Never trust any ideology, left or right, that encourages kids to sort themselves by race.
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Let’s face it. I skip much of the pulp (non-) fiction on cultural politics in today’s media, but I’ll occasionally find a bit in The Atlantic worth reading. This one by Conor Friedersdorf, e.g., shows how “outrage entrepreneurs on either side” of hot-button issues like racism sometimes dance each other round until they swap places. Maybe I like this one because I have argued the same in this fine blog, sometimes humorously, as in my entry on Jonathan Swift and the Arc of Liberalism, sometimes more pedantically, as in my entry on Buckling and Curling in the US Political Spectrum. In any event, if you skip the Atlantic link, you can at least link to my previous entries for more entertaining, equally informative, and much shorter elucidations of Left and Right dancing around in their little (we can hope) death spiral 😊
Conor Friedersdorf article here
 The Atlantic is one of the few media outlets that has not zipped itself into an ideological straitjacket in the past few years. It leans left and includes new (woke) progressive voices like Ibram X. Kendi, but also includes regular contributors such as former George W. Bush speechwriter, David Frum, and anti-woke liberals such as John McWhorter.
 A note on terminology: I am sometimes criticized for using the word “woke,” as if that aligns me with a conservative rhetoric. Although the term was at first amply used as a badge of honor for left-leaning politicians like my own New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu, it is true that the right has seized the narrative and largely turned “woke” into a slur. In my case, I have always identified as progressive, not conservative, but for clarity today I need to distinguish between “progressive” as rooted in the 1960s radicalism of MLK and the hippies (which favors free speech and less racialization in our value judgments about people) and “woke progressive” (the identity politics sort, which favors stifling dissent and emphasizing race in value judgments about people and interactions). Thus, I use the term to distinguish two very different versions of progressivism which are often conflated because they carry the same “progressive” tag.
Some decades ago on a daytime TV talk show – I’ll never find it – the African-American public intellectual, Cornel West, was seated next to some Ku Klux Klan members, and the host said something about the KKK representing white people. West gestured at the white supremacists next to him on the stage and replied, “These people don’t represent white people; they represent morons.” That encapsulated the norm in anti-racist discourse in the post-1960s trajectory (post-MLK/post-hippies). It was not black vs white but, as Dr. King called it, a “coalition of conscience” on one side and racists on the other, “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny . . . that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963).
How times have changed. Many in the (ironically named, some would say) “progressive” movement have swung around to suggest that the KKK, in effect, DOES represent white people, as the KKK expresses more overtly what is implicitly baked into white people. Whereas West’s witty remark of yore would marginalize racists and foreground Dr. King’s coalition of conscience, the most prominent voices among today’s anti-racists give the KKK center stage.
“All white people are invested in and collude with racism . . . The white collective fundamentally hates blackness” (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).
“The way in which people have constructed whiteness, and even their identity, or even the identity of white people, prevents them from seeing this white terrorist threat for what it is” (Ibram X. Kendi, interview 01/12/2021).
Though Kendi’s remarks are less demoralizing than DiAngelo’s, they still emphasize the battle lines between white and black – not anti-racism as a (rainbow) coalition of conscience against racists, but anti-racism as a battle against “whiteness.”
The two takes on whiteness, in any event, are clear. The post-1960s anti-racist angle was that whiteness was neither here nor there, not a blessing and not a scarlet letter. In the coalition of conscience, whites and blacks joined hands to combat racism and racial inequality, without probing into the color of the hand next to you and whether that color meant secret sins that needed to be called out. The post-woke angle, on the other hand, is that whiteness is indeed the problem. It comes dangerously close to recapitulating the old blackness vs. whiteness dichotomy favored by Bull Connor and the racist segregationists that liberals fought so hard against in the 1960s.
Some of you might find anti-racist inspiration in the woke discourse, and I suspect I might find some myself if I push into it harder, but the overall thrust is a hard sell for me. The idea of teaching children, black and white, the Robin DiAngelo quote above, and how that might affect them socially and psychologically, is frankly a little chilling. The other angle on whiteness, the angle that I have identified as post-1960s (as opposed to post-woke), the angle I associated with that decades-old quip of Cornel West (my more up-to-date readers can comment on whether his position has changed since then) – that’s the angle I like. It allows all people of all races to celebrate each other, to work hand-in-hand to fix continuing racial inequality, each able to express one’s own heart robustly, with full confidence in oneself and one’s fellows in the coalition, not cowering in self-doubt about one’s own goodness or casting suspicious eyes on those around you.
Best that each of us, black or white, express the power of beauty and goodness in the heart without impediment, in the brazen manner of William Blake, or better yet, Walt Whitman:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself…
My tongue, every atom of my blood…
Nature without check with original energy…
The smoke of my own breath…
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
I know I am solid and sound…
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow…
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
(Song of Myself)
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Never trust any ideology, left or right, that emphasizes division between races rather than our shared humanness.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that uses shared humanness to avoid viewing and fixing racial inequality.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that encourages us to visualize and bring out the bad in each other rather than the good in each other.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that encourages you to prejudge anyone of any color by their race.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that says we should respect walls of separation between races.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that ignores the human consequences of wealth inequality and environmental destruction.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that ignores the human consequences of unequal access to education, health care, and natural resources.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that says that we cannot fully identify with all our fellow human beings because some stupidly reified concept of race prevents it.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that says we cannot creatively identify with people from other demographics in our artistic expressions. When putting oneself in the shoes of other races and demographics becomes the #1 cultural sin, we have pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement fought for.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that suggests we should not celebrate cultural cross-pollination in every direction, continually playing with each other’s cultural stuff, continually wearing the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporating, collaborating, and sharing a laugh when the cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Better to throw open all the doors and windows than to build walls around your turf.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that vilifies one race or demographic to elevate another.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that says only people who “look like me” can relate to my struggles.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that does not inspire you to celebrate our differences without denying our shared humanness.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that does not welcome different and dissenting opinions to the table.
Never trust any ideology, left or right, that obscures the fact that we are all on the same spaceship Earth with limited time and a shared fate; whatever our surface differences, we will sink or swim together as the mothership flourishes or founders.
Never trust any ideology. Turn off the news and love your neighbor.
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One thing wokeness has opened our eyes to is collective guilt. All males are complicit in rape culture.1 All whites are complicit in white supremacy.2 Individuals are not responsible for crimes; they are just acting out the values of their culture. Extend the logic and you will see that when a black man commits a crime, the blame falls on black culture, in which all blacks are complicit; and when an Islamic terrorist strikes, all Moslems are complicit. And here’s a valuable addition for my woke brothers and sisters. I have recently discovered that women and gay people also commit crimes. Extend the collective guilt logic to those groups and, well, we are back in medieval times, where we are all going to hell in a handbasket, without a grim Calvin to save us.
Now that we have reached this pinnacle of religious truth, however, wokers beware! You are under threat. And it’s not conservatives you need to fear. There is an army of scientists and public intellectuals of the liberal sort – Steven Pinker and Jerry Coyne, John McWhorter and Glenn Loury – who are trying to turn us back. Even Obama and Noam Chomsky have taken liberal positions against wokeness. One vile woman is going so far as to twist the Diversity Training Industry away from its proper us-vs-them focus with whites in one box (racists) and blacks in another (victims) into a false narrative that “invite[s] our clients to explore what connects them as human beings.”
In 2021, we are finally moving past the age of so-called Enlightenment. We are finally getting back to where tribal biases can overrule the universal truths and universal rights associated with science and Enlightenment thinking, finally getting back to where tribal identity takes precedence over the idea of shared humanness. We’ve worked long and hard since the 1980s to integrate this neo-medieval world view into our academic, social, and political infrastructure. Don’t let them give us a neo-Enlightenment. Don’t let them put us back into the chains of scientific truth. These are the people who would deny that gravity is a fascist, even though it is plain to see that gravity forces all to abide by its truth, regardless of race or ethnicity. We need tribal truth, not the fascism of science’s universal truths. Don’t let them drag us back to the ideal of universal rights over tribe-based rights. Most of all don’t let them bring back that pre-1980s liberal cornerstone of oppression, “shared humanness,” which would be anathema to the most treasured ideals of wokeness: i.e., tribal bias and cross-racial suspicion.
Wake up, wokes! Liberals are out there, pushing their agenda (free speech, less racialization in our judgments of others) against the woke agenda (stifle dissent, increased racialization in our judgments of others). We’ve increased wokeness in newsrooms, schools, and elsewhere. We now need to consolidate that power and force people into vocal support for our side. Silence is violence. Demand vocal support for wokeness in the workplace, on campus, in the streets, or else. Criminalize all dissent as “unsafe,” as “harmful,” and therefore unprotected by the 1st Amendment. Get to work! The woke revolution is not as secure as you think!
1 ”We are all active contributors to rape culture. All of us. No one is exempt.” (Damon Young, Senior Editor of The Root)
2 “All white people are invested in and collude with racism.” (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).
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Interesting. The most common diversity training programs, which typically rely on concepts like white privilege and white fragility, are often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as efforts to shame white people into submission, or as efforts at defining white people into one box (complicit in racism) and defining blacks into another (victims of racism). Unfortunately, when it comes to changing hearts and minds, perception is reality. (I exited university and corporate life before diversity training took hold, so your various experiences with such programs is welcome in the comment section.)
Theory of Enchantment seems to take the opposite approach.
“Looking for an antiracism program that actually fights bigotry instead of spreading it? You’ve come to the right place. We teach love and compassion …. We invite our clients to explore what connects them as human beings.”
This seems so sensible, so uplifting, and so much more likely to dissolve racial divisiveness and get people pulling on the same team, that I’m sure founder Chloé Valdary will get a lot of pushback from the entrenched (multibillion dollar) diversity training establishment. But if Chloe’s approach can warm this vagabond heart so rooted in the Civil Rights/hippie 1960s, maybe her approach can catch on and warm the hearts of the next generation into a new collective flirtation with compassion and shared humanness.
(Note: I suspect her ideas will not win her many university contracts, but the corporate world might be more responsive in this case. It would be a very curious neo-hippie revolution, if corporations are leading the charge of “peace, love, and friendship,” while student movements cling to a more belligerent us vs. them model of racial dynamics 😊.)
Full disclosure: Chloé is from my hometown of New Orleans and that warms my heart too 😊 (I assume that growing up in New Orleans, which is overloaded on both facets of a mixed-race city —  lots of racism, and  lots of cross-racial collaboration and friendship — may have partially shaped Chloé’s approach.)
Who could have predicted it? Liberals are losing the culture war. But not to conservatives. According to the woke narrative, the old “liberal vs conservative” battle line, as least as it applies to race, has morphed into “wokes vs white supremacists.” That reframing certainly serves woke interests. In today’s USA, if you can scarlet anyone who disagrees with you as a white supremacist, you win. Unfortunately for the wokes, the real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media because it’s politically useful to all sides).
To a careless observer, the wokes may seem a natural extension of last generation’s liberals, but make no mistake: their world views are oppositional (at least on issues of identity). The old liberal values (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) are incompatible with woke values (stifle dissent and emphatically racialize value judgments about people and interactions). And the wokes are winning in university administrations and practices, where e.g. universities are placating the woke by going back to racially segregated housing, in newsrooms and online media, with the New York Times just the tip of the fallen iceberg, and to a lesser extent in the corporate hiring and training practices, and most obviously in museums and the arts, where the skin color of the artist often weighs more heavily with curators than the art itself.
So I’ll be curious to see where we go, now that Biden is in and the glue holding wokes and liberals together (fear of Trump) is dissolving. I would agree with the wokes that “liberal vs conservative” is no longer a viable defining line on race (though it still works on many other topics), but I disagree with their self-serving replacement (“wokes vs white supremacists”). It is more accurately “woke vs liberal” views on race. In this respect, for the past couple of decades, even many people who are otherwise conservative share the “liberal” view on race as I have defined it (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) and recoil at the racial essentialism of the wokes. Very few people today, on any end of the spectrum, would say that racial equality is not a valid goal. How and how much do we attend to that goal is what the fighting is all about.
Thus I come back to my thesis: The real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media). Do we want to see less racialization in our value judgments about people (liberal) or more racialization of our value judgments about people (woke)? Be careful how you answer, especially if you are an educator, because the way you answer that question may determine whether our kids have any real hope of moving toward a more ideal union of racial harmony.
Click covers below for links.
Goodbye, Maggie (shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner Prize) is FREE this week on Amazon (Kindle).
(If you don’t have a Kindle, download the app for free, and get all the books you need for quarantine.)
Click the cover below to link through. (Read some excerpts below.)
So get your copy now. Or if you have a copy, gift a copy or two to friends. Just tell them to be polite and write a brief and honest Amazon review in return for the freebie 🙂
Phil’s life becomes a fiasco of misdirection when his charismatic brother, Magnus, shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary. Magnus then disappears – with Phil’s girlfriend, Hermia – and Phil lands on an uneasy road trip through small town Louisiana with Gus, another rival for Hermia’s attention. Phil and Gus, white and black, find racism, madness, and unlikely friendships as they roll through the bayous and into New Orleans.
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You can find the arguments all over the Internet – baby boomers broke America, millennials are aimless and self-absorbed, etc. Let me try to put the competition to rest.
All of these arguments have one thing in common: They all rest upon the false premises that these imaginary generational constructs are (1) real and (2) monolithic. Sure, history goes on, and the youth vs. age theme is perennial, but calling Obama “Gen X by personal temperament” (as Ben White does in his generation-based commentary in Politico, 2019/10/26) is no better than astrology, which says those born in November have one temperament and those born in August another. Why should people born 1965-80 have a collective “temperament” but not people born 1975-90?
If anything, this habit of reifying and playing generations against each other is even more absurd than our habit of building walls around races and playing them against each other (a favorite theme on the Right during the Civil Rights era that has now become a favorite theme on the Left in the woke era*). Race, at least, is not as imaginary as the generational categories. Except in tightly localized areas, like elevated risk of certain diseases, race is virtually meaningless as a biological concept. But it is not as meaningless as the generational constructs. African-Americans, e.g., have suffered historical conditions as a group that leave them, not universally but in the aggregate, with a set of legitimate shared concerns in today’s body politic. But playing off the races against one another is no way forward. The idea of race as something that can be circumscribed with sharp lines and defended against all penetration by other groups is as imaginary as the generational constructs. Even “African-Americans,” despite the socially produced set of conditions that apply in the aggregate, is a porous term, genetically and culturally. Studies show that “58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5% European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent)” and “about 30% of self-identified White Americans have recent sub-Saharan African ancestry.” Even those without mixed blood have grown up with enormous cultural cross-fertilization, from music to movies to cooking and social life. Let’s celebrate the unique attributes of our different subcultures, but this pitting of one group against another is nonsense, and the game has to stop here. Things like wealth inequality and declining environmental resources are becoming too serious.
Bottom line: We have enough categories dividing us without inventing imaginary ones. Yes, let’s fight for a more equitable society and a more sustainable environment, but not by building walls around imaginary groups. We need to leave that way of thinking behind, whether it’s coming from Trump conservatives or woke progressives. Let’s rather bust all the walls and windows and open ourselves to the great multicultural carnival, all working together, celebrating each other across our demographic lines – that could be our future if we just turn the dial on how we think. And we can start with throwing out the stupid faux conflict between invented generational tags.
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Be the change you want to happen. Never accept any ideology from the Left or the Right that says we need to respect walls of separation between races, genders, etc. Never accept any ideology from the Left or the Right that says we should vote for, value, or prejudge someone innocent or guilty based on skin color or sex organs.
We can celebrate our different cultures, but we do so best when we disregard the dividers on both Left and Right and invite all comers to celebrate with us. When crunch time comes, like it or not, we are all in this together with our shared humanness at stake.
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