The Failure Of Woke Morality

A large portrait of William Shakespeare was torn down at the University of Pennsylvania in December 2016 , and a portrait of Audre Lorde, a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” was placed on the wall in its place by student protesters.

Students did this to express their disgust with the perceived male chauvinism, white privilege, racism, straight sexuality, and poor judgment of UPenn and the Western canon of literature. When no action was taken against the rebels, and when the change of portraits was allowed to remain, as an alum of the Univ. of Pennsylvania, I had a brief correspondence with the chairs of the English Dept and of Graduate English Studies at Penn.

They assured me that Shakespeare was still actively taught. Thus, the mere fact that Shakespeare continues to be taught justifies their rationalization that (1) it’s only a picture, (2) kids will be kids, (3) throw them a bone (the new portrait on the wall was the “bone”) and they will be satisfied, and (4) life goes on in spite of caving in to student expressions of pique. They felt no need to publicly affirm Shakespeare’s rightful place on the wall, nor that student vandalism is unacceptable.

In a similar vein, during September 2020, the University of Edinburgh’s David Hume Tower was re-named 40 George Square because of some deplorable remarks Hume, a great 18th-century philosopher, made at one point about “negroes.” However, the University assured the public (just as UPenn had two years ago) that it will continue to teach Hume, and had a cadre of specialists more than able to do so.

The author of this article, Julian Baggini, took the tack of splitting hairs to explain and ultimately justify the name change. He’s against the dead “getting a free pass” on prejudice as being too lenient, but on the other hand, trying to punish them in absentia by today’s “higher standards” is too harsh. Instead the author equivocates and writes, “So before abolishing or renaming memorials to those who have views that offend or even distress us, maybe we should instead challenge our understanding of what such memorials are for. They are not there to encourage hero worship, to elevate certain figures above criticism.” What does this say about the University’s ultimate decision? He means it was too harsh, but he does not have an alternative.

Sadly, Mr. Baggini is legitimizing this action, and thus is still splitting hairs about this controversy. Actually, the name change is wholly ILLEGITIMATE. Changing the building’s name but still teaching Hume is like telling someone they still have a right to food, shelter, and clothing, but they can’t go out of the house because they should be ashamed to show themselves in public. At one point in my career, I taught the background of the Civil War in the U.S., and traced Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes towards blacks throughout his political career….

The Lincoln who opposed the popular sovereignty idea of Stephen Douglas was not as compassionate as the Lincoln who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, nor was that Lincoln as humble and godly as the Lincoln who prayed on his knees with black workers (not slaves) in the White House or the Lincoln with the passionate sense of God’s judgment in his Second Inaugural Address. He set the slaves free, but he was not always thinking that, who knows, maybe another Isaac Newton is now a slave, and being held back from his true destiny. Although he fully understood the justice and holy truth of emancipation, he did not repudiate totally the Confederate rebels who had brought about so much death and destruction. His hope in Christ had increased dramatically during the years of his presidency, and forgiveness was a central theme despite his anti-slavery commitment. If we took some earlier snippets of Lincoln’s views than the ones that emerged during the war years, we might find some reason to fault him or purge his name even. Instead, we purposely see the greatness of the whole man.

Of course some people are so evil that they are remembered for their wickedness, but in most cases that does not apply. “The good a man does lives after him, and the bad is oft interred with his bones.” Dishonoring someone for having had some opinions that seem wrong to many is a debacle. Hume did not go out of his way to harm any black folks. Slavery finally came to an end in the British Empire in 1833. To rename the Hume building is not just a wrong emphasis in thinking as the article suggests, but a case of egregious pandering to the racial demagogues.

Looking for reasons to debunk heroes of Western Civilization for their whiteness and supposed inappropriate statements – that supposedly reflect a deeply entrenched and abhorrent racism – has become a cottage industry in our political and educational institutions.

Not only do we see it at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Pennsylvania, but we see it in the self-confident ranting of a Scottish Member of Parliament, a man of Pakistani descent, SNP Justice Minister, Humza Yousaf. In August, he expressed his outrage that except for two seats belonging to two men of Pakistani descent, himself and one other man, the Scottish Parliament and so many other public officials who were – here’s the horrible word: white. This he proposes is white privilege run amuck. He is shocked and offended that in Scotland almost all the leadership is white.

Yet, a friend of mine, well informed about ethnography, wrote to me that “1) The northern parts of Pakistan are white – like the Kailash and the Kafirs, who are largely blued-eyed blondes and red-heads. Are they ‘white?’ According to Yousaf’s logic, they are not. 2) The rest of the population of Pakistan is Indo-Aryan – notice the term ‘Aryan’ – which means they are an Indo-European population (i.e., genetically, ‘white’).” This reality suggests that by having more Pakistanis in office, Scotland would be extending its pattern of whiteness, not counteracting it as Yousaf states. Despite his ethnographic ignorance and illogicality, Yousaf’s rant on Youtube led me to some radical introspection.

Why is it all the members of my birth family are… white? Is this a dreadful exclusivity? How dare they marry and procreate with people who look like themselves, and have similar mores to themselves?! And am I therefore now on the moral high ground because I married an Asian woman? My wife is Asian, but our daughter LOOKS white. That must mean that part of her is racist – against herself!

And why is it that so many of those in government in the West who are white believe in liberty while ignoring their white privilege? Why am I not relieved that my centuries old hypocrisy masquerading as “liberty” and “natural rights” is now being exposed?

Many are starting to say how “bourgeois” and inauthentic those words from the 18th-century now sound, how middle class and how WHITE (!) those calls for liberty and rights seem to be. The liberty talk we frequently hear, we are told by the left, is a cover for entrenched Western – especially American — racism. And worse still, this racism is linked to sexual militancy against LGBQ and especially T for transgenders. Think of it, neither Scotland nor the USA has had a head of state who is a transgender woman.

When we hear UPenn condemned or the Scottish Parliament condemned for its racism, do we not simultaneously tremble at the thought that trannies have been so systematically excluded from political leadership? There is a repugnant intersectional bias in Scotland and elsewhere, even too repugnant to be mentioned by Mr. Yousaf.

If we believe in liberty, are then people not free to have any genitalia they please – and to be elected for their stability of mind, values, and knowledge with or without their birth genitalia! Isn’t this the deep hypocrisy that the portrait of Shakespeare or the tower named after Hume exposes? Certainly, the rebels and iconoclasts on our campuses and in our legislative bodies believe this. Once persons admit they are racist, that puts pressure on them to admit they are also trans-phobic. And the phobic road is a long road indeed.

However, as we reflect on racism in the West (with its implied links to other generic, gender prejudices of custom and psyche via intersectionality), we see it extends beyond education and beyond public office. It is embedded in the warp and woof of society as a whole. This is true according to the latest big-name race baiting guru of America, Ibram X. Kendi, née Ibram Henry Rogers.

“You’re either racist or antiracist; there’s no such thing as ‘not racist’,” Kendi says. But then Mr. Kendi goes on to say that people are in a variety of complex situations with regard to race. In the criminal justice system, they may be racist, but in regard to the environment they are not racist. When it comes to healthcare they may be antiracist, but then in regard to education they are racist. The complexity does not have the effect of diluting racism, but instead helps perpetuate it. Complexity feeds racism rather than breaks its back.

And if you are white, you are hooked into racism by your attachment to capitalism, and you may be hooked into racism by saying you believe in assimilation. However, anti-racism is not compatible with assimilation. Ultimately, M. L. King Jr. got it wrong.

Thus, I attended an alumni day at the University of Pennsylvania a few short years ago, and was surprised to learn that there was a black segregated dorm on campus. The integration model of the civil rights movement had given way to a new black-initiated segregation. Listening to Kendi, I better understood why my beliefs in de-segregation were now being rejected. Anti-racism cannot identify with assimilation.

Kendi asserts this unequivocally. His view thus incorporates the Nation of Islam ideal of black separatism. But if it is true as stated in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that “separate is inherently unequal,” then separatism by blacks is not announcing equality and not announcing inferiority.

Therefore, it appears that black separatism is a cover for black dominance and contempt for persons of European origin. However, by saying this, a white can be accused of trying to make blacks appear prejudiced, which itself brings out yet another accusation by blacks of racism.

Every verbal move – even a logical move – is considered a white racist gambit. Mr. Kendi and his ilk, like Mr. Yousaf from a different starting point in Scotland, are driven by the same demons, the same paranoia, the same demagoguery, and, on a kinder note, the same insecurities.

Jeffrey Ludwig is presently a lecturer in philosophy and has taught ethics, introduction to philosophy, American philosophy, and philosophy of education. He also spent many years teaching history, economics, literature, and writing. For ten years he served as pastor of Bible Christian Church; and his theological focus is on the five solae. He has published three books, the most recent, The Liberty Manifesto, being a series of essays about the importance of reasserting liberty as a social, political, economic, and theological value. His other two books are The Catastrophic Decline of America’s Public High Schools: New York City, A Case Study, and Memoir of a Jewish American Christian.

The image shows, “Auf der Flucht [On the Run],” by Magnuz Zeller, painted in 1920.