By Haim Shweky
John McWhorter is no raving, public-frigging, street-corner Jeremiah, but he does believe the country is in trouble, and envisions ruination lest we change our ways.
In Woke Racism, his new treatment of antiracism, he sees a set of vainglorious gurus having unwittingly fooled themselves and their devotees by subscription to a foul scheme for salvation which will, inevitably, end in their – as well as our own – damnation.
The moods are frigidly familiar: rites, rituals, ceremonials; an index of proscribed topics, forbidden modes of expression; organized multitudes chanting three-worded mantras; forced recantations, public penitence; departmental purges; internet auto-de-fas. Antiracism employs for its mission a sort of right-by-fright strategy. In an age when one’s person is scarcely distinguishable from one’s social media avatar, the punitive implements of ostracising and doxxing become more effective than the inquisitor’s blade. For the thumbscrew we have the thumbs-up screw. Nothing says shame like a scarlet emoji. A social media platform can serve as one’s stage, or one’s gallows, and the relish taken at another’s digital crucifixion is almost lubricious (the initialism derived from ‘Social Media’ tells you all about the peculiar form this fetish likes to take). But goodness driven by fear of the corrective cudgel is no goodness at all. To ‘force a choice’ is a dilemma which overeager proselytizers have been attempting to reconcile for millennia.
The recrudescence of militant puritanism continues a long tradition in moral hypocrisy. In common with all devout authoritarian movements, primness, prudishness, and priggishness are curiously blended with bloodlust. (Those with the devil’s edict to promote often don the bishop’s miter). Though to recognize in oneself the germs of a Soviet litigator, a Franciscan inquisitor – or, in this case, a Millennial theocrat – demands a level of self-analysis fit for a Freud. This point McWhorter keeps keenly in view: “This book is not a call for people of a certain ideology… My assumption is that the people in question are largely unreachable by arguments of this kind.”
The particulars of Critical Race Theory – the rationale undergirding the tenets of antiracism –can be gleaned elsewhere. I will not bore you with it. (Yes, I find millennials boring. And by calling them boring, I mean to exact the crudest imputation known to me.) For all their insight into the human condition, antiracists are unlettered in the first rule for progress of any sort: to entertain the possibility of being mistaken. Their philosophy emerges as a challenge to Augustine’s ontological conclusion, si fallor, sum [“If I am mistaken, I exist”]. Seeing how this is not a possibility, the conclusion is rather upended: If I am mistaken…well, I simply cannot exist.
Then they might well live forever. The process of erring and improving one’s judgment is difficult under the conviction that freedom of speech and debate are not, actually, apparatuses which further human understanding, but strictures devised to retain an inequitable status quo. “Because racism” too often induces as well as concludes the 2021 argument.
What this leaves is a dialogue without the di-, a conversation with no co-. McWhorter seeks to reattach the prefixes.
McWhorter has a name (adopted from the writer Joseph Bottum) for the clerics of the antiracist creed, “The Elect,” which is apt. (The name alludes to the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, whereby a select group of worthies has been preordained by God to enter the Kingdom of Heaven). In two brief words it manages to convey all the exclusivity, presumption, pomp, and sense of divine right attaching to its members. (As The Elect, in fact, was the outline of this book first released, serially on Substack.)
An elect, naturally, presupposes the existence of a non-elect. To you, then, is this book inscribed.
Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America reads fast, and was probably written that way, as if the pen stayed on point in both senses. It has the feel of a raw polemic, an overnight lucubration scrawled by a thinker dismayed by the ascendance of a parochial and illiberal politics; or, conversely, by the devolution “from the concrete political activism of Martin Luther King to the faith-based commitments of a Martin Luther.”
Its opening installment has McWhorter nailing, reformation-style, to the Church door of antiracism a list of paradoxes and anomalies inherent to the doctrine. But these sort of glitches in the antiracist program are no crux to the creed. Indeed, the snares are inbuilt and work to a purpose: showing up the non-Elect to be complicit in upholding a racist cosmogony. Being racist has never been so cheap and easy. One is damned, without purgation, no matter what action one takes – which leaves loads of ill will, if little free will. (Forgiveness is one aspect of religion “which the Elect do not seem to have exactly caught up with just yet.”) This drawing up of racist motive ex nihilo can indeed only be achieved by a very dense and contradictory set of beliefs. And only a religion can induce people to follow what is self-evidently fraudulent.
That antiracist notions are too good for this world is confirmed by an alien lexicon. Club language sets its member not just cushily apart, but loftily above the spoken-to. By stepping out of the common circle of men, the initiate steps under a smaller glowing ring. Those who are called “problematic” (one recalls the euphemistic dispatches of wartime, referring to “undesirables” or “troublesome” elements) are excomunicado.
If the depths of their philosophy are inexpressible, so is theirs esquipedalian language: cisheteronormativity (a veritable molestation against the English Language); negrophobogenesis; meta-aporia; Afro-pessimism; cis-gender. No person, lay or literary, speaks like this.
The New Puritans do not brand with a scarlet letter, but a scarlet alphabet. This is arranged as needed into stigmatizing epithets and phrases. Cis, straight, white, and male, are exceptionally common. Put them in apposition and you have a bogeyman. Now light a candle and say that 50 times in front of a mirror in a dark room and the embodiment of Satan himself jumps out.
The Medievals conceived of philosophy as ancilla theologiae – philosophy serving theology. John therefore is rather precise when he cheekily refers to antiracist theologians as “medievals with lattes.” (No reason to start a tiff over this en passant condescension: he is not so lordly that he cannot self-reference as a “chardonnay-sipping” bourgeois from the suburbs). Insult of the “personal” variety is rare with John, and when he permits himself to lapse into the mocking jest or light quip, there is none of the mordancy of the sort found in the debased and debasing humour of the politically possessed.
His textual humour is somewhat mild, but at times succeeds in raising the ribs as opposed to the shoulders. I instance his “grammar lesson” on how to employ the term Elect, in its substantive or adjectival form, in properly aggrieved sentences. (“We are confused and hurt by the Elect.” “Is he Elect?” “He went all Elect on me.” “They were up on some Elect shit.”)
Or the following, which illustrates the special place of an Elect-cherished word:
“The person intoned identity with a quietly warm expression, as if he had said ‘family’ or ‘blueberry muffins.’”
Or here, contrasting the effete apologetics of a “modern white person,” to the response of someone of the WWII generation, against the charge of racism:
In that America, many white people called racists by this kind of person [antiracist], 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!’
That made me laugh, as well as thirsty.
McWhorter nearly pours the ink giving examples of antiracist injustice, or of simply instancing the ridiculous. Gourds of this can be exhausting to the convinced, but for the those unaware of the extent to which antiracism can be anti-reason, anti-justice, and anti-human, the furnishing of ground-level examples is important. The conviction will come, if it comes, by his astute evidencing of how antiracism is not only misleading, but leads in directions opposing those its leaders purport and its adherents desire. It hurts everyone it involves.
This book prudently keeps away from the adoption of too pedantic a style. After all, this is an appeal, not a treatise, and as such has adopted the stylistic medium best suited to level with those whom he wishes to persuade. The text produces, however, the occasional lapidary encapsulation, such as this fine example:
Black people…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 carrying and defined by the memories and injuries of our people across the four centuries behind us, ever ‘unrecognized,’ ever ‘misunderstood,’ ever in assorted senses unpaid.
The linguist steps forth in this one:
Their backwardness [historical figures] on race must cling to them in our minds the way a gendered definite article must cleave in our minds to a French noun. La plume; George Washington, le slave owner.
Having adopted the idiomatic style, however, John’s prose, suasional as it is, is interleaved with the occasional but inexcusable platitude. But he is rightly laureled as a speaker, especially when debating. He is one of my favourite rhetorical logicians. He has an incomparable gift – divine, really – of ordering a jumbled idea into crystalline oratory. Against an ideology deliberately oracular, we desiderate such clarity.
The devil, they say, wear many faces. Saviors, likewise, come in unexpected forms. It may just take a humble linguist to disentangle our tongues.
The premise of antiracism as a pernicious religion leading an inspired wayward gaggle would, in the hands of a lesser commentator or criticule, become spoofish and unserious. (McWhorter doesn’t reap as much as he might from the rows of allusion and metaphor yielded up by the sowing of such a thematic field…just as I here, perhaps, overharvest my share.)
As messenger, McWhorter has a conspicuous advantage. No, not that. Though he himself would readily acknowledge his racial ‘status’ as license to say what other, overly privileged folk have not the privilege of saying. “A version of this book written by a white writer would be blithely dismissed as racist. I will be dismissed instead as self-hating.” John is a major figure, and it has nothing to do with being a “minority” (a belittling term in more senses than one). He is eminently, nigh supernally, reasonable (his chapter on Affirmative Action, neatly titled “Yale or Jail,” manages by its uber reasonableness to avoid the contention traditionally attaching to that issue).
John is completely charming, conveys strength without threat, ‘of’ the Left, and, let’s face it (so to speak), free of the perceived guilt associated with that inscrutable term “whiteness”. He has managed to congregate his own following, and hold their attention, by displaying the erudition, probity, and rationale too often absent amongst contemporary tub-thumpers.
Father McWhorter is no Barmecide preacher. He has published over twenty books and a considerable tranche of articles besides. He appears bimonthly as the staple conversation partner of Glenn Loury, eponymous host of the The Glenn Show, a contrarian’s den wherein fireside conversations cover flammable material. (For a fuller treatment, direct yourself to a leather chair, then to Glenn’s page: https://www.patreon.com/posts/haim-shwekys-to-43926398 ) McWhorter is a linguist at Columbia University, a fitting métier for one endeavouring to uphold the sanctity of speech against the increasing rigidities of a hysterical world.
He is, however, a somewhat reluctant martyr. He would rather not confine his time to the trappings (or droppings) of the bird cage of twitter. And he will not bother with people who he intuits as being without a grue of integrity. As he explains, in his infinite reasonableness, he simply has “better things to do. Like play with my girls. Or read a book.”
Amen, I say.
McWhorter is himself a non-believer, in either supernal or sublunary deities. He conceives a worldview at once secular and tolerant, understanding that compulsory tolerance is not only oxymoronic as a term, but self-defeating as an exercise.
Ideas roam round a ballroom, sometimes knocking into others rudely, at times combining into a dance. Some danceforms adapt through the music of ages, some eventually concretize into choreographed schools. Yet other dances are found clumsier than others, and the partners disjoin and make a try in another round, or else, shamed and debauched for stepping on too many digits, sit sulking at the edges of the dance floor.
The point is, though some ideas prove more flexible than others, the dance of expression must be kept free from an overarching director. For thought, like dance, becomes rigid and unnatural when arbitrarily choreographed.
Millennials are jigging to the lockstep. It must be exhausting to operate under such strictures, always to keep up a visage of unflagging episcopal devotion, the demands of which grow ever more exacting and arbitrary. This is why I, for one (not one of a group, not one of a herd, not one of many – just one) choose to belong to the classical liberal denomination, which is, really, no denomination at all. If a particular viewpoint appeals to reason, I adopt it. If it ceases to inspire, I discard it. And nowhere is there is an exalted caste or class, an inspired priesthood or infallible hierarch, to which to report.
The Good News (Have you heard it?)
In a world seeking deep answers and panacean solutions, John doesn’t offer metaphysical cure-alls, but he does proffer some pragmatic steps which may serve to make our physical station a bit more liveable, if not more loveable.
- Retire the wasteful, destructive, moronic drug war, more harmful to the collective body than the toxins they seek to interdict are to the individual body. As naturally as during prohibition (that weird time when America became an Islamic country for an era), up springs a black market, and into it goes the dispossessed men, failed by school and by community. This illicit world becomes a familiar one, a way of subsistence alongside those just like one. Gangs find a métier in this world. Another war, a “turf war”, comes to subsist under the national one. Theft and murder are means to an end, emphasis on that last word. Incarceration and fatherless young men are its predictable results. It requires a suspension of disbelief similar to that of religion not to see that decades deep in this “war” have been decades devolved.
- It is not only the linguist, but the humanist who makes the second proposal: Teach reading properly. Reading is a central science, and deficiency in reading will affect everything in its sphere. McWhorter juxtaposes two methods, phonics and the whole word method, and earnestly advocates the former. Poor kids, inbook-bereft homes and where communication is oral, need to be taught how to read.
(I should like to add the ‘what’ to the ‘how.’ Literature has been another victim of antiracist thought; and what is Shakespearean in a word been made to depend on the mouth which spake it. But what is beautiful in literature is universal, and irrespective of the colour of the hand which grips the plume. The habit of reading is an inner cultivation, which effects a view at once broader and deeper of the world, and can thus serve to change it. If literature is circumscribed to an ideological purpose, however electable it may seem, our view of the wide world is a narrow one.)
- Charles Murray the Notorious has made often and for a while now the third proposal: Not everyone should attend college. A statement that once would have been sacrilege, is now quite serviceable. College was supposed a place where the stripling might mingle with a diverse bramble, before shooting off sturdily on his own. He would meet a colorfully minded (I ought to underline “minded”) multitude of people, learn new ideas, new languages, new patterns of thought. A trip to Thailand may do as much. These days, more. But put aside, for now, the argument that ‘higher education’ has little in the way of education but does come from on high; (“The Martian anthropologist would readily note that what we title educational institutions double as cathedral complexes for our intelligentsia’s religious commitments.”) Back on ground level, John advocates for vocational schools, and finds it condescending that the plumber, electrician, mechanic – often, incidentally, seeing their kids through college – should be thought of as having been denied “opportunity.”
John is very good at discarding the ‘thou’ for the ‘you,’ selecting practicable courses which, (shall I say, god-willing?), might make for a better ‘us.’
Woke Racism has just been released last ghoulish October. A few dollars into the basket will gain you entry to the sermon. For the price of some enlightenment, I consider this charitable.
The American flock is heading off of a philological cliff. It will take a talented political Bedouin, skilled in the circuitous wadis of debate, to shepherd us away from the precipitous crag. This 21st century apostle should be armed with the tablets of a new, strong code of liberal ethics.
Woke Racism is just such a tablet. And John McWhorter is its prophet.
Originally from NJ, Haim Shweky currently writes from TLV, Israel.
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