued with conspiracy theories about the masters of international capital, and this too can veer into classic Jew hatred; hostility to the war on terror and its excesses have led the left to sympathy with Islamism, which inevitably contains the seeds of Jew-hatred; legitimate criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians can, if you are not careful, degenerate fast; and in Britain, in particular, Thatcherism was unapologetically philo-Semitic, and its enemies, still obsessed with the Iron Lady, form a mirror image.

Then there’s the intrinsic danger of entertaining an ideology on the left that focuses on “white supremacy” and the toxic influence of “whiteness” — an invisible force subjecting millions to profound oppression. Once you posit secret forces defined by race, and link these forces to human beings of that race, you are at risk of mimicking the very structure of anti-Semitic thought. And when Jews are understood as “white,” and are indeed among the most prosperous and successful “whites,” then “white supremacy” can easily segue into “Jewish supremacy.” There are some warning signs of that slippage emerging in the U.S. as well. At Columbia University a forthcoming discussion will be precisely on how “the link between White Supremacy, male chauvinism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Zionism is clearer than ever.”

That’s my best and doubtless insufficient attempt to understand this disturbing trend on the British left. What’s clear, however, is that someone who will quite possibly be the next prime minister has lived within leftist anti-Semitic pockets for many years, claims he never had any idea of what was going on, and the bulk of his supporters are still defiantly with him. Worth knowing.

Masc vs. Fem?

I was moved in a way by this op-ed piece, lamenting the fact that in the mainstream gay teen movie Love, Simon the romantic lead is “masc” and mainstream, while the defiantly girly gay is merely a minor character. Money quote: “For over a decade, the unspoken rule of gay cinema and television has been that gay men can be sexy protagonists — as long as they are masculine gay men. Feminine or gender-nonconforming gay men, on the other hand, are desexualized comedic relief.” You do indeed see this in the classic Will & Grace formula, along with Queer As Folk and even Queer Eye. Jacob Tobia goes on: “A message that gay young people receive throughout our adolescence is that you need to be the ‘right type of gay’ — masculine, not flamboyant, a man’s man — to be respected, to be affirmed by your family or to be romantically desirable.”

This is true and lamentable, and I hope this dynamic fades. Turning femme gays into minstrels — rather than complete human beings — is both demeaning and boring. But it’s also true, in a weird way, that for decades before that, the primary representation of gay men in movies and TV was the stereotypical feminine or effete one (when they weren’t murderers and pedophiles). It was the more mainstream, passing types who were nowhere to be seen or identified as gay. The recent moves toward the “virtually normal” cultural model need to be seen, I think, in that context — they’re actually a cultural correction of a sort.

And it matters that this type of gay man also gets his due. He provides a role model for gay boys who are not in any way gender-nonconforming and who can struggle to identify as gay because they somehow don’t feel they qualify or belong. And in some ways, it is more transgressive to see masculine men, who seem indistinguishable from straight guys, as gay on film, than it is to see a more typically feminine stereotype. It’s also truly radical (as well as integrative) to see gay men emerge openly in so many stereotypically hetero-male sports contexts. (In less tolerant societies, flamboyant and effeminate gay men are actually much more acceptable because they seem to reinforce gender stereotypes rather than undermine them.)

As for those “masc” gay guys who were out from the get-go (and were very much present in the Stonewall riots, for example), they were often sidelined by liberationist historians — and still are. It has become commonplace, for example, to insist that Stonewall was entirely a trans riot, rather than a very diverse one, including many, many “masc” gay white and black men, alongside lesbians, butch and femme, transgender people (often of color), and good old drag queens. It has also become the conventional wisdom that Stonewall started the gay rights movement, when in fact, it had been thriving in a more conventional and mainstream way long before — led by far more mainstream cultural types, engaging in classic “respectability politics.”

It also seems strange to me, in the world of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Johnny Weir, and trans issues everywhere, to argue that effeminate gay men are not represented in pop culture. Yes, we need fuller girly gay characters. But when drag-queen lingo is now absorbed in the suburbs, via RuPaul, we’re not exactly going backward. Tobia himself is a host on MSNBC, a contributor to Huffington Post and the NYT, and the author of a forthcoming book, Sissy. On the question of gender-conforming and gender-nonconforming gays, it is surely a both-and situation, rather than either-or.

I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate this diversity among gays rather than constantly “problematize” it, or pit one against the other. There is room in the world for both Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy, and I’m extremely chuffed both of them are out there. Neither archetype is in any way inferior, is in any way more or less gay, or needs in any way to be a threat to the other. And there’s a lot of flexibility and individuality between the two of them.

See you next Friday.

Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It