Lance Morrow: “We live in an age of supercharged story lines, most of which are demagogic nonsense”

From a Wall Street Journal column by Lance Morrow headlined “Can Freedom Survive the Narratives?: We live in an age of supercharged story lines, most of which are demagogic nonsense”:

The “problem of the 20th century,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903, “is the problem of the color line.” The problem of the 20th century turned out to be totalitarian ideologies, which killed scores of millions of people. The killing was baked into the ideology. Mass murder seemed to be a necessity of the century’s Big Ideas.

The problem of the 21st century, you might say, is the problem of the narrative line. If you study the manner in which the 20th century’s color line morphed into the 21st century’s narrative line, you may grasp an aspect of the struggle for power today—“for the soul of America,” as the parsons of the left like to say.

It isn’t that the complaints of black Americans weren’t or aren’t valid. But common sense tends to be a casualty of political story lines. When DuBois published his statement about the color line, Jim Crow ruled in much of the country. It certainly was the law in Georgia, where blacks didn’t dare try to vote and where white men rode around in sheets and terrorized the countryside. The South in those days was, for blacks, totalitarian indeed.

Yet more than 100 years later, in a decisively changed America, President Biden annulled the interval between 1903 and 2021 and pronounced Georgia’s new voting law to be “Jim Crow on steroids.” It was demagogic nonsense. The Georgia voting law bore no more resemblance to Jim Crow than Mr. Biden bears, let us say, to Neil Kinnock.

But in the 21st century, the country has been all but lost to the politics of whoppers. It’s always Saturday morning in America now, and the TV is always playing cartoons. Donald Trump has a genius for the form. Since November, his big story line has been that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

What Mr. Biden attempted with the phrase “Jim Crow on steroids” had nothing to do with reality. He was only playing at whoppers. The demagogue’s best friend is a good story line. Mr. Biden’s “Jim Crow on steroids” became interwoven with other strands in the tapestry of the left’s 2021 story line. A dominant motif is American blacks as the victims of “white supremacy,” or American blacks oppressed by a pandemic of police brutality more devastating than Covid. It isn’t statistically true, but if you repeat it often enough, with video, it becomes, so to speak, folklorically true. Derek Chauvin did his part to make it so.

In all this, there’s the fallacy of stopped time. When fabulating Bidenites, reporters at the New York Times and others on the left refer to “systemic racism,” they mean to conjure the sum of all American white people’s badness going back four centuries to 1619; and, when all that meanness is assembled in one trope (slave owners Washington and Jefferson and Lee and Stonewall Jackson on their bronze horses) to lay it before white America as indictment.

There is no difference between 1619 and 2021. There was no Civil War, no civil-rights acts of 1964 and 1965, no President Obama. White guilt comes with the white skin; the evil is frozen in time—like the sin of Adam, like the woolly mammoth in the glacier. Race trauma is sanctified—permanent, outside time.

Grown-ups, both black and white, find something fishy in this metaphysics. They know that history is a journey. In today’s race politics, there is neither journey nor redemption. There is only the cartoon of blacks in chains. Notice, however, that those victims are attended by white patron saints. Miraculously, the story grants an exemption to the virtuous white elites who have taken on black people as their moral wards—whites who preen and shake their fists and lament the iniquity, inequity and shame of it all. Where’s Charles Dickens when we need him? Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” makes a fine Mrs. Jellyby.

The left’s narrative now rules the land in the form of “critical race theory,” “antiracism” and invidious variations. Feelings of rage and indignation have coalesced as dogma and settled science, embedded in the house rules of almost every institution in the country. One questions them on pain of expulsion, excommunication. The Age of Information is the era of hysterical story lines. Twenty-first-century technology supercharges feelings, not thoughts, and registers them instantaneously on hundreds of millions of screens and minds.

Such narratives serve neither history nor justice. The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” now taught in schools all over the country, is, in its essence, racist propaganda. Its story lines are instruments for the consolidation of political power. Marxists discovered long ago that class doesn’t work as a great divider in America. But race does work.

Race is the McGuffin—the pretext. Our moral generals are fighting the last war. The struggle to which Americans, of whatever race, should be paying attention is the one that has to do with freedom. It has to do with privacy, mind control, individual liberties—with totalitarian systems of surveillance and manipulation perfecting themselves in an alliance of big tech, big government, global corporations and artificial intelligence. Wokeness—a politics that manages to be both prissy and vicious, a totalitarian social design that flies the flag of everything good and nice—fronts for the real problem of the 21st century: a sinister autocracy just around the corner.

A Facebook comment from Ted Van Dyk:

Lance Morrow has a first-rate essay in today’s WSJ. Substance of it: U.S. is being bombarded by a false narrative about race—transmitted via media, politicos, academia.

I have similar reactions. Our country has fought racial and other injustice since before the Civil War. Many Americans of all races have given their lives in the fight. We made huge breakthroughs in mid-20th century with judicial, legislative and political actions that put us on a course of no return. Since that time the U.S. has increasingly been more tolerant and just. Now we are told, through the fictional NYT 1619 Project and many sources, that slavery and racism provided the underpinning of our society and that racism remains pervasive today.

If you were born yesterday, or experienced none of the history of past decades, you can be susceptible to the narrative. But it is false and dishonest. Those who offer it would classify us as victims and victimizers separated by race, gender and ethnicity. Cynical manipulation.

Those who buy into the narrative can enjoy feelings of self righteousness and moral superiority. Virtue signaling/values posturing. But Morrow’s essay has it right. There are vestiges of racism in any society. But our story has consistently been one of overcoming. Civil Rights Act of 1964 a defining document. MLK Jr. had it right that “content of character” should be the real dividing line among Americans. Is your neighbor truthful and just? Are you?

A Facebook comment from John K. Gayley about Ted Van Dyk’s reaction:

I read Morrows article. I agree with some of his points. In the end, though, what struck me was his vaguely defensive tone. He doesn’t do his viewpoint any service by overstating his case in the latter half of his essay. So he really falls victim to exactly what he claims others are enthralled to: crisp black and white lines with no in between.

You’ve been very consistent over the past few years in articulating your viewpoints that we’ve made tremendous progress over the past 150 years. And you’re absolutely right. However, that doesn’t by itself diminish the argument of those who say, with varying degrees of fervor, that it’s an incomplete journey and we’ve a ways to go.

I agree with Morrow that over-simplification of narratives defeats real discussion. So why he does Morrow do it as well? Surely he would realizes that the tag line “battle for the souls of America” (which Morrow ascribes to “Parsons of the left”) is also, ironically, part of the rallying cry of the far-right?

As you’ve said in many ways, the country exists mainly in the middle, in with smaller radical fringes on the left and right. The middle wants —and deserves—some normality after a horrible 2020.

But normality’s unheralded dark side is complacency. You don’t make more progress on the journey by just trumpeting how far you’ve come. Sometimes you have to get in people’s faces to shake them out of their chairs.

The discerning audience -and I think that audience is bigger than Morrow will admit—will understand what supercharged story lines are intended to do….to pinpoint examples of why the journey isn’t done. The people toward the fringes take it all the extremist rhetoric at face value. Those of us in the big middle have to digest the full smorgasbord of opinions and continue the discussion of what it all means.

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