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Standing Athwart the Bait, Yelling ‘Stop’
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Standing Athwart the Bait, Yelling ‘Stop’

What the fight over critical race theory says about the state of our politics.


Here’s some pop culture math for you: Mad Max > Admiral Ackbar > Col. Nicholson > the entire cast of The Cabin in the Woods.

Let me translate. Mad Max—the Fury Road incarnation—recognizes bait before he’s suckered by it.

Ackbar—in Return of the Jedi—recognizes the trap after it’s been sprung, but while there’s time to escape.

Col. Nicholson, in Bridge Over the River Kwai, realizes his error only at the very last minute, after a terrible price is paid and an even heavier price must be paid to remedy things.

And pretty much the entire case of Cabin in the Woods are victims of schmuck bait.

Which brings me to the current state of our politics.

Let’s start with the fight over critical race theory (and if you’re already exhausted by this topic, skip ahead to the second part).

For several weeks, many progressives have trotted out the talking point that CRT isn’t being taught in schools. Here’s CNN’s Don Lemon on June 24: “Critical race theory isn’t being taught to kindergarteners. It is something law students study. Unless you have, you know, kindergarteners in law school.” Here’s Sarah Kendzior, host of the Gaslit Nation podcast on June 12: “But critical race theory is *not* what’s being taught or banned in schools. Basic historical facts—especially about topics like slavery, Jim Crow, genocides of Native Americans—is what the GOP want banned and they call it ‘critical race theory’ to make it sound intimidating.” Slate tweeted, “Conservatives want to cancel critical race theory. But they don’t know what it is.” And here’s Jon Favreau:

There are plenty of other examples, but you get the point. The argument is, essentially, “the right is creating a bogeyman that doesn’t exist.” Implicit in this argument is the idea that if it were true that critical race theory was being taught in schools, that would be different. You don’t necessarily have to concede the anti-CRT arguments, but at the very least you’re conceding that if those crazy conservatives were right about it being taught, they’d have a point.

So what do teachers unions do? They take the bait. On Saturday, in more than 20 cities, the unions organized protests to defend the teaching of CRT. Now, in fairness, they still cling to the talking point that it’s not being taught in schools, and presumably that it shouldn’t be. But if it is, they will defend the right to teach it. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, said at a conference (headlined by Ibram X. Kendi, of course) that CRT is being taught only in colleges and law schools. But if it’s taught in K-12 schools, she’ll defend teachers for standing up for “honest history.” Here’s the full quote: “Mark my words: Our union will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history. We have a legal defense fund ready to go.”

Why stand up for teaching something in public schools that is appropriate only for college or law school? They teach maritime law in law schools, but not in the eighth grade. Why should this be any different?

Part of the answer, of course, is that they have a point. Some of the efforts to ban CRT do smack of overreach. Certainly, some of the conservative and Republican rabble-rousing rhetoric has been wildly exaggerated.

Moreover, schools should teach slavery, Jim Crow, etc. But here’s the thing: They already do, and have for decades. CRT, “anti-racism,” or whatever label you want to put on this identity-politics-drenched worldview is very different from the mere teaching of “honest history.” It’s analogous to the difference between teaching kids about Marxism and teaching everything else within a Marxist framework. I definitely believe that kids should be taught about the role Marxism played in world affairs. But I don’t think we should teach kids that all of history is the scientific unfolding of dialectical class conflict, or that all literature should be read within a Marxist framework.

If you find Marxism too triggering or red-baiting, consider any of the world’s religions. I think all reasonable people would agree that the various religions should be explained to public school students when it’s relevant and age appropriate to do so. But we can also agree that public schools have no business telling kids that one religion is true while all the others aren’t.

It’s the difference between indoctrination and education. And what a lot of CRT defenders don’t appreciate is that many parents simply don’t trust educators to understand and respect that difference. I share their distrust. After all, if the issue were just the honest teaching of history, CRT wouldn’t be necessary. But everyone with eyes has witnessed how identity politics has exploded across the culture as a kind of religious awakening, with white people being asked to atone for their ancestors and confess their sins or “privileges.”

Moreover, I think part of the backlash stems from the fact that parents are responding to the de facto teaching of CRT-ish ideas that’s been taking place in schools for years. For many parents, the doubling-down on race began years ago.  How about doubling down on math? And not critical race theory math.

If the American Federation of Teachers were really interested in maintaining a high wall between indoctrination and education, the union wouldn’t be leaping to the ramparts or asking Kendi to come speak to them. Imagine if there was a left-wing populist prairie fire against the teaching of Catholic integralism in our schools and they invited Sohrab Ahmari to speak, only to applaud his every utterance. Would you be reassured?

When you own the libs, they own you back.

Which brings me back to where I started.

The primary reason progressives are rallying around CRT is that conservatives are rallying against it. This dynamic is everywhere, and it’s incredibly stupid.

Liberals are appalled by the January 6 riot—and rightly so. Indeed, for a period of time, conservatives were appalled by it, too. But because the riot made for a potent weapon of attack against Donald Trump and his corruption of the GOP, conservatives had to rewrite the storming of the Capitol as everything from a peaceful protest, to a left-wing false flag operation, to even a case of entrapment staged by the FBI.

As with CRT, there are other factors involved. But a primary driver of this astounding asininity is that many conservatives have allowed themselves to be baited into being in favor of—or at least dismissive of—something that they were horrified by just six months ago.

For years, liberal elites hated voter ID laws—even though rank-and-file Democrats supported them—for the simple reason that conservatives were for them. If conservatives are for it, we gotta be against it. Joe Biden announced he wants to go on a door-to-door effort to vaccinate people. So,  of course, some Republicans take the opposite point of view, for opposite-ness’s sake. 

This systematized distrust is like a kind of crazed mutual orbit, where each body in space pulls the other in a direction not of its own choosing. One side says X, so the other must, of necessity, take the not-X position.

The problem is that this leads to a kind of categorical thinking that forces you to surrender to the other side’s categories. I’ve been decrying the perils of “Alinsky envy” on the right for years now. The standard conservative argument—one I’ve made many times—is that the left cares only about power. Saul Alinsky was a master of this approach. Ignore process, fair play, honesty, decency, etc. if they stand in the way of achieving your ends. But I always meant this as a criticism of Alinsky and his worldview.

Then, something happened in the last decade or so. Suddenly, conservatives saw in Alinsky something to emulate and admire. Fight fire with fire! The Chicago way! Beat them at their own game! The unfettered will-to-power we saw in our opponents is now something we should embrace.

So now we hear conservatives arguing for economic planning—but only if we get to be the planners. Free speech is good if it means no one has the free speech right to deny us their platform. Otherwise, the state should get involved in policing speech. Fidelity to the Constitution and a liberal order used to be ends in their own right. Now, if the Constitution isn’t a ready tool for us to impose our particular idea of the “common good,” it’s a hindrance.

Pissing off liberals was once an enjoyable byproduct of winning fights over principle. Now, the principle is pissing off liberals. Here’s David Reaboi over at The American Mind arguing that William F. Buckley’s “standing athwart history, yelling Stop” line is a dead letter because honest debate is a dead letter.

“If your goal is to convince your interlocutor, and convince him to abandon the fundamental, often emotion-derived premises by which he organizes his political opinions, you are wasting your time,” Reaboi writes. It’s all zero-sum tribal warfare now, and wins matter more than whatever it is you might be winning.

I particularly enjoyed this caveat he offers to his claim that debate is pointless:

Shitposting (as it’s known), on the other hand, is an exception—and far more productive than it seems. It is, by definition, not intended to convince; it’s a MOAB rather than an intellectual volley, and it serves the key communications function of bolstering your side. The more biting, the more effective and entertaining. Remember Alinsky’s Rule 6: ‘a good tactic is one your people enjoy.’

There are too many problems with this nonsense to explore here, so I’ll just point out three. First, if you think reasoned debate is for cucks and fools, you’ve already lost the battle for what conservatives are supposed to be fighting for in the broadest sense: the survival of the constitutional order and a decent society. Giving yourself permission to be a dick because you think your opponents are dicks is a surrender of any notion of good character.

Second, in the public realm, the main point of reasonable—even heated—debate isn’t to persuade your interlocutor, but to persuade the good and decent people watching from the sidelines that you have the better argument. That’s what politics is about going back to Aristotle: making the case that people should join your coalition rather than some other one. Being a jerk because it entertains the already convinced while repelling the persuadable is stupid politics. And giving people permission to be their worst selves is pernicious in its own right.

Finally, this sort of thinking accepts the opposition’s worldview as your own. If you think, say, racial quotas for blacks are wrong, then supporting racial quotas for whites is wrong, too. If you think left-wing social engineering is evil or misguided, you aren’t taking the opposite position if you embrace social engineering from the right. You’re trading a core principle—the desirability of social engineering—for power.

When Buckley declared that there are times when you have to stand athwart history, statism was not the sole provenance of the left. It was, in many respects, a bipartisan, trans-ideological idea. And that was Buckley’s point. He didn’t want, as Hayek warned, to be pulled in a direction not of his own choosing. He wasn’t right on every issue, but he was right to say that politics shouldn’t merely be about offering a right-wing version of whatever the left was doing. When you define yourself as the opposite of your opponents, you’re still letting your opponents define you. And that’s what we see on a daily basis. Whatever your ideological preferences, athwart that temptation is a good place to stand. 

You don’t have to take the bait.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.