America is a strange place these days. It is difficult to recall another time when two diametrically opposed groups, the progressive and the reactionary, were both ascendant at once—when one group of people reached quite such heights of hypervigilance over supposedly offensive language while another worked so determinedly to dismantle basic rights. In one universe, a white person is shamed for being so presumptuous as to “agree” with the ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement; in another, a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act—one of the pillars of racial equality under the law—is struck down, and a mob, misled by the loser of a presidential election, attempts to reverse the results of the democratic process. Meanwhile, social critics decry the excesses of whichever camp offends them more, conveniently ignoring any facts that might blur their arguments (and interfere with their book sales). One unfortunate result of such either/or-ism is the way it compromises the credibility of important and necessary voices.
Take the case of John McWhorter. An associate professor at Columbia University and the author of over twenty books, McWhorter, who is African American, is not only a star in the world of linguistics but also an outspoken critic of what he often rightly perceives as fuzzy and dangerous thinking on the subject of race, a frequent focus of the New York Times op-ed columns he began writing in 2021. In his most recent book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, McWhorter, as the book’s subtitle suggests, declares the current strain of political correctness and “wokism” to be not like a religion but to be an actual religion. McWhorter, an atheist, does not mean this as a compliment. By religion he means a set of pronouncements that are antithetical to logic and goals that are unattainable in the world in which we actually live. To demonstrate this anti-logic, he sets up a chart juxtaposing various “woke” beliefs that directly contradict one another. The statement “If you’re white and date only white people, you’re a racist” is set opposite “If you’re white and date a black person, you are, if only deep down, exotifying an ‘other.’” Next to the statement “Silence about racism is violence” is “Elevate the voices of the oppressed over your own.” Logic, McWhorter notes, is not the point for the woke faithful: “Beyond a certain point, one is not to think one’s way through a dogma in logical fashion, from A to Z, and decide whether it makes sense. At a certain point you are to suspend logic and have faith.” As for those unattainable goals, the woke seek a world in which every last vestige of racism has been wiped from the minds of the populace. The fact that this will never come to pass, McWhorter explains, is exactly the point. Referring to the champions of wokism as “the Elect,” he writes,
To these people, actual progress on race is not something to celebrate but to talk around. This is because, with progress, the Elect lose their sense of purpose. Note: What they are after is not money or power, but sheer purpose, in the basic sense of feeling like you matter and that your life has a meaningful agenda.