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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 12, 2022

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Anyone want to talk about test cases? Rosa Parks' name has come up again to remind us that there is a group of people who didn't know the incident was staged by the NAACP as a way to put segregation on trial. I hope that everyone knows test cases are a thing and I'm a little curious what percentage of the famous judicial cases this would apply to. I guess it tarnishes people's fuzzy feelings about the scrappy individual with pure motives facing off against evil oppression but it doesn't change the facts of the case. Personally I have the impression that the judicial system is skewed against the poor and un-savvy and rewards those who have resources behind them and know how to work the system. So it does seem to the outsider as if everyone could benefit from having an organization behind them to raise attention and mount a strong defense. Rosa Parks may have been one person but her case ended up helping the many not-so-sympathetic individuals who were also victims of the unjust system. So when you hear about a high profile case, does it matter if the person was specifically set up as a test case, and if it matters, why?

So when you hear about a high profile case, does it matter if the person was specifically set up as a test case, and if it matters, why?

Because the rest of your framing is wrong.

Rosa Parks may have been one person but her case ended up helping the many not-so-sympathetic individuals who were also victims of the unjust system.

Rosa Parks was one person but her case ended up helping the many not-sympathetic individuals who were kept in check by broad rules. If you want to assert that the system that produced order was "unjust" you also have to own what Detroit and Newark and Camden and Gary look like without that "injustice".

That's the problem with test cases - they present an implicitly false case intentionally designed to confuse people and play on sympathies. The legal principles would have been the same if the case was about Corner Man and it would have been much less deceptive.

I won't disagree with your contention that forcefully supressing a population keeps them, you know, surpressed. But I will contend that this imprudent and short-term civilisational management, because oppression degrades a people culturally and spiritually. Oppression makes brutes of a people, and the oppressor ends up riding a tiger.

I contend that there's strong empirical evidence in support of the brutalising effect of harsh oppression. If you're willing accept that premise then please skip the next two paragraphs.

Despite what a lot of activists will claim, the vast bulk of sub-Saharan Africa only experienced European colonialism for a bit less than a century: 1875 or so until 1965 or so, arguably starting later with the Berlin Conference in 1885. The obvious exception is South Africa, which had much earlier settler colonialism as opposed to the later and more popular extractive model. Looking at the societies that have emerged post-decolonisation, a really striking fact is how much more violent South Africa is than any other country in the continent, even those that have experienced recent military conflict. I'm talking specifically here about murder rates, by far the most reliable measure of violence even in extremely badly-run societies (ie most of Africa). South Africa is notably more violent than almost any other African country; in some cases up to 30× more (note that oppression is colourblind, and SA's only large competitor in the murder stakes is Nigeria, anothe country cursed with intense ethnic conflict, and jockeying, alternating subjugation of the Yoruba by the Hausa historically, and the inverse now).

This presents a serious challenge for a strictly white supremacist position; South African blacks had by far the most contact with civilising whites of any peers on the continent, and have come out of the encounter by far the most violent. This pattern shows up throughout the world; Russia is famous for tsarist oppression of its populace, and really high levels of interpersonal violence. Brazil was the largest slave nation in the world (surely an oppressive institution...) and is far more violent as a result than the vast majority of African countries. Even thinking of my own lovely nation of Ireland; historically oppressed, and authentic brutes for much of history as a result. In our case we were a big European outlier for most of the 20th century as a country with vastly higher levels of interpersonal violence than others; but the longer we went post-independence, the closer we tracker to the European norm. This was separate too and preceded our (literal) enrichment; getting richer didn't make us less violent and ignorant, it was a precondition for same.

I could go on and on but to my mind there are more than sufficient natural experiments around the world showing that, whatever the quality of the biological substratum of a people in the first place, oppression en masse tends to coarsen and degrade en masse. There are certainly very many interesting sub-mechanisms and processes behind this but, sinilar to your own big-picture view of oppression working as a large-scale system, I won't bother to speculate on them here.

Given this observation about the development of peoples, oppression as you propose it is storing up trouble for the future. In a world than has experienced the French and American revolutions, it just doesn't seem tenable to me politically that any Western society is going to have the will to keep oppressing its untermenschen forever (or at least, not in the form of coarse and ill-fitting explicit racial oppression; something a bit more subtle like a class system can of course coexist with liberal democracies forever). You can genocide them, or you can fully emancipate them, but history demonstrates that you can't keep kicking the oppression can down the road forever. And about genocide, let's be realistic; it is the civilisational equivalent of murder, the guilt of which is analogous to the guilt in a single (non-deranged) individual. It cannot have no effect. If you want to argue for the desirability of an America which had sent its formerly enslaved population to concentration camps once it was done with them... that actually would be interesting and I'd engage with it. But I doubt it's your belief.

Full legal and social emancipation, with all the calamities it entails, is a plaster (band-aid in American) that the US had to rip off sooner or later. An interesting counterfactual for you is this; what do you think would be the state of the US today if reconstruction of the slave regions had been completed in earnest and totally? This has been pulled off successfully in other societies; my understanding is that it's not a sociological impossiblitiy but rather a particular project which failed and was aabandoned in the 1870s US, only to be picked up again from the mid 20th. Really fascinating "what if?" there. And incidentally, lest you think Haiti is the only possible model of post-slavery societies in the western hemisphere: no! Look at Barbados, look at Jamaica; both pretty respectable societies that made a much better go of the same raw material, through better stewardship, institutions etc.

I’ll note that South Africa, Brazil, and Russia have some of the world’s highest levels income inequality, which broadly speaking tends to track quite well with a society’s general crime rate that typically determines murder rates.