Top Stories of the Year: #5
It’s time to count down the top five stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2019 and reviewing (and extending) my coverage of them.
Every year sees a bit of a seesaw among ideological factions of the left, but this year I think we saw a turning point at which one faction has become dominant for now over the others, both politically and culturally. The story of this year is the supremacy of racial politics.
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The left has its factions, just as the right does. Perhaps they have a bit more ideological consistency, most of them being variants of anti-capitalism. But the different factions find different excuses for hating freedom, and they often find themselves in competition for a leading role in the culture.
There is the old left, which upholds socialism as its ideal and wants to destroy capitalism in order to redistribute wealth. Then there is the green left, which upholds environmentalism as its ideal and wants to destroy capitalism so we can stop producing wealth and get used to privation. Then there is the “woke” left, which holds identity politics as its ideal and wants to destroy capitalism in order to transfer power and authority to members of approved racial minorities—or at least to the self-appointed spokesmen for these groups.
The first two wings of the left made their own attempt to assert themselves this year, including a slightly ungainly merger of the socialists and the environmentalists in the Green New Deal. Aside from being a totally unhinged fantasy in which the entire US economy will be rapidly reorganized around “renewable” technology that doesn’t exist yet, the Green New Deal is an attempt to subsume the socialist old left under the banner of environmentalism.
While we’re constructing a fantasy world, why not throw in every item on the welfare-state wish list, too? So along with ensuring that everything is done by union labor, held to stricter “labor, workplace health and safety, antidiscrimination, and wage and hour standards”—which will help all this new infrastructure work get done quickly, right?—we are also going to guarantee everyone “a job with a family-sustaining wage, family and medical leave, vacations, and retirement security,” “high-quality health care,” “safe, affordable, adequate housing,” and “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work.”
Yes, you read that last bit right: economic security for people who are unwilling to work. So we’re going to have a mass mobilization of effort on the scale of World War II—larger, in fact—but if you want to be a not-so-conscientious objector and sit home and watch TV, no problem, we’ll still make sure you get paid.
The green wing of the right is clearly the senior partner here, but neither one made much headway this year. That’s partly because the general public has a long history of not being very enthusiastic about the green agenda—not here, and not even in places where the global warming hysteria is more widely embraced, such as Britain or the Netherlands. It is also because Democrats in the House have no real prospect of passing the Green New Deal. It is as much a political fantasy as a technological one.
That’s a factor that has been draining the greens of momentum. The primary emotion they now induce in their followers is despair.
“Climate despair” has been…in wide circulation for perhaps as little as two years…. Whatever you call it, this is undeniably a real condition, if not one with a set of formal diagnostic criteria…. It’s impossible to know how many people like Ruttan Walker have experienced climate despair as a mental health crisis, but despair is all around us: in our own momentary but intense reactions to the latest bit of climate news, in pitch-black memes and jokes about human extinction, even in works of philosophy and literature. There is now a fringe group of scientists and writers who not only take our imminent doom as an article of faith, but seem to welcome it….
According to social scientist and psychology scholar Renee Lertzman, author of 2015’s Environmental Melancholia, large numbers of people have recently come to the realization that climate change is real, scary, and not being addressed. “It’s a surreal experience because we’re still in the same system, so walking around, people are driving, and everyone’s eating a lot of meat [and] everyone’s acting like that’s normal,” she said. For some people, that feeling is incompatible with carrying on with the business of everyday life.
In September, novelist Jonathan Franzen took to The New Yorker to ask, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” Stopped pretending, that is, that catastrophic global warming is going to be stopped.
If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.
Boy are these people going to be disappointed when the world doesn’t end.
It’s as if the Green New Deal represented a manic phase in which insanely grinning greens told us we could rebuild everything in only ten years and then we would all be rich. Then in about six months they were crashing into the inevitable depressive phase.
So the greens have taken on the characteristics of a dour doomsday cult, and their agenda has largely taken on a ritualistic character.
[C]ertain activities like “recycling” can be understood not as rational solutions to a real problem but as ritualistic sacraments intended to reinforce one’s dedication to the faith. When the history of this green religion is written, alongside the ritual of recycling it will also note the construction of large religious monuments in remote places—in the form of arrays of solar panels. Like other religious monuments, these serve no practical purpose and are merely symbols of our devotion to the faith.
I described this as “America’s Only Established Religion,” and later in the year added one other element: “Icons of St. Greta have begun to appear as a regular fixture in office spaces, usually placed next to a stock of some disposable convenience, as a reminder to believers to deny themselves the sybaritic luxury of paper cups and plastic spoons.”
I’m not counting out environmentalism, but a lot of it right now is just going through the motions, and the real energy on the left has moved elsewhere: into identity politics, particularly racial politics.
This has become universal and all-pervasive, reaching into every area of society, as in the case of a knitter hounded on social media as a racist and “colonialist” for being really excited about a trip to India. I commented on the imperative behind this: “One could not imagine a more genteel and apolitical hobby—but we should know by now that no aspect of life is off limits for the mobs. The whole point of enforcing ideological conformity is that you have to enforce it everywhere, leaving no refuge for thoughtcrime.”
I revisited this later in the year when a knitting website chose to impose an overtly political litmus test on its members.
“The knitting community has been this happy little bubble for a long time,” said Amy Singer, the editor of Knitty, an online knitting magazine, which for years had a policy of “no religion, no politics.”
But as has happened elsewhere in society, she said, the bubble burst because not everyone felt included. This year, knitters of color began speaking out on Instagram about their experiences with racism and prejudice in the community.
The community has also recently been talking about other issues of equality, including the size and racial representation of online models, as well as economic diversity, Ms. Singer said.
“There are people who have been talking down to other people because they can’t afford anything better than craft yarn from Michael’s,” she said. “Knitting has always been political, whether you believe it or not.”
I pointed out:
The only really interesting thing here is the ridiculous claim that “knitting has always been political.” This is Political Correctness in its original form: the totalitarian notion that “the personal is the political.”
You can also see it in the realm of sports and, er, shoe manufacturing. Well, not sports exactly, because it has been a while since Colin Kaepernick played in a football game, and it’s clear he would rather be a martyr than an athlete. But he still gets a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal and veto power over Nike’s production line just for condemning America as a racist country.
But notice the curious limits of this interest in politics, particularly when it comes to the attitudes of normally outspoken athletes toward China.
When LeBron James speaks up about perceived injustices here in the United States but urges silence against a foreign dictatorship that is running concentration camps, is it a case of the NBA “bowing at the altar of the almighty Chinese yuan,” as Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke puts it?
Maybe. But I suspect there is also something deeper going on….
LeBron James came in for particular criticism because only a few months earlier he had tweeted out a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And now here he was, not caring about injustice if it happens somewhere else and urging us to stay silent about things that matter.
Yet that quote from King actually highlights what’s going on—because it’s so obviously counter to the spirit of today’s “woke” politics….
Identity politics is by definition narrow, parochial, and tribal. It is about obsessing over one’s “identity” as a member of a very particular victim group, fighting for the prerogatives of one’s group, and declaring one’s hostility or indifference to everyone else….
So why should we expect someone influenced by this “social justice” culture to stick his neck out for protesters in Hong Kong? By the lights of today’s “social justice” politics the people in Hong Kong aren’t brothers in a universal fight for freedom from oppression. They’re just some strangers in a far-off land. They’re members of some other tribe.
In that same vein, notice how the “social justice” crowd is happy to ignore terror and oppression elsewhere, but has been trying to gin up a hysteria over supposed “white nationalist terrorism.”
But there is political hay to be made from overhyping the threat of white nationalism. [Eli] Lake quotes Elizabeth Warren warning that, “In the same way that ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorism pose a threat to the US, so does the rise of white nationalism.” Similarly, in the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie declares that “you can’t separate the current wave of white power activity from the president’s dark warnings of foreign ‘invaders’ or the pervasive anti-Muslim rhetoric from conservative media personalities…. If the United States and other western democracies have a recurring problem with white power and white supremacist violence, it’s because they grow out of habits and assumptions that are still embedded in our societies.”
Remember, this is the same guy who told us the entire pro-reason philosophical movement of the Enlightenment was really about racism, so this is the sort of thing he was going to say no matter what….
But…the left is itching to respond with all of the draconian overkill they opposed (often rightly) in our response to radical Islam.
In this age of didacticism in art, in which all art and entertainment must have the right political message, that message is now predominantly about race.
Notice, though, the statement sent in response by the artist herself in an attempt to defend her work. Horses, she writes, are “archetypal symbols for notions of human power struggles, war, nationalism, and blind loyalty to leadership…. Shedding their shackles, the figures in this series conjure sentiments of resistance, revolution, and our individual, innate strength and ability to stand up to fascist rule and totalitarian power.”
This is what I mean by the triumph of political didacticism. You know this outlook has become dominant when the artist also feels the need to affirm that the meaning of her work is validated by having the correct political message.
Charlottesville, regrettably, has developed “a mania for the suppression of politically incorrect public art.” In a more recent decision to remove a statue of hometown heroes Lewis and Clark, a city councilor explained: “It could be a real opportunity for us to have a testimonial to a lot of what has happened in the community in that last couple of years with regard to history, tolerance, inclusion, and pluralism.”
But this is not just about grandstanding local governments. A highbrow art critic, after announcing that the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir has been retroactively canceled for being a sexist, describes the broader trend, as he observed at an influential art show.
With scarce exceptions, the mostly youthful artists gravitate to identity or otherwise communitarian politics—strikingly, they are not, for the most part, militant, as if they had resigned themselves to ineffectiveness, but they appear entrenched. The show is about many things, but the irresponsible joy of aesthetic experience is only fitfully one of them.
I expanded on this in looking at the career of the hottest artist of the moment, Kehinde Wiley.
Wiley’s signature works are paintings in the grandiose style of the old masters, but featuring ordinary, contemporary black people. There is a certain cleverness to this, to be sure, though the paintings are also painfully derivative—a Kanye West lookalike, for example, inserted into Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. It is a gimmick that derives most of its interest from its political message…
Yet Wiley is off to a career as a towering figure in contemporary art, and he just revealed his latest big work: a monumental equestrian sculpture ripped off from a statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, but featuring a young black man in the recognizable contemporary urban streetwear of a hooded sweatshirt. The statue was unveiled in New York City but is destined for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia, as a sort of rejoinder to the long row of statues of Confederate heroes on nearby Monument Avenue….
The VMFA’s Valerie Cassel Oliver explains that Wiley’s “work builds on the iconography of power—how individuals are memorialized and edified…. It just seemed to be the right place to expand the conversation about monuments and who gets memorialized.” So it’s not a statue, it’s a “conversation.”
On his own website, Kehinde Wiley describes his evolution as an artist: “As an undergrad at the Art Institute of San Francisco, I really honed in on the technical aspects of painting and being a masterful painter. And then at Yale it became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act.”
Some are already identifying this as a new school of art, under the name “Identity Politics.” For the moment, it is becoming the dominant school of art, at least in the insular circles of the highbrow “art world.”
This year’s trend was heralded most clearly in August with the 1619 Project.
In the last week, the New York Times Magazine launched something called the 1619 Project, whose modest ambition is described this way: “In the days and weeks to come, we will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”
This is preposterous on its face. It is a view of life that, in addition to being dangerously adversarial—attempting to keep racial conflict alive indefinitely, as an organizing principle of our society—is also deeply parochial, anti-intellectual, and illiberal.
Let’s take those in reverse order. The thing that actually makes America exceptional is the fact that our Founders enshrined liberty and individual rights as the central principle of our government. To deny that is to deny the importance of liberty. This is anti-intellectual because the principles on which the United States was founded—natural rights, individualism, the rule of law, separation of powers, representative government—have an intellectual history that goes back at least 2,500 years. It is deeply parochial because those ideas have their roots in English and European history and back in the Classical world—centuries before African slaves were first imported to North America, and even longer before racial politics became the favorite obsession of New York Times editors….
This is all a game of “This Is the House Jack Built.” If you work hard enough, you can find a connection between any one thing and any other thing. You can find a connection between the fact that slaves were once used to harvest sugar cane and the fact that people like to eat sugar. This does not mean that the one thing explains the other thing or that sugar consumption (the latest bugaboo of the food puritans) is “about” slavery. [This is a real example from the series.—RWT] But the left just cannot resist using the history of racism as a weapon to shout down anyone who disagrees with them on even the narrowest political issue.
Yet this is what many young people have been taught in heavily biased high school and college curricula, and this is how the left has decided to respond to Donald Trump: by making literally everything about racism, all the time.
It hardly need be said that this is an extremely counterproductive thing to do, and that its mostly likely consequence is to increase racial conflict. But that’s the direction they’ve decided to go, so brace yourselves for a few more years of intensely poisonous rhetoric on the subject of race.
The initial attention to the series lasted maybe a few weeks, but don’t underestimate the impact. The New York Times partly reflects the existing outlook of the intellectual classes, while also sending the message that this is the new party line that everyone else will be expected to endorse.
I didn’t comment much about the 1619 Project at the time, because it came out just a few days before my book, so I was very busy with other things. Other people have done a pretty good job of pushing back on its historical claims, which range from the dubious to the absurd. I quoted a very good commentary from center-left commentator Damon Linker.
The least persuasive, and unintentionally comical, contribution to the issue is a relatively brief essay by Princeton University’s Kevin Kruse…. For the 1619 Project, Kruse writes about how notoriously bad traffic jams on Atlanta highways are—you guessed it—the legacy of “a century-long effort to segregate the races.”…
Isn’t it more likely that the problem is an excess of people trying to commute by car, regardless of the neighborhoods bisected by the road?
Atlanta is frequently recognized as a success story for expanding African-American prosperity, with middle- and upper-middle-class majority-black suburbs flourishing throughout the Atlanta metropolitan area. In a concession that undermines the whole point of his piece, Kruse admits that one such racially mixed suburban county recently voted down an expansion of regional rail “for the third time.” Yet rather than treating this outcome as an opportunity to rethink or at least complicate his race-based thesis, Kruse rather anti-climactically attributes it to “some nonwhite suburbanites” sharing “the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites.”
As I noted: “So if you’re following along, Kruse is a white Princeton historian creating a rationalization to tell black Atlanta suburbanites that they are racists who are perpetuating the evils of slavery, because he doesn’t like how they voted in a referendum on regional rail. You can’t make this stuff up.” Keep that pattern in mind, because it’s going to be relevant later.
For more pushback on the the 1619 Project, you can look to…the Worldwide Socialists? Yeah, I was a bit surprised by that, too. But remember that this is partly a battle between factions of the left, and the old left has been shoved to the background by the woke left. So the Worldwide Socialists published an interview with eminent historian Gordon Wood, in which he points out how the 1619 Project is a contemptuous attack on the existing academic establishment: “None of the leading scholars of the whole period from the Revolution to the Civil War, as far I know, have been consulted.”
Wood takes on one claim I found particularly ridiculous.
Q. The claim made by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project that the [American] Revolution was really about founding a slavocracy seems to be coming from arguments made elsewhere that it was really Great Britain that was the progressive contestant in the conflict, and that the American Revolution was, in fact, a counterrevolution, basically a conspiracy to defend slavery.
A. It’s been argued by some historians, people other than Hannah-Jones, that some planters in colonial Virginia were worried about what the British might do about slavery. Certainly, Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots. There may have been individuals who were worried about their slaves in 1776, but to see the whole revolution in those terms is to miss the complexity.
In 1776, Britain, despite the Somerset decision, was certainly not the great champion of antislavery that the Project 1619 suggests. Indeed, it is the northern states in 1776 that are the world’s leaders in the antislavery cause. The first anti-slavery meeting in the history of the world takes place in Philadelphia in 1775. That coincidence I think is important. I would have liked to have asked Hannah-Jones, how would she explain the fact that in 1791 in Virginia at the College of William and Mary, the Board of Visitors, the board of trustees, who were big slaveholding planters, awarded an honorary degree to Granville Sharp, who was the leading British abolitionist of the day. That’s the kind of question that should provoke historical curiosity. You ask yourself what were these slaveholding planters thinking? It’s the kind of question, the kind of seeming anomaly, that should provoke a historian into research.
The idea that the Revolution occurred as a means of protecting slavery—I just don’t think there is much evidence for it, and in fact the contrary is more true to what happened. The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world.
The whole interview is surprisingly good. Wood puts a little more emphasis on the Revolution’s contribution to the ideas of equality, “democracy,” and the dignity of work, which I guess he can give a more socialist spin—but he still sticks to real history.
Yet there is one big thing the other commenters seems to have missed. Nikole Hannah-Jones spearheaded the 1619 Project for the New York Times and wrote the lead essay summing the whole thing up. What her essay tries to establish is not just racial politics. It’s a theory of what can only be called African-American supremacy.
She starts with the usual bogus claims about slavery being responsible for American wealth, the origins of American capitalism, and even the rise of Wall Street. But then she moves on to a much more expansive claim.
But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy….
Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all….
The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did.
This is the set-up for a bit of ethnic mythologizing.
They say our people were born on the water…. The teal eternity of the Atlantic Ocean had severed them so completely from what had once been their home that it was as if nothing had ever existed before, as if everything and everyone they cherished had simply vanished from the earth. They were no longer Mbundu or Akan or Fulani. These men and women from many different nations, all shackled together in the suffocating hull of the ship, they were one people now….
But as the sociologist Glenn Bracey wrote, “Out of the ashes of white denigration, we gave birth to ourselves.”… In the void, we forged a new culture all our own….
When the world listens to quintessential American music, it is our voice they hear. The sorrow songs we sang in the fields to soothe our physical pain and find hope in a freedom we did not expect to know until we died became American gospel. Amid the devastating violence and poverty of the Mississippi Delta, we birthed jazz and blues….
Out of our unique isolation, both from our native cultures and from white America, we forged this nation’s most significant original culture. In turn, “mainstream” society has coveted our style, our slang, and our song, seeking to appropriate the one truly American culture as its own….
We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
This is subtle at first, but it sure builds up. Note that this is not what it appears to be early in the article: a claim to an equal portion of American history and the American legacy. Instead, it is a claim to superiority. It is a claim on behalf of one ethnic group—not even a racial group, since it excludes black African immigrants who are not the descendants of slaves—that they are the true founders and guardians of the American system, the original source of American wealth, the creators of all “quintessential American music” and “this nation’s most significant original culture,” the “one truly American culture”—the people who are, in short, “the most American of all.”
It’s as if she looked at the pretensions of the white supremacists and decided that this was the model to follow—and just swapped in African-Americans as the dominant ethnic identity.
This includes, by the way, a bit of scolding at other ethnic minorities for failing to recognize the superior claim of African-Americans.
It is a truly American irony that some Asian-Americans, among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil rights struggle, are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.
Those Asian kids really need to learn their place.
This is an odious idea, and not likely to catch on—but as Ayn Rand warned, “The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow.”
No, I don’t think we have to worry about anything so blatant as a new Jim Crow in which whites are reduced to second-class citizenship. (That’s from the fevered imaginations of the white nationalists.) Nor is this about redistribution of wealth. It’s about redistribution of authority. As Gordon Wood found out, it’s about being able to write a whole narrative about American history and get a megaphone to broadcast it into the culture—while completely bypassing all of the established experts.
Also remember that part I pointed out earlier where the white Princeton historian was telling black Atlanta suburbanites how they should vote. This may be a doctrine of African-American supremacy, but there’s plenty of room for the woke white people to jump on the bandwagon, because authority is also redistributed to the doctrine’s self-appointed spokesmen.
When you think about it, this might explain why race is eclipsing everything else. If you view these doctrines as mechanisms for the redistribution of moral and intellectual authority, the problem with global warming is that it redistributes ultimate authority to the wrong people: scientists. The beauty of woke racial politics is that it transfers authority to people with degrees in the humanities—that is, to the same people who created this political outlook in the first place.
There’s the rub, and that’s why this story is only at #5 in our countdown. Racial politics has achieved supremacy—only among the class of people for whom and by whom it was designed, the educated upper-middle-class left-leaning types (who, despite all the racial demagoguery, are overwhelmingly white). This class exercises a disproportionate influence over the big institutions in the culture—academia, media, the art world—and they spend a whole lot of time on Twitter. But it’s a relatively small number of people, and their actual power may be smaller, and resistance to it greater, than they expect. That’s what I will explore in the next edition when I look at Top Story #4.
You’ll be getting the rest of this countdown in the week leading up to Christmas, and it’s a good annual reminder of exactly how many links and how much analysis of breaking events The Tracinski Letter provides every year. I can do it only with your subscriptions and support. Also consider sharing all of this with someone you think would value it by buying a gift subscription.—RWT