If you raft on the river of popular culture, then you can hardly do better than to hire Mark Twain and Andrew Breitbart as your guides. One man lived long enough to become the elder statesman of American letters by 1910, and the other died young in 2012, but both of them paid sharp attention to their surroundings. Their insights can still help the rest of us make sense of arguments over critical race theory.
When he wasn’t busy breaking literary ground, Twain said things like, “Climate is what we expect, and weather is what we get.” In the same sardonic vein, he only half-jokingly declared that “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then He made school boards.”
Breitbart learned from Twain’s example. He built a disruptive career in journalism while formulating the so-called “Breitbart Doctrine,” which tweaks the old idea that we get the politicians we deserve to explain that the reason why this is so is that “politics is downstream from culture.”
The Breitbart Doctrine helps analyze the behavior of people you haven’t met, as you might want to do when appalling stories show up in your Twitter feed. Remember Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago pol notorious for saying in a panel discussion with CEOs that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”? Conservative pundits pounced on that remark because coming as it did from the White House Chief of Staff, it opened a window onto the thinking of an administration that seemed forever on the make. Emanuel confirmed for anyone paying attention that he was a fixer in a band of opportunists led by a president with a talent for stoking resentments and setting fire to rhetorical straw men. If you didn’t already know that “politics ain’t beanbag,” then Emanuel destroyed your innocence by saying the quiet part out loud.
But that wasn’t the half of it. If you were an inexperienced young reporter whom the same administration’s deputy national security advisor would admit to manipulating for fun and profit, then you probably assumed that crisis-mongering was normal. That’s why Emanuel’s remark offended those of us curious enough to read history, including, I’m proud to say, my father and my uncle. Both of them were then retired police officers with groaning bookshelves and finely-calibrated B.S. detectors.
Per the Breitbart Doctrine, when politics becomes rodeo for grifters, it’s because culture rewards the same people with consulting gigs and “influencer” labels on social media. On the premise advanced by Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, for example, justice demands that entertainers either call for or engage in self-abasement. Barry White and Betty White can’t just be icons in their respective fields because Betty’s comparative lack of melanin means she has some ‘splaining to do.
All of this, like the 2019 North Carolina movie “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” involves Mark Twain more than you might think. Progressives have long shut their eyes to the moral arc in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or taken up for Jim the slave because every other character in that novel seems to fit into what might be called a “basket of deplorables.” That Huck Finn is a masterful anti-slavery polemic doesn’t matter to Twain’s critics. Occasional book banning wasn’t enough. The whole literary canon is now under fire, not just the story of two friends rafting to freedom along famous American waterways.
Meanwhile, teachers’ unions either defend critical race theory or downplay that hot take on cause and effect by pretending it’s a hammer of justice rather than a loose collection of resentments that escaped the graduate school corral to roam freely through the culture at large. Mark Twain (Mister “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way”) might actually admire that progressive chutzpah. When he was younger, he said, he could remember anything, “whether it happened or not.”
It’s not the teaching of history that parents object to; it’s the twisting of history. But as Twain also observed, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” What Breitbart would imagine generations later was accountability.
Fortunately for the fate of the republic, CRT and its opponents aren’t on equal footing. This fight is not Rocky Balboa vs. Clubber Lang, or Bugs Bunny vs. Daffy Duck. Even people who’ve never gone down to the demonstration to get their fair share of abuse are losing patience with the game of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is Three Card Monte for authoritarians. Suppose race theory of any kind is crackpot theology, or sociology’s answer to biology’s “gain of function” research? Suppose further that by rationalizing racial conflict, critical race theory opens the door for eugenics, behind which you’ll still find ghosts in swastika armbands who can hum the Horst Wessel song?
If critical race theory and its spinoffs made sense—if racism were wily enough to borrow from horror movie conventions so that terrified teenagers whisper, “It’s coming from inside the house!”— then the United States wouldn’t attract immigrants from around the world. Accept CRT even in allegedly oversimplified popular form, and you’re hard-pressed to explain why Barack Obama, for example, still found the wherewithal to write several autobiographies. Nor does CRT make it easy to understand anything evidence-based, such as why Nikole Hannah-Jones of the “1619 Project” now teaches journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C., rather than at the arguably higher-profile platform that would have been provided by her alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill.
The prize-winning scholarship usually earns a place in the limelight, not a license for writing Dear John letters that say “it’s not me; it’s you” to prospective employers. UNC Chapel Hill groveled publicly to Hannah-Jones anyway. May we ask questions that the Board of Trustees and student leaders were afraid to ask? Is it heretical to assert that sorting people by race is every bit as dehumanizing as sorting them by class? Breitbart and Twain never pulled their punches. Let’s follow their example and note for the record that the Communist, the Klansman, the Nazi, and the race-baiting activist all make the same mistake.
Were the U.S. Constitution rooted in bad soil, then American ideals would not be worth defending. We’d scorn founding fathers like John Adams for voicing thoughts like “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” We’d also have to forget that intelligent people outside the founding generation, like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, agreed with Mr. Adams.
In making the Middle Passage a fulcrum of history, critical race theory ignores other tragedies, other remedies, and a multitude of human motivations. It misrepresents that national convulsion we call the Civil War and has nothing to say about slavery elsewhere in the world today. In short, because critical race theory always looks down, it can’t be trusted to glance backward, forward, or around.
Critical race theory embarrasses itself out west, too. If today’s activists asked 18th century Spanish Catholic missionaries what they were building in “Alta California,” the conversation would get no farther than translating “El Camino Real” as “the royal road.” When a humble priest like Junipero Serra tried to explain the religious impulse behind mellifluous place names like “Mission San Juan Capistrano” and “Mission San Gabriel,” no good faith assurance would dissuade activists looking for “systemic” flaws, or elevating their own “lived experience” over his. Serra would have an Inigo Montoya problem: Even if he were to solemnly swear, “I give you my word as a Spaniard,” the activist would reply, “No good! I’ve known too many Spaniards.”
Fortunately, the steamboat pilot and the gonzo journalist can guide us out of the CRT swamp, which is both compostable and combustible. Twain and Breitbart grasped that the difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. With that in mind, it’s time to rebrand CRT as “curated resentment theory.
Patrick O’Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina. He grew up in Hawaii, but has also lived in California and Arizona. Patrick holds a degree in English from Loyola Marymount University and is not quite as Irish as his name implies. With respect to what any barbeque sauce base should have, he’s been cheering for vinegar rather than tomato since 2006.