THE BIGOT: Why Prejudice Persists. By Stephen Eric Bronner. Yale University Press. 235 pages. $40.
In an important new book that does not beat around the bush, Stephen Eric Bronner gives us a portrait of the bigot, explaining who he is, why he thinks the way he does and what claims he makes in his effort to preserve his diminishing power.
Make no mistake, bigotry is largely about that.
“Once the beneficiary of social privilege, the bigot now views himself as a loser — or as a winner under siege,” Bronner writes in his typically insightful and direct way. “Imaginary events are used to indict entire races, religions, nationalities, or gender groups. The bigot’s need for excuses is unending: It is always about him and never about his victims. What the subaltern endures is irrelevant. It’s time to ‘move on’ and ‘get over it.’ The bigot has heard enough whining about gringos, slavery, the Holocaust, and the rest.”
“The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists” helps explain today’s iterations of intolerance without relying too much on real-life examples. It would have been easy — and less effective — to refer regularly to the many bigoted public outbursts in recent years. But then Bronner would have produced a polemic rather than this efficient and useful phenomenological volume. To be sure, he cites history old and new, but he does so with a refreshing judiciousness. The historical episodes to which he refers work as punctuation or brief emphasis.
The irony that emerges from these relentless pages is that the bigot asserts himself as the guardian of morality and traditional values precisely because he is losing his grip on what he thinks to be right and proper. The world changes inexorably, and the bigot is left behind. For this reason he lashes out and grasps at the shreds of a vanishing world order. And when those shreds no longer can be secured in his fist, he adapts quickly and refocuses his wrath.
The bigot, Bronner argues, has good reason to fear modernity, for he stands to forfeit his illusion of power. It is an illusion because what he thinks he has controlled all this time in fact has controlled him, and betrayed him again and again. He is not usually among those who have mastered the game and amassed fortune and fame. He is more often among the rural poor, the urban working class, the petit bourgeois and others who insist on believing in the American Dream (and its equivalent elsewhere) despite all contrary evidence.
“The bigot lags behind the rapid changes generated by capitalism and so is condemned to resist new forms of social and political life,” Bronner writes. “He looks for what is rock solid, what is seemingly beyond circumstance, and he finds his trinity: religion, convention, community.”
Because the bigot is already marginalized, and because he sees change, some of it dramatic and quick, all around him (gay rights, growing immigrant populations, religious conflict, the decline of the middle class and so on), he insists on upholding vaporous, often reactionary, values, and he flings blame upon the Other, Bronner writes. It is always the fault of the Other.
The past is romanticized: happy slaves, happy women in the kitchen. Yet when blacks and women complain, the bigot views them as ungrateful even as intolerable doubts are sown in his mind. “They heighten his insecurity, his unconscious guilt, and thus the brutality he employs to expunge those feelings.”
The bigot invents an alternative reality informed by mythological thinking, Bronner explains, and he can be susceptible to conspiracy theories, for surely the ongoing destruction of his world order is attributable to immoral intent not amoral forces or happenstance.
Bronner describes three main kinds of bigot: the true believer, elitist and chauvinist.
The true believer “wants definitive answers for the eternal questions: the meaning of life, the prospects attendant upon death,” writes Bronner. “Modernity leaves him alienated and confused. Scientific developments and the expansion of the commodity form relegate the divine to an ever smaller region of the universe. Pessimistic about the future, the true believer insists that new problems require old solutions” rooted in scripture.
The elitist, instead, chooses not to pester the Lord, Bronner explains. “In this role, the bigot is always looking down on the target of his prejudice. He simply does not take the Other seriously.” The elitist is not necessarily an intellectual or member of the upper class; “he can also be the half-educated populist, the petty bourgeois, the provincial farmer, or the hustler who feels that women always want ‘it’ and that blacks are cattle. The elitist is special, better, and thus entitled.”
The chauvinist needs only a self-serving narrative of belonging. “This narrative is fueled by nostalgia for the past, or, better, what the bigot imagines the past must have been. It is a narrative in which the Other disappears: or better, the exploitation and discrimination he suffers disappear. Bringing up the Other’s persecution would only disrupt the narrative. Such is the meaning behind the belief still current in the American South: ‘It’s not a matter of race but of heritage.’”
Not all bigots go to extremes; many are very nice people. Perhaps Bronner should have argued that there is a little bigotry seeking its opportunity to burst forth in most of us. But psychoanalysis is not really his aim. Rather, he is interested in helping us, his readers, see this universal blame-game more clearly. It is easy to dismiss distorted expressions of prejudice as a small matter, not worth a fuss. But as a result, bigotry has become mainstream, expressed daily by some of our public figures and broadcasters. Facts and history regularly are distorted or ignored in today’s public discourse, to the detriment of our multicultural democracy.
We have become inured to the bigot, too tolerant of intolerance. And Bronner’s timely book reminds us that the acrimonious partisanship we suffer in many of our social and political encounters today has among its sources the perennial conflict between progress and fear.
Reviewer Adam Parker is the book page editor.