Installment 7 of McWhorter’s “The Elect”

April 14, 2021 • 11:30 am

I’m looking forward to John McWhorter’s upcoming book The Elect, and he’s been generous enough to put installments of the work—though I don’t know if they’re extracts or a draft—on his website. This week’s extract, which you can read for free by clicking on the screenshot below (but consider subscribing), is somewhat less satisfactory than the others, partly because it repeats stuff he’s said before, but also because he offers explanations for why both whites and blacks embrace “electism” (the wholehearted promotion of and adherence to Critical Race Theory, or CRT) that, while they sound plausible, are a bit speculative. Granted, this is not a science book, but I suppose there are other explanations for why whites and blacks have jumped aboard the CRT juggernaut.

I’m not going to reprise the piece, but just summarize or quote the reasons he sees “Electness” as attractive to both blacks and whites.


To be sure, to be a proper Elect is to embrace a self-flagellational guilt for things you did not do. Yet even this, oddly, feels good. It is a brand of the “Western masochism” that philosopher Pascal Bruckner has taught us about. Pundit Douglas Murray nails it on this:  “People imbibe because they like it,” he tartly puts it. “It lifts them up and exalts them. Rather than being people responsible for themselves and answerable to those they know, they become the self-appointed representatives of the living and the dead, the bearers of a terrible history as well as the self-appointed redeemers of mankind. From being nobody one becomes somebody.” Murray was referring to the left’s take on Islam, but the analysis applies just as well to today’s Elect take on black people.

Repeatedly The Elect verge on telling black people – the supposed object of their veneration and eternal moral commitment – that they don’t know what’s good for them. For example, black people in tough neighborhoods commonly revile the idea that we ought “defund” the police because of what happened to George Floyd and so many others. However, The Elect narrative – promoted heavily by mainstream media sources — sidelines this resistance as something that merely merits “consideration” (and of a kind the qualifies largely as dismissal). The condescension here is brutal, and what drives this squaring of the circle is religious fervor, complete with the sense of personal pleasure that it lends. The joy of finding order and of feeling important overrides how black people actually feel.

It is this kind of thing that leads so many to think The Elect are “crazy,” but it has often been argued that Electism simply fills a hole left after the secular shift among thinking Americans especially after the 1960s. Under this analysis, it is human to need religious thought for a basic sense of succor, such that if institutional religion no longer grounds one’s thought, then some similarly themed ideology will come in to serve in its place.

The first two paragraphs, emphasizing the condescension that many whites seem to exercise, do ring true, but the last paragraph, which sees wokeness via CRT as a substitute for traditional religion as that religion disappears, doesn’t convince me. It’s the usual argument that as religion wanes in America, people need something numinous or woo-ey to replace it. Since McWhorter sees Electism as a real form of religion, that would explain its ascendancy. But I have never bought the idea that people need something beyond their normal sources of sociality (clubs, friends, hobbies, etc) to replace religion. Many of the atheists I know have nothing in their life that could be convincingly seen as something filling a religious hole, nor do the secular countries of northern Europe, like Sweden and Denmark, show a particular penchant for spirituality or woo. I don’t think one needs the “hole filling” explanation to explain the appearance of The Elect.

Blacks: Here McWhorter’s argument generally sound good. It involves three parts. First, the denigration of blacks via segregation and bigotry over the centuries has eroded their self-image, making them feel inferior. I have no obvious quarrel with that: if you’re treated as a second-class citizen, it’s easy to internalize it.

Second, says McWhorter, the relative legal parity attained by blacks via the civil rights laws of the Sixties was achieved by diktat from above, not necessarily via the hard work of blacks working from below. To McWhorter, this deprived blacks of a sense of achievement in having reached a major goal of equality. That, too, eroded their self-image and left a hole.

This seems unconvincing to me, for although the Civil Rights Acts did come from two white Presidents and a white Congress, their urgency, and the hard work on the ground to convince people of the laws’ necessity and morality, was done largely by African-Americans.

Third, the erosion of pride and “positive identity” created by these two factors led, says McWhorter, to a different way to achieve attention and pride: assuming the status of a permanent victim:

A people seek a substitute sense of pride and positive identity in circumstances like this. An available “hack,” as we might put it today, was the status of noble victim. To all but the very most smitten fellow travelers with black people, it has always been quietly clear that much of our discourse on race entails a certain exaggeration of just how bigoted most whites are, of just how set against black achievement society has been since about 1970. Racism, in all of its facets, is real, but since the late 1960s, a contingent of black thinkers have tended to insist that things were as bad as they were in 1940, leaving even many black people who actually experienced Jim Crow a tad perplexed and even put off.

There is a reason for this exaggeration. If you lack an internally generated sense of what makes you legitimate, what makes you special, then a handy substitute is the idea of yourself as a survivor. If you are insecure, a handy strategy is to point out the bad thing someone else is doing – we all remember that type from our school days – and especially if the idea is that they are doing it to you.

This, too, rings true, for the idea of victimhood is a central part of Critical Theory, and we’ve all known of people who, despite their manifest “privilege”, still claim victim status. Some members of minority groups even try to increase their victim status by creating fake hate crimes (a recent example is here, and of course there’s also Jussie Smollett). Wilfred Reilly estimated the proportion of these hoaxes among all reported hate crimes as 15% or greater. (A curious aspect of many of these incidents is that after they’re revealed as hoaxes, antiracist protests continue anyway with the excuse that the hoax wouldn’t have been possible unless there was a real problem. Often, they won’t reveal that a hoax is by a member of a minority group but evade that in various ways; here’s a brand-new example.)

At any rate, McWhorter’s analyses may be right, but of course it’s not always useful to accept what sounds good as what’s true. Since McWhorter is big on criticizing The Elect for ignoring the truth, I would have liked a bit more substance to his analysis.


19 thoughts on “Installment 7 of McWhorter’s “The Elect”

  1. I don’t think one needs the “hole filling” explanation to explain the appearance of The Elect.

    Agree. It’s also a bit historically tenuous to try and claim the rise of the wokes in 2010-2020 is a result of 1960s rejection of traditional religion. To be a bit flip, the hippies didn’t produce wokies, they produced yuppies (practically the opposite of woke).

    I do agree with the general ‘exalts’ logic though. It’s eerily similar to paranoia in that both are narcissistic. I must be important if the government is out to get me. Here: I must be important if I’m to blame for all these problems.

    1. I was going to comment with the opposite view by disagreeing with Jerry here. But let me maneuver it this way: It does seem arguable that there is a need – a “hole” – that demands filling, and to to fill it one must feel elevated. Morally correct, and on-top-of-things. The hole has often been occupied by the reassurances of religion (Do this and you are blessed). But to be clear, this hole is not a “religious” hole. It is more like a “I want to be moral and endorsed by society>” hole – and its often filled by religion but something else can fill it.
      But there are other ways to fill that hole, and CRT could be one of them. One has to admit that religion and CRT have strong parallels, and that could be b/c they are both round pegs that fit that round hole.

      1. I agree, for what its worth. There are close similarities between CRT as practiced and religion but…. I don’t see it as a consequence of the decline of religion.
        Religion is the greater of two evils as I see it.

    2. It’s also a bit historically tenuous to try and claim the rise of the wokes in 2010-2020 is a result of 1960s rejection of traditional religion. To be a bit flip, the hippies didn’t produce wokies, they produced yuppies (practically the opposite of woke).

      Let’s not overlook that the hippies also spun off the “Jesus freaks” and a host of ostensibly religious New Age mysticism.

  2. Here is what McWhorter said near the beginning of Sam Harris’ podcast about the woke, whom McWhorter calls The Elect:

    And they can’t be reasoned with, [which] is important. We have to realize that there’s no point in trying to have conversations with people of those politics, of that philosophy, along the lines of saying that they need to understand that we should enshrine free speech. There’s no point in saying to them, “Why can’t you be open to other opinions?” That makes as much sense as trying to teach a fundamentalist Christian that they shouldn’t have faith in Jesus — literally, and I don’t mean that rhetorically. There is no point in engaging with people of these kinds of politics.

    That really struck me as too easy. Anyone can take the position that the other side is hopeless and cannot be reasoned with.

    No, please just drop all that well-poisoning and make your argument.

    I’m sure some people won’t buy your argument. That’s fine. But to assert that the only reason people don’t change their mind is because they are religious fundamentalists — that’s too easy. It’s a preemptive ad hominem attack on those who dissent, and it amounts to a preemptive explanation for why they dissent.

    No, just work on making your argument as strong as you can and see what happens.

    1. Actually, McWhorter has offered to debate Ibram Kendi, and Kendi has refused. In fact, Kendi, the guru of CRT, refuses to debate ANYBODY. So it’s not McWhorter who, despite what he said above, refuses to dialogue. He’s tried. It’s the other side who won’t debate.

      1. It’s too bad that Kendi refuses to debate, although that doesn’t really detract from my point.

        McWhorter makes a good argument and he should be able to persuade at least some people on argument alone. He doesn’t need to engage in well-poisoning.

        If Kendi is also doing some well-poisoning of his own (I don’t know; I don’t read him), then that doesn’t make McWhorter’s well-poisoning ok. It’s an invalid tactic regardless.

        1. His argument is that he should be able to persuade those people who are relatively open-minded of his points, and that’s what he’s done. Have you read all seven of his extracts? That’s exactly what he’s doing.

          I would say the same thing with a diehard creationist: it’s almost always a waste of breath to argue with them, as they won’t change their mind: they’re committed to their religion.

          McWhorter has made tons of argumehts; he just doesn’t want to waste his breath on those whose minds are closed. And, like creationists, sometimes mockery is in order..

          You’ve said what you had to say, there’s no point in repeating yourself.

          1. But your phrasing is precisely right: “it’s almost always a waste of breath” (my emphasis). That is not the view McWhorter espouses. In “Why Evolution is True” you did not say that creationists can’t be reasoned with and that there’s no point in engaging with them. Doing so would have worked against you in the same way McWhorter is actually working against himself.

            1. Maybe, but we don’t know, and the important thing is whether his book has a net positive effect on changing people’s minds, which I think it will.

              This is the third time you’ve made this point. Do you need to make it again. I maintain that McWhorter’s book will have a net positive effect, you say that he said one thing that may reduce the positivity. We’ve said our pieces and that’s enough.

        2. And it’s not just Kendi who refuses to argue or debate. It’s baked into the CRT philosophy generally. To debate the issue would be to use the tools of the oppressor or some such nonsense. It’s a worldview that includes a “we are always right” clause. I think that’s what McWhorter is referring to.

  3. I agree with you, while Electism may be a religion, it doesn’t fill the hole that religion fills for some people. No one is going to fall into the arms of Electism when a loved one dies, for example. However, it may well fill the “it gives my life meaning” hole. In other words, both Electism and traditional religion direct their constituents’ thinking and give them a way of looking at the world. Electism may also substitute on a more practical level, in terms of attention and who people associate with.

    I don’t think the name Electism, or the Elect, helps McWhorter sell these ideas. It sounds more like something to do with voting rights, not the name of a religion. It’s almost as bad as “Defund the police” was for Democrats.

    1. Paul, you may be correct in saying that the term “Elect” may work against McWhorter, but I can understand why he chose it. It seems he has derived it from Calvin’s Doctrine of the Elect, the Elect being the Saved as opposed to the Damned, both groups predestined by God to their fates.

      1. Thanks for that. I didn’t really understand where he got that name from. So you have to be into religion (more than me at least) in order to get the connection which kind of proves my point.

  4. I, too, was scratching my head as I read McWhorter’s passage claiming that African-Americans didn’t exert enough effort to fully own the victories in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and so still suffer from an inferiority complex as a result. As someone who was alive and aware in the ’60s, who remembers where I was and what I was doing when news of MLKJr’s assassination reached me, I would require McWhorter to back that claim up with evidence.

  5. “This seems unconvincing to me, for although the Civil Rights Acts did come from two white Presidents and a white Congress, their urgency, and the hard work on the ground to convince people of the laws’ necessity and morality, was done largely by African-Americans.” – as a white Brit I’m happy to be corrected if the version generally understood in the UK is wrong, and perhaps I shouldn’t weigh in here, but as things stand I fully agree with PCC(E)’s take on this.

  6. I must admit I was a little disappointed by McWhorter’s piece.

    If I were undecided, the seventh part was long on rhetoric and short on data supporting the position. I have not read his previous installments, so the data may be there?

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