Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason
by Justin E.H. Smith
How enlightened was the Enlightenment? Not a few critics have seen it as profoundly benighted. For some, it was a seedbed for modern racism and imperialism; the light in the Enlightenment, one recent scholar has suggested, essentially meant “white.” Voltaire emphatically believed in the inherent inferiority of les Nègres, who belonged to a separate species, or at least breed, from Europeans—as different from Europeans, he said, as spaniels from greyhounds. Kant remarked, of something a Negro carpenter opined, that “the fact that he was black from head to toe was proof that what he said was stupid.” And David Hume wrote, in a notorious footnote, that he was “apt to suspect” that nonwhites were “naturally inferior to the whites,” devoid of arts and science and “ingenious manufactures.”
Inspired by the meritocratic ideal, many people these days are committed to a view of how the hierarchies of money and status in our world should be organized. We think that jobs should go not to people who have connections or pedigree but to those best qualified for them, regardless of their background. Occasionally, we’ll allow for exceptions—for positive discrimination, say, to help undo the effects of previous discrimination. But such exceptions are provisional: when the bigotries of sex, race, class, and caste are gone, the exceptions will cease to be warranted. We’ve rejected the old class society. In moving toward the meritocratic ideal, we have imagined that we have retired the old encrustations of inherited hierarchies. As the sociologist Michael Young knew, that’s not the real story.
by Michel Leiris, translated from the French by Brent Hayes Edwards
On April 15, 1931, a host of Parisian luminaries gathered to attend a boxing match showcasing “Panama” Al Brown—an Afro-Panamanian bantamweight and the sport’s first Latino world champion. If a resurrected Proust had wanted to evoke the social life of Paris at the time, he could have done worse than …
Chinua Achebe found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say. A measure of his achievement is that Achebe found an African voice in English that is so natural its artifice eludes us.