At first glance, Lesley Arfin, the Vice contributor and writer on HBO’s sitcom Girls, and John Derbyshire, the former National Review columnist, have little in common. They’re a woman and a man, a naughty provocateur and a writer on, among other things, China and mathematics, whose work resonates in New York and Washington respectively. But in the last month or so, they’ve served as illustrations of the ugly fact that racism retains a certain cultural capital even among bastions of people who like to consider themselves enlightened.
Derbyshire got himself in trouble first after he wrote an astonishingly racist column for Taki Magazine (about which more in a moment) about telling his children to avoid black people as if that was some sort of sensible safety guide. He presented the piece as if he was speaking difficult truths that others dare not speak, a common framing tactic of racists who like to believe that their biases are grounded in scientific evidence and want to use that delusion to attach legitimacy and a claim of the moral high ground to their bigotry. After several days of controversy, National Review, which had previously tended to turn a blind eye to or to edit down Derbyshire’s more appalling proclivities, fired him.
Lesley Arfin seems to have been less commonly-understood to be a racist until, in response to charges that the show for which she works, Girls, is strangely white for a story set in Brooklyn, she tweeted “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” She subsequently added and scrubbed an apology. And evidence has quickly emerged that the tweet was hardly an isolated, insensitive mistake. Arfin is apparently the kind of person who thinks it’s clever to compare President Obama’s skin color to shit, or to say in an interview that the word “nigger” is the one that makes her feel proud to be a writer. Elspeth Reeve, in an elegant piece at The Atlantic Wire, suggested that Arfin’s comments spring from a common well, that this is “where this vein of hipster racism starts. It tests the idea that anything wrapped with enough irony can be transformed into something else. The more uncool the raw materials are—trucker hats, ugly T-shirts, mustaches, smoking crack—the better the trick.”
That’s true to a certain extent. But while there’s no inherent cultural capital in trucker hats or mustaches, there is a strong, if narrow thread of thought that is interested in making sure that racism stays nominally acceptable, and not because it demonstrates the ability of those thinkers to turn something ridiculous into a trend. Much in the same way that John Derbyshire peppered spectacularly illogical racist advice to his children with links to anecdotal stories meant to gloss his nonsense with a scientific veneer, Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice (and Taki Magazine columnist, it’s worth noting), responded to the criticism of Arfin’s behavior by suggesting that the people who were uncomfortable with Girls’ whiteness were deluded race-mongers desperate to turn a buck. “You can’t continue a mythical Cold War forever and it’s likely the days of randomly tarring and feathering people for ‘racism,’ real or imagined, are coming to a close,” he wrote in a post defending Arfin. “Not because it’s morally wrong, but because people are no longer buying it. And when people aren’t buying something, you can’t make money.” These two strains of thinking are complimentary and mutually reinforcing: people who see racism are deluded and have impure motives, while people who seek to assert racial difference are acting out of a disinterested commitment to scientific truth in the face of terrible opposition.
But there’s nothing brave or bold about clinging to racist ideas, to your supposed right to wound other people by being nasty and childishness. It’s the reverse, a desperate clinging to modes of thought that protected your own privilege and save you the inconvenience of having to engage with people in a way that might require compromise and growth. The immature and fearful people who huddle around the campfire of racism aren’t keeping a flame of secret knowledge alive. They’re hiding from a world they’re unable to cope with.