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THE ELECT: THE THREAT TO A PROGRESSIVE AMERICA FROM ANTI-BLACK ANTIRACISTS
Serial excerpt No. 4: They will object that they are "dismantling structures" - while enjoying making people cry and dismantling nothing.
DISMANTLING HEGEMONIC STRUCTURES?
To tar The Elect as crazy is lazy. Dumb, even. It recalls Hungarian physician Max Nordau who deemed Wagner, Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Schopenhauer as degenerates seized by hysteria and self-involvement. While Die Walküre and War and Peace are hardly grape soda, none of us would join Nordau today. He wasn’t up to the challenge of his times.
I want us to be. But this will require understanding The Elect in an initially counterintuitive way, just as getting Schopenhauer meant letting go of the easier pleasures of Ruskin. The “advanced” way of getting the Elect is to understand that they are a religion. To see them this way is not to wallow in derision, but to genuinely grasp what they are.
One thing that will discourage a general perception of them in this way is that they themselves will resist the charge so heartily. This is understandable. For one, it will feel unwelcome to them because they do not bill themselves as such, and often associate devout religiosity with backwardness. Then, it also implies that they are not thinking for themselves. However understandable their objections, though, we must not let them distract us, as we roll up our sleeves and fashion a way of living among people devoted permanently to this new, yes, religion.
For one, The Elect will insist that what they are doing is not founding a replacement for Protestantism, but acting upon what I have seen phrased as “an enduring white responsibility for deconstructing our own privilege and the systemic pervasiveness of white supremacy.”
Ah, the seductiveness of the language.
But to forge a society in which whites are un-supreme in a fashion that would transform the experience of those trapped under the weight of the effects of institutional racism, is it necessary that:
the president and board chairman of the Poetry Foundation be forced to resign because their statement in allegiance with Black Lives Matter after the Floyd murder was not long enough?
To transform the experience of those trapped under the weight of the effects of institutional racism, is it necessary that when:
a Washington Post employee in 2018 attended a party thrown by another employee and wore blackface in ridicule of a recent comment by Megyn Kelly, she was not just called aside but cast into unemployment as a revolting heretic unworthy of civilized engagement? The blackface was unwise, to be sure – by the late 2010s it was no longer within the bounds of most educated people’s sense of humor to wear blackface even in irony. But still, the offender intended it as signalling allegiance to the barrage of criticism against Kelly. Only in the late 2010s could this clumsy goof-up qualify as grounds for unemployment, with her callers-out claiming that she had made the party’s space “unsafe,” as if she had simply walked in corked up and saying she was Oprah. A couple of people at the party not only hounded her out, but dedicated themselves to getting her fired from the newspaper for her transgression of etiquette. They succeeded, after having even gone as far as strong-arming the host of the party into revealing her name to them so that they could pursue her expulsion.
To transform the experience of those trapped under the weight of the effects of institutional racism, is it necessary that when:
the San Francisco Modern Museum of Modern Art was criticized for being insufficiently committed to non-white artists, and the president of the museum Gary Garrels concurred but added that the museum would not stop collecting white artists entirely because this would constitute “reverse discrimination,” he was fired? His use of that term was pivotal in him losing his job, in implying that non-whites, as people deprived of power, can be racist. I actually happened to encounter Garrels a bit in the mid-1990s, and know that he is a spirited and somewhat Dionysian soul who can be a tad unfiltered at times. But in the 1990s, what he said in 2020 would never have left him unemployed.
The Garrels episode bears a bit of further examination. He was fired for using a term. Meanwhile, less than a mile’s walk away, in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, there cluster legions of people who can’t afford housing and live their lives in makeshift tents on the street. If censuring Garrels for his lexicon has any connection to the “structures” keeping people on the streets, it’s rather brutally indirect.
Yet the Elect who defenestrated Garrels speak of dismantling “structures.” Structure is a Latinate word, with the crisp snap of the “ksh” in the middle. It sounds authoritative, especially preceded by a dramatic word like “dismantle.” Too, hegemony, another word favored by the Elect, is intimidating in its way because it’s so easy to mispronounce. Deep down you might want to pronounce it “HEDGE-a-moh-nee,” and so mastering how to really say it, and even to hear it said properly, lends a certain sense of weight.
But these are aesthetic matters. Behind these big words and menacing phrases, as often as not, is logic as sloppy as anything you might hear from a spokesperson for Donald Trump. Firing Garrels “functioned” -- as these people like to use that word -- not to “dismantle structures,” which stayed in place in the Tenderloin a walk from the museum. Garrels’ firing “functioned” as it were to make his inquisitors feel noble, and look noble to one another. They were doing their duty as religious parishioners displaying their faith, not forging societal change.
It’s like kiddie forts. Kids like to make forts, sometimes outdoors ones of a lean-to sort, sometimes indoors ones made out of chairs and pillows and blankets and such. An adult might ask just what the fort is for, and kids have their answers. If outdoors, to defend themselves against the neighbor kids next door – though they are actually quite friendly with those kids. If indoors, to have somewhere the grown-ups aren’t allowed – as if the grown-ups want to bend down and get into the fort anyway, as if the kids don’t have a room or rooms they can go to where the adults rarely enter except to read them bedtime stories, and as if they really want to get away from you anyway.
Kids build forts because they like building the fort. As often as not, after they’ve built it they don’t really spend much time in it. People claiming that the “work” of white privilege consciousness-raising is a prelude to political action are like kids pretending their forts are for protection. It feels good to say all of this rhetoric and dismissal is necessary to changing “structures.” But the real reason they are engaging in this suspiciously lengthy prelude is that there is a joy almost all of us take in hostility. Most who aren’t up for wielding it themselves don’t mind watching it slung.
This is human nature. You love flinging it at others partly as a balm against the pain you exert when flinging it at yourself. The guilt of the civilized, ressentiment: this is not just me, but Nietzsche and Freud, the humanistic canon. Wait – to be enlightened we must reject that concept as just some white dead guys sounding off? Okay – let’s try this: Who doesn’t get off at least a bit in squaring off and yelling “No!” Or “Asshole!” Or … “Heretic!!!!!”
“How dare he dismiss all that we ….” – but yes, I dare to, and not only dare to, but mean it. Here’s why. If Elect philosophy were really about changing the world, its parishioners would be ever champing at the bit to get out and do the changing, as were Jane Addams and Dr. King.
It would be a problem among their flock: persuading adherents to sit tight and engage in the navel-gazing, set-jawed, hermetic reprogramming exercises rather than going out to do real things for real people in need. The gloomy performance art’s fuzzy connection to relieving the ills of those real people in the real world would feel trivial. It would elicit disgust and dismissal from those initially attracted to something promoted as being devoted to change, that turned out be devoted to self-gratification.
Firing some white guy for saying “reverse racism” would feel like exactly what it was: kabuki. They’d want to get to the sad people huddled a skip and a jump across town on the sidewalks, lobbying state legislators to help them make sure no more wind up saddled with the same plight. They would be modern Dorothy Days. That is, they would be politically active in the fashion considered normal, and urgent, and laudable, until recently. It’s just as if kids were really interested in defending themselves against the kids next door, they would hardly see building a little tent as a meaningful strategy.
The Elect teach us that all of this book-burning and catcalling, all of these neck-swivels and pliés and twerks, are necessary before getting down to actual work, but they never tell us why. Maybe the idea is that even if all of this kabuki was not necessary to get us where we are now, for some reason we need it to get us anywhere beyond. But that’s just me trying to make some sense. Note that The Elect never present that justification, and let’s face it, it’d be flabby.
Really. Teach people by firing Garrels to never say “reverse racism” – okay; so then when that term and others are never heard, people will rise up in the thousands and force legislators to make it so that no one ever sleeps in a tent on the sidewalks? One can only ask What the fuck?, and no, I have caricatured not a bit. What do The Elect really intend by getting people like the garrulous Garrels fired? Just how is all of their fire and brimstone – implication intended -- related to the fate of actual people suffering?
“Now breathe,” as Robin DiAngelo so graciously has it in her religious primer. But once we breathe, we are to fire Garrels for blaspheming – to no effect whatsoever upon a single person suffering. This is where we are.
MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLEHILL?
After insisting that what they are doing is about changing society rather than about virtue signalling, The Elect are especially given to claiming that what I am describing is not a serious problem. People like me warning against the pitchfork mob of Electness are just obsessing over a few crazy overstretches and pretending it means the sky is falling in. But this argument does not go through. Let’s go stepwise.
A. It’s just some college kids finding themselves.
But at Evergreen State, where just these sorts of kids hounded biology professor Bret Weinstein out of his job for refusing to vacate the campus on a day designated a “safe space” day for minority students, many faculty members chimed in with this ideology. A quarter of them signed a petition asking for his disciplining. And as to individual profs, I will only direct you to check out, on the web at the time, one Naima Lowe, from whom one heard re Weinstein and the supposedly racist administration who had been “harboring” him the insight that (to lend a quick sample) “You can’t see your way outta your own ass!”
Anyone with any familiarity with the Collegetown scene knows that The Elect are by no means only kids. Many of them are nearing retirement age and today enjoying a new sense of dominance. I first encountered The Elect – before they were becoming our national moral commanders -- amidst the debate over discontinuing racial preferences in the University of California system in 1995. Many of them even then were graying at the temples and then some. This is not about kids.
B. It’s just something going on in some colleges and universities.
But Alison Roman works for a newspaper. This is not 2015’s issue, where the hot news was Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury being not only shouted down but hounded off of his platform by a crowd who jostled the car he and his assigned (left-leaning) interlocutor were in to such a degree that the interlocutor wound up in a neck brace. The ideology that drove that episode has jumped the rails in influence since, and especially in 2020 when this mindset was sanctioned as the sole one admissible as representing our nation’s “reckoning” on race.
C. But Roman only got suspended (i.e. “Why’d he open his book with that?”). She’ll keep her job.
But at the Washington Post, Sarah Shafer, the one who attended a party in blackface in mockery of a comment by Megyn Kelly, was simply fired. As was Gary Garrels, as have been many others. In roughly 2015, that Roman would even have been suspended for what she said would have seemed about as likely as Donald Trump becoming President. Any who doubt that should consult a similar controversy over something Alessandra Stanley, employed by the same newspaper, said that offended some race-related sensibilities in 2014. She pushed back, a lot of people continued to hate her, but she stayed in her post for the duration and the episode was forgotten. Today it is reasonable to suppose that she would have been canned.
D. This is just a philosophical tempest in a teapot among the Acela Corridor elite; what really matters is real people suffering from day to day.
But if this is just about that bunch and their musings, then what about how Elect ideology is being presented as fundamental to child pedagogy in public and private schools nationwide? New York City’s former Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza superintended the teaching of his charges that the written word, objectivity, being on time, and individuality are “white things.” Yes, he was working in the Acela Corridor’s New York City, but the intent was to shape the minds of humble New York kids unlikely to ever ride the Acela anytime soon. Plus the same ideology is being foisted, as I write, as far away as the Pacific Northwest. This is a national issue, not one fetishized by a small bunch of Northeasterners frustrated by the New York Times op-ed page.
Overall, if you are reading this you likely know that the stringent, anti-white, hyper-Elect tenets of White Fragility are being introduced into kiddie curricula nationwide. All of this is being done by worriedly smiling people sincerely under the impression that the national reckoning about race requires enshrining this Orwellian bizarrerie. Importantly, salute this one may – but it deep-sixes any claim that what I am writing about is merely something a few contrarians are getting their knickers in a twist about in a few Northeastern metropolises. If The Elect are reaching our children, then this is real. Anyone who smirks “What’s the big deal?” is either ignorant (possible), cynical (unlikely), too young to understand that the Overton Window – that which we think of as normal – is shifting (understandable) or, quite simply, religious without knowing it.
E. The real problem is the right-wing, racist zealots who stormed the Capitol Building calling for the blood of Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi.
This claim is a debate-team feint. As scary as those protesters were, the question is: which institutions are they taking over with their views? The question is not whether conservatism, in a much broader sense, dominates certain institutions and even societal structures. The question is: which official institutions are bowing down to the ideology of the kind of people who battered police officers in the Capitol lobby? “It Could Happen Here” – okay, we must be wary, but in this case, where did “it” happen beyond one awful episode at the Capitol which, because now those assigned to defend it will be ever on guard for a repeat, is vanishingly unlikely to ever happen again?
Meanwhile, no one can deny that Elect ideology has a stranglehold on institutions that barely knew it just a few years ago. The Elect are changing America, or at least what much of America is comfortable presenting itself as when threatened with slander. The Capitol mob are changing nothing. Seeing their awfulness up so close felt like a change, but that was in us, not them. Novelty in our perception is a change within us as individuals; it is different from those we newly perceive actually penetrating institutions. That a mobbish contigent of the alt-right tried to threaten democracy is less important than that their attempt resonantly failed. The Elect are resonant successes in comparison, despite that their sense of self-definition as Speaking Truth to Power prevents them from acknowledging it directly.
YOU ARE PROBABLY NOT A RACIST
Reviews will often dismiss this book as being about something that doesn’t really matter. But if that’s true, why are you reading it? You are reading it because this religion has started to drive you crazy and you want to know what the hell this is and what to do about it.
You get First-Wave antiracism and think of segregation as an ancient barbarity.
You get Second-Wave anti-racism – i.e. roughly equivalent to what Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan did for feminism -- and think we should all work to truly see black people as equal to whites and deserving of all that whites get.
You see Third-Wave antiracism telling you are morally bound to conceive of ordinary statements like “I don’t see color” as racist that once were thought of as progressive. That if you are white you are to despise yourself as tainted permanently by “white privilege” in everything you do. That you must accept even claims of racism from black people that make no real sense, or if you are black, must pretend that such claims are sacrosanct because the essence of your life is oppression. Whatever color you are, in the name of acknowledging “power” you are to divide people into racial classes, in exactly the way that First- and Second-Wave antiracism taught you not to, including watching your kids and grandkids taught the same, despite that progress on racism has been so resplendent over the past 50 years that an old-school segregationist brought alive to walk through modern America even in the deepest South would find it hard not to turn to the side of the road and retch at what he saw.
You don’t get it. You are right again.
You wonder what in God this new thing is that you are expected to bow down to at the PTA meeting, or when you open up websites of what once were your favorite news sources, or when you listen to callers-in on National Public Radio, or when you quietly submit to “diversity training” at work that leads to nothing you can perceive except the mouthing of vacuous mantras, when you stay quiet when somebody at a jolly gathering with you and your kids casually roasts as today’s fifth-grade outcast some writer you actually have always agreed with and you decide to stay silent.
All of that nags like an eyelash caught behind your contact lens, and it’s because you are watching a religion being born. That its adherents don’t realize they are under the influence of a religion is precisely evidence that this is what it is. No, that is not recapitulating The Elect’s circularity thing, that if you say you aren’t a racist then you are. When you say you aren’t a racist, you give reasons why – your commitments, your views, your history, these days often your dating history or even your spouse. This should qualify as coherent defense and it does. But with The Elect, if we tell them they are religious, they cannot defend themselves with even a stab at logic.
They insist that self-mortification is political activism – fail. They insist that being black is ever and only oppression from the white man – fail. That black people labor under threat of the return of disfranchisement as a people because Republicans try to depress black turnout to lower Democrat tallies, even though black women were central in determining the election of Joe Biden as President along with a black American Vice-President? Fail.
Only religion can explain why anyone would think that all of this doubletalk is sense. You, black or not, are not crazy to get that this stuff doesn’t wash. And your job is to learn to cover your ears against what feels like verbal jiu-jitsu from those whose sense of significance is founded in denying reason and teaching people who have already been through enough to build their identities around a studied sense of victimhood.
Of course, they call themselves pursuing “social justice,” thus telling the rest of us that we are resisting “social justice.” Some of them will claim that the thesis of this book is that “seeking social justice is just a religion.” Don’t get tripped up. They are using the term to refer to their very specific and questionable sense of what social justice is, and as such, to ask us whether we are “against social justice” qualifies as a dirty trick along the lines of being asked if you still beat your spouse. Or not – but only because they are arguing from religion, and for that reason truly do not imagine that their version of social justice is something other than scripture.
Do you see? I hope I am getting you to follow me, and I hope you will stay with me for the next chapter where I will outline the point more closely. That may sound dull, but I don’t think it will be – we just need to look at matters a little more closely to truly get what we are up against among people who seem so normal. We are genuinely in Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory. They will insist that they are not religious, but impotently so, before the simple propositions of this chapter. Adoring their kids, poaching their salmon, strumming their ukuleles barefooted, savoring their Stones and Coldplay and Adele, they may seem unlike what we think of as “religious.”
Don’t be fooled. Religion knows no culture. Nor do all religions entail the worship of a God (The Elect lacks one), or even forgiveness (which The Elect do not seem to have exactly caught up with just yet). As Eric Hoffer put it, religions don’t need a God but they need a devil, and The Elect have that down quite comfortably. Superstition, clergy, sinfulness, a proselytizing impulse, a revulsion against the impure – it’s all there. They think of it all as logic incarnate.
But so did Martin Luther.
IN TWO WEEKS:
GETTING PAST “CRAZY”: IF WE REALLY UNDERSTAND THE ELECT AS A RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT, ALL THAT SEEMS CRAZY ABOUT THEM IS UTTERLY PREDICTABLE.