It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at Villanova professor Vincent Lloyd’s tale of being canceled by his summer seminar students. There would have been an element of tragedy if he had suffered real loss, but as he endured nothing worse than a few unpleasant weeks of teaching, the story is a comedic masterpiece.
The seminar was an intense and selective program for high school students; the curriculum was largely devoted to studying anti-black racism. The course ended with a majority of Lloyd’s students declaring, among other accusations, that “the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence” and that Lloyd, who is a black academic with a CV filled with anti-racist bona fides, “was guilty of countless microaggressions.”
A left-wing black professor teaching an anti-racism seminar being denounced by his own radicalized students is an invitation to schadenfreude, especially because, as he put it, “Like others on the left, I had been dismissive of criticisms of the current discourse on race in the United States.” Mugged by reality indeed — though by the standards of social justice mobs, he got off easy, with his job and reputation still intact. Now he describes the sort of anti-racism that took over his class as a “cult” and argues that “Pushing anti-racism to its limits, what we reach isn’t just hollow doctrine, but abuse.”
Lloyd blames the radicalization of his students primarily on one of his teaching assistants, a young black woman who is a “recent graduate of an Ivy League university, mentored by a television-celebrity black intellectual.” His analysis of how her influence, combined with the program’s intensity, in which the students were constantly together and largely isolated from the rest of the world, encouraged radicalization, is convincing — but only to a point. It’s not just the force of personality, or peer pressure, that resulted in his students expelling peers as racists and turning on the professor.
But Lloyd does not address the deeper appeal of the radicalism he encountered. Why is this cult, as he calls it, winning converts, especially among the privileged? After all, wokeness is the language of the elites, not the streets.
An answer to this question may be unexpectedly discerned in a recent piece by Caitlin Moscatello, which discusses the travails of wealthy New York women who have found that climbing to the top is exhausting, and trying to stay there is expensive and exhausting. Moscatello reports that the FX show “Fleishman is in Trouble” has resonated with “the women in Manhattan and Brooklyn anxiously holding on to whatever rung of the success ladder they’ve managed to grasp,” as well as those who feel like they lost their identity by leaving the city for the suburbs.
Moscatello’s subjects frequently veer into self-parody, as demonstrated by “Beth,” who, since departing NYC,
has found herself in tears at least once a week. She makes $300,000 a year — more than she’s ever earned in her life — but she’s running out of minutes in the day to squeeze out more dollars. “How do I make the $700,000 that I’m going to need to send her to private school or do the renovation in the attic so I can turn it into the master suite so I can have a tub and so I can have one thing I enjoy in my life?” she says. Her takeaway from the show: “Both avenues are sh-t. You can stay in New York and climb, climb, climb and never get where you need to go and give yourself a nervous breakdown, or you can move to the suburbs and be like, Who the f-ck are these pod people? Neither seems great. Is the secret to it all that we have to just choose a lane and embrace it?
It would be easy to deride this as the keening of terrible people, or, conversely, to downplay it as hyperbolic venting — how many of us would come off well if we shared our deepest frustrations about career, money, and ambition? — but what really stands out is the hopelessness of it all. All of this miserable chasing after money and status and stuff reads like a modern, godless Ecclesiastes. It is all meaningless, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
Despite all of their activity and achievements, the women Moscatello quotes seem hollow, as if there wouldn’t be much left of them if the constant striving for more were taken away. There is no indication of any sense of value or purpose beyond the pursuit of worldly goods and ambitions. There is not a hint of religious belief.
We may wonder what these women’s children — the ones they are trying to get into the best schools — think of this sort of life. After all, these are precisely the sort of kids who end up in selective summer seminars on anti-racism. It is reasonable to suppose that the vacuous ambition of their socioeconomic class (with a veneer of social justice patter) may make these kids susceptible to the “cult” Lloyd described.
In the absence of any religious sense of meaning in life, substitutes rush in to fill the void. The “cult” of anti-racism, or of wokeness more generally, offers explanations for what is wrong with the world, and prescriptions for how to address its injustices. That it lacks proportion, prudence, and mercy may not matter to young people high on the rush of feeling a higher purpose and mission for perhaps the first time in their lives. Doubts are squelched by the pressure of the group, remaining unspoken even if they are widely shared, and thus moderation disappears.
Whether this was part of the implosion of Lloyd’s class is unclear, though there are hints of it in his account. That it is part of the general rise of wokeness is obvious. People without meaning are easy recruits for the cause, even if it is foolish and destructive.
Consequently, the real answer to this toxic “cult” of anti-racism is not a more moderate and scholarly version of the same. Rather, it is true religion, which tells us that we cannot buy happiness, and which actually addresses the sin of racism by preaching the brotherhood of man under God the Father.