What is the Religion of Anti-Racism Really About? | Daniel Klein
Despite the largely well-intentioned nature of the mass movement that has broken out across the Western world, from the Netherlands to New Zealand, in response to the killing of George Floyd, watching its unparalleled spread I’ve been haunted by a comment once made by the great (black American) economist Thomas Sowell:
Our children and grandchildren may yet curse the day we began hyping race and ethnicity. There are countries where that has led to slaughters on the streets, but you cannot name a country where it has led to greater harmony.
In a matter of days, we’ve moved from outrage over the blatantly unjust killing of one man in the United States, to the widespread assertion that we all live in a systematic white supremacy. It’s been a little like waking up after a knock to the head and finding that, in one’s absence, the rest of society has been inducted into a cult; we’ve seen white middle-class Brits (most of whom would never be seen praying to God) kneeling in a show of supplication by the curb-side, crowds chanting admissions of guilt dictated to them by activist leaders, and social media platforms jammed with a uniformity of little black boxes. If one felt a little uncomfortable with the Maoist-style ‘you must clap for our NHS’ movement, this takes things to a new level.
Aside from the debate about racial inequality and police brutality in the USA – though data suggests claims of police officers ‘hunting’ unarmed black men are exaggerated, for which I would recommend Glenn Loury and John McWhorter’s discussion of the broader conditions that harm black Americans – what interests me in all this is the extraordinary collective behaviours triggered by the event. The response is in stark comparison to the silence of Western publics on terrible injustices ongoing in their own backyards, so it’s only natural to ask ‘why?’.
Sure enough, we in the English-speaking world are overexposed to the USA; its habits of speech and thought all too quickly become our own, and we find ourselves feeling as if we, too, were Americans. But with the wholesale embrace and propogation of such specific points of neo-Marxist ideology by so many, as if it were a simple matter of common decency, there must be more to it.
As Camille Paglia once wrote, ‘in the absence of war, invent one’. Human beings need causes, and the decadent aimlessness of the contemporary West is practically a truism at this point. In the last half-century religious observance has been decimated in most Western nations, and so there’s a vacancy to be filled.
On the face of it, John McWhorter is right to refer to ‘anti-racism’ as our new religion. But the new faith’s true logic is quite different and far less commendable.
Its priestly class – self-appointed ‘educators’ – speak with an uncanny calmness; it is not the calm of a Buddhist monk, who feels no need to rush or impose his words on the listener, but a tense control-freakery, as if the speaker is working hard to hold it together and might just crack at any moment. They are at pains not to make any costly ideological misstep in an unforgiving system, nor to allow their mind to wander off the reservation.
In this bold new world ‘education’ means ideology, and so ignorant teenagers on Instagram become our new schoolmasters and -mistresses, producing ‘resources’ (read: indoctrination documents) that are disseminated to hundreds of thousands of earnest followers. Like so many authoritarians before them they demand that school curricula be altered to preach the points of their catechism, chief among them the unique historical wickedness of the West, as fact. The irony in the UK is that the claims activists now demand be made explicit in the curriculum are those they uncritically absorbed from their own New Labour education. Their ideas may be radically destructive, but they are also pedestrian and conformist.
A serious, globally minded history education is the greatest enemy of an ideology such as this, that targets one group for unique condemnation and furnishes others with a sense of untouchable moral purity. As Sowell wrote of the left-wing approach to slavery:
‘No other historic horror is so narrowly construed … Why would anyone wish to arbitrarily understate an evil that plagued mankind for thousands of years, unless it were not this evil itself that was the real concern, but rather the present day uses of that historic evil?’
The raw matter of history, its colossal spider’s web of dates, names and events, which must first be considered before constructing a narrative, are pushed aside in favour of the rote words and phrases of sweeping judgmentalism with which we have all by now become familiar. An aesthetic crime facilitates an intellectual one, with the disappearance of the natural humanities prose style – one gracefully at home with literature, poetry and philosophy – and its replacement with clunky, self-important scientistic gabble. The transplantation of an ugly, soulless Californian drawl, along with the gospel of resentment it expresses, all around the world has made our language, as Ed West jestingly suggests, a global source of evil.
If this is to be our replacement for Christianity, it is a grim parody of the original. One part of the ornate Christian edifice, its message of the equality of mankind, is melted down and fashioned into a crude weapon to be used in the defacement of what remains. We are left with a deformation of the faith that made the West, a version that Nietzsche would recognise; performative weakness used by those with vicious instincts, but without the boldness to act them out directly, as a means to project power.
England’s Archbishop, the notoriously wet Justin Welby, signalled his acquiescence to the new regime with the demand that ‘white Christians’ repent of their presumed prejudice, and an attack on the President of the United States for being pictured holding a Bible. That those looters merrily taking advantage of the unrest to break the biblical injunction ‘thou shalt not steal’ might need more urgent repentance did not apparently occur to the Archbishop.
Perhaps it was inevitable that those societies most concerned with moral equality would end up tearing themselves apart in recrimination and acrimony over their failings. Fear of falling into racism has made criticism of non-Western cultures’ moral record verboten, and so by simple process of elimination the West ends up believing itself to be uniquely at fault.
Pitiful shows of contrition in the face of mob hostility, as exhibited by kneeling police officers in London this week, do not produce the desired effect, but are instead an inducement to further aggression. As Douglas Murray once put it, this is what happens when a sadist meets a masochist. White Westerners would likely elicit less contempt if they behaved less contemptibly, that is, with more self-respect. Contrary to leftist claims, this is is not in contradiction to principled anti-racism, but complementary to it.
As Jean-Francois Revel, the great analyst of anti-Americanism, wrote: ‘democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is needed to counter them’. In this case, we are loath to promote our own virtues, because chief among them is universalism; we are caught, if you like, in a vicious cycle. Our societies are beset by ‘guilt producing accusations and intimidation that no other political system has to tolerate’.
And so, even those uncomfortable with the aggressor ideology fail to confront it head on, all too often implicitly reaffirming it with criticism that invokes its own cardinal concepts. We see this process of feeding the beast that will devour you play out again and again. Critics blame the riots only on ‘privileged’ ‘white’ Antifa thugs, whilst members of groups accused of ‘whiteness’ scramble to exempt themselves from collective guilt; ‘Jews/Irish/Italians/etc. aren’t really white!’
Those mounting such defences fail to realise that the ideology that assails them is not primarily about real differences of geographical origin or historical experience, but about abstractions. Ethnic minority identities are simply being exploited as the latest bridgehead in a long-term attack on the West that has taken many, many forms.
One of Richard Dawkins’ rare positive contributions to thought outside his academic field is the idea of ‘memes’. Though it’s disturbing to admit, ideas have their own structure and relationships; we are more their temporary vessels than their masters. Ideas long outlive their different labels, too; they mutate, more easily changing their external appearances than their essence.
So, it’s worth considering that the primary concepts of the new ‘anti-racist’ religion – ‘White’ and ‘People of Colour’ – are not what they seem on the surface. This has always been admitted, albeit in characteristically slippery statements, by radical academe. Tired old Marxists used these labels to give their defunct ‘Bourgeoisie’/’Proletariat’ binary a facelift. Now such usages have spilled out into wider society; a recent viral tweet declared, ‘whiteness is a social relation based on property’.
‘White’/’POC’ is a Manichean value distinction masquerading as a racial one; it cannot be made sense of in terms of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. It is of next-to-no use in explaining historical phenomena. There’s no historical commonality or solidarity between the different groups of people who live or whose ancestors recently lived outside the political boundaries of Europe. Instead, the ‘White’/’POC’ binary deceptively straddles the worlds of description and abstraction, because its purpose is to invest physical differences with ethereal moral significance, and in so doing foment conflict.
Clearly, the goalposts shift wildly according to passing ideological needs; Caucasians are ‘POC’ if not associated with the West, whilst people of other ancestries who refuse to participate in the unpicking of their societies are labelled ‘race traitors’. See Joe Biden’s recent assertion that black Americans even questioning whether to vote for him over Trump ‘ain’t black’.
This repackaging of the old leftist dualism nonetheless strengthens it by creating a sense that the difference is somehow obvious, physical, matter of fact. Hardcore revolutionary ideology is smuggled in on the back of the banal, value-neutral observation that people of different ancestries look different. People don’t question it.
This way of thinking has a deeply worrisome genealogy. Today’s concept of ‘whiteness’ follows closely the pattern of previous ideological demonisations of the West, most of which were, like this one, mounted from within. Each concentrated its fire on the two big ideas that the biblical Hebrews bequeathed to us, and that made the West what it is: a rational, explainable universe, and its moral corollary, human free will. If the world has a God-given structure and consistent set of laws that govern it, then we have the opportunity, and indeed the moral responsibility, to use our minds to influence its behaviour for the good.
The characteristics the left today ascribe to ‘whiteness’ – rapacious greed, cynical alienation from the world, bloodthirstiness, and a fundamental inauthenticity – are precisely those that socialists and fascists once ascribed to capitalism and liberal democracy, that radical reformers ascribed to the late-medieval Church, and that are all linked to millennia-old anti-Judaism. Marx sought the ‘emancipation of mankind from Judaism’ and a world free of ‘alienation’. Luther railed against a ‘Judaising’ Church that affirmed free will and refused to make it compete with God’s grace.
All the way back in Exodus, Pharaoh feared God’s authority would circumscribe his earthly power, blocking his ability to act as a god in his own right and define the world as it suited him. ‘Self-empowerment’ of this sort is at base the desire to delude and enslave oneself: to deny one’s freedom because it brings with it responsibility. This is precisely what Pharaoh’s ideological heirs seek today, when they claim victimhood made them steal or destroy what others made.
Since Judaism mothered the Christian West, that contemporary attacks on the latter mimic those on the former should be of no surprise; both face obsessive libels and comprehensive slanders that are impervious to rational argument. This is not a parallel I’ve fabricated from mere rhetorical similarity; radical activists themselves promote it, and when they tell us who they are, we should listen. Denunciations of ‘whiteness’ this week followed the predictable pattern, with activists seeking to implicate Israeli police training exercises in the deaths of innocent black Americans, and drawing an equivalence between black victims and jihadi martyrs.
Our societies have always held within themselves this self-destructive appetite, emerging most horribly in the twentieth century: the desire to shake off the biblical idea of freedom and take vengeance on whatever or whoever is blamed for it at the time, placed on the bad side of the binary: Jews, capitalists, liberals, the Church, the West, ‘whiteness’.
It is a displaced religious yearning for a point of final stasis, in which our pre-determined instincts will be all that need guide us. What a relief it would be, some feel, not to have to choose, to innovate, to create, or to build. ‘Whiteness’, it is now claimed, is responsible for the West’s restless drive to expand, its rape of global resources and its willingness to risk catastrophic climate change. ‘POC’, by contrast, are condescendingly cast as noble savages, their historic cultures said to have been in harmony with the natural world.
Essential always to this ideological trajectory has been the deconstruction of language as a rational medium. Words, we are told, are self-contained symbols, a means of arbitrary power; they have no true referents in the world, so we can reimagine things however we like, putting truth and lies on an equal footing. As Maurice Samuel noted with regard to Nazi rhetoric in 1940: ‘in the dehumanisation of man, in the deification of the force-principle … the disappearance of the word as channel of communication is a necessary, transitional stage’.
The language games played by today’s radical left offer startling parallels. ‘Newspeak’, Roger Scruton observed, ‘occurs whenever the primary purpose of language – which is to describe reality – is replaced by the rival purpose of asserting power over it …
‘Newspeak sentences sound like assertions, but their underlying logic is that of the spell. They conjure the triumph of words over things, the futility of rational argument, and also the danger of resistance.’
This so-called ‘postmodernism’ is basically an ancient mistake that treats human language, and not that of God, as sovereign. Religion has always treated words with caution and significance; with words we create. But the extent of our verbal power to structure and shape the world is limited, a humble echo of God’s original act of creative speech.
But the recognition of logos is absent from the power-worshipping vision of those who scapegoat ‘whiteness’ for all the world’s ills. In their revolution, we cease to be free and equal beings made in the image of God, and in an absurd parody make ourselves into little, competing idols. Liberating ourselves from the bounds of reason, we wilfully enslave ourselves to deterministic nature, falling back into petty tribalism.
This is the bleak mental world younger generations in the West have been made to inhabit: one in which everything is approached through the prism of power, and where the only comfort is the delusional freedom to arbitrarily remake our mental world. But in embracing the ideological certainties offered us by a false religion, now claiming the misleading mantle of ‘antiracism’, we cannot really empower but only diminish and endanger ourselves and others.
The Through the Looking Glass world we’re invited to enter into is not a delightful fairy-tale, but a dangerous fantasy. Its core promoters do not care for ‘black lives’, only for the opportunity to spark destructive conflict. It is the Judeo-Christian reconciliation of reason and revelation that has given us what good we have; we should not throw it away in a fit of self-indulgence.
Bad ideas can get out of hand very quickly indeed. So, all those who see the danger need urgently to commit to telling the truth as we see it in language not dictated by our opponents, and to start actively promoting an alternative, more humane and sensible vision of the world.