Those Wacky Foreigners!

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by Gene Callahan

Explorers and missionaries report that in Africa and Polynesia primitive man stops short at his earliest perception of things and never reasons if he can in any way avoid it. European and American educators sometimes report the same of their students. With regard to the Mossi on the Niger Levy-Bruhl quotes a missionary’s observation: "Conversation with them turns only upon women, food, and (in the rainy season) the crops." What other subjects did many contemporaries and neighbors of Newton, Kant, and Levy-Bruhl prefer?

~ Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, II.2

When a state wishes to work its captive population into a war frenzy directed against some foreign people, the notion that those foreigners are not fully human has been an important tool. An aspect of this effort is to assert that the minds of the foreigners in question are so different from those of the domestic population as to preclude the possibility of rational discussion over mutual problems, leaving blowing the foreigners up as the only solution.

Such a doctrine is a variety of polylogism: the idea that there are different kinds of logic employed by different groups of people. There are two main branches of polylogism: class polylogism and racial polylogism. The main practitioners of the first branch are the Marxists, who preach that different classes have inherently different modes of thinking (and that the logic of the proletariat is superior to that of other classes). The foremost practitioners of the second branch in recent times were the Nazis. But racial polylogism has recently been revived at National Review Online.

It first appeared when Jonah Goldberg was calling for an invasion of the entire African continent. The Africans, according to Goldberg, are somewhat… well, childlike in their mode of thinking. Like a stern but loving parent, America should not spare the rod of a massive invasion at the risk of spoiling the child.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Goldberg that, while behind the West in both technology and high culture, African societies functioned reasonably well until the first attempt (19th century colonialism) by the West to bring them up to snuff. I was trained in traditional West African music by the Ghanian master drummer, Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng. From him, I learned that Twi music is intimately connected to the structure of Twi society, where the master drummer represented the chief, the second drummer the queen, and the supporting drummers other members of the society. Those structures allowed room for individual improvisation within a sustained, traditional social structure. British colonial rule shattered those structures, forcing the Twi, Ga, Fante, and other tribal groups into an artificial state called Ghana. Similar artificial states were created across the continent during the sixties and seventies, resulting in decades of civil war and cultural breakdown.

Racial polylogism again reared its head in Goldberg’s column in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Now, it is the Arabs who have a different logical structure of mind, and can’t be reasoned with. Again, the solution seems to be to kill them until they "get it."

It is instructive to examine the examples Goldberg uses to "prove" the polylogistic thesis. In regards to Africa, his favorite source is a book called The Africans, and one of his favorite examples from the book is a study that shows how radically different Africans’ approach to near accidents is from that of residents of the "reasonable" West. When an African driver does something dangerous and gets away with it, it seems he doesn’t conclude that he ought not to do that again, but that doing it is OK, since he emerged unscathed. How wacky those dark fellows are!

Perhaps Goldberg never took driver’s education. If he had, he might recall that if you’re following the car in front of you by less than one car length for each ten miles per hour travel speed, and the fellow in front of you slams on the brakes, you will hit him. The combined reaction time of your nervous system and car brakes simply won’t allow you to stop fast enough to avoid a collision.

Or maybe Goldberg has never driven on an American highway. If he had, he’d see drivers within five feet of the car in front of them while traveling at 70 miles per hour — something we Americans call tailgating. The rear driver is ten or twenty times too close for safety.

Someone who drives like that has surely had any number of close calls. And what did he conclude from those? That what he is doing is OK, since he emerged unscathed. How wacky those Americans are!

In his column contending that Arabs, also, have a different structure of mind, Goldberg sums up polylogism in one sentence: "I mean the actual mechanisms of their thinking are different." He uses this "fact" to explain "why American Media, parent company of The National Enquirer, The Star, and other tabloid magazines, may have been targeted by Osama bin Laden’s anthrax-wielding henchmen."

The Arabs, it seems, just aren’t up to snuff on Western logic, and "don’t really understand how America works." You see, "they sent that envelope of anthrax to ‘American Media’ because they were given explicit orders to attack ‘the American media.’" Those wacky Arabs!

In fact, the FBI has concluded that it is very likely that it is a lone American who has been shipping Anthrax around the country. When Arab terrorists wanted to attack the U.S., they struck at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and apparently tried to hit the Capitol Building. When an American nut attempted the same, he targeted American Media.

We might also note that the Arab terrorists’ "mechanisms of thinking" were sufficient to find a gaping hole in American airline security and exploit it, while our government asserts that such an attack was "unimaginable."

I predict that these facts won’t discourage Goldberg from forwarding racial polylogism again in the future. If we have some trouble with Russia or Japan next year, it will turn out that the basic logic of the Russian or Japanese mind is incompatible with ours, making discussion impossible. We’ll just have to bomb the bejesus out of them.

In the meantime, we might consider whether it is actually the mind of Jonah Goldberg that has a structure incompatible with that of Western logic.

Gene Callahan [send him mail] has just finished a book, Economics for Real People, to be published this year by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

2001, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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