What’s gone wrong? The northwest of England has catapulted BNP leader Nick Griffin into the European parliament with 8 per cent of the vote. It’s tempting to dismiss those who vote and stand for the BNP as stupid, but the truth is more disturbing. Griffin is an apparently intelligent Cambridge graduate, yet he’s unable to think himself out of a racist framework. Many of us would like to believe that intellect banishes prejudice. Sadly, this is itself a prejudice.
Great philosophers—those doyens of reason—have a miserable and mostly hidden record on racism. Martin Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism is notorious. Less well known are David Hume’s sentiments. “I’m apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites,” he declared in a footnote to his essay, “Of National Characters.” Another unenlightened Enlightenment icon, Immanuel Kant, in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, let rip with “The blacks are very vain but in the Negroes’ way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart with thrashings.” Even the patron saint of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, endorsed paternalism towards “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage [its immature stage].”
We may feel let down by Hume, Kant and Mill and their feet of clay—but still be inclined to posit historical context as a mitigating factor. Though brilliantly innovative in some respects, they dully reflected the prejudices of their peers in others. Theirs was, after all, an age of rarely questioned imperialism whose economy had partly been built by slavery. Yet Hume’s contemporary, Dr Johnson, kicked against these stereotypes. Johnson showed great respect for his own black servant and was alert enough to quip in a pamphlet about America: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Then again, he was no cosmopolitan, and nurtured a prejudice against the Scots.
If intellect doesn’t inoculate against fear of difference, what will? Empathy, compassion, imagination and a recognition of common humanity. But don’t expect much of those from a party with a “whites only” policy.