Can a culture celebrate those who want to destroy it and still stand? We are about to find out in this fateful November. Until recently, I thought the word “demonic” no more than a figure of speech. It carried a chill dislodged from religious myth and absorbed into literary aesthetics. As an accessory to prose, I liked the word.
Not any more. Not on the verge of an election poised over an abyss for which this nation has no precedent. Prototypes exist elsewhere: Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe. Names come to mind from a grim list of modern catastrophes, each the handiwork of some mad, bewitching spirit inhabiting a people.
How similar the words look—demos (Greek for “the people”) and demon. A possessed demos lusts to annihilate the shining “City Upon a Hill” that Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop dreamed would become a light to the world. Manic demons tear at the nation’s cardinal principle that all men are created equal before God and the law. The fecundity of the American idea is under assault. Blind negation greets any assertion of the nation’s virtues. A generation has been schooled to see our history as a parade of hypocrites and racists whose heirs are due their turn at the back of the bus.
Among the infernal enthusiasms the left brings to this election, none is more satanic than the mystique of race. From the media come dark hints of civil war or revolution—as if those terms related to the future. We are already in the trenches. We simply fear to call things what they are: a low-grade race war.
The word racism no longer denotes the totemic hostility between different ethnic or racial groups that has plagued humanity since Cain slew Abel. Nowadays, every reference to racism has pertinence to whites alone. Black racism toward whites goes unacknowledged or excused. It is protected by the trinity of diversity, inclusion, and equity, and advanced in its name.
President Trump’s September executive order directing federal agencies to cease training government workers in Critical Race Theory (CRT) took aim at anti-white, anti-American propaganda rolling through our institutions. It startled a public coached in the mental habits of anti-anti-communism. And it challenged the dominion of promiscuous free speech claims over the moral obligations of truth-telling. Unless Donald Trump remains in office to oversee implementation of it and to quarterback foreseeable legal tests, this pushback against CRT will evaporate. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is one federal agency already flouting the order.
To gauge how the CDC’s defiance might fare in court, let’s backtrack to 1991, when CRT was in its infancy. Dr. Leonard Jeffries headed the Black Studies Department at the City College of New York. His syllabus was a miscellany of virulent anti-Semitism, the pseudo-anthropology of Afrocentrism, and crackpot theories of “the melanin factor” that made blacks (“sun people”) superior to whites (“ice people”). CUNY removed Jeffries as department chair, though he remained a tenured professor and spent the early ‘90s suing the school, ultimately unsuccessfully.
We are deeper down the rabbit hole now than we were then. Like a demented phoenix risen from the ashes of Jim Crow and bent on getting even, race mysticism grips the culture. It induces a penitential ecstasy readily apparent in white liberal politics. Aspiring Democrats assign different rights to different people in the name of anti-racism.
Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Andy Beshear tilts toward apartheid, pledging free health care to uninsured black Kentuckians. Whites need not apply. San Francisco’s aptly named Mayor London Breed launched the Abundant Birth Project, an unconditional monthly stipend of $1,000 to Black and Pacific Islander women through pregnancy, the first six months of baby’s life, and possibly for two years. White women are ineligible.
The adage that politics is downstream of culture is only half true. It also runs in reverse. Transmitters of culture take cues from politics. Dictionaries, too, can acquiesce in political agendas. This summer, Merriam-Webster agreed to redefine the word “racism” after a young black woman suggested the definition should reflect broader issues of racial inequality and systemic oppression.
Merriam-Webster’s editorial manager obliged. Crafted in devout consultation with black studies scholars, the much-expanded redrafted definition includes a quotation from radical leftist professor Angela Davis: “One of the many ruses racism achieves is the virtual erasure of historical contributions by people of color.” As a hint to the identity of the Grand Eraser, her indictment appears under the subhead “WHITE SUPREMACY.”
It would take too long to tally up related instances of institutional complicity with the anti-racist hustle. What matters is the sum of these particulars. The reckoning may never come, depending upon the November election results. The country may slide unobstructed toward an ethnocracy in which “whiteness” provides a scapegoat for history’s sins.
The idea of collective guilt transmitted from one generation to the next is lethal to the common good. Racial blackmail pits one race against another, extorting eternal atonement from one people to satisfy the boundless demands of another. A vehicle for totalitarian coercion, blood libel is essential to Democratic politics.
This grotesque election season mimics the ideological battles of the early decades of the 20th century. The matrix of distemper is a hydra-headed synthesis of Marxist class struggle and National Socialist exaltation of race. Listen to the rabble-rousing idiom of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who pleaded, “Help me tax the rich! Help me redistribute wealth!” It is the sound of Bolsheviks pissing into the porcelain vases of the Winter Palace. Listen to the tones of today’s apostles of race-think. They echo the scientific racism cultivated in the Third Reich.
Raised this year to the status of a proper noun by the Associated Press and The New York Times, the word “Black” embraces more than complexion. It’s a global nationality, an Überrasse (German for “over race”). Blackness, like Aryanism before it, supposes a distinct racial spirit that supersedes country or culture of origin. What of mixed-race individuals? They are the mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons of yesteryear transformed into today’s persons of color (POC). Just as East Asians were “Honorary Aryans” in the Nazi racial hierarchy, so POCs are Honorary Blacks. The old “one drop” rule is being revived to sever whites from the Herrenvolk (German for “master race”).
To enroll in this new taxonomy, it is unnecessary to pass as black, like racial activists Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King. You simply identify as black and, lo, you are. A peculiar status—the sheen of victimhood—accrues to cross-identifiers who, in a saner age, would be considered mentally ill. But sanity is the first casualty in the war of epidermises.
The creed of Black Lives Matter (BLM), on its website under the caption “What We Believe” for years before it was recently scrubbed, was unequivocal: “We are unapologetically Black in our positioning.…We see ourselves as part of the global Black family.…Our intention from the very beginning was to connect Black people from all over the world.” It resolves to change “the terms of the debate on Blackness around the world.”
None of this is new. The BLM Global Network draws on Lenin’s forgotten objective of self-determination for minorities in the West. This year’s “Autonomous Zone” in Seattle was a cheap souvenir of Communist Party ambition in the 1930s to create an autonomous, secessionist Soviet Negro Republic in the American South. Hawk Newsome, head of BLM Greater New York, cut to the bone about the movement’s aims: “Black liberation and black sovereignty. By any means necessary.”
Sovereignty. By any means necessary. Neither utterance casts an apparent quiver of unease through my self-consciously progressive neighborhood. Since June, a lone woman walks through town like an itinerant preacher carrying a sign with tidings on each side: “NO JUSTICE NO PEACE” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” She is joined by a silent cadre of others every rush hour at our busiest intersection. Passing cars honk in support. Both the drivers and the keepers of the vigil are white.
A local jewelry store pledged 5 percent of sales to the NAACP. It broadcast a link to “103 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.” The first piece of advice: Donate to your local BLM chapter. Well-heeled white flagellants organized a rally to instruct their neighbors on the humiliations visited on nonwhites in today’s America. Young people with a range of skin tones stepped to a microphone to publicize their psychic wounds.
Yard signs with BLM-friendly slogans increase along the roads. A giant outdoor message board on our library façade trumpets: “CHANGE STARTS WITH YOU. BLACK LIVES MATTER.” I look at the sign and see the burden Milton wrote of in Paradise Lost: hell is self-inflicted.
What is there to say about the effect of this election on the arts? Less than you would like. We cannot expect of an election what can only come from a cultural change of heart, the slow stirrings of metanoia. That is the work of a generation, perhaps more than one. Reversal in values needs time to germinate.
It has taken decades for the arts to embrace a mad compulsion to discredit the conditions of civilized life. Admiration for greatness and humility before standards of achievement are incompatible with the primacy of race-class-and-gender postures as measures of worth.
Art tethered to political stances is solidly entrenched in contemporary culture. Its value as a polemical tool is taken as a given at the administrative and grant-giving levels. Impetus for much contemporary art imitates the temper of the 1960s, itself a mirror of contests begun decades earlier. But a people schooled out of cultural memory are incapable of hindsight.
There was a debate in the ‘60s about the moral responsibility of the artist. Two opposite answers were provided by French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain and Leonid Ilyichev, Soviet spokesman for the arts. Maritain’s answer—that the artist’s intent is on the good of the work, not the good of man—accompanied rejection of the artist as an instrument of state purpose. His was a losing position in the cultural drift toward ever-enlarging arts bureaucracies whose funding depended on belief in art as the locus of progressive revelation.
The brass ring went to Leonid Ilyichev, who declared: “Art belongs to the sphere of ideology.” He insisted that “art always has an ideological-political bent that…expresses and defends the interests of definite classes and social strata.” Ilyichev might have been addressing the College Art Association (CAA) or the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). Their bulletins read like memos from the Central Committee’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda.
Amid June’s riots the CAA condemned “all forms of systemic racism…and the marginalization of Black, Indigenous, and all Peoples of Color (BIPOC) as well as discrimination based on race, intersectionality, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.” It promised to “encourage the creative community to examine biases, micro-aggressions” and to “support equity in anti-racist teaching, research, publication and creative practices.”
AICA announced fresh programs on “diversity and equity in art criticism.” The project relieves critics of their fundamental task of evaluation, now a suspect pursuit. Canons of judgment are inadmissible against expressions of ethnic and sexual identities. “Facilitators” will plunge instead into the how-tos of “hearing ‘the’ story of art retold through an Afrocentric, Indigenous, Latinx, or an Asian lens.” Tutorials will show how to “become conscious of biases in museum labels,” and how to recognize bourgeois tendencies in “certain kinds of diction” (read: standard English).
Art’s woke moment has a pedigree. The Whitney Museum’s 1993 biennial was an early romp into agit-prop. Admission buttons declared the tenor of things with the legend: “I Can’t Imagine Wanting to Be White.” John Leo’s prophetic review was appropriately titled: “Whitney to Whitey: Drop Dead.”
Until Party watchdogs rest in peace, little will change. COVID will likely prove a greater influence than the presidency. And not for the better. The Brooklyn Museum offers a useful guide to expectations. Like other cultural institutions, it lost substantial revenue during the lockdown. To meet operating costs, the museum is putting 12 works up for sale at Christie’s Old Master auction. Among them are paintings by Courbet, Corot, and a fine Cranach. Donato de’ Bardi’s painting of St. Jerome, part of a sublime Quattrocento altarpiece, is on the block.
More holdings, yet unspecified, will head to market. But the museum’s contemporary art will never be deaccessioned—museum-speak for sold-off. “You don’t deaccession living artists,” museum curator Anne Pasternak said. “It would be the wrong thing to do.” After all, the modern artists are the privileged bearers of identity politics and leftist grandstanding. Meanwhile, a storage room now cluttered up with thousands of pieces of classic art in the form of European textiles, tapestries, and historic lacework is being eyed as a gallery for African art.
At least the arts state clearly which side they are on. Not so for the Church. The one institution capable of countering leftist rhetoric is enamored of it. “One of the most astonishing phenomena of recent years [is] the fusion between the atheist far left and religious radicalism,” French intellectual Pascal Bruckner observed. Church leadership, from the Vatican to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), is a scandal of sophistical hypocrisy. Our shepherds render ecclesiastical authority toothless, if not absurd.
Pope Francis, with his demi-racialist teología del pueblo (“Theology of the People”) has his preferences among the peoples. White Western peoples are not among them.
On June 3, Francis injected himself into U.S. politics by saying he prays for George Floyd’s soul and for “all those others who have lost their lives as a result of the sin of racism.” Strategically worded, the statement assented to the unsupported assumption that Floyd’s death resulted from racism. It fanned the pretext for the riots while simultaneously decrying them.
Doublespeak does not edify. Writing a column entitled, “How to vote according to our Catholic faith,” Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Wisconsin repeats the USCCB’s position that “abortion surpasses all other moral issues,” though he adds a caveat. Abortion “clearly is not the only issue we face,” Hying writes. Many other issues are significant, including striving “for greater justice in our society and for an end to violence, to racism and racial divisions.” While noting that he personally won’t vote for a candidate who supports the continued legalization of abortion, other Catholics “may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.”
Another issue in which the USCCB is heavily invested is immigration. The USCCB, with field offices in every state, functions as a government contractor. Together with Catholic Charities and a labyrinth of subsidiaries, it receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies for refugee placement and assistance to illegal aliens. Acting as a non-governmental organization, it is free to lobby government for its cash cow issue: open borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants.
American Catholics are already disheartened by pastoral acquiescence to draconian lockdown mandates. They are growing discontent with left-wing politics promoted in a Christian idiom. The outcome of the election may precipitate the hemorrhaging of Catholics from the Church. Weary of the scripted pieties of ordained adjuncts to the managerial state, some will seek solace in the Latin Mass movement. More will join a growing denomination: ex-Catholics.
Note: This essay first appeared in Chronicles, under the title “Politics as Spiritual Warfare,” November, 2020.