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THEIR SECRET WEAPON
The point of this book is to delineate a certain modern way of thinking as less progressive than peculiar, as something we must learn to step around and resist rather than let pass as a kind of higher wisdom. A cohesive and forward-looking society must treat this kind of thought like a virus, a regrettable though perhaps inevitable result of modern social history, which nevertheless must be ongoingly corralled. We should hope for its eventual disappearance, but if this is impossible – and it likely is – it must be kept on the margins of our existence just as smallpox is.
Third Wave Antiracism’s claims and demands, from a distance, seem like an eccentric performance from people wishing they hadn’t missed the late 1960s, dismayed that so much of the basic work is done already. Seeking the same righteous fury and heartwarming sense of purpose and belonging, their exaggerations and even mendacities become inevitable, because actual circumstances simply do not justify the attitudes and strategies of 1967.
In an alternate universe these people would be about as important as the Yippies were back in the day, with marijuana on their “flag,” applying to levitate the Pentagon, and smacking pies in people’s faces. They were a fringe movement good for a peek, and occasionally heightened awareness a tad. But they were unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and justifiably so. What makes the difference is that today’s Third Wave Antiracists have a particular weapon in their arsenal that lends them outsized power, much more impactful than a cream pie.
Ironically, the weapon is so lethal because of the genuine and invaluable change that has occurred in our sociopolitical fabric over the past decades. That change is that to the modern American, being called a racist is all but equivalent to being called a pedophile. A lot of very important people fought to make it that way, and few of us would wish they had not. But the problem is that the Third Wave Antiracists now piggyback on it. A key part of their toolkit is that they call those who disagree with them racists, or the more potent term of art of our moment, “white supremacists.” That kind of charge has a way of sticking. To deny it is to confirm it, we are taught. Once the charge is hurled, it’s like you’re caught in a giant squid’s tentacles. At least you can wash a cream pie off.
We need not suppose Third Wave Antiracists do this cynically to amass power. Take a look at, or listen to, that family member, neighbor or coworker you know who thinks this way and ask yourself whether they really give any indication of being a power-seeker. The Third Wave Antiracist genuinely reviles racism, as do most of us. They also seek a great deal else in the name of this that seems impractical, idealist, or just plain mean. But under our current conditions, the shakiness of their platform does not get in their way. This is because they can at any time shout out that you are a racist – and they do.
And to all but a very few, being called a racist is so intolerable today that one would rather tolerate some cognitive dissonance and fold up. This wouldn’t have worked as well in, say, 1967. In that America, many white people called racists by this kind of person, for better or for worse, would have just taken a sip of their cocktail and said “I don’t think so at all.” Or even just “Fuck you!”
Today, ironically because of progress, things are different. Now most cringe hopelessly at the prospect of being outed as a bigot, and thus: in being ever ready to call you a racist in the public square, the Third Wave Antiracist outguns you on the basis of this one weapon alone. Even if their overall philosophy is hardly the scriptural perfection they insist it is, that one thing they can and will do in its defense leaves us quivering wrecks. And thus they win.
An ordinary plant uses the smell of nectar to attract insects to alight, drink, and get pollen on their legs, which they will later fertilize another flower with. The carnivorous plant uses nectar to attract insects to alight and be devoured. The Third Wave Antiracist has retooled calling people racists from being an honest and useful accusation into a rhetorical bludgeon. This bludgeon displays their antiracism to other congregants for purposes of virtue signalling only abstractly connected to the fate of black people who need help.
They do this because they deeply subscribe to their watchcry just as most of us subscribe to other ones. Accusing people of racism on its basis succeeds in making things the way they earnestly think they should be – i.e. racism ever smoked out, words and ideas deemed racist never expressed, and transgressors of their stringent requirements ever tormented. It’s quite organic, just as the Venus Flytrap does what it does in order to have dinner, and otherwise would starve.
The people wielding this ideology and watching its influence spread ever more are under the genuine impression that they are forging progress, that reason and morality are in flower. However, society is changing not because of a burgeoning degree of consensus in moral sophistication. What is happening is much cruder. Society is changing not out of consensus, but fear -- the fear of the child cowering under the threat of a smack from an angry parent, the serf cowering under the threat of a disfiguring smash from the knout.
The statements of solidarity from seemingly every institutional entity, the social media selfies of people “doing the work” of reading White Fragility, anyone pretending to entertain notions that the hard sciences need to “open up” to “diverse” perspectives by pulling back from requiring close reasoning – all of this is a product not of enlightenment but simple terror. We have become a nation of smart people attesting that they “get it” while peeing themselves.
Unbeautiful but real. It is losing innocent people jobs. It is coloring, detouring and sometimes strangling academic inquiry like kudzu. It forces us to render a great deal of our public discussion of urgent issues in doubletalk any ten year old can see through. It forces us to start teaching our actual ten year olds, in order to hold them off from spoiling the show in that way, to believe in sophistry in the name of enlightenment. On that, Third Wave Antiracism guru Ibram X. Kendi has written a book on how to raise antiracist children called Antiracist Baby – you couldn’t write it better: are we in a Christopher Guest movie? This and so much else is a sign that Third Wave Antiracism forces us to pretend that performance art is politics. It forces us to spend endless amounts of time listening to glowering nonsense presented as wisdom, and pretend to like it.
Graduate students and professors write me and my podcast sparring partner economist Glenn Loury in droves, frightened that this new ideology will ruin their careers, departments and/or fields, as they also write to other organizations, often on private email accounts to avoid being smoked out by anyone at the institutions they work for. People in positions of influence are regularly being chased from their posts because of claims and petitions that they are insufficiently antiracist. School boards across the country are forcing teachers and administrators to waste time on “antiracist” infusions into their curricula that make no more sense than anything proposed under China’s Cultural Revolution. Did you know that objectivity, being on time, and the written word are “white” things? Did you know that if that seems off to you, then you are one with George Wallace, Bull Connor, and David Duke?
As recently as 2008, Christian Lander wrote with wry humor in Stuff White PeopleLike of “being offended” as something a certain kind of “white” person enjoys alongside their film festivals and craft beers. Just ten years-and-change later, one reads that chapter with a shudder that the kind of person Lander was referring to will see it over your shoulder and launch into a hissing tirade about how there is nothing funny about people trying to dismantle the prevalence of white supremacy and all whites’ “complicitness” in it. Writing the book today, Lander would be unlikely to include that joke, which is an indication of the extent to which something new is in the air in a way that it was not until quite recently. A critical mass of the people he was referring to no longer just quietly pride themselves on their enlightenment in knowing to be offended about certain things, but now see it as a duty to excoriate and shun those (including black ones) who don’t share their degree of offense.
To some, all of that may sound like mere matters of manner and texture. But Third Wave Antiracism also outright harms black people in the name of its guiding impulses. Third Wave Antiracism insists that it is “racist” for black boys to be overrepresented among those suspended or expelled from schools for violence, which when translated into policy, is documented to have led to violence persisting in the schools and to have lowered students’ grades. Third Wave Antiracism insists that it is “racist” that black kids are underrepresented in New York City schools requiring high performance on a standardized test for admittance, and demands that we eliminate the test. Forget directing black students to (free) resources for practicing the test and reinstating gifted programs that shunted good numbers of black students into those very schools just a generation before – those wouldn’t be quite “revolutionary” (and anti-“white”) enough. That the result will be a lower quality of education in the schools, with the black students less prepared for exercising the mind muscle required by the test-taking they will encounter later, is considered beside the point.
Third Wave Antiracism, in its laser focus on an oversimplified sense of what racism is and what one does about it, is content to harm black people in the name of what we can only term a gospel. The question is: Will we knuckle under to this and pay-to-play? Or will we assert that these people are gruesomely reminiscent of Hitler’s racial notions in their conception of an alien, blood-deep malevolent “whiteness,” in their simplistic conception of what it means to be “black,” in their crude us vs. them conception of how society works as if we were all still rival bands of Australopithecines?
Or – I write this viscerally driven by the fact that all of this supposed wisdom is founded in an ideology under which white people calling themselves our saviors make black people look like the dumbest, weakest, most self-indulgent human beings in the history of our species, and teach black people to revel in that status and cherish it as making us special. And talk about Antiracist Baby -- I am especially dismayed at the idea of this indoctrination infecting my daughters’ sense of self. I can’t always be with them, and this anti-humanist ideology may seep into their school curriculum.
I shudder at the thought: teachers with eyes shining at the prospect of showing their antiracism by filling my daughters’ heads with performance art teaching them that they are poster children rather than individuals. Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me wanted to teach his son that America is set against him; I want to teach my kids the reality of their lives in the twenty-first, rather than early to mid-twentieth, century. Lord forbid my daughters internalize a pathetic – yes, absolutely pathetic in all of the resonances of that word – sense that what makes them interesting is what other people think of them, or don’t.
Many will nevertheless see me as traitorous in writing this book as a black person. They will not understand that I see myself as serving my race by writing it. One of the grimmest tragedies of how this perversion of sociopolitics makes us think (or, not think) is that it will bar more than a few black readers from understanding that this book is calling for them to be treated with true dignity. However, they and everyone else should also know: I know quite well that white readers will be more likely to hear out views like this when written by a black person, and consider it nothing less than my duty as a black person to write it.
A white version of this book would be blithely dismissed as racist. I will be dismissed instead as self-hating by a certain crowd. But frankly, they won’t really mean it, and anyone who gets through the book will see that whatever traits I harbor, hating myself or being ashamed of being black is not one of them. And we shall move on.
As in, to realizing that what I am documenting in this book matters, and matters deeply. Namely, America’s sense of what it is to be intellectual, moral, or artistic, what it is to educate a child, what it is to foster justice, what is to express oneself properly, what it is to be a nation, is being refounded upon a religion. This is directly antithetical to the very foundations of the American experiment.
Religion has no place in the classroom, in the halls of ivy, in our codes of ethics, or in deciding how we express ourselves, and almost all of us spontaneously understand that and see any misunderstanding of the premise as backwards. Yet since about 2015 a peculiar contigent is slowly headlocking us into making an exception, supposing that this particular new religion is so incontestably goodly, so gorgeously surpassing millennia of brilliant philosophers’ attempts to identify the ultimate morality, that we can only bow down in humble acquiescence.
But a new religion in the guise of world progress is not an advance; it is a detour. It is not altruism; it is self-help. It is not sunlight; it is fungus. It’s time it became ordinary to call it for what it is and stop cowering before it, letting it make people so much less than they – black and everything else -- could be.
Third Wave Antiracism exploits modern Americans’ fear of being thought racist to promulgate not just antiracism, but an obsessive, self-involved, totalitarian and utterly unnecessary kind of cultural reprogramming. One could be excused for thinking this queer, glowering kabuki is a continuation of the Civil Rights efforts of yore, the only kind of new antiracism there could be. Its adherents preach with such contemptuous indignation, and are now situated in the most prestigious and influential institutions in the land. On their good days they can seem awfully “correct.”
However, there is nothing correct about the essence of American thought and culture being transplanted into the soil of a religious faith. Some will go as far as to own up to it being a religion and wonder why we can’t just accept it as our new national creed. The problem is that beyond a certain point, religion is not to be meaningfully reasoned with, and this is resoundingly true of this new one. Unreasoning, shuddering allegiance is no foundation for matters of societal procedure and priorities in any modern society. The people forcing us to pretend otherwise are, in this, medievals with lattes.
WHAT THIS BOOK IS NOT
We need not wonder what the basic objections will be to this book. Third Wave Antiracism isn’t really a religion. I am oversimplifying. I shouldn’t write this without being a theologian. It is a religion but it’s a good one, and so on. I will get all of that out of the way as we go on, and then offer some genuine solutions. But first, what this book is not.
1) This book is not an argument against protest. I am not arguing against the basic premises of Black Lives Matter, although I have had my differences with some of its offshoot developments. I am not arguing that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s would have been better off sticking to quiet negotiations. I am not arguing against the left. I am arguing against a particular strain of the left that has come to exert a grievous amount of influence over American institutions, to the point that we are beginning to accept as normal the kinds of language, policies and actions that Orwell wrote of as fiction.
2) I am not writing this book thinking of right-wing America as my audience. I will make no appearances on any Fox News program to promote it. People of that world are welcome to listen in. But I write this book to two segments of the American populace. Both are what I consider to be my people, which is what worries me so much about what is going on.
One is New York Times-reading, National Public Radio-listening people who have innocently fallen under the impression that pious, unempirical virtue-signalling about race is a form of moral enlightenment and political activism, and ever teeter upon becoming card-carrying Third Wave Antiracists themselves. I will often refer to these people in this book as “white,” but they can be of any color, including mine. I am of this world. I read the New Yorker, I have two children, I saw Sideways. I loved both The Wire and Parks and Recreation.
The other is black people who have innocently fallen under the misimpression that for us only, cries of weakness constitute a kind of strength, and that for us only, what makes us interesting, what makes us matter, is a curated persona as eternally victimized souls, ever defined by the memories and injuries of our people across four centuries behind us, ever “unrecognized,” ever “misunderstood,” ever in assorted senses unpaid.
3) This is not merely a book of complaint. My goal is not to venture a misty statement that Third Wave Antiracists need to understand that a diversity of opinions is crucial to a healthy society. Citing John Stuart Mill at them serves no purpose because they are operating from a religion. Our current conversations waste massive amounts of energy in missing the futility of “dialogue” with them. Of one hundred fundamentalist Christians, how many do you suppose could be convinced via argument to become atheists? There is no reason that the number of people who can be talked out of the Third Wave Antiracism religion is any higher.
As such, our concern must be how to continue with genuine progress in spite of this ideology. How do we work around it? How do we insulate people with good ideas from the influence of the Third Wave Antiracists’ liturgical concerns? How do we hold them off from influencing the education of our young people any more than they already have? How do we conduct socially gracious existences amidst the necessity of engaging with their religious doctrine, presented with Cotton Mather’s earnestness and impregnable insistence, when almost none of them will actually understand that they are making religious rather than secular arguments?
That is, my interest is not “How do we get through to these people?” We cannot, at least not enough of them to matter. The question is “How can we can live graciously among them?” We seek genuine change in the real world, but for the duration will have to do so while ever encountering bearers of a gospel itching to smoke out heretics and ready on a moment’s notice to tar us as moral perverts.
4) Lastly: This is not an academic book. I have written several; this is not one of them. It is not a detailed exploration of the ways in which Third Wave Antiracism parallels religious thought. It is an extended editorial, focused on making some sense of things and deciding where to go from here. An assumption will be natural that as an academic, I would write an academic analysis of religion and its parellels to a modern sociopolitical ideology. However, my academic work is on linguistics. This book is on a different subject, which I address with different aims. Neither Jonathan Edwards nor Jürgen Habermas will come up in the text; I will not use words like habitus. A book of that kind would reach a few thousand intellectuals; I hope to reach a great many more people.
Some who dislike my message will insist that if this book isn’t 400 pages long with tapeworm footnotes and an exhaustive literature review of everything of note written about race, religion, philosophy, and politics over the past 50 years, then it qualifies as lightweight. However, they make no such requirement of books they agree with, they themselves likely wouldn’t read the book if it were written that way, and know quite well that no one else would either! It would therefore make no sense for me to write it. The criticism is senseless; I reject it.
WHAT TO CALL THEM
One more thing: we need a crisper label for the problematic folk. I will not title them “Social Justice Warriors.” That, and other labels such as “the Woke Mob” are unsuitably dismissive. One of the key insights I hope to get across in this book is that most of these people are not zealots. They are mostly thoroughly nice people. They are your neighbor, your friend, possibly even your offspring. They are friendly school principals, people who work quietly in publishing, lawyer pals. Heavy readers, good cooks, musicians. It’s just that sadly, what they become, solely on this narrow but impactful range of issues, is inquisitors.
I considered titling them The Inquisitors. But that, too, is mean. I’m not interested in mean; I want to get these people off the bottom of our shoes so we can actually move ahead. Whoops – that was mean. But I intended it as an accurate metaphor – this ideology directly impedes getting ahead.
Author and essayist Joseph Bottum has found the proper term and I will adopt it here: we will term these people The Elect. They do think of themselves as bearers of a wisdom, granted them for any number of reasons – a gift for empathy, life experience, maybe even intelligence. But they see themselves as having been chosen, as it were, by one or some of these factors, as understanding something most do not. “The Elect” is also good in implying a certain smugness, which is sadly accurate as a depiction. Too, it challenges the people in question to consider whether they really think of themselves as superior in this way. Of course, most of them will resist the charge. But its sitting in the air, in its irony, may also encourage them to resist the definition, which over time may condition at least some of them to temper the excesses of the philosophy – just as after the 1980s many started disidentifying from being “too PC.”
But most importantly, terming these people The Elect implies a certain air of the past, à la The DaVinci Code. This is apt, in that the view they think of as, indeed, sacrosanct is directly equivalent to views people centuries before us were as fervently devoted to as today’s Elect are. The medieval Catholic passionately defended prosecuting Jews and Muslims with what we now see was incoherence, rooted in lesser facets of being human. We spontaneously “other” those antique inquisitors in our times, but right here and now we are faced with people who harbor the exact same brand of mission, just against different persons.
In 1500 it was about not being Christian. In 2020 it’s about not being sufficiently antiracist, with adherents supposing that this is a more intellectually and morally advanced cause than antipathy to someone for being Jewish or Muslim. They do not see that they, too, are persecuting people for not adhering to their religion.
But as most of us can see, there is a difference between being antiracist and being antiracist in a religious way, where one is to pillory people for what as recently as ten years ago would have been thought of as petty torts or even as nothing at all, to espouse policies that hurt black people as long as supporting them makes you seem aware that racism exists, and to pretend that America never makes any real progress on racism and privately almost hope that it doesn’t because it would deprive you of a sense of purpose. Those who ardently support this sort of thing only make sense as religious, and we must conceive them as adherents of a sect called The Elect.
Elect ideology affects people in degrees, of course. There are especially abusive Elect ideologues. Some are comfortable ripping into people in person; more largely restrict the nastiness to social media. Other Elect do not go in for being actively mean, but are still comfortable with the imperatives, have founded their sociopolitical perspectives firmly upon them, and are hard-pressed to feel comfortable interacting socially with people in disagreement. They allow the openly abusive Elect to operate freely, seeing their conduct as a perhaps necessary unpleasantness in the goal of general enlightenment.
In this book, I do not wish to imply that The Elect are all of the especially abusive type; the vast majority are not. The problem is the degree to which the perspective has come to influence, in robust degree, so very many less argumentative but equally devout others, whose increasing numbers and intimidating buzzwords have the effect of silencing those who see Elect philosophy as flawed but aren’t up for being mauled. The Elect are, in all of their diversity, sucking all of the air out of the room. It must stop.
Grammar lessons in how we will use this term:
We are confused and hurt by The Elect.
The person who threatens us is an Elect.
We must learn to glean when someone is Elect. Is he Elect?
Did he say something Elect? Take heed, and if he says more Elect things, disengage.
He went all Elect on me.
They were up on some Elect shit.
How do we solve a problem like The Elect? Make no mistake: they are indeed a problem. These people are coming after your kids.
IN TWO WEEKS:
Why this is not just some people going “crazy,” but something different, an actual new religion.