Andrew Sullivan flogs his new book and discusses the meaning of CRT

July 17, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Andrew Sullivan has a new book: a collection of his writings over the last three decades. I thought it might be his first book, but it’s actually his fourth, and you can order it here. It’s thirty bucks in hardback, though it’s 576 pages long. I’ll be getting it through interlibrary loan:

Most of his latest column is devoted to the book (click on screenshot below), but I’m more interested in another topic he discusses: critical race theory.

Click on the screenshot:

First, though, the book. Sullivan goes into sufficient (perhaps excessive) detail about the book—enough to make me want to read it, but not to pay thirty bucks. But face it: unlike many, Sullivan owns up to his mistakes and misjudgments, and often revises his opinions, which makes me respect him.

A summary of his precis:

I’m not that easy to categorize, though many have tried, and I hope these essays reflect that. Among the political figures I have supported: Thatcher, Major, Blair, Cameron, and Johnson in Britain; Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Dole, Bush, Kerry, Obama, Clinton, and Biden in the US. Among the causes I have passionately supported: marriage equality, legalization of recreational drugs, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War, welfare reform, the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama, and an expansive concept of free speech. Among the causes I have furiously opposed: the US adoption of torture in the war on terror, the Iraq War, religious fundamentalism in politics, both the Republican and Democratic parties, mass immigration, deficit spending, tribalism, critical theory, and Trump.

They all reflect, I hope, a singular form of conservatism that emerges from the thought of Michael Oakeshott responding to the contingent facts of unfolding history. (I have one memoir of him in the book, an explicitly Oakeshottian defense of Obama, and one account of Oakeshott’s religious ideas in a profile of Pope Francis.) My models for thought and writing run from Burke to Orwell. And my greatest failure of judgment, my shamefully excessive defense of the Iraq War, was, in retrospect, a moment when I abandoned that conservatism under the torrent of emotion and trauma in the wake of 9/11.

But better than this is is part of his column called “TwoNotes on Kendi and DiAngelo”, which is about as accurate a presentation of “popular” CRT—and a stinging one—that you can find. A couple of excerpts:

Both avatars of the Successor Ideology [Kendi and DiAngelo] gave interviews this week to friendly outlets, The New Yorker and The New York Times. This is an encouraging sign — it suggests that there may be some inklings of pushback within the left-elite.

I just want to note two key points that help, I think, illuminate what critical race theory actually is. The first is from DiAngelo:

The foundation of the United States is structural racism. It is built into all of the institutions. It is built into the culture, and in that sense we’ve all absorbed the ideology.

This is the core argument of CRT. It was the argument of the 1619 Project. It is what a NYT reporter meant when he demanded in a meeting with Dean Baquet that the newspaper internalize CRT and ensure that every single story was a means of communicating it:

I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting … To me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country.

This is the core point. CRT can be misleadingly described as seeing how racial oppression is interwoven in American history, exploring its resilience. But this is the motte of the argument; the bailey is that “white supremacy” is the foundation of this country. Not a foundation. The foundation. Not of some historical impacts, but of “all of the systems” of the country.

And on Kendi, who isn’t spared the rod:

That brings me to Kendi, whose sole, sophomoric idea is captured by Ezra Klein here:

If a given policy or action reduced racial inequality, it was antiracist; if it increased racial inequality, it was racist. If you support policies that reduce racial inequality, you are being antiracist; if you don’t, you’re being racist. That’s it.

And seriously, that’s it. If you see racial inequality, it is by definition created by white supremacy. And nothing else.

So the fact that Asian-Americans consistently do better in education than African-Americans is because of “white supremacy.” It has nothing to do with the gulf between Asian-American and African-American family structures, nothing to do with cultural differences with respect to learning, and nothing to do with an ethic of hard work and deferred gratification helping you succeed in America that thrives more in one population than another, nothing to do with socio-economics, nothing to do with child-rearing. Bring any of these factors up and they are either dismissed or described as caused by “white supremacy.” It’s a completely circular, anti-empirical, ahistorical assertion that is unfalsifiable. It has great popular appeal because it removes any need to think of the complex ways groups may behave or interact, and because it encourages instant racial judgment of anyone else based on the color of their skin — as a moral act. You know: what racists do.

The one problem here is that although present white supremacy may not account for all these discrepancies, they may well be the legacy of white supremacy. Sullivan continues:

And so the remedy to inequality has to be as crude as the cause of it: race discrimination. Kendi actually believes that an unelected board of CRT experts should be established by constitutional amendment to enforce active race and sex discrimination by the federal government in every sector of society. In any part of society where the racial demographics don’t reflect those of the entire society, the government must ensure that some members of one race are fired and replaced with members of another. Kendi puts it this baldly:

The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.

In other words, antiracism requires the abolition of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Again, the MSM keeps hiding the ball here. What is unique about the Successor Ideology is not that it takes racism into account in understanding society. What’s unique is the crudeness of its analysis and the totalitarianism of its solution.

I didn’t dare be that captious about Kendi’s book when I read it, but Sullivan is braver than I, and I pretty much agree with his characterization. Kendi’s suggestion about the Constitutional Amendment frightens me. As he wrote at Politico:

 [The amendment] would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.

Can you imagine that? It suffers from the same problem as having A Department of Speech Monitoring: who, exactly, do you trust to make the judgments? And in this case, the result would be oppressive, authoritarian (it would supercede, for instance, the Supreme Court), divisive, and frightening. It would be the ruination of American society, turning into an Orwellian nightmare.

It baffles me that so many people seem to adhere to Kendi’s views—or at least this one.

16 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan flogs his new book and discusses the meaning of CRT

  1. The book should sell well. Whatever else can be said about Andrew Sullivan, he is a phenomenally talented writer.

  2. I think the term “Critical Race Theory” is too high-falutin for the set of attitudes better described as pop-CRT, which boil down to animus against the culture and history of the European and European-descended parts of humanity. This set of attitudes ranges from “Decolonize STEM” and Ethno-mathematics to the 1619 project, the clichés about “white privilege”, and the assorted offense brigades. In all, it is hard to avoid the impression of simple resentment: a resentful reaction against Europe for being the principal source of everything in the modern way of living, from every facet of modern technology to the terms used in earth geography to the dominant languages. I suggest that resentment over this accident of history is what fuels the obsessive, pop-CRT framing of all of History as nothing but an endless story of whites oppressing others, particularly Africans.

    It is an absurd reaction. Human history is filled with oppression: whites did indeed oppress Africans, but Africans (at least North Africans) also oppressed whites, plenty of Africans oppressed other Africans, plenty of whites oppressed other whites, etc. etc. And the European technological/cultural lead is a phenomenon of only the last several centuries. Over many thousands of years, various human inventions have been made in an unsynchronized way in different regions, which should be no cause for resentment. The bow and arrow, invaluable for hunting, was first used in Africa, very roughly 70,000 years ago. Agriculture developed independently in many places, including the Levant, Asia, and the American continent. Alphabetic writing was invented some 4000 years ago not by Europeans, but by the Semitic people who used the Canaanite language and its likely older ancestor, found in the carved inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula. Should Europeans react resentfully to this by developing a Critical Alphabet Theory, holding that all of History consists of the endless campaign of Middle-Eastern Semites to marginalize Europeans? Oh wait, there is an attitude something like that already, of long standing. It is called anti-Semitism.

  3. Kendi doesn’t really expect to get DOA as a fourth branch of government (right?). He would probably settle for an antiracism inspector general in every federal department and state government.

    Also is anyone else reminded of the old Joe Biden gaffe in which he enthused about Obama, “I mean, you got the first African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Applied to Kendi instead of to the 44th president, it might partly account for why so many race-conscious, middle-class white people have projected their self-conscious anxieties onto Kendi (instead of, say, Angela Davis or Bobby Seale or Catrice Jackson), and bought his book and parrot his slogans. Kendi is a made-for-Instagram guy straight out of the TED central casting office.

    Of course, unlike Obama, Kendi is an empty suit and his ideas are awful. And of course I can’t read the minds of people who have bought into Kendi’s antiracism. But it seems like a plausible explanation for their otherwise unaccountable adoption of his illiberal views.

  4. I hate to be reductionist, but I think the attraction of CRT, like other ideologies of oppressors/oppressed, is that they say very clearly who should be blamed and who should be hated. There seems always to be groups who are happy with that, and do not want to be told that, at some point, they as individuals are responsible for their situation.

    1. I’ve read elsewhere that supporters of sports teams (football in the particular case of Giles Fraser on Unherd) are tribal. That is an emotional commitment to ‘My team, warts and all’, sustained by a sense of belonging. This works for religions too. Belonging before belief.

      Perhaps support for CRT is an emotional commitment too, with the consequence that people outside ‘the tribe’ must be deficient? Plus no rational argument is going to unseat the ‘tribal belief’.

      And for the sake of clarity I refer to ‘tribes’ as a unit of human social organisation, not a dog whistle for a particular ‘race’.

  5. Wait a sec—Sullivan says,

    Both avatars of the Successor Ideology [Kendi and DiAngelo] gave interviews this week to friendly outlets, The New Yorker and The New York Times. This is an encouraging sign — it suggests that there may be some inklings of pushback within the left-elite.

    I don’t get it. How is this evidence of pushback? I’d have thought it was just more of the same woke-ideology promotion that we’ve already seen ad nauseum from those two sources. Can anyone shed some light on this??

    1. Perhaps the thinking is that if Kendi and DiAngelo suddenly feel the need to defend their positions, they must sense their ideas are vulnerable. Up until now, they’ve avoided pushback by ridiculously claiming that if you don’t believe what they’re saying, then you’re a racist and part of the problem. That has worked on the Woke Left but won’t with the Right or with the non-Woke left if it is seen as threatening their kids’ education.

      1. That makes sense… more sense than any alternative I can imagine. It would have been nice if Sullivan had expanded a bit on that reading of the situation.

        1. I did just read the DiAngelo interview and some hard questions were asked and answered but she’s one slippery customer. My guess is that the only reason she did the interview is that
          she’s got a new book out. AFAIK, this is pretty much required on book tours. I’m planning to read the Kendi one later.

  6. Kendi’s suggestion about the Constitutional Amendment frightens me.

    I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over that one. The US constitution has been amended but 17 times in the last 230 years, since the first 10 amendments were ratified in one fell swoop in 1791 as the Bill of Rights just two and a half years after the ratification of the constitution itself. One of those amendments established Prohibition; another repealed it. Many of the rest have merely tinkered with the mechanism by which the federal government functions.

    There hasn’t been a major amendment addressing anything near as sweeping as that discussed by Kendi since the three amendments ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War a century and a half ago. Hell. the nation’s efforts to adopt an amendment addressing what should be the noncontroversial matter of granting equal rights to women has been stalled in the ratification process for half a century now (near to a full century if you go back to the original ERA proposed by Alice Paul and other first-wave feminists in 1923).

    1. The sheer number of red states on the electoral map makes it pretty clear that Kendi’s fantasy ain’t gonna happen. And I’m pretty sure he know it, too. But agitprop like that keeps the spotlight on him.

    2. Which underlines that Mr. Kendi’s mention of a constitutional amendment is not meant as a practical proposal, but is rather just rhetoric, or in other words hot air. As is so much else filed under the “woke” heading.

      1. Not just rhetoric but setting up an opportunity to complain later that his eminently sensible suggestion was supressed by ‘Yet Another Example’ of ‘white privilege’.

  7. Why do we get a gang of two and not a gang of four? It’s diet Marxist/Leninism, all the agitprop and repression of Stalinism, without free health care, jobs and housing. Go Team Left!

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