A new religion is preached across America. It's nonsense posing as wisdom.
I appreciate your efforts to oppose racist anti-racists--aka, the neoracists. I think neoracist is a good term for the people who are now calling themselves "anti-racists" when it isn't particularly hard to see that much of what they promote is simply classical racism and racial tribalism.
I am black and white myself -- my mom is white and my dad is black. Growing up I never allied myself to any particular race, nor found any solace or sense of belonging attaching myself to racially based social groups. I grew up in a predominantly white, Republican, Christian, town and I frankly experienced no racism that meaningfully prevented my ability to succeed. Obviously I experienced racism, but it never became how I defined America, my town, or white people. I developed friendships with people regardless of their race, and the people who were not okay with me being me, and not acting or thinking like they believed a black person ought to, simply didn't matter to me, and they didn't affect my life's trajectory.
One would imagine that growing up in a Republican, White, Christian town would have been hell for a black person like me--with a will to succeed academically and financially. I mean, based on the dogma of the neoracists. Oh -- I didn't mention that I grew up non-religious, and had and have a dislike for much of the Christian religion. I spent many afternoons in bible groups questioning Christian theology. Never was I once shunned or expelled by Christians from their meetings even though they knew I didn't like the moral character of Jehovah and didn't believe he existed.
Given the historical intolerance of Christianity as a religion as whole, it is very surreal that I now view modern Christianity, in America, as substantially less intolerant than the neoracists who have a track record of blocking me or unfriending me on social media whenever I challenge some of their dogma. I grew up holding the notion that "liberals" were in general more tolerant and open to philosophical differences than "conservatives" and that Democrats--at least in the 90s and 00s (I was largely oblivious to the Democratic Party's true history)--were moreso than Republicans. That certainly is not the case now . "Liberal" -- I once associated myself more with that when I was younger, for example when I canvassed for Obama in 2008 knocking on doors for months--and Democrats are more likely to not have the capacity to engage in a political, philosophical, or religious, discussion with people who don't share their own views, and are more likely to try to punish in some way those who don't share their own views. I'm still pretty much a *classical liberal*, but self-identifying "liberals" these days are just as commonly fake as "anti-racists."
It is probably very important that more black people, such as yourself, and myself, actually organize the same way that the Kendis of America organize. Even though we may not share their desire for racial tribalism, due to the peculiarities of our political environment and the history of America, it is essential that there is a voice for black people who are not consumed by the generational resentment and sometimes hatred created by the tragedies and crimes committed upon our ancestors. As it stands now ,leaders of irrational racist cults, like Louis Farrakhan, and those who lead Black Lives Matter, are promoted as the leaders of "The Black Community(tm)", when rational minds like yourself and Thomas Sowell, are often tarred as self-hating coons. And many, maybe even most, Democrats and "liberals" seem to be okay with this. It worries me. But, your commitment to talking to "your people" and convincing them that the direction they are going is insane is reassuring.
Thank you so much for writing this. Three years ago I resigned from my board position at a Unitarian Church because of this very issue. I didn't have the words to explain why I was uncomfortable with the new "Elect's" focus, but I knew I would be ostracized for raising objections.
Here's the straw that broke my back: At a board retreat, I was called out after saying we didn't need to send a survey to members asking them what they wanted the social justice focus to be since the minister had just TOLD us five minutes previously that the social justice focus for the year would be antiracism. Looking at me, one of the Elect smugly said that we could still send a survey because EVERY issue is about race and every issue affects POC more (not poor people in general, only POC) and my white privilege meant I just didn't understand. As an educator, I know that sending a survey and then ignoring the results (Congregants could have said "abortion rights," "climate change," "free speech" etc.) is not good policy, but that wasn't the point; calling me out for my privilege was a cudgel to shame me. This was the last straw of many; they shut me up and I resigned that night.
It's all quite ironic because the majority of people at that church didn't believe in God, but they certainly "believe" in the new religion without thinking or questioning. Had I known then what I know now, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache by not walking in the door. I'm still a liberal and I still believe in equal rights for all, but the Elect scare me almost as much as Q followers. Both ends of the spectrum "believe" only they know the "truth."
I appreciated this. I initially bought into the 3rd wave stuff (as McWhorter calls it), but gave up on it after too many contradictory messages (e.g., silence is violence, but destroying people's businesses is not violence because that only applies to attacking people, not stuff; or, you have to speak out, followed by 25 articles on the wrongness and futility of every possible approach to speaking out as a white person). But I also know better than to say this to anyone or publicly cross the line on any of these social issues. (If I don't agree that IQ tests are instrinsically racist or that a grown up transwoman should always be allowed to compete in women's sports, it automatically follows that I'm a white supremacist or I want trans people to die.)
This is exactly what reasonable, humanistic folk need: an articulate African-American to lead this charge against the Elect (though I might prefer Neoracists). The Andrew Sullivan's of the world can rip apart Kendi and DiAngleo all day long without much effect. But if McWhorter's institutions stand by him (Columbia, The Atlantic) then perhaps he can become the leader. He's absolutely correct that this isn't simply an intellectual war but a public relations one. That is to say, effective labels are needed and the chief audience is everyone the Elect are seeking to control, not the priesthood itself. Those worthies have concocted an ideology based on hard left European relativism that is designed to be resistance to "reason" -- so yes, a religion. They don't even believe in reason, only power. Power is what they seek and what they now have, based on the craven capitulation of institutions. They're doing great social damage that includes stoking the right and potentially crippling the Democratic party going forward. Good luck Mr. McWhorter in your noble endeavor. I'll be supporting you.
Thank you for writing this. One way that I have understood this form of Antiracism and all its contradictions is to see that the fundamental goal is to induce in White people the experience of what Black people went through during an earlier period in our history, e.g., being told not to speak, being double-binded with conflicting messages, given messages of badness based on essentialist qualities that cannot be changed - in this case, skin color. It is not about solving a problem - it is about inducing suffering.
This pithy essay makes three outstanding contributions to our contemporary dialogue around race and racism. First, it characterizes the body of dogma, anti-empiricism, illogic and moral imperative that form “Third Wave Antiracism” as essentially religious in nature.
Reasonable people will disagree about the utility of arguing with people of faith about their beliefs. Mr. McWhorter considers it futile, but the example he cites (“Of a hundred fundamentalist Christians, how many do you suppose could be convinced via argument to become atheists?”) reveals how little respect for or understanding he has of religious believers. One might just as well ask: Of a hundred fundamentalist Christians today, how many will still be fundamentalist Christians ten years from now? People are very complex; we should be cautious in our claims about the immutability of their beliefs.
But all of that said, McWhorter’s insight maps out the essential nature of the problem. That insight is indispensable if we are to shield vulnerable people from the dehumanizing effect of this shallow new zealotry. We are no longer addressing falsifiable claims about the world. We are up against something deeper, more powerful and far more dangerous: the moral certainty of a new religion. Our ability to effectively counter the illiberal and totalistic nature of the movement, at this late moment, depends on seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. I have not seen anyone make this case as plainly and as persuasively as Mr. McWhorter does here.
The second enormous contribution the author makes to the conversation is to recommend that we refer to the leaders and acolytes of this new religion as “The Elect” (a term he attributes to Joseph Bottum). It’s so brilliant, so precisely calibrated in it’s subversive mockery. It cuts to the chase. It gets at the essence of the thing. It lays out the actual choice a person is being offered when she tries to parse the illogical or absurd jargon of the proselytizers: agree, and you join The Elect for all to see and know. A tent house preacher could not make it clearer.
And that brings me to the third indispensable facet of John McWhorter’s essay: the new religion arrives “in the guise of world progress.” Students of comparative religion know that they all arrive in the guise of world progress, but that doesn’t diminish the critical importance of McWhorter’s observation. Why? Because the promise of heaven is the sticky paste which binds and conceals the self-contradictory pieces of a religion - new or old - into a form that enables intelligent, decent, thoughtful people to see, say and believe lies and absurdities.
The belief in a better world to come justifies cruelty, hatred and bigotry. Here the zealot has logic on his side: if fill-in-the-blank (“the bourgeoisie”, “Kulaks”, “Jews”, “anti-revolutionaries”, “whiteness”, “The Four Olds”, “infidels”, “the rich”, “the defective” - humans are endlessly creative here) then their elimination or suppression is a positive good. Any failure to act zealously and accordingly sets heaven itself back. And so ordinary people, McWhorter’s “friendly school principals, people who work quietly in publishing, lawyer pals. Heavy readers, good cooks, musicians” find themselves slowly turned into the kind of people who will casually contribute to the destruction of strangers’ lives (“I Like” that horrifying and unfair and unforgiving social media post) without even seeing it happen.
Is the best defense skillful and competent argumentation? For people who can write like John McWhorter or Andrew Sullivan or Coleman Hughes or Thomas Sowell - sure. The rest of us can remember McWhorter’s essay, try our best to see the world as clearly and forthrightly as we can, and never, ever agree to say that manifestly false things are true. We must hang tightly to the freedom which let’s us claim that two plus two equals four, and never more so than now.
Your description of people adopting "a curated persona as eternally victimized souls, ever carrying and defined by the memories and injuries of our people across four centuries behind us, ever “unrecognized,” ever “misunderstood,” ever unpaid" is really resonant with me and I think the phenomenon of people adopting that kind of persona deserves further exploration, because it happens pretty often across different groups and times.
For example, as someone of part-Jewish ancestry with a deep love of Jewish culture and history, I think that sadly there is a segment of contemporary Jewish culture which has come to rely on this same sort of persona. The terrible thing is that this kind of identification has contributed to the rationalization of Israeli human rights abuses, and the smearing of legitimate criticism of those abuses as anti-Semitic. When you think of yourself as a perpetual victim you can talk yourself into excusing things that would otherwise be obvious wrongs.
Thank you for this John, sincerely. It is a relief to know that I am not crazy in thinking that the anti-racism that I grew up with (I am 47 years old) has been turned on its head and perverted in disturbing ways. I have far too many thoughts on this topic to commit them all to a single comment section. Suffice it to say that you have been an oasis of reasonableness for me in many of your Atlantic pieces, and I can't wait to read your book. As you mention, it is crucial that there are black voices speaking these truths; white people like myself have limited credibility in this regard, no matter how resistant we may be to the opprobrium of progressive shaming. You taking this stand means so much.
The one area where I will diverge a bit, as others here have noted, is in the value of intellectually engaging "The Elect". I think the concept of "permission structures" really applies here: sometimes it just takes someone willing to puncture the bubble of inviolability around a sacred "truth" in order for people to allow themselves to begin scrutinizing it with fairness and sincerity. I say this as someone who was raised Catholic yet abandoned religion shortly after I allowed myself to begin questioning it. In other words, I did, in fact, reason my way out of something I never reasoned myself into.
A good contemporary social issue to illustrate this point would be the demonization of "blackface". To me, this is one of the most impenetrable issues in modern progressive ideology, so much so that Megan Kelly (no doubt being retroactively sanctioned for past transgressions) was chased from respectable society for merely asking (awkwardly) a reasonable question about Halloween costumes - one which you admirably took on in the Atlantic after the Virginia politician blackface scandal. I have a strong suspicion many people reading your article would find themselves suddenly feeling a subconscious knot untying and wondering why your very sensible and straightforward ideas on this matter had never occurred to them before (or perhaps feeling silent relief that they no longer had to suppress their misgivings). This suspicion was confirmed when Jamie Foxx's Twitter defense of Jimmy Fallon's 20-year-old (yet suddenly extremely concerning) Chris Rock impersonation appeared to give way to more people online openly expressing the seemingly obvious sentiment that Fallon was not, in fact, guilty of a long-buried hate crime. Sure, it didn't stop some smug progressive pundits from feeling falsely vindicated by Fallon's cringe-worthy self-abasement episode, but it gave an opening for the beginnings of some sensibility on the matter.
In short, I have high hopes that your book will be the catalyst that opens the conversation on the entire range of essentialist, illiberal thought plaguing modern American racial discourse. I'd be surprised if I don't end up recommending it regularly.
Bravo! As a white person, these are the thoughts I would share with only a very few carefully chosen friends. I think of the “tenets” McWhorter listed as the Rules of the Game; and as he shows, it’s a crooked game. McWhorter left out the broad rule about who gets to characterize, discuss and (intentionally or unintentionally) insult whom. In his passionate rejection of black disempowerment, which he attributes to the “white savior complex,” McWhorter seemed to attribute the idea of black people as super-victims (absolutely on target, that) to white people. Surely, it’s a joint effort. Ta-Nahisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi would presumably identify themselves as black; Robin DiAngelo, given her Italian name, is presumably at least part white. The intellectual firepower behind their popularizations, built as it is on the fertile ground of incomprehensible French theory and neo-Marxist analysis, may have “white” origins, but the popularizations are a multiracial endeavor. I agree completely with McWhorter that the trope of the black as super-victim denies black people agency and responsibility.
As someone who does not automatically or categorically dismiss the value of religion either to individual or society, I would agree with McWhorter on the quasi-religious nature of “wokeness,” but nuance his claim. I think of “anti-racists” as Puritans, or maybe neo-Puritans, ever on the alert for the stain of a sin which damns the whole person, ever active to eradicate sin from self and society. In this context “The Elect” as a term of art fits perfectly. But while it is easy to imagine an anti-racist Jonathan Edwards casting sinners into the hands of his angry god, it’s as easy to imagine a Maoist struggle session, devoted to bringing to bear all the pressures of shame and guilt to force confession and re-education on anyone who diverged from the party line. Real religion has often had a positive impact on this country, rarely more so than when the energy of the Second Great Awakening flowed into the movements for abolition and women’s rights. A milder form, a more generous call, came from Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. So while it is conventional on the left and in the academy to scorn religion, or at least Christianity, the picture should have more nuance. Years ago I read an analysis of letters written home by Union soldiers in the Civil War that argued that these soldiers’ sentiments of duty and obligation to country expressed an American civil religion. I would argue that today’s neo-Puritan “Elect” are trying to impose a new civil religion on the country. Unfortunately, it’s one that admits of no redemption.
On a personal note: I live in Philadelphia, a city with a 50 percent black population, many of whom are desperately poor. The more anti-racism permeates the cultural space, the harder I have to work not to feel like I’m walking a knife edge whenever I interact with a black person. The more anger I carry around at the pronouncements of a Coates, the harder it is to remember that it’s the people I see on the street, in the doctor’s office, in the classroom who matter, not the ideologues, and that the ideologues make it harder, not easier, to see them. Because I believe economic inequality underlies much that is ascribed to race, it troubles me that anti-racism alienates other people, many also poor and underserved, from joining in a movement to claim rights due to all as citizens, including the positive right to good public education, healthcare, a safe home, and clean environment. The left has accomplished a lot since the sixties, and it has a lot to answer for.
On a further note: anyone who finds humor a welcome release from the pressures of cultural righteousness is encouraged to look for the Twitter feed of Titania McGrath, creation of the Northern Irish satirist Andrew Doyle. Doyle has drawn a deadly accurate bead on the righteous left. Many of his satirical flights, like a denunciation of Mary Poppins for wearing blackface in the chimney sweep scene, have later appeared as straight news in publications like the New York Times. Cheers?
Thank you, John McWhorter. Your analysis of third-wave antiracism is spot on. My only quibble is that I don't see this belief system as a religion in an of itself but, rather, as a key part of a broader inquisitorial doctrine that demands obedience on many fronts. The internal contradictions--not just on antiracism but also on these other subjects--function in just the way Orwell pointed out, placing us in the position to betray ourselves and binding together believers. I'm not usually in favor of adopting pejorative terms for those I disagree with, but I think "inquisitors" works better than "the elect" in reminding us that we're all Thomas More now; silence in the face of this far left faith doesn't work. Instead, it focuses the attention of the persecutors.
Indeed. From the perspective of the 1980's, the way many people speak or write these days was called racism -- or at the very least unfair stereotyping and prejudice -- but they call it anti-racism. White-this, white-that, white-the-other-insult, every elite intellectual is creating their own term it seems. I was, and my kids were, brought up NOT to stereotype others. Today's kids? Don't you dare not stereotype certain others.
Great article. Sadly you will be called "not really Black" by the neoracists. If you have not read it yet, highly recommend Thomas Sowells, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals". As always Sowell examines a far larger picture than a three word sound bite and inspires thought and discussion.
An inspiring piece- can’t wait for the book.
McW is clearly right that labels are key. “The Elect” is great, though a case can be made for “neoracism”. There’s another label that’s also important-what do we call the centrist alternative? I’m using the word “centrist” broadly to include McW and probably 95% of the people who read Persuasion. Centrists are by temperament disinclined towards labels and lacking in religious impulses, in this sense of the word religion. But we need to come up with something. The way to pry the soft Elect away from their toxic worldview is not reasoned discussion- What they want is another religion, another group to belong to. We need to find someway to provide that to them. So we need a label for what we centrists are, even though by definition we are more heterogeneous them the religions we oppose on both right and left.
Such a great article. Thanks for the courage and bluntness of this article. I'm sure many people are thinking the same without the courage to say so. Kuddos to McWhorter for pushing back so eloquently.
Sound raw thoughts that behoove a bit more rigorous philosophical analysis. Why? Not because the more rigorous analysis will convince The Elect to become apostate, but rather, to marginalize them in the eyes of rationalists and to prevent anyone who values logic and truth from being sucked in. I get that a first year philosophy student with a basic understanding of the history of philosophy up through Logical Positivism can rip the underlying tenets of The Elect's religion to shreds. It IS easily done. But it nevertheless needs to be laid out in a truly philosophical way--the manner in which Socrates would induce aporia through questions, the manner in which Wittgenstein would "quicken the queer" of a philosophical statement by pointing out how the language employed in it has gone on a holiday. Again, there is very little hope of this being effective against The Elect. But preventing at least one rationalist from going down the rabbit hole makes it a worthwhile endeavor.
I am sure critics of all stripes will question your motives and say any number of horrble things about your work. I appreciate that you have broken down and named an ideology/religion and practice that threatens to keep us all from realizing the potential of eachother. I will be ordering your book and reading more from the Persuaison community/commentors.