Friday, July 21, 2023

McWhorter's "Woke Racism"

I was commissioned to review this (a slightly shorter version) for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies...

I'm a big fan of John McWhorter. He's a minority (ideologically) within a minority (racially)-- a relatively-conservative, African-American academic-- along with others such as Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Walter Williams. (He cites Steele's excellent book, The Content of our Character, and notes that "it's getting old now, but only in the way that wine does." [84]) He's more of a rabble-rouser than the other academics; in this, he's more like younger social thinkers such as Candace Owens, Coleman Hughes, and Thomas Chatterton Williams. McWhorter writes and speaks on current events (especially from a welcome racial angle), but is also prolific as an academic in the field of linguistics. I had read an essay from McWhirter on this topic, but was glad to see him extend the argument into a book. 

In Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, McWhorter describes "woke-ism" as a new religion. (His focus is on woke-ism in racial terms-- its original and still-dominant field. Since he wrote the book, woke-ism has been increasingly extended into other areas-- most notably, gender ideology.) For McWhorter, "religion" is also a pejorative, since he is not (explicitly) religious. (In fact, he takes a few pokes at Christianity in the book.) But he makes the case that woke-ism has authoritative texts, clergy, dogma, rituals, beliefs beyond the reach of empirical evidence, standards of good and evil, and stories about Creation, Fall, and Eschatology. It sees the Devil everywhere it looks. (McWhorter compares this to Dana Carvey's "Church Lady".) The religion lacks any emphasis on redemption and grace. Without these, it bends toward legalism, judgmentalism, and Phariseeism. It seeks to convert or punish, calling out blasphemers, heretics, sell-outs, and compromisers, persecuting others through witch hunts, star chambers, and Cancel Culture.  

Woke-ism is run by "the Elect" (borrowing the phrase coined by Joseph Bottum)-- the chosen who are evangelistic in terms of zeal, smug and superior in their sacrosanct views as bearers of truth-- what he derisively calls "medievals with lattes." (59) It is a religion of the sophisticate rather than the rube, the highly educated over the ignorant, the apparently-irreligious not the obviously-religious-- but a religion nonetheless. "They think of it all as logic incarnate. But so, as he lustily led the Spanish Inquisition, did Torquemada...[This is] why the Elect are so comfortable sounding so much like Louis Farrakhan." (60, 77) He quotes Michael Lind who sees woke-ism as a "preliberal, premodern, religious approach" (79). 

McWhorter notes the irony that we have much less racism today, but have a greater focus on it. Colleges are apparently part of the problem; 9% of high school students view whites as oppressors while 18% of college students do (90). In K-12, since woke-ism is a religion, it should have no say in curricula. (This is yet another argument for "school choice".) The Woke ignore Barack Obama's election by a majority, while also implying that he was an ineffective president. 

Wokeism is about emotional appeals, not logic. McWhorter provides a list of ten pairs of "tenets" (perhaps as a riff on the Ten Commandments) that are powerfully asserted but contradictory (8-9, 177-178). For example, black students should be admitted to college through lower standards to promote opportunity and diversity, but it's racist to assume that a black student was admitted because of lower standards or to expect them to represent diverse views in the classroom (9). Or sometimes, it's illogic. For example, blacks disproportionately kill other blacks because of white racism and privilege. Or sometimes, it's ignoring history and the academic process-- as with "the 1619 Project". The religion focuses on their "experiences"-- subjective perceptions or claims which are given the weight of gospel. And it's ideologically or politically convenient: crushing some historical figures for past views while giving others a pass (e.g., Darwin, Obama). 

It is also a highly-impractical religion, without offering a way to transcend "sin" or help those who are supposedly being harmed by those sins. It offers nothing on the larger issues for blacks: trouble from family structure and stability; ineffective and expensive K-12 government education; a War on Drugs which provides unfortunate labor market temptations; black kids getting jumped by other black kids; and so on. If a report "had been about hunger or lead paint, they would readily accept it as referring to brown kids." (101) But if it's about something less flattering, the Elite deflect to racism. Its few solutions are impractical and incoherent (reparations) or harmful on net (Affirmative Action). Of course, it's easier to mouth some "truths", engage in rituals, and crush a few heretics than to deal with the problems of political cronyism and the complexities of social problems. 

This is not a particularly logical, organized book. The book is peppered with anecdotes. It is, itself, a somewhat emotional appeal, communicating on the ground of his opponents. He asserts that a black (unfortunately) has to be the one to write a book like this. (More broadly, he notes that most black non-fiction authors only write on race [115]. He challenges readers to think of counter-examples and provides two others.) 

McWhorter practices empathy in all of this, albeit with a tinge or dollop of condescension. The practitioners are not crazy; they're just "parishioners". He asserts that wokeism is a form of "performance art" for some-- "an eccentric performance from people wishing they hadn't missed the late 1960s." (12-13) Woke-ism allows entry into certain circles through virtue signaling; it's an attractive option for those employed in the field; and it's provided a lucrative path for its leaders (Kendi, DiAngelo, and Coates). From a Christian perspective, this lines up with "false teachers" who proclaim their gospel for money, etc. 

McWhorter cites examples where political leaders have placated believers rather than being true believers. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio allowed racial protests during Covid while breaking up Jewish weddings for fears about contagion (53-54). And Princeton's self-styling as a racist institution was called out by President Trump's Civil Rights Division, calling the bluff of the university's virtue signaling (165). McWhorter doesn't develop this idea, but as with other religions, we're not surprised to see casual, cafeteria, and cultural variants that water-down the true religion. That said, a dominant religion in cultural terms-- or at least, a noisy sect-- can exert disproportionate influence over society. 

McWhorter does not want his readers to imagine they will change the minds of the true believers. He sees this as futile since they are fundamentalists and zealots who are not open to other ideas or liberal in terms of conduct. Instead of "how do we get through to them", he encourages us to ask "how can we live graciously among them"? (xiii) 

His audience is those who know better but lack the knowledge and/or courage to stand up in the face of dogmatism and coercion. He believes the vast majority of people are going along, not wanting to think too hard about the topic and wanting to avoid condemnation or cancellation. So, he's trying to bolster their understanding, their courage, and their tact in navigating the lies. He calls for "civil valor" (borrowed from Solzhenitsyn) in the face of name-calling and far worse. In fact, he dedicates the book "to each who find it within themselves to take a stand against this detour in humanity's intellectual, cultural, and moral development." This is a key theme for McWhorter-- and his hope for optimism as a way forward.  

Finally, McWhorter also offers three policy reforms: end the War on Drugs; provide solid vocational training; and teach reading with phonics. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised by the reference to phonics from a linguist, but he makes a strong case that educated two-parent households can get around the deficiencies of "whole word" reading methods, in a way that often is not the case for less-educated and/or single-parent households (141-143). 


Other resources: 

A really nice article in Harpers by Ian Buruma extends the argument to Protestantism in particular-- a "secularized inheritance of the Protestant Social Gospel". Buruma also notes the public nature of Protestant confession, in contrast to the private and ceremonial efforts in Catholicism and the quiet approach of Judaism. 

Here's an NPR interview with McWhorter on the book. 

Thursday, July 13, 2023

our two recent trips to Chattanooga

Chattanooga is a little gem about 4.5 hours from Louisville. It doesn't have the big-city allure of closer destinations like Nashville, Indy, Cincy, and St. Louis. But if you're looking for medium-city allure and some excellent outdoor ops, it's definitely worth the trip. We went two weekends ago with long-time friends and then last weekend with three of our sons. Good times, both times!

Things to definitely do: 

1.) Rock City Gardens (9-7) is one-of-a-kind and amazing. They also have a Raptor / Birds of Prey show (hourly 10-5, except noon) that is hard-to-find (about halfway through the path) and definitely worth the stop.

2.) Ruby Falls is a solid cavern with the largest (known) underground waterfall in the U.S.

3.) Walking around downtown and through the Bluff View Art District, before crossing the Walnut St Ped Bridge to walk around North Shore on Frazier Ave. (including the Dance Paving Stones on both sides of street)

If you're interested:

1.) Biking along the riverfront was amazing. We rode from downtown to the Chickamauga dam-- a nice 13-15 mile ride. It's only $10 per day, but you have to dock the bike (briefly) every hour. (The app gives you details on location and availability.)

2.) If you're into cars, I'd recommend the Coker Auto Museum and the Intl Towing/Recovery Museum (Chattanooga had the first tow truck and key innovators in the field). 

3.) If you're into history and good views of the city, I'd recommend Point Park on top of Lookout Mountain ($10). Make sure to catch a tour by one of the guides (@11, 2, 5). If you're really into the history of the battles, the "Battles of Chattanooga" show is worth the 30-minute narration and 3D topographical map on stage.  

4.) We saw the famous Chattanooga ChooChoo and walked through the Chattanooga Mkt on Saturday. Both were solid as you would expect.

Things we didn't do, but were on the list:

1.) The Hunter Museum of Contemporary Art looked good (the outside art was impressive), but our friends and sons were not interested, so we didn't go.  

2.) The Classic Arcade Pinball Museum is interesting but expensive ($20 or $16 if you look for coupons in tourist info), It's all-you-can-play, but unfortunately, they don't have an evening discount or the ability to play for an hour at a lower rate.  

3.) The Lookout Mtn Incline RR looked solid and takes you to the top of Lookout Mtn (within walking distance of Point Park if you want to combine it), but we'd already done one in Johnstown, PA.

4.) The Chickamauga/Chattanooga National Military Park is probably solid, if you're into such things. But we did enough for our tastes with Point Park.  

5.) There should be some great hiking options. Lula Lake and Land Trust (careful to reserve a spot when they're open) and the Rainbow Lake Trail @ Signal Mtn were on our list. But the weather both weekends was a combination of 90+ degrees and storm threats, so we stuck to biking.

6.) Raccoon Mtn Caverns looked good, but I couldn't find a price on-line-- and couldn't imagine prioritizing it over Ruby Falls.

7.) Their AA baseball park looked nice.


Food and music

The first weekend, we caught Ben Van Winkle (amazing cello combined with quirky bee-bop, percussion, etc.) as the opening act for The New Quintet (solid bluegrass/folk combo) at Songbirds. BVW was unique; catch him if he's in your area!

We were also happy with the food in Chattanooga-- reasonable prices and strong quality. Hickory Pit BBQ was excellent and inexpensive. Mayan Kitchen, Burger Republic, Lupi's pizza were all very good. Universal Joint had good food in an interesting setting. I had the best Pad Thai of my life at Sawasdee Thai but the fried rice was pedestrian. And for dessert? We hit Clumpie's Ice Cream three times-- and had some really good, creative flavors.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

on Biden's (undemocratic, etc.) college student debt plan and the duh SCOTUS ruling against it

A lovely idea-- other than being undemocratic (Biden's EO on a legislative matter), regressive (redistributing to the non-poor), cronyistic (vote-buying), financed with debt (undemocratically taking resources from the future), etc. And yes, it’s biblical-- other than the stealing from others to pay your debts. Glad to see this no-brainer from SCOTUS!

The best part: fans of this are shouting at us that they don't love democracy. 

Some good articles here, here and here-- and an AEI panel discussion of the policy and the decision...

Enjoyed them using Nancy Pelosi's words in the decision-- in this case, as a defender of democracy or perhaps trying to preserve power for Congress.

on "Affirmative Action" and the SCOTUS ruling (finally)

Other than being unconstitutional, unethical, impractical, racist (by definition), poorly targeted, euphemistically named, etc., "Affirmative Action" (AA) is a good idea. Glad to see it go, in its more aggressive/coercive/official forms, for a zillion reasons. 

(You can make decent arguments for AA practiced by companies which voluntarily choose it to benefit from additional diversity. You can make a somewhat stronger argument for AA decades ago, but it's time has passed by the metrics that made it more acceptable back in the day. [This is a cousin of slippery slope arguments: you gotta be willing to change sometime-- or keep it forever-- and if so, then when?] But practically, the damage-- even to intended beneficiaries-- far exceeds whatever cronyist benefits were still accruing.)

All this said, AA probably would have stood without its rank discrimination against a discriminated-against group (Asian-Americans) who needed higher scores than the majority population. (My students are always stunned when I use this as an example!) From Greg Price, here's how the numbers played out in the case of Harvard's admission standards. Here's recent media coverage where the discussion got ugly for the CNN interviewer.

Stossel's classic rhetorical comparison, from years ago...

Good from Jason Riley in City Journal on the overall problems...

One of the biggest practical problems is "mismatch"-- recruiting students to universities where they are less likely to succeed and more likely to choose "softer" majors. This has been written about in theory (especially by "black conservatives") and there are data as well (e.g., here and here). 

One of the unfortunate fruits of AA is that people will be-- or at least, are likely to perceived as-- less qualified. How can we-- how can you-- tell if X got the job on merit or melanin/race? Opponents point this out with glee in terms of Clarence Thomas. (Again, even if he benefited-- and it's not clear that he did-- it wouldn't mean AA should last forever. I'm not sure which logical fallacy this is. And BTW, you have no credibility if you’ve been attacking him for 30 years.) And ironically, the Left has two justices who seem to be AA hires and are apparently quite a bit less competent than the other judges.

The Babylon Bee weighed in with an ouch. Not the Bee gave us something real that hurts as much or more.

Hilarious how the WaPo framed the SCOTUS decision, focusing on costs rather than benefits.

It's worth noting that this is mostly an "elite schools" thing, so it's relatively minor in that sense. And they're going to work around the law anyway to discriminate howthey want. (This is how racists used zoning after Buchanan v. Warley.) So the ruling will have even less (real) impact. Explicit example here and more speculation here and another funny from the Bee here.

There is an interesting application to favoritism in legacy admits (glad to see the Left angrily start to critique this, something they should have pressed a long time ago!)

An interview with David Bernstein on his book, Classified, about how govt race designations got going...

Ironically, California is both ahead and behind the curve...

Finally, one more funny from the Bee!