Sunday, 5 September 2021

Book Review: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity - and Why This Harms Everybody



ARE we living through a ‘culture war’? Is there a danger that some of the crankier ideas at the fringes of academia have scaled the walls of the universities and are now running amok through society, threatening liberalism itself? Or is this just a moral panic generated by a few right-wing hysterics?

Douglas Murray’s hugely entertaining 2019 bestseller The Madness of Crowds (Gender, Race and Identity) made a compelling case for the former view, and exposed the ‘woke’ ideology in its myriad forms. Murray’s book was by turns scurrilous and heartfelt, and sweeping in its range of references. (The epigraph featured GK Chesterton alongside Nicki Minaj.)

The authors of Cynical Theories take a drier, more scholarly approach in their dismantling of the woke ideology, but the book is no less enlightening for that. It dives deep into the academic roots of Critical Theory and traces its progress over the decades, through the academy and into other institutions. It’s grim work, but someone had to do it. It helps to understand the intellectual provenance of bad ideas. Otherwise, how will you respond when your child comes home from school and explains that he is an oppressor because he is a white male? What counter-arguments can you summon when your teenage daughter declares that she’s really a boy, and simultaneously that there’s no such thing as biological sex? What do you say when your morbidly obese friend takes a Fat Studies course, claiming the link between obesity and ill-health is a conspiracy of hatred by doctors against overweight people?

Such issues are related, and don’t spring from nowhere. Cynical Theories traces them to the rise of postmodernism. Put simply, Western intellectuals, their faith in the enlightenment shaken by the horrors of the world wars, developed a deep scepticism of meta-narratives, and began to question the notion of objective truth. Then postmodernism mutated to become not just a way of seeing the world, but a politically actionable ideology, Theory, with four key principles:

1.     The Blurring of Boundaries

2.     The Power of Language

3.     Cultural Relativism

4.     The Loss of the Individual and the Universal.

 

For those who think such ideas are a continuation of the civil rights and feminist movements, the authors dissect the mindset of Theory to show how this is something very different. For example, the first principle explains not the belief that gay people should have equal rights, but that gender is itself an oppressive social construct that must be dismantled. The third leads to the ‘decolonisation’ of education and other institutions. Far from being merely a plea for more ethnic minority writers to be included on the syllabus, decolonisation claims:

 “The West has constructed the idea that rationality and science are good in order to perpetuate its own power and marginalize non-rational, non-scientific forms of knowledge production from elsewhere. Therefore, we must now devalue white, Western ways of knowing for belonging to white Westerners and promote Eastern ones (in order to equalize the power balance).”

 

If you’ve been baffled by claims that mathematics is racist, for example, there’s your answer.

A key feature of Theory is the blurring of education and activism. The authors explain:

“Activism and education exist in a fundamental tension – activism presumes to know the truth with enough certainty to act upon it, while education is conscious that it does not know for certain what is true and therefore seeks to learn more.”

 

Hence Theory’s hostility to free speech. The authors cite chilling examples of academics explicitly advocating the silencing of students who question Theory.

They conclude:

“What is perhaps most frustrating about Theory is that it tends to get literally every issue backwards, largely due to its rejection of human nature, science and liberalism. It allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism. It attempts to depict categories of sex, gender and sexuality as mere social constructions, which undermines the fact that people often accept sexual minorities because they recognise sexual expression varies naturally. It depicts the East as the opposite of the West and thus perpetuates the very Orientalism it seeks to unmake. Theory is highly likely to spontaneously combust at some point, but it could cause a lot of harm before it does.”

There are encouraging signs of such combustion. In the US, parents are taking the legal fight to Critical Race Theory in schools. The British legal establishment appears to be waking up to the harm being done to children by the unquestioning embrace of transgender ideology. Online and increasingly in publishing, brave souls are risking ostracism by pushing back against the most dangerous ideas of our time. This scrupulously fair, diligently researched book is a welcome addition to the fight.

 

 

 


Friday, 27 August 2021

While men can’t find encouragement elsewhere, they are right to seek it in online



ONE of my favourite Jordan Peterson moments comes when, during a live Q and A event, he answers this question:

“I plan on taking my own life very soon. Why shouldn’t I?”

His response, an uplifting, heart-rending blend of the practical, philosophical and spiritual, is proof of why he is such a cherished figure.

Peterson has helped countless people to improve their lives. And yet he remains one of the most vilified and comically misunderstood figures of modern times. Why?

There’s a clue in the angle some of his interviewers take. Cathy Newman, Anne McElvoy and others have implied that there must be something dodgy about Peterson because his audience is predominantly male. Men finding moral sustenance and practical guidance from other men? There just has to be something sinister about that.

The response to the tragic events in Plymouth earlier this month revealed a similar attitude. Some commentators concluded that Jake Davison had been led down his deadly path by online communication with other men. It’s true that Davison, though not identifying as an incel, lurked in the online culture of these ‘involuntary celibates’. Since he is not the first mass-shooter to do so, there have been calls for incels to be treated as terrorists.

Such calls should be resisted. The last thing lonely young men need is to be further demonised by a society from which they already feel excluded. It would also be a mistake to stigmatise the entire online male culture, as a lot of what’s out there – Peterson being just one example – is likely to do men far more good than harm.

Yes, if you look for misogyny and threats of violence among the online output of frustrated men, you will find plenty of it. But it’s not the whole story. Rather than succumbing to a moral panic about incels, we should ask what men seek from each other online that they don’t get from elsewhere. We might also consider guiding our sons away from the more poisonous elements of online culture towards that which will nourish, enlighten and strengthen them.

One of Peterson’s perennial themes is the menace of resentment. In 12 Rules for Life, in a chapter that links the Columbine killers to Cain and Abel, Peterson writes: “Whenever we experience injustice, real or imagined; whenever we encounter tragedy or fall prey to the machinations of others; whenever we experience the horror and pain of our own apparently arbitrary limitations – the temptation to question Being and then to curse it rises foully from the darkness.”

This appears to be the error at the heart of Incel culture. It begins with self-pity. I’ve come to appreciate that everyone hates self-pitying men. A lot of men instinctively know this, which is why it often falls to female commentators to point out where men are at a disadvantage in society. I invite male readers to attempt this experiment: Find a female friend, and explain to her that, in some ways, men have a harder time than women. Use this list: Males …

·      underperform at all stages of education compared to girls

·       are less likely to go to university or become apprentices

·       are more likely to be unemployed in their twenties

·       are three times more likely than women to be victims of suicide

·       make up 96 per cent of the prison population

·       die younger on average

·       are more likely to be victims of violence …

My guess is that, long before you reach the end of the list, your female friend’s expression will darken. She might interrupt you with examples of female suffering. Certainly she’s unlikely to gaze at you adoringly in the way Lois Lane might gaze at Superman.

There are good reasons for this. Women instinctively punish self-pity in men because, on a societal level, self-pity is death. On an individual level, as we see from its most egregious manifestations – Jake Davison being just the latest – it can lead to murder.

In their book The Boy Crisis, Warren Farrell and John Gray argue that men are socialised to believe they are disposable for historical reasons. I suspect the disposability issue lies deeper than that. A fascinating article by Maria Kouloglou in Quillette makes this point persuasively. She cites Hilary Clinton’s claim that “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.”

Kouloglou provides examples of female suffering being taken more seriously: Rescue efforts prioritise women and children. Drivers who kill women receive longer sentences than those who kill men. Female victims of violence receive more prominence in the media, and so on. Why? Kouloglou suggests: "Both men and women evolved to be protective of women because one man can impregnate several women, while a woman will usually only bear one child at a time, so it makes sense for societies to keep women safe so they can reproduce."

I'm not saying that the male disadvantages listed above aren't worth addressing. But I've come to the view that female suffering will always be taken more seriously, probably should be, and that complaining about it as an individual is a mug's game. When men and women engage in a suffering competition, everyone loses, but it's the men in particular who look weak, ugly and deeply unheroic.

Could the tragedy in Plymouth have been avoided if Jake Davison had encountered Peterson’s advice to that suicidal fan? Would it have helped if he’d been guided away from the more self-pitying elements of the manosphere? We’ll never know. But I’ll count myself among those who have benefited from the wisdom gleaned from the online male community. Some of this I could have done with earlier.

In my early twenties, I ended a four-year relationship with my girlfriend and experienced what I now know to be a common phenomenon in such circumstances – a destabilising surge of testosterone. I engaged in high-risk behaviours which I now shudder to recall. I wonder if a bit of Petersonian wisdom might have helped to keep me grounded during that dangerous time.  

Later, in my thirties, in a relationship with a domineering woman, I made the mistake of capitulating too readily in ways which (I now realise) were not only to my detriment but also to hers. How different things might have been had I been less influenced by the shame-inducing feminism I’d imbibed as an undergraduate, and had instead been exposed to the hard-bitten wisdom of the online Red Pill community.

The Red Pill element of the manosphere takes its name from the scene in The Matrix in which the hero takes a pill that enables him to see through socially constructed illusions. It’s often lumped in with incel culture, but at its best, The Red Pill perspective is deeply hostile to self-pity and misogynistic resentment. A common theme is younger men learning from older men who have discovered, often the hard way, that self-improvement is a better way of attracting and keeping a mate than moaning about the injustice of life or submitting to feminist dogma.

Drawing on evolutionary psychology, the Red Pill author Rollo Tomassi’s book The Rational Male explains how this works in practice: A woman is attracted to a confident, independent man. Once he commits, she wants to transform him into a dependable provider who will bend to her will. But if she succeeds, she loses desire for him. That’s why some women tame their husbands, then cheat with a more independent man.

Avoid being tamed, says Tomassi. Maintain a degree of independence, including the possibility of having other options. Competition anxiety is healthy.

Of course, Tomassi and those like him attract their share of nutcases. And they don’t offer a complete picture. The Red Pill types, in common with the woke left, talk too much about power and too little about love for my taste. But anyone of a certain age who’s been round the block a couple of times will recognise that Tomassi is onto something. They won’t teach this wisdom in school or university. You won’t find it on the BBC or in men’s magazines such as GQ, which appears to have swallowed the ‘toxic masculinity’ narrative. Once our fathers would have taught us such things, but now many boys are growing up fatherless.

The prevailing orthodoxy prevents the mainstream from teaching boys some key lessons about men and women. So the job of dropping certain truth bombs falls to online sages. For example, wouldn’t boys benefit from knowing that women tend to seek men with higher status than themselves – something Peterson likes to remind us of? If the much-lamented ‘boys don’t try’ culture in schools is to be challenged, maybe this is the place to start. If teenage boys won’t work hard to impress their parents or their teachers, who knows? Maybe they’ll do it to get the girl.

As the Red Pill podcaster Richard Cooper has it, ‘Don’t chase women; chase excellence’. And the women, he implies, will then be more likely to come to you.

Why aren’t more men chasing excellence? The online temptations of gaming and porn are well-documented distractions. But Peterson suggests something deeper. If men are told that masculinity itself is toxic, and that Western societies are tyrannical patriarchies, then attempting success in that context is a morally suspect endeavour. And as long as critiquing radical feminism can get you sacked, as happened to Eton teacher Will Knowland, schools will feel safer pushing an anti-male narrative.

When we shame boys for their toxic masculinity, we might think we’re encouraging them to be more respectful towards women, but at what cost to their self-esteem? In my teaching practice I’ve been approached by teenage boys wanting to express their objections to the infamous man-shaming Gillette advert, and more recently the proposal to introduce a 10pm male curfew following the death of Sarah Everard.

The Everard murder was also cited in school assemblies aimed at tackling sexual harassment. But I’m doubtful that the best way to discourage boys from inappropriate comments and touching of their female peers is to link such behaviour to a horrific murder. After all, contrary to the apparently mind-reading claims of certain feminists, only very, very few men are attracted to the prospect of strangling a woman and burying her in the woods. Most of us, like most women, want sex to be a harmonious experience shared with someone we love. It’s bad enough that we teach boys to be ashamed and afraid of their own sexuality. To now tell them that their failure to find a girlfriend makes them potential terrorists strikes me as cruel.

Peterson’s message, by contrast, is encouraging in the profoundest sense. His advice to the suicidal man concludes: “Don’t be so sure that your life is yours to take ... You have a moral obligation to yourself as a locus of divine value.”

Until such encouragement goes mainstream, men are right to seek it wherever it can be found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, 2 July 2021

Despite Labour’s victory in Batley and Spen, the clash of cultures in my former patch remains bitter

 MEETING on Zoom with an old pal from my journalism days recently, I experienced one of those vertiginous update moments when you realise how much you’ve changed. As we set about putting the world to rights, he remarked how different I sounded from the young man he’d known when we were both newspaper reporters in Batley and Spen.

    We hope to gain wisdom, or at least knowledge, as we age. But something else happens as well – we look back and realise the dramas played out in our youth are the ones that led to where we are now, not just personally but politically. And our current societal divisions, on which the Batley and Spen by-election shone such an unflattering light, are traceable to my reporter’s patch of two decades ago.

    Of the recent attempts to gain some purchase on what exactly is dividing us these days, one of the most persuasive has been David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere.

    Goodhart’s key insight is to identify a clash of values between ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’.

        “Anywheres dominate our culture and society. They tend to do well at school … then move from home to a residential university in their late teens and on to a career in the professions that might take to London or even abroad for a year or two. Such people have portable ‘achieved’ identities, based on educational and career success which makes them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people.

        “Somewheres are more rooted and usually have ‘ascribed’ identities based on group belonging and particular places, which is why they find rapid change more unsettling.”

    Somewheres, while comprising the majority of the UK population, have lost out not only economically but also culturally as their views have been ignored – and demonised.

    When they do make their views known – by voting for Brexit, for example – they are met with incomprehension and hostility by the dominant Anywhere elite.

    I qualified with a diploma in journalism in 1999 and took the first newspaper job I could find. I began at the Spenborough Guardian, and later moved to its sister papers The Batley News and Dewsbury Reporter. I was an Anywhere-minded youth in the heart of Somewheresville. When I told my Leeds-dwelling friends that I had a job in Batley, they’d splutter with contempt. Southern readers might not distinguish so much between Leeds and Batley, but you’ll have to trust me that there’s a difference between Yorkshire’s major city and its nearby towns. When Harry Enfield’s Yorkshireman said, ‘Don’t talk to me about sophistication – I’ve been to Leeds’, Southerners laughed because they thought Leeds was unsophisticated; Northerners laughed because they recognised Leeds-dwellers prejudices against Yorkshire’s former mill and mining towns. 

    It was snobbery or, to use Roger Scrutton’s more specific term, ‘oikophobia’. Those who lived in these towns outside the metropolis knew they were looked down on, but had a fierce sense of local pride. As an out-of-towner employed to report upon their lives, I soon learned to respect that pride.

    With hindsight, the best reporters among us tended to be Somewheres, who were either from the local area or embraced their patch by moving to it. Embedded in their communities, they would catch gossip over the weekend which I – commuting from the studenty part of Leeds – would miss. The papers’ senior staff were life-long locals who seemed to know everybody and had a deep sense of the area’s history. They were – only the cliché will do them justice – Pillars of the Community.

    Whereas I was just passing through. The plan was to publish a best-selling novel quickly, then move to London.

    Well, I stayed longer than I expected. Long enough to overcome my own oikophobia. I now recognise that my own Anywhere-minded blindness to Somewhere concerns was reflective of a wider failure of the political class to look out for its constituents. It’s this failure for which the Labour Party is now paying the price, despite the narrow victory in Batley and Spen on Thursday (Labour 35.3; Conservative 34.4; Workers 21.9).

    Many of the stories I covered at the Batley News and Spenborough Guardian amounted to a bigger story – that of Somewhere decline. Vast supermarkets opening on the outskirts of town killed off the high streets. Traditional pubs closed, and resentment at the increasing Muslim population was evident in the unnervingly high vote for the BNP in local elections.

    My views on immigration at the time were textbook Anywhere: Immigration was a net benefit for the economy – Look! It says so in the Guardian – and there the argument should end. Hostility to immigration was an expression of ignorance or racism.

    I suspected such ignorance was at play when a local woman approached me with a story about anti-social behaviour by Asian men. She remarked casually, “But of course there’s no point telling the police. They won’t do anything because they’re scared of being called racist”.

    Looking back, I hear a chilling warning in that woman’s words. We now know it was fear of racism that prevented the authorities from protecting tens of thousands of girls from grooming gangs in Rotherham and elsewhere. It was this fear that prevented a security guard at Manchester Arena from challenging Salman Abedi, who minutes later detonated his rucksack bomb, killing 22 people, mostly teenage girls.

    Abedi was an example of what has become familiar type, the home-grown terrorist. Batley’s close neighbour, Dewsbury has the dubious distinction of producing the most prolific of these, Mohammad Siddique Khan, who in 2005 led the suicide bombing on London commuters.

    It’s not hard to imagine that the Somewheres of Batley and Spen, already uneasy about the pace of immigration, will have seen the 7/7 bombings as further cause for alarm at the rate of change in their communities. Working-class people have been telling pollsters for decades that they would like to see more controls on immigration. But these concerns have been ignored by the Anywhere elite. It’s not that Anywheres don’t care when 22 Arianna Grande fans are murdered, but they are more likely to regard such tragedies as a regrettable but understandable form of protest against Western imperialism, or simply the price we have to pay for an open immigration policy that benefits ‘the economy’ – even when those benefits don’t trickle down to skilled workers who have to compete with cheap immigrant labour.

    It should therefore have surprised no-one when Batley and Spen voted 60 per cent in favour of Brexit.

    The Brexit campaign saw bitter divisions in British society, but was largely peaceful. The horrific exception occurred on the streets of Batley and Spen with the murder of the constituency’s Labour MP Jo Cox. Her killer, a Nazi-obsessed loner with mother issues, shouted ‘Britain first’ as he attacked her.

    Maybe this could have happened anywhere in the UK. I’m wary of ascribing societal trends to random acts of savagery. But it was not a huge surprise that this particular tragedy occurred in a constituency where the tensions were already strung painfully tight.

    Certainly it was the stuff of Anywhere nightmares – patriotism (‘Britain first’) gone murderously berserk.

    But patriotism is a necessary ingredient for what psychologists call moral capital. And here lies another element of Labour’s self-destruction. Labour lost support under Corbyn partly because of his distinct lack of patriotism. Time and again he sided with our enemies rather than our allies. Now Starmer has taken steps to rectify this impression, and to purge the party of anti-Semites. But at what cost? In a further disturbing trend, Labour appears to have lost support among the Muslim community since Starmer took over.

    Enter George Galloway, who for years has been a hero among many British Muslims and has been telling those in Batley and Spen exactly what they want to hear. For if the Somewheres of Batley and the red wall have been neglected, Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain, with its uncompromising pro-Palestinian stance, appeals to the global sense of Islamic Somewherehood – the Muslim Ummah. During my tenure as a journalist in Batley, whenever the Israel-Palestine conflict flared up, our postbag would swell, and the community halls would fill with crowds eager to raise funds for Palestine and hear Israel denounced. There remains a rich vein of passion here which Galloway was only too eager to exploit.

    As if the divisions were not deep enough, the constituency has become a flashpoint of a fundamental clash of values. This time what is it stake is freedom of speech – the right on which all our other rights depend.

    Shortly after the beheading of a French schoolteacher for showing images of the Mohammed, a teacher at Batley Grammar School was forced into hiding after showing pupils the cartoons of Mohammed that sparked the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

    Of the candidates who stood in the by-election, only the SDP made this a central part of their campaign. The Labour candidate, Kim Leadbeater (Jo Cox’s sister) said this: “I think it’s perfectly possible to believe in freedom of speech whilst it’s also possible to be respectful of people’s different views and beliefs.”

    Galloway’s reply: “Clear as mud,” is bang on. Either we have a de facto blasphemy law enforceable by the mob, or we don’t. This is not an issue on which one can take both sides simultaneously.

    It’s disappointing, but hardly surprising, that mainstream politicians are too nervous to stand up to this contingent more forcefully. After all, having one’s throat slit is a fate even worse than being called a racist.

    Labour’s victory, though narrow, was hard-won. Activists campaigning for Labour in the by-election report being physically attacked. One former Labour staffer who was due to campaign there chose to stay away after he heard all Labour Party staff were being issued with personal alarms.

    He said: “I was a loyal apparatchik under Brown and Miliband, and did what was asked of me, but also believed in the party and what it stood for at that time. I rarely saw animosity directed towards staff or activists, and physical attacks were almost unheard of. I’ve seen the party lose its way. So much so I couldn’t vote for the Labour candidate in my constituency in 2019. I know others from my Labour cohort who also voted for other parties. The Labour Party feels broken, trapped in a spiral dive and unable to change course.”

    Labour will be celebrating this weekend, but its troubles are far from over because it has placed itself in an impossible position. It’s impossible to simultaneously appeal to the middle-class woke militants, the anti-free speech Islamists and the patriotic, small-town Somewheres. And if the loss of Muslim votes to Galloway pushes the party towards a more aggressively anti-Israel stance, the zombie of anti-Semitism will rise to haunt Labour once more.

    On Thursday Kim Leadbeater said the Labour win showed her constituents had ‘rejected division’.

    It was echo of her sister, who in her maiden speech said, “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration … We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

    As I contemplate the bitter conflicts that preceded this by-election, these words seem more like a beautiful aspiration than a description of the brutal reality.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

White Fragility – a Review

In might be too late for America, but we Brits must spare our children the paranoid delusions of Critical Race Theory.

Robin Diangelo tends to make people cry. In White Fragility, she describes the tearful meltdowns among clients in her diversity workshops. The employees she is hired to enlighten burst into tears, hurl accusations and flee the room. In one case it is feared a young woman has been driven to a heart attack.

    Some of us, in Diangelo’s position, might wonder whether our workshops were causing more harm than good. But for Diangelo, tears – provided they are ‘white tears’ – are all in a day’s work, and necessary collateral in the process of exploring the problem of ‘whiteness’. 

    Apparently, people who don’t see themselves as racist don’t like being labelled as such. Tough. If you’re white, you are racist and there’s nothing you can do to change the fact. Racism, for Diangelo, is a sort of ephemeral force that pervades our every interaction. This is the first of many unpalatable assertions the reader of White Fragility is expected to swallow: 

    “We must continue to ask how racism manifests, not if.” 

    I was introduced to White Fragility in the same way I suspect many of us were – by my employer. Following the death of George Floyd, I was teaching from home during lockdown. My secondary school forwarded an email from the local authority encouraging us to teach lessons in White Privilege. On the recommended viewing list was a video of Diangelo discussing White Fragility. I watched in appalled fascination. Since then I’ve become one of the hundreds of thousands of people who has bought the book, and one of the – I suspect rather smaller – number who has finished it. 

    For the blissfully ignorant, Robin Diangelo is a white American academic whose book has become one of the defining texts of Critical Race Theory – a key battleground of the culture wars which in recent years have escaped the academy and are rampaging through the corporate world – and now education. 

    So what is ‘white fragility’? Early in her career as a diversity trainer, Diangelo was ‘perplexed’ by the hostile reaction she often received from white people who struggled to accept that they were racist and that they benefited from racism. Then the penny dropped. Of course! Such reactions were yet another manifestation of – what else? – racism. 

    “The mere suggestion that being white has meaning triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviours such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.” 

    This is the morality of the ducking stool, in which to protest one’s innocence is to prove one’s guilt. To be clear, there is no doubt that racism exists in America and indeed the UK. The white majority are inevitably unlikely to experience racism, and might in some cases benefit from it. And yes, it is worth reflecting on how we might consciously or unconsciously contribute to the injustice. But as the reader soldiers on, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that a reduction of misery is Diangelo’s deepest motivation. Instead she comes across as an example of that all-too-familiar human type, the stirrer. 

    She admits her own racist tendencies, and from there projects racist motivations onto others. She claims that parents who want to send their children to schools with good test scores are really using that as an excuse for avoiding schools with a high proportion of black kids. An acquaintance who buys a gun after moving into a crime-ridden neighbourhood is not motivated by a precautionary wish to defend herself, but by racism. 

    British readers will be reminded often how much worse racism appears to be in America. Take schools, for example. Diangelo insists that for white people, schools divide into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ along racial lines. Even if we accept that that’s the case in America, in Britain the picture is more complex.     

    Before superimposing America’s racial anguish onto the British education system, we should remember that the worst-performing demographic here is white working-class boys. Black African children tend to do better than whites, whereas black Caribbean children do worse. And if we are to accept that the only explanation for racial disparity in education is racism, we are required to believe that white teachers racially discriminate against black Caribbean pupils, while racially discriminating in favour of their black African peers. 

    Are there similar complexities in the US? You won’t find out from White Fragility, because a nuanced appraisal of empirical data is not how Diangelo rolls. She does provide evidence that black people are disadvantaged on many measures. But in order to attribute all of these disparities to racism, she paints an implausibly bleak and outdated picture of modern America. 

    “There is a curious satisfaction in the punishment of black people: the smiling faces of the white crowd picnicking at lynchings in the past, and the satisfied approval of white people observing mass incarceration and execution in the present. White righteousness, when inflicting pain on African Americans, is evident in the glee the white collective derives from blackface and depictions of blacks as apes and gorillas.” 

    Where exactly is this ‘satisfaction’ and ‘glee’ over black suffering? In the darkest recesses of the internet, no doubt, but not in the mainstream, where an insensitive utterance on racial issues can be a career-ending blunder. 

    She goes on: 

    “We have a particular hatred for ‘uppity blacks’, those who dare to step out of their place and look us in the eye as equals.” 

    This might be have been true of the Deep South a century ago, but hardly of post-Obama America, where even the famously ‘white supremacist’ Donald Trump continued the reduction in black unemployment and black poverty. 

    For us to swallow her argument, Diangelo not only has to inflate the concept of racism, she also has to deny the reality of progress. 

    “Although rare individual people of colour may be inside the circles of power – Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Marco Rubio, Barak Obama – they support the status quo and do not challenge racism in any way significant enough to be threatening … The status quo remains intact.” 

    That Obama did nothing to challenge racism will be news to many of his supporters. 

    Perhaps the most offensive claim is her dismissal of Martin Luther King. 

    “One line of King’s speech in particular – that one day he might be judged by the content of his character and not the colour of his skin – was seized upon by the white public because the words were seen to provide a simple and immediate solution to racial tensions: pretend that we don’t see race, and racism will end.” 

    There might well be racists who wilfully misinterpret Dr King. But what of those millions who were persuaded by his argument? The key word in Dr King’s famous phrase is ‘judged’. He wasn’t suggesting that we become literally colour blind, but morally so. It’s a beautiful aspiration, which is why it was ‘seized upon’ by progressives both black and white. King’s speech is still taught in British schools for its moral insight and rhetorical verve. And quite right too. It remains a far more inspiring message than anything you’ll find within the pages of White Fragility. This is a deeply depressing book, offering little hope for the future and veering dangerously close to nostalgia for a more overtly racist past. 

    “I am often asked if I think the younger generation is less racist. No, I don’t. In some ways, racism’s adaptations over time are more sinister than concrete rules such as Jim Crow.” 

    In a book replete with bizarre and baseless claims, perhaps the most repugnant is that the formal racist structures of Jim Crow were no worse than the ephemeral ones Diangelo attempts to define today. This is an insult to those who fought in the civil rights movement. But White Fragility is an insult to many. To white people, obviously (white women come in for a particularly bad rap) but also to the black people its author infantilises, to Barak Obama, to Martin Luther King, to the anti-racist young – and to the reader’s intelligence. 

    Those employers who were disturbed by George Floyd’s death, Googled ‘books about racism’ and ended up recommending White Fragility to their staff probably hoped they were working towards a more harmonious environment. But the book is a manifesto for increased division.

     “To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs white people to be really nice and carry on, smile at people of colour, be friendly across race, and go to lunch together on occasion ... But niceness is not courageous. Niceness will not get racism on the table and will not keep it on the table when everyone wants it off.” 

    This brings us back to Diangelo’s workshops, where it appears the author’s response to seeing an open wound is to rub salt into it. When white women cry, she admonishes them. 

    “White women’s tears in cross-racial interactions are problematic ... For example, there is a long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered because of a white woman’s distress, and we white women bring these histories with us. Our tears trigger the terrorism of this history, particularly for African Americans.” 

    Got that? If being called a racist by Robin Diangelo upsets you, don’t cry because that might make a black man feel like he’s about to be lynched. And there’s more: Black men in the workshop, moved by the impulse to comfort a colleague in distress, should refrain from doing so because ‘coming to rescue’ of a white woman ‘drives a wedge between men and women of colour.’ 

    In Diangelo’s world, where the modern American workplace has the febrile tension of 1920s Alabama, kindness and empathy across racial lines are apparently impossible. Employers who invite Diangelo into their workplace without having read this chapter can perhaps be forgiven their naivety. But what’s the excuse for those who have? 

    The dangers of highlighting racial differences in workplaces and schools are well documented. So what happens when we put race on the table and keep it there when everyone wants it off? The data tells us that doing so increases racial inequality. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt surveys the results of numerous studies and concludes that ‘emphasising differences makes people more racist, not less’. 

    I suspect many people realise this intuitively, and may believe that the best way of improving racial harmony would be to shut up about race for a while. This attitude might become more popular as it dawns on us that a year of racial protest and defunding the police has seen a 2,000-fold increase in deaths of black Americans by homicide. 

    But of course Diangelo doesn’t want us to stop talking about race. She wants us to talk of little else. Well, that might be some people’s idea of fun. For them, there are now numerous university courses and books. And there’s always the dubious satisfaction of calling out people on Twitter. But those of us who want to maintain the progress that has been made in race relations, and to improve these relations further, should resist attempts to indoctrinate children in Diangelo’s twisted schema. 

    It’s probably too late for American schools, with Joe Biden supporting moves to impose critical race theory on the curriculum. But there’s hope in the UK, where equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has reminded teachers that they are legally barred from peddling this stuff in the classroom. This is a line that must be held, despite attempts by the teaching unions to breach it. 

    There are moments in history when conditions are such that a deranged ideology invades the mainstream. Post-George Floyd, America is experiencing such a moment. That this deeply cynical book has become a bestseller is a disturbing indictment of modern America. The prospect of its poisonous message being fed to British schoolchildren is nothing less than horrifying.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Friday, 2 April 2021

Philip Roth and the Ecstasy of Sanctimony



While the sword of posthumous cancellation hangs over the king of American letters, Philip Roth, there’s no better time to revisit his work. 

    Roth’s imminent cancellation is due to a forthcoming biography that reveals him to be somewhat on the priapic side. Not that any of his readers will fall off their chairs in astonishment to learn that. We must not read Roth, apparently, because he was a ‘misogynist’, not only in his life, but in his work. 

    This charge might carry more weight had it not been hurled at every major male writer of the past fifty years who dared to write about male desire, including such unlikely woman haters as Howard Jacobson, Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen. Yes, I know, I know – to critics of a certain ideological bent, male desire is violence. But since I understand the nature of my own desire rather better than the average radical feminist literary critic, I simply don’t believe them. 

    Even if Roth was a misogynist, that wouldn’t make him less great as a chronicler of our times, and there is a pleasing irony in the fact that he skewered the very cancel culture that now threatens him.    

    Take The Human Stain, from 2000. A professor is sacked for ‘racism’ because he refers to two absent students as ‘spooks’. 

    ‘Coleman had taken attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in the sixth week, opened the session by asking, ‘Does anyone know of these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”’ 

    Unfortunately for Coleman, the students turn out to be black, and he is toast. If this was semi-plausible in 2000, it’s absolutely plausible now. 

    The backdrop of The Human Stain is the Lewinsky scandal of 1998. Rather than defend Roth any further, I’ll allow him to defend himself with this passage, in which he condemns us with painful prescience from beyond the grave: 

    ‘Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine … and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism – which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security – was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In the Congress, in the press and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne identified in the incipient country of long ago as ‘the persecuting spirit’; all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch ... No, if you haven’t lived through 1998, you don’t know what sanctimony is.” 

    Unless, of course, you’re living through 2021.