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The Deep Slumber of A Decided Opinion
The final letter by me to Ayaan Hirsi Ali
This is a re-publishing of a 2020 letter exchange between me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the outcome of the culture war. As the original hosting site has been taken down, I am reposting here with titles. This is the final letter, from me to Ayaan, and you can find the full list here.
27 Dec '20
Yes, as you summed up so succinctly, if we want to go to Mars it will not be the theories of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi that will get us there.
There is something supremely grand, even magical, about space exploration. It is an endeavor so large that one cannot help but experience a diminishing of the ego. Yet wokeism does not look outward at the vast, unknown universe, but pulls its gaze firmly inward. It has an element of provincialism, which is as troubling as it is illusory.
One gains favor among the woke not for discovering some truth about the universe, but for discovering “truths” that are personal, subjective. Our media is routinely peppered with ceremonious unmaskings of some public figure’s “true self” and with confessions of deep, personal traumas. This self-indulgence is handsomely rewarded, as it confers the right identity label or “lived experience” that qualifies one to speak above the rest.
Far from seeking liberation from immutable characteristics like race or sex, these now serve as a form of authority. Unsurprisingly, hyper-specific identity labels are now displayed with pride where one might have once placed accomplishments or interests. From this self-indulgent, confined vantage point, it is no surprise that sloppy scholarship follows.
Take, for example, the New York Times’ 1619 Project. As I read through the articles, I couldn’t help but notice the narrow scope of their study. How can they understand America or racism, I wondered, if the only racism they examine is the American variety, and the only history they consider is that of America? How would their logic fare if applied to the broader world? If America’s “true founding” was the date we brought slaves to these shores, then what are the true foundings of all other nations on earth, the majority of which have histories marred by slavery, sometimes of a sort far more grotesque?
Of course, America is far from perfect and I agree, of course, that we should aim our scrutiny on our own country first. But I contest the idea that there is a unique, unredeemable evil here that does not exist anywhere else. I also contest the idea that we can learn something about humanity and human nature by fixating solely on a single small aspect of it. Many have criticized Americans for our provincialism—our lack of interest in understanding the outside world. It is somewhat ironic that in that sense, the writers of the 1619 Project (and the woke more generally) are quintessentially American.
Far from getting us to Mars, this tendency is unlikely to get us closer even to social justice here on Earth. How can we hope to find solutions to injustice without first gaining an accurate understanding of its nature, form and origin? And is it possible for this knowledge to be accurately gained without rigorous debate that questions even the most sacred fundamentals?
Too often, the woke dismiss debate altogether, refusing even to entertain the idea that one may share a common goal without also sharing their beliefs as to which methods will achieve it.
Most damningly, they refuse to engage with reality when it contradicts what their faith requires them to believe. Take, for example, the absurd conclusion reached by New York Times columnist Charles Blow after the election exit polls appeared to indicate that minorities and LGBT Americans voted in greater numbers for Donald Trump in 2020 than they did in 2016. Did the rise in minority votes for Trump inspire Blow to re-examine whether race was as relevant a factor in voting as he imagined? Did he consider that it might indicate that Trump support may be a phenomenon he does not entirely understand? No.
“All of this to me points to the power of the white patriarchy and the coattail it has of those who depend on it or aspire to it,” Blow concluded. “It reaches across gender and sexual orientation and even race.”
When an exclusively racialist ideology such as white supremacy appears to be “reaching across” race itself, it may be time to reconsider one’s assumptions. But the woke faith will bend logic before it will bend its dogma.
In my last letter, I shared some thoughts on how wokeism has managed to become so pervasive. Let me add another element that leaves us vulnerable to its rapid spread: our prosperity—indeed, our privilege.
Far from taking America for granted, I, like you, was not born in this country and never imagined it to be my birthright. Despite spending most of my life here, I received my citizenship only a few years ago and the prospect of a possible future in a third world country—one of the very worst for women—was never far from my mind. For me, it has been impossible to forget all that is remarkable about America: the genius of her constitution, the endless opportunity she offers, the strength of her people.
So I wonder if perhaps what we are seeing is not an outright rejection of liberal, Enlightenment values, but a symptom of deep ignorance and privilege—an inability to comprehend the value of something many here have never lived without.
As John Stuart Mill explained, when a doctrine has been accepted so widely that the people have generally inherited, rather than adopted it, it begins an inevitable decline. Converts bring with them a zeal, but also an intimate understanding of the merits and pitfalls of both the ideology they left behind and that which they have adopted. Their beliefs were formed actively, by wrestling with objections and rebuttals. Those who have inherited the values that shape their lives may never have done this work, and thus may be far more susceptible to the simplest persuasion and emotional appeals.
“The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful is the cause of half their errors,” wrote Mill. But if our success really is to blame, then we have cause for hope. It is possible that the challenge posed by the woke will serve to invigorate us, to wake us out of what Mill calls “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.” And that awakening—or shall I say awokening?—cannot happen a moment too soon.
Thank you again for sharing your time and insight with me in this exchange. I have learned, and hope to continue to learn, a great deal from you.
Check out the full list of letters between me and Ayaan, here.
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