An unbelievably invidious op-ed in the NYT: Americans shouldn’t physically attack Jews because it inhibits our ability to criticize Israel

May 30, 2021 • 11:30 am

The two screenshots below are to the same op-ed at the New York Times by Michelle Goldberg, but the title obviously got changed somewhere along the way.  And no surprise, either, for the subject of the article, well summarized by the article’s first title below, is an admonition so horribly bigoted and unempathic that I couldn’t believe it. The editors obviously changed the title to make it look less horrible. (Goldberg describes herself as both a “progressive” and a “secular Jew”.)

I read this article four or five times, trying to convince myself that it didn’t say what it seemed to say, but I couldn’t dissuade myself, and now others have agreed with me. This is what her message seems to be:

People should stop physically assaulting Jews in America for being Jewish, because that makes it harder for us to criticize Israel and its “apartheid” government.

In other words, what should help deter physical attacks on American Jews is not just empathy for other people, or a resistance to religious-based bigotry, but also the notion that the sympathy engendered by the anti-Semitic attacks in America make it less likely for people to criticize Israel for its clear “apartheid” and “anti-Palestinian” policies. How craven can somebody be?

To be fair, Goldberg does at least admit that the anti-Jewish attacks in America are horrible (by Gad! She’d better!)

In the article with the new title, I’ll give some quotes below defending my interpretation of what she says:

Quotes from this article:

But this [American anti-Semitic] violence also threatens to undermine progress that’s been made in getting American politicians to take Palestinian rights more seriously. Right-wing Zionists and anti-Semitic anti-Zionists have something fundamental in common: Both conflate the Jewish people with the Israeli state. Israel’s government and its American allies benefit when they can shut down criticism of the country as anti-Semitic.

Many progressives, particularly progressive Jews, have worked hard to break this automatic identification and to open up space in the Democratic Party to denounce Israel’s entrenched occupation and human rights abuses. This wave of anti-Semitic violence will increase the difficulty of that work. The Zionist right claims that to assail Israel is to assail all Jews. Those who terrorize Jews out of rage at Israel seem to make their point for them.

Goldberg then segues into the familiar (but, to my mind, largely unfounded) claims that Israel is an oppressor state and is rife with institutionalized apartheid. One would expect that someone like Goldberg might point out that of all the states in the the Middle East, including the Palestinian Territories, Israel is the state least likely to be accused of apartheid, and those repeated accusations ignore not only the reality of Arab participation as citizens in Israeli life, but the fact that in Israel there is far more equality for gays, women, apostates, and non-majority religionists (like Muslims) than there is in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and similar places. Were Goldberg to given a choice to live her life as a woman in Gaza versus Israel, wouldn’t she flee to Israel ASAP? The repeated declarations of Israeli apartheid, like the one from Human Rights Watch below, are, in my view, simple manifestations of anti-Semitism. What other reasons are there for singling out Israel for demonization and palpably ignoring the far worse treatment of its citizens by Palestine? It can’t be “whataboutism” because Palestine is never singled out by the Western press.

Nor does Goldberg mention the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas in an attempt to kill Israeli civilians, while the IDF attempts to avoid killing civilians. Is that willy-nilly targeting of civilians not a war crime? Isn’t Palestinians’ refusal to allow gays to be openly gay, for women to be fully free, and for Jews to even live in Palestine a better example of apartheid? If not, why not? Explain to me, please, how Israel is more of an “apartheid” state than is Palestine.

But then comes the familiar litany, which is wrong given that Israelis desire peace with Palestine, and have offered them peace multiple times, only to be rejected. Hamas will not be satisfied until Israel is wiped off the map, and “Palestine is free, from the river to the sea.” Goldberg:

Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is often so shocking that just describing it neutrally seems defamatory; when Human Rights Watch decided, last month, to accuse Israel of the crime of apartheid, it was because the facts on the ground left it little choice. As Eric Goldstein, acting executive director of H.R.W.’s Middle East and North Africa division, wrote in The Forward last month, it’s not just that Palestinians live under relentless Israeli oppression.

“What’s gone is the possibility of saying, with a straight face, that it is temporary,” he wrote. “Israeli authorities today clearly intend to maintain this system of severe discrimination into the future — an intent that constitutes the third prong of the crime of apartheid.”

And once again, Goldberg emphasizes that attacks on Jews in the U.S., who are not Israeli citizens, make it harder to criticize Israeli apartheid:

It’s awful irony, but anti-Semitic violence helps shore up this system by strengthening the taboo against calling it what it is. I get the sense that some people on the left find talking about violence by Palestinian sympathizers embarrassing; it certainly doesn’t receive the same sort of attention as white nationalist attacks. But it should be treated as a crisis, both as a matter of basic human solidarity and because it’s a political danger.

And, at the end, Goldberg again pays lip service by decrying American assaults on Jews, which doesn’t take much courage. But as far as I can see, the “political danger” she mentions above is that this violence mutes the voices of those who would criticize Israel. It shouldn’t, though, for Israelis are a querulous lot and not loath to criticize their own government. But every bit of evidence shows that it is Israel, far more than Palestine or Hamas, which wants peace. To ignore this is to show a willful ignorance of history in the service of a misguided and woke ideology.

At any rate, to write a column arguing that attacking American Jews is bad in part because it makes it harder for the world to criticize Israel represents to me the height of woke hypocrisy—coupled with a reprehensible lack of empathy. You shouldn’t attack Jews in America, or any place else, simply because they’re Jews and that’s simply bigoted violence. War is a different issue, but it’s hard to call Hamas’s deliberate firing of rockets at civilians anything but a war crime. The IDF tries to avoid killing civilians, but that’s hard because Hamas places rockets near civilians, as if they want civilian casualties.  Hamas deliberately tries to kill civilians, which of course is what suicide bombing is about.

Lest you think my interpretation of Goldberg’s piece is wonky, at least one other person agrees with me: Jonathan Tobin writing at the Jewish News Syndicate. (An article like his, of course, could never be printed in the NYT, which, except for some columns by Bret Stephens, specializes in anti-Semitism these days.) Click on the screenshot to read:

One quote from Tobin:

In a gobsmackingly tone-deaf column that was published in print with one of the most egregious Times headlines in recent memory—“Attacks on Jews Are a Gift to the Right”—Goldberg did write that she didn’t approve of Jews being attacked in the streets. Her main complaint, though, was that those who victimized Jews in the name of “free Palestine” were giving a bad name to the anti-Zionist cause of which she is one of the most prominent Jewish advocates.

Goldberg, who has a large following on Twitter under her @Michelleinbklyn handle, has used her prominent perch on the Times’ opinion pages to promote the idea that denying the right of Jews to a state in their ancient homeland is the sort of idea that fashionable Brooklyn “progressives,” including Jews, should embrace.

. . .If there is violence against Jews either here or in Europe, Goldberg prefers to blame it on supporters of Israel who, not unnaturally, consider it their duty to speak up for the embattled Jewish state. She thinks they share common ground with anti-Semites because they “conflate the Jewish people with the Israeli state.” But while Jews elsewhere shouldn’t be blamed for what Israelis do, her linking of those who rightly understand that Israel is integral to Jewish identity and peoplehood to hatemongers is itself a crude calumny. Progressives like herself, who want to eliminate Israel, actually have far more in common with anti-Semites who share that objective.

Criticism of Israel isn’t the issue. Israel isn’t perfect, but people like Omar and other supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement don’t attack Israel for what it does, but for what it is. More to the point, if you think the only country in the world that needs to be eliminated is the sole Jewish state on the planet, then clearly you do have a problem with Jews.

That last paragraph pretty much summarizes the “progressive” Left’s actions and beliefs about Israel. I have little doubt that people like Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez favor the elimination of Israel, even if it be by the untenable “one state solution” that would mean genocide for the Jews.

Should we retain the category of “hate crimes”?

January 19, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’ve recently read several books on free speech, all of which emphasize a fairly strict construal of the First Amendment. That means that expressions that offend people, including “hate speech”, bigotry, and so on, while they may be offensive, are legal.

But while the verbal expression of bigotry is legal, the physical expression is not—not when it’s the motivation for a hate crime. And that got me thinking about the justifications for giving extra-harsh punishments for hate crimes. When I mention “hate crime”, I’m not referring to crimes that wouldn’t be crimes at all without the bigotry, so I’m not including Holocaust denialism or blasphemy (neither crimes in the U.S. but both in many other lands). I’m using the definition of hate crime given on the FBI website:

A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.

And here’s the FBI’s explanation of what’s considered a hate crime:

Hate crimes are the highest priority of the FBI’s civil rights program because of the devastating impact they have on families and communities. The Bureau investigates hundreds of these cases every year, and we work to detect and prevent incidents through law enforcement training, public outreach, and partnerships with community groups.

Traditionally, FBI investigations of hate crimes were limited to crimes in which the perpetrators acted based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In addition, investigations were restricted to those wherein the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity. With the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Bureau became authorized to also investigate crimes committed against those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.

We see here that the high priority for investigating hate crimes rests not on the motivation alone, that is, it’s not an explicit attempt to eliminate feelings and expressions of bigotry, which are protected by the First Amendment, but because of the higher impact such crimes are said to have on communities. They are seen as more serious crimes.

The American Psychological Association asserts that hate crimes have a disproportionately large effect on the victims themselves:

People victimized by violent hate crimes are more likely to experience more psychological distress than victims of other violent crimes. Specifically, victims of crimes that are bias-motivated are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress, safety concerns, depression, anxiety and anger than victims of crimes that are not motivated by bias.

Hate crimes send messages to members of the victim’s group that they are unwelcome and unsafe in the community, victimizing the entire group and decreasing feelings of safety and security. Furthermore, witnessing discrimination against one’s own group can lead to psychological distress and lower self-esteem.

But when thinking about hate crimes just in terms of the three valid rationales that I, as a determinist, see for punishing someone (deterrence, sequestering someone from society, and reformation), I see no obvious justification for punishing someone differently whether they, say, kill someone because he’s a Jew or kill someone because they don’t like him for non-religious reasons. Does a higher punishment for the same crime, but one motivated in part by bias, deter an offender? I doubt it, but I’m not sure we have good data on that.

In terms of sequestering someone from society, a higher punishment for hate crimes assumes that those who commit the are more dangerous than those who commit the same crime but with a non-“hate” motivation, and thus more likely to do damage if paroled at the same time. Again, I’m not aware of data on this, which this bears on the third rationale: reformation.

Is it easier to reform someone who commits a murder based on bigotry than someone who kills, say, simply for the thrill of killing? Who knows? Perhaps through treatment you can wean someone from bigotry more easily than a sociopath who simply hates people in general. Again, I’m sure we lack data.

The other issue is that for some “hate crimes” you must judge the motivations of the criminal, and ascertain that they play a significant role in the crime. Sometimes that might be easy, as in the case of a person who hates Muslims burning down a mosque (especially if you have a documented history of bias). In others that’s no so easy, but clearly we need to use a “beyond reasonable doubt” criterion for ascertaining motivation.

That might not always be easy. For example, all 20 of Ted Bundy’s victims were women. He sometimes had sex with the corpses. Other serial murderers rape women before they kill them. Is this because they are biased against women, or because part of their motivation is sex, or because they find it easier to overcome women, who are usually less powerful than men? In other words, did Bundy commit “hate crimes”? Well, in his case it hardly matters, for he was electrocuted. But for other crimes it may be hard to suss out a motivation, and we all know of criminals whose motivations are unclear.

It becomes even more difficult when bias is part of a pathology—as Bundy’s may have been. Mental illness, which can manifest itself as bigotry, is a mitigating factor for punishment, mandating psychiatric treatment instead of straight incarceration. Do you use the concept of “hate crimes” with criminals who have mental problems?

When thinking about whether an offender should be punished more strongly because he or she is motivated by bigotry, I don’t see a clear justification based on rehabilitation, sequestration, or deterrence. But that’s irrelevant to how many people think about hate crimes. In effect, they are saying that hate crimes are more serious crimes than the identical offense committed without obvious bigotry. In other words, burning a synagogue because you hate Jews is seen as a different crime from doing the same amount of damage by burning a building because you don’t like landlords. Behind the “hate crime” rationale, then, is the psychological damage that is said to be attendant on both victims and society.

I’m prepared to believe that this is the case, and understand that there are data supporting the excess damage, at least in terms of victims. But of course there’s more psychological damage caused to a person and a community when you insult their race, religion, or gender than when you simply call them a jerk. Offense is the price we pay for free speech. In light of that, is “excess fear” or “trauma” in victims a reason to increase the punishment for a crime, or create a new class of crime?

On balance, I think it is, but my mind isn’t fully made up on this issue. The same “harm” that attends legal free speech (and let’s face it—some people’s feelings are hurt by free speech) is also the same kind of harm that attends individuals and communities victimized by hate crimes. If someone calls you a “dirty Jew” rather than a “jerk”, you may be much more offended, even though no crime is committed. But if someone punches you because you’re a Jew as opposed to punching you because you’re a Republican, does the former crime, even if it causes more offense and trauma, warrant more punishment?

Weigh in below: do you think the concept of “hate crimes”, with the attendant higher punishment attached to them, a good one?

Another antiracist book to read

August 4, 2020 • 9:45 am

Oy! I barely started reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, to the detriment of my digestive system, when I learn that there’s another equally well known antiracist book out there, one that’s just been reviewed by John McWhorter at Education Next. To be sure, he says it is “the better of the two big antiracism bestsellers,” but hardly gives it a ringing endorsement. But I suppose that all of us who are liberals, committed to equal opportunity for all, and eager to understand the antiracist currents of society that have gone ballistic since the murder of George Floyd, should read both of them.

Click on the screenshot to read McWhorter’s review, and you can find Kendi’s book on Amazon here. (For some reason the paperback, which comes in large print only, costs ten bucks more than the hardcover.) You can read more about Ibram X. Kendi here.

Unlike DiAngelo, who asserts that all whites, even if they don’t realize it, are racists and complicit in structural racism, Kendi’s book admits that whites can be antiracist. But it’s still a Manichaean book in another way:

Kendi, like Hume, would seem to have it all figured out: We are divided simply between racists and antiracists. Racists are bigots and allow a status quo under which black people are not doing as well as whites. Antiracists are committed to working against that imbalance. For reasons Kendi seems to think obvious but are not, there is nothing in between these two categories—not to be actively working, or at least speaking, against the imbalance leaves one in the racist class. There is no such thing as someone simply “not racist.”

One trait that marks you as a racist, says Kendi, is to deny the claim that all disparities between races are due to racism. This is equivalent to saying that someone’s a misogynist or misandrist if they deny that disparities in representation of the sexes in jobs or achievements is due to sexism. In the cases of sexes, an alternative hypothesis is sex differences in preferences, be they cultural, genetic, or both. In the case of racism, says McWhorter, the alternative hypothesis for blacks and whites is that the culture of races differs, and for blacks it differs in a way that leads to underachievement.  Here McWhorter, as an African-American, can get away with saying stuff like the following:

In 1987, a rich donor in Philadelphia “adopted” 112 black 6th graders, few of whom had grown up with fathers in their home. He guaranteed them a fully funded education through college as long as they did not do drugs, have children before getting married, or commit crimes. He also gave them tutors, workshops, after-school programs, kept them busy in summer programs, and provided them with counselors for when they had any kind of problem. Yes, this really happened.

The result? 45 never made it through high school. Of the 67 boys, 19 became felons. Twelve years later, the 45 girls had had 63 children, and more than half had become mothers before the age of 18. Part of what makes How to Be an Antiracist a simple book is its neglect of cases like this, or the assumption that they easily trace to “racism.” What held those poor kids back was that they had been raised amidst a different sense of what is normal than white kids in the ‘burbs. That is, yes, another way of saying “culture,” and it means that through no fault of their own, it was not resources, but those unconsciously internalized norms, that kept them from being able to take advantage of what they were being offered.

Kendi’s taxonomy would classify what I just wrote as “racist,” but to qualify as coherent, this charge would have to come with a more careful defense than Kendi seems accustomed to engaging. For example, if that Philly story a generation past the Great Society is just a fluke, what about what was happening in Kansas City around the same time? Twelve new schools were built to replace crummy ones black students had been mired in for decades. The effort cost 1.4 billion dollars. The new schools included broadcast studios, planetariums, big swimming pools, and fencing lessons. Per-pupil spending was doubled, while class size was halved to about 25 students a class. Elementary school students all got their own computers, and there were now 53 counselors for them when before there had been none.

Fade out, fade in: dropout rates doubled, the achievement gap between white and black students sat frozen, and the schools ended up needing security guards to combat theft and violence. The reason for this was nothing pathological about the kids: the story of how black inner cities got to the state they were in by the 1980s is complex and has nothing to do with blame. However, to say that the revolution in schooling offered to these kids was not a major antiracist effort, in Kendi’s terms, would be willfully resistant to empiricism.

To wit: antiracism, under Kendi’s definition, only explains so much. Racism quite often leaves cultural legacies that render black people unable to take advantage of antiracist policies. Concerned people devote careers trying to figure out what to do about this, and they should. But consulting Kendi, they will encounter a proton/neutron contrast between “racist” and “antiracist” that blinds them to nature of problems in the real world.

Why McWhorter’s statement is anathema in current discourse is the “progressive” assumption that, on average, different groups are basically identical not just in talents and preferences, but in those cultural features that lead to success in society.  But, at least for the latter, this can’t be true, at least for those who favor ethnic diversity in colleges and institutions as a way to increase “viewpoint diversity”—and not just about racism. (My own favoring of diversity and affirmative action derives not from seeing diversity as an inherent good that improves education—the Bakke rationale—but as a form of reparations to try to make good on generations of racial discrimination. I simply don’t know if different groups have, on average, different ways of thinking that can improve university education.)

And indeed, what really rankles McWhorter about Kendi’s book is the suggestion not that there are cultural differences between races, but cultural differences that lead to different but equal skill sets:

[Kendi’s] philosophy founders especially on education in this way. Kendi subscribes to the notion getting around these days, from the contingent fascinated with white privilege, that things like close reasoning, the written word, and objectivity are “white” practices, the imposition upon black people of which is “racist.” Hence another passage that many readers will find stirring, but that others will find disturbing and even, in Kendi’s terms, “racist”:

What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from – and not inferior to – the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know?

But what does this mean, as counsel from Kendi, who is the head of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research? Just how would we measure “desire to know”? What student would deny “wanting to know”? And just what would “wanting to know” yield in terms of skills or reasoning power?

More to the point, if it’s “racist” that there are so few black professors pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math—a common opinion it is reasonable to assume Kendi espouses—then how does suggesting we assess black people’s intelligence via their street smarts, capacity for emotional empathy, and “spunk”—which is essentially what Kendi and others mean with suggestions like these—help solve that problem? None of those traits will be of much use in laboratory work or higher mathematics. George Washington Carver’s miracles with the peanut were not driven by some kind of “authentic” alternate science—he worked within the conventional scientific method he learned at Iowa State. The snazzy-looking little View-Master of our memories was designed by a black man, Charles Harrison. He used the same skills as white designers of his time; savory black spontaneity and in-touch-ness would have done nothing to help him.

This comes close to the claim that white and black cultures are different in ways that don’t reward black people in American society, presumably because our society has privileged “white” traits over black ones as prerequisites for success (see the famous Smithsonian poster controversy).

In the end, though, McWhorter gives Kendi’s book a stronger endorsement than DiAngelos’s, though the endorsement is one of faint praise.

Kendi’s is, in the end, a simple book. One senses little interest in engaging questions. The text works in basic colors, not shades; splashes, not brushstrokes — perhaps because he thinks the roots of all black problems in white perfidy are too clear to require complexity. But his directness, pragmatism, and societal focus is certainly preferable to White Fragility’s psychological torture sessions in the guise of sociopolitical commitment.

. . . it is worth finding the value in it that we can. In truth, if How to Be an Antiracist increases the number of Americans committed to activism that makes life better for black people who need help, its substance becomes a background matter. Out doing the real work, people will, as have generations of concerned people before them, immediately encounter and seek their way through the complexities that Kendi cannot perceive.

But I shall have to read it. Given the currents in American society, it behooves us all to essay at least the most widely-read antiracist books.

WaPo editor emits bigoted and hateful Tweets, but will she be disciplined as others have been?

June 29, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Here we have Karen Attiah, a major editor with the Washington Post, spewing out stuff on Twitter that’s even more vile and bigoted than the stuff Trump emits regularly. It’s racist, full of hate, and exactly the kind of stuff that got New York Times tech writer Quinn Norton fired. (Sarah Jeong, her replacement, wrote the same kind of bigoted nonsense, but was defended by the NYT because she was Asian-American and supposedly just returning Twitter hatred “in kind”. But the different fates of Norton versus Jeong show a fundamental hypocrisy at the paper. [Jeong appears to have been quietly jettisoned since then.])

Here’s Attiah’s bio at the Post (click on screenshot), and because the lettering is tiny, I’ve reproduced it below the screenshot.

Global Opinions editor, writing on international affairs and social issuesEducation: Northwestern University, BA in communication studies, minor in African Studies; Columbia University, master’s in international affairsKaren Attiah is the Global Opinions editor at The Washington Post, where she

commissions and edits commentary on global issues from a variety of international writers. She joined The Post in 2014 as a digital producer in the Opinions section. Attiah often writes on issues relating to race, gender and international politics, with a special interest in Africa. Previously, she reported as a freelancer for the Associated Press while based in the Caribbean. Attiah was a Fulbright scholar to Ghana and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. She received her bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Northwestern University.Honors & Awards:

  • Fulbright fellow, 2008

Foreign languages spoken: Spanish

So what did Attiah say? Here’s some of it, and at least one of these—the first one—was taken down. (Screenshot from twitchy):


That tweet, from yesterday, has been deleted, but screenshots were saved. (Note the superfluous apostrophe in “Karen’s”.)  It’s palpably unfair to blame contemporary “Karens” for all of this, much less to raise the threat of “revenge.” Note that Attiah’s first name is “Karen”!

And apparently Attiah didn’t regret that odious tweet:

I’m not sure what “squidward running away” means, unless its fleeing rapidly out of fear, but without regrets.

Want more? Here Attiah uses her term for Democratic women: the “Axis of Shevil”:


Dowd, of course, writes for the New York Times. Both she and Pelosi are apparently guilty of racism.

But wait! There’s more:

If that’s a joke, it’s not funny. And I doubt it’s a joke.

The there’s this, which tars all white people with taking pleasure in lynchings. Of course those horrible spectacles were treated as entertainment by many in the South, but I seriously doubt that many of us “enjoy dominating and destroying black bodies.”

As a free-speech hard-liner, I’m not calling for Attiah to be fired, and of course she won’t be, though she would were she white and said this kind of stuff about blacks, Hispanics, or Jews. But we should expect a consistent standard in the media, so that hate and bigotry against one group is treated just like hate and bigotry against any other group.  Nobody gets a Bigot Pass because of their race.  Still, we know that that isn’t the case, because it’s always open season on some groups. You don’t even need a duck stamp.

I’m starting to regret having recently subscribed to the Post.

h/t: Ben Schwarz

A philosophical analysis of the “n-word”

November 9, 2019 • 11:15 am

This article in Quillette by Matthew Small, a graduate student at Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario), raises a question I hadn’t though much about: what if a word is considered offensive to some but not all members of a minority group? (Actually, that holds for “majority groups” as well: some southern whites may be offended by the term “cracker” and others may not.)

I’ve discussed many times whether words—most prominently the “n-word”—might be okay to use in a teaching situation, for example as it’s used in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. About two years ago it seemed to be okay if it came up in literature and could form the basis of a productive discussion. But now it seems it cannot be used by non-blacks at all, and I do not use it.

But what if the word offends some members of a group but not others? Many Jews, for instance, might be deeply offended by the use of the slur “kike”, and while I see it as a form of bigotry when used to denigrate Jews, I have no objection, as a secular Jew, to it being used, read or discussed in books like The Catcher in the Rye or Babbitt. Perhaps other Jews would, although “kike” hasn’t attained the taboo status of the n-word. So is it never okay to say “kike” if some Jews object to the word being uttered even when it’s not meant to denigrate Jews, but rather for a genuine educational purpose? Is a handful of objecting sufficient to make it immoral to utter the word, even in the classroom? This is the topic of Small’s essay (click on screenshot to read):

Here’s the precipitating incident at Small’s university:

Over the last week, Western University (where I am currently enrolled) has been mired in scandal over an instructor’s decision to utter a racial slur during a discussion of popular culture in his English literature class. More specifically, the instructor (Andrew Wenaus) suggested that Will Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler,” in a 20-something year old episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, may have been a subtle reference (sanitized for consumption on syndicated television) to the phrase “house nigger,” which was, during the pre-emancipation period, used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household.

It is, I suppose, debatable whether Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler” was in fact intended by the show’s writers as a reference to the aforementioned slur. [JAC: I think it’s pretty clear that’s what the phrase meant.] It is not, however, debatable whether or not this slur was used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household. That is a straightforward historical fact.

For daring to articulate this fact in his classroom, Wenaus has been dragged on social media (and by the local press) as racially insensitive at best, and a racist at worst. He has had to issue a public apology, along with promises to undergo additional sensitivity training, and Western’s president has established a specialized task-force aimed at combatting systemic racism on campus (of which Wenaus’ utterance apparently constitutes evidence). Meanwhile, Western’s Ethnocultural Support Service has issued a statement reminding the university community that it is always inappropriate for a white person to utter the offending term, “regardless of intent or how they said it.” This preempts any possible appeal to the presumptively anti-racist intentions behind Wenaus’s lecture, or to the crucial distinction between the use and mention of a term.

From this recounting of events, it doesn’t seem that Wenaus is a racist. Yet he mouthed a word that could be used as racist, and therefore is by default a racist. We all know of things like this happening, and not just with words, either. “Cultural appropriation” is a related issue. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ kimono display, in which non-Japanese were allowed to don kimonos, was the subject of protest by some Asians, but defended by others, including a group of older Japanese ladies who showed up at the Museum wearing kimonos. I suspect that most people here would defend the kimono exhibit but perhaps not the use of the n-word in non-racist contexts.

Small defines the claim that a word cannot be used if any members of the relevant group object to it—no matter what outgroup members think—as the deferential standard:

This deferential standard basically asserts that white people have no right to an opinion about what is or is not racist, and that to suggest otherwise is a mark of racial privilege. So, if a black student declares that Wenaus’s utterance was racist, then it was racist. End of discussion.

The deferential standard is self-defeating in at least two ways. Firstly, it is unable to account for the fact that there will inevitably be differences of opinion among black people about whether a given incident or statement is racist. Although several black people at Western have objected to Wenaus’s remark, I am personally acquainted with several others who find it to be unobjectionable, given the context in which it was uttered, and the intention of the speaker (which was presumptively anti-racist). They cannot all be right. But according to the deferential standard, both camps speak with equal moral authority by virtue of being black, which implies that the same incident must be at once both racist and not-racist. This is clearly absurd.

Well, this is a moral and emotional issue, not an objective decision about “racist or non-racist”. Clearly a word can be interpreted by some as racist, and by others as not. What Small is talking about here is how society in general deems the use of such words. Small continues:

If we are unwilling to accept this incoherent conclusion, we need to find some way of adjudicating which of our two disagreeing camps of black people has it right. [JAC: again, it isn’t a “right or wrong” issue; it’s an issue of what society as a whole deems to be racist versus non-racist.] The only way to do so would be to posit a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist. But by doing so, we have already abandoned the notion that we are obligated to defer to the opinions of black people, as this latter approach would be appealing to a subjective standard. And if we can agree that there exists a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist, there seems to be no good rationale for forbidding white people from participating in discussions about what those criteria are and the circumstances under which they are applicable. Thus, the deferential standard leads to a paradox, for which the only solution is to reject the deferential standard.

He adds that there are further complications because “The deferential standard. . . overlooks the fact that some black people find the standard itself to be racially patronizing.”

This is a conundrum I hadn’t thought of before. All I know is that I dare not use the n-word in any context lest I be demonized as a racist, even in discussing whether the word can be discussed in classrooms or mouthed by whites singing rap songs.

Small concludes that, by unofficially adopting the deferential standard, Western University is violating its motto of Veritas et Utilitas (“truth and utility”), because, in refusing to discuss phrases like the origin of “home butler”, Small argues that it’s become “inappropriate for us to utter certain indisputably true statements, because the value of truth is trumped by the emotional states of one or another demographic.”  He then draws the overly dramatic conclusion that this form of Social Justice Warriorism is a religious faith because it requires “suspension of disbelief [in an educational purpose] out of respect to the larger narrative”. Ergo, suggests Small, Western is no longer a secular institution. But this is a digression that makes his essay seem too tendentious. Still, the philosophical issue remains.

I’m not so interested in this comparison of SJW-ism to religion, or in a conflict between truth and utility, because one can always circumvent the n-word (granted, sometimes to the detriment of education and discussion). In the end, It’s clear that the denigrated group, compared to other groups, has the sole power to label a word “offensive.” But Small’s article brings up the issue of what one does when some group members object to a word but others don’t.  I don’t object to a discussion of the word “kike” or any of its companion slurs for Jews (“sheeny”, “Hebe”, “Yid”, or “Christ-killer”) IF the word is used in an academic and heuristic way, and is not intended by the speaker to denigrate anybody. But if, say, 5% of Jews do object, does the word then become taboo?

Weigh in below.


The end of the SPLC?

March 22, 2019 • 2:15 pm

I have the dubious honor of having criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) many times before it recently start circling the drain. (Of course, real journalists starting going after the SPLC long before I did.) Once a reputable organization fighting for civil liberties and against bigotry, it’s devolved into a money-grubbing organization whose top dogs earned monstrously huge salaries, and an organization that took in far more money than it spent on the causes for which it’s famous, that stashed money in offshore accounts, and that spent its time confecting “hate lists”, one of which, the “field guide to anti-Muslim extremists“, included Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz. (Nawaz sued the SPLC for defamation and won, getting more than a million bucks and an apology, as well as the list’s removal.)

Two weeks ago the SPLC fired, for causes that weren’t clear at the time, Morris Dees, its co-founder and the major figure and fundraiser of the organization. There was talk about harassment and bad behavior in the office, but what really happened wasn’t clear. It’s still not, but it now appears, ironically, to involve racism and misogyny—two behaviors the SPLC has battled.

This article in the recent New Yorker gives more details, and leads me to believe that the organization is now not only outmoded, but is going to die. I hope it comes back with its original mission, but they’ll need good leadership.

Read on:

Author Bob Moser worked for a while at the SPLC, and observed some of its dysfunctional culture before leaving. In fact, the racism and sexism was a standing joke at the operation:

Cameras were everywhere in the open-plan office, which made me feel like a Pentagon staffer, both secure and insecure at once. But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff—“the help,” one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The “professional staff”—the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers—were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.

During my first few weeks, a friendly new co-worker couldn’t help laughing at my bewilderment. “Well, honey, welcome to the Poverty Palace,” she said. “I can guaran-damn-tee that you will never step foot in a more contradictory place as long as you live.”

“Everything feels so out of whack,” I said. “Where are the lawyers? Where’s the diversity? What in God’s name is going on here?”

“And you call yourself a journalist!” she said, laughing again. “Clearly you didn’t do your research.”

. . .The great Southern journalist John Egerton, writing for The Progressive, had painted a damning portrait of Dees, the center’s longtime mastermind, as a “super-salesman and master fundraiser” who viewed civil-rights work mainly as a marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals. “We just run our business like a business,” Dees told Egerton. “Whether you’re selling cakes or causes, it’s all the same.”

Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me—it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we’d stepped into with our noble intentions. Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women. And the unchecked power of the lavishly compensated white men at the top of the organization—Dees and the center’s president, Richard Cohen—made staffers pessimistic that any of these issues would ever be addressed.

And the bigotry?

The official statement sent by Cohen, who took control of the S.P.L.C. in 2003, didn’t specify why Dees had been dismissed, but it contained some broad hints. “We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen wrote. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.” Dees’s profile was immediately erased from the S.P.L.C.’s Web site—amazing, considering that he had remained, to the end, the main face and voice of the center, his signature on most of the direct-mail appeals that didn’t come from celebrity supporters, such as the author Toni Morrison.

. . . The staffers wrote that Dees’s firing was welcome but insufficient: their larger concern, they emphasized, was a widespread pattern of racial and gender discrimination by the center’s current leadership, stretching back many years.

Morris Dees (from CNN)

For me the sign that the SPLC was plummeting earthward was its demonizing of Hirsi Ali and Nawaz, who were certainly not anti-Muslim extremists: Nawaz is a Muslim and Hirsi Ali’s last book was a plan to make Islam less extremist. This smacked of mission creep: an organization that now had less to do because of the moral improvement of America still had to find a way to spend its money. It has in fact about half a billion dollars in endowment, more than does the American Civil Liberties Union.

Moser’s piece, while giving these details, is a bit marred by being more of a personal mea culpa, in which he wonders how his good intentions could have been coopted by such a dysfunctional outfit. The SPLC is, however, undergoing an outside review, and I wish them well. My advice: stop paying huge salaries to the top dogs, walk the walk by giving minority employees real power, get rid of those offshore money stashes, and, above all, concentrate on real issues of poverty and law and stop making the “little lists”.

h/t: Laurance

How do we deal with anti-Semitic philosophers of past centuries?

March 21, 2019 • 11:45 am

Here is a strange but timely article from the New York Times‘s philosophy column, “The Stone.” Laurie Shrage, a professor of philosophy at Florida International University, asks how we should deal with the palpable anti-Semitism of early philosophers. But in the course of her lucubrations, she conflates four distinct questions. Read the piece by clicking on the screenshot:

Here are the four questions conflated in the article which purports to deal with a simple yes or no question: “Should we continue to teach thinkers like Kant, Voltaire, and Hume without mention of the harmful prejudices they helped legitimize?

1.) Do we mention the anti-Semitism of European philosophers as part of their character when we teach their work?

2.) Do we investigate and teach how we think their anti-Semitism permeated their work—if it did?

3.) Do we teach philosophers outside the Western “canon”—people like Maimonides, Philo, or Confucius, rather than adhere to a philosophical “image of the West as racist thinkers have fashioned it?”

And there’s an unspoken question:

4.) Should we marginalize or even not teach the work of Western philosophers who were anti-Semites?

Shrage also spends a bit of time indicting the teaching of philosophy because, in the last hundred years, Jews weren’t hired to teach philosophy because they weren’t really regarded as “Western”. Well, that problem no longer exists, so I’m not sure what this potted history reveals. It certainly sheds no light on the questions above.

My answers are as follows:

1.) We should mention the anti-Semitism of ancient philosophers only insofar as it affected or informed their philosophy. After all, almost everyone in Europe before the 19th century, including (or maybe especially) educated folk, were not only anti-Semitic, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Our change in morality should certainly be studied in history or sociology classes, but something sticks in my craw when people demand that long-dead people who lived in bigoted milieu be constantly indicted for bigotry. I don’t mention Darwin’s own bigotry in my evolution class (he was an abolitionist but also denigrated black people), but I would if I were teaching the parts of his work in which he speculated about racial hierarchies.

2.) As for Kant, Hume, and Voltaire, I’m not sure how much of the philosophy taught as “theirs” is affected by bigotry. That would be up to individual teachers. It’s clear from what Shrage said that these people did publish anti-Semitic stuff, but it’s not clear to me that this is the stuff taught in philosophy classes.

3.) Of course we should teach non-Western philosophers; I’m sure there is a lot of good thought there that deserves airing. Because most academic philosophers are taught the Western canon, and teach it themselves, this may require “non-Western philosophy” courses, but I’m all in favor of that.

As for religious philosophers, I’m a bit more dubious. How much real philosophy is there in religious philosophy, given that lots of it involves assuming gods for which there is no evidence? Do we really want to ask why God would permit the existence of evil if we don’t think there’s a god? This is why, when founding the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson stipulated that it would have no theology department or divinity school.

On the other hand, it may be useful to acquaint people with some of the arguments used by religious philosophers, like the First Cause argument, simply because we live in a religious society and those arguments are not only part of history, but are ongoing now. But if we teach those, and the ancient Greeks, we have to be aware that philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and St. Augustine justified slavery.

4.) No. If we sidelined every academic throughout history who was bigoted, we wouldn’t be teaching anything.

Curiously, Shrage doesn’t “unpack” (to use the argot) these questions, and winds up assuming that their work does reflect their bigotry, with the implicit view that we need to teach that. Here’s her last paragraph, which conflates three questions at once:

With the resurgence of old hatreds in the 21st century, philosophers are challenged to think about the ways we trace the history of our discipline and teach our major figures, and whether our professional habits and pieties have been shaped by religious intolerance and other forms of bigotry. For example, why not emphasize how philosophy emerged from schools of thought around the world? In the fields of history and literature, introductory courses that focus on European studies are being replaced by courses in world history and comparative literature.

There has not been a similar widespread movement to rethink the standard introduction to philosophy in terms of world philosophy. There are philosophers who contend that such projects inappropriately politicize our truth-seeking endeavors, but, as some philosophers of science have shown, objective truth involves the convergence of multiple observations and perspectives. Moreover, the anti-Semitic theories of Hume, Voltaire and Kant show that philosophy has rarely, if ever, been insulated from politics.

But the question is whether the philosophy has been affected by bigotry. 

Maybe students would be better served by teaching them philosophy then by minutely scrutinizing every philosopher in history (and artists and writers and scientists) for ideological impurities.


Morris Dees fired from the Southern Poverty Law Center

March 15, 2019 • 1:30 pm

I’ve posted a fair amount about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which at one time was a great organization fighting segregation and pushing for civil liberties (see my posts here).  But, as civil rights became national law, the organization started changing its mission, which largely became fighting “hate speech.” That is not necessarily bad, but the SPLC became so social justice-y that they started making “hate lists” that included people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz who featured on a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” (Nawaz is a Muslim, for crying out loud). Further, they also went after “cultural appropriation” of Cinco de Mayo, pretty close to a victimless crime for these people. Finally, it was revealed by several outlets, including Politico, that the founders and top lawyers of the SPLC made huge and unconscionable salaries, and that they even stashed a lot of the organization’s money in offshore accounts for reasons that aren’t clear.

I was thus pleased when Nawaz sued the SPLC and won a $3.4 million settlement as well as an apology, and when the SPLC removed that “hate list” from their site.  Now, according to the NYT and other venues, the founder and big macher in the whole shebang, Morris Dees, once an effective and admirable civil-right litigator, has been ousted from the organization after nebulous charges of “inappropriate conduct”. That conduct isn’t clear yet, but may include, ironically, poor treatment of women and blacks. The NYT story is below:

From the article:

The group’s president, Richard Cohen, did not give a specific reason for the dismissal of Mr. Dees, 82, on Wednesday. But Mr. Cohen said in a statement that as a civil-rights group, the S.P.L.C. was “committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world.”

“When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Cohen’s statement suggested that Mr. Dees’s firing was linked to workplace conduct. He said the center, which is based in Montgomery, Ala., had requested “a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices” in a bid to ensure that the organization was a place where “all voices are heard and all staff members are respected.”

Note that Dees denies the charges vehemently; the tweets below were posted by Josh Moon, who writes for The Alabama Political Reporter:

Some of the reporting, including the first tweet above, intimates that another factor in Dees’s firing could have been the change in mission of the SPLC from a genuine civil rights group to a social-justice enforcement group:

Mr. Dees and the S.P.L.C. have been credited with undermining the influence of the Ku Klux Klan and extremist groups. But in recent years, the center has come under scrutiny for its classifications of “hate groups,” and whether the organization has abused that label in pursuit of a political agenda or increased donations.

The center has tracked extremist activity and hate groups throughout the country since the 1980s. Its 2018 Intelligence Project reportidentified 1,020 hate groups, its largest number ever. Conservatives have accused the group of unfairly including right-leaning organizations on the list.

. . .“I am glad to see Dees leave S.P.L.C., whatever the reason,” William A. Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School and an outspoken critic of the group, said on Thursday.

“S.P.L.C. long ago focused on combating the Ku Klux Klan, but then abused the reputation it earned for those efforts by demonizing political opponents through the use of hate and extremist lists to stifle speech by people who presented no risk of violence,” Mr. Jacobson said.

I’m glad to see hm go, too. It’s time for fresh blood and a rededication to the original mission of the SPLC, fighting genuine oppression and bigotry. As the Montgomery Advertiser reports, an outside group will be examining the group’s direction:

“Today we announced a number of immediate, concrete next steps we’re taking, including bringing in an outside organization to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices, to ensure that our talented staff is working in the environment that they deserve — one in which all voices are heard and all staff members are respected,” [SPLC President Richard] Cohen said.

This group has about half a BILLION dollars in assets, and that dosh can be used to do real good rather than making up “little lists.”

Farrakhan says that the “wicked Jews” are using him to attack the Women’s March

February 27, 2019 • 12:00 pm

From the Jewish Telegraphic Agency we have a short report and a video showing a recent speech in Chicago by Louis Farrakahan—misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and leader of the Nation of Islam (NoI). He blames the “wicked Jews” for trying to drive a wedge between him and the Women’s March (WM), presumably referring to the the wicked Jews at Tablet magazine, who wrote the famous exposé about the WM.

The video below shows the relevant part of Farrakhan’s speech.

The “black woman who was the initiator of it” is presumably Tamika Mallory, one of the four co-Presidents of the Women’s March along with Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Bob Bland.

It’s ironic that Farrakhan comes off here as a feminist, when in reality he’s a misogynist who deems NoI women as strictly subordinate to their husbands. (Remember that women were excluded from Farrakhan’s 1995 “Million Man March,” though it wasn’t about black men’s issues.)  And I find it ironic and distressing that Farrakhan, and the leaders of the Women’s Movement, are driving a wedge between African-Americans and Jews, two groups that were historical allies.

As the article reports, Farrakhan didn’t hesitate to praise Sarsour and Perez as well (Bob Bland is white).

“The most beautiful sight that I could lay eyes on [was] when I saw, the day after Trump was elected, women from all over the world were standing in solidarity, and a black woman is the initiator of it,” said Farrakhan, referring to Tamika Mallory, a leader of the Women’s March who has lionized Farrakhan and refused to condemn his pervasive anti-Semitism.

“The wicked Jews want to use me to break up the women’s movement,” Farrakhan continued on Sunday during his address at the Nation of Islam’s Savior’s Day conference in Chicago. “It ain’t about Farrakhan, it’s about women all over the world (who) have the power to change the world.”

He also praised Mallory’s co-organizers Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian American who has been highly critical of Israel, and Carmen Perez, who reportedly made anti-Semitic comments at Women’s March planning meetings.

Celebrities, activists and community leaders, Jewish and non-Jewish, have distanced themselves from the march and called on the national organizers to step down over claims that they have not done enough to disavow anti-Semitism.

But wait! There’s more!

During his address, Farrakhan returned to anti-Semitic tropes and bashed Israel.

There were several thousand people in attendance at the speech, which also was livestreamed.

Farrakhan was preceded by a known Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman II, who suggested that ancient Jewish texts are equivalent to teachings “from the church of Satan,” according to the ADL.

While the main branch of the WM, the WM, Inc., has made tepid statements about not agreeing with all of Farrakhan’s remarks, and paid lip service to their “Jewish sisters”, they have not explicitly disassociated themselves from the virulent anti-Semitism of Farrakhan. Why? Almost certainly because they agree with it—and because Farrakhan’s goons supply security for the March and its leaders.

Here’s a video I posted in January, noting this:

On the television show The View last week, co-heads of the March Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland were grilled about their views by both Whoopi Goldberg and Megan McCain. Mallory, while paying her new lip service against antisemitism, refused to denounce the antisemitism of Louis Farrakhan, the bigoted loon who heads the Nation of Islam.  The WM leaders people are masters of evasion, though they’d condemn racism in an instant.

. . . Note that Mallory also affirms that she won’t step down as head of the Women’s March because some people still want her to serve (yes, and some people still want Theresa May to serve, but a future vote of no confidence, such as Mallory and her co-Presidents have in effect received, would cause May to step down.)

Unless the WM explicitly condemns Farrakhan, and stops using his people as employees of their movement, their movement will continue to fall apart. I can’t say I’d mourn that, for there are plenty of offshoots of the Women’s Movement who are still marching for equality but also disavowing anti-Semitism.

There have already been many calls for Mallory, Perez, Sarsour, and Bland to step down as co-leaders, but they all refuse, as Mallory makes clear above. That’s because virtually all of their public presence and power comes from their association with the Women’s March. Without the WM, all (with the possible exception of Sarsour) would be unknowns.

h/t: BJ

The affair of Jussie Smollett

February 21, 2019 • 10:30 am

UPDATE: Reuters reports that Smollett staged the attack because he was dissatisfied with his salary on Empire. (It must have been substantial, though!). This motive apparently comes not from Smollett, of course, but probably from the two “assailants” he hired.

And it gets even weirder. Smollett wrote a CHECK to pay off his assailants, or so this NBC reporter says. HOW CAN YOU BE THAT DUMB?


I think that almost everyone has heard of what happened with Jussie Smollett, who’s fairly well known for playing a musician in the ongoing Fox drama Empire. As Wikipedia recounts the details, Smollett, who lives in Chicago where the series is filmed, claimed that he was attacked on the night of January 19 by two white men who beat him, put a noose around his neck, and dumped a chemical on him. They also apparently called him a “nigger” and a “faggot” (he’s gay and black), and shouted, “This is MAGA country.” (That, of course, stands for the Trump motto, “Make America Great Again.”)

This seemed fishy from the outset. How could these guys have known who he was unless they were tracking him? The shouted motto and noose seemed stereotypical, a bit over the top. More important, Chicago police couldn’t find any evidence of an attack from video surveillance, and when the cops came several hours later, Smollett was still wearing the noose around his neck. Why didn’t he take it off?

As the police investigation continued, with a dozen officers assigned to the case, Smollett’s story began to unravel. It was found that his assailants were both black; why would they attack another black man and use racist epithets? Moreover, both of the supposed assailants, brothers, had tangential connections to the show Empire, and that was deeply suspicious. They both knew Smollett. Finally, it appeared that both men, who were from Nigeria, told the police that Smollett had hired them to conduct the attack.

Now, as the New York Times reports, Smollett, who turned himself in to police this morning, has been charged with faking an accident report, which is a class 4 felony in Illinois—a crime for which he could face up to three years in prison. There’s also a threatening note that Smollett received, and if he’s complicit in that, as seems likely, he faces federal charges on top of the state charges (he used the U.S. Mail).

The story, as the NYT recounts, was initially taken up widely by the media as an example of not just racism and homophobia, but also bigotry inspired by Donald Trump. There wasn’t much skepticism or withholding of judgment, despite the holes in Smollett’s story.

Why did Smollett, though, who was pretty famous and certainly well off, have to concoct an incident like this? Writing in The Atlantic, John McWhorter, an author and professor of linguistics at Columbia University, and also a black man, has a thoughtful answer. Click on the screenshot below to read it.

Now it’s almost too easy to use this incident—and I’m assuming the police allegations are true—to indict not just the social justice crowd but also the credulous media. After all, it plays into the hands of all of us who hate Trump and his administration, and also to that moiety of the Left that sees racism and homophobia as institutionalized in this country (I see this bigotry as a recurring problem to be solved, but not, in general, as an institutionalized one). But there’s another side of the coin: these incidents of false reporting play into the hands of the Right as well, actually strengthening Trump’s supporters and giving people an excuse to dismiss any claim of violence motivated by bigotry. For these reasons we should maintain skepticism from the outset, trying to be compassionate but also looking hard at the evidence.

Still, the question remains: why did Smollett do this?  And that’s the topic of McWhorter’s essay. While noting that racism is still with us, he raises the tropes of “victimhood chic” and “professional martyrs”:

Until this twist [the Chicago police changing the “trajectory of the investigation” after looking at the evidence], smart people were claiming that the attack on Smollett was the story of Donald Trump’s America writ small—that it revealed the terrible plight of minority groups today. But the Smollett story, if the “trajectory” leads to evidence of fakery, would actually reveal something else modern America is about: victimhood chic. Future historians and anthropologists will find this aspect of early-21st-century America peculiar, intriguing, and sad.

Smollett doesn’t need the money he would get from a court settlement, and he isn’t trying to deny someone higher office. So why in the world would he fake something like that attack—if he did indeed fake it? The reason might be that he has come of age in an era when nothing he could have done or said would have made him look more interesting than being attacked on the basis of his color and sexual orientation.

Racial politics today have become a kind of religion in which whites grapple with the original sin of privilege, converts tar questioners of the orthodoxy as “problematic” blasphemers, and everyone looks forward to a judgment day when America “comes to terms” with race. Smollett—if he really did stage the attack—would have been acting out the black-American component in this eschatological configuration, the role of victim as a form of status. We are, within this hierarchy, persecuted prophets, ever attesting to the harm that white racism does to us and pointing to a future context in which our persecutors will be redeemed of the sin of having leveled that harm upon us. We are noble in our suffering.

Indeed, McWhorter argues later on that the fact that being a victim of racist and homophobic bigotry gives you fame and admiration shows that this country has ascended the moral arc for civil right and gay rights, for in the bad old days you would not be a hero if you were a black or gay man who was attacked.

Certainly, the professional martyr is a race-neutral personality type. However, since the civil-rights victories of the 1960s, when whites became open in a new way to understanding black pain, that personality type has been especially useful to black Americans. With positive racial self-image possibly elusive after hundreds of years of naked abuse, the noble-victim position can seem especially, and understandably, comforting. It can also be handy, in a fashion quite unexpected to anyone who was on the front lines of race activism 50 years ago—as a road to stardom.

“Professional martyr” is a useful term for such cases, and there are many incidents in which people have faked attacks like this to either buttress their cause or claim victim status. (I’m not denigrating, of course, those true reports of attacks based on racism and other forms of bigotry.)

As far as what Smollett had to gain, it was this admiration. He already had it, but presumably craved more:

[Rachel] Dolezal, white, spent years with a spray tan, “identifying” as black and even heading a local NAACP branch, and had fabricated episodes of racist discrimination against herself. As Bryan Cranston’s dentist character on Seinfeld adopted Judaism for the jokes, Dolezal, one might say, took on blackness for the victimhood. She felt that her existence was more meaningful while she was “playing” an oppressed black person than living as a white person despite all the attendant privileges. Few news events more perfectly illustrated that in our moment, a claim of victimhood from a black person is a form of power. Only in an America much further past the old days than many like to admit could a white person eagerly seek to be a put-upon black person out of a sense that it looked “cool.” A Dolezal would have been unimaginable until roughly the late 1990s.

One could imagine that Smollett, if he was playacting, had a similar motivation. For Smollett, being a successful actor and singer might not have been quite as exciting as being a poster child for racist abuse in Trump’s America.

Assuming, again, that the reports are accurate, Smollett’s clumsiness would be an especially poignant indication of how deeply this victimhood chic has taken hold—almost as if he thought this was such an easy score that he didn’t even need to think too hard about the logistics.

Now of course McWhorter is psychologizing Smollett here, and we don’t know what was in Smollett’s mind, but, for a rational person, I can’t think of any other motivation. In his last sentence, McWhorter finds a silver lining in this cloud:

. . . Smollett, if the latest reporting is true, was an eager puppy, jumping with joyous inattention into American social politics as he has encountered it coming of age in the 21st century. He would have known that in this moment, very important people would find him more interesting for having been hurt on the basis of his identity than for his fine performance on an interesting hit television show. He would have known this so well that it didn’t even occur to him that his story would have to be more credible than the dopey one he threw together about being jumped in near-Arctic temperatures by the only two white bullies in America with a mysterious fondness for a black soap hip-hopera. (Yet again, I’m assuming the latest reporting is accurate.)

Only in an America in which matters of race are not as utterly irredeemable as we are often told could things get to the point that someone would pretend to be tortured in this way, acting oppression rather than suffering it, seeking to play a prophet out of a sense that playing a singer on television is not as glamorous as getting beaten up by white guys. That anyone could feel this way and act on it in the public sphere is, in a twisted way, a kind of privilege, and a sign that we have come further on race than we are often comfortable admitting.

I don’t feel any Schadenfreude in this incident. Smollett is a figure to be pitied, and, given that his career is ruined, I don’t see why (if he’s found guilty) he needs to spend much time in jail, except perhaps a modicum of incarceration to deter others from the same kind of behavior. No matter how much time he does, he’ll always be known as the bozo who faked his own attack. The lesson, as everybody has already drawn, is to be skeptical of claims like this, and not bruit about the mantra “believe the victim.”

Empathy yes, credulity no. For it is stuff like this that will help Trump in 2020, and contribute to the division of America.