Much has already been written on the horrific and tragic killing of George Floyd, and much has been written and debated about the existence or non-existence of systemic racism in our society and in the police departments of the United States of America. I submit that reasonable people can have reasonable disagreements about that issue; they can offer reasonable counterfactuals and equally compelling rejoinders. I am a philosopher by training, and one possessed of a cold, unsentimental mind by temperament. Therefore, I take it that an absence of a consensus about issues that are far from unassailable truths can exist without civic life and social trust and cohesion falling into total disarray.
What bothers me about the culture wars taking place in the streets of American cities as I listen (not unsympathetically to the cries of the hearts of people who have genuinely suffered from prejudice and brutality in their lives) is a number of things. First and foremost is the unchanneled rage and directionless anger that is harming not just innocent citizens of all races, but also the very people in whose names the protests and riots are offered up as a form of both restorative and retributive justice, and as invisible victims in systemically corrupt institutions: black people.
When black and white protestors indiscriminately tear down or deface the statues of slaves traders and white abolitionists with equal abandon; when Winston Churchill, a gallant war hero and indisputable defender of Western civilization who, along with the United States, saved the West from the rapacious ravages of Hitler’s expansionist design for racially-dominated Aryan rule, is considered morally indistinguishable from racial separatists; and when the latter are lumped with white abolitionists who gave their lives for black emancipation, there is no lower place to sink in terms of both cognitive dissonance and moral depravity. In an imperfect world, moral and conceptual distinctions must be made. In London, the statue of Abraham Lincoln was vandalized at a Black Lives Matter protest.
Lincoln was the heroic president who went to war to free the American slaves and who was killed for it. In Washington D.C., protestors raged against Admiral David Farragut, who went against the separatists in his own state of Tennessee and joined the Union. Today he is widely known as the hero of the Battle of Mobile Bay which dealt a major blow to the Confederate States. “Murderer” and “colonizer” were also spray-painted near the name of abolitionist advocate Mattias Baldwin in Philadelphia. Here is a man who was a champion of black voting rights, who paid for and championed the education of black children before the Civil War, and who was known to pay for teachers out of his own money. To show the rampant ignorance at work here, in Boston, protestors vandalized a monument to the 54th Massachusetts regiment. This was the second all-black volunteer regiment of the Union. The list could go on of black and white fighters who fought against the oppression of blacks, and whose symbolic representations are the targets of indiscriminate attacks.
I leave aside the ethicality and appropriateness of removing historical symbols associated with racial oppression for the moment. When looters see a white statue and tear it down because it bears the representation of a white figure—regardless of the moral values such a person whom the statue represents actually stood for, we have resorted to a dangerous form of inverted racism and biological collectivism; the logical corollary of the latter is an insidious form of determinism: the idea that a person’s racial ascriptive identity can be used to ascribe moral, social or political significance to a person’s genetic lineage. This is the old-school type of racism that informed racial supremacy by whites over blacks in segregated America, and over Jews in NAZI Germany. One would expect the opponents of any kind of racial supremacy to recognize, in principle, the dangers of fighting one form of racism one believes one is fighting against with another: when you kill a person because he is black or Asian or white and for that reason only, you adhere to a principle of chemical predestination: the idea that characterological traits are produced by some form of racial internal body chemistry and, that for such a reason, you must rid the person of those traits by killing him or her.
In the calls to “decolonize” course syllabi on campus colleges we see a perversion of any fight against legitimate racism. There is now momentum on college campuses to decolonize the syllabi of courses populated with canonical texts written by white (usually) male scholars, writers and thinkers. If one can indiscriminately attack and vandalize the statues of slave abolitionists, cultural heroes and fighters for racial equality like Winston Churchill, David Farragut, Matthias Baldwin, and Abraham Lincoln, then one can equally imagine the deranged amoral imagination of educators calling for course syllabi to be expunged of male white canonical figures. Nowhere can it be imagined that the moral and emancipatory vocabularies for oppression could ever have arisen from some of these canonical figures such as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Hugo Grotius, Charles Dickens, and even Aristotle.
I myself was shocked when I received an email from my home institution apprising me of a workshop that had as one of many programs on its agenda the business of “decolonize that syllabus.” The reasoning is predicated on misguided social engineering. This is not a matter of diversifying the syllabus. It means literally divesting it of all white canonical figures who are presumed to be racist because they are white and who wrote during particular historical epochs that did not celebrate black agency. I leave aside the obvious malarkey of such reasoning which is putatively obvious and emphasize a point I have made in previous essays: our universities have ceased to be bastions of learning and have become national security threats, purveyors themselves not just of inverse racism, but educational tropes of cultural Marxism where hatred of America and the most ameliorative aspects of America’s civilization are presented as part of the systemic and endemic problem.
What we are witnessing in the ascendancy of the culture wars whether in certain segments in the streets, or, in virtually all domains of our educational systems is virulent nihilism predicated on an axis of moral and cultural relativism.
Moral relativism advances the idea that there are no objective criteria to adjudicate among competing truth claims. Its ruling principle is subjectivism. What one feels is the truth constitutes the truth. Logic and reason according to the more radical school of subjectivism, is the creation of racist and imperialist white constructs. But if nihilism is the logical concomitant of relativism, one must now ask: what is the school and the philosophical foundation of relativism? What first foundational principles underscore the relativism that gives rise to the nihilism in the streets and in our educational systems?
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.