The omnipresence of slavery at historic sites today seems intended to tarnish remarkable achievements and promote the cause of identity politics.
Hard-left progressives are telling anybody who will listen that the 2020 riots and pandemic have handed them the opportunity they’ve always needed to transform America. What they want is a revolution “in the minds of the people,” not unlike the one John Adams said led to 1776, though to attain opposite ends.
The question is, will Americans from the right and center listen, grasp that progressives mean what they say, and realize that the country might change into something unrecognizable?
The warnings (or threats) are everywhere and difficult to miss. They come neatly folded into a very instructive conversation held in August by four charter members of the hard left—Alicia Garza, founder of Black Lives Matter; Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of the New York Times’ 1619 Project; Maria Teresa Kumar, President and CEO of Voto Latino; and historian Martha Jones. The conversation was held to mark the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which told the states they could not prevent women from voting.
The exchange was eerily instructive. One almost gets the sense of what it must have been to eavesdrop on the Founders at 1776 or the Framers at 1787, as they envisioned a new order replacing a passing one. Except in reverse, of course—all the gains in human freedom achieved through the Declaration and the Constitution would unravel if the four discussants got their way.
Just as colonists based their worldview on the ideas of thinkers that had preceded them, such as the Englishmen William Blackstone and John Locke and the Frenchman Montesquieu, today’s woke progressives take their ideological marching orders from European thinkers of decades ago, such as the Italian Antonio Gramsci and the German-American Herbert Marcuse.
This means that, just as the writings of James Wilson and Thomas Jefferson are made clearer by having a grounding in their Enlightenment philosophical forebears, to understand the language of today’s left it is important to grasp how 20th century Critical Theorists viewed the world.
The Gramscian Dream
It is clear, too, that leftists see 2020 and the immediately preceding decade as providing the same environment-changing events as the 1760s did for the colonists.
To John Adams, the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and especially the Writs of Assistance, had caused in the minds of the colonists a shift in the way they viewed the provenance of their rights during the crucial 15 years prior to Lexington. At the end of that period, they no longer viewed their rights as those of Englishmen, but coming from nature, an Enlightenment idea. “What do we mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775,” wrote Adams to Jefferson years later, in 1815.
Today, leftists believe the nine-minute martyrdom of George Floyd in May, and the astute use of its video recording by BLM, combined with the way the pandemic has asymmetrically affected different demographic groups, provide them with the spark to burn down the old America. This is not the Civil Rights idea of letting black Americans access the American Dream. The goal now is to replace the Enlightenment view, upon which that Dream was based, that the individual can observe pre-political rights such as the right to free speech or property in nature, with a Gramscian one which spurns individual agency and emphasizes collective action. The pandemic and the riots are their version of the Writs of Assistance.
One way to get there, they tell us openly, is by convincing people who have immigrated from other lands that the very conditions that attracted them here in the first place are harmful and have victimized them, and that we must replace these conditions with different ways to redistribute wealth.
They are clearly also betting that the COVID-19 pandemic will alter forever the way we conduct business in America, and say that they can use the moment to introduce that redistributive new order.
But by far the most important goal of their project is to use the twin 2020 tragedies to alter the very storyline of America, to delegitimize what has been the general culture of the country since the founding and the framing. Once that is done, they can effect systemic change.
Let No Crisis Go to Waste
The left’s already existing dominance of the culture-making institutions will make its effort to determine which beliefs and ideas are spread through society a relatively easy task—much easier than it would be for conservatives to mount a counter-attack, even if they were to realize what is afoot. So far, the right and the center have allowed the hard left almost monopoly control over the media, entertainment, and the academy, a reality that has become even more acute since George Floyd’s death.
The crucial work of indoctrinating the initially reluctant base is carried out first by organizers. Kumar provides us with a window into how that work is done.
“The challenge with the work that I do at Voto Latino is that I can’t get people agitated because often times they don’t know the great harm that has happened under the structures that we have been raised by,” she said. “But once they start understanding it and recognizing it, they act and react, and fight and run for office.”
Taken together with another comment by Kumar that Latinos are “a community that is for the most part a first generation community, that does not understand the ropes,” we can see that she sees Voto Latino’s mission as instilling into immigrants grievances about the country that took them in.
Kumar added that “the latest example” of how the Latino vote could be activated was “the tragic death of George Floyd. At Voto Latino, we knew that … Black Lives Matter is in allyship with the African American community and the Latino community. We immediately switched all of our digital program to connect voting and protest, and we were able to register over 97,000 people in less than 17 days, because people found that in the Latino community that that was an issue for them.”
COVID-19 has helped, too. Black Americans have suffered in disproportionately high numbers, and to the activists, this unequal outcome, as any other, can only be the result of systemic racism. “It’s taken … a pandemic that’s lasted less than 90 days, for us to expose the institutional racism that we talk about,” said Kumar.
While Kumar’s way off about the percentage of the foreign-born (it’s about a third, according to Pew), she clearly understands her role as a member of the Revolutionary Vanguard. To appreciate Kumar’s work, we must understand the intellectual influences that laid the groundwork.
From Immigrants to Vassals?
The idea that an ideological elite must inculcate feelings of victimhood and resentment into the masses—for otherwise they will not rebel and overthrow the system—has been around for at least a century. In 1916, the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote that a revolutionary consciousness would not be formed “under the brutal goad of physiological necessity, but as a result of intelligent reflection, at first by just a few people and later by a whole class, on why certain conditions exist and how best to convert the facts of vassalage into triggers of rebellion and social reconstruction.”
It is thus to trigger rebellion that immigrants must discover that they struggle under conditions of vassalage in their new country; otherwise they will go on busily building their lives. “Every revolution has been preceded by an intense labor of criticism, by the diffusion of culture and the spread of ideas amongst masses of men who are at first resistant, and think only of solving their own immediate economic and political problems for themselves, who have no ties of solidarity with others in the same condition,” Gramsci wrote.
His main idea was the Theory of Cultural Hegemony. The Vanguard had to destroy society’s entire “Hegemonic Narrative” and replace it with a “Counter-Narrative.”
Herbert Marcuse, a German-born hero of the New Left in America in the 1960s, built on Gramsci’s work. He, too, despaired that the worker, this time in his new home, was too contented: “The people find themselves in their commodities: they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”
Without the indoctrination that revolutionary vanguard groups like Voto Latino carry out, the participation of the working class in the political process would not only be insufficient, but even be counterproductive. “Where these [working] classes have become a prop of the established way of life, their ascent to control would prolong this way in a different setting,” wrote Marcuse.
Or, as Angela Davis, a student of Marcuse at Brandeis in the 1960s (and today, tellingly, an important mentor to Alicia Garza), told a packed auditorium at UVA in 2018, “Diversity without changing the structure, without calling for structural formation, simply brings those who were previously excluded into a process that continues to be as racist, as misogynist as it was before.”
That is why individuals cannot be allowed to attempt to solve what problems they have, but must be herded into an aggrieved collective that then has an incentive to overthrow the system. The individual is the centerpiece of the Lockian Enlightenment; the aggrieved collective category takes center stage under Critical Theory.
“All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude,” wrote Marcuse. At Voto Latino’s website, 12 liberal top-line issues ranging from “Police Brutality” to “Reproductive Justice,” portray America as a land of iniquity, and everywhere there are tabs to help the now-woke reader register to vote.
Smashing “White Supremacy”
But what kind of liberation? To Marcuse it was Marxist central planning. Garza and her cohorts agree. Throughout the mid-August discussion with Kumar and the others, Garza returns repeatedly to the idea that the pandemic will make it easier to rewrite America’s entire organizational model and find a different way to distribute resources.
“Frankly, what we are able to do in this moment, that maybe weren’t as well positioned to do four months ago, is use the opportunity of crisis to actually usher in a new way of being with each other,” she said. This new way would enable “the ability to distribute resources in such a way where nobody gets left behind … distribute resources in such a way where everybody has and nobody is left out.”
This holistic transformation of society must first undo “white supremacy,” and how the “narratives of white supremacy” have “been so successful in using the language of effort, ability and agency, right, to keep people from supporting the black people’s struggle for liberation.”
“I think we are all clear that the kind of change that we need right now, is the kind of change that rejects the ways in which our lives were organized and tries to put into place a new way of organizing ourselves,” Garza added. This change must drive “back underground and frankly into oblivion white nationalism and white supremacy.”
But what do Garza and all the other members of the ultra-progressive left mean by the ubiquitous term “white supremacy”?
It is hard to come up with a single instance where Garza gives an actual definition of what she means by it. This is odd, given that she spends a great deal of time talking about how to combat white supremacy, make it extinct and replace with it with a counter-narrative.
Such opacity must be on purpose. Usage of the term provides insulation from analysis and criticism. Who could oppose anyone fighting “white supremacy?”
Upon further reflection, in fact, it becomes apparent that “white supremacy” has become the term of art that the American left uses to depict American culture. It is not the vile racial superiority preached by the rancid minds at the KKK or the American Nazi Party, but something that is in fact its opposite: how the modern world is ordered.
When Garza, Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Patrice Cullors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hannah-Jones and the other charter members of the ultra-left speak of overthrowing “white supremacy” what they really mean is replacing America’s economic and cultural system with one that redistributes wealth, no longer has the individual at its center and recognizes only government-granted positive rights, not pre-political natural rights. The use of “white supremacy” is, thus, a very successful example of the left’s use of strategic ambiguity in the pursuit of a rather large and ambitious goal. The target is a free-market system that rewards hard work, ability and other virtuous traits.
Consider, for example, what Garza told a room-full of Maine progressives during a visit to the Pine Tree State last year: “Change requires changing ourselves so that we can change what’s happening around us. When we talk about fighting white nationalism, fighting white supremacy, we’re not talking about fighting white people. We’re talking about changing how we’ve organized this country, so that we actually can achieve the justice that we are fighting for. I believe we all have work to do to keep dismantling the organizing principle of this society, which creates inequities for everyone.” (Italics my own.)
This is also clear from an interview Garza gave Mother Jones three years ago, where she said, “Things like renaming holidays and removing statues are really a part of a culture-change strategy that I think is important. But it can’t stop there. We can change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, but if we’re not doing the work to make sure that indigenous nations have sovereignty in this country, or self-determination, or that they have a quality of life that mirrors that which we afford to rich white professionals, then it is merely symbolic. Whether it’s toppling monuments or closing the education gap or closing the school-to-prison pipeline, we need to uproot white supremacy everywhere that it lives.”
That talk of “white supremacy” aims not at David Duke or Richard Spencer, but at William Blackstone and John Locke, can be seen more clearly in the writings of DiAngelo and Coates, who have come closest to defining it.
Discussing “how sociologists and those involved in the social justice movement” view the term, DiAngelo says in her best-seller “White Fragility” that “white supremacy in this context does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions but to an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination.”
DiAngelo goes on to say that, “while hate groups that openly proclaim white superiority do exist and this term refers to them also” such a “reductive definition obscures the reality of the larger system at work and prevents us from addressing this system.”
“White supremacy is something much more pervasive and subtle than the actions of explicit white nationalists. White supremacy describes the culture we live in,” writes DiAngelo. “White supremacy has shaped a system of global European domination.” She quotes Charles W. Mills as saying that white supremacy is nothing less than “the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.”
For Coates, “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”
It is the West’s entire political system that Garza means by “white supremacy;” that is what she wants to drive into oblivion. She urges white liberals first and foremost to abandon the system. “We need you defecting from white supremacy and changing the narrative of white supremacy,” she told a gathering in 2017.
An important question then arises: How close are they to success?
Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, which rewrites American history to place slavery at the center of the country’s storyline, is a major on-going project of the New York Times Magazine. Named after the year when Africans were first brought as slaves to the colonies, it misleadingly pretends that this date, not 1776, is the true founding of America. This clear attempt at replacing America’s narrative with a counter-narrative is also a curriculum—one already being taught in 4,500 classrooms across the country and adopted by five education districts.
And the long march of the counter-narrative is not limited to these 4,500 classrooms. Sit in any meeting of the local board of education across America and you are likely to hear long diatribes about “equity,” “systemic racism,” “implicit bias,” “culturally responsive teaching,” and other touchstones of the new left. This is being taught to our children from a very young age.
But it isn’t just impressionably young minds in K-12 and above who are imbibing the counter-narrative. Robin DiAngelo spoke on a conference call in early June with 184 Members of the House of Representatives, for what party leaders called a “Democratic Caucus family discussion on race.”
According to the New York Times, since George Floyd’s death, DiAngelo’s inbox has been “flooded with urgent emails: requests to deliver (virtually because of the pandemic) workshops and keynotes at Amazon, Nike, Under Armour, Goldman Sachs. The entreaties went on: Facebook, CVS, American Express, Netflix.”
Shifting the Narrative
Everywhere we look, in fact, it seems that what our four conferees said is coming to fruition: the tenor of the national debate—the thinking of the country, and perhaps its narrative going forward—has shifted. There seems to be a growing acceptance that there is systemic, structural, and institutional racism, and the country’s very system, along with all is structures and institutions, need to be smashed and replaced.
Changing society does not require convincing everybody of the need to do so. A famous experiment conducted in 2018 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications demonstrated that the tipping point for a determined and organized minority to change a society’s consensus on norms is 25 percent. “We anticipate that social media spaces of this kind will be an increasingly important setting for extending the findings of our study to understand the role of committed minorities in shifting social conventions,” said the writers.
Whether American society has passed that tipping point yet—some have put it at 10 percent of the population—is unclear. But given Black Lives Matter’s success at using the Floyd tragedy to organize protests and riots nationwide, we know that they are coordinating well.
Not every boy and man who fought at Lexington and Concord, or for the next six years that the war lasted, had heard of Blackstone, Locke, Montesquieu, and the other philosophers who had contributed to the thinking that birthed the country for which they were fighting. While it is a safe bet that Garza, Hannah-Jones and Kumar have heard of Gramsci and Marcuse, surely not many woke Americans have. But they are, nonetheless, foot-soldiers in the cultural war to replace the narrative of ’76 with a new one.
Only by waking up in time might conservatives hope to prevent the deep institutional, structural and systemic overhaul the left lusts after. They will need a strategy that goes beyond economics and the law, the areas where conservatives have always focused their attention, and embraces culture. It is there where the battle now goes. Regaining the commanding heights of the culture should be their number-one goal.