The central idea of critical race theory is “systemic racism”: That the way things work is stacked against persons of color, even if no one actually has any ill will or bias against them.
Stacked against them how? We're not speaking of things like slavery or segregation. An example might be expecting college writing and speech to conform to standard English. According to critical race theory, standard English is nothing but the way white people talk. So suppose I tell my students to use their verb tenses properly. That upholds systemic racism, because I am expecting all the students to “talk white.”
This sort of thing would be silly, if it weren’t so pernicious. Having a lot of different ways to speak is fine, but people who speak different ways cannot expect to understand each other unless, alongside all of them, there is also a standard way. Teaching the standard way benefits all of us by lifting us out of the little islands of our particular dialects. Not teaching it hurts all of us, but it hurts those who speak minority dialects the most. So a lot of black kids will suffer.
There is more. As critical race theorists view things, not only can the system be racist even if no one has racial bias, but individuals can be racist even if they have no racial bias. For racial bias isn’t what they mean by racism. Since they see the system as stacked against black people, they also see anyone who participates in the system without protest as supporting the suppression of black people, whether intentionally or not. So I am a racist just because I do expect all my students to learn their verb tenses. To someone who thinks this way, the fact that I sincerely believe that learning standard English will be helpful to students of every color is beside the point.
Not only do critical race theorists think one can lack racial bias and be a racist, they think one can have racial bias and not be a racist. Premise: All white people, just by virtue of being white, are inheritors of unfair advantages. Premise: In order to cancel out unfair advantages, one must discriminate against the people who have them. Conclusion: Discrimination against black people is racist because, by definition, black people are inheritors of disadvantage; but discrimination against white people is anti-racist because, by definition, white people are inheritors of privilege. To the new KKK who think this way, the only way to fight bad racism is good racism – except that in their topsy-turvy way of speaking, good racism isn’t racism.
Where does this leave us? Equal opportunity is racist. Color-blindness is racist. Treating people of every race the same is racist. The mere act of disagreeing with these opinions is racist, because that too upholds systemic racism.
There is no natural limit to such thinking. Traffic signals, botanical collections, the teaching of mathematics, the stocking of books in libraries, the practice of posting earthquake warning signs near geological faults, even Thomas the Tank Engine – all these things and more have been branded as systemically racist.
In his famous speech at the Washington monument, Martin Luther King said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” To a critical race theorist, that dream was the epitome of systemic racism. I can only conclude that if MLK was a “racist,” then we need more “racists” like MLK.
Inspired by the Vice President’s approach to foreign and domestic policy, I offer these modest resolutions in her honor.
I will no longer keep my door locked. Instead, I will focus on the root causes of breaking and entering.
I will no longer support better training for police officers. Instead, I will focus on the root causes of violence.
I will no longer favor a strong defense. Instead, I will focus on the root causes of war.
I will no longer drive carefully. Instead, I will focus on the root causes of highway accidents.
I will no longer teach. Instead, I will focus on the root causes of ignorance.
I will no longer work. Instead, I will focus on the root causes of poverty.
Finally, I will no longer vote. Instead, I will focus on the root causes of idiocy in public life.
Natural law supports the preservation and restoration of natural function, but not its alteration or destruction: For example, it wouldn’t be good to “fix” soldiers so that they never had to sleep at all. That wouldn’t be fixing them, but ruining them. But it would be a fine thing if we could cure narcoleptics, who keep dropping off, so that they can stay awake.
Transhumanists, who are sprouting from trees, might hijack this distinction to support their hopes of making people live forever. For -- they might argue -- isn’t death the cessation of function, and wouldn’t immortality be its preservation? Why not fix death too? It’s just a disease, like narcolepsy.
You would think one experience of building “a tower that reaches the heavens” would be enough, but some people never learn.
Can such persons be answered without appeal to divine revelation, just on the basis of natural reason? I think so.
For what would it be like to live in a world without the laughter of children, or a world in which those who hold power hold onto it, perhaps, forever and forever? We don’t know of any way to have a truly human life without the rotation of the generations.
In the second place, even natural reason gives us grounds to believe that we were made for something we cannot experience in this life. Endless duration in our current state would doom us to endless despair of attaining it.
Finally, we don’t need the help of revelation to know that there is something wrong with us. Such as we are, death is not just a punishment, but a gift, a difficult medicine. It remedies the pride of men who, by trying to become gods, become beasts.
Liberals used to be neutralists – I don’t say neutral -- toward religion. There is no such thing as neutrality, but there is such a thing as a pretense of neutrality, and neutralism is that pretense. It was never anything but a stalking horse. Except among a few useful idiots, suspending judgment about religion was always code for the judgment that traditional religious beliefs and practices must be locked up in a cage.
The progressive heirs of those old neutralists are now openly and militantly at war with religion. A few still wear the neutralist fig leaf, but these days the greater number call openly for discrimination against the organized worship of God and the expression of faith in public life. Their leftist ideology also functions as a religion, but it is not a traditional religion, because its “gods” are things other than God.
At this point in the argument, people worriedly ask: “If neutrality is a fraud, then in order to resist those who wish to suppress religious faith, must we go in the other direction and have a confessional state?”
Not in the sense intended. But the question isn’t clearly framed. For what is a confessional state? There are several different kinds.
One kind of confessional state both declares and enforces articles of faith. The Founders of our own republic rejected that kind – rightly, I think -- not because true faith in God is unimportant, but because the threat of punishments is no friend to it.
But these same Founders gave us another kind of a confessional state – one that declared certain articles of faith, but did not coerce anyone to believe in them. Our founding political document, the Declaration of Independence, explicitly placed faith in God, viewing Him as the Creator, the Judge of nations, the Vindicator of the innocent, and the Author of natural law and natural rights. Yet the force of this founding creed was the pure force of persuasion. On the ancient assumption that God does not desire an unwilling obedience, no one was compelled to believe in it.
During its neutralist phase, the goal of the liberal movement was yet a third sort of confessional state. The government enforced articles of faith, but never owned up to having any. For in the name of not enforcing any faith, the movement came to enforce a faith in which politically correct pieties replaced God. From declaring but not coercing, the nation went to coercing while not declaring.
Now that neutralism has outlived its usefulness, the progressive heirs of old-fashioned liberalism seem to be aiming at the old-fashioned sort of confessional state – the kind that the Founders rejected, which both declares and enforces articles of faith. The difference lies in which faith they want to enforce. They call upon the power of the state to heap punishment and opprobrium on those who publicly oppose the Woke creed.
During colonial times, the dissident Puritan, Roger Williams, said that enforcing faith produces not a nation of believers, but a nation of cowards and hypocrites. That may have been an overstatement, because some people do believe whatever dogma they are told to believe – in our day, the leftist one.
But there are certainly a lot of cowards and hypocrites.
When a couple with their six fine children accepted our invitation to have dinner with us, my wife and I were charmed by the cheerful courtesy of their oldest daughter.
“Without a doubt,” we told her, “you’re the politest teenage girl who has ever visited our house.”
She laughed. “Since I’ve been working at Chick-fil-A, I talk that way to everyone.”
My new article in Public Discourse,
Younger woman to older woman (referring to her child): He’s reading about Rosa Parks.
Child to older woman: Were you against that then?
Older woman: Against what, honey? Do you mean racial segregation?
Older woman (convert from progressivism): Oh, yes, I was always against it.
Younger woman (convert to progressivism): Separate but equal. That never worked, did it?
Older woman: No, I was against it then and I’m against it now.
Younger woman: What do you mean, against it now?
Older woman: The races are being separated again all over the country. I’m against that.
Younger woman: What are you talking about?
Older woman: Well, Columbia University has separate graduation ceremonies for blacks and Hispanics.* And that sort of thing is happening all over. Dormitories too.
Younger woman (skeptically): I haven’t heard anything about that. (Younger woman changes the subject. Transcript ends.)
Progressives, do you really not know that what your movement now stands for in the name of antiracism is racism?
* She was right. In a textbook example of doublespeak, Columbia University says that the six segregated ceremonies -- Native, Asian, Black, “Latinx,” “Lavender,” and “First Generation or Low Income” -- are not really segregated because no one is forced to attend one of them and there is also a campus-wide ceremony. In other words, they are segregated, but there is no enforcement because the graduates are encouraged to segregate themselves.
The mental composure of a great many university students these days is fragile. You would be surprised by how many miss classes, and how many classes they miss, because of depression or anxiety. Student health administrators send letters to faculty asking them to excuse the absences of perturbed students, allow them extra time on tests, and make a variety of other accommodations for them, because their discomposure is considered a disability.
For that matter, the equanimity of a lot of other citizens is pretty fragile too. They were anxious before the epidemic. They have been anxious because of the epidemic. According to therapists interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, now some of them appear to be anxious because the epidemic is tapering down. Its windup hints at the possible loss of rules that not only soothe and comfort them, but also reassure them that their anxieties are appropriate.
I don’t write to criticize them. The appropriate response is compassion. But theirs are not ideal frames of mind for the continuance of a university, or for that matter of a republic. The pursuit of learning, like the pursuit of the common good, requires a certain calm, toughness, resistance to panic, and ability to function without being told what to do.
These students and fellow citizens need the encouragement of the rest of us to get better. In a thousand ways, though, the kinds of “help” that many counselors and politicians offer tends to make them more anxious and dependent still.
There are reasons for that, but they lie less in those who turn to these counselors and politicians than in the counselors and politicians themselves. That very large topic is for another day.