This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”
However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, in A Time of Gifts, wrote about the thin, porous line between rival fanaticisms after meeting some newly-converted fascists who, just the previous year, had been committed Communists. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer analyzed at length the psychology of fanaticism, in which the need to believe and belong far outweighed the ideological particulars of this or that doctrine. In this regard, Spencer is far more sophisticated than huckster preachers like Coates and his idiot legions of white progressive devotees, who would be better off, and do far less political damage, by simply going back to church to deal with those unacknowledged salvational needs. Wearing sackcloth and practicing flagellation could easily take the place of identity politics for white people consumed by a sense of sinfulness, and be more easily ignored by the rest of us.
I fear that the truth is Islam has become an untouchable shibboleth for some on the left. What they lacerate in other religions, they refuse to mention in Islam. Sexism, homophobia, the death penalty for apostasy … all of this is to be rationalized if the alternative is Islamophobia. Why, one wonders? Is it because Muslims are a small minority? But the same could be said for Jews. My best guess is simply that, for the far left, anything that is predominantly “of color” is preferable to anything, like Judaism and Christianity, that can usually be described as “white.” That’s how “intersectionality” can be used to defend what would otherwise be indefensible. The preoccupation with race on the far left is now so deep, in other words, it’s becoming simply an inversion of that on the far right.
To be more specific, the proximate preoccupation is with race, but the ultimate preoccupation is with moral authority, as Shelby Steele has helpfully described over the course of several books. As many have noted, the loudest voices denouncing all things “white” typically issue forth from…white people. These White Wokies have no problem with dropping their ostensible racial sensitivity the moment a member of an officially oppressed group dares to disagree with their progressive axioms. It’s about politics and power, just as it’s always been. Race is just an effective tactic for the time being. The only people “of color” who matter are the ones who are content to let the Wokies stay in charge. Cosmetic diversity flowers while ideology marches in lockstep.
In the aggregate logic of progressivism, Team White/Male/Etc. has been running up the score on Team Everybody Else for several hundred years, so the duty of the Enlightened Elect is to encourage and amplify millions of tiny, everyday incidents which can be vaguely construed as The Subaltern scoring one against White/Male/Etc. Supremacy, helping to cancel out the unjust privileges inherited from history. The cumulative effect will be to even the sociopolitical score sometime in the distant future, at which point…the games can re-commence on a level playing field? Just kidding, of course. At that point, behavior will have to be even more tightly supervised and controlled for fear of all our hard work getting undone. Don’t worry, our Wokie overlords will tell us when we reach the promised land and Year Zero begins. Now keep marching.
While that plays out, the least that we white Americans can do is to not ignore race. Some liberals used to pride themselves on saying they didn’t see race, which I always thought was fatuous, more about white self-regard than the reality of American life. No—as I learned at the water park, we have to make ourselves see it and think about it.
As any meditating Buddhist can tell you, obsessing on your thoughts is a recipe for dissatisfaction. “Seeing and thinking about race” has been the default for white progressives for the last half-century at least; if doing so led to anything more productive than compulsively circling around rhetorical and conceptual dead ends, we would surely have seen those results by now. Tomasky relates a simple anecdote of minor social friction which was resolved thanks to people practicing some basic, universally-valid virtues: patience, respect, soft-speaking, and forgiveness. No need at all for a racial healing workshop, yet, predictably, this is what he decides we need. It’s like a passage from one of Shelby Steele’s books come to life.
Your kind, it keeps on cutting
Divisions you create
Now it’s all exploding
Soon nothing left to break
In 1960, 94 percent of U.S. college students were white. By 1991, that had fallen to 80 percent. Women became a majority among students and also gained more representation within faculties. With these demographic changes came demands that white male professors, administrators, and students listen to points of view they had not had to consider before.
…Today, as the country continues to become less white and women and minorities gain access to more positions of power, maybe it stands to reason that the movement against political correctness has moved from academia into just about every part of public life.
A quick trip to Google will confirm that “divisive” and “polarizing” are terms frequently applied to Donald Trump. But I’m pretty sure everyone actually agrees that he’s an asshole; his fans just happen to love that about him.
This, on the other hand… I mean, JSTOR Daily is basically a Reader’s Digest of academic journals in blog form. Gershon’s brief post about the historical usage of the term “political correctness” is written in anodyne language. And yet, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of divisive, polarizing rhetoric.
To summarize her summary in my own words: critics of political correctness are just bitter, resentful white men who feel threatened by the gradual loss of their power and privilege. Yes, it turns out that people who dogmatically insist that race and gender explain everything about culture and politics also insist that it explains any criticism directed toward them. Anyone who argues otherwise becomes ipso facto an angry white male conservative (those who insist, inconveniently, on being critical without being white, male, or conservative are, of course, just fellow travelers suffering from false consciousness, mindless puppets dancing on the strings of their white male controllers). Any self-identified liberal who refuses to toe the party line will be treated as a conservative for all intents and purposes until they wearily give in and accept the label.
It’s hard to imagine a more self-defeating tactic. It’s a perfectly closed circle of logic which guarantees that once all the heretics have been expunged, the true believers will turn on each other in the inevitable purification rituals. Nothing worth keeping will ever grow from this poisoned soil, and yet, too many liberals continue to make excuses for it out of the fear of looking conservative. As Trump would say: Sad!
What does it mean to be a black conservative? If you ask Chidike Okeem, you’ll get an interesting, nuanced response. If you ask Leah Wright Rigueur, well, hey, somebody’s gotta provide the bite-sized news niblets for the busy progressive, I guess. I don’t want to know all the boring details, I just want to know how to signal about it!
Progressive media is best pictured as a bunch of attention-deficient, not-too-bright children batting a balloon around. Soon enough, the balloon pops, and the poor little dimwits stand there looking befuddled, and then they start to cry and wet their pants until someone blows up another balloon and floats it back into the group.
A couple years ago, we snapped a photo of one of the resident SJW writers at the A.V. Club in full tears-and-pissy-pants mode:
Despite consistently negative media attention on the topic (and negative reaction to that negative media attention), apparently two-thirds of Americans still believe that the name “Washington Redskins” isn’t disrespectful toward Native Americans. This stance, most fervently defended by people who own warehouses full of “Washington Redskins” T-shirts…
But for more than a decade, no one has measured what the country’s 5.4 million Native Americans think about the controversy. Their responses to The Post poll were unambiguous: Few objected to the name, and some voiced admiration.
…Even as the name-change movement gained momentum among influential people, The Post’s survey and more than two dozen subsequent interviews make clear that the effort failed to have anywhere near the same impact on Indians.
Across every demographic group, the vast majority of Native Americans say the team’s name does not offend them, including 80 percent who identify as politically liberal, 85 percent of college graduates, 90 percent of those enrolled in a tribe, 90 percent of non-football fans and 91 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 39.
Even 9 in 10 of those who have heard a great deal about the controversy say they are not bothered by the name.
What makes those attitudes more striking: The general public appears to object more strongly to the name than Indians do.
I’m sorry, Ms. Rife, you were saying something hilarious…? You were disregarding the lived experience of People of Color in order to impose your own white intellectual/moral colonial standards, just like your racist ancestors did? Surely, you’re not going to violate one of the bedrock commandments of intersectionality and “appropriate” the native struggle as your own, right? Surely you’re not going to condescendingly “whitesplain” to these benighted savages how they’re too primitive and uneducated to understand what they should be offended by, are you?
(As of this writing, Ms. Rife’s byline at the A.V. Club displays no posts commenting on this latest setback for white SJWs in their mission to take offense on behalf of all those too weak or politically ignorant to take offense for themselves. But we’ll see if that changes soon.)
Those interviewed highlighted again and again other challenges to their communities that they consider much more urgent than an NFL team’s name: substandard schools, substance abuse, unemployment.
It’s like some random blogger once said:
These people are pathetic truffle pigs who squeal in delighted outrage whenever they root out another trivial instance of this-ism or that-phobia; once their flickering attention span is distracted by the next pseudo-issue, they’ll go right back to knowing and doing absolutely nothing about the lives of actual, living American Indians.
I read Thomas Chatterton Williams’s memoir, Losing My Cool, last summer and found it engrossing. I recommend checking it out, but until you do, here’s a couple more recent articles from him worth reading. One, on everybody’s least favorite buzzword, privilege:
What is more harmful — and pervasive in these disillusioned last days of the first black presidency — are the ways in which left-leaning discussions now share assumptions with the worst conservative and even white supremacist ideology. Whether put forth by racists or anti-racists, the insistence that, as James Baldwin noted, it is a person’s “categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended,” is oppressive. When genuinely anti-racist views lead us to the same practical conclusions an open bigot would embrace — that black life is miserable compared with white life — we give white people too much credit and strengthen the status quo.
The false choice between acknowledging the repugnant history of racism that informs the present, and the wish to accept the reality that a growing number of black people may nonetheless experience the freedom to define ourselves, is infantilizing. What this current moment of protest and awakening must lead us to, if it is to lead us anywhere, is a dignified means of fully inhabiting our ever more complicated identities.
It’s a strange and ironic double diminishment: first to feel oneself aggrieved, and then to conclude that the best response is to bask in fragility and retreat into an artificially indulgent social context. There is something utterly dehumanizing about being fit to a demographic profile, reduced to the sex or color of a body. While I may not be able to control how I look or how others perceive me, I control absolutely the ways I perceive myself. The idea that minorities need bubbles betrays an internalized sense of inferiority. When we concede public space as inherently hostile instead of deliberately claiming it as our own — as Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others did in the Sixties, as the gay-rights movement did more recently — we perpetuate and reinforce some of the very biases we seek to counteract.
Just as troubling, the growing power and influence of the appeal to vulnerability transforms it from a strictly defensive (if ineffective) tool into an increasingly potent method of intimidation that can silence even meaningful disagreement.
For the therapeutic society, such a goal continually recedes beyond the horizon. These therapies share many of the new assumptions about race: racism continues unabated; all slights are equal; anyone who endures racial slights of any kind or degree is a victim or a survivor who needs help; racism is an illness shared by all oppressors, who also need therapy; and small-group interactions and emotional catharsis are the primary ways in which the racial problems of the country should be faced. That there is never an end in sight — racism remains completely unchanged — handily gives the new therapies the rationale not just for persevering but for proselytizing through pamphlets, books, journals, classes, workshops and retreats.
…The therapeutic movement, with this ethos of empowerment, has trumped the civil rights movement, with its vision of the just society and the good life. The culture of therapy’s view that the problem for everyone — bigots, oppressors and leaders alike — is a lack of nurture, validation and support has inspired numerous best-selling books and talk shows. The spirit of the movement is that we are all owed unconditional acceptance at all times, and that any weaknesses we have are not our own responsibility.
…The notion of incorrect attitudes — stereotypes — both expands and diminishes the extent of the problem. No one is truly guilty here — no one is actually at fault — because it is society that breeds the wrong attitudes. Yet everyone must be subjected to self-examination, because everyone harbors these attitudes. Thus any distinction between a racially motivated act — like refusing to hire or promote someone or chasing someone out of one’s neighborhood on account of race, or worse — and a passive misconception one might have about a group one has never known intimately gets lost. This focus on attitudes of nebulous origin, and the misleading assumption that they are universal and as lethal as racist acts, comes from a loss of judgment and proportion. This loss of proportion and inability to distinguish among wrong acts rests on the idea that stereotypes are responsible for racism, not individuals.
I became interested in reading this book after seeing an intriguing reference to it in a Spiked article a few months ago. Shortly afterward, I fortuitously came across a copy in a secondhand bookstore. Having now read it, I have to amend my thinking a bit. You’ve heard me say many times that the trendy emphasis on intersectional social justice is merely the millennial generation’s twist on the tired old fashion of left-wing identity politics. I still think this is true, but slightly incomplete. Lasch-Quinn’s book does a very good job of illustrating the overlooked fact that both the vocabulary and the rhetorical framework favored by social justice warriors owe as much to the maudlin, emotionally-incontinent therapeutic culture as to the New Left. Truly, a grim example of the worst of both worlds combining as one.
There’s something endlessly fascinating about the left’s insistence that Clarence Thomas is not “authentically” black—that this descendant of slaves, this grandson of sharecroppers, this hardworking man who rose to the grandest heights of the legal profession, is a traitor to his race and his class. I don’t know what it is about Thomas that drives the left so nuts, but it’s there, and it’s very real. Could you imagine what would happen if someone on the right described a brilliant liberal African-American of being no more than a slave controlled by white devils?
I hate to say this—the charge is offered all too often with far little in the way of support—but that shit is racist as hell.
Leave aside the “More like Uncle Clarence Thomas, amirite?” sniggering. The suggestion that Clarence Thomas is just a mindless puppet whose strings were pulled by Antonin Scalia is racist and ignorant and wholly unsupported by anything resembling the facts. Jeffrey Toobin—no fan of Thomas, he!—has said as much in the storied pages of the New Yorker.
I’m sure Bunch’s befuddlement is just rhetorical; he knows full well that Thomas is guilty of giving the lie to progressive homilies about race. “Authentic” blacks just coincidentally happen to be the ones who choose the same political positions as the white progressives who want to be credited for making a big display of standing aside and relinquishing their grip on power. “Now, Clarence, where on Earth did you get your head filled with all these crazy conservative ideas? Have you been hanging around with that Scalia boy again? I’ve told you he’s bad news, haven’t I? Look, we only want you to be happy and successful, but that means you have to listen to us when we give you advice. We know best, after all.” Actually, come to think of it, I’d love to see the Venn diagram of patronizing progressive racists and helicopter parents.