If any one person can be named the father of modern racism it’s Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882). Gobineau was a respected French writer, a Catholic who served as a diplomat in the Near East. Although he admired German culture, he despised chauvinism and regarded the notion of the “fatherland” as a “beastly idea.”
Writing in 1870, he referred worryingly to the newly achieved unity of Germany. With chilling prescience he warned: “It is from above that inspiration and direction are fated to descend to people; and when … in spheres of authority there no longer is any belief … no striving for the good and for the better, one may state with all the certainty of a mathematical proposition that power will fall to the first corporal who, in passing will seize it.” The corporal, of course, was Adolph Hitler.
Even though Gobineau realized there was no such thing as a “pure” race, he described the characteristics of those he deemed inferior. He writes of one people as very “courteous,” but he adds that they “nearly always lie, they cheat as much as possible, and they find sexual inversion natural despite religious laws.” Among these people, he continues, “To be a thief, an infamous liar, is not serious, is pardonable. But what is inexcusable is not to know the polite forms.”
Gobineau goes on to say of these people: “To substitute beautiful manners for private and public morality, to permit cruelty [and] … to tolerate everything as long as all that is ignoble and even odious is cloaked by smiling and pleasant appearances”—these traits of character, he believed, were endemic and ineradicable in the region in which he held various diplomatic posts.
Gobineau was not a cultural relativist. His racism was of an intellectual character. Although his racist views clashed with his Catholicism, he was a thoroughly civilized person who would have deplored Nazism.
Today the word racism has become a mere shibboleth, a rhetorical device used primarily by the Left against almost anyone who advocates views or policies which deviate ever so much from indiscriminate toleration or unqualified moral egalitarianism.
For example, Jews who advocate a loyalty oath for all citizens of Israel are deemed “racists.” Or consider Basic Law: The Knesset, which prohibits any party that rejects the Jewish character of the state. To insist on excluding Arabs parties that violate this law—which all do—is deemed “racist”!
Even if someone were to advocate an electoral system which, though democratic, would reduce the number of Arabs in the Knesset, that person would be denounced as a racist; and it would not matter in the least whether Arab MKs like Azmi Bishara and Talib a-Sana, incited Arab citizens of Israel to kill Jews!
Let’s look at the issue another way. Let’s go back to the days of the Soviet Union. If a friend of yours had a profound antipathy toward Communism, you would not call him a racist. After all, Communism is only an ideology–let us say an evil and hateful ideology. But suppose this ideology was confined to Russia and that all Russians were Communists. Your friend, who abhors Communists, would therefore hate Russians and thus be stigmatized as a “racist.”
At this point sophisticated people would make a distinction between a hateful ideology and the persons harboring this ideology. But what is a person if not his thoughts, feelings, and actions; and if they are Communist thoughts, feelings, and actions, it will be very hard to persuade your friend to make the Catholic distinction between the sin and the sinner. It’s hard to oppose a culture of hate and welcome its members in your neighborhood.
So, if there happens to be a “race” that cultivates beautiful manners, but lies and cheats, a “race” that exults in bloodshed but cloaks its barbarisms in smiling and pleasant appearances, your friend’s abhorrence of this “race”—which is to say his “racism”—might be a mark of intellectual sobriety, of good or sound character!
On the other hand, what shall we say of those anxious to hobnob with these well-mannered barbarians with the expectation of achieving amicable relations with them? Should we not dismiss them as fools, indeed, as persons lacking good or sound character?