There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new form of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times, Gracie Mansion, and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over the discourse are now waged. The new mode is argument by commandment: It borrows the form to game the discourse of rational argumentation in order to issue moral commandments. No official doctrine yet exists for this syncretic belief system but its features have been on display in all of the major debates over political morality of the past decade. Marrying the technical nomenclature of rational proof to the soaring eschatology of the sermon, it releases adherents from the normal bounds of reason. The arguer-commander is animated by a vision of secular hell—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress; society as a ceaseless subjection to rape and sexual assault; Trump himself, arriving to inaugurate a Luciferean reign of torture. Those in possession of this vision do not offer the possibility of redemption or transcendence, they come to deliver justice. In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.
Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist—and so on? These are military salutes, which are used to establish rank between fellow “az-uhs” while distinguishing them as a class from the civilian population. You must always listen to the experts, the new form of argument insists, and to the science. Anything else would be invalid; science denialism; not rational; immoral.
Because of the way it toggles back and forth between rationalism and religiosity, switching categories by taking recourse to one when the other is questioned, the new form of argument-commandment, rather than invalidating itself or foundering on its own contradictions, becomes, somehow, rhetorically invincible—through the demonstration of power relations that the arguer denies exist, but are plainly manifest in the progress of the argument.
The group of historians who submitted their letter of dissent to The New York Times, objecting to the historical claims in the paper’s flagship 1619 project provided a nice demonstration of this point. They questioned the project's scholarship and in response, were accused of being old white men, as indeed most of them were, and antique reactionaries. When they pleaded that they were not abettors of white supremacy but objected to the project’s historical claims, they were told their history was in error. In the end the historians, however distinguished their careers were beforehand, appeared confused and defeated, complaining solicitously in their allotted column inches in the paper’s letters section.
The 1619 project, meanwhile, having essentially conceded the historians’ central point, lost nothing at all. It marches on unscathed toward becoming the official curriculum in the nation’s public school system, replacing the products of the American historical profession as a whole, which must either adapt or suffer a similar humiliation. The outcome proved that whether or not the historians were right about the facts of history, they had made a fundamental error in judging where power lies. At best, they are dopes who thought they were smarter, which is to say more powerful, than they are. At worst, they are professionally self-destructive, and—who knows—maybe even racists.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor