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.