We shortchange the ambitions of the left and minimize the perils of our time when we focus on race. Race is just a weapon the left is using in its ongoing cultural revolution, which aims to dismantle the pillars of Western culture.
Academic activists and corporate apparatchiks who advance cancel culture and critical race theory in the name of racial reckoning are either sympathetic collaborators or useful idiots being manipulated by the left for their far broader and destructive project.
The left, which is dominated by the white intelligentsia, has seized on race because it is so fraught with the emotion of history and identity. It’s a narrative that enables revolutionaries to exploit the founding principles of equality and fairness that define America and Americans. It allows race and gender theorists to prey on the guilt many feel about shameful aspects of our past to camouflage their ideological program as a moral crusade.
When they decry “white supremacy,” they are not talking about the small number of repulsive racists who still prowl the land, or even the Republican Party, which was founded to end slavery, but something far greater: the foundational ideas of our society that stretch back to the Greeks and Romans. They are using the hateful outliers who carried Tiki torches in Charlottesville to undermine Plato and Aristotle and other towering figures of Western culture.
In February the New York Times profiled a classics professor at Princeton who is spearheading the effort to redefine Western civilization as a euphemism for “white civilization,” which he reduces to the brutalist impulses of dominance and oppression. The Times reports that professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta “has been speaking openly about the harm caused by practitioners of classics in the two millenniums since antiquity: the classical justifications of slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms.”
That echoes arguments gaining traction in the academy which assert that many artists long considered transcendent are simply celebrated because of their race and gender. Philip Ewell, a black music theory professor, argues, for example, that “Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years.” Could there be any other reason that the white, male, European composer was dubbed a “master”?
Lorena German, a black teacher from Austin, Texas, who is a member of a group called #DisruptingShakespeare, asserts “that Shakespeare, like any other playwright, no more and no less, has literary merit. He is not ‘universal’ in a way that other authors are not. He is not more ‘timeless’ than anyone else.” German is part of a nationwide K-12 movement to replace Western classics with activist texts emphasizing race, gender, identity and oppression.
These efforts are not happening in isolation. Just as the calls to remove Confederate monuments led to attacks on foundational figures of American history, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin – demonstrating that the true target was not racism but the country’s history – the attacks on the giants of Western culture are one part of a broader movement to destroy, well, most everything.
The concept of race is useful here – claiming that math and science are bastions of white supremacy provides an avenue for attacking heretofore impenetrable fortifications. The same goes for the claim made in a poster distributed by the Smithsonian Institution that concepts such as individualism, hard work, politeness, being on time, the nuclear family and the written tradition are “aspects & assumptions of white culture.” Also in the crosshairs are the ideas of objectivity, neutrality, masculinity, free speech and the observation that some people possess more talent than others – which would come as a surprise to Michael Jordan and Yo-Yo Ma.
And, of course, there is the movement to deny the biological basis of sex – the ineradicable fact that females have two X chromosomes and males one X and one Y – and replace it with the idea that we only possess a gender, which is fluid. Hence, the Biden administration’s recent move to reject the word “mother” in favor of “birthing people.”
At bottom, the left has embraced a wrecking ball ideology that seeks to raze all in its path. The main impulse is not to build a better world but to destroy all that exists. It might not be long before these postmodern Robespierres follow their archetypes in the French Revolution and propose a new calendar, erasing the past and restarting human history at Year One
Although it may seem that such efforts arise spontaneously in response to a specific injustice (the killing of George Floyd) or in response to a perceived threat (i.e. the election of Donald Trump), its intellectual roots run much deeper, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay detail in their indispensable book. “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody.”
The gist of their analysis is that the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism was a disaster for Marxists in the academy. In response to the debunking of their own historical narrative, they set about tearing down every other one. Their project was largely destructive: They sought to “deconstruct” and “problematize” long-held ideals to render them untenable. Nothing is beyond their denunciations and cancellations. Social justice, race and identity politics have given them a powerful weapon in their quest to destroy the status quo and rehabilitate their failed Marxist doctrines in new guises: primarily race and gender.
I understand why conservatives are focusing on the rise of critical race theory and its sister concepts such as systemic racism, implicit bias, privilege and “white fragility.” It provides a meaningful shorthand for a hydra-headed movement that is hard to define because of it scale and unquenchable ambition. But the emphasis on race is counterproductive. It allows the left to define the terms of the debate in a manner that gives its efforts a moral legitimacy they do not deserve.
What’s going on is about much more than race. It is long past time we recognized that we are in the midst not of a culture war, but a cultural revolution, and muster the resistance it demands.
J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.