Today’s reading: a new chapter from John McWhorter

February 24, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I’m not sure why John McWhorter is giving away his upcoming book for free, chapter by chapter, on his website, but enjoy the largesse while you can. Chapter Two of the book, whose title is below, can be obtained by clicking on the screenshot:

This is one of the best things I’ve seen from McWhorter. It’s the meat of his book: an analysis of not just why anti-racist Wokism is like a religion, but in fact is a religion, for religions don’t need supernatural gods.  The aspects of this ideology that resemble religion, says McWhorter, are wide-ranging: there is suspension of disbelief, sermons (which say nothing new but affirm familiar truths in stirring ways), gestures (kneeling), the “Elect” (anti-racists like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo), the equivalent of Sunday Schools, original sin (whiteness), self-flagellation, an apocalypse that will never come, and the expulsion and punishment of heretics.

You may disagree—and I’m sure some will—with this simile, but McWhorter’s in great form in this chapter. Here’s just one excerpt:

THE ELECT ARE APOCALYPTIC.

Elect scripture stipulates a Judgment Day: the Great Day when America “owns up to” or “comes to terms with” racism and finally fixes it. Apparently this will happen through the long-term effects of psychological self-mortification combined with the transformational political activism that whites will be moved to effect upon being morally shamed and verbally muzzled.

Notice that this makes no real sense? And besides, how would a country as massive, heterogenous, and politically fractured as this one ever arrive at so conclusive and overarching a consensus that would “fix” racism? The whites “out there” are such incorrigible heathens, we are told. Okay, but if so, just what were we assuming would change their minds — reading White Fragility? Try again. Tablets from on high sounds almost more plausible.

And notice that The Elect find such questions unwelcome, or even arrogant – a charge one step from asking how we dare question the divine. Even the language here is liturgical, referring only approximately to actual existence, and only fully comprehensible as poetry, spirit, or prophecy. So, to venture some additional arrogance: What would it mean for America to “come to terms” with racism? Precisely what configuration, event, or consensus would this “coming to terms” consist of? Who would decree that the terms had actually been come to? Why should we assume that the Elect would ever allow that the terms had been come to? They are after all obsessively condemnatory of any attempts to come to any today, they teach us that any sense we have that progress is happening is just another form of racism and “fragility,” and are professionally resistant to allowing that any real progress has happened.

The specifics about The Terms are as hazy as the Rapture. On the ground, the Elect imperative is simply to ever insist how far we are from this Great Day, mired in a present within which nothing changes. For example, the general idea that America is in some kind of denial about race – or racism, which is what people really mean when they say this — is perfectly absurd. America is nothing less than obsessed with discussing and acknowledging racism, and those insisting year after year that America wants to hear nothing of it are dealing in pure fantasy. America has most certainly not heeded The Elect’s particular and eccentric dream requirements on race and racism, but to phrase this as a general neglect of the whole topic is not a matter of mere sloppiness: it’s liturgy.

His book will surely be worth buying.

36 thoughts on “Today’s reading: a new chapter from John McWhorter

  1. I can’t wait to be able to buy it and have it in my hand. I love McWhorter.

    (Though I wish there were such a thing as resurrection, as it would be wonderful to hear Hitch responding to such things.)

  2. I read Dr. McWhorter’s latest substack last night and it is superb.

    About 10 years ago I started noticing all the tattooing going on, far more than I had ever seen before, and thought at first that it was an interesting fad. When it didn’t go away, I sensed that something was afoot. Obviously tribal and that something was changing in culture,but couldn’t place it…but it did alert me to a change.

    And then a few years ago something happened in a California college that was riveting: a professor was removed or made to go through training because he had spelled the word “indigenous” with a small “i”. Students were beside themselves and accused him of disrespect, racism, etc.

    I was a tad obsessed with this incident and it finally struck me that what the professor had committed was blasphemy. At that point I began to suspect that the episode, along with various other things, were pointing to something of a religion being born, or at least a religious milieu. So, for my own benefit, I labeled it “secular fundamentalism”.

    As I heard more, I started seeing parallels to the point in which this new religion seemed in large part a transposition of Christianity onto a secular domain.

    (BTW, it seems to me that the word “indigenous” has now become largely an existentialist term within secular fundamentalism standing for innocence. In other words the indigenous play a role within secular fundamentalism that approximates what Adam and Eve are before the fall……I won’t elaborate now, but it’s an interesting transposition.)

    I don’t have the depth of insights nor anywhere near the clarity of writing that McWhorter does….nor his intellect. I will gladly buy the book when it comes out.

  3. [ gif of Orson Welles clapping in Citizen Kane ]

    ^^^that might be humorous, but on another view it expresses precisely what I want to express…. errrmmm…. expressively.

      1. Well then, what I mean is if I could just give an emphatic sign of approval, like what it appears Welles is doing in that scene, without writing teeny words on a website, I’d do it.

  4. The aspects of this ideology that resemble religion, says McWhorter, are wide-ranging: there is suspension of disbelief, sermons (which say nothing new but affirm familiar truths in stirring ways), gestures (kneeling), the “Elect” (anti-racists like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo), the equivalent of Sunday Schools, original sin (whiteness), self-flagellation, an apocalypse that will never come, and the expulsion and punishment of heretics.

    I would like to add another religious aspect: Redemption from purgatory (contempt by “progressive” fellow human beings) by buying a letter of indulgence (pay and attend white fragility courses, pay and read the Elect Scriptures) to build the Cathedral of Anti-Racism (metaphorically speaking)

  5. I found the leading part impressive in that it illuminated why we use the word “religion” at all – because the adherents of a religion cannot see it that way, but instead, as McWhorter writes :

    “Early Christians did not think of themselves as “a religion.” They thought of themselves as bearers of truth, in contrast to all other belief systems, whatever they chose to call themselves.”

    Boom!

  6. I’ll admit to being a little jaded on the racism subject. It’s an important subject but I don’t want to spend all my time hearing about it. If only we could put it on the next ballot and simply vote it out of existence. Still, McWhorter’s writing on this subject is magnificent. So-called Antiracism is totally a religion and the parallels with other religions are clear. Let’s hope people read this and it makes a difference.

  7. The apocalyptic Rapture, when America “comes to terms” with its racist history and joins the saints. may serve another function in the Church of Woke. That hypothetical future transformation will be just so wonderful that it will justify in retrospect whatever little missteps or excesses the Woke elect are driven to in the difficulties of present times. In other words, it serves the same function as “the Radiant Future” in the religion of Leninism. Professor McWhorter is dead right about the religious character of the great Awokening, but he overlooks the long history of pseudo-religion on the authoritarian Left.

    The contrarian philosopher John Gray (retired from the LSE) argues that the entire Left is a mutation of early millenarian Christianity. I used to dismiss his argument—but recent developments, like the ones Professor McWhorter examines, make me take it rather more seriously.

  8. One constructive bit of criticism I might try : “Antiblack antiracists” suggests that some antiracists are not antiblack, or are otherwise OK – but I think McWhorter means antiracism IS antiblack.

    1. This just in :

      “… my Atlanticpiece on academics writing me from all corners sick to death at watching religious “antiracist” ideology (as opposed to pragmatic, fact-based antiracist ideology rooted in grass-roots activist reality) take over their institutions.“

      … so that is clear to me : McWhorter sees a legitimate antiracism vs. a religious antiracism. That, I think, needs to be explained a bit.

  9. McWhorter puts it beautifully:

    The specifics about The Terms are as hazy as the Rapture. On the ground, the Elect imperative is simply to ever insist how far we are from this Great Day, mired in a present within which nothing changes. For example, the general idea that America is in some kind of denial about race – or racism, which is what people really mean when they say this — is perfectly absurd. America is nothing less than obsessed with discussing and acknowledging racism, and those insisting year after year that America wants to hear nothing of it are dealing in pure fantasy. America has most certainly not heeded The Elect’s particular and eccentric dream requirements on race and racism, but to phrase this as a general neglect of the whole topic is not a matter of mere sloppiness: it’s liturgy.

    1. Oops, I just realised that our host also picked out that same paragraph above – apologies! A long delay between reading the WEIT post and the link to McWhorter’s piece…

  10. I’m not sold. The phenomenon of woke religion does exist, but I suspect McWhorter of painting with an over-broad brush. I still don’t think Kendi fits, in particular. I suppose I just obligated myself to read more of both Kendi and McWhorter, alas.

  11. Can someone here explain to me what defining “wokeness as a religion” offers that simply calling it “dogmatism” doesn’t? This seems to me to be the writings of cranky old men obsessed with a real, but highly exaggerated within their own minds, issue. I have read and listened to Mcwhorter and I think he is insightful but I feel like, by as broad a brush as he paints by, the Democratic party could be a religion. It’s certainly far more formalized than anything McWhorter has described for wokeness.

    1. 1. Victims of religion do not view themselves as a religion – see McWhorter’s essay.

      2. Read the American Civil Religion article in Wikipedia.

    2. “ … by as broad a brush as he paints by, the Democratic party could be a religion. It’s certainly far more formalized than anything McWhorter has described for wokeness.“

      I think two questions here about which proper name to use for some thing – in this case, mere dogmatism, or religion – is [1] is this simple rules written down somewhere, or is the *experience* of the dogma *critical* to perpetuate the dogma, and [2] how much does it take for something to be a religion? In other words, making reservations for the word “religion” gives religion way too much credit for its content. It is wise, however, to recognize how readily victims of any dogma fall for it and propagate the dogma through live experience.

      1. Off the top of my head, religion is institutionalized dogma. People can be dogmatic in their opinion simply by not reflecting deeply on the subject. Religion is where institutions are erected to support the dogma.

        1. I can’t edit. The emacs thing was flippant but for misplaced humor.

          We also mostly look out at religions that ancient, or maybe sort of new – Scientology – but rarely witness a religion being born. I think it is a property of religion itself that it is perceived by non believers as greater than the ordinary, that it is transcendental, that despite the fact me personally has nothing to do with it, belief in belief tells me “woah, now this is something.”

          But of course, religion is from the heights to the depths fatuous, and many things like political instruments or rituals float around waiting for religion to claim its victims with.

  12. I believe it’s important to realize and remember that actual racism- which is a serious problem- is most definitely not of a piece with the pseudo-intellectual claptrap that is parasitic on the legitimate grievances of the overlooked and marginalized. Once you realize that those who yell the loudest while making millions of dollars writing best sellers about white fragility are not true spokespersons for the downtrodden, but parasites cashing in their suffering, you’ve made genuine progress.

    What’s particularly discouraging is how hard the authoritarian Left seems to be working to make Trump look good in the eyes of American voters. They couldn’t do a better job of it if they were out canvasing for his re-election in 2024. In fact they are working as de facto Trump volunteers- Fox news makes sure its viewers see every bit of silliness in gory detail. They don’t need to twist the truth- just let the cameras roll, no commentary needed.

    I find it amazing how much this season’s crop of cranks peddling panaceas, supernatural or not, are just like last season’s. The details may differ from year to year and generation to generation, but otherwise the stories are nearly interchangeable. People educated beyond their ability to think, as Peter Medawar put it.

    Speaking of Medawar, his classic essay about Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man is just as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1961. Writing in the style of post-modernism, as is critical race theory, is de facto evidence of academic fraud.

  13. I’ve argued before that Wokism is not like a religion but that Wokeism and religion are alike – and arise from common cultural and human roots. Although I believe that John McWhorter has captured the nature of Wokeism and Wokeists.

    I don’t know why but the USA seems predisposed to adopt enthusiasms, like Prohibition, Reds-under-the bed, gun ownership, god worship, various Protestant sects, and now Wokeism. You may have a different view of the enthusiasms. So Wokeism – a True Enthusiasm, just like other True Enthusiasms; and none of them Absolutely True ™.

  14. “I don’t know why but the USA seems predisposed to adopt enthusiasms, like Prohibition, Reds-under-the bed, gun ownership, god worship, various Protestant sects, and now Wokeism.”

    The reason Americans are so predisposed is that we are a religious society. Religion means accepting nonsense at face value. Once you are conditioned to do that, your ability to be skeptical about anything becomes stunted.

    L

    1. “The reason Americans are so predisposed is that we are a religious society.”

      Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen shows the role belief plays in what we see in the United States. Religion is not the only player.

    2. While religion may play a role, I don’t see it as the main culprit here. After all, religious belief is dropping yet these enthusiasms on both Left and Right are increasing. It’s due to lack of faith (not religious faith) in government and other institutions. When I was a kid in the 60s, it seemed that a lot of society’s behavior was controlled by accepted wisdom. When people find that governmental systems no longer do the job, or they have reason not to trust them, they look elsewhere for answers. Although it’s probably not the only cause, Republicans since Reagan telling everyone that the only good government is a small government played a huge role in this.

  15. Finally had a chance to read the full chapter. Another well-written, well-reasoned piece from the estimable Mr. McWhorter.

    Let us pause, however, to note that McWhorter acknowledges what some of the most ardently anti-woke are intent to deny: that there is an advantage (or “privilege,” if you will) to being born white in the United States; that Colin Kaepernick merited approbation for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem; and that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a belletristic essayist. (Okay, I’m half kidding about that last.)

    1. Are you telling us that our anti-woke ardor is not the greatest? I suspect most here acknowledge that there is such a thing as white privilege and structural racism. Perhaps you are referring to the anti-woke on the Right.

      1. Whether Right or Left I could not say, but there are some that comment regularly here on WEIT that do indeed seem to deny those things. No, obviously you are not one of those Paul.

  16. Well. isn’t disgusting grifter con-woman Gwennie looking a little shop warn these days?
    Few things are more unethical than millionaires-turned lifestyle gurus

    Anyway, I don’t need to buy a candle smelling of her inner parts (which I wouldn’t touch with an ore)- I’ve got a plastic bag and a cigarette lighter here if I want that “scent”.

    https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/feb/24/gwyneth-paltrows-covid-advice-challenged-nhs-england-director

    D.A.
    NYC

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