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E-Pluribus | December 21, 2022
Is the sky falling on democracy?; redefining color-blindness; and one joke should not define someone's character.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Lee Siegel: Democracy Under Siege?
While Pluribus exists to highlight the dangers of illiberalism and where that can lead, we also recognize alarmism is itself dangerous (see Hyperbole.) At City Journal, Lee Siegel highlights a tendency he sees at the Old Gray Lady to light her proverbial gray hair on fire when it comes to hyping threats to "representative democracy,” but only when the threat comes from a disfavored political persuasion.
. . .The piece, written by Joseph Kahn, the paper’s new executive editor, appeared in what the Times calls “The Morning Newsletter.” Though this morning’s item concerned the country’s worst nightmare, it was only four paragraphs long. And it was hard to fathom. The subhead’s reference to the most serious “threats” to “representative government” “in decades” was perplexing, since any real threat to democracy would be deadly and single, not one among several competing threats. And there was no threat to American democracy decades ago, unless Kahn was referring to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which were threats of a whole different order than what he went on to claim were the perils faced by American democracy now.
These included “a deterioration in the integrity of constitutional democracy” (whatever that means), “manipulation of state election laws” (which turned out to have no effect on the upcoming election), “and a global trend toward autocracy in places where democratic institutions once seemed solid”—a “trend,” if that’s what it is, that does not pose a direct threat to America and that, anyway, Kahn never connects to specific countries. Kahn finished his alarm by inviting readers to continue to read “our coverage in a collection called Democracy Challenged.” Just make sure to stay on the lookout as you peruse the collection!
Read the whole thing.
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Coleman Hughes: Actually, Color-Blindness Isn’t Racist
Bari Weiss’s The Free Press continues its rollout by adding new reporters and writers. Their latest addition, Coleman Hughes, writes this week about the curious rewriting of history on the concept of colorblindness regarding race - what was once a lofty goal is now considered a symptom of racism itself.
Once considered a progressive attitude, color-blindness is now seen as backwards—a cheap surrender in the face of racism, at best; or a cover for deeply held racist beliefs, at worst.
[ . . . ]
These activist-scholars have written a false history of color-blindness meant to delegitimize it. According to this story, color-blindness was not the motivating principle behind the anti-racist activism of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was, instead, an idea concocted after the Civil Rights Movement by reactionaries who needed a way to oppose progressive policies without sounding racist.
[. . .]
Although this public-relations campaign has been remarkably successful, it bears no relation to the truth.
The earliest mentions of color-blindness I am aware of come from Wendell Phillips, the President of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the man nicknamed “abolition’s golden trumpet.” In 1865, Phillips called for the creation of “a government color-blind,” by which he meant the total elimination of all laws that mentioned race. (Phillips was white, but it’s hard to see how his advocacy of color-blindness could have been a Trojan Horse for white supremacy, as today’s anti-racist might frame things. Black contemporaries such as George Lewis Ruffin, America’s first black judge, described Phillips as “wholly color-blind and free from race prejudice.”)
In the decades that followed, the idea of color-blindness propelled the fight against Jim Crow. Exhibit A: The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson, in which the Court—outrageously—ruled 7 to 1 that “separate-but-equal” was constitutional. The lone dissent in Plessy, the lone flicker of hope, which was written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, features the immortal sentence: “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens.”
Decades later, when NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall was battling segregation in the courts, an aide recalled that he considered the Plessy dissent his “bible” and would read aloud from it when he needed inspiration. “Our constitution is color-blind,” his favorite sentence, became the “basic creed” of the NAACP.
Read it all.
John McWhorter: When a Racist Joke Does Not Merit Cancellation
And speaking of racism, John McWhorter of The New York Times addresses a recent joke told by the chancellor of Purdue University that has some calling for his head. McWhorter himself accepts the joke as racist but still argues that defining individuals by a single remark, even if truly appalling, is a slippery slope.
The idea that one tacky joke constitutes the measure of a whole human being has begun to seem almost ordinary of late. However, it is a quite extraordinary idea and even rather medieval. Too often, it is wielded in a fashion that is extremist, unreflexive and recreationally hostile.
Some may think that when the joke is a racist one, all bets are off and that indeed we have seen a person’s essence, his entirety — ecce homo, as it were. But this implies that battling the power of whiteness must center all our endeavors, including determining the nature of morality in general. This is the tacit commitment of much of high wokeness today. And it, too, is less the Platonic good than a modern peculiarity.
If Keon has a record of petty racist offenses, then it is more reasonable to treat this recent episode as a straw breaking the camel’s back. If he has been incompetent as a chancellor in some way, then there is perhaps reason to treat this incident as a last straw as well. But if he has been doing his job well — and I don’t pretend to know whether that is the case — and he just turned out not to have gotten the memo on what’s funny and permissible now versus when he was young, then he should keep his job. Few would have considered that a radical proposition until recently.
Perhaps Purdue will stand by Keon and let life go on. His gaffe will stand forever recorded online. One hopes he will come to fully understand why the “joke” was both lame and hurtful, if he has not already. But if his career continues and he is processed by his colleagues as a flawed but legitimate human being doing his job, then we are witnessing evidence that this era of excess is passing.
Indignation about Keon’s joke will continue, including from people of color and their allies who will process his staying in his job as contravening their version of social justice. But among the people responsible for his employment, there will surely be those who can see that he should not be consigned to retirement for one dumb joke because it was racist. In fact, those people may well constitute a majority. Possibly, in their calls for banishment, Purdue Northwest’s Faculty Senate and A.A.U.P. chapters are following the demands of just a few members.
Read it all here.
Although Bari Weiss was accused by some of doing PR for Elon Musk by writing about The Twitter Files, her site’s involvement in getting the story out didn’t stop Weiss last week from addressing problems she sees with Twitter 2.0:
Practicing attorney and writer Dilan Esper, who tends to step on toes on both sides of the aisle, has some thoughts about how to respond (and not respond) to strangers online:
And finally, a disturbing story out of
China New York City: