Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Critical Theory . . . It’s Complicated

Critical theory is being thrown under the bus . . . yet again, and so it has propelled me out from under my quarantine rock to defend it. Like most people, I would imagine, the pandemic and the necessity of self-isolation has led me to spend more time online than I would normally like. And recent events in the wake of even more murders of black men by police officers as well as the utter incompetence, inaction, and treasonous behavior of the stupidest man to ever hold the office of President, have given me plenty of content to consume. The specific content that has spurred me to action this time is a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience in which Rogan’s guest was author James Lindsay. Lindsay was on the program to promote his forthcoming book, Cynical Theories, which he co-authored with Helen Pluckrose and is due out in August. My typical pattern is to watch one or two of the clips from the show, and if I like the guest and the conversation I’ll go ahead and watch the whole podcast. The clip in question was intriguing, as in it Lindsay began by talking about how Wokeness will eventually destroy itself from within, ironically, when people “wake up” to the fact of what is really going on. That was good enough for me, and so I cued up Rogan’s show #1501 and began to watch

Lindsay, who I had never heard of before this, is someone for whom I would seem to have a natural affinity, a religious and cultural critic who also has a scientific background. As the show began, he and Rogan were discussing the negative aspects of keeping animals in zoos, and from there went on to point out the way some people today have the audacity to criticize things that others have done in their childhood as if it still represents them now, and then on to the Woke Movement in particular. Lindsay rightly says at this point, “The theory that is fueling this . . . is this idea that comes from French philosophy that words and ideas and thoughts and patterns have traces that don’t ever really go away. And so if something used to be associated with something bad and we still use the word, or even if you pretend that it was the case and you still use the word, then it carries this negative trace.” Rogan asks the obvious question at this point, if people are really aware of the ideological underpinnings of their outrage. For the average person, Lindsay says, it’s unlikely, and then he compares the whole thing to religious hierarchy with deconstructionist professors playing the part of priests and theologians. So far, so good. But then Rogan tries to sum it all up this way: “So, you’ve got the Woke academics, the serious Woke people, that are teaching it to kids, that really teach it as critical theory, like critical race theory.” And when Lindsay responds with “That’s right,” my heart sank.

In the end it’s a small thing, I realize, as what Lindsay was really agreeing with was the way that academics—college professors, mostly—preach their deconstructionist dogma as a way of making themselves feel as if they’re smarter than everyone else, and yet remain oblivious to the damage they are doing to society as a whole by inculcating college students into believing in an entirely fictitious narrative—which really is very similar to religion. What I object to, however, is the way that Lindsay’s assent blithely lumps German Critical Theory in with French Deconstructionist philosophy, when the two could not be more different. At this point he and Rogan go on to discuss the execrable book White Fragility, and compare that author’s seminars to something resembling cult indoctrination. One of Lindsay’s interesting arguments is the idea that there is also a moral component to this type of race shaming, which makes the religious comparisons even more obvious. Then he gets back to Critical Theory territory when he says that a person’s denial of racist beliefs is actually proof to the Woke crowd of implicit guilt because, “one of the symptoms of participation in systemic racism is an inability to see it if you’re white. It’s invisible to you.” Then Lindsay goes on to explain how all of this evolved.

          It is Marx who cooked up this idea called conflict theory. He actually took it from other German
          philosophers . . . He changed Hagel’s idea of what’s called—you can’t even say this anymore, the
          master-slave dialectic, because master and slave have traces. Even though that’s what it was called,
          you can’t talk about it . . . Hagel wrote that people have power, and then there are people who don’t
          have power. The person that’s being oppressed by the power understands the oppression, whereas
          the person who’s doing the oppression can’t. Simple enough. Marx cooked this up into this idea called
          conflict theory that says, oh, different groups in society—and he mostly meant rich people versus poor
          people—are completely separate from each other and there’s no idea that they help each other . . .
          So, what Marx’s idea was is that the oppressor class is always the enemy of the underclass. And this
          has actually traced down through history.

All of this makes sense, as Deconstructionism has much more to do with Marx’s theory than anything else: the unconscious behavior of the oppressor class is the culprit for the unhappiness in the world. But then Lindsay takes his history lesson a step too far. “This philosophical school started in Germany at first, moved to Columbia University during World War Two. It’s called the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.” The problem here is that when Lindsay says “this” it sounds as if he’s talking about the ideas of Marx and Hegel and that this Frankfurt School decided to take the ideas of the master-slave dialectic and conflict theory and run with them. In point of fact, the Frankfurt School thought that Marx was wrong in one very significant way: it wasn’t the oppressor class that was unconscious about what was going on, it was the oppressed. What that means is that Critical Theory actually believed the opposite of what Marx had proposed, which Lindsay seems to understand, as he then adds, “They moved it into ideology and culture. So the dominant culture, whoever has the most status and power, the elites, which at the time was generally white, straight men for the most part, those people basically brainwash the underclass into not realizing that they should rise up against it.” This is clearly a significant difference from Marx, and yet the “it” makes it sound as if he’s still saying that it’s the ideas of Marx and Hegel that the Frankfurt School are promulgating. And then he makes the disappointing mistake of completely submerging Critical Theory back into Marxist theory when he says, “So you have this whole dynamic of conflict where the oppressor class doesn’t realize what it’s like to be oppressed, the oppressed class constantly can’t get away from it . . . and then the underclass always has to be at war to try to overturn the power above them . . . This stuff all has a very long history. It didn’t just pop up in 2014.”

This is an incredibly frustrating description, because while Lindsay apparently understands the distinction between Marx’s unconscious oppressor class and the Frankfurt School’s unconscious underclass, he not only fails to make that distinction clear to the listener, but instead he folds Critical Theory right back into Marxist theory as if they were one in the same. It would be nice to think that was an accident, but later on in the podcast he confirms his misunderstanding when he says, “Critical Theory was how you complain that things aren’t Marxist enough . . . People bomb me for saying that, but it is actually, generally true.” No, it’s not. It’s also a gross misrepresentation of Marx’s goal, which was to improve the lives of everyone in society rather than making the working class the economic slaves of the moneyed elite. As stated earlier, Critical Theory was a reaction against one of Marx’s main ideas. The problem wasn’t that the underclass was constantly at war with their oppressors, it was that they didn’t realize the oppressor class was constantly at war with them. Just one of the ways that the oppressor class wages their war on the unconscious underclass—and there are many—is by keeping them distracted and absorbed in meaningless pursuits, especially things like sports and celebrity. With men spending all their time glued to ESPN and fantasy sports leagues, in addition to the real thing, and women obsessed with the supposedly real housewives of this or that city, and poring over People magazine, the oppressors keep the oppressed so preoccupied with what amounts to nothing that the oppressed have no time or energy to devote to overturning the power of the elites, much less even realize that’s what’s going on in the first place.

But it wasn’t enough for the capitalist oligarchy in this country to make cultural and economic slaves of their fellow citizens. In order to make even more money, corporate elites decided that overseas markets were the way to go. This phenomenon was explained by writer and historian Joseph E. Green, in his book Dissenting Views. U.S. citizens can only spend so much time and money numbing their brains in meaningless pursuits, while subjecting the rest of the world to the same fate seemed like the new version of Manifest Destiny to corporate America, something Green labeled the American Idea.

          If we speak solely of the cinema, music, and television—the pop cultural milieu that forms one of
          the last remaining exports of the United States—we cannot help but notice the overwhelming
          juggernaut that is most obviously expressed in the worldwide interest in film and music stars. What
          Americans sell to other countries is the stuff that dreams are made on. For we are out of the manu-
          facturing business . . . but we remain experts in the various aspects of the mellifluous nothing we
          might call the American Idea.

Critical Theory, which began at the end of World War One in Germany, had been around for nearly forty years before French theorists used it as an inspiration to go off in a completely different direction in response to American cultural hegemony in the world, which itself was a direct result of the American capitalist desire to expand markets for overseas exports of American cultural products. Green explains the effect this had on some European intellectuals.

          Not everyone likes the American Idea. The French, we might say, are at the forefront of the resistance
          movement against this wave. Indeed, one could characterize the works of Michel Foucault and Jaques
          Derrida, for example, as little more than attempts to undermine or otherwise get around the American
          Idea, as it is instantiated in monopoly capitalism . . . [and] there are many [others] who have gone on
          the record as lamenting the fact that universal ties between human beings are [now being] formed
          along the lines of reality television stars rather than anything of consequence in the real world.

Green is right when he says that French deconstructionist philosophy was developed in some sense as a bulwark against the American cultural invasion of Europe. By breaking down any piece of literature, texts, films, what have you, and deconstructing it into its constituent parts, those parts quickly become meaningless when separated from their overall context. Thus, essentially having no meaning at that point, those individual parts can then be assigned any meaning the reader or viewer wants them to have. The real evil genius in the philosophy, however, is that once those parts with their new meaning attached are reassembled, this new meaning now informs the entire work, usually damning it as the product of corporate American designs to flood the rest of the world with “mellifluous nothing” in its mission to extract as much money from that world as possible without any thought to the consequences for the people themselves. Meanwhile, this idea was soon picked up by American university professors who had lost the ability to analyze literature and needed some way to justify their existence. Using these principles they were able to deconstruct literature and show how it actually meant whatever they wanted it to mean rather than what the text explicitly said. In this case, however, the underlying meaning they assigned was one that indicted whites over blacks, men over women, straights over gays, and any other cultural disparity that could be exploited in the name of publishing rather than perishing. In fact, James Lindsay himself, along with a couple of colleagues, wrote out meaningless academic papers a few years ago that they crammed full of deconstructionist ideas and jargon, and of the twenty they submitted to peer-reviewed journals, seven were actually accepted for publication. One was even given an award by the journal that accepted it.

So, what the hell does any of this have to do with Critical Theory? The short answer is, almost nothing. Critical Theory is about as responsible for Deconstructionism as classical music is responsible for smooth jazz. Sure, both Mozart and Kenny G use the twelve-tone scale of Western music, but there the similarity ends. And while Mozart represents a high point in Western culture and rewards repeated listening, the loss of Kenny G’s music might actually be a cultural gain for society. Similarly, while both Critical Theory and Deconstructionism share an emphasis on trying to understand the hidden forms of oppression in society, there the similarity also ends, and the loss of deconstructionist principles would also be a net gain for the American people. The confusion comes from the fact that American academics co-opted the name, probably because it sounds a lot better than Deconstructionism. Rather than the utter destruction and dismantling of the literature and culture that academics are pretending to analyze—which is all that deconstruction really accomplishes—the term Critical Theory instead turns these faux intellectuals into genius analysts who can see what others are oblivious to. I have no issue with the use of the word “theory,” as in race theory, feminist theory, or queer theory—though the philosophies themselves are overtly damaging to society—but once they tack on the word “critical” it winds up dragging the Frankfurt School into ideologies they have no business being associated with, let alone the responsibility for.

The only tenuous connection that Critical Theory has with Deconstructionism is in the idea that things are not really what they seem, and that oppression can be lurking in those unseen hidden depths. But where Deconstructionism sees oppression in other people, and makes them personally responsible for the systemic disenfranchisement of perceived victims that they couldn’t possibly be responsible for, Critical Theory tries to open the mind to the ways in which the system itself is responsible for the oppression of everyone, and that it’s the victims themselves who need to take personal responsibility for their own complicity in that oppression. Sports and celebrity, for instance, would seem to be an innocent pastime, a hobby to enjoy as a respite from work and other obligations, and for some people that may be the case. What the Frankfurt School was attempting to demonstrate, however, is that when seen within the totality of a person’s life, those things are nothing more than distractions to keep people from using their energies to actually make their lives better, and by extension improving the lives of everyone around them. The idea was to see things as they really are, not simply make up some meaning that justifies a person’s inchoate and incorrect ideas about their own perceived victimhood. For the Frankfurt School the most oppressive form of control was that of the workplace, but they quickly branched out into other areas as well, especially the numerous ways that the capitalist oligarchy—first in Europe but later in the U.S.—was controlling the masses through the manipulation of the media and entertainment as well as commerce.

The ultimate refinement of this goal, it has become pretty obvious, is the smart phone, whose very presence in people’s lives robs users of their own smarts by plugging them instead into a corporate matrix that delivers non-stop sports and entertainment, or anger-fueled social commentary and meaningless connection rather than real life experience. And it is in the toxic sphere of modern social media where both of the ideas of oppressor manipulation and deconstructionism come together. As Rogan says, “The format of Twitter itself, I think it’s detrimental to people’s mental health. Communicating through these small, little sentences, and little paragraphs of two hundred and eighty characters.” And then Lindsay naturally goes on to make the obvious connection. “I actually call Twitter a deconstruction machine.

          Deconstruction is the idea that we’re going to take a thing apart, make it look absurd, or show it in
          a particular light, pull it apart until you don’t really trust its validity anymore. And so anything you put
          on Twitter, once you get an account of a certain size at least, [there’s] a one hundred percent chance
          that some jackass is going to say something that just messes with your head. Somebody’s going to
          take it out of context, or they’re going to tell you what they thought you mean, and now that’s the
          thing you mean . . . So they take you apart, they deconstruct you, the real Joe Rogan, your real
          intentions and your real meaning, and then they put it out into the world and now there’s this new
          Joe Rogan that does terrible things, or there’s this new Joe Rogan that’s maybe a saint.

The idea behind Deconstructionism as it is used in this country today, first as a way of making literature mean whatever university professors want it to mean so that they don’t have to go through the arduous task of working out what an author is actually saying, is then passed on to their students, who are now stuck with these specious theories as a way to try and understand the world around them. Except they end up doing exactly the opposite. Instead of being able to undertake the difficult intellectual work of making sense of the world as it is, people now have permission to make up whatever kind of world they want, seeing people and institutions and politics not for what they really are, but as whatever the individual wants those things to be, increasingly either a comfort or an outrage and with almost no gray area in between. My issue with Lindsay’s history lesson is that he makes absolutely no distinction between Critical Theory and the Deconstructionist philosophy that emerged out of it much later, when the reality is they are really quite different. Critical Theory. It’s right in the name. The Frankfurt school was critical of Marxist theory as a way of accurately explaining what was going on in the world, and so they took a far more nuanced look at the forces at work in capitalist oligarchies to explain it. Instead it is Deconstructionist theory, not the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory, that is the driving force behind the Political Correctness Movement and it’s current incarnation in Woke philosophy, which has resulted in the absolutely bizarre creation of right-wing fascism by left-wing zealots in our country.

What’s so ironic in all of this is that Lindsay has no trouble at all making distinctions when it comes to religion.

          I used to be kind of hard ass about religion, a tough, angry atheist, but I’ve thought about it more—
          which you’re not allowed to think about things and change your mind now, but I did—and what I
          realized is that some religions look up, they’re looking at God and they’re afraid of sin, but they’re
          paying attention to God, they’re thinking about renewal, they’re thinking about redemption, they’re
          thinking about forgiveness. And then some religions look down, and all they do is look at the sin,
          and they focus on the sin and that’s where the witch hunts came from . . . If you look up, then religion
          can be great, it can actually lead people to spiritual development and community and so on. But if
          you’re looking down, you’re going to start obsessing—and if you’re obsessing about sin you’re going
          to start obsessing about everybody else’s sin too.

When Lindsay talks about the difference between upward looking Christians and downward looking Christians this is exactly the same distinction he needs to be making with regard to Critical Theory and its monumental difference from Deconstructionism. Unfortunately, because of the informal nature of their discussion, which was primarily focused on the end results, that distinction is left unclear, and Critical Theory once again winds up being held responsible for the evils of modern social fascism and is unfairly maligned in the process.

Putting definitions and distinctions aside for a moment, it’s once again fascinating to see Lindsay make the connection between religion and Deconstructionism because the Bible is the ultimate deconstructionist text. For every passage that promotes peace and love and turning the other cheek—those the upward looking Christians focus on—there are just as many, if not more, passages promoting hatred toward others, enslaving them, raping them, killing them, all in the name of trying to be the people God likes best and justifying all manner of inhumanity to others as a result. As the saying goes, believers need only to pick their poison. For downward looking Christians it’s not enough to rid themselves of sin, they somehow feel mandated to remove everyone else’s imaginary sin as well—and through whatever means necessary. This translates quite easily into Woke philosophy as it is not enough for people to act in non-prejudicial ways, and instead it is the mandate of the Woke to root out prejudice where it is hiding in the minds of people, even if it’s not really there. This same phenomenon is one that Arthur Miller wrote about nearly seventy years ago in the contextual narrative portions of The Crucible, his play about the Salem Witch Trials.

          Our difficulty in believing the—for want of a better word—political inspiration of the Devil is due in
          great part to the fact that he is called up and damned not only by our social antagonists but by our
          own side, whatever it may be . . . In the countries of the Communist ideology, all resistance of any
          import is linked to the totally malign capitalist succubi, and in America any man who is not reactionary
          in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell. Political opposition, thereby, is given
          an inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized
          intercourse. A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevo-
          lence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a congerie of plots and counter-
          plots . . . The results of this process are no different now from what they ever were, except some-
          times in the degree of cruelty inflicted, and not always even in that department. Normally the actions
          and deeds of a man were all that society felt comfortable in judging. The secret intent of an action
          was left to the ministers, priests, and rabbis to deal with. When diabolism rises, however, actions
          are the least important manifests of the true nature of a man.

This is a lot to take in, and so it’s important to give Miller’s words the kind of analysis they need in order to be crystal clear about how they describe the societal fascism that’s coming from the left today. He begins by mentioning the “political inspiration of the Devil,” by which he means using the idea of evil, or sin, or criminality, as a way of controlling people. The use of the Devil as a means of control in organized religion is fairly obvious, especially for those downward looking Christians. But in addition to the diabolism imagined by religion, there is also a new secular diabolism that manifests itself in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia and a host of other perceived sins. Then Miller goes on to say that anyone who is not reactionary in their views against obvious evils—even if those evils are only obvious to a specific group—automatically aligns them with and makes them part of that evil. The same thing is true in Woke philosophy. Bill Maher talked about this earlier in the year on Rogan’s podcast #1413, and illuminates the fact that Miller’s observation from the middle of the previous century is even worse today. Rogan begins by stating, “The left has this dirty thing that if you disagree with them in any way you become an alt right person,” which Maher picks up on and further refines. “I am always reading a story, daily I read something, and what goes through my mind is, ‘This country now is completely binary.’ There’s only two camps. We’re totally tribal. You’re either red or blue, liberal or conservative, and everything that one side does, that anybody does that represents that side, has to be owned by that entire side.” Rogan then articulates the way this perverts important issues by creating false conflicts, when in reality the major problems faced by this country should be seen as major problems by everyone. “It should be something that everybody rejects; it should be something that angers everyone; it shouldn’t be tied to one party or another party.”

What comes next is rather chilling. As Miller states, once this type of dynamic is embraced, the “normally applied customs of civilized intercourse” are thrown out the window. Once the enemy has been labeled as such they become evil, and because of that its perfectly permissible to attack them in any manner deemed necessary, no matter how violent or cruelly inflicted. Even more disturbing, in a properly functioning society the secret intent behind a person’s actions is not something that other people can know or should at all be concerned with, but once secular diabolism is assumed to be present, then a person’s actions become irrelevant in the face of presumed bigotry. By using deconstructionist principles it actually becomes very easy to ignore people’s actions and simply assume that every person who finds themselves born into a privileged class is automatically guilty of oppressing others. What Lindsay sees in this kind of behavior, however, is merely a form of projection.

          That’s what I’m thinking is going on. I’ve thought this for a number of years, that a lot of this stuff
          where you get these Woke activists doing their blogs or these scholars writing this stuff down is
          that they’re looking at their own lives. So you have these people walking down the street, or what-
          ever, they walk into the hotel, they walk into the restaurant, and [they think], “I saw a black guy.”
          And then it’s, “I’m not supposed to notice that.” And they start having this thing in their head, and
          then they go write an angry blog about how terrible racism is because they’re wrestling with it
          themselves . . . And now “everybody’s a racist” is kind of the vibe of the new thing.

What’s so fascinating is that this is a perfect example of what Critical Theory predicts. Rather than fighting systemic racism and other kinds of oppression where it really lies, with people using their considerable energy to eliminate it by working together, politically correct deconstructionism turns people against themselves. And so instead of waging war where it will do the most good, people become distracted by attempting to police everyone else’s thoughts. The biggest problem with this kind of focus is that it turns out to be a completely meaningless exercise. In speaking about the book White Fragility, Lindsay had this to say about the type of seminars the author gives around the country, and the ludicrous extremes to which that type of thinking is taken when pushed to its illogical conclusion.

          This lady emailed me the other day, this Indian woman. So this lady says “I had to go through
          this Brown Fragility training at work.” What happened was, they explained to the whole group—
          it was done in a room in front of a bunch of people—and they explained Brown people in general
          have anti-black racism, too, and that upholds white supremacy. And it’s almost like cold reading.
          They wait for somebody to start looking like they’re getting the sweats or something happening,
          and then they say, “Now, what we need to do, now that we’ve introduced this idea of your brown
          fragility and your anti-blackness, is we need to interrogate the feelings that came up.” And so they
          go one by one through the room and made every single one of them confess their feelings. Who’s
          not going to participate? And here’s that double bind, because it gets to you, right? And so what
          do you say? You say, “Well, I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” They’ll say you’re
          ignoring it, and then if you confess to it, then you’re falling in.

The only thing this kind of inquisition demonstrates is that people have racist thoughts . . . all people, which doesn’t really seem to have a point. For the Woke crowd, however, that’s enough to condemn them outright. But those kinds of assumptions only expose the illegitimacy of that way of thinking. Because if having racist thoughts is enough to make a person a racist, then the Woke Movement needs to be just as vigilant about condemning blacks for the very same thoughts. That’s right. Racist thoughts don’t just come out of nowhere, they are inculcated into people by others who want to indoctrinate them into a specific way of thinking. And as far as Critical Theory is concerned, propaganda makes no concession to race. It is equally damaging to all citizens, including blacks. A perfect explanation of this comes in the film 13th. In her documentary about the propaganda campaign that led to the mass incarceration of blacks in this country, Ava DuVernay interviewed a number of people, but it’s black activist Malkia Cyril who makes this point the most eloquently. “So you have then educated a public deliberately, over years, over decades, to believe that black men in particular, and black people in general, are criminals. I want to be clear, because I’m not just saying that white people believe this, right? Black people also believe this and are terrified of our own selves.”

And once again, that fact in and of itself proves nothing about the person. A person’s thoughts are a person’s thoughts, and should in no way define them. Further, those who indulge in that sort of thinking are actually flying in the face of true morality. Matt Dillahunty, the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin and a regular host of that organization’s The Atheist Experience, has gone to great lengths to explode this particular myth. In one conversation with a caller to the show, Dillahunty had to explain to a morally outraged Christian why being a pedophile is not inherently immoral.

          It’s okay to have that desire, it’s not okay to act on it. In fact, the person who has that desire and
          never acts on it is engaging in a morally superior position, because they recognize the action is
          distinct and different and has consequences . . . Our actions have consequences, and it is the
          actions that matter. My desire, what goes on in my head, first of all is nobody’s business. Nobody
          can know unless I state it. Nobody can make an assessment of me. I could be sitting here every
          day on the show with really horrific desires that I never act on. I’m not, but you don’t have any
          way to know that; you don’t have any right to know it. What you’re doing is trying to make thoughts
          a crime. But thoughts aren’t a crime.

So even though it’s possible to separate thought from action, that still leaves the country with the problem of what to do with all of that previous indoctrination and the way it may inform unconscious actions today. In Miller’s day he was writing about America’s conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and he went on to illuminate the real issue at the heart of the conflict in the way the Salem Witch Trials translates to modern times by pointing out that, “while there were no witches then, there are Communists and capitalists now.” A similar situation is complicating the search for answers in the twenty-first century. To recast Miller’s point in terms of racism: while not everyone the country is a racist, there is racism in the country. So even though it makes no sense on its face to assume that every non-black person in the U.S. is prejudiced against blacks, it is equally incorrect to then make the false assumption that there is no racism at all.

The pushback by many whites against the idea that there is systemic, institutionalized racism in this country is only an attempt to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, and completely ignores the surfeit of evidence from just the past decade. One of the most embarrassing attempts to deny this reality was made by Sam Harris, who increasingly seems to be espousing views that are regressive and reactionary rather than intellectual. His podcast from June 12th of this year is profoundly disturbing in its implication that the murder of blacks by police officers, while tragic, are not really evidence of racism. “Do the dozen or so videos that have emerged in recent years,” he begins, “of black men being killed by cops, do they prove or even suggest that there is an epidemic of lethal police violence directed especially at black men, and that this violence is motivated by racism? If you take even five minutes,” he continues, “to look at the data on crime and police violence, the answer really appears to be no, in every case.” The justification he uses for this absurd assertion is that, today, “the police use more deadly force against white people, both in terms of absolute numbers, and in terms of their contribution to crime and violence in our society.” But in making this kind of argument, Harris falls victim to the most boneheaded intellectual blunder a person can make: the belief that statistics are the same thing as facts. They’re not. And this attempt—by someone who should really know better—to gaslight the country into believing that police crimes against blacks are not racially motivated is naïve at best, and insidiously divisive at worst.

There are hundreds of stories out there that make Harris’s statistics a moot point, but the one I came across in the last few days was an account of a stand up show by Dave Chappelle, and the way that his experience belies all of the statistics that Harris can dredge up. Chappelle was in New York shortly after the Eric Garner murder by police, and talked at the show about how incidents like that make him afraid for his children. Then a white woman in the audience decided to heckle him by shouting “Life’s hard. Sorry about it!” According to the description of the evening by fellow comedian Kenny DeForrest, “It takes the air completely out of the room. A collective gasp.” But as is his way, Chappelle didn’t get confrontational, and instead used the opportunity to educate the audience about the history of police violence in their interactions with black people. He went on to tell a story about being pulled over by a cop near his home, and reacting with extreme caution because of how conscious Chappelle was that he is black. The cop who pulled him over said to relax, that he knew Chappelle, and sent him off with just a warning. “The twist?” according to DeForrest, “The same cop would go on to murder John Crawford III,” a short time later. Chappelle finished by telling a story about a friend from South Africa, and what it was like right before apartheid ended, and his description was a heightened version of what happened after the George Floyd murder. “Critical mass,” Chappelle said. “That’s what we have to hit. Once enough of you care, there will be nothing they can do to stop that change.” And then he ended his set.

The real point of the story comes after the show, when the white woman from the audience asked to see Chappelle. She not only apologized for what she said, but thanked him for educating her, and said she would never talk like that again. Chappelle was gracious and thanked her in return, because now she was now part of the solution rather than the problem. She was part of the critical mass that it would take to make things better. This is in direct refutation of the deconstructionist thought-police and their indictment of those who don’t know any better simply because of the way that they were indoctrinated. “The point is,” DeForrest concludes, “It doesn’t matter what you thought before. You can always change.” But that’s not how Woke philosophy views it. To them, according to Lindsay, “It’s like everything’s a permanent stain on you. There’s no growth. You can’t become a better person over time.” This way of viewing the world essentially says, once a racist always a racist. What the Wokesters don’t realize, though, and Dave Chappelle obviously understands, is that the solution to the problem of systemic racism is education, not shame. Guilt doesn’t help anyone—which is something organized religion still hasn’t figured out. All it does is pit people who are supposed to be on the same side against each other. But this is exactly the kind of infighting that the ruling oligarchy wants to see happening because it distracts people from the real problems and the real culprits. Again, this is the precise scenario that Critical Theory warns about—in complete opposition to the Deconstructionism that creates it.

This is why Critical Theory is so frightening to the corporate-political elites on the right, because it attempts to expose the real truth for all to see. That’s why when articles and books appear on Critical Theory by those from the right, they are little more than diatribes and screeds accusing the Frankfurt School of being dedicated to the destruction of this society and the American way of life. But that argument assumes that American society and its way of life as it currently exists is actually working in a positive way for the American people, when clearly it’s not. One only has to look at what’s happened in Washington D.C. over the past year and it’s pretty clear to see that the right has become so brazenly dedicated to the acquisition of money and power, regardless of the consequences for the average citizen, that they will allow an utterly inept criminal to occupy the highest office in the land, kill hundreds of thousands of Americans through inaction, and put millions out of work just to keep the stock market humming along and be able maintain their own power. As to the desire for the destruction of that part of American society, the Frankfurt School would happily plead guilty. And it’s precisely that aspect of Marxism, to use Lindsay’s phrase, that “wasn’t Marxist enough” for them. But all revolutions are not equal, and it does a major disservice to Critical Theory to assume that the only form of revolution that results in meaningful change is a violent one. Even Lindsay confessed during the podcast that Herbert Marcuse, one of the founding members of the Frankfurt School, was unhappy with the anti-intellectual nature of the demonstrations in the late sixties. Rioting is always going to be ineffective if the people participating can’t articulate exactly why they are rebelling and exactly what they hope to gain—something the protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder have been very clear about.

To see just the kind of thing that Critical Theory hoped to destroy, it’s instructive to look at where ideas like White Fragility come from. The book’s most open critic has been Matt Taibbi, who pointed out on the news program The Hill, “the extraordinary irony of white America in the wake of this racial tragedy in Minneapolis elevating, of all things, a white corporate consultant to number one on the best seller list, because this is how they want to reinterpret racial issues . . . Corporate America views the race problem as an individual issue, where racism is sort of inexorably stuck in all of us and the only way that we can combat it is by relentlessly listening to corporate consultants tell us how to fight it.” But this is exactly what Critical Theory predicts corporations will do. By using deconstructionist principles to distract people from institutionalized racism and blaming it instead on the individual, it absolves the corporate world from their complicity in manufacturing the problem in the first place, while at the same time setting people at war with each other. All one has to do is watch the first half of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, to see that this is not the conspiracy theory that politicians, corporate executives, and misguided people like Sam Harris would have people believe. These were corporate created, politically instituted policies that were designed specifically to criminalize race and turn the rest of America against blacks. What Critical Theory wants is for people to open their eyes and see the systemic corruption right in front of them, something that has been easier than ever over the past six months.

A perfect example of this kind of revelation about what is really going on in the world, what the Frankfurt School was attempting to help regular people understand, was experienced by the novelist Stephen King when he was in college in the late sixties, and which he wrote about in Danse Macabre. During his junior year a group of Black Panthers visited the school, and calmly and rationally began to explain to the audience in attendance the way that the corporate oligarchy in America was manipulating the system to their advantage—and to the decided disadvantage of the average citizen. King wrote about the many ways he already believed that the government and corporations were responsible for a myriad of evils in the country. But the thing is, all of the things King listed were essentially scandals that had been uncovered and reported on in the big city newspapers of the time. According to the Panther speakers, however, this was just the tip of the iceberg. “These Panthers were suggesting a huge umbrella of conscious conspiracy that was laughable . . . except the audience wasn’t laughing. During the Q-and-A period, they were asking sober, concerned questions about just how the conspiracy was working, who was in charge, how they got their orders out, et cetera.” At this point King could not contain himself, and stood up to deliver a litany of ludicrous suggestions about what he called “an actual Board of Conspiracy in this country.” After he was finally shouted down by the crowd, “the Panther who spoke did not respond to my question (which, to be fair, wasn’t a question at all, really); he merely said softly, ‘You got a surprise, didn’t you, man?’ . . . I did get a surprise—and a pretty unpleasant one, at that.” Unfortunately, the surprise didn’t stick, and King allowed himself to be reeled back in by the political-industrial complex, which he clearly demonstrated when he went on to write a fantasy novel based on the preposterous notion that Lee Harvey Oswald had anything at all to do with the actual killing of President John F. Kennedy.

Who knows why King resisted believing what the Frankfurt School would have said was painfully obvious. Perhaps it’s because he’s made so much money that he realized he had more in common with the wealthy elite than with his fellow citizens, I don’t know. But in a tremendous irony that feels inescapably just, King recently found himself cowed before the Woke Movement. According to Lindsay, when talking to Rogan about trans-women, “Stephen King got dragged into this, with the whole trans thing.

          He’s long-time been a supporter of J.K. Rowling. J.K. Rowling has decided that she’s had enough
          of this trans rights thing, [and their] going after the women’s issues. And so at first Stephen King
          stood up for her, and she put out a Tweet saying, “You’re such a good friend, blah, blah, blah.” Then
          somebody came after him, and he [Tweets], “Trans women are women.” And it’s like, he just caved.
          He just immediately caved. It’s like: All Woke and no play makes Steve a dull boy. You get this sense
          that it’s like something out of one of the novels he would have [written]. All of a sudden it’s like Needful
          Things, the whole town going crazy because of demon possession.

But it’s not demon possession that the United States is struggling with today, its possession of the seats of government, the seats of industry, the seats of finance, all the seats of power that are held by a tiny fraction of the population. And then they use that power and control to manipulate everything to their advantage, property, education, taxes, the legal system, the financial system, the military, energy, and medicine, and leave nothing more than crumbs for everyone else. And for the coup de grâce, they get everyone else to fight among themselves for those crumbs without ever understanding that they could have so much more if they all worked together for the common good.

The thing is, it’s much too easy to blame the President for the current state of the nation, for what’s wrong with America. In reality, he is just a figurehead. The real culprit behind the failure who sits in the White House, the party truly responsible for everything that has happened in the last three and a half years, from the subversion of American elections, to the murder of blacks in the streets, to making Covid 19 even worse, are Senate and Congressional Republicans who support him despite the fact that this President has wantonly broken federal laws and misused his office to benefit himself while completely ignoring the needs of the country he is purportedly there to serve. Senate Republicans in particular, had the opportunity to rid this country of the scourge that sits in the Oval Office. It was served up to them on a silver platter. All they had to do was the right thing, the moral thing, the only thing that would have allowed them to uphold their sworn oath to the Constitution. And yet they utterly failed, just like their so-called leader. Had Senate Republicans acted as duty demanded when the President was impeached, had they responded appropriately to the will of the people when called upon by the country to remove both this man and his complicit vice-president from office, Nancy Pelosi would be the President now and the nation would not be in the miserable state it’s in, suffering not only from a global pandemic but from the economic chaos that followed in its wake.

But Republicans refuse to change, refuse to learn and grow, and refuse to admit they are wrong. They must keep up the façade of infallibility even at the expense of hundreds of thousands of American lives. At the same time, their so-called leader is truly the emperor with no clothes. He is a nakedly racist, misogynist, homophobic narcissist who is incapable of opening his mouth without lying. He is a delusional adolescent bully who maintains his position through the criminal actions of his miscreant supporters in Congress who have allowed him to remain in office despite numerous treasonous actions against our country and the Constitution he was sworn to defend. When looked at in this light, the modern Republican Party is really not that different from the Catholic Church. And just as the Vatican shielded pederast priests for decades—if not centuries—the right wing of this country is content to figuratively sodomize its own citizens in order to support a capitalist oligarchy that has become increasingly less covert in its actions. This is the very thing that the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory have been attempting to warn people about for the last hundred years. But because those on the right continue to denigrate Critical Theory, purposefully conflating it with Deconstructionism as a way of damning it in the public eye, and hopefully distracting people from the profound truths contained within, it’s vitally important, now more than ever, to remain vigilant about pointing out the distinction between the two theories and not fall prey to sloppy explication in the manner of James Lindsay. Critical Theory provides not only hope, but an answer to the debilitating conflicts that plague this country. And it’s not about being Woke. It’s about genuinely waking up to the real enemy, and realizing once and for all that it’s not each other.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

From Atheist to Anti-theist

Though I’ve been an atheist for a while, and have several books on the subject, they haven’t been pressing in terms of things I’ve felt compelled to read. As Richard Dawkins said in one of his TED talks, his words for me, as someone who has already rejected the fantasy of religion, is like preaching to the choir. But the other day I was watching various debates and presentations by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and I stumbled upon a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland from 2013 that included Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist and cosmologist—sort of the Canadian Neil deGrasse Tyson—and suddenly a whole lot of things that I had known of and understood in isolation suddenly came together in a way I had never considered before. The first thing that struck me in his comments was something that I have known for a long time to be true: “When you base your beliefs and actions on myths that are incorrect, you’re inevitably going to take irrational actions.” That is not only obvious but extremely bothersome for me, especially when it takes place in the kind of interconnected world we live in now. It’s also at the heart of one of my favorite essays of all time, John Erskine’s “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent” from 1914. Taking irrational actions in today’s world is not only going to have a negative effect on the people making them, but a negative effect on the rest of us as well—we only have to look at the utter disaster that the White House has become to see that—and therefore we have an obligation to the rest of mankind not to remain ignorant.

But then, the thing that hit me like a thunderbolt is when Krauss said, “I don’t define myself as an atheist. I define myself as an anti-theist.” He had taken that stance from Christopher Hitchens and so he didn’t go on to explore the distinction in quite the way I would have liked, but it nevertheless caused a bunch of things that I had heard and read in recent years come into sharper focus. The way I see things now, it’s not enough to simply say that one doesn’t believe in the fantasy of religious mythology; you also have to say, in the most vehement way possible, that others are wrong for believing it. As Krauss went on to point out, “The doctrines of religion are outdated, and that’s for good reason. They were created by Iron Age peasants who didn’t even know the earth orbited the sun. So the wisdom in those books is not wisdom at all.” And yet people everywhere on the planet are acting on that very lack of wisdom in the mistaken belief that it is somehow divine in origin—without a shred of evidence to support that claim. Going back even further than Erskine, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” And religion is the most frightful ignorance of all. One of the many proofs of the absence of wisdom that their holy book supposedly provides them, is the lack of any kind of rational argument as to why anyone should believe in an imaginary deity, and why anything that religion purports to provide can’t be obtained infinitely better through reason and intellect.

In atheist circles this is a given. There are simply no valid arguments for a belief in mythology over rationality. What is so dangerous, however, is the inability of believers to understand that their arguments not only fail to persuade, they are invalid to begin with. But rather than using their intellect to extricate themselves from a world of ignorance and blind obedience, they instead retrench and become even more convinced of their own righteousness. As Richard Dawkins explains, “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature.” One particular circular argument, that because people have believed in Christian mythology for two thousand years then it must be true, isn’t an argument at all. People no doubt believed the earth was flat, or that the sun revolved around the earth, for tens of thousands of years and yet both of those ideas have been demonstrated to be patently false—just like religious mythology. The fact that people believed in all of those things doesn’t prove the legitimacy of the ideas, but more accurately represents a flaw in human genetics and socialization, as Krauss also relates.

          Religion has pervaded all of human society throughout all of human history. There’s clearly something
          ingrained, either in an evolutionary sense or a neurophysiological sense, in the need to believe in
          something bigger than ourselves. And to deny that is to deny the evidence of reality. But just because
          we all share that doesn’t mean it’s true. It just means that we have an ingrained need to believe that.
          So I think the recognition that religious belief is universal is really important to understand if you want
          to understand human beings. Xenophobia is ingrained in biological systems, in and out systems, us
          versus you. All of these things have a sound evolutionary basis, but if we want to be a human society
          and work together, we have to understand that basis so we can move beyond it.

Unfortunately, religion tends to solidify the “us versus you” mentality to a frightening degree. Rather than moving beyond it, the idea is actually the very foundation of all three Judeo-Christian religions that dominate the world today. And this is the area of thought where Krauss’s science based observations sort of end and Sam Harris’s slightly more philosophical arguments begin. For Harris, this intractability on the part of religion is what proves it to be a menace to human society. “While all faiths have been touched, here and there,” he states in his book, The End of Faith, “by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed . . . We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man.” One of the many ironies associated with religious belief, is the apparent sacredness of life when it is in the womb, and yet the complete denigration of that life when it begins thinking for itself—especially when it thinks something different. The certainty of a life beyond this one leads religious followers of all kinds to perform utterly barbaric acts in the name of their god. But that only makes sense, as Harris relates: “Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.” This is the primary argument that Christopher Hitchens had with the Muslim world, and one that is still valid. Richard Dawkins went on record in 2015 as saying “Islam is one of the great evils of the world today.”

This assertion is demonstrably true, and without going anywhere near something as definitive as the 9/11 attacks. Their treatment of women, children, homosexuals, other ethnicities and other religions is positively medieval—because it is. The Islamic religion hasn’t changed its core system of beliefs since its beginning over a thousand years ago. It would be the same thing as if Christians and Jews today still practiced stoning and slavery and ritual sacrifice. And yet Dawkins also understands the consequences of attempting to expose believers to the ignorance of religious dogma and their blind adherence to it, as he related in a 2016 discussion with Krauss in Vancouver. “I don’t think we want to go around telling people they’re idiots, not in so many words. But so many people will think you’re saying that if you criticize what they believe, because it’s as if their beliefs are part of them.” A similar idea came up at another discussion Krauss had with Noam Chomsky in 2015, he brought up Chomsky’s argument that intellectuals in society have an obligation to that society to expose lies and tell the truth. In the context of Chomsky’s career as a political activist, this imperative is usually confined to that sphere of life. So Krauss went ahead and asked him the natural question. “If you go back to your argument about the responsibility of intellectuals—which is to expose lies—is it not, therefore, our responsibility to expose religious lies?” Chomsky took the pragmatic view, one that relies solely on a person’s actions: if a person’s religion causes them to do bad things, then the lie of their religion must be exposed. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, this kind of tolerance no longer works, and in fact, is actually one of the most insidious aspects of our society today. This is the point of both Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith, as well as Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Harris makes the necessary distinction between religious moderates and extremists, but where the danger from extremists is obvious the concurrent danger of toleration has been completely ignored. “Religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of another. [But] the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” The main problem is that the very idea of religion is antithetical to religious pluralism. “As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly ‘respect’ the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now.” Christopher Hitchens, in his book, enumerated the various ways in which religious toleration has turned back on its proponents, none more absurd than the following:

          Empty-headed multiculturalism . . . ensur[ed] the distribution of cheap and mass-produced Saudi
          editions of the Koran, for use in America’s prison system. These Wahhabi texts went even further
          than the original in recommending holy war against all Christians and Jews and secularists. To ob-
          serve all this was to witness a kind of cultural suicide: an ‘assisted suicide’ at which believers and
          unbelievers were both prepared to officiate.

Even Christian apologist Chris Hedges, in a 2010 lecture in Toronto promoting his book Death of the Liberal Class, was prophetic in the way that he articulated the idea that, beyond the obvious reality that the Muslim religion is a danger to society from without, toleration for Christianity no matter what form it takes is the biggest danger from within.

          One of the great failings of the church is that, with the rise of the Christian right—which I look at
          as a mass movement, not a religious movement, a group of Christian heretics, people who have
          acculturated the worst aspects of capitalism, imperialism, greed, chauvinism, and racism into the
          Christian religion-—the liberal church remained silent and said nothing . . . In the process they
          have surrendered their moral authority. They have nothing left to say to us.

It’s clear that this way of thinking comes from the very American idea that in limiting someone else’s freedom, we can inadvertently wind up limiting our own. But the problem in using this idea to support religious toleration is that the result winds up being exactly the opposite. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris makes the attempt to convey this idea directly to the bulk of the religiously deceived in this country. “It is my hope . . . that [the Christian right] will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths.” Harris also points out that religious tolerance leads quite naturally to the dangerous belief that all religions are equal, when they’re clearly not. In a lecture about The End of Faith from 2005, Harris goes on to say that, “Religious moderation prevents us from even noticing the differences among our religions. Under cover of this respect, we are now powerless to say the very harsh and necessary things about religious extremism that we need to say because it is taboo, [because] you have to respect faith. [And yet] by no stretch of the imagination can you argue that the core principal of Islam is non-violence.” The reality is, even though you can argue that the core principal of Christianity is non-violence, the history of Christianity is filled with senseless bloodshed. And as we in the United States know from personal experience, the violence propagated by Islam is just as great. “We are at war,” says Harris, “with Islamic fundamentalism.”

Noam Chomsky, at least, seems to understand that you can’t separate a person’s beliefs from the person themselves. But that is not the case for moderate Christians who plead for religious toleration in the mistaken belief that religion itself is good while only individuals are to blame for their bad actions. Nothing is more emblematic of this faulty logic than Ben Affleck’s pathetic appearance on Bill Maher. Affleck was nearly apoplectic at the suggestion that Islam is a bad religion, for the simple fact that there are “good Muslims.” What he completely failed to understand, however, is that the very phrase “bad religion” is itself redundant. Nothing good can come from people shutting down their minds and refusing to think, and then acting on that ignorance. One of the best rhetorical devices for exposing erroneous thinking is to take a person’s belief—in this case that only the actions of individuals should be considered, not the belief system behind it that causes their actions—and apply it to another situation. Take a family who has a sick child, suffering in torment. But instead of taking the child to the doctor or a hospital, they pray over the child until it finally succumbs to something that could have been cured with modern medicine. Would Affleck think that’s a good thing? I doubt it. Further, would he really believe that it is only those isolated parents who are to blame, or is the real culprit the Christian Science indoctrination that led them to falsely believe that prayer alone could cure their child? Just last year Matt Dillahunty had a terrific take on the death of Billy Graham that demonstrates this very point. “When Billy Graham died the other day I wasn’t glad that he was dead because he was an enemy, I was happy that he was no longer alive to poison minds, because what he believes is the enemy.”

The problem isn’t with people in the first place, and never has been, which seems to be a major sticking point for Affleck and others like him that they can’t seem to get past. The real problem lies in a belief system based on magical thinking and supernatural superstition that forces people to suspend intelligent thought. The people themselves aren’t bad, but their beliefs are no matter how they behave, and Affleck was unable to make that distinction. This is another point that Lawrence Krauss made at the economic forum. “I agree with you completely, that you can’t condemn a whole population because of some individual. But the difference is, there are no rule makers in science.” At this point Krauss heads in another direction, but in his book The Greatest Story Every Told—So Far, he completes the thought in a more succinct way. “In science the very word sacred is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass.” But this is not the case in religion, in which words and ideas are said to be above reproach, above questioning, and to be taken on faith as absolutely true. And the only reason this seems to work is because for so many people their indoctrination begins well before the age of reason. How ironic in our society that children are not assumed to be intellectually capable of consenting to sex until they are eighteen, and yet from the time they are born they are brainwashed into believing in the fantasy of religion. As Dawkins says in The God Delusion, “I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear the phrase such as ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child’ . . . children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics.”

And this leads, quite naturally, to the inability of people who have been indoctrinated as children to think as adults, Christians who think and believe in things that are for the most part indistinguishable from their Islamic brethren. Again, Sam Harris weighs in:

          Another problem with religious moderation is that it is intellectually bankrupt. It really represents a
          fundamentally unprincipled use of reason. I’ve got news for you. I’ve read the books, and God is
          not a moderate. These books really are engines of fundamentalism; they are engines of intolerance;
          [they] laid the foundations for the Inquisition. This is not an accident. We have this idea that the fact
          that we were burning heretics alive for five centuries in Europe represented some kind of departure,
          a civilizational departure into psychopathology. It didn’t. It is perfectly reasonable to do this, if you
          believe the books.

This way of thinking, of course, is in direct opposition to scientific inquiry. “The problem with faith,” Harris continues, “is that it’s conversation stopper. You hear religious people say things like, ‘There’s nothing you can say that will change my mind.’ Just imagine that said in medicine. Only a willingness to take on and consider new evidence and new argument guarantees that this human collaboration is open ended,” rather than ending in war and death. In a 2012 discussion with Richard Dawkins in Australia, Lawrence Krauss had this to say about the vast difference between the kind of close-minded lack of thinking exhibited by religious adherents, and the scientific experience. “Science changes what we mean by words, and it changes what we mean because we actually learn about the Universe. We actually make progress in science, unlike theology. That’s because we can be wrong, and we can learn.” A year later in Switzerland Krauss gave a more specific example of what it really means to learn. “What scientists hope for, and what science does for us, and what I hope every student and every person experiences once in their life, is to have something they deeply believe in, that’s at the heart of their being, and without it they wouldn’t feel they’re human, proved to be wrong. It happens to me every day as a scientist and that opens your mind.” As author Aron Ra says in his book Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism, “I would rather spend my life learning than pretending to be learned.”

This actually happened to me the other day, and Lawrence Krauss was absolutely right: it has been one of the most exhilarating things I have ever experienced in my life. It wasn’t even something that I was particularly attached to, and yet it was still intellectually overwhelming. Science historian James Burke called one of his programs The Day The Universe Changed because of the way scientific discovery completely rearranges the way we see and understand the universe. And that’s just about the way I felt after listening to Richard Carrier discuss the historical reasons for making the claim that Jesus Christ never really existed. This was a bombshell for me. Despite the crazy claims and fictional stories rife in the New Testament, I never doubted for a moment that Jesus was a real man who lived in the first century and after his death was the center of a religious mythology that was gradually built up around him. And Carrier apparently felt the same way. “For a long time I thought this was a crackpot theory, that Jesus didn’t exist. The whole Jesus myth idea was nonsense and I thought I could easily refute it.” It turns out that upon closer examination Carrier became convinced—as I have—that the supposedly historical Jesus was actually a myth, one of dozens of mystery cults that operated in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time. This particular one mixed Judaic elements with a mythical Hellenic sky god who was killed and resurrected, then Euhemerized later and subsequently written about as if he were an actual man.

Of course Carrier’s research doesn’t “prove” anything, but that’s not the point. Just like the hard sciences, the goal isn’t to prove what’s true but to disprove what is false and then study the remainder. And Carrier’s latest book, On the Historicity of Jesus, spends seven hundred pages doing exactly that. What is left, then, is historical research that is convincing on its face. More compelling even than the lack of an obvious historical Jesus, is the abundance of similar mystery cults at the time as well as resurrection myths that predate Christianity and seem to explain quite convincingly the origins of the modern Jesus cult. Though Carrier is scrupulous in refusing to make a definitive statement that the historical Jesus never existed, it’s clear what his research demonstrates. He had previously debunked the Gospels and most of the New Testament, and add to that the fact that the title of his forthcoming book is Jesus from Outer Space, and it seems fairly clear where he stands on the subject. It was such an astounding revelation for me, especially in the way that it tends to put Christianity on a more even basis with other religious mythology. The Christian Jesus as a sky god who does battle with Satan in outer space, now seems every bit as crazy as Mormonism or Scientology . . . because it is. It has only been a massively successful PR campaign over the last two thousand years that has made it seem even slightly more rational . . . but it’s not.

In a previous post I wrote “If history has shown us anything, it is that the problems of today are ones that cannot be solved by religion, Christian or otherwise, and anyone who believes differently has bought into an even bigger fairy tale than the Bible.” While “faith” and a belief in magic and supernatural deities may have sustained man and served some kind of purpose centuries ago, it has clearly become a hindrance to modern society and needs to be stopped. Comedian Jim Jefferies has a terrific analogy to illustrate the problem—and from which I removed the profanity.

          If you’re religious, I’m sure some of you might be very nice, but you are slowing us down. We’re
          trying to move forward and you’re in the way, I’m sorry. Now, imagine that the world is a train track
          and society’s a train going forward. Now in this train we have the people in the engine room, running
          the show, and they’re the scientists. These are people inventing medicines for you to live longer and
          finding alternative fuel sources, and engineers making machines run more efficiently. Whether you
          like it or not, scientists are primarily atheists and they’re all in the front carriage dragging us along.
          Now in the second carriage we have the wishy-washy agnostics. They’re all standing around going,
          “Who knows?” Then there’s this last carriage that’s fifty times bigger than the first two carriages
          combined, with the rest of the human race dancing and going, “Man on a cloud, man on a cloud.”
          And there are so many of them that the train is hardly moving. And the people in the engine room
          are like this [looking down at the coupling], “If I just pull this peg here . . . Do you know how fast we’d
          be moving?”

Back in the World Economic Forum in 2013, Lawrence Krauss came up with a more pointed analogy when another panelist attempted to argue about the “importance” of religion: "The question isn’t, 'Is religion important?' because that’s an obvious thing. Religion is obviously important. So are nuclear weapons. The question is, 'Is religion outmoded, and are nuclear weapons outmoded, and would the world be a better place without them?' And the answer to both those is, yes. Neither of them, in the modern world, serve a productive purpose." Krauss inadvertently connects two things here that are much more serious than simply the lack of a productive purpose, because when religious people act on their ignorance with righteous indignation bad things result, especially if they involve nuclear weapons. The greatest physical threat to our society today is the possibility of a religious terrorist—of any stripe—who manages to obtain and set off a nuclear device. And it doesn’t even have to be a terrorist. Stephen King presented another scenario back in 1978 in his novel The Dead Zone when a psychotic Christian politician—redundant, I know—makes his way to the White House and starts World War Three. Ultimately it is the contempt for life on Earth—the only life that we can be sure we have—by those who believe in a divine afterlife, that is the most corrosive force in the world today. As Christopher Hitchens explains, “Something I find repulsive about monotheistic messianic religion is that a large part of it clearly wants us all to die. It wants this world to come to an end . . . we will be with Jesus, and the rest of you can go straight to hell.” Finally, Hitchens expresses the real goal of anti-theism. “This belief in a supreme and unalterable tyranny is the oldest enemy of our species, the oldest enemy of our intellectual freedom and our moral autonomy, and must be met and must be challenged and must be overthrown.”

That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because atheism is not enough, as religious toleration has allowed religious extremism to grow and threaten our very way of life. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because religion is defined by its hatred and intolerance for the other, and has completely undermined and sabotaged the efforts toward peaceful coexistence and cooperation in the world. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because those who believe in the fantasy of an afterlife don’t care if they kill us all, and are actively working to achieve that end. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because in our modern world there is too much at stake to allow those who believe in myth and lies to control the lives of the rest of us. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because allowing irrationality to flourish unchecked is not conducive to a healthy society. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because a book written by people who had almost no scientific knowledge has absolutely no relevance to our lives today. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because totalistic belief systems shut down the willingness and ability of people to learn and grow. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because the uncritical belief and acceptance of lies like creationism threaten the very existence of life on this planet. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because the future of our world is going to depend on children who are being lied to and indoctrinated into an anti-intellectual belief system that will render them incapable of solving problems by discovering solutions that will be essential to their survival. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because people who believe in the fantasy of religious mythology deserve a better life and need to be awakened from their intellectual stupor. That is why I’m an anti-theist.

Monday, March 19, 2018

White Makes Right: Racism in America

Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs
by David Ikard

Twenty years ago I read a terrific novel by Fredrick Barton called With Extreme Prejudice. It was a mystery set in New Orleans in which the central murder was racially motivated. One of the things that mystified me at the time was how the white protagonist’s efforts to demonstrate his lack of racial prejudice only made his black friend and co-worker angrier with him. Though it was explained at the end of the novel, that feeling of confusion as I read the book always stayed with me. Ten years ago when I was with my wife and two young boys at Disneyland, we were in a long line waiting to get into Pirates of the Caribbean. Next to us was a black family with a small girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old. She did something incredibly cute--I can’t remember now what it was--but I remember looking up at her father and smiling with parental recognition at what she had done. Instead of a knowing return of my smile, however, he simply glared at me and turned away. I remember being incredibly angry about the incident, and it had nothing to do with his behavior. I was angry that we still lived in a country where he had every right to be angry with a white man he didn’t even know. Though I didn’t fully understand either incident at the time, I knew instinctively that racial prejudice in this country was very real. What I understand now, is that it may be as bad as it ever was.

There have been three major phases of racial discrimination against blacks in the United States. The first begins with the settling of this country in the seventeenth century and runs right up to the Civil War. During that phase black slavery was openly practiced, protected by the Constitution, and rationalized as an economic necessity in the southern states. The second phase begins after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, with the end of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow laws in the South. Legalized segregation, voting disenfranchisement, and the turning of a blind eye toward lynching lasted another hundred years until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. The third and most insidious phase is the one we live in now, in which white supremacy has finally gone mainstream, resulting in a backlash against civil rights, equal status under the law, equal opportunity, the promulgation of the myths of white fear and white fragility, and specious accusations of reverse racism against blacks. What Vanderbilt University professor David Ikard does so well in his new book, Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs, is to show that while those first two phases may be over, their effects can still be felt today in the white blindness this country operates within. “It is rare indeed--even in this day and time--to get most whites to acknowledge that racism still exists or, for that matter, that slavery, segregation, and racial terrorism of the past are responsible in large part for the problems that plague Black America in the twenty-first century” (Ikard 15).

I purchased this book while doing research for my own book on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but I was utterly unprepared for what I found in the pages of what I assumed would be a straightforward literary analysis. What emerges from Ikard’s treatise is a philosophy of white supremacy that has informed this country’s thinking since its inception, a way of look at the world through white power and privilege that seems no different in 2018 than it was in 1618. As his starting point, Ikard uses the works of James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) and Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark) to identify and define the nature of white supremacist thinking in America—and it’s important to note that this is not a phrase that refers to radical, fringe elements like the KKK, but regular Americans who don’t even think of themselves as racist. “Whites often genuinely do not see the consequences of their oppression or privilege because they have conditioned themselves not to see them” (Ikard 14). He then builds upon their ideas to show how this unconscious belief system has informed notions of white identity and, far more tragically, black identity for centuries. This way of understanding the world is not a new one, but has roots in many more areas of cultural life in the United States, in which default assumptions of normalcy include Christianity, patriarchy, and capitalism.

Though Ikard mentions all three of these in passing, he doesn’t go into depth about similar modes of thought control in other areas of American life as a way of explaining the incredible longevity and tenacious hold that racism still has in this country. My recent exploration of the writers of the Frankfurt School has opened my eyes to a world of propaganda and manipulation that disguises itself as cultural identity, but actually has as its only goal the indoctrination of people to a particular way of thinking and behaving that aids and abets the ruling powers who benefit from the control over laborers, women, and minorities that comes when they internalize these false beliefs. Max Horkheimer, one of the critical theorists from the Frankfurt School, wrote about the challenge faced by those who would attempt to make society better, when faced with a nation of people who have been taught, and internalized, that the status quo--whether White, Christian, Patriarchal, or Capitalist--is normal and good, and that anything else must therefore be bad. Though Horkheimer was writing about capitalism, the concept itself is applicable to any of the societal assumptions that American culture operates within.

          Because a bad society transacts man’s business although it does it badly, the person that endangers
          its survival also acts directly against mankind; [mankind’s] friend appears as its enemy. In reality, the
          bad cannot be disentangled from the good, and therefore the fight against what is outdated also
          appears as the fight against what is necessary . . . [This results in the] absolute readiness to loyally
          adopt all significant values of the ruling class, to hate and libel the person who commits his life to the
          improvement of conditions . . . Every thought, every show of sympathy, every relationship, every minor
          or major act against the ruling class involves the risk of personal disadvantage . . . People who want
          to get somewhere must early acquire beliefs which enable them to have a good conscience as they
          do what reality demands . . . The system affects everything, down to the most delicate tendrils of the
          individual’s soul. It has placed a premium on vileness. (Horkheimer 29-31)

Because of this, ideas like cut throat competition, male chauvinism, religious superiority, American exceptionalism --and racism--are the norm in this country, and to go against those ideas is, in a perverted way, to be anti-American. In Ikard’s words, “Critical engagements with our nation’s troubled and troubling past are treated as unpatriotic, socially disruptive, and bordering on treason” (Ikard 19). Thus these ideas are absorbed and normalized in our society through the media, education, and business to the point where the vast majority of citizens don’t even realize their thoughts are not their own, and yet have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they defend those thoughts as if they were.

Ikard opens the book with an introduction in which he relates the story of being accosted by a fellow professor at a book signing who, in the guise of mistakenly trying to correct the author about the rap group NWA, used the word “nigger” loudly and freely, much to the shock not only of most of those within earshot but to the author himself. He relates the incident as an example of what Robin DeAngelo calls “white fragility,” a negative reaction by whites to the suggestion that their unconscious behaviors constitute a substantial and continuing assault on black citizenship in America. “My sense is that, at bottom, he was actually upset with the audacity of my claim that even the most progressive (middle- and upper-class) white liberals have a deep and abiding investment in certain aspects of white supremacy and, by extension, institutionalized racial inequality” (Ikard 3). The offending professor is also an example of Brit Bennett’s “Good White People,” whites who are not only unaware of how their unconscious beliefs perpetuate white supremacy, but are also unable to comprehend how their “ostensible gestures of white goodwill and good intentions reproduce white supremacy in the expectation of, if not demand for, black gratitude” (4). The basis for this behavior is the way in which blacks are perceived in the culture, “the unuttered racial mindset that blacks are prone to criminal and pathological behavior” (5). Rather than apologize, the professor insisted on reciting his anti-racist credentials to Ikard, even going so far as to continue his demand for recognition by sending Ikard an email later. This, then, explains the wide disparity in the experiences of the fictional characters in Fredrick Barton’s novel, which Ikard summarizes rather neatly: “Whites are simply defending their right to remain socially, culturally, and economically dominant; blacks and people of color are defending their very humanity” (8).

The episode goes by rather quickly, and though Ikard doesn’t take the time to spell it out in his introduction, it seems to me to be the real thesis of the book. Whites have been the dominant racial group in the United States for the past four hundred years. Very little--if anything--that happens to blacks has an impact on the lives of white Americans. The relative comfort from which they view the racial struggles in this country are light years away from the day to day experiences of blacks, who find themselves fighting battles on seemingly every front, from being defined as the other--as opposed to the white appropriation of normalcy--to ongoing insensitivity in nearly every aspect of society, marginalization in education and employment, negative portrayals in the media, and a white majority who seems to have no interest in defending obvious abuses that range from racial profiling to overrepresented incarceration to murder. Whites—quite literally—have no idea what the black experience in America is like. Max Horkheimer had something to say about that as well:

          Our privileged position, our capacity for experiencing the suffering of all living beings within ourselves
          does not mean that we can truly become one with them and certainly not that we can free anyone by
          that act of identification. We can make the life of individuals easier, we can deduce some practical
          consequences from empirical insight. But we are still surrounded by a sea of darkness which cannot
          be illuminated by language. (Horkheimer 31)

This is what I see as real white blindness. Acknowledging that whites know absolutely nothing about the suffering that blacks have experienced seems to be the first step toward meaningful change--much more meaningful, certainly, than pretending to empathize with or understand what whites cannot possibly know. But instead the opposite happens, an example of which is one of the most misguided attempts at addressing white ignorance ever put on film. White Man’s Burden, starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta, was intended to provide a vicarious experience for whites by reversing their role in society. Belafonte is now the rich member of the dominant black class, while Travolta is an example of the oppressed white minority. Instead of allowing whites to see what they are doing to blacks, however, all the film does is to perpetuate racial stereotypes: blacks are cruel and heartless while whites are good hearted and put upon. Even with the roles reversed, whites are still the good guys and blacks the bad. The term “epic fail” was never more appropriate in describing a work of art than it is with this film. In this context it’s no wonder that white sympathy and assurances of understanding are cause for black anger rather than gratitude, as the very real plight of blacks in this country is “not going to matter one way or another in terms of exploding white supremacist ideology or institutional dominance” (Ikard 132).

In his first chapter Ikard contrasts the two versions of the slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup, which presents a challenge to any analysis right up front because of the unclear nature of the authorship. While the story was Northrup’s, it was actually written by white attorney David Wilson. The result is a curious disconnect between portions of the narrative which attempt to expose the inhumanity of slavery, while at the same time seemingly making a moral distinction between slave owners, going so far as to call one of them, “a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession” (Ikard 22). This is one of the earliest examples of what Ikard calls “the low bar of black expectation” (12). Because the white terrorism against blacks was so horrific in the past, whites see any concession toward blacks as something that should be gratefully acknowledged. But problems arise, in the form of perpetuation of this behavior, when blacks willingly engage in it along with whites.

          The metaphoric bar of black expectation of humane treatment from whites was often set very low,
          meaning that blacks experienced white common decency . . . as laudable and even heroic. This
          calculus of low expectations, gratitude, and indebtedness made blacks who pushed for true racial
          equality seem radical and dangerous to whites and to a significant number of blacks. (12)

These historically low expectations for white behavior toward blacks are an example of Ikard’s first trope, the lovable racist, in which as long as token recognition of blacks by whites is seen as something that blacks should be grateful for, otherwise racist ideologies and behaviors by whites should be ignored. “A lovable racist is a white character who is rendered in such a way that it encourages the reader or viewer to see his/her racism or inhumanity toward backs or people of color as a minor, if not justifiable, character flaw” (24). The end result of this tacit acceptance of white racism is that anyone who challenges the status quo—black or white—appears to be operating outside the accepted mode of societal behavior and is therefore to be feared.

Ikard goes on to show how this trope makes no sense on its face. Despite Solomon’s contention--via Wilson’s authorship--that “Were all men such as he [the good slave master], Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness,” the mere idea that slavery of any kind is acceptable is absurd (Ikard 22). Thus Ikard partially titles this chapter, “Good Slave Masters Don’t Exist.” The author then compares the dubious nature of Solomon’s narrative with the more demonstratively anti-slavery narrative of Frederick Douglass, and finally goes on to illuminate the significant changes that were made to the narrative when it was produced as the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. What screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen were able to do, according to Ikard, is take the isolated narrative of Solomon and the uncomfortable issue of who is responsible for his lauding of the “good slave master,” and include “the critical perspectives of other enslaved blacks” in order to provide a “space therein to interrogate the problems of lovable racist thinking” by both Solomon and the viewer (27). Solomon’s defense of the kindly slave owner Ford in the narrative is indicative of what Ikard calls “battered slave syndrome,” in which the slave, like the battered wife the term is derived from, exhibits “the conditioned belief, borne of fear and violent verbal and physical assault, that you cannot escape the abusive relationship; that compromising with your abuser on his terms, and with the misguided belief that things will get better over time, is the best way to manage the relationship” (27). Using other slaves in the film, primarily black women, to essentially call out Solomon’s timid reaction to his captivity, provides what Ikard calls a “corrective intervention” to the white supremacist thinking that defends slavery as an institution and the continued belief in white supremacy in American society that has evolved from that defense.

Ikard’s second chapter is a fascinating exploration of the way in which ideas of white supremacy are passed on to children, and the attempt to disguise that indoctrination with the myth of “white innocence.” The idea here is that the complete disavowal of the way in which children absorb societal norms and understand their place in society gives whites a way of rationalizing their own internalized negative beliefs about people of color. “The extant myth of white innocence functions on many levels to obscure the systemic ways in which white privilege and power are passed down from one generation to the next” (Ikard 48). By linking whiteness to innocence, what whites are able to do is define whiteness as normal. In this way whiteness is the default setting, so to speak, for one’s existence in American society. Referencing tragedies like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the school shooting in Newtown, and contrasting public reaction to aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ikard says, “What this means in terms of lived experience of race is that whites’ problems are American problems and people of color’s problems are people of color’s problems” (51). When victims are primarily—or assumed to be—white, as in the 9/11 attacks, societal discourse tends to center on how to protect future victims. When victims are primarily black, however, discourse tends to devolve into back complicity in their own suffering.

          If the shooter in Sandy Hook were a black or a person of color, then the entire political focus point
          would change. Rather than addressing the possible motives for the shooting, including mental health
          issues and violent video games, the focus would be on the supposed criminality and violence of black
          men and politicians would be calling for heightened surveillance of and profiling of black men. (55)

From here Ikard goes on to show how the idea of white innocence has bee able to adjust to the changing cultural landscape as the country has moved through its phases of racial prejudice. “As we know, ideologies of power are not easily dismantled. When they face serious social, cultural, or economic challenges, as was the case with white supremacist ideology during the Civil Rights Movement, they adjust like a chameleon to the new environment” (57). The author uses the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to demonstrate the way in which her abolitionist sentiments were tempered by a reliance on the trope of the “magical negro,” which actually served to reinforce white supremacist thinking about blacks within a call for an end to the practice of slavery but not its underlying ideology. “In order to make . . . Uncle Tom redemptive within her white liberal paternalistic framework, Stowe had to make him pathologically selfless and tether his redemption to white paternalistic Christian sponsorship, protection, and logic” (58). In this way the character of Tom has to fit into the expectation of black gratitude in order not to be seen as an outlier, undeserving of white intervention. Thus, as Ikard demonstrates, “The key point here is that white redemption, not racial equality, is the driving motivation behind the novel” (59). In modern entertainment terms, “updated versions of these myths in pathologically self-sacrificial, caring, and loving sidekicks, lucky charms, maids, secretaries, butlers, and mascots operate to obscure the lingering and tenacious legacy of white supremacist slavery” (61).

In this way the Magical Negro is directly related to the Lovable Racist. Granting specialness to certain blacks who adhere to white expectations, and then showing their gratitude on screen or in the pages of a novel, serves to reinforce the idea that it is only through white largess that blacks earn their way into a modified version of citizenship. “The idea of indebtedness to whites derives from the thinking that whites must ‘accept’ blacks into US society and make the grand sacrifice of tolerating their integration in white schools and other previously segregated spaces . . . which, of course, drives willful white blindness [and] radically informs black notions of self-determinism and agency” (15). At the same time, however, the magical negro is unable to escape from the very debilitating definitions imposed on him by the white majority. Ikard makes this clear by examining Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Though the character of John Coffey is eventually turned into a Christ figure, he is at first understood by all the whites in the film to be a child murderer and rapist—an assumption that is never questioned because of his blackness. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film is not about the humanity of the black character--who “is a modern-day version of Uncle Tom with the temperament and IQ if a very tame ten-year-old”--but instead is about the redemption of the jailer Paul (62). Despite whatever redeeming qualities John might have, including complete innocence of the crime, the black man remains in jail the entire film and is ultimately executed. “It purports on a surface level to expose white racism as vile. But in reality the racist idea that black men in general are criminals and prone to violence is never seriously under scrutiny” (64). In the end, the message of the film is ultimately that Paul is to be forgiven for his racist assumptions about John, thus reinforcing his position as a lovable racist, forgiven yet again, by the magical negro.

What I found most enlightening in Ikard’s book was his discussion of distraction as a means of oppressing blacks. This is something that I have been extremely familiar with in the context of capitalism’s indoctrination of consumers. By providing all sorts of distractions, from cell phones and social media, to video games, sports and entertainment, citizen-consumers are continuously kept from examining their lives and the true nature of their place in society. Ikard’s distraction, however, is more along the lines of changing definitions in order to redirect the argument in a completely different direction. One of these distractions is a perversion of one of our most sacred legal precepts, innocent until proven guilty. In practice, however, the media typically portrays black victims in the most unflattering light possible, which in real terms renders them guilty until proven innocent. “This pattern of perpetually placing blacks in this defensive posture is immensely advantageous to the dominant white supremacist power structure as it allows whites to blame imagined black pathologies for black social and economic struggles without having to contend with their white privilege, pathological racist behavior or the white supremacist power structure that licenses black social degradation and death” (70). By constantly having to prove their innocence, or refute white victim blaming, blacks are never able to get out from under the argument and focus attention on the real cause of inequity: white oppression. Ikard also goes on to cite Derrick Bell in an argument that is a variation on Richard Hofstadter’s “pseudo-conservative” from the mid nineteen-fifties. Rather than giving ordinary citizens a true path to success, and as a way to keep them mindlessly working for corporate interests, the controlling elite has instead given them a common enemy in the form of people of color. “Instead of providing the masses with access to real wealth and power, they provided them with embodied wealth in the form of control and dominance over blacks” (74). Ultimately, as Ikard shows, this is simply a variation on property rights concerning blacks that goes back to the days of slavery.

Making the situation even more untenable is white reaction to calls for examination of white complicity in continued black disenfranchisement in the form of intentional misunderstanding. “It places the onus on blacks to prove to whites what they already know to be true and have a significant socio-economic stake in not knowing or acknowledging--namely, that blacks are human beings whose basic rights to freedom have been ruthlessly trampled on by whites for economic, social and cultural gain” (76). But the biggest distraction of all comes in the form of white admonishment for any act by blacks that seeks to make headway in seeking redress for four hundred years of oppression and abuse that can only be defined as white terrorism. From so-called black “rebellion” in the days of slavery, to marches and protests in the Jim Crow era, to movements like Black Lives Matter, white response has always been to see these acts through the lens of black sabotage of their own cause. Ikard cites James Baldwin as identifying “the white habit of perpetually blaming blacks for the consequences of long-standing patterns of white oppression and then claiming ignorance and innocence when their destructive tactics breed civil unrest and protest like Civil Rights and Black Power movements” (78). The result of this distraction trap, as Ikard puts it, is “treating violent black responses to white violence as the source of the racial conflict . . . [exposing] the audacity of the chief historical white perpetrators of looting and violence against black humanity to proclaim that they are somehow victims when blacks retaliate in self-defense or protest against such white assaults” (77).

The overt way in which white society has co-opted black cultural achievement in areas like music and sports is fairly well known. What is far less understood is the way in which the dominant white culture has absorbed successful black resistance and rendered it impotent by folding it back into the larger white supremacist historical narrative. This has certainly happened with Martin Luther King, Jr., but also with figures like Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. “Radical black human rights movements and black leaders who inspired them become deradicalized to the point of gross historical distortion. Their laudable stories of resistance, organizing, strategizing, and outwitting their white oppressors in pursuit of racial equality and social justice are transformed . . . into feel-good narratives about the American Dream, white redemption, and American exceptionalism” (10). In the fourth chapter of the book Ikard examines more closely the Magical Negro trope, in which the motivations of black leaders and heroes to resist white oppression is turned instead into proof of white magnanimity, and used to further rationalize continued white dominance. In this way white culture is able to turn someone like Dr. King who, at the time, “was tagged as a kind of terrorist threat to the United States,” into a what can be seen by whites as a “good black” today (131). Unfortunately, propaganda itself makes no distinction between races, and blacks are equally susceptible to its false messages as whites. “Because what we experience as real is inextricably tethered to what we have been conditioned and policed to experience as real, it is often an uphill battle to get even oppressed people to see how white supremacist apparatuses . . . have altered their perceptions of self-determination, personal accountability, meritocracy, institutional racism, and reality itself” (95-96).

Interestingly, white messiahs get very little attention in Ikard’s book, perhaps because they are so closely related to the lovable racist. The examples he gives are Clint Eastwood’s racist character from Gran Torino who, in the end, sacrifices himself for the Hmong teenagers who live next door, but in doing so vilifies the gang members who have tormented them, “because the film treats the gangbangers as heartless thugs, ignoring not only their humanity but also the white supremacist capitalism that has decimated their community” (25). The other white messiah that Ikard singles out is Bill Clinton, and by association Hillary. Despite Clinton’s affinity for blacks and black voters, his record on drugs and incarceration prove his policies to be every bit as deleterious to black self-determination as the culture at large. Again, this is another example of someone whose claims of black advocacy are only successful in comparison with the more extreme hatred of blacks professed by those on the political right. “Culturally speaking, white-messiah figures like Clinton are able to leverage blacks’ historically low expectation of just white treatment to appear heroic in their empathy toward black concerns . . . In reality his welfare reform and crime policies have had a devastating impact on black communities” (15-16). Likewise Ikard sees Hillary Clinton’s pivot on Black Lives Matter--from initially declaring that “all lives matter” to supporting the cause when running against a blatant racist--as motivated by “social pressure and political expediency” rather than a genuine “change of heart” (16).

While Ikard deals briefly with the interconnection of capitalism and racism, his final chapter brings religion, specifically Christianity, into the mix as well. He returns to the idea of the indoctrination of children, this time using the imagery of Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, both religious icons despite their seeming differences. Tellingly, Ikard also associates the two figures with other elements of American cultural mythology, as well as illuminating their use in social propaganda. “Because being white is still synonymous culturally with being ‘normal,’ the cultural programming of our children vis-à-vis whitewashed superheroes, myths, and religious figures typically flies under the radar of concern . . . What’s more, the majority of villains and antichrist figures tend to be of a darker hue . . . Even black folks internalize these messages (oftentimes despite ourselves) because we have been conditioned to see them as universal and morally transcendent” (112-113). And just as with Critical Theory, Ikard accurately assesses the role that the media and entertainment play as the tool of the oligarchical elite in controlling the cultural messages that have become an intrinsic part of the American experience for all citizens. “If we take seriously the intensity and insidiousness of the white supremacist messaging that is rendered through fairy tales, mythologies, cartoons, and even religion in the United States, it should become clear that we cannot rid our society of racial inequality if we cannot rid ourselves of the cultural mediums that reproduce and substantiate it . . . There is nothing random or innocent about this whitewashing phenomenon. Santa Claus and the Judeo-Christian messiah figure Jesus are constructed as white for specific political and ideological purposes” (125).

Again, this is all part of a white supremacist ideology in which, counterintuitively, the white majority has a vested interest in promoting racial tension. Some critics argue, and Ikard references, that the whole idea of racial difference is merely a construct that continues to reinforce white appropriation of normalcy compared to that of any people of color.

          Americans and Westerners in general conceptualize brown Middle Eastern terrorists as heartless
          religious fanatical monsters who prey on the weak—a conceptualization that conspicuously ignores
          how Christianity and white supremacy has been employed for centuries in the United States to exploit,
          dominate, enslave, and murder generations of people of color, especially people of African descent” (131).

In a curious case of construction, Ikard saves his most powerful argument for the end of the book, in a coda that is not only highly personal, but chilling in its implications. By far the most disturbing aspect of continued white supremacist indoctrination is the devaluation of the lives of people of color. Ikard references the terrorist killings in a black church in South Carolina by Dylan Roof. While whites clearly define attacks against other whites as terrorism, they refuse to do so when the victims are black. Attacks on white school children, now too numerous to list, are seen as hate crimes by mentally ill white perpetrators. Black children dying everyday in in urban neighborhoods, on the other hand, are virtually ignored, even though their numbers are far greater than the more highly publicized massacres. But even that cannot compare with the tragedy that is the blatant killing of black citizens by white police officers. The ubiquitous number of murders of innocent and unarmed blacks by police--especially considering that nearly all of the white police officers wind up being exonerated--is no less than the modern day equivalent of lynching.

In a word, the book is brilliant. Ikard resists the temptation to give in to deconstructionist fantasies that are hardly relevant. Instead, his literary examples are well drawn, and his references to other analyses by the likes of Baldwin and Morrison are equally well chosen. If there’s a criticism it is that he doesn’t take enough time to explain the context in which his literary arguments are being made. He criticizes white authors and filmmakers for their white blindness in terms of the myths they perpetuate, but he isn’t necessarily blaming them. Their white blindness simply reflects their own indoctrination and the identification of that unconscious racism is finally the point, by allowing the reader see the ways that white supremacist thinking has always been part of America’s cultural landscape. While he rightly criticizes them by pointing out what they could have done instead, I have the sense that he isn’t blaming them for what they should have done. At least I hope that’s the case--although it may be my own white blindness that makes me think that. I also take exception with Ikard’s blanket condemnation of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as I’m not sure he fully understands that Huck is anything but redeemed at the end of the novel and Twain indicts society fairly decisively in the form of Tom. But these are minor quibbles in an impressive work overall.

As Horkheimer said, it’s impossible for whites to know the suffering that they have put blacks through in this country, as mere language is not enough to convey what it’s like, for example, for black parents to have to give “the talk” to their children. That said, however, it’s not to difficult to take their word for it, especially considering the mountain of empirical evidence that is available. At the same time, language cannot be overlooked as a means to continue to apply pressure to a system that has built in resistance to change. “As exasperating as it may be at times to speak out on racism and white supremacy, it is crucial that anti-racist scholars within and beyond black spaces do so wherever and whenever we encounter it.” By going beyond mere literary analysis, David Ikard has masterfully demonstrated how racial tropes in literature not only reflect but inform a way of thinking in this country that significantly devalues the lives of people of color. Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs should not just be on the bookshelf of every home in this country, it should be in the hands of every person in America so that they can begin to see how their unconscious behaviors negatively affect those around them, as well as their moral obligation to do something proactive about those behaviors.