Let’s begin with a story. There have been nerds in every era, and the 18th century was no exception. One such nerd was Sir William Jones, who attained linguistic fame with his 1771 Grammar of the Persian Language, and whose translations of (sometimes pretty seductive!) medieval Persian poetry inspired no less than, oh, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Southey–you know, the usual, Orientally derivative British Romantics. When Jones wasn’t nerding it up as a linguist and translator, though, he served as a judge in India… but who am I kidding? He of course found ways to get his nerd on there, too.
In particular, to effectively synchronize case law between British and Indian cultures, Jones knew he needed to add Sanskrit to his extensive linguistic repertoire, so he studied texts like the Rigveda, a collection of spiritual and philosophical hymns some 2-3000 years old. This led him to a discovery that, as David W. Anthony notes in his seminal text on forensic linguistics, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (2007), “is now quoted in every introductory text-book of historical linguistics”. Namely, our nerd realized that
The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure: more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.
As Anthony further notes, Persian, Celtic, and German were also among the languages that Jones aligned with this mysterious “ancient parent language”, which we now know as Proto-Indo-European. And lo, did a great bit of pseudo-scientific cultural gobbly-de-gook emerge from this revelation… because soon all the Western nation-states wanted to figure out where the people from these ancient Sanskrit and Persian texts, the “Aryans”, originally called home.
Now, I’m quoting from Anthony because his text is freely available at the above link for everyone to read, but the ensuing race to situate the origins of this earlier people within the borders of specific European countries is pretty much common knowledge. It’s nothing less than the origins of white supremacy, including Nazism.
And it’s a maddeningly stupid origin story for so much death and destruction in the 19th and 20th centuries, for two major reasons.
“Master” Race? More Like, Massive Misreading
For one, the entire race to discover the origins of the Aryan people, the supposed linguistic progenitors for wide swaths of humanity, was predicated on a reductive, Abrahamic ideology: the Tower-of-Babel model of human civilization, we could call it.
In this pre-genetics figuration of the evolving universe, time and adaptation only produces decay, a fragmentation and deviation from earlier, more perfect biological forms. This is why, although Darwinian evolution tends to be tethered to the rise of Nazism, it’s neo-Lamarckian evolution that actually fuelled some of the most hideous eugenics and totalitarian projects of the late-19th and early 20th century. Now, neo-Lamarkism is itself a distortion of Lamarck’s original idea: namely, that animals could acquire new, inheritable traits within their lifetimes–not through horizontal gene transfer, which we now understand to be part of evolutionary theory, but from simple environmental changes and interactions (like giraffes extending their necks to reach higher trees, then passing on those lengthened necks to their offspring). The “neo” part is a cultural distortion of this scientific hypothesis, and implies that an environment of “impurities” could be stunting superior stock, which would thus require social cleansing in order that said genetic stock may regain its original excellence.
In short, in a profoundly unscientific manner, much more in keeping with the pre-“confused” speech of the tremendously accomplished human population in Genesis 11:1-9, many 19th-century Europeans assumed that if a parent language was intrinsically a superior language, its speakers surely had to have been a superior people, too.
But this leads to the second maddeningly stupid part of Aryan fixation: “Arya” is simply a Sanskrit word for noble, and is used in those early texts to describe followers of Sanatan Dharma (or what we now call Vedic Hinduism). The Brits came along and imposed a new word for these followers–Hindu–which originally was only a geographical marker (however well respected) by the Arabs/Persians for people from a certain region: Hind (India) or… Aryavarta, “the abode of the Aryas”. In short, the Brits, with their tribalist fixation on concocting human histories in which everyone is racially moored to a specific land (something the French and Germans also put to enthusiastically oppressive use!), took away a religious marker for a given population, and racialized it. If you look at the original vedas, though, as Anthony saliently notes:
According to [the Aryans’] own texts, they conceived as “Aryan-ness” as a religious-linguistic category. Some Sanskrit-speaking chiefs, and even poets in the Rig Veda, had names such as Balbütha and Bᵲbu that were foreign to the Sanskrit language. These people were of non-Aryan origin and yet were leaders among the Aryans. So even the Aryans of the Rig Veda were not genetically “pure”–whatever that means. The Rig Veda was a ritual canon, not a racial manifesto. If you sacrificed the right way to the right gods, which required performing the great traditional prayers in the traditional langauge, you were an Aryan; otherwise you were not.
And so we come to the main issue. Namely, that
There Is No Race More Primitive Than the “Master” Race
I’m thirteen-generations settler-stock Canadian: English, Irish, Scottish, French. I even have the genetic test (care of my sister) to prove it: 99.8% white barbarian, with a strong showing from the “British & Irish”, “French & German”, and “Broadly Northwestern European” contingents–the parts, that is, where a lot of the worst rot about racial supremacy arose in the 18th and 19th centuries.
You really don’t get much more “white” than me. But there are good reasons to be ashamed of “my people”, and not just because of personal anecdotes like the one I shared about white tourists in Colombia the other day… but because, boy howdy, have we illustrated our primitivism at every step along the way of our “advancement”!
Welll… have you ever heard the expression about the monkey climbing high enough that everyone can see its behind?
Yeah, that’s us. The loftier our position in the trees, the more of our ass that’s showing.
See, my ancestors had tremendous advantages, historically. As Jared Diamond first popularized in 1997 with Guns, Germs, and Steel (the book and [in the link] the National Geographic documentary), we know that a geographic lottery gave us access to more plentiful proteins, an extensive animal workforce, metallurgic resources, and greater bacterial and viral diversity with which to strengthen our immune systems. It’s not that other parts of the world lacked these entirely, either! Recent discoveries, like the massive Mayan civilization, from around 500AD, with twice the square footage of medieval England, attest to the thriving and accomplished nature of quite a few other earlier geographic groupings. But we were especially lucky.
And yet, white-supremacy movements are a stark reminder that, for all Western civilization’s external trappings–all the infrastructural, scientific, and cultural exceptionalism on the back of slavery and conquest–“my people” remain early hominids at heart. All the tribalist rhetoric; all the territorial and racialized bull that many of us spin through varying degrees of learned discourse; all the grand bloviating about our need to fight for a “return” to that Abrahamic bunk of a less fragmented form of human excellence… it all intrinsically unseats us as legitimate contenders for the title of “most evolved human beings”.
Now, this isn’t to say that we’re genetically inferior, either. As with any kid who grew up in a household of luxury, I strongly suspect that any demographic given the geographical luxuries more disproportionately afforded to my ancestor-pools would have become the petulant, tantruming, tribalistically elitist messes that “my people” are today.
It just so happens that, yay, I won the genetic lottery, and was born into the overcoddled set of humans that, having established for itself a significant amount of societal comfort on the back of others’ suffering and erasure, also built narratives of cultural supremacy–in the arts, the sciences, and nation-state politics–that amply convey its own inferiority, its own insecurity and instability, the moment that any other set of human beings articulates its own histories of excellence and rights to basic dignity.
And, quite frankly, it’s embarrassing.
White supremacy–with its profoundly ill-read beginnings and its markedly primitivist and violent endings–is embarrassing.
And it deserves to be treated as such in the marketplace of global-humanist ideas.
Turning Our Backs on “Queen Mab”
There’s a terrific scene in Merlin (1998) where Merlin defeats Queen Mab, the author of generations of pointless suffering, by consigning her to the dustbin of history. By choosing to forget her because she’s “just… not important enough anymore.”
Now, there’s a key difference between this approach and what must be managed by humanists in the age of the internet, where information silos allow for the ready radicalization of anyone excluded from mainstream discourse. But it’s not as stark a difference in response as one might think. White supremacists are primitive thinkers, tribalists who view contest as intrinsic to their value-set, so anything we do to confront them is going to give them a powerful rush of vindication: whether the approach is punching, or arguing directly, or otherwise seeking them out to provoke.
Aha! they’ll take from all three: You may not agree with my views on white supremacy yet, but you tacitly agree that combat is necessary for the survival of our species! That’s a good start!
…Which is not to condemn folks for engaging combatively with supremacists!
I’m simply arguing that, whenever we can prevent the need for such combative engagement, we should pursue that end instead.
Because we don’t need to treat white-supremacists like competitive equals.
Because they’re not.
They’re small-minded thinkers, however well-read they might consider themselves to be, because all their rationalizations are motivated by that most primitive of animal emotions: fear. Fear of lost territory. Fear of lost status. Fear of decay. And in fuelling the fires of this lowest hominid instinct, they’ve allowed themselves to be inspired less by scientific rationalism, by the great fruits of all our collective higher learning, than by superstition: by religiously moored cultural myths and legends.
Indeed, the scientific evidence plainly illustrates adaptation as an ongoing process made more resilient by diversity (as we also know to explain the existence of sexual reproduction: a laborious and messy process, compared to asexual reproduction, but one that offers far greater protection from deleterious mutations!). Instead, all this white-supremacist talk of racial purity amounts to little more than an appeal for a return to a mythical origin that never existed… because it was contrived by 18th- and 19th-century Europeans, who misread ancient texts (which themselves contained communities of nobility established through a sharing of beliefs, not backgrounds!) in light of tribalist-colonizer anxieties about the fate of their over-extended empires.
Moving toward Global Humanism
So where does this stupid history leave us now? Well, I don’t want to repurpose the word “Aryan” yet again. We in the West have been lifting, cribbing, and appropriating from Eastern heritages far too often as is.
But I do want to suggest that the search for the Aryan people isn’t nearly as ideologically bankrupt as white supremacy has made it out to be, these last two hundred years.
Granted, the original Aryan people weren’t saints: they colonized, too. They waged war. They struggled for tribalistic dominance.
But they also gathered under a banner that reflected something far beyond their genetic heritage, their divergent ethnic beginnings. They came together under a set of ideas, and a shared language to convey them.
In this respect, then, global humanists could stand to learn a lot from the real Aryans.
Because we’re not reinventing the wheel here, we who want to improve our societies; we who one day hope to finish that Tower of Babel relentlessly taken from us by war and strife and fear and selfish, stupid, tribalist division.
Like humans throughout history, we’re simply on the hunt for a better story.
The one hunt that might truly make us masters of our basic instincts, and permit us–at last, at last!–to rule over them, supreme.