Prelude: To orient yourself towards the topic, please consider watching this discussion first. In it you will encounter seven influential black American intellectuals, who heartfully care about black lives and have dedicated careers towards ensuring that black lives matter in America. They are also, interestingly, united by mostly being in opposition to a movement that calls itself “Black Lives Matter” – a movement with a great slogan, but when you look under the hood, actually is mostly not about black lives, and certainly doesn’t seem to amount to improving black lives in America. It is rather about a particular kind of radical blend of Marxism and postmodernism, and cares about black people only to the extent that they sign onto a particular fringe ideology. This is not to say it hasn’t been able to attract, dupe, or scare many well-meaning people into supporting it – people who, as individuals, do care about all black lives.
The first half of America arguably lost its mind in the 2010s, as the Republican party gave up most of its principles and bowed down to a narcissistic, race-baiting, incompetent, and incoherent performance artist, Donald Trump, as its new leader. To further look into the abyss, the party then positively embraced Trump and tied its fate to his.
When Trump was elected, he had already been accused of rape by his first wife and sexual assault by some 20 women. He had expressed admiration for China on crushing pro-democracy protests and disparagingly compared it to a “weak” US in the same breath. And he had made clear he is a one-in-a-million kind of pathological liar without any core principles or, more accurately, core. He had also made clear his driving force was a dwindled dopamine hit resulting from admiration, often imagined. He began his term by pushing a delusion about having had a larger inauguration crowd than was present in reality. Some 40 % of Americans apparently couldn’t find, and still can’t find, any fault in him.
In 2016, I had recently written a Master’s thesis in psychology on the aggression of narcissists, and watching Trump emerge and take over the country was like not being able to wake up from a nightmare. I spent hours and then days on Twitter arguing about and parodying Trump to no avail. When the election was over I only half-jokingly enlisted in a “resistance,” whatever its shape would be. Turns out its shape would be an equally nutty, distorted mirror-image of Trumpism.
I recall visiting NYC in 2016 and seeing Black Lives Matter stickers on lamp posts for the first time. My instinctual reaction to the slogan was one of sympathy and wondering about what kind of a movement it was. One thing happened on the trip that shocked me a little bit, however. My girlfriend at the time (now wife) and I went to a Hillary Clinton rally in Harlem. Close to the Apollo Theater we met a black guy selling his rap music on CDs on the street. I didn’t want to buy a CD, but we ended up in a long conversation with him.
Most of the conversation was him talking, and talking over us, about how racist white people are and how white people are killing blacks in America. This struck me as a novel thing to hear. I didn’t entirely disbelieve it, but was struck by how counter-intuitive it felt given my occasional reading of The New York Times or other American news sites. I didn’t argue with the claim, or with almost any of the other things he said.
We remained quiet for most of the 15 or so minutes the interaction lasted and listened to assumptions and perhaps accusations (I don’t remember exactly anymore) about us that I knew had no relation to reality. We were being held accountable to bad things someone else had done on a continent we were just visiting. When we finally left, and didn’t buy the CD, he yelled “I hope you burn in your hot room” after us, meaning a Finnish sauna (he had been to Sweden and Finland). We had been friendly to him from start to finish. Our only crimes were our skin color and not buying a CD.
When we walked away I felt heavy. I had entered that interaction as a ’90s style colorblind global egalitarian, who votes for the Green Party, hoping to just have a normal conversation with another person (and to be honest, because my people-loving wife had wanted to prolong the interaction from just saying “no thanks” to buying the CD), and left feeling someone had just tailored and force-fitted a KKK sheet on me.
It felt like our conversation partner was wearing some kind of lens that he thought allowed him to see us for what we are, without having to get to know us. He seemed to have been looking at something that bore no resemblance to who we actually were: two relatively mild-mannered psychologists eager to listen to and empathize with whom we were encountering.
It was only much later in Finland that I began to understand the theoretical roots of what I think his worldview was at least partly based on. There had been an intellectual trend on the left that had been brewing since the ’80s that I was blissfully unaware of, called critical race theory, or intersectionalism in its related guise. It is essentially an outgrowth of two philosophical developments in the 20th century:
1) the Frankfurt school of applying Marxist analysis to culture instead of economy. It contains an element called critical theory which seeks to use criticism to free people from oppressive ideologies (like capitalism or liberalism).
2) Foucauldian postmodernism, i.e., viewing everything as power relations and as narratives, subjectivizing and relativizing all values, including those of empiricism, logic, and progress.
Critical race theory views the world through the lens of “oppression,” and divides people into “oppressors” and “the oppressed.” It essentially sees people as members of groups instead of as individuals and, as an implication, blame for historical wrongs is assigned on every member of a perceived group (like our conversation partner had done in Harlem). In addition to the above, critical race theorists taking part in the recent riots have also espoused varieties of anarchism. Consequently, they have burned down cars and buildings as well as made demands to strip society of its defenses, like the police.
Critical race theory elevates race to be a crucial variable in any analysis, dividing people into different racial groups, and denying the possibility of theory of mind across racial categories (e.g., a white guy can’t know what a black woman knows because of membership in different groups). The ideology was based on jargony, grievance-filled writings coming from new academic departments with names ending in “Studies”: Black Studies, Gender Studies, etc.
The Studies methodology was, uncharacteristically for an academic discipline, verificationist (searching for evidence to support a predetermined position) instead of falsificationist (searching for evidence to falsify a hypothesis), allowing for hoax papers to easily penetrate “peer review.”
This roughly constitutes the theoretical underpinnings of what we now call “wokeness.” It is the street name for what essentially is the equivalent of Trump on the left: an irrational wrecking ball levelling previous structures to make way for a post-truth left, as well as for a cynical power grab. It is yet to emerge who the eventual Mitch McConnells and Paul Ryans of wokeness are, that is, cynical players who sell their principles to ride the juggernaut to power.
Wokeness claims to further anti-racism but because it is hyper-focused on assigning blame for actions and views that stray even slightly from the predetermined orthodoxy, often ends up furthering fear and division, including in the people it is ostensibly trying to help. It is a solution that does not solve racism, but is likely to make it worse by alienating people who would want to solve racism, like me and my wife in NYC four years ago.
We don’t currently have many Studies departments, nor other departments captured by their influence, in Finnish universities and I think we are much the better for it. But in America they were spectacularly successful in first shaping the worldviews of educators and bureaucrats, who then took their ideas along with them to schools, institutions, and companies.
After the first woke (again, meaning witting or unwitting subscription to critical race theory ideology) wave in academia from the ’90s on, American universities hired armies of bureaucrats recently graduated from Studies. Suddenly diversity, equity, and inclusion boards had a say in all manner of important decisions, not least involving hiring and firing people.
My first professional brush with critical race theory bureacracy occurred when applying to go to a conference in California last year. The submissions process required you to distill and report all racial and ethnic constituents you, the person, had. I found this racialist and demeaning, and did not include my ethnic make-up in the submission (see picture). I have no idea whether refusing to do so played a role in my submission not being accepted (my previous submission in the same conference in 2016 was accepted – I don’t recall similar ethnic scrutiny then).
In Finland from around 2016 on, we then received an imported version of extreme identity politics of our own, which held less political sway than in the States. As there aren’t grievance studies departments, there consequently are, to my knowledge, few extremely woke bureaucrats or teachers. Finnish progressives still mostly subscribe to Martin Luther King Jr. kind of colorblindness.
Our small woke political contingent consists mostly of people who actively follow events in America and try to import the language game here wholesale, even though the context is quite dissimilar (for starters, though it doesn’t have a clean record with local indigenous groups, Finland itself has been under foreign occupation for most of its history.) When there was a Black Lives Matter protest in Helsinki in June, many people went, but I would imagine most were mainly drawn to the slogan, while being oblivious to the underlying ideology – defunding Finnish police for instance wouldn’t be a viable political goal as trust in the police in Finland is the highest in any country in the world.
Taking a glance at Twitter after the death of George Floyd, it is now easy to find rhetoric similar to that of the guy who wished we burn in our sauna. Critical race theory has conquered much of the American media and become mainstream.
Statistically speaking most Americans are not woke – political correctness is the exception in every group including black Americans – usually ranging from two thirds to three fourths opposing PC culture. Only around a tenth, at most, of Americans are actively progressive. Only a fifth of Americans are on Twitter, but it is a left-leaning fifth, which perhaps gives a false impression of where the national psyche is at. It does, however, perhaps give a more accurate picture of what the minds of the elites are thinking.
Given the low true prevalence of wokeness, it is all the more perplexing why the public face of the American left is in part younger people engaged in rioting in the streets, attempting to burn down buildings in America’s most progressive cities like Portland and Seattle (Bret Weinstein was likely right to call this an autoimmune reaction – a confused attempt to destroy things on which your personal well-being depends), and in part older people proclaiming their support for the protesters and affirming their belief in #BLM. If more people had the courage to speak their mind in public, that is, that they may not actually be convinced Black Lives Matter has the optimal toolbox for solving racism, the title of this post would be “another tenth of America loses its mind.”
Current public clamor about defunding the police in a country with the West’s highest murder rate, and most guns among its populace, and the sight of large rallies amid a pandemic look absolutely insane from Finland. The half of America I still considered somewhat functional after Trump’s election has subjugated itself to an ideology that is ostensibly about black lives, but actually about a narrow interest in power among a Marxist fringe.
It doesn’t care about black people unless they also play ball ideologically. You can perhaps discover this for yourself by asking its proponents if it’s OK to be extremely interested in how to improve black lives, but also not want to buy into Marxism. It would be a welcome development, if there suddenly was room for diverse political views in the movement.
As stated, Black Lives Matter is a catchy slogan, and that is probably a major reason, alongside wanting to avoid becoming a pariah, why so many people are drawn into supporting the movement at first. Many people have a heartfelt yearning to do something to help and to right historical wrongs. I had a positive first reaction to it, too. Once you realize that caring about black lives is not the real aim however, supporting the movement becomes increasingly hard. Many do so out of fear, as in some circles in the US disavowing Black Lives Matter has been twisted into an admission of racism.
This is a delusion. Many black people don’t support Black Lives Matter and are vocal about why: it creates division, offers no implementable solutions, and appears to have more interest in burning than in building things. Solving racism more than likely requires instead a strategy of human unity, realistic solutions, and building things instead of burning them.
Sources: podcasts and writings of James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Coleman Hughes, Bret Weinstein, and Sam Harris among others