Transcript: 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 McWhorter needs little introduction. The Columbia linguist has written 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.
The episode aired on October 22, 2021. Some of John’s money quotes:
On why people embrace wokeness: “The reason is not because people are crazy. I think it’s lazy to just say everybody’s crazy. … It’s that there is a religion that specifies that your main goal is to show that you are aware that racism exists.”
On wokeness as a religion: “People who are in disagreement are not just wrong. They are filthy. They are heretics. They can’t be around.”
On what he would like woke people to do: “Just sit back down. Sit down and interact with the rest of us and give us your contributions. Most of them will not be followed, any more than most of the rest of our contributions will be followed. The way things happen is via consensus.”
Andrew: Hi there, Dishheads. Welcome to another Dishcast. We've had a stellar run lately, and no one's more stellar than John McWhorter, whom I have the pleasure of talking to this week.
John is, well, you probably know who he is. He's one of the most reasoned and composed and smart and relentless advocates for a liberal society, and against what he calls “Woke Racism,” which is the title of his new short book.
I was just saying to John, this is the easiest assignment ever, because this book is a very quick read. It's more of a pamphlet really, a polemic in many ways, than a big scholarly book. And I love those tracts. They're important. They're part of our conversation. Insofar as we go from tweets to blog posts to essays, this is another way, a better way, of making these cases.
John's a linguist at Columbia and is disproving all of us worried about cancel culture by being hired by the New York Times to do a newsletter. He does that twice a week now. How are you finding that, John? How's that new gig going?
John: Well, I've taken on a second full-time job, which is a lot. It's a challenge, but a pleasant challenge, to come up with something to say that people are actually supposed to want to read every three days. I tend not to write short. Really, if it's up to me, it always comes out 1500 words. So it's a lot of work, but life is short and I figure I will try to do this because of course the pulpit is large. But yeah, it has changed a lot of the contours of my life.
Andrew: Well, hang in there. That obligation could be quite onerous over time, but it creates a different kind of intimacy with readers, would you say? I mean, you're sending this out to them. That interaction is slightly different from writing a column or an article in a newspaper or a site, right?
John: Yeah. We're working on what the contours of it are going to be. But certainly, newsletters are going to come along that refer back to other ones. I'll be sharing the progression of my thoughts. There'll be hot takes.
I'm hoping that's the way it can be, because I would like it to be a piece of me during this particular time. I really do feel a duty to speak out for what I believe is the majority of thinking people at this time. But a lot happens. It happens quickly. Sometimes you change your mind. Sometimes you're mad, sometimes you're happy. I'd like to see if I can record that in this series of conversations with the public.
Andrew: Yes. It's a very humanizing, and sometimes humiliating, process of seeing yourself in action. I had that experience.
John: You've been there.
Andrew: Yes. But I want to talk about the book obviously, because it's on what to my mind is one of the most important topics that we are debating right now.
It seems to me that one of your key arguments is that this new orthodoxy, shall we say, ideology, whatever we want to call it, best approximates a religion. Now, tell me what, in your view, designates a religion that applies to "wokery"? Let's call it that for the time being.
John: You know, there's a fine line between ideology, as we've always understood it, and a religion. I already have some critics who are saying that my religion analogy is strained. And I know what they mean and to an extent we're talking about semantics.
I say that it's a religion primarily for two reasons.