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E-Pluribus | June 1, 2021
Removing liberalism's foundations, progressive fatalism on race, and the place of literature in shaping politics.
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Andrew Sullivan: Removing The Bedrock Of Liberalism
In the latest The Weekly Dish, Andrew Sullivan argues that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is not simply a misguided theory but an assault on the heart of classical liberalism. Rather than take on the imperfections of this country and the principles upon which it was founded (and admittedly often failed, and fails, to live up to), CRT seeks to discredit the whole as irretrievably tainted.
Am I exaggerating CRT’s aversion to liberal modernity? I don’t think I am. Here is how critical theory defines itself in one of its central documents. It questions the very foundations of “Enlightenment rationality, legal equality and Constitutional neutrality.” It begins with the assertion that these are not ways to further knowledge and enlarge human freedom. They are rather manifestations of white power over non-white bodies. Formal legal equality, they argue, the promise of the American experiment, has never been actual equality, even as, over the centuries, it has been extended to everyone. It is, rather, a system to perpetuate inequality forever, which is the single and only reason racial inequality is still here.
Claims to truth are merely claims to power. That’s what people are asked to become “awake” to: that liberalism is a lie. As are its purported values. Free speech is therefore not always a way to figure out the truth; it is just another way in which power is exercised — to harm the marginalized. The idea that a theory can be proven or disproven by the empirical process is itself a white supremacist argument, denying the “lived experience” of members of identity groups that is definitionally true, whatever the “objective” facts say. And our minds and souls and institutions have been so marinated in white supremacist culture for so long, critical theorists argue, that the system can only be dismantled rather than reformed. The West’s idea of individual freedom — the very foundation of the American experiment — is, in their view, a way merely to ensure the permanent slavery of the non-white.
And nothing has really changed since the beginning: slavery, segregation, mass incarceration are just different words for the same experience of oppression. Our world is just a set of interlocking forms of oppressive structures, and has been since the West’s emergence.
I know all this sounds highfalutin. But I honestly don’t think what I have described is a “straw man.” It is rather the core argument. I also know that the vast numbers of people who have adopted this rejection of foundational liberal principles often know only bastardized versions of this, and believe that they are merely helping encourage racial sensitivity and tolerance.
Read it all here.
Samuel Kronen: Black Lives Matter and the Psychology of Progressive Fatalism
At Quillette, Samuel Kronen writes about the tendency of progressives to downplay, despite their own activism and emphasis on bringing about change, the positive direction of racial relations in this country. The refusal to acknowledge racial progress in America either reflects fatalism or, more cynically, concern about losing power or influence.
All of which gets to the central contradiction of modern anti-racist activism—its very success disproves its central claims. If white racism continues to dominate American society, it would be difficult to explain why some of the most powerful people on Earth were literally kneeling in homage to George Floyd. Ta-Nehisi Coates insists that the country will never consider the case for reparations because “it simply broke too much of America’s sense of its own identity.” And yet, programs described with that very term are being doled out at this very moment and Affirmative Action policies have existed for over 50 years. It is as if the Great Society and the War on Poverty never happened.
Which leaves a deeper question: Why would anybody want to deny racial progress? Besides the worry that complacency will interfere with the progressive focus on building a better future, resistance has become an end in itself. Coates exemplifies this attitude, “I too would gather my words and scream into the roaring waves, because to scream was to defy the story, and that defiance had meaning, no matter that the waves kept coming, would come, maybe, forever.”
If racism were to disappear tomorrow, not only would many activists, politicians, and pundits be out of a job, but many more Americans would lose a deeply felt sense of moral meaning. Committing oneself to an intergenerational struggle against the transhistorical force of white supremacy is one way of achieving a sense of purpose. The term “woke” itself implies an awakening. As Coates describes his own shift, “it became clear to me that the common theory of providential progress, of the inevitable reconciliation between the sin of slavery and the democratic ideal, was myth. Marking the moment of awakening is like marking the moment one fell in love.”
Read the whole thing.
John Hood: Ideas Aren't Enough—Freedom Needs Good Stories
Oft times, political and cultural battles are framed as battles of ideas, and that is undeniably true, but John Hood at Reason makes a unique and noteworthy case for literature as an underused tool in the struggle for hearts and minds. Hood cites Orwell, Lewis and Tolkien as communicating foundational and timeless truths in a way that perhaps direct proselytizing and attempts to indoctrinate cannot.
Most Americans don't think about politics and government very much. For the most part, that's a trait worth celebrating. Their daily lives aren't consumed with legislative procedure or partisan bickering. They vote but they don't obsess about it. They answer poll questions about specific policies, but their answers are often more artificial than insightful, reflecting more the choice of terms and limited range of options presented than what they really think. Even within the political class—by which I mean not just elected officials but also the people who staff their offices, run and fund their campaigns, and try to sway their decisions—abstract concepts and abstruse arguments fail to explain much of what people say and do.
Ideas do have consequences. But those consequences are contingent on factors beyond the substance and soundness of the ideas themselves. They depend on context, on timeliness, on presentation. Among elites and masses alike, ideas have the greatest consequences when embedded in narratives.
Human beings aren't calculating machines. We're storytellers. Our facility for language has helped enable learning, planning, cooperation, and exchange, propelling our species to success. As my friend and former Duke colleague Frederick Mayer explained his 2014 book Narrative Politics, social and political movements need something more than shared goals and concepts to thrive: They must inspire costly, time-consuming behavior by busy human beings whose default setting is to take no notice or action. "Facts are great, analysis is important, but if the goal is political mobilization, a shared story is essential," Mayer says. "You cannot beat a story without another story. Politics often revolves around a contest of stories."
The defense of American liberty and the renewal of American institutions cannot be accomplished without patient capital invested in intellectual infrastructure. I believe in the value of scholarship, policy analysis, journalism, leadership development, and academic programs. But in the "contest of stories" that forms the substance of most political disagreements, lovers of liberty must use all the tools at our disposal.
Read it all at Reason.
Short thread on laws seeking to ban the teaching of critical race theory (CRT):
Ian Rowe of the American Enterprise Institute on critical race theory and its impact on core educational issues:
A newly passed law in Oklahoma regarding critical race theory is already having an impact:
Finally, here’s a video from Symposium Magazine on the “Culture of Free Speech”