Nurturing Casual Racism

Prolific blogger Clarissa, who’s been blogging more frequently on her holiday than most people do normally, has recently posted a very interesting piece on ‘closure’. I’ve heard the term bandied about, of course, but I had to Google to be absolutely certain what she was referring to.

It turns out that closure is a rather self-indulgent social ritual — or so it appears to me — where fighting factions meet, and instead of a curt oath of honour to end all bad blood and go about life sensibly for a change, tell each other what marvellously brave and wonderful individuals they are for sitting with the enemy, possibly breaking bread, and trying to assure each other that the trouble, whatever it was, was purely circumstantial and nobody’s fault or responsibility.

Clarissa, characteristically, has a rather provocative theory of cultural difference about the origins of closure. She thinks that “the English-speaking culture sees any kinds of relationships between people as hugely problematic… [and] try to obviate the difficulties they experience in interpersonal communication by creating a series of rules that are supposed to regulate any human contact. The concept of closure is one of those rules.”

This really set off one Charles Rowley, who said

I do not agree with Clarissa at all on this. If Anglo-Saxons have such difficulty in communicating with each other honestly, why did they succeed econonomically by comparison with the trash elsewhere? Decent closure leaves open the possibility of human exchange after the break-up. That is why Britain and the US do so well.

He then went on to ask Clarissa if she thought the Third Reich, the USSR, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Albanians and so on “brought good closure to their predations”, and bade the cluster visit warmer climes. Now, from this, you might be tempted to imagine Rowley as a standard-issue mild white supremacist, airing his views in public, and therefore both ignorant and a fool. It turns out, however, that Charlie is a professor emeritus of Economics*. Oh my! And a classical liberal. Well. No big surprises there.

What really surprised me was Clarissa’s reaction. Usually fire and brimstone to even those dissenting views some might consider mild, Clarissa responds to DocR’s casual labelling of the non A-S world as ‘trash’ and the laughable irrationality of his attempted causality by saying,

I´m talking only about interpersonal relationships here. I´d rather not bring politics into this at all because this kind of analysis where one phenomenon is used to explain the universe does not appeal to me… All I´m talking about is what I perceive as a clumsy relational strategy of managing interpersonal communications.

The hand-wringing servility from a woman who freely uses such epithets as “vile freak” to her readers is rather astounding. Are idiocy and racism — especially amongst those in a position to teach it to hundreds of others — suddenly very ‘meh, whatever’? Why do I never get these memos on time? Or is it Charlie’s prof. em. status, that grants him immunity and oily coddling from Clarissa?

Man, would that be extra incentive to get a doctorate, or what. Free pass to put my brain in a safety deposit, and act like a drunk YouTube commentator. Woohoo.

*What bothers me is a vague suspicion that I’ve been to Rowley’s blog before, and quite enjoyed something he wrote. Extra disappointing 😦 Then again, given my memory, it could be someone else.



  1. I have personal reasons to like Charles Rowley. I don´t see anything racist in his comment because “Third Reich, the USSR, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Albanians ” belong to the same race as Rowley does.

    We are all human and it´s normal to give more leeway to people you like in person.

    • That’s being disengenous, Clarissa. I’ve emphasised the line I call racist in my quote of Rowley. Deliberately picking another line is rather an ineffective way of deflecting the discussion.

      Even if we agree to discuss only the safe line you’ve picked, (a) not all these groups are not Anglo-Saxon, ergo not the same race (b) and I don’t see why a person should have the right to indulge in racist speech simply because he does so against his own race.

      But yes, Rowley does look like an cheerful, avuncular person, and I agree we give people we like more leeway, but when a person we like casually calls everyone but his own race trash, and makes an exceptionally moronic point about his own area of expertise, I think the time for re-evaluating one’s liking for such a person is at hand.

      • Ah, but what I see though is a very particular situation. Spanish departments in US, they are full of persons from the Hispanic world trying to figure out US culture, and other people not from here. In Spanish it is common to call US Anglo-Saxon although this is not really accurate. But many theories about what the “Anglo-Saxons” are like are developed – theories which often are actually more descriptive of late capitalism in central countries than of anything specifically “Anglo-Saxon” or English speaking, or of the US in the current media moment, not any kind of ur-Anglo-Saxon culture. Sometimes the observations which are come up with are illuminating, and sometimes they are obfuscating and frustrating because of the wild, and not always very well founded assumptions and generalizations on which they rest.

        • Fascinating. In the absence of access to such cultural information, I am, unfortunately, a bit textual and old-fashioned in my definitions of historical social groups.

          And while this is conjecture on my part, I imagine Rowley follows the same system, since his blog informs me he’s from England, it is my understanding that the phrase is used more traditionally there. Plus, he does explicitly mentions Britain and the US as countries who have done very well economically, and in the usual narrative of American and English success *is* a WASP one.

          In other news, it’s very lovely to have you back on the blog, Z.

          • Merci Priyanka! Yes, Rowley is having the WASP gut reaction, which I sometimes have, too, even though I am not one. This is because at work all day I have to listen to wall to wall insults of US and US culture. Usually I am kind but sometimes I get tired and remind my interlocutor that their country is also quite bad.

            On view of US from Hispanic world, there is a great deal of 19th century writing that defines official differences between them and us that intellectuals/elites wanted to point out; these are ideologically motivated of course, and/but have gotten into popular culture big time. And, I suspect all of this goes back to earlier conflicts between Spain and England — defeat of Spanish Armada, etc.

            Also, a lot of prized luxury goods in the Hispanic world are British, e.g. Scots whiskey, in Chile elevenses, and tea and tea sandwiches both there and in Argentina; and there is the Madrid department store “El corte inglés” (the English cut).

            So there is Rowley’s colonialist outburst, which is the standard British line, but there is also this other penchant for describing Britishness, not always as a colonizer but as a *rival empire.*

  2. Funny – I was just working on a post for my privilegeFTW column on this called “what classical economics and first world feminism have in common (racism).”

  3. It is a social ritual I was unaware of and I am American.

    As a term it has been made popular in recent years … “a sense of closure” is the sense that a chapter has ended, something has shifted or change, or a question has been answered.

    It is used a lot re crime victims, particularly of murder — people talk of wanting to know whether they really are dead, where the body is so on, so they can stop wondering and searching, and have “closure” or an end to restlessness.

    It is used to justify the death penalty — people say that until the criminal is dead, the family of the victim cannot feel “closure”. In this case I think it is a euphemism for revenge, as in some societies it does not take an execution for there to be a sense of justice having been served.

    It is valued because it means being able to do the next thing in one’s life, as opposed to be stuck in one’s tracks over some issue or event. But there isn’t a social ritual called “closure,” although, to return to the death penalty example, when the family of the crime victim witness the execution of the accused it is a kind of ceremony and it is said (said, I say) to give the family a sense of “closure” … no longer stuck in grief and anger, able to accept the death of their loved one perhaps, etc.

    What I think is more interesting is the emphasis in current culture on the punto final, on moving on. It is a form of social control and a way to keep problems in check. The arguments against prosecuting the Chilean-Argentine torture generals invoked the closure concept, that what is healthy is to forget the past, shake hands with it and move on. People say similar things about Franco and the mass graves in Spain, etc. We must forgive, forget, not exact justice from the elitex, and move on. In life as well we must get over hurts, have “closure,” so nobody gets too disruptive.

    It is an ideological move. “Look, we have offered you closure, you should be able to move on.” When perhaps the problem on which you were offered closure, some individual tragedy, is not the real problem, or, perhaps, when the reason you want “closure” in the sense of revenge (the death penalty) is that you are interdicted from even articulating the real problem.

    • I agree with you, Z. The legal, political, etc. aspects of closure are the ones I’m more familiar with, but the other most commonly used context is interpersonal relationships, esp. romantic relationships, in terms of breaking up, etc. If two people have an ugly breakup, say, “closure” seems to be the perhaps-wished-for (I think, largely unattainable) idea of a definitive end-point to emotional/financial/social/what-have-you attachment of one or more parties. My friend recently went through a massive break-up, and in what seems to me a very American gesture, defriended her ex on facebook and spent considerable time deleting mutual photo albums, etc., threw away/returned his stuff lying over at her place, and promptly went and had a one night stand. Apparently, all these actions, definitively signifying an irrevocable end to their relationship and signalling that she was now ready to move on, construed her closure.

      While I understood why she’d need to symbolically (and otherwise) affirm the end of the relationship, such gestures, to me, ultimately seem superficial. I’m not sure whom the performance was for–herself or the world in general or both. And I’m not sure such a dramatic series of actions actually succeeds in helping to process whatever nasty incident you’re trying to get over. For myself, I know something like this would never work — my mind is devious in the kinds of surprises it routinely hands out, so that someone I’ve not missed or wanted for a long time may suddenly reappear on the most surprising of pretexts. Ah, well.

      • Well, usually I don’t do this sort of thing. Either they end it and I believe them, or I do and I believe myself, no special ceremony needed although I do consider it decent, if you are ending it, to say it to their face – not by phone or e-mail, or by a sudden silence — if you ever appreciated the person and you’re the one ending it, you can tell them that you enjoyed the things you enjoyed and appreciated the things you did, and you can do this in person, not just run away.

        One time I did do a ceremony, I had ended it but it was because he was seeing someone else, otherwise I would not have. I had to make it real for myself so I buried some gifts from him in the yard and watered this with a bottle of perfume he had given me. It was like casting a spell, I guess, to signal to my own self that this was really the end, I was not going back.

        • I like the spell analogy. Symbols are powerful, indeed. For my friend, though, it was more of a public process, almost a spectacle. That’s what I didn’t get.

  4. So I’m kinda confused as to what Clarissa even means. I’ve used the term tonight! In reference to an abuse victim (and victim of Christian sex-shaming), perhaps her confessional reading tonight in front of strangers is a way that she helps herself find a way to deal with it and move on in her life.

    So, beyond that I’m at a loss. I always thought that closure was a VERY personal, private matter that one settled amongst oneself as to what constitutes settling an issue.

    I have also never heard of this term BEYOND a personal, private matter — such as a relationship or abuse or whathaveyou.

    I dunno. Perhaps I shouldn’t read wordy blog posts full of SAT words that I don’t want to think about at 1 AM.

    • Oh, I think I have figured out what she means. It is the idea that one should part as friends, forgive, meet and say well we were both at fault, etc. Which is fine if that fits the situation and it is what the people involved actually want to say, or if it will help them move on to have that conversation. But they might have nothing more to say, really … or not want to be in each others’ presence at this point … or not feel the marriage counselor induced feelings like “we were both at fault” but rather feel like saying “You cheated on me, and I am offended, so I am leaving!” … and, having already communicated that, not see a reason to repeat it. I think she is criticizing the idea, in American tv fueled popular consciousness, that one should always have a conversation in which one says, and feels the kinds of things the current vogue in pop psych says one should, and one should do this on a timetable that would fit … prime time / this season / the right tv spot.

      • Z, we had a young teacher once who told some of her parents that she was appalled at the teaching methods employed by her older colleagues, and she would be using modern, deeply-researched pedagogy to build relationships with her students. What I chiefly remember her for is her bitterly resented method of conflict resolution between students. We were pre-teens then, and if she spotted someone squabbling or outright fighting, she would call both parties, have them tell each other what they thought the other person had done wrong, then shake hands or hug, and ‘make friends’ again.

        We hated this. We had our own methods of conflict resolution, ones suited to our personalities and the nature of the conflict. Sometimes, we’d have an all-out physical fight, sometimes we’d coldly ignore the other for a couple of days, sometimes our friends would get it on it and call us stupid and we’d sheepishly forget about the matter.

        My point is, I don’t know what Clarissa meant by ‘closure’, but it isn’t always two people meeting to resolve bitterness and part as friends. Sometimes this closure label applies to being finally able to get all the bitterness and anger out of one’s system, or to pass the blame onto the other person, or out of peer pressure, because their friends and family have heard tell that this ritual is absolutely necessary for a person’s emotional well being.

        The thing is, except for the last example, we already have several names for these modes of social interaction. What does recasting it as new, isolated phase of human behaviour disconnected from the rest of their lives achieve?

        • That’s what I would say but remember Clarissa is new in US and has only lived a couple of places. Apparently she perceives the existence of both a concept and a ritual akin to the school procedure you describe above, and believes it is what we require at the end of a relationship here. Perhaps it is a custom where she is or in her circles, but it isn’t something I am aware of — although I do hear a lot of boilerplate about the importance of seeing that one was also at fault and of forgiving so as to move on.

          I do not know, perhaps it is a good idea compared to some alternatives. Here, people who are still angry at their exes chase them around in trucks, and burst into their jobs and so on to complain at them. So perhaps the reason this ceremony of “closure” is recommended is so that they won’t do *that.*

          But honestly, I had never heard of a required or even customary ceremony like that for adults until I read about it on Clarissa’s blog.


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