We live in a society gripped by a quasi-religious fervor and obsessed with symbols and irrational fears.
Anything that is thought to have the slightest association with racism, no matter how attenuated the connection or how innocent the explanation, must be crushed and expunged. The mere presence of a possibly offending word is deemed a threat, whether it is truly offensive or any real people have actually taken offense. We are engaged in a war with shadowy forces that we can’t truly understand, but must exercise the utmost vigilance, lest they sneak up on us unawares.
Ours is an enchanted world, like that of the Old Norse who believed in land spirits who could bless or hinder travelers who didn’t pay them heed, or animists who consider everything alive and fraught with spiritual meaning, or the 16th-century English who hunted down witches based on hypersensitive suspicions and presumed signs.
Our society isn’t progressing but falling back into a superstition that everyone must believe or pretend to believe for the supposed welfare of the community.
A NASCAR garage pull is shaped like a noose, so everyone immediately assumes that a racist has snuck into Bubba Wallace’s garage to send a nefarious signal to him. All people of good will have to unite to fight against this unseen, mysterious, malign force. When the FBI reports that sometimes a garage pull is just a garage pull, and this one has been in the garage since October 2019, people still insist that it was a noose — because the will to believe is so strong and, hey, better safe than sorry.
The band The Dixie Chicks changes its name to The Chicks, even though there was nothing remotely wrong with the origin of its name. It referred, not to the folk song “Dixie” that was the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy (and has its own complicated history), but to an album from the band Little Feat called “Dixie Chicken.”
The title song of that album isn’t about lynching, the KKK, or white supremacy, rather a guy meeting an enchanting girl who, after he spends a lot of money on her, leaves him — not an unusual theme in American popular song.
No rational person would ever hear the name “The Dixie Chicks” and feel excluded or threatened or automatically think of chattel slavery. But rationality has nothing to do with it.
The University of Florida dumps its so-called Gator Bait chant, a tradition dating back to a boast of star defensive back Lawrence Wright, an African American, after a big win in 1995: “If you ain’t a Gator, ya Gator bait, baby!”
Why must it be shelved? Because there is racist imagery of African-American children as alligator bait from more than a hundred years ago that no one performing the Gator Bait chant over the past quarter of a century was aware of or could possibly have intended to invoke with their high-spirited cheer.
And on it goes, from one absurdity to the next. As long as this moral fever lasts, there will be more targets. There is no slaking the hunt for words and practices to vilify and erase — no amount of purity will ever be enough to protect the community, and the hunt itself has its deep satisfactions.
None of this has to do with police reform, which involves specific and concrete proposals that can be debated using facts and reason and that might — if thoughtfully done — improve policing and the lives of our citizens. No, mere changes in police practices can’t compare to a deeper, quasi-religious project.
The woke shamans are defining and enforcing a new symbology. They insist that their spiritual sense is better attuned than anyone else’s and will try to excommunicate anyone who says otherwise. Their work may seem shockingly new, but it is really a throwback to ages past — ones that no advanced society should want to revisit.
© 2020 by King Features Syndicate