Saturday, April 02, 2022

My Censored Review of John McWhorter's Woke Racism

Several months ago, I posted a three-star review of John McWhorter's Woke Racism which was doubly incorrect: for approving of his attack on the New Racism, and for disapproving of his attacks on Christianity.  It was a thorough, evidence-based critique, and became the most popular on Amazon's page for that book.  But then it disappeared.  I asked why, and was told it would be reinstated.  But then it disappeared again.  I prodded again, but it did not reappear, so far as I know.  

Perhaps it disappeared into the Woke Zone. 

Anyway, here it is, by request.  Hopefully this corner of the Internet is still untouched by censors.  

I have thought about sending McWhorter a copy . . . he responded in a friendly way to a previous inquiry.  And maybe I should see about publication elsewhere.  

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McWhorter is such a lively writer, so lucid and sharp, and his argument here is so important (or would be, if only), that one must justify giving the book but three stars.  I will not do so by echoing the reviewer below who calls this "right-wing whining:"  McWhorter echoes too many Democratic talking points for my taste.  Yet he has much to say that should be heard.
Pity he almost ruins it by dropping so much poorly-aimed ordinance, stupidly taking out potential allies, including me, as collateral damage.  
"Stupid" is not normally a word one would associate with this brilliant scholar.  But McWhorter is a linguist, dabbling here in religion.  I am a philosopher of religion, who dabbles in language occasionally.  The problem with religion is, everyone thinks they're an expert, even if they are as weakly-informed on the subject as Sigmund Freud, Steven Pinker, or Richard Dawkins.  McWhorter attacks it with the same ignorance and arrogance.    
Should one call woke ideology a "religion?"  That depends on how you define the word (see Peter Berger): the odd thing is, McWhorter doesn't give a definition, despite the importance of this classification.  By some definitions, McWhorter would also qualify as a religious person, and his own beliefs -- which he proselytizes here, apparently thinking others should agree with him, though he describes those as marks of religion -- are potentially subject to some degree to the same criticism he levels on his targets.  He criticizes Manicheanism, but edges towards a Gnostic view of society, with the Enlightened faithful battling legions of the superstitious and cognitively lazy.    
If you're writing a book to convince people to oppose a popular new faith, why spend so much time attacking people who might prove to be your allies?
And so ignorantly!  Cotton Mather is a byword for blind faith?  Actually he was keenly interested in the sciences, which pious Christian thinkers did much to create, and helped stop small pox in its tracks in Boston.  Ben Franklin credits him for inspiring his own good works.  No, religions are not all the same, even so-called "Abrahamic religions" (a dubious category), any more than all writing systems are the same.  No, blind faith or "unempirical" beliefs are not the necessary hallmark of Christianity: in fact, almost every sermon to pagans in the Acts of the Apostles is highly empirical.  Nor is it true that early Christians simply "thought of themselves as bearers of truth, in contrast to all other belief systems."  Again, read Acts, and see how Paul interacted with Stoic philosophers in Athens.  Or Justin Martyr, Origen, St. Augustine, after him.  I wrote my doctoral dissertation on how Christianity sees other faiths, mostly in the Chinese context, but with reference to other civilizations as well.  (Fulfillment: A Christian Model of Religions.)  McWhorter continually takes irrelevant shots at a version of Christianity that a child should not hold.  And does he not think himself a bearer of truth?  If not, why write?  It is irritating to buy a critique of a modern ideology that the author understands, and get so much of a attack on an ancient ideology that he clearly does not, in a field not his own, with so little self-criticism.      

McWhorter's epistemology is also dubious.  He decries the "suspension of disbelief" in religion.  But really, conflicts between opposing authorities -- say, your eyes, and what your best friend tells you -- are inherent in the human condition.  The only rational way to act in this world, is by ignoring some doubts, most of the time.  
At the end of the book, McWhorter tells readers, "If you wish to expel religion, Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion."  But as Kevin Williamson put it recently, "As a scientist, Sigmund Freud was a man whose name was one vowel away from being the perfect aptronym . . . "  At best, on religion, I find "Fraud" an amusing crackpot.  That McWhorter thinks he's the go-to guy, is astonishing.  
McWhorter also assumes that "religions" are essentially the same thing -- even if he doesn't bother to define the word.  But every object in the cosmos larger than a small protein is unique, for those who study that class of objects.  Religions are far more varied than snowflakes.      
McWhorter does mention one difference between religions: Wokism has not developed a concept of forgiveness yet.  But as I explain in "Letter to a 'Racist' Nation," woke concern for those on the margins is a fragment off of Christian theology, introduced by Jesus.  You don't easily find it in Greco-Roman civilization before that: read Suetonius, or Tom Holland's Dominion.  Nor do you find it in Aztec or Nazi religions.  As Chesterton put it, isolated from Virtue as a whole, compassion has gone mad in modern American society, with results that McWhorter well describes.      
Another valid link between Christianity and Wokism is explained by Rene Girard, whom McWhorter 
does not mention: the notion of scapegoating.  For Christians, Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself.  Girard points out, however, that he also subverts and exposes all attempts to scapegoat.  Jesus was thus the historical antidote to Cancel Culture, Girard argues.  
While I'm being one-sided, I should also mention McWhorter's mild support for BLM and less mild criticism of the police.  It's not just that my brother's a cop, and he's saved lives (of what color, it doesn't matter) in many ways, while as predicted, BLM protests were again followed by a huge upsurge in murders.  But also, I visited CHAZ.  Just to the west of the Seattle East Precinct I found "Blue Lives Murder" graffiti.  By the front door to east, protestors had hung a poster of 29 African-Americans killed by police in WA state in recent years.  (Ignoring Whites, Asians, Natives, and Hispanics.)  I researched those and other "victims" of police shootings (see Letter to a "Racist" Nation) and found almost all were aggressively wielding guns or other weapons.  Some of these "victims" had already murdered someone.  In fact, some 3000 innocent Americans die of medical errors, for every one killed by Law Enforcement.  It was a witch hunt, in 2020.  Dr. McWhorter needs to treat BLM propaganda more critically.  
McWhorter is in over his head in religion.  He is much better when describing culture, psychology, and faculty gossip.  His prose floats like a butterfly, then stings like a bee.  Unfortunately, this butterfly floats over the wrong target, and the bee wastes too many stings on a Rock that has worn out whole hives of hornets and yellowjackets.  While wonderfully readable, this book is ill-conceived, and to me, rather irritating.  


sparrish said...

I think the basic problem with McWhorter is that he beleives that one cannot argue for the truth of a religion. That is, he thinks that all religious beleif is blind faith. This attitude is common among secular academics. They often seem totally ignorant of Christian apologetics, for example. They need to be challenged on this point.

BTW, Gary Habermas has finished his 5,300 page (yes) defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, and is communicating with publishers. I thought you might like to know.

sparrish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B Marshall said...

Thanks. I don't talk much with Gary, since I know he's been busy. But that is busy, indeed. He and Craig Keener should have a book war, where they toss volumes of their works at one another until both are buried under a mountain of paper.