For many years now, I have watched the growth of a new revolutionary ideology based upon identity politics. I have sometimes referred to it as postmodernism, the academic theory from which it draws a lot of its inspiration, and it now also goes under the name of "wokeness." In the last decade that ideology has become mainstream, and it dominates the academia, the mainstream media, and much of the Democratic Party. With respect to race, its buzzwords--diversity, equity, and inclusion--are now very common currency. It has just burst into the news again because the San Francisco School Board has decided to rename more than forty schools, stripping away the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, Theodore and/or Franklin Roosevelt (no one seems to know which president this particular school was named after), James Monroe, William McKinley, Francis Scott Key, Daniel Webster, James A. Garfield, Paul Revere, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Muir, Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, Diane Feinstein, about half a dozen early Spanish settlers, and some prominent local figures. One cannot understand this decision without understanding the ideology behind it--and this is all the more important because many people who now embrace it do not really understand it or where it came from.
I would like to stress before I begin that while my own views are unfashionable, they are far from unique, or unique to older white males ike myself. Just as many women have never accepted many of the more extreme tenets of contemporary feminism, a number of black thinkers reject the critical race theory which is one aspect of wokeness and which evidently has played a major role in the San Francisco decision. Youtube is full of fascinating and stimulating interviews with people like Glenn Loury (a Boomer), John McWhorter (an Xer), and Coleman Hughes (a Millennial) who completely reject the new ideology. The comments on their youtube entries show that there are thousands of Americans of all races who reject them as well. Plenty of evidence suggests that a majority of voters reject them--such as the recent referendum in California, the most diverse state in the nation, that refused to reinstate affirmtive action in university admissions by a wide margin. None of this, howevr, has stopped the inexorable march forward of the new ideology.
What is it and where did it come from?
Most fundamental to it, perhaps, is the idea that there is not, and cannot be, one single human reality with respect to political and social questions. Postmodernism holds that one's view of such questions is inevitably colored by one's race, gender, and sexual orientation, and that these characteristics are more important than any common humanity that we all share in shaping our views and interests. Academics have argued for decades that no particular views an be "privileged" over others, even if--or perhaps I should say, especially if--those views are held by a large racial majority of the population, or by most of its leadership class (and every society has a leadership class.) This view led decades ago to the foundation of gender and ethnic studies departments, on the grounds that only members of a particular gender or race could contribute critically important views to the academy. An alternative view, such as my own, might argue, first of all, that all our brains are sufficiently similar for us to reach a substantial measure of agreement on critical questions provided that we recognize our common humanity. It might also argue that a cross-gender, cross-racial consensus on many issues is necessary for society to function, rather than to descend into a war of tribes. Such views are increasingly unfashionable.
A second, closely related tenet of the new ideology holds that one's racial and gender identity defines one's life experience in almost every way. In particular, it marks one either as an oppressor (white people in general, but especially white males), or one who is oppressed (everyone else.) The whole diversity industry, including thousands of consultants, dedicates itself to propagating that view, and best sellers such as White Fragility implore, or try to shame, white people into acknowledging this crucial aspect of their identity, and to recognize themselves as privileged oppressors no matter what their actual feelings towards other races might be. This view also implies that oppressed groups must not be forced to submit to the leadership of members of oppressor groups, or forced to accept a culture that does not come from their own group. I have seen this view emerge in many ways. I have heard interviews about the Boston school district arguing that nonwhite students cannot get the education they need as long as their teachers are largely white. Last spring, after George Floyd's killing, black reporters at the Washington Post submitted a letter to their superiors complaining that the idea of "objectivity" was simply an aspect of "elite whiteness." That was one example of a tendency to attach racial labels to cultural characteristics. A poster, "Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States," at the national Museum of African-American History--now removed--listed self-reliance, the nuclear family, an "emphasis on the scientific method," the "Protestant work ethic," and many other traits--some of them hopelessly dated and stereotypical--as specifically white characteristics.
Connected to these views is the view of American history embodied in the New York Times's 1619 project. In this view, slavery was, and racism still is, "central" to American history. Now I believe that slavery was the original sin of the American colonies and the young American Republic, and that its impact persists in many ways to this day. I also agree that slavery was "central" to two important groups: slaves and slaveowners. I know, however, that those two groups represented a pretty small percentage of the whole population, that they were confined to one part of the country after the American Revolution, and that a huge war eventually put an end to the status of slaves and slaveholders--though not, of course, to racism. If, however, black people decide that one must view history only through the ideas of people who "look like me," and that their perspective is at least as valid as anyone else's, the conclusion that slavery was "central" to American history becomes inevitable. Interestingly enough, this was not always the view of black activists. In the 1850s, it was the white supremacist judge Roger Taney who argued that the Constitution protected slavery throughout the United States and that black people could not be citizens, while Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist and ex-slave, argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document. The 1619 project went even beyond Taney, and continues to argue, without any evidence, that many white Americans fought the American revolution to preserve slavery.
The emphasis on race as a critical cultural and political factor has changed our use of language and, critically, our view of history, in ways that are largely unconscious. The terms "African-American," "Native American," "Asian-American," and the less common "European-American" imply that we are all defined by where our ancestors were living in 1492. This may never have occurred to you, but a moment's reflection, I think, will convince you that it is true. (Certainly a letter to the editor I read decades ago made this point effectively: "The term 'Native American' is deeply offensive to native Americans of African, Asian, and European descent.") More importantly, when one combines this view with the idea of white people primarily as oppressors of everyone else, the whole of US history becomes a crime and a tragic mistake. That idea comes out in the San Francisco boards list of proscriobed names, which incude anyone who ever had any involvement in wars with Indians. Closely related to this view is another one that I talked about in a much earlier post: the idea that virtue resides only among the oppressed. Last but hardly least, pre-Columbian America has taken on the aura of a mythical golden age, a paradise of unspoiled humanity living in harmony with nature, which European civilization unfortunately destroyed.
A broader perspective yields very different conclusions. During the last few centuries of human history, agricultural societies replaced hunter-gatherer societies nearly everywhere in the world, and everywhere in temperate regions. This must often have been a cruel process but it seems to have been an inevitable one. Certainly it allowed humanity to multiply its population many times over, and to enjoy a much higher standard of living. Even within hunter-gatherer societies, moreover, life was often a brutal, and sometimes genocidal, struggle among different tribes. In what is now the US the Mound Builders once built an extensive civilization but it had disappeared before Europeans ever arrived. No group was ever more brutal than some of the nomadic tribes of Asia. When one judges the American experiment within a broader historical perspective, things look completely different. What distinguishes it is the idea of human political equality, revolutionary in its day. While that idea was not immediately applied to all inhabitants of the country in 1776 or 1787, it inevitably spread to them all within the relatively short time--in the whole scheme of history--of a century and a half or so.
Taken together, these views explain why the San Francisco school board took the action it took. They have explicitly stated that Washington and Jefferson had their names stripped from schools because they owned slaves. If one believes that racial oppression has always been the "central" fact of American life, that does indeed become more important than leading the continental army to victory in the revolution, serving as the first President, writing the Declaration of Independence, making the Louisiana Purchase, or anything else. Lincoln's proscription stems from the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862. In August of that year, starving Dakota (Sioux) Indians, suffering from the loss of hunting grounds and the failure of the white authorities to provide food under treaties, went to war with the whites. They initially won many battles, burned a number of white settlements, and killed an estimated 600 or more whites. The federal government sent reinforcements, the Dakota eventually surrendered, and military courts eventually sentenced 300 of them to death. Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38, said to have been responsible for about 100 murders. Lincoln's name is presumably being stripped because he played a part in this episode in the long, sad struggle between whites and Indians whose hunter-gatherer societies disappeared. A single racial offense now qualifies one for unpersonhood, and in this case outweighs Lincoln's unique role in ending the institution of slavery within the United States.
The board could at least point to specific acts of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln to justify their proscription, and Sherman and Sheridan also commanded US troops in wars against the plains Indians. But what about Paul Revere, who had no connection to slavery, or James A. Garfield, a convinced abolitionist, or Daniel Webster, who opposed the spread of slavery? A spreadsheet issued by the board answers these questions. It damns Garfield for having stated that Indian societies were destined to disappear, and Revere for having commanded an expedition to Maine during the Revolutionary War which was somehow "connected" to the "colonization" of the Penobscot Indians, What about James Wilson Marshall, listed merely as a sawmill worker at Sutter's Mill? Why the naturalist John Muir? The spreadsheet indicates that many of these people simply said things that would ban them from polite society today. In one of its most bizarre entries, a school named after the Battle of Argonne Forest in the First World War is renamed because the battle was fought by segregated American units. Most ironically, Daniel Webster is proscribed because he supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. So he did--as part of the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California to the Union as a free state.
White people did, indeed, define most of the principles upon which our institutions are based. They did not however define those principles to use against nonwhites---they were weapons against other whites, specifically, the British monarchy and aristocracy that claimed superiority by birth. Because those principles as stated are race- and gender-neutral, they have spread around the globe to varying degrees, just as Jefferson, in his last letter, hoped that they might. Most importantly, those principles of equality, equal rights, and majority rule, remain the only possible basis for the survival and prosperity of our nation. Tribalism will only breed more tribalism If this post leads anyone to think a little harder about where we are and where we are going, it will have been worthwhile.