The Weekly Dish
The Dishcast with Andrew Sullivan
John McWhorter On Woke Racism

John McWhorter On Woke Racism

We also discuss the many qualities that make wokeness a new religion.

For anyone who follows online debates over race in America, John needs little introduction. The Columbia linguist just wrote a bracing tract, Woke Racism, against the new elite religion. He, like me, despises the racism inherent in critical race theory and its various off-shoots, and let’s just say we talked very freely about many of the dynamics of our time.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). Read the full transcript here.  For two clips of my conversation with John — on the banality of wokeness, and how the woke religion hurts African-American kids — head over to our YouTube page.

Speaking of John, a reader mentions him in the context of this dissent:

Love your podcast, but your complaints about the NYT are becoming tiresome and seem to reflect a lack of recent reading. With Bret Stephens, Ross Douthat, and now John McWhorter writing consistently reasonable columns that are not knee-jerk liberal, your tirades against the Times sound more like sour grapes every week. (No rational person supports Trump, so those voices aren’t going to be heard there except in the occasional guest column.)

Sometimes you paint with such broad strokes that you fall prey to the same distorted view of the opposition — lumping them all together with the most extreme elements of the woke left and exclaiming, “Can you believe what they’re saying?!” Stop with the straw men!

Sour grapes? The NYT has published many of my essays and reviews, and gave my new book a rave. But if my reader thinks that non-left views have more than token appearances in that paper, then I don’t know what to say. Conservative writers need not support Trump, but might be able to defend the non-interventionist, neo-protectionist agenda that also seeks to limit immigration. Another reader is curious to find good alternatives:

As a lifelong Democrat (I was elected to county office on the McGovern ticket) and subscriber to liberal mainstream media, I was interested in your antipathy to those sources. What I need is balance. What sources and commentators do you trust for their objectivity?

The Wall Street Journal is often a very neutral read in its news pages. Various Substacks help balance out the left-framing of everything. The Economist is much more based than the biased CNN or MSNBC.

Looking back to our episode with Cornel West, the following clip, where he offers his take on critical race theory and the 1619 Project, was really popular among readers:

One reader remarks how “Cornel West just exudes a cerebral, erudite common (universalist) warmth and decency. Is this why he’s seemingly so out of fashion on the left?” Another reader:

“We’ve got to fight the notion that whiteness is reducible to white supremacy.” Yes — thank you, Dr. West. This is my issue with how CRT is being disseminated. I don’t have any problems with teaching history, however reprehensible some of our predecessors behaved, but don’t teach children that they have some sort of original sin based on their skin color.

Condoleezza Rice said the same this week:

Another reader on Cornel’s deep love for the humanities:

I found very interesting Dr. West’s response to your question of who people should read more of. His response was Chekhov. Now, critical race theory would tell you that Dr. West, a black man, shouldn’t find too much in common with Chekhov, a dead white man. But in fact the opposite is true.

Moreover, Dr. West’s analysis of Chekhov’s work wasn’t a critical theory analysis of cis, white, patriarchal, capitalist, etc, etc. Rather it was a fundamental engagement with. the. text. — can you hear the annoying clapping? — and what that text says about the HUMAN condition. I think there is something deep to this, especially in our current cultural moment. That a black American professor in 2021 finds such deep communion with a Russian white playwright from (roughly) 150 years ago … worlds apart, and yet deeply connected.

And this is the real beauty of a liberal education — you can commune with anyone outside your own “lived experience” and learn from them. Their identity matters far less than their ideas — and the more cultural and historical boundaries we cross the more we stand to learn.

Many more readers keep the conversation going over the episode with Briahna Joy Gray:

This was a really good talk. While it can be fun to hear you, Andrew, chat with your old buddies, this is the kind of talk I’m here for. Briahna is obviously incredibly sharp. In my experience, articulate thinkers like her are rare out on her wing. She really is the kind of progressive intellectual we need to put forward the best version of the worst ideas from the left. I’m so tired of only finding rational sense-makers clustered around the center of everything. I enjoy getting my opinions challenged, but it doesn’t work if those doing the challenging seem delusional.

And so, it was a bit frustrating to hear Briahna make so much sense, and then draw conclusions that don’t line up with her premises — i.e. how she ascribes so much of America’s problems to class differences, but then talks as though race is the biggest game in town. But I also know she has a long life of hard thinking ahead of her, to work out some of the kinks in her own moral and political reasoning, and articulate more connections that will help me see the flaws in my own. I can’t wait to see who she’ll become in the next 5, 15 and 50 years.

Anyway, I just wanted to put my order in for more conversations like that, please.

The conversation between Briahna and me will continue soon, when I go on her podcast, Bad Faith. Another reader quotes me:

“Why, then, one wonders was the black family far, far stronger a century ago, when oppression was much greater and the welfare state so much more meager?”

Mass incarceration. And I learned that from Briahna on the Dishcast.

It started way before mass incarceration. No doubt that hurt it as well. But how else are you going to stop endless murder and mayhem in your communities — if you don’t take the killers off the streets? Another reader:

I want to share one point that I didn’t see mentioned in your reader responses to the Gray interview. I understand the reason that Ms. Gray, and others, seem unwilling to acknowledge “even the slightest contribution of cultural factors.” It’s the underlying meaning that they assume such an admission would mean: that the cultural factors are the fault of the individual. In other words, for her to admit that absent fathers are the problem, either: 

  1.  She is admitting that the fathers inherently don’t want to be there, or

  2.  She’s afraid others will interpret it as such.  

The one dissent you posted speaks directly to this misunderstanding when the reader writes, “To hear you lament the lack of father figures in the ghetto as if this was due to the unique moral failings of Black men” ... when people on the left hear someone say “it’s because the fathers are absent,” what they hear is “the fathers are absent due to a moral failing.” The most common way these two sides talk past one another is conflating “responsibility” with “fault”:

Left: “You’re wrong, it’s not their fault”
Right: “No you’re wrong, it’s their responsibility!”

Both are right.  

Exactly. What matters is how we fix it — and if we can. This next reader wants me to “please dive deeper on absent fathers!”

I loved your episode with Briahna — it’s so interesting to get the socialist perspective on policy debates, to make us think more broadly about what’s possible. Like many listeners, I was particularly interested by your exchange on the causes and consequences of absent fathers. I think this might be a bit of a blind spot for you, having never negotiated fertility, pregnancy, and parenting within a romantic relationship. For me and my other highly successful, college-educated friends (all straight women), birth control was serious business from early adolescence, for both us and our parents. We all knew that an unintended pregnancy would really undermine our ability to pursue our goals.

The women I’ve known who became single mothers had a very different approach. They were not very proactive and diligent about birth control and became pregnant at young ages while in youthful romantic relationships that lacked the stability and economic means to be an independent nuclear family. These women (girls really) usually still lived with their parents! It’s a pretty difficult situation to integrate a new young father, especially when the mother’s parents may not be very welcoming.

Your Dishcast guest Bryan Caplan touched on this topic as well: in order to avoid absent fathers, we really need to focus on people waiting until they are in a stable, mature relationship to have children. (As I understand it, one of the best tools for this is long-term reversible birth control, like an IUD.) You should invite an expert on this topic on your podcast! I’m not sure who would be right — maybe someone in Brad Wilcox’s circle (though not Brad himself, I don’t think). Maybe this guy, Nicholas H. Wolfinger?

In the meantime, you’ve piqued my interest, so I’ll be diving into a whole journal issue on the subject, “Out of Wedlock: Causes and Consequences of Nonmarital Fertility.” I also just read a Brookings piece titled, “An analysis of out-of-wedlock births in the United States” — written by none other than Janet Yellen, of all people! Essentially, the increased availability of contraception and abortion has changed the dynamics of premarital sex and unplanned pregnancy, ultimately resulting in a huge decline in shotgun weddings.

Out here in Las Vegas, I’m catching up on your podcast episodes after the birth of my second child — out of wedlock, in more of the Scandinavian fashion, because my partner makes waaaaaaay more than me and I would lose tons of tax benefits if we tied the knot.

I agree on early, easy access to contraception. It both reduces the number of kids without fathers and the number of abortions. Win-win.

Yet another reader:

What I found most interesting about your conversation with Briahna is that in terms of policy, you and her actually agree on quite a bit, which you repeatedly make clear. You are both interested in UBI, for example. What’s really different are the philosophical underpinnings behind your positions. Briahna supports UBI because she sees it as a way to help poor and working class people for their own sake; you support it because you think it helps stabilize a society that becomes unstable when there is too much income inequality. Same position, but with a fundamental difference in motive and emphasis.

One more reader this week:

I just listened to your conversation with Briahna while passing into my 10th hour of tomato harvesting for the day. So this part made me laugh:

“ … instead of some migrant worker having to spend all her day in the hot sun picking tomatoes, that that process can be automated and that migrant worker can … can do anything else in the world”

As a migrant (from East Sussex!) who works 40 hours a week at a Montreal rooftop greenhouse, I can happily report that tomato harvesting is wholly conducive to podcast consumption. I look forward to The Dishcast every Friday!

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