Feb 12, 2021

Kmele Foster On Individualism, Equity, Neoracism

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Unafraid conversations about anything

Kmele is co-host of the brilliant and funny Fifth Column podcast and the lead producer at Free Think. You may have seen him on a recent episode of Real Time. A friend and an inspiration, Kmele really opens up in this conversation.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. To hear three excerpts from my conversation with Kmele — on the tensions between African-Africans and black immigrants; on the intractable problem of the racial wealth gap; and on the purging of the NYT’s Donald McNeil — head over to our YouTube page.

This week we didn’t get many notable responses to our episode with David Wallace-Wells — just lots of praise for David — but here are a handful of good emails from readers on other topics. One writes:

The beautiful passage in your latest essay that begins with “I prefer another form of liberation…” should be required reading for students along with the classics. But the term you throw out at the end, “neoracists”, caught my attention as perhaps having greater significance. What reasonable folks need to combat these woke zealots are quick, intuitive arguments, phrases and most of all, labels.

The Woken fight their battles chiefly with labels. “Racist” is the big one. Why not “neoracist” for us? That term, especially without a hyphen, is relatively nonexistent on a one-minute Google search. (Hey, I do my research!) It’s perfect. It immediately puts them on the defensive while they scramble to explain why they aren’t racists. It completely turns the table.

John McWhorter has seized on “neoracist” for his new book. And speaking of new terms, Charlie Sykes floats “Never Again Trumpers”.

Another reader articulates a core philosophical point about being a minority, an outsider, a rebel:

As a child of the ‘60s, I came of age during the time when my generation was busy giving the finger to our elders, shocking them with long hair and telling them they could park their sexual repression in their own bedrooms, not in ours. We were content to be outsiders. If we grew our hair long, we did not believe we enjoyed a right to be employed with it. If we identified as free lovers, we did not expect our elders to endorse it, let alone like it.

Today it is different. For many so-called rebels, it’s not that they are free to go their own way, but that society must come with them. Their identity is an absolute. Not only may they grow their hair long, but their employer is obligated to accept it. Increasingly the employer is not even allowed to enjoy the right to object to it.

This next reader makes an ever-necessary case for classical liberalism — especially needed during impeachment week:

I’ve held characteristically liberal positions on most political matters throughout my adult life and I’ve voted almost exclusively for Democrats for 20 years. Yet in recent years I’ve become more of an institutionalist and even a bit of a small ‘c’ conservative. Your recent newsletter, “The Big Lie That Must Die”, reminded me of why I’ve gone down that path in recent years.

I’m a Foreign Service Officer. I served in Guatemala from 2014-2016. In reading a book about Guatemalan history, I noticed a disturbing trend. When liberals came to power, they threw conservatives in prison. When a conservative such as Rafael Carrera took power in the mid-1800s, he was named presidente vitalicio — president for life — which effectively locked liberals out of power. This pattern continued for well over a century. Liberals criminalized conservatives until some sort of revolution took place. And then conservatives criminalized liberals until yet another sort of revolution took place. To quote from the book’s description of the Cold War battle between the left and the right:

“On neither side was their tolerance or acceptance of the actual game of politics, because tyranny was the only way to ensure the defeat of your opponents.”

The implication is clear: Tyranny is the attempt to destroy politics, because politics is the never-ending settlement of power between coalitions of people who have different interests. This is what makes classical liberalism so powerful. Instead of ferocious violence on behalf of the “correct” set of interests, liberalism accepts that there will always be a competition of interests in society. So we create baseline political rights for individuals, we diffuse power across institutions, and we live to fight another day when our side loses an election. Because coalitions will shift and our constitutional rights protect us from those who happen to hold power today.

But that arrangement is fragile. It’s precious. And it recalls a line from American Hustle, which I actually saw in a movie theater in Guatemala: “You know what, if the country were run by people like you, Irving Rosenfeld, we’d be living in Eastern Europe or Guatemala.”

And perhaps we are. I suspect there is a frightening number of American conservatives who would happily criminalize the left, just as I suspect there is a frightening number of American progressives who would happily criminalize the right. This is not good for the long-term health of society. And the reason I write this to you is because you have been clear and consistent on the importance of liberalism, the fragility of liberalism, and the staggering number of Americans who seem to have no concept or concern for liberalism.

So I’m glad that you are raising the alarm. I don’t know whether it’s a fight we’re going to win, but it’s a fight worth having.