Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Why We Can’t Talk About Race

Liam Neeson and the woke left's refusal of grace, mercy, and repentance

Poor Liam Neeson. In an interview to promote his new film, which is about vengeance, the actor spoke of a time in his distant past when rage consumed him. Excerpt:

It begins as an explanation of how his latest character turns to anger. “There’s something primal – God forbid you’ve ever had a member of your family hurt under criminal conditions,” he begins, hesitantly but thoughtfully. “I’ll tell you a story. This is true.”

It was some time ago. Neeson had just come back from overseas to find out about the rape. “She handled the situation of the rape in the most extraordinary way,” Neeson says. “But my immediate reaction was…” There’s a pause. “I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person.

“I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could,” another pause, “kill him.”

Neeson clearly knows what he’s saying, and how shocking it is, how appalling. “It took me a week, maybe a week and a half, to go through that. She would say, ‘Where are you going?’ and I would say, ‘I’m just going out for a walk.’ You know? ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘No no, nothing’s wrong.’”

He deliberately withholds details to protect the identity of the victim. “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that,” he says. “And I’ve never admitted that, and I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid.”

“Holy sh-t,” says Tom Bateman, his co-star, who is sitting beside him.

“It’s awful,” Neeson continues, a tremble in his breath. “But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, ‘What the f-ck are you doing,’ you know?”

Neeson was savaged as a racist for this admission. Now the studio has cancelled the red-carpet premiere of the film, Cold Pursuit.

This is stunning. In the interview, Neeson told a very personal story about how rage consumed him, to the point of wanting to commit a racist homicide. He condemned himself in the recollection, which he offered as a cautionary tale of how anger can drive a man crazy. In no way did Neeson defend his fury — in fact, just the opposite.

It was a very human admission. Nothing like that has happened to me, thank God, but I’ve said in this space on a number of occasions how my own rage and desire for vengeance over 9/11, which I lived through as a New Yorker who saw the south tower collapse in front of him, drove me to the point of wanting some Arab country to suffer. I was willing to believe anything the US Government said about Iraq, to justify a war of vengeance. And I was a fool. Rage makes fools of all of us.

In a typical response, the UK journalist Piers Morgan viciously trashes the actor. Excerpt:

Let’s be brutally honest: this is the kind of thing you might expect a Klansman from the Ku Klux Klan to say, and the kind of thing you might expect a Klansman from the Ku Klux Klan to do.

So when Neeson now says ‘I’m not racist’, that claim bears little resemblance to his words and actions after his friend was raped.

He says now that this happened 40 years ago when he was acting under a ‘primal urge’, that later he power-walked and sought help from a Catholic priest to curb his urges, and he is a changed man.

Perhaps he is.

Let’s take him at his word and accept he no longer feels any ‘primal urge’ to roam the streets looking for black people to murder.

But that doesn’t come anywhere near to excusing or even properly explaining what he felt and did in that horrific week.

This is appalling, what the mob is doing to Neeson. Let me repeat: Neeson admitted that four decades ago, his friend’s rape at the hands of a black man provoked him to embrace murderous rage against black men. He realized he was wrong, and sought help from a priest. Now, 40 years on, he tells the story as an example of how morally blind anger can make a man.

For this, people are now saying that he’s destroyed his career.

What is the lesson here? If you are white, never ever let yourself be vulnerable when talking about race. Ever.  

This is incredibly depressing. This complete lack of mercy, of grace, is tearing us apart. Liam Neeson’s reputation is being shredded because in his 20s, furious at a friend’s rape, he allowed his anger to lead him to a bad place. He repented. He repented 40 years ago, and tells the story now as a cautionary tale. What on earth do people want from the man?

Yesterday on NPR, I heard a conversation between All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro, and Gene Demby, a black man who is part of NPR’s team covering race and diversity. The topic? Why we can’t have conversations about race. Here’s the heart of it; all boldfaced emphases below are mine:

(Sound bite of Virginia Gov. Ralph) NORTHAM: I’m not a person of color, and people of color experience different things. It affects them different ways. And for us to have a dialogue – for example, me with you to you let me know what’s offensive to you and vice versa.

DEMBY: Ugh, vice versa – you almost hear him getting to the point – right? – where he’s acknowledging that our experiences and the consequences for our experiences are not symmetrical. But then he ends with that vice versa as though his take on what’s offensive is important in the aftermath of this blackface controversy.

SHAPIRO: As though it’s 50/50 equal experience, mine and yours.

DEMBY: Everyone is valid. All these opinions are valid. And the first step into this dialogue is centered on his experience – right? – that I am equally valid here, too, right? And that’s one of the pitfalls of these conversations around race is that we spend a lot of time thinking about the white person and whether they’re innocent in their hearts or not and whether their opinions are valid. And just from that, you already know that these conversations can’t be productive because they’re not dealing with this larger context.

SHAPIRO: The larger context meaning there’s a perpetrator and a victim, and you’re saying the dialogue focuses on the experience of the perpetrator rather than what the victim has suffered.

DEMBY: Right. Like, what we don’t hear in this conversation is about all the stuff around this picture that’s bigger than him, right? Like, he’s the governor of Virginia. Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy, obviously. Its schools and neighborhoods are segregated just like they are everywhere else in the country. And as governor of this state with this very specific history, he’s implicated in all of it.

SHAPIRO: So you’re saying a successful racial dialogue can’t just be here’s how I feel, here’s how you feel. It has to be grounded in the historical, factual realities of the systems surrounding the event that’s the center of the dialogue.

DEMBY: Right. And that’s the problem. We come to these conversations with a very different understanding of what the facts are and also then what the stakes are.

Let’s stipulate that Ralph Northam has handled his own situation very poorly. I’m not going to defend him, and the comments I make below are not really specific to the Northam case. I take strong issue with the way Demby frames the issue of dialogue — though I do agree with him that it’s impossible to have these dialogues.

Demby’s first boldfaced (by me) comment gives the game away. He says that thinking about the actual guilt of whites, and whether or not their opinions are “valid,” is a waste of time. It seems clear to me that he’s saying that the role of whites in these pseudo-dialogues is to sit there quietly and accept their guilt, and to understand that because of that guilt, their opinion really doesn’t matter.

Notice how, in the second boldfaced comment, Demby hold Ralph Northam responsible for all the historical sins of Virginia, because he’s the governor of a former Confederate state. The question becomes not simply whether or not Ralph Northam wore blackface, and what kind of guilt that imputes to him. In Demby’s framing, Northam is a symbol of white supremacy. See how this works?

If you think this theory is restricted to Northam, you’re dreaming. No white person’s opinion can be valid, because whites are “implicated” in white supremacy. They bear the stain of collective historical guilt. It’s one thing to explore and to become aware of how racial prejudice has affected American history, and brought us to the place we are now. It’s quite another to tell individual white people that they have reduced standing, or no standing at all, in a “dialogue” because of the sins of their fathers.

We know that objecting to being marginalized or silenced based on your race is denounced as “white fragility.” To contest the claims here, and to defend the integrity of one’s own voice, is construed as a pathology. This is a con game that white people cannot win.

Demby, on NPR:

We can’t have the dialogue without these spaces to hold the dialogue and where people are vested in staying in the dialogue to begin with.

Why would any white person want to be part of a pseudo-dialogue in which his opinion is devalued from the beginning because of the collective guilt imputed to him — and in which any challenge to the charges against him is taken as a sign of his sick refusal to accept guilt?

I agree that we ought to be able to have real dialogue, to increase mutual understanding and solidarity across dividing lines — and, maybe even advance towards healing. But there’s no point in engaging in pseudo-dialogue that’s nothing more than an ideological exercise in intimidation and control. After what has happened to Liam Neeson, you’d have to be a fool to make yourself vulnerable in a forum like this. Or any forum, other than within your church.

We have created a culture that despises repentance, and condemns grace. The other day, doing research for my next book, I read a 1974 Solzhenitsyn speech on repentance in the life of nations. Note these passages:

Add to this the white-hot tension between nations and races and we can say without suspicion of over-statement that without repentance it is in any case doubtful if we can survive.

It is by now only too obvious how dearly mankind has paid for the fact that we have all throughout the ages preferred to censure, denounce and hate others, instead of censuring, denouncing and hating ourselves. But obvious though it may be, we are even now, with the twentieth century on its way out, reluctant to recognize that the universal dividing line between good and evil runs not between countries, not between nations; … it cuts across nations and parties, shifting constantly, yielding now to the pressure of light, now to the pressure of darkness. It divides the heart of every man, and there too it is not a ditch dug once and for all, but fluctuates with the passage of time and according to a man’s behavior.


In the twentieth century the blessed dews of repentance could no longer soften the parched Russian soil, baked hard by doctrines of hate. In the past sixty years we have not merely lost the gift of repentance in our public life but have ridiculed it. This feeling was precipitately abandoned and made an object of contempt, the place in the soul where repentance once dwelt was laid waste. For half a century now we have acted on the conviction that the guilty ones were the tsarist establishment, the bourgeois patriots, social democrats, White Guards, priests, emigres, subversives, kulaks, henchmen of kulaks, engineers, “wreckers” [Bolshevik name for industrial saboteurs], militarists, even modernists — anyone and everyone except you and me! Obviously, it was they, not we, who had to reform. But they dug their heels in and refused to. So how could they be made to reform, except by bayonets (revolvers, barbed wire, starvation)?

Solzhenitsyn, who had endured the gulag,  condemned the idea that Russians had suffered so much that they had nothing to repent of. No, said the writer: every man must examine his own conscience. None of us are without sin.

I’ve also been reading some Rene Girard lately. Girard, as many of you know, spent much of his life writing about the role of the scapegoat in human culture. He said that Nietzsche missed the point of Christianity when he accused it of being a slave religion, because it took the side of victims. The real power of Christianity, according to Girard, was that it tells people to refuse the mob’s passionate desire to scapegoat others, even to kill them. When young Liam Neeson wanted to kill a black man, any black man, to avenge the rape of his friend, he was doing the kind of thing that every single one of us is liable to do — because that is in our nature. This is why the Church tells us Christians that we would have been in that crowd in Jerusalem, yelling, “Crucify him!”

A priest of Jesus Christ stopped Neeson, set him aright, and led him to repentance. In that interview, Neeson tried, in his fumbling way, to be a witness to the malignant power of passion, and the way out of its grip. And now look what has happened to him.

Solzhenitsyn said in his essay that Communism scapegoated others, to the point of putting the scapegoats in prison, bayoneting them, shooting them, starving them. In a later speech, Solzhenitsyn said that the entire Communist catastrophe came upon Russia because Russians had forgotten God. If you lose the Christian God, you lose sight of the fact that all have sinned. You lose sight of the fact that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness, and you depend on the mercy of God — and therefore, you have to forgive others. You forget that the journey through life is a pilgrimage of repentance.

Solzhenitsyn goes on, in that 1974 essay:

Unless we recover the gift of repentance, our country will perish and will drag down the whole world with it.

So it is with American in 2019. Ours is a post-Christian nation. We have forgotten God. We have forgotten the meaning of grace, repentance, and mercy. It sure does seem that the woke left, by making a vice of repentance and mercy, is bound and determined to destroy our country.

UPDATE: Alan Jacobs, in 2017:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

UPDATE.2: Interesting comment by Whitby Hilde:

When I was in my 20s, I was deeply betrayed and emotionally traumatized by the discovery of my father’s lifelong pornography addiction and my husband’s occasional use of it. Many incidents I had not understood as a child were made painfully clear, and everything I understood about femininity and what it meant to be loved were thrown into question. I fell into a deep depression and considered running away from my family and three children or ending my life.

Like Neeson, I was filled with an indiscriminate hatred of All Men that lasted for about two years. Embracing the rage even damaged my relationship with my very innocent young son. I was wounded and could not, would not forgive. That took a boatload of grace and time. I’m now a happily married, to the same man, mother of five, and I have a good relationship and understanding with my father. I have learned forgiveness, and I pray for that tender-hearted little son of mine, that he will forgive me, too.

I see my former rage at men magnified to an ideology in the Women’s March. Men’s rage at women in the transgender/Drag Queen movement. Our rampant rage is poisoning political parties, race relations, even our beloved NFL.

Evil is real, it is personal, and we are each capable of perpetuating it. Read Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. Shakespeare wrote the tragedies to teach us this. If you or someone you love hasn’t been deeply hurt by the sins of another, you have either isolated yourself, or you aren’t paying attention. If you don’t think you’ve deeply hurt someone, you’ve got blinders on.

We are desperate for true repentance and forgiveness. All we have been offered in the public square for the past twenty years is CYA, obfuscation, and “I’m sorry you feel bad about what I did.” Now we are drinking the cup we have poisoned. There are signs we are feeling sufficiently queasy. Hopefully, soon and very soon we will set down the cup and begin passing around the purgative.