R.W. Bradford once told me that he read an article that had been written by Alger Hiss, the communist spy, when Hiss was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I wanted to find out how a communist would write,” Bill said. “What I found was that he wrote exactly like a modern liberal.” Of course, Hiss was pretending not to be a communist, but there was no reason to believe that he was using language that was not his own.
I had similar feelings when I read a statement written by the now-famous Rachel Dolezal. It’s her resignation letter (published June 15) as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Dolezal, as you know, is the woman who was born to white parents but pretended she was black. She is also the woman who claimed in an interview with a highly credulous reporter that she was born in a teepee; that she and her family lived by hunting with bows and arrows; that her mother and (alleged) stepfather then transported their children to South Africa, where they abused her darker-skinned siblings by punishing them with a “baboon whip”; that her ex-husband, who is black, abused her and their young child; that a wealthy mentor victimized her with a “date rape drug”; that in adult life she was continually victimized by hate mail and racist threats; and other claims unlikely to be true.
If Dolezal lived in my neighborhood, or yours, and it became known that she was “born white” but said she was black, everyone would shrug her off as a harmless crank.
“Rather than becoming bitter,” the interviewer said, “Dolezal chooses to empower others.” She then quotes Dolezal as saying, “It’s really painful from my mom and, you know, everybody that’s pretty much said they loved me at some point or were there for me, has betrayed me in a pretty significant way.” That’s what you say when you’re empowering others.
I’m not the least bit interested in Dolezal’s lie about being black. Probably nobody is, except for extreme racists on either side of the spectrum, and a few college professors who don’t have anything better to “publish” about. If Dolezal lived in my neighborhood, or yours, and it became known that she was “born white” but said she was black, everyone would shrug her off as a harmless crank. The problem for me is her other declarations, declarations that have had the consistent object of exalting herself and maligning other people.
While she was still white, Dolezal attended Howard University, the venerable African American college, which she proceeded to sue for discrimination, because it neglected to give her, a white woman, the jobs she wanted. (Howard had actually erred on the side of generosity by giving her a scholarship.) When she discovered that she was black, she went deeper into the grievance industry, procuring such roles as chair of the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission (a law enforcement oversight agency), positions from which she could agitate more authoritatively against the imaginary sins of other people. The word “Satan” means “adversary” and, in its biblical contexts, “accuser.” Dolezal became a professional Satan.
So it’s interesting to see how a professional Satan writes while pretending to be a professional angel of light. Let’s consider the resignation Dolezal submitted to the Spokane NAACP.
The epistle starts with a sickeningly familiar tactic, much used by politicians and other people who live by manufacturing enemies. It suggests that Dolezal’s own failings, the ones that motivated the letter, are in fact unimportant; what’s important is the failings of the Other Side:
Many issues face us now that drive at the theme of urgency. [I know, I know; what does that mean? But proceed to the next sentence, please.] Police brutality, biased curriculum in schools, economic disenfranchisement, health inequities, and a lack of pro-justice political representation are among the concerns at the forefront of the current administration of the Spokane NAACP. And yet, the dialogue has unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity.
The language is “academic” — that is, preposterously complicated and elitist. It requires decoding. Readers familiar enough with pseudo-intellectual jargon to perform that operation will discover that the “current administration of the Spokane NAACP” is actually (guess who?) Rachel Dolezal, doughty warrior for truth, “enfranchisement,” and “pro-justice political representation.” That last phrase also appears to signify herself, Rachel Dolezal, the same woman whose “personal identity” has unfortunately come to overshadow her distinguished leadership of a righteous cause.
Dolezal attended Howard University, the venerable African American college, which she proceeded to sue for discrimination, because it neglected to give her, a white woman, the jobs she wanted.
But why has that happened? No reason is given, but responsibility clearly rests with the forces of the enemy: “police brutality, biased curriculum, economic disenfranchisement, health inequities.” The author is careful not to blame the many members of the NAACP and the African American community who wanted desperately never to hear her name again. To them she extends condescending recognition:
I have waited in deference while others expressed their feelings, beliefs, confusions and even conclusions — absent the full story. I am consistently committed to empowering marginalized voices and believe that many individuals have been heard in the last hours and days that would not otherwise have had a platform to weigh in on this important discussion.
The cliché is appropriate: truly, it’s all about her, even though she remembers to stipulate, later in the document, “This is not about me. It's about justice.” But when you think about it, it has to be about her; it couldn’t be about the Other, the great Accused. How could she possibly have lost her job with the NAACP because she opposed a biased curriculum (where, by the way?), police brutality (again, where? in Spokane, or some other place?), economic disenfranchisement (meaning what, exactly?), or health inequities (is she upset that some people are healthy and others are not?). If she was so concerned about these things, why couldn’t she define her terms, point to examples, clarify her solutions? But again, why bother? It is indeed all about her.
The reason she lost her job was that she told ridiculous and embarrassing lies about herself. Her own phrase for being caught telling lies is a “shift” of “dialogue” to her “personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity.” Virtually all human language means something, but this language is an exception to the rule. It is a perfect example of the kind of academic jargon that starts off meaning almost nothing and soon arrives at total emptiness. Dolezal, the part-time teacher of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, turned, in her hour of need, to the inane phrases of the faculty of Harvard. Where could better obfuscations be found?
The epistle starts with a sickeningly familiar tactic, much used by politicians and other people who live by manufacturing enemies.
In an essay in the New York Times, Charles M. Blowmakesa cogent observation about the second-handedness of Dolezal’s words. He quotes a remark she made about herself in a television interview: “This is not some freak ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level.” Then he comments:
Full stop. Let’s just marvel at the efficient catchphrase saturation in those sentences. She takes the whole universe of possible attacks and issues them in her own tongue as a method of neutralizing them. It is a clever, if calculated, bit of argumentation, the kind that one might practice in a mirror.
I disagree only with the adjective “clever.” Dolezal’s words are not clever. They’re stupid. They’re nonsense. But they’re educated nonsense — educated in the sense that they have been learned and repeated from a purportedly higher source.
You see this in Dolezal’s aforementioned list of enemies. Certainly, police brutality is real. It exists. It isn’t just a bunch of meaningless syllables. I give her a pass on that. But the rest of it is what we commonly hear in what passes for political or “cultural” news — just so many talking points, spoken by politicians, written by consultants, concocted by pressure groups from ingredients assembled by academic “researchers” determined to prove what their stakeholders already assumed. In their world, and it is a very small one, economic disenfranchisement is established simply by the failure of some people to get paid as much as others; the researchers feel no need to consider such things as cartelized union wages, income and property taxes, a regressive Social Security tax, or the “health and safety” regulations that prevent any ordinary man or woman from opening a business in an inner-city neighborhood. They don’t feel the need, and neither do such activists as Madame Dolezal, who apparently assume, like their mentors, that it is more important to sound as if you were doing good than actually to find out how to do it.
The funny thing about terms that are accepted rather than analyzed is that they are much more likely to be used by bad people, to do bad things, than they are to be used by good people, to do good things. Satan himself is a second-hander, always latching onto phrases that are supposed to mean something, even when they don’t. He once offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” — meaning what, exactly? Power and empire? Or abject service to Satan, the granter of subsidies and special entitlements? Today, by the grace of unanalyzed terms, conscientious parents are denounced for “child abuse,” because they spank their kids. Gun-rights advocates are accused of murder, because someone, somewhere, has used a legal or illegal gun to kill another person. Pastors are picketed for “bigotry” because they fail to approve of gay marriage. Journalists are accused of racism and covert membership in the Know Nothing Party because they oppose unrestricted immigration. The list is endless, but you get the point.
The reason she lost her job was that she told ridiculous and embarrassing lies about herself.
(For the record [what a cliché!], I fully approve of homosexuality; I am bored by guns but fully support the Second Amendment; I believe that a few pats on the butt are an appropriate punishment for delinquent five-year-olds; and I vigorously oppose unrestricted immigration. If this be treason, go ahead: arraign me in the court of public opinion. But please don’t try to begin a dialogue around my personal identity in the context of defining libertarianism. That would be too much to take.)
Dolezal rounds out her resignation letter in the way in which politicians normally round out their confessions of sin — by not confessing to any sins. She resigns with a list of supposed achievements. All of them are bureaucratic placeholders for actual accomplishments:
It is my hope that by securing a beautiful office for the [NAACP] organization in the heart of downtown, bringing the local branch into financial compliance, catalyzing committees to do strategic work in the five Game Changer issues, launching community forums, putting the membership on a fast climb, and helping many individuals find the legal, financial and practical support needed to fight race-based discrimination, I have positioned the Spokane NAACP to buttress this transition.
. . . the transition, which thoughtful members of the NAACP doubtless welcome warmly, from her administration to the next.
As I have noticed before in these pages, there is a big difference between being intelligent and being verbal. Rachel Dolezal is a perfect example. She’s as dumb as a stone. Yet she can read. By reading, she has gained access to a couple of hundred expressions that are accepted as meaningful by certain figures in academic or official positions (most of whom are no brighter than she is). By parroting these sounds, even when they are literally meaningless (“catalyzing committees,” “strategic work,” “positioned to buttress”), she can, like the college professors who first emitted them, appear to be intelligent, significant, and worth being paid.
I return to Bill Bradford’s comment about Alger Hiss. The words Hiss used — and he used a lot of them; he was highly verbal — were so lacking in substance as to be suitable both for communists and for anti-communist modern liberals, so long as the latter weren’t actually thinking but were just repeating words. When you consider how many other people operate in the same way, you can acquire some sympathy for the much-maligned conspiracy theories of American politics. When you listen to a speech by President Obama, can you tell whether he means to maintain the republic or is determined to establish a Huey Long-style autocracy? The same essentially meaningless words could be used for either purpose. Or, to choose a homelier example, when you listen to a speech by any of the Republicans now campaigning for the presidency, can you tell whether the candidate believes in individual liberty or is merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Satan himself is a second-hander, always latching onto phrases that are supposed to mean something, even when they don’t.
But here’s the really Satanic thing, the thing that goes far beyond momentary political conflicts. In most generations of American history, the kind of discourse I’m considering — wordy but not intelligent, personal but not original, moralistic but in no way respectful of the truth, overtly humanitarian but covertly cruel, irresponsible but implacably self-righteous — in most generations, this kind of discourse has been a potent weapon of accusation and official persecution.
- Having inherited a stock of religious phrases, a coven of girls in Salem, Massachusetts accused their neighbors of bewitching them, and had 20 of them executed.
- During the Civil War, people accused of being Copperheads (Northern men with Southern sympathies) and Abolitionists (Southern men with Christian sympathies) suffered a similarly unjust fate, though usually not such drastic punishment. Some brave talker had discovered that, in today’s language, they fitted the profile of the opposition group.
- During World War I, being German was often enough to incite the leading talkers of a town to run you out of it, and pseudo-intellectual language about Americanism, sedition, and consorting with the enemy was never far to seek.
- From the 1970s on, false accusations of child abuse have been used to ruin many lives, often on evidence kept secret because of its “horrific” nature. False evidence can always be supported by expert testimony to the effect, for instance, that children don’t lie about such things.
Virtually throughout American history, Satanic allegations of homosexuality were sufficient to disgrace inoffensive men and women, destroy their means of livelihood, and send them to jail. After all, didn’t the experts say that homosexuality was an epidemic that must not be allowed to spread to our children? The same expert language, and the same pattern of accusations, characterized the anti-drug hysterias of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The language of unanalyzed guilt and hysterical accusation continues in the current diatribes against climate change deniers, homophobes, maintainers of white privilege, and other perverts.
There has always been a Satanic cohort in American society, a set of people who find it impossible to be happy except when they are accusing others, and diligent in finding things to accuse them of. The impulse is the same; only the targets differ (although the frequent presence of sexually connected targets remains to be explained). These people — the Rachel Dolezals among us — never go away. The most serious problem is the rest of us, the people who are at least momentarily convinced that there must be something in the accusations, because otherwise no one would be able to put them into words so confidently.
In the book of Job, God points out the difference between being verbal and being intelligent. “Who is this,” he asks, “that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” And he asks a more troubling question, “Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?” Unfortunately, we in America need not look very far to see the gates of death. They are right there, right behind the perky little smiles of Rachel Dolezal and the many others who resemble her.