Retrieving the Human Condition
with John McWhorter
The point of a business is to deliver a necessary good or service, and thereby earn a profit. The point of a university is to educate students and produce new knowledge about the world. The point of a cultural institution is to preserve and perpetuate some significant part of the creative endeavors of humankind. When the heads of businesses, universities, and cultural institutions allow themselves to be swayed by factions within and without their organizations who believe that “racial justice” must be prioritized above all (above profit, above knowledge, above culture), they threaten the very existence of the institutions they are supposed to safeguard.
So why haven’t we seen more pushback from these leaders, a refusal to cave to the often unreasonable demands of race activists? Surely they’re afraid of damaging their institutions’ reputations and their own by running afoul of these activists. But if they stuck to their guns and did refuse to cave—refused, for example, to implement equity-based hiring policies and instead hired whoever they judged to be the best candidate, regardless of race—they might find as much or more public support as they do approbation. If, as John McWhorter and I have discussed previously, the woke tide turns, then these leaders might find that they are suddenly going with the drift of the culture rather than against it.
This is speculation, of course. But I don’t think it’s unfounded. In the following excerpt from my latest conversation with John, we discuss the limited and limiting conceptions of art and human experience at work in institutions that allow themselves to be dominated by cookie-cutter ideas about race. If we’re going to preserve and revive classic works of art and learn to produce new ones, we’ll need a vision of humanity broader than our current racial politics can offer.
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GLENN LOURY: I'm still waiting for somebody to put their foot down and say enough, call bullshit on their faux protestations about race. No, the protestations are not “faux.” The protestations are real, but the claims about racism are not particularly compelling.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Trumped up 95% of the time.
And for somebody who's not Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or some kind of political actor coming in from the right, somebody who's a university president at a serious place or a foundation president who's overseeing the disbursement of billions of dollars or a corporate leader who's prepared to take the hit, in the short run, of political remonstration against them, the corporate leader, saying, “I'm in business to make money, not to play your little games. And I'm gonna make my personnel decisions based on that, and let the chips fall where they may.” Or the university leader to say, “It's about education, not about coddling when the students come here. Their concerns that they're made to feel uncomfortable by ideas shows that we're doing our job, not that we've created a problem which requires some kind of emergency response.” Or a cultural leader who says, “I have been trusted with the crown jewels of Western civilization. And as best I can, I'm going to try to give voice to our generation’s reading of this great inheritance. It's bigger than you and your identity fixation.”
I'm still waiting for that kind of thing, because I think there's an audience for it. On the political side, as I say, the success of certain kinds of politicians shows that there's an audience for it. And I'll bet you on the business side. All these, you know, “I'm gonna boycott because you don't have the right political point of view.” I mean, there's also the counter-boycott thing that can get going, as people can coalesce around, et cetera. Think courage and leadership are critical factors in this arena.
Yeah. And what really gets up my nose, as Mrs. Slocombe used to say on Are You Being Served?, is that I think a lot of this can sometimes be used not only as a cover for insecurity, but in the arts it can be used as a cover. Like insecurity about your academic chops, in the arts it can be used as a cover for not being very artistically sensitive or not being somebody who feels what they ought to about art.
I remember—and I have to speak about this delicately, this is many decades ago. I knew somebody who was one of those people who, and there's a kind of person: Can't hear music. Doesn't hear the splendor of it, just like there are some people who can't get a painting. I can get a painting, but it would never make me cry. This is the kind of person who just doesn't hear music that way, isn't stimulated by narrative unless it's very basic, would never enjoy a film as opposed to a movie, doesn't get theater, is impatient with artifice. That's a kind of person. There are some people like that, and they go do other things.
But it's this kind of person. And the person was in a setting where most people were much more artistically sensitive, and this person knew that it could be seen as a mark against them to be as numb to art as they were. And so what they did was they analyzed all art through a radical feminist lens. Very easy, because frankly almost anything you see can be put through those paces. And it was a great way to shut down conversation. It was a great way to seem intelligent. It was a great way to matter. But what it really was was that this person just didn't feel art.
And I worry about that with some of this race stuff, too. I'm watching right now—and here I really am gonna have to speak in code. Somebody can ask me what I was talking about in about a year. But there's a beautiful piece of black art that was created by white men in the mid-twentieth century. There's an effort that's being made to get it out into the public sphere. And it's gorgeous. It's some of the most beautiful music ever written. The way that it would get out into the world is being held up by one person, “a young staffer.” “Young staffer” these days is often a euphemism for young black person who works at the organization. Young staffer is uncomfortable with the property, and therefore this discomfort has delayed and, God, I hope has not destroyed the chances of what would create a conduit for this piece of art.
One black, in this case, woman who was uncomfortable because the thing was written by old white guys. Now, if that's all you think of this, and this person has had occasion to sample the art, if you can't hear how splendid this work is, including racially authentic, that just means you have bananas for ears. And yet we're gonna let that person decide whether or not the world experiences this piece because antiracism.
Haven't you written about this piece?
We're not gonna talk about it. But I'm beginning to want move to Mars, because this stuff is getting frightening. Of course I've written about it. This stuff is getting frightening to me.
Okay. So you move from an academic setting where a student of color might not feel secure in their chops, and they substitute the stance of aggrieved injured party in protest for a mastery over whatever the canon at hand requires onto a arena of art, where either the suppression of artistic achievement on behalf of politics or the infusion of politics, which ruins and undermines the humanistic profundity of an artistic work because it becomes preachy and didactic and predictable and flat.
It reminds me of Baldwin's early essay, “Everybody's Protest Novel,” where he's complaining about the writing of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Native Son, Richard Wright. Baldwin is saying the protest novel falls short of what great literature should require. You know, you're taking some steps in the right direction with the creation of these characters, but to really achieve Dostoevskian heights, you gotta put down the ducky, you gotta put down the cudgel, you gotta let go of the banner that you're waving and delve deeper. Universality is what we're looking for. We're looking for the touchstone of the human condition, not for your slogan.
Mm-hmm. And yet here we are with all of this, where what you just said is rejected as well. “No, that's just going with the standards of these white oppressors.” And there's a lack of interest in any kind of standard or any kind of ... I guess the hard thing is—and I've said this before and so I'm a broken record—if you're not gonna go by the standards of, say for example, complexity of music or richness of harmony or even complexity of rhythm, et cetera, et cetera, if all of that is just no good, then it seems that what we're really talking about is this sense that we're gonna instead substitute … what values?
And the values seem to be a conception of blackness that is about us as monkeys. Spontaneous, communitarian, simple, democratic, easy, intuitive, all about your local environment, nothing too complicated because we're not supposed to be too curious. It's all easy. It all seems to me all about—
Soulful. It's basically, the best thing about a black person is the way black people dance. That's what all that is about. And that's not a suitable replacement for what there was before. We've got to come together. And I think we already had in many ways. I think that the white hegemon is not what it was 50 years ago. But what these people want seems to be something childlike and primitive and unreflective. And they wanna run the show. But what happens then is like what happened to The Life. Boy, I'm gonna have a lot of people angry at me after this one, but then you get what happened to that musical. And that wasn't as good as what usually happens at Encores! because it was based on preaching rather than art. It's not right. This is just not the way it's supposed to be.