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THE ELECT: THE THREAT TO A PROGRESSIVE AMERICA FROM ANTI-BLACK ANTIRACISTS
Serial excerpt No. 3: We can only move on in full awareness that this is a religion. Not "like" one -- but an actual one.
THE NEW RELIGION
It must be clear that I do not mean religion as a comparison. I genuinely mean that we are witnessing the birth of a new religion, just as Romans witnessed the birth of Christianity.
Early Christians did not think of themselves as “a religion.” They thought of themselves as bearers of truth, in contrast to all other belief systems, whatever they chose to call themselves. In the same way, The Elect will resist being called a religion, especially since to the modern, individualist frame of mind, it can feel diminishing to be termed an adherent of something larger that channels thought. More recently, one might even feel tarred as “basic,” having failed to curate a unique persona.
However, this resistance will miss the larger picture, which is less about The Elect as individuals than about how we make sense of a way of thinking they share, that seems so obsessive and hurtful from the outside. To make sense of it, we must understand them, partly out of compassion and partly to keep our own lives moving past them. This can only happen if we process them not as crazed but as parishioners.
To do this we must examine the ways in which their new religion so closely parallels older ones. It makes what can seem like a mess of weird opinions and attitudes into something quite coherent.
THE ELECT HAVE SUPERSTITION
It is inherent to a religion that one is to accept certain suspensions of disbelief.
Certain questions are not to be asked, or if asked, only politely. The answer one gets, despite being somewhat half-cocked, is to be accepted. The Christian is allowed to ask why the Bible is so self-contradictory, but only if satisfied with an answer like “God works in mysterious ways; what’s key is that you believe.” Why does God allow such terrible things to happen? Because we have free will, perhaps. No one has had a smackdown answer for two millennia anyway, and what’s key is that you believe.
One internalizes an etiquette that it stops there. One is to classify the issues as “deep.” A way to fashion this as of a piece with rational thought is to assume that the relevant questions always lead to more questions.
Elect philosophy requires the same standpoint. One is not to ask “Why are black people so upset about one white cop killing a black man when black men are at much more danger of being killed by one another?” Or, one might ask, only to receive flabby answers after which further questions are unwelcome. A common answer is that black communities do protest black-on-black violence. But anyone knows that the outrage against white cops is much, much vaster. All of 2020 after March was about outrage against white cops. None of 2020 was about black communities aggrieved at their sons and nephews and cousins killing one another, a trend that spiked in poor black neighborhoods nationwide in the summer of 2020 as it had in countless summers before.
Is there a real answer? You will hear that black men are killing one another within a racist “structure.” But as an intelligent person you know that doesn’t answer the question. An elegant way of putting that is that there’s a difference between being killed by a fellow citizen and being killed by a figure of state authority. But does that mean “It’s not as bad if we do it to ourselves”?
We get no real answer at that point except rolled eyes. One is simply not to question, and people can be quite explicit about it. For example, in the “Conversation” about race that we are so often told we need to have, the tacit idea is that black people will express their grievances and whites will agree. “Oh, no, no – you’re caricaturing,” The Elect object – but unable to specify a single thing they might learn, as opposed to what we heathen (see below) might.
Rather, just as the Christian is told that the main thing is to believe, The Elect are taught that the main thing is to not be racist, regardless of what logic or fairness might dictate. So -- we must adjust standards for university admissions to foster diversity so that “diverse” students can contribute their perspectives in the classroom. But then “diverse” students regularly say that they hate being responsible for representing the “diverse” view in the classroom. The Elect’s response? To chalk up that expectation itself as “racism” – despite that this undercuts a prime justification for racial preferences. Question this closely and you just don’t “get it.” Rather, we might just accept this as questions always leading to more questions – and after a certain point, stop asking them.
What you actually don’t “get” in your quest to wring logic out of incoherent positions like these is that for The Elect, being identifiable as Battling Racism, alone and in itself regardless of substance, is sacrosanct. Battling Racism – as in, power differentials -- is to be questioned only in ways that reinforce the idea that The Elect are correct. We scoff at this reductive mindset when reading of the Bolsheviks and Stalin a century ago in black-and-white photos, but cringingly allow it as a new paradigm when it’s on the behalf of black people in America last week on YouTube.
This is all very Abrahamic, as religion goes. Muslim, Islam – the core of such words in Arabic is the consonants s-l-m, which constitute the concept of submission. One submits not only to a God. To suspend disbelief is a kind of submission, to illogic. It is no accident that many of the white Elect spontaneously put their hands in the air as an indication that they understand that they bear “white privilege.” Think of this type, asserting “Oh, I know I’m privileged!” while holding their hand up, palm out, as if they were a fundamentalist Christian of exactly the sort they often deride. Maybe they think they are being a little “hip” and taking a page from black gestures – but then upon reflection they would condemn that as “cultural appropriation” of a kind they surely revile. They are so comfortable with that gesture in attesting their privilege because of an overriding impulse: to indicate submission, to a power up there looking down on them.
Or even: athletes like Colin Kaepernick started kneeling to indicate allegiance to Black Lives Matter. I saluted him in this. But the gesture has evolved into a more general meaning. When Elect white people at protests started taking a knee and hovering on the ground for extended periods to indicate general wokeness after George Floyd’s murder, it became what a Martian anthropologist would find hard to distnguish from Catholic genuflection. They are submitting themselves to Elect imperatives.
THE ELECT HAVE CLERGY.
A useful illustration of this clergy is something that never completely made sense in 2014. To wit, why was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations” received so very rapturously?
Yes, it was well-written, but aesthetics was not why people were tweeting about this magazine article in actual tears. Something larger had to be afoot, especially given that reparations for slavery had been endlessly discussed in the media just 15 years before, including through a hit book, Randall Robinson’s The Debt. It was read ardently nationwide just as Coates’ essay was. If social media and Kindle had existed in the late 1990s, The Debt would be still read today. But from the way Coates’ article was received, one might have supposed that it was first time reparations had been presented to the American public.
Or at least that it was the most convincing case ever made for reparations. But it would hard to say that Coates’ case outstripped Robinson’s (or many others) in any suasional way, especially since Robinson’s case was a whole book. Plus, Coates (like Robinson) gave no real specifics as to just how reparations might work. The issue is not whether Coates wrote a good essay. He did, and then some. But its reception as another Unsafe at Any Speed or Silent Spring was, in itself, a puzzle.
Here is what solves that puzzle: people loved Coates’s article not as politics, since almost no one thinks reparations are actually going to happen. “The Case for Reparations” was received as a sermon. In that, it was a damned good one. But its audience was seeking proclamation, not information. Yes, some readers, especially younger ones, were encountering the reparations argument for the first time. But most reading people quite simply cannot have been. Plenty of people singing of the article as if it were a newly discovered Dead Sea scroll had more than a few gray hairs. They knew the drill already.
In this, although Coates hardly intended it, for his fans he has been not just a teacher but a preacher. A.O. Scott perfectly demonstrated this clerical role in our discourse in calling Coates’ book Between the World and Me “essential, like water or air.” That the American intelligentsia embraced that quote so tightly was an indication in itself, in that Scott’s encomium sounds as if referring to the Greatest Story Ever Told.
You may wonder, then, why so much of the race debate involves speakers and writers celebrated with almost perplexing ardor for what a flinty observer might see as variations over decades on the same few points. The reason is that to approach this kind of communication as information sharing is to miss its essence. Few receive what these thinkers are saying as new. The preacher is praised for his sermon as people file out of church, but few enjoyed it because it blew their minds. They enjoyed it because it was a beautiful rendition of that which they knew before, and gave them comfort.
On race, The Elect cherish certain top-rate thinkers, mostly black, for their gifts in phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points considered crucial. This is their priests, their clergy. You need your preacher to keep telling the religion’s truth, and and to tell it often, since the superstitious, nonempirical wing of the ideology is easy to drift away from as real life impinges ever upon you in daily existence.
Whites flock and even pay to listen to Robin DiAngelo come to their city and teach them the counterintuitive lesson that they are racist cogs in a racist machine, with societal change only possible when they admit this and shed their racism (which will make poor black people less poor how and when, exactly?). In this, because what she is teaching is religious thought, she is a travelling celebrity preacher in the vein of Aimee Semple McPherson. The Antiracist Research and Policy Center that Boston University has provided Ibram Kendi with is, in focusing on a religious frame of mind, a divinity school. It has been provided for someone whose formal credentials are those of a scholar, but whose actual function in society is that of a priest.
The Elect Have Original Sin.
The Elect, then, have magic, clergy, and also a conception of Original Sin. Under Elect creed, the sin is, in line with the imperative to overturn power differentials, “white privilege.”
To anticipate a question, yes, I do believe that to be white in America is to automatically harbor certain unstated privileges in terms of one’s sense of belonging. Figures of authority are the same color as you. You are thought of as the default category. You are not subject to stereotypes. Although these days, you actually are subject to one: as the menacing, anal “whiteness” monster The Elect tar you as, but we shall not quibble.
But the issue here is not whether I or anyone else thinks white privilege is real, as opposed to what we consider the proper response to it. The Elect are to ritually “acknowledge” that they possess white privilege with an awareness that they can never be absolved of it. Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to corralling whites into this approach to the matter. The Elect seek to inculcate white kids with their responsibility to acknowledge their privilege from as early an age as possible. In some communities there are inculcation sessions starting as early as elementary school. In other words, The Elect are founding Sunday schools.
And oh, imagine the texts these Sunday schools will start offering kids as they get a little older. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility seeks to convert whites into a profound reconception of themselves as inherently complicit in a profoundly racist system of operation and thought. Within this system, if whites venture any statement on the topic other than that they harbor white privilege, it only proves that they are racists, too “fragile” to admit it. The circularity here – “You’re a racist and if you say you aren’t it just proves that you are” – is the logic of the sandbox. Yet the book became a runaway best-seller in 2020, ballyhooed as a seminal text by The Elect and bringing countless converts into their flock. The only coherent explanation for so many people treating such a blatantly self-contradictory text as worthy of such attention is superstition. Many who are reading this book picked up White Fragility and were baffled at its reception. You need not be: White Fragility is a primer on original sin, no more baffling than the New Testament.
Nominally, one acknowledges original sin as a preparation for admittance to living in the grace of Jesus after death. On the ground, however, a person often lives within a narrower concern, with whether or not one is a good person here on this earth, for reasons connected to our everyday experiences and how we appear to others as we go through them. In the same way, this acknowledgment of white privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is the main meal. Despite formal claims otherwise, in real life The Elect testify – yes, testify – to their white privilege as a self-standing, totemic act.
People supposedly committed to political transformation breezily ignore the yawningly abstract relationship between testifying to “privilege” and forging change in the real world -- because since this is a religion, things do not always have to make empirical sense. At Northwestern University’s law school in 2020, at one meeting professors actually stood up and ritually denounced themselves as not only harboring privilege but as being outright racists. All were required to do this regardless of individual nature or political commitments, leading one observer to say of one professor “He is a wonderful man universally loved by students. It makes me sad that he is forced to say otherwise.”
It won’t do to sideline the law faculty of a top-ranked university as mere “kooks” whose behavior signals nothing about the tenor of the era, and the burden is on the skeptic to explain how this is anything but the original sin concept in translation, complete with the ineradicability. One is born marked by original sin; in the same way, to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege. The proper response to original sin is to embrace the teachings of Jesus, although one will remain always a sinner nevertheless. The proper response to white privilege is to embrace the teachings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Robin DiAngelo (and surely other prophet-priests by the time you read this and beyond), with the understanding that you will always harbor the Privilege stain nevertheless.
The way readers often receive these texts reveals people being drawn into Election. The perspective lent by the passage of time will reveal how odd this has been, such as the white person lustily pumping their fists and doing high fives with like-minded pals over the writings of a Coates who says that he is surprised that white people—i.e. them—are even interested enough in black people and racism to even bother reading his work, and saw the white firefighters who died on 9/11 as getting their just desserts. This same reader’s friend, in 2020, was often posting photos of themselves on social media holding a copy of White Fragility showing their comrades that they were “doing the work.” Coates and DiAngelo are calling these people sinners. Yet the sinners eagerly drink in the charge, revering their accusers, and come away from this self-mortification feeling energized. Cleansed.
This is worship, by people embracing the self-mortification of the inveterate sinner, stained by the original sin of white privilege.
THE ELECT ARE EVANGELICAL.
“Why don’t they allow people to have different opinions?”
“How dare they call me a racist and then tell me I’m a racist for denying it!”
You’re missing the point. The Elect can seem truly baffling – until we see that they are a religion. Specifically, an evangelical one.
To wit: do we wonder why the fundamentalist Christian does not see their beliefs as just one of many valid opinions? They see themselves as bearers of a Good News which, if all people would simply open up and see it, would create a perfect world. That most of the world does not fall in with them is something they learn to bear with toleration, with a hope that in the future things will turn their way. We see a certain coherence in Christians who see the rest of us as “heathen.” We may disagree, but can easily imagine someone under the impression that their worldview – if it includes unreachable belief in things we never see or feel which they insist are real nevertheless -- is Truth while ours is an error. Christianity (or another Abrahamic religion) is something we often grow up around, or at least know of, from an early age. It feels normal. Because it is.
To be Elect is to think in exactly the same way. Key to being Elect is a sense that there is always a flock of unconverted heathen. Many of the heathen are, for example, the whites “out there,” as it is often put about the whites who were so widely feared as possibly keeping Barack Obama from being elected (twice). The Elect wonders how those people “out there” can be reached. They are, from, say, a Mormon perspective because of their particular evangelical strategy, behind doors as yet unknocked upon.
Note that people refer to whites “out there” when speaking from any point in this country. It is not only coastals thinking of the Midwest who call this other set of whites “out there.” People use this expression in Chicago, Louisville, Portland, Madison, and Atlanta. Nor is it only an urban-rural issue – for example, a New Yorker referring to sketchy whites “out there” would intend whites living in the heart of Birmingham, Alabama, El Paso, Texas or even Staten Island in the description. The people in question are “out” in comparison to what is thought of as “in here.” In here where we are blessed with the true wisdom, a womb of sorts, where we live bathed in the grace of … well, let’s just have it as in here where we “get it,” ritually atoning for our stain of white privilege.
It is easy to see smugness in this vision, and wonder how so very many people could fall so easily into being so insufferable. We need not see them this way. They are not smug. They are evangelists, snapping shots of themselves “doing the work” of reading the seminal texts as a way of sharing The Good News. They are normal – as are all religious people.
THE ELECT ARE APOCALYPTIC.
Elect scripture stipulates a Judgment Day: the Great Day when America “owns up to” or “comes to terms with” racism and finally fixes it. Apparently this will happen through the long-term effects of psychological self-mortification combined with the transformational political activism that whites will be moved to effect upon being morally shamed and verbally muzzled.
Notice that this makes no real sense? And besides, how would a country as massive, heterogenous, and politically fractured as this one ever arrive at so conclusive and overarching a consensus that would “fix” racism? The whites “out there” are such incorrigible heathens, we are told. Okay, but if so, just what were we assuming would change their minds -- reading White Fragility? Try again. Tablets from on high sounds almost more plausible.
And notice that The Elect find such questions unwelcome, or even arrogant – a charge one step from asking how we dare question the divine. Even the language here is liturgical, referring only approximately to actual existence, and only fully comprehensible as poetry, spirit, or prophecy. So, to venture some additional arrogance: What would it mean for America to “come to terms” with racism? Precisely what configuration, event, or consensus would this “coming to terms” consist of? Who would decree that the terms had actually been come to? Why should we assume that the Elect would ever allow that the terms had been come to? They are after all obsessively condemnatory of any attempts to come to any today, they teach us that any sense we have that progress is happening is just another form of racism and “fragility,” and are professionally resistant to allowing that any real progress has happened.
The specifics about The Terms are as hazy as the Rapture. On the ground, the Elect imperative is simply to ever insist how far we are from this Great Day, mired in a present within which nothing changes. For example, the general idea that America is in some kind of denial about race – or racism, which is what people really mean when they say this -- is perfectly absurd. America is nothing less than obsessed with discussing and acknowledging racism, and those insisting year after year that America wants to hear nothing of it are dealing in pure fantasy. America has most certainly not heeded The Elect’s particular and eccentric dream requirements on race and racism, but to phrase this as a general neglect of the whole topic is not a matter of mere sloppiness: it’s liturgy.
For one, even the Elect know deep down they are exaggerating, which is why the phrasing is usually that America doesn’t want to talk about “race,” which sounds a shade more abstract than “racism,” about which America is so obviously obsessed that claiming we ignore it feels like a bit of a stretch even amidst religious thinking.
But second, the fantasy of an America ever just a half inch past Plessy v. Ferguson is almost inevitable in a mass movement driven more by ideology than logic. Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer in 1951 noted that movements such as Fascism, Communism, and nineteenth-century segregationists have regularly appealed to an idealized past, a fantastical future, and an indelibly polluted present. Under The Elect, black people’s noble past is Africa; the glorious future is about those Terms that we will come to; while the present, for the religion to make any kind of sense, must always be a cesspool.
This explains the almost perplexingly acrid pessimism and numbness to good signs so typical of The Elect, as in the refusal to allow that Barack Obama’s election (twice) to the presidency signaled a change in American attitudes about race even “out there.” And as to the riposte that Donald Trump’s election showed the “out there” people’s true colors, we cannot leave out that he ended up being the first one-term President in almost thirty years.
And yet, a professional historian and former President of Harvard can casually end a thoughtful piece on William Faulkner referring to “the shameful history we still have failed to confront or understand.” No editor at the magazine Drew Gilpin Faust was writing for deigned to challenge such a hopelessly fantastical depiction of America, despite that this piece was written months after the protests over George Floyd’s murder in 2020. An utter failure to confront or understand? This refers to nothing real, and we let sentences like that pass because they are not intended to.
For The Elect, to allow that we are anything near the Great Day would undercut what, for them, has become a reason for living, a foundation of their sense of purpose as human beings. That is another way of saying that it is their religion.
This is true regardless of the terminology. Perhaps these days, one speaks not only of this business of Coming to Terms, but also of Dismantling Systemic Racism. But don’t be fooled by the metallic ring of that last one. What would evidence be that something as abstract as systemic racism had “Been Dismantled” at last? Who would decide it had been achieved? How would one go about this Dismantling in the first place?
And again – why am I inappropriate in asking these direct questions? Of my pastor? Well, wait – that’s why.
THE ELECT BAN THE HERETIC.
The Elect consider it imperative to not only critique those who disagree with their creed, but to seek their punishment and elimination to whatever degree real-life conditions can accommodate. There is an overriding sense that unbelievers must be not just spoken out against, but called out, isolated, and banned.
To many this looks hasty, immature, unconsidered. It is much of why The Elect are often minimized in public perception as mostly people under 25 or so. Surely it is hotheaded kids full of beans who behave this way, rather than seasoned adults?
Alas, no. The reality is that what The Elect call problematic is what a Christian means by blasphemous. The Elect do not ban people out of temper; they do it calmly, between sips of coffee as they surf Twitter, because they consider it a higher wisdom to burn witches.
Not literally, but the sentiment is the same. The Elect are members of a religion, and within that religion, the dissenter is not just someone in disagreement but someone viscerally repulsive in their very presence. They are not to be among us. As Andrew Sullivan noted in his having to leave his post at New York magazine in 2020, it had gotten to the point that the Elect staffers found his very presence unbearable:
They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.
Here is the explanation for The Elect’s insistence that speech and even writing constitute violence. A sad amount of ink has been spilled over the idea that such people must stop being so delicate, that they are fragile creatures deformed by helicopter parenting. The Elect are not snowflakes; they are sleet. They sincerely feel neither frightened, much less physically injured, by columns, tweets, syllabi, symbols and verbal expressions. They are on the battlefront, posing as injured for the rhetorical punch girding a military strategy to mow down dissent they sincerely view as nauseating. This new use of the concept of violence takes a page from intelligent discussions among radical feminists in the 1980s and 1990s, but retools them as a way of wielding what earlier human societies knew as taboo.
People who find the very presence of a thinker like Sullivan intolerable – and this was not in a physical office pool but in a largely virtual space during pandemic quarantine! – are recapitulating those who chase a heretic making a cross with their fingers. The religious fervor is absolutist, complete with a Manichaean sense of good versus evil. Many recall Dana Carvey’s Church Lady on Saturday Night Live with her self-celebratory obsession with smoking out the doings of “SATAN?!?!?” The person chasing from their midst Andrew Sullivan from New York magazine and Bari Weiss from the New York Times (they resigned in persecution from their institutions during the same week in mid-2020) would laugh at the kind of person Carvey was channeling, unaware that they engage in the exact same behavior.
As Brown University economist Glenn Loury has suggested during one of our discussions on line, whenever you hear The Elect deem someone “problematic,” to understand what they are saying and hold them accountable for it, substitute the word witch. “Well, isn’t what X is saying problematic in that … [sip latte]” is another way of saying, with nothing whatsoever lost or added in the translation, “Well, doesn’t what X is saying make her a witch?”
Caricature! Overstatement! Okay, but behold this, from a body of PhDs – PhDs – at Princeton, one passage from a suite of demands that might as well have been nailed to a cathedral door in Wittemberg in 1517:
Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents,research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.
If this isn’t a Star Chamber, I don’t know what is, and no prominent Elect aired, on their own steam and in their own name, the slightest problem with this petition. This portion was a proposal for a committee of antiheresy, pure and simple. As time goes on, many readers will wonder whether the paragraph is a hoax. But it was real, penned and signed by living persons otherwise going home to feed children, mow the lawn, and catch up on Season Two of Succession.
In 2019, the media coalesced on calling the Elect’s behavior “cancel culture.” The Elect’s pushback by 2020 was perfectly revealing. They often stated that they had no desire to “cancel” people, but insisted on their right to speak out against people they disagreed with. However, people of this mind typically assumed, without the slightest question, that “speaking against” must include attempts to punish, to strip people of titles, to strip people of their epaulettes.
One sensed that they were not aware that just some years before, there was no such assumption, among anything like so large a group, that people deserved punishment beyond being taken to task for views deemed unsavory. This was not evidence of people being strangely selfish or pushy. It was further evidence of these people being guided by a religion that coalesced during the 2010s and crystallized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, under which a dissenting view must be not just questioned but quashed, there being no possible good world that includes it. It takes very little time before people in their maturity don’t remember what things were like rather recently before.
Thus when America entered upon what was often termed a period of racial reckoning after the Floyd tragedy, The Elect commonly justified their witch-burnings as unquestionably in line with the reckoning in question. It was rather stunning to see their blithe assumption that any racial reckoning of worth must necessarily include chasing people out of conversations and casting people into unemployment, without even seeing it as necessary to even defend any of this. But that’s just it: for The Elect, barring heretics is not a decision, it is duty – unquestioned, and as natural as breathing air.
A person is usually not given to thinking outside of their religion, of imagining what thought was like before the religion existed. A religion is all-consuming, and in this case makes the difference between Political Correctness of 1992’s “I find that offensive” and The Elect of 2020’s “Tar and feather them.”
Drifting from a commitment to changing society to a narrower commitment to signalling antipathy to racism and leaving it there, antiracism’s progress from its First to its Third waves has taken it from Martin Luther King to Martin Luther.
IN TWO WEEKS: DEFENDERS OF THIS RELIGION CLAIM IT “DISMANTLES HEGEMONIC STRUCTURES” - BUT IT DOESN’T.