Against Race Theology: Discussion

Ephblog has picked up my post on race theology. Here I’ll post some answers to the commentary I find there. Note that I continue to revise all of my blog posts and essays after I post them, generally to improve my style, increase precision and remove errors. What I type here will be fluid for a little while, but should stabilize in a day or so.

Update 22 July 2020: Trimmed to remove redundancies and things that mattered in the moment but don’t anymore.

An anonymous commenter sees a “silver lining” in these events, in that the activists I discuss are harming the very institution that sponsors them.

Every article that gets published about their asinine protests hurts Williams. Every policy they coerce the administration into adopting lowers the quality of a Williams education. I don’t think it will be much longer before the major donors start to question what exactly their money is being used to sponsor.

While it is true that this is no good for Williams, there’s no reason to believe that people in charge will ever oppose this.

To begin with, there is the Iron Law of Institutions, according to which individuals within an organization will act in ways that maximize their internal power, even when this hurts the institution as a whole. Thus it is very common for organizations to find themselves locked in obviously inadvisable purity spirals that they cannot reverse.

But that’s only a minor point. The real issue is simply this: The woke professoriate and the woke administration at Williams and elsewhere is now many ranks deep. These are not just Profs. Love and Green, but people with tenure, and powerful deanlets, who still have decades of “teaching” and “managing” (sit venia verbis) in front of them. Wokery is particularly preponderant among younger faculty and admins; classical liberal ideals are the province mostly of the older guard, who are now retiring. This didn’t start yesterday. It has been going on, more or less totally unopposed and at many institutions beyond Williams, for years and years and years. If “questions” from “major donors” were likely even to influence its trajectory, we’d have seen an example by now.

oxEph finds what I have written “immensely disappointing.” That’s good. If defenders of these vile and irrational belief systems encounter disappointment, that is a first step. According to oxEph, I am airing my own grievances or pandering to an audience. This attempt to disqualify what I have written shows why there is no point in “facilitat[ing] any sort of dialogue or understanding” on these matters. My sole purpose in voicing dissent was to do my (very small) part in chipping away at the facade of falsified preferences that the activists have achieved through their tactics of intimidation and retaliation.

As for my pandering to an “already-convinced audience”: This website is devoted to a small topic in early medieval legal history. The few readers I have are European historians, who have nothing to do with Williams College. The response I have received so far suggests that very few of them share any of my views at all; I have probably lost readers. As for my supposed grievances: That is an amusing accusation, particularly in light of the fact that the parable I told has almost nothing to do with me (that is why I chose it), and is populated by some of the most egregious grievance-mongering actors anybody could imagine.

But all of this is mere prologue to the real reason I am writing this response. It is what oxEph writes here:

let’s instead take the label that you choose for the contemporary left’s turn toward a more astute racial consciousness: “race theology.” It’s dismissive, reductive, and, I think, intentionally misses the point. There are, of course, pseudo-theological aspects to the ways in which everyone expresses ideological positions these days–including throughout the movement in question. There’s nothing particularly novel or surprising about pointing that out.

What I meant to convey by “race theology” is that the race theologians – who are ascendant within the contemporary left, but not synonymous with it – behave as members of a religion. This is manifestly not the case with “everyone” who “expresses ideological opinions.” The woke have formed a closed moral community, with a standpoint epistemology that walls their discourse off from critique. Their doctrines proceed from a loose body of scriptural texts and pseudointellectual papers and books that engage in webs of mutual citation and mime academic production. They have purity concerns, they stand arrayed against invisible enemies, they make troubling and impossible universal statements, they have appropriated from Christianity a version of original sin, and they have developed their own parallel discourse and religious vocabulary. A similar phenomenon was observed among the earliest Christians. Above all, their rise in prominence coincides with later 20th-century trends towards mass secularization, which has left the religious instincts of many people unoccupied and susceptible to the revival we are now experiencing.

It is important to be clear about the religious nature of the race theologians, their community, and their demands. These people are acting on deeply held religious beliefs. Like the well-meaning Mormons on your doorstep, they will always and forever cast your dissent as a failure to understand, a failure to listen and a failure to feel – however steeped in their scripture and their words and their feelings you happen to be. oxEph illustrates this phenomenon perfectly.

An important feature of all human religions, is that they are well defended against reason and contrary, falsifying evidence. The faithful hold mostly moral beliefs, and there is little purpose in “suss[ing] out” the “nuances” of their doctrines. A great deal of experience shows that it is the actual practices and actions of the religious that matter, which is why my essay is primarily about what the race theologians did, in a moment of particular spiritual excitement and ascendancy.

As to this sub-thread: Nobody is really claiming this anyway, but I would just clarify that structural racism is not wokery. The woke may appropriate words from the academic left and the more fashionable theories that circulate in the social sicences. The same happened with fourth- and fifth-century Christianity, which borrowed a lot of newly fashionable neo-Platonic ideas. The distinction between sociological theories and the woke is important though. The woke won’t go away, if structural racism is abandoned tomorrow. In much the same way, neo-Platonism has long since evaporated as a philosophical preoccupation, but this meant nothing at all for the wider progress of Christianity.

The more coherent expressions of wokery are nothing but a kind of low-resolution applied Foucaultianism. Its proponents believe some variation upon the proposition that cultural discourses structure power relationships. These discourses must therefore be changed or subverted or inverted in order to achieve more just outcomes.  At the crassest, quotidian level, certain words are therefore tabooed, microaggressions defined, etc. (A lot of this is termed “political correctness” by outsiders to the religion, for whom this is mostly puzzling pedantry.) At more revolutionary levels, the woke attack racist power discourses by destroying statues and public monuments. This is why the woke opposed some faculty signing a petition about the Chicago principles. A college-wide commitment to free expression threatens their pseudointellectual discourse-engineering agenda.

Put another way: Whereas structural racism is a theory advanced in different forms by some social scientists to explain differences in population outcomes, Foucaultian discourse analysis is an unprovable idea originally peddled by a lot of modern languages and Area Studies scholars who want to make what they study (words and literature) the center of everything.

Now, the woke throw around a lot of terms, and they apply the adjective “structural” to a lot of things. They do that even when it doesn’t make any sense. It has multiple syllables and sounds learned. They complain about the lack of structural changes, and so on. But if you look at what the woke got up to in this case, it was just a lot of racial harassment. That is, I suppose, the way that they hope to change the discourse. If you look at what they claimed to want, it boils down to: a) More wokery administration, b) more amenities in general, c) expansions to woke-adjacent academic programs like WGSS. The first and the last, a) and c), is the mask slipping; the middle, b), is, well, what everyone tends to demand from administrations. What is not to be found in their demands: Any coherent notion or theory of what structural mechanisms are oppressing “minoritized students”, beyond some unconvincing whining about CSS. (The solutions they propose are just the usual administrative hocus pocus of investigations, training, and oversight committees.) It’s just indefensible demands that the college double down on wokery, triple down on wokery. And, should it do that, the complaint would then be that it has not quadrupled down on wokery, or quintupled down on it, and so forth.

EphBlog finishes its scrutiny of my essay.

My natural optimism argues that this is a phase, no worse than the 60s/70s, which will pass with time. Williams will always be Williams.

The 60s/70s did not pass with time. People just made an old error, overestimating the significance of those upheavals in the short-term, and underestimating them in the long term. The intellectual movements of that era are still very much alive today. They have never born such fruit as now. Foucault and Derrida and the rest of them – those scholars who transferred Marxist impulses into more academically workable forms – are the direct intellectual antecedents of today’s woke activists. These anti-intellectual trends in the literary and (to a somewhat lesser degree) in the social sciences have coincided with a broader politicization of the American academy. As higher education expanded enormously to train the postwar bureaucracy in a kind of mandatory second high-school for the white-collar masses, it set for itself the project of political advocacy and political education. A great part of the professoriate sees its mandate primarily as a political one, and they provide ideological cover for the increasingly woke political consensus of the ruling classes. The hard sciences are still largely saved, though increasingly they’re under siege. Across the board, however, we see a new phenomenon: The intellectual output of modern academics has become markedly dismal. Most published research findings are false.

That paragraph oversimplifies complex phenomena that I have observed over the course of my entire career. I am far from alone in pointing out the creeping rot; you can read whole books on it. A lot of what is wrong with Williams today is merely a manifestation of a broader sickness in the Anglosphere intelligentsia. As a wealthy, elite institution, Williams has an especially gangrenous case and is at the forefront of all these trends. All of the worst features of empty sclerotic cultural progressivism are magnified by rural isolation, the small community and the difficult climate.

My advice is the same as always: Admit 25 boisterous conservative students in each class. Hire a dozen or so outspoken conservative/libertarian/republican faculty. Show the campus left that there is another side which they need to take seriously. And then stand above the fray! That is a pleasant place to be! When the Left comes with their demands, just ask them to convince the Right first. Set up campus discussion and debates. Let them fight each other.

Williams lacks “viewpoint diversity” in the same way that a dead patient lacks a heartbeat. The problem with Williams, and many other schools like it, is the profoundly illiberal culture they have cultivated; uniformity of opinion is the most perfect expression of this illiberal culture and indeed its desired result. This makes things like Mandel’s supposed restoration of free speech to Williams totally irrelevant. First, it is a minor concession to some older liberal faculty, most of whom will retire in the next decade, after which it can be withdrawn or ignored as necessary. Second, official policies are only a last resort for social and ideological control, after all the other means have failed.

The sheer illiberality of intellectual life at Williams is an aspect of the culture there to which even a lot of the older professors, locked in grayer age cohorts, remain profoundly oblivious – even though their decisions and their hiring practices helped bring their school to where it is. (Of course similar processes have been all the time at work in other schools, so there is no specific blame to be apportioned here.) It is hard to describe what an incurious, banal and confined world Williams College has come to be. Imagine the openly revisionist one-dimensional history of the 1619 Project, enacted across a great portion of the curriculum, repeated by almost all invited speakers, ardently desired from every job applicant.

It is like Lysenkoism must have been in Soviet-era Biology faculties. Quite aside from the frankly baffling politics of it all (we’re all extremely radical Marxists! that’s why we’re with Hillary!), a great deal of what passes for doctrinal orthodoxy in that world is some mixture of highly arguable, selective, half-true, or actually false. The more they indulge in these weak and vulnerable doctrines, the more important illiberal methods will become for them. The only way to sustain the enterprise, increasingly vulnerable to criticism, is to keep dissenters out.

The old man in me knows that more than one faculty member at Williams would look at a job application from Eric Knibbs (or me or anyone non-liberal) with a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”

There’s no real opportunity in a traditional application for a medieval history job to be open about one’s political orientation. That is seen, more and more, as a problem. Thus, a few schools have already begun demanding that job applicants submit statements of their commitment to inclusivity, justice and equity. This will become a common practice in the coming years, and will make it possible to politicize even apparently apolitical lines. The extremism will only increase. The junior faculty waiting to be tenured, and the mid-career associates waiting for powerful committee assignments and administrative positions, are more deeply committed to illiberal leftist orthodoxies than anyone who came before them. The same process is underway at the big universities, the source of everybody’s job applicants. I don’t see how it’s to be turned around, and Williams anyway shows no interest whatsoever in resisting the trend. It thinks it is winning by leading.


I was on good terms with Williams right through my last days as a professor, and I’ll always have fond memories of my department and the many learned colleagues I knew there. In case you can’t tell, between the lines of everything I have written is a defense of the long-faded traditional liberalism of academia and what remains of the faculty and departments who once supported that world. I left Williams for a research position. While I was at the College I made a series of discoveries about the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries that changed prevailing views of their origins and significance. I summarize some of these findings on my blog. See here, especially. After I published this work, I took over a long-standing project to produce a modern edition of these texts from the more than 100 extant medieval manuscripts. I soon realized that this undertaking wasn’t compatible with a professorship and the associated teaching and service. It requires travel to manuscript repositories throughout Europe; highly specialized library resources that aren’t available at American schools; and above all sustained attention to difficult legal and philological problems over many years. When the institute that has long supported my work offered me a full-time research position to edit the forgeries, it was obvious that I had to take it.