On April 9-11, the Center for Political and Economic Thought (CPET) at St. Vincent College held a conference on “Panic, Policy, and Politics.” I was an invited speaker.
When I first read the proposed schedule, I saw that nearly half the presentations focused on the panicked response to COVID. That made sense, and was a welcome correction to the one-sided embrace of COVID policy in academia and the media. My own talk was on financial panic, of the sort that hit the United States in 2008. Other presentations addressed information manipulation, Big Tech, and education in the context of madness and hatred.
I did wonder at one title, that of David Azerrad’s talk: “Black Privilege: Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America.” Black privilege, in the form of racial preferences in education, employment, and even speech, seemed to me the product of purposeful thought, activism, and indoctrination over decades, not panic. How would this talk fit within the conference theme?
As things turned out, it fit extraordinarily well. Azerrad’s talk was the only one that generated something like panic.
St. Vincent’s administration sent an armed guard to Azerrad’s presentation, and only his. After the talk, the administration hastily forbade CPET from publishing the videos of all the presentations. They relented a few days later in the face of outcries over academic freedom. Still, the college dean was required to publish a Soviet-style “regret” that more or less labeled Prof. Azerrad a bigot. One of the college’s trustees gave an interview to the local paper calling the talk “rage-inducing.”
Then on Tuesday, the college’s president, Father Paul R. Taylor, announced that effective immediately the President’s Office must pre-approve any invited speaker, to ensure that their messages do not contravene the College’s “mission” to “lift up human dignity . . . and move the world forward.” Father Paul also announced that he was wresting CPET—one of the oldest collegiate centers of its kind—from its academic home and handing its oversight to an administrative apparatchik. Extinction or forced conformity to the party line looms. A “virtual listening tour” is underway and an in-person struggle session is planned. Still, the president intoned, “Academic Freedom . . . is treasured here.” Indeed.
In contrast to the “grown-ups” at St. Vincent, the students who attended the lecture were not panicked. Some of those “in real life” calmly shared their hurt, resentment, and (frankly) their misunderstanding of the argument. (And Azerrad calmly answered them). Some on social media were snarky and vulgar, but not afraid.
But as Azerrad spoke, there was something in the room—an electric charge, a frisson, an expectancy: where would this go? This was a moment of attention of the sort that can precede true panic. A moment when the comfortable pieties are stripped away and one must face the truth.
What did Azerrad’s talk force the audience to see? I would encourage anyone reading this to watch the lecture online, including the extensive question and answer period. Rather than summarize it here, I will share only the conclusions that came to me after reflecting on the presentation. These are my thoughts, not necessarily Azerrad’s.
To my eyes, this talk helped pull back a veil, revealing that to be “antiracist” means, by the antiracists’ own tortured logic, to be anti-white. “Antiracism” asserts constantly that whites are racist. “White supremacy” is somehow always lurking everywhere, ready to pounce, rather like COVID in some people’s minds. Conversely, black racism is that which cannot be named, even in the face of obviously racist attacks like those by Darrell Brooks in Waukesha and Frank James in New York. Blacks cannot be racist, goes the “logic,” because racism is prejudice plus power. Only those in power can be racist. The dispossessed, the powerless, the victims, cannot, literally can-not, be racists. So only whites are racists. They are exclusively, and completely—every single one, even little children—racists. That’s why to be “antiracist” means being anti-white.
Of course, this “logic” is clownish, and it is a ludicrous definition of “white” that haunts the world as the “antiracists’” bogeyman. Their (definitely lower-case) “white” includes Caucasians and East Asians, Christians and Jews; it lumps together peoples and faiths that have been in tension with each other for millennia. It encompasses Jerusalem and Athens, ancients and moderns. Even people with dark skin who “live white” or “act white” are considered not really black. Think of how receptive Democrats in Congress would be to erecting a statue of Clarence Thomas at the Capitol.
As the examples of Thomas and other black conservatives show, it’s not so much geography or history or even skin color that “white” objectifies for the anti-whites. In truth, it is a way of life (a regimen or regime or, in ancient Greek, a politeia): Some of the characteristics of that way of life include taking responsibility for oneself and one’s choices. Being a good citizen, a patriot. Making sacrifices for your family. Working hard. Learning. Dressing neatly. Being respectful to others. Above all, being self-reliant, not a victim.
All of this, a way of life cobbled together from different faiths, the constant clash of ideas, the quest for ever-greater material comfort, spiritual longings, the heritage of the world’s past—always limited by present-day beliefs, never perfect, embarrassed by its defects, yet still proud, and free, and standing on its own legs—that is what the “antiracists” caricature as “white.” This caricature is a sign of their essentially racial thinking and crudity, but also their cleverness. They have found a powerful way to channel resentment and destroy this way of life while making the effort sound as American as apple pie. Who, after all, is “pro-racist”?
As a result, Azerrad’s talk highlighted for me what must be defended. It is certainly not this caricature of “white.” He was not defending “white privilege” in preference to “black privilege.” What needs defending is this way of life. One could call it the American way of life and not be wrong. It is characteristically American, which is one reason why the Woke especially hate America. But it belongs to many other nations, too, and to whichever people take it as their own.
The great task remaining before us, then, is to defend this way of life. To do so, we must do many things. But one is to understand that way of life—what it is, what it is not, how it came to be, and how it is doing now.
Seen through the lens of Azerrad’s presentation, this is exactly the work that the CPET conference advanced, under the brave guidance of the center’s director, Brad Watson—the exploration of the ideas at the core of this way of life. To take the other presentations in order (with links to their videos): Scott Atlas’ was directed at rebuilding trust, especially in science. Jeffrey Tucker advanced the flag for decency and meaning what you say as central to the social contract. Jeff Anderson pointed to the connection between seeing each other’s faces and practicing ruling and being ruled in turn. Wilfred Reilly made the case for telling the truth—even in statistics. Allison Stanger addressed the question of what is justice in a world where unelected bodies control so much of our lives. I made a small attempt to use financial panic as a window onto some of the beauties and the blemishes of democracy. Johnny Burtka offered practical steps for exercising good judgment, especially in the regulation of our own lives. And Jacob Howland ended the proceedings with a reminder of the centrality to our way of life of logos: reason, speech, and the integrity of words.
Finally, as a conference—a sharing of thoughts and speeches by embodied persons, not talking heads on Zoom—this event showed how the integrity of words rests ultimately on the integrity of the human soul, a combination of courage and good judgment, two virtues that are sometimes in tension but ultimately one, like a bow and its string, from which winged words fly and strike home. That’s what David Azerrad, the rest of the speakers, and Brad Watson demonstrated. Only time will tell how long such integrity is tolerated at St. Vincent College.
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared originally at Minding the Campus.