J. Philippe Rushton: Who Was He Really?

I remember 1988 as the year of the ‘Rushes.’ The first ‘Rush’ was Anglo-Indian author Salman Rushdie. Although known in Britain for some time, in 1988 he burst onto the international scene with his novel The Satanic Verses. His work earned him a ‘fatwa’ from the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed, praise from leftist crowds (this was before criticizing Islam became politically incorrect), and a spoof in the University of Toronto engineering students’ newspaper called ‘The Satiric Verses,’ which featured the Ayatollah offering Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues to anyone who did away with Rushdie.

The second ‘Rush’ (now deceased, as of October 2 this year) was University of Western Ontario psychology professor J. Philippe Rushton. Like Rushdie, Rushton came into the limelight in 1988, not because of a work of fiction but of what he purported to be a work of science: a paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences titled ‘Race differences in behaviour: A review and evolutionary analysis.’ The paper stated that Blacks were less intelligent, less law-abiding, and less stable in terms of family formation and dissolution than Whites were. Whites in turn exhibited less intelligence, more rule-breaking, and less family stability than did East Asians, whom Rushton termed ‘Orientals.’ On the other hand, Blacks were more sexually precocious and active than Whites, who for their part were less sexually restrained than Asians.

Not surprisingly, Rushton’s work generated an uproar. He was immediately denounced as a racist. He was even investigated by the Toronto Police and Ontario Provincial Police following numerous complaints of ‘promoting hatred against an identifiable group.’ Ultimately, no charges were laid against him, with Ontario’s then-Attorney General Ian Scott describing Rushton’s theories as ‘loony but not criminal.’ Rushton also appeared in a TV debate with environmental activist David Suzuki.

Philippe Rushton’s theories were full of holes and unanswered questions. His ‘Law of Three’ left out many ethnic groups like South Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians (never mind culturally unified but racially diverse groups such as Hispanics!) who could not be easily slotted into his Black-White-East Asian paradigm. As well, many of Rushton’s statements were patently false. One was his claim that ‘Orientals’ were slower to physically mature than Whites (who were for their part slower to mature than Blacks). Scientific studies, though, show that Asian girls experience their first menstrual periods at the same time or even a bit earlier than White European girls: for instance, Japanese women start menstruating at a younger age than those from Scandinavia.

I will let others debate the scientific merits or non-merits of Rushton’s work. I want to address another question: was J. Philippe Rushton really a racist? In common parlance, racism generally refers to the belief that Whites (or White Christians) are superior to all other people: in other words, to White supremacy. Did Rushton actually subscribe to such a philosophy? In ‘Race differences in behaviour,’ he implied that Asians possessed more of what we might view as ‘virtues’ – intelligence, emotional stability, and obedience to the law – than Whites did. In terms of sexual prowess, however, Blacks came out on top, pardon the pun. Whites, far from being a master race, seemed doomed to perpetual mediocrity in Rushton’s mind. He did not openly state whom or what he considered a superior race, but it did not appear to be his own (Rushton was White, born in Great Britain to an English father and French mother).

By extolling the supposed moral superiority of Asians, Rushton veered from many traditional White Supremacists. It is true that, as one commentator stated, ‘even White Supremacists are saying nice things about Asians now.’ Nonetheless, this is hardly a universal phenomenon among racist Whites. Some of them, for example, latched onto the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 by a young Korean-American man as well as violent Korean movies as reasons for bringing back the Chinese Exclusion Act to the US. On the other hand, Rushton shared many ideas with the old-fashioned ‘White is right’ crowd, like the denigration of Muslims. He stated at a conference in 2009 in Baltimore that Muslims were not only culturally but genetically inferior: they had an ‘aggressive personality with relatively closed, simple minds and were less amenable to reason.’ The notion of Muslims as a ‘race’ might strike one as ludicrous. Just as there are Black, White, South Asian, East Asian and other Christians, the Muslim faith includes a large number of sub-Saharan Africans, inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia, Middle Eastern peoples as well as the majority of the population in Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Perhaps J. (the ‘J,’ by the way, standing for either ‘John’ or its French equivalent ‘Jean’) Philippe Rushton should best be remembered as a paradox. Although he stirred fierce debate, he was described by many as a soft-spoken and mild-mannered individual. He was a White man who was beloved by White Supremacists but who, in the words of the website AmIAnnoying, did not ‘put his fellow whites at the top of the hierarchy.’ I will declare straight out that I do not, and never have, adhered to Rushton’s theories. I also found it hard sometimes to determine whether he was an attention-seeker, a lunatic or maybe both. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was Rushton mad or simply pretending to be mad? The answer to that question obviously died with Rushton himself. In the end, Rushton was a man who, like the races he failed to include in his three-pronged system, escaped easy classification.

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