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John McWhorter Flays The Elect

John McWhorter, fearless (Reason TV screenshot)

I have delayed my departure because there’s so much good stuff to read and to write about. This is the last thing I’m going to write before going to Alabama, I swear.

In Live Not By Lies, I said the best way to understand the Bolsheviks is as a new religion. Similarly, the best way to understand the Social Justice Warriors is as adherents of a new religion. I write:

Perhaps no public intellectual has thought so deeply about the fundamentally religious nature of these progressive militants than James A. Lindsay, an atheist and university mathematician.

Lindsay contends that social justice fulfills the same psychological and social needs that religion once filled but no longer can. And like conventional religions, it depends on axiomatic claims that cannot be falsified but only accepted as revealed truths. This is why arguments with these zealots are about as productive as theological disputation with a synod of Taliban divines. For the social justice inquisitors, “dialogue” is the process by which opponents confess their sins and submit in fear and trembling to the social justice creed.

Social justice warriors are members of what Lindsay calls an “ideologically motivated moral community.” Far from being moral relativists, SJWs truly are rigorists with a deep and abiding concern for purity, and they do not hesitate to enforce their sacrosanct beliefs. Those beliefs give meaning and direction to their lives and provide a sense of shared mission.

What are those beliefs? A rough catechism based on Lindsay’s analysis goes something like this.

The Central Fact of Human Existence Is Power and How It Is Used

Politics is the art and science of how power is distributed and exercised in a society. For SJWs, everything in life is understood through relationships of power. Social justice is the mission of reordering society to create more equitable (just) power relationships. Those who resist social justice are practicing “hate,” and cannot be reasoned with or in any way tolerated, only conquered.

There Is No Such Thing as Objective Truth; There Is Only Power

Who decides what is true and what is false? Those who hold power. Religious claims, philosophical arguments, political theories—all of these are veils concealing will to power. They are only rationalizations for oppressors to hold power over the oppressed. The value of truth claims depends on who is making them.

Identity Politics Sorts Oppressed from Oppressors

In classic Marxism, the bourgeoisie are the oppressor, and the proletariat are the oppressed. In the cult of social justice, the oppressors are generally white, male, heterosexual, and Christian. The oppressed are racial minorities, women, sexual minorities, and religious minorities. (Curiously, the poor are relatively low on the hierarchy of oppression. For example, a white Pentecostal man living on disability in a trailer park is an oppressor; a black lesbian Ivy League professor is oppressed.) Justice is not a matter of working out what is rightly due to an individual per se, but what is due to an individual as the bearer of a group identity.

Intersectionality Is Social Justice Ecumenism

People who bear identities within the so-called “matrix of oppression” link their identities to one another by way of intersectionality. The concept is that all those oppressed by the privileged classes—the patriarchy, whiteness, and so forth—are connected by virtue of their oppression and should challenge power as a united front. If one is not a member of an oppressed group, he or she can become an “ally” in the power struggle.

Language Creates Human Realities

Social justice warriors believe that human nature is constructed largely through the use of linguistic conventions. This is why they focus heavily on “discourses”—that is, the style and content of modes of speaking that, in their view, legitimize certain ways of being and delegitimize others. SJWs tightly police the spoken and written word, condemning speech that offends them as a form of violence.

Conservatives, old-fashioned liberals, and others who are outside the social justice movement frequently fail to grasp how to respond to the aggressive claims of its proponents. This is because they assume SJWs, who are typically not religious, operate under the established standards of secular liberal discourse, with its respect for discursive reasoning.

A memorable example is the 2015 Yale University clash between Professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis and enraged students from the residential college overseen by the faculty couple. Things went very badly for the Christakises, old-school liberals who erred by thinking that the students could be engaged with the tools and procedures of reason. Alas, the students were in the grip of the religion of social justice. As such, they considered their subjective beliefs to be a form of uncontestable knowledge, and disagreement as an attack on their identity.

Some conservatives think that SJWs should be countered with superior arguments and if conservatives stick with liberal proceduralism they will prevail. This is a fundamental error that blinds conservatives to the radical nature of the threat. You cannot know how to judge and act in the face of these challenges if you cannot see the social justice warriors for what they truly are—and where they do their work. It is easy to identify the shrieking student on the university quad, but it is more important to be able to spot the subversive presence of older SJWs and fellow travelers throughout institutional bureaucracies, where they exercise immense power.

Well, even bigger guns have come out. John McWhorter, the Columbia University linguist, is black, on the left, and an atheist. He absolutely flays the Critical Social Justice mob as “the Elect” — that is, he’s telling his readers that these people are adherents of a new religion, and must be understood in that context. McWhorter writes today, in the latest installment of his ongoing serial takedown of the Elect:

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.

McWhorter is not prepared to listen to people tell him that this is no big deal:

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 Megan 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 YorkTimes 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.

I really want you to read the whole thing, especially if you are under the impression that this is just something that Very Online people like me are ginning up.

Here is a link to Chapter One of “The Elect.”

Here is a link to Chapter Two of “The Elect.”

Here is a link to Chapter Three of “The Elect.”

And here is a link to Chapter Four, from which I’ve excerpted the bit above.

You can subscribe to McWhorter’s Substack newsletter for free, and keep reading this serialization. The Woke have no enemy more courageous, intelligent, and as determined as John McWhorter. I thank the God in whom he does not believe for his work — and for James Lindsay too.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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