Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 9, 2020

Bill Maher puts down the red carpet for Bari Weiss and Thomas Chatterton Williams

Filed under: Harper's Open Letter — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

Bill Maher, Bari Weiss, and Thomas Chatterton Williams

For those with both a strong stomach and an interest in the ongoing “cancel culture” debate, you might want to check out the podcast of Bill Maher’s chat with Thomas Chatterton Williams and Bari Weiss. Like all these podcasts taking the side of the Harper’s Open Letter, the other side of the debate is completely ignored. You are left with someone like Matt Taibbi being fawned over by Intellectual Dark Web personality Bret Weinstein. If anything, the Maher episode was even more nauseating. He insisted on calling Williams “Sir Thomas”.

Things kick off at 13:50 into Maher’s show. He introduces the discussion by referring to two open letters that was a kind of family feud between liberals. After having said that, there is zero reference to what the second letter stated. Apparently, he was referring to a July 10th letter that appeared on The Objective, a website devoted to “to confront inequities in coverage that have been recognized as rooted in the notion of ‘objectivity’ since the 1950s and continue today.” To this date, Chatterton Williams and company have yet to appear in a debate with anybody equipped to take them on like David Palumbo-Liu or Nikhil Pal Singh.

That’s the problem with Maher’s show. It never has a guest capable of defending a systemic critique of American society. The best you can hope for is flabby left-liberalism of the Michael Moore or Ben Affleck type. That’s the reason I stopped watching it five years ago. The political spectrum is Fox TV on the right and MSNBC on the left. Yawn.

The one thing I got out of listening to Williams is how narrowly constrained his interest in Black America is. A few weeks ago I began reading his stuff on Twitter and it revolves around his differences with two well-known pundits on “race questions”. One is Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility” and the other is Ibram X. Kendi, the author of “How to Be an Antiracist.” Until I began following the controversy around the Harper’s letter, I had no idea who they were.

DiAngelo is an academic specializing in “whiteness studies” who argues:

White people in the U.S. and other white settler colonialist societies live in a racially insular social environment. This insulation builds our expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering our stamina for enduring racial stress. I term this lack of racial stamina White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimal challenge to the white position becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves including: argumentation, invalidation, silence, withdrawal and claims of being attacked and misunderstood. These moves function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and maintain control.

She gives workshops on this stuff, probably for big bucks considering that her book has been on the best-seller’s list for 97 weeks. For people like Williams, Adolph Reed Jr. and Matt Taibbi, she is the devil incarnate. David Roediger reviewed her book for the LA Review of Books and offers this pointed observation: “The can-do spirit of the workshop and primer knocks against the sober accounts of the utter embeddedness of white advantage in structures of both political economy and of personality and character.” Structures of political economy. That’s a dimension missed in both DiAngelo and her critics, except maybe perhaps for Reed’s class-reductionist program that only sees Black people benefiting from programs targeting the poor in general. As for Williams, he could be less interested in political economy. The need is for civility but it is tough being civil when the man’s knee is on your neck.

Like DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi is an academic but far more rooted in the kind of issues that concern radicals, like how to end police brutality. Kendi has said that “The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.” This seems irrefutable even if Williams and DiAngelo sidestep questions of economic and political barriers to racial equality in their writing.

For Williams, the emphasis is on transcending race. A review of his memoir “Self-Portrait in Black and White” in Harper’s will give you an idea of where he is coming from:

Self-Portrait is Williams’s attempt to liberate his mind from the shackles of conventional racial designations once he realizes that his children will never be seen by anyone—not even, most likely, by themselves—as black. Williams, the son of a white mother and a black father, whom he calls “Pappy” and who serves as an intellectual and ethical anchor in Self-Portrait and a previous memoir, marries a white French woman, and their firstborn child, a daughter named Marlow, emerges in the delivery room with blond hair and blue eyes. Because Marlow will not share his racial identity, Williams decides that that identity no longer suits him. Instead of black, by the end of the book, he calls himself “ex-black”—which may be a bit like threatening to run away from home but never making it past the front porch.

There’s something vaguely musty about this sort of thing. Back in the late 1950s, we were all reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, a book with a Black nationalist villain and the main character on an existential search for true identity. His black skin undermines the efforts of others to relate to him as an individual, leaving him open to manipulations from whites and blacks alike. Both sides exploit the color line to gain power and domination.

In an LA Times Op-Ed, you can see how Williams identifies with Ellison:

Several years ago, I came across a Ralph Ellison quote that has stayed with me ever since: “Said a young white professor of English to me after a lecture out in Northern Illinois, ‘Mr. E., how does it feel to be able to go to places most black men can’t go?’ Said I to him, ‘What you mean is, how does it feel to be able to go to places where most white men can’t go.’”

Ellison’s way of thinking was honest and brave in 1970 and remains uncommon today. While prejudice and inequality have proven tenacious, if we take the expression “black lives matter” seriously, we must also accept when black autonomy, equality and even privilege exist. To do otherwise is like overprescribing antibiotics: a valuable defensive tool grows impotent through overuse. Our reflexive indignation fosters a laziness of thought that, paradoxically, can reinforce some of the very anti-black biases it hopes to wipe out.

Yeah, black autonomy, equality and even privilege exist. But so what? We’re talking about society, not individuals. There’s something creepy about Williams’s liberalism, reminding me of what Margaret Thatcher, a neoliberal counter-revolutionary, once said: “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

As Maher tries to eke out what Williams and Weiss mean by cancel-culture, they are hard-pressed to identify any of those humble souls who worry about being fired for saying the wrong thing. Williams refers to Justine Sacco as a virtual martyr to today’s version of the Salem Witch Trials. Sacco was a top executive of IAC, a holding company with over a hundred media and internet companies, including Vimeo, where I have a channel. (I didn’t say a word about her.) When Sacco was on a plane in 2014, she passed the time trying to be funny on Twitter. Visiting family in South Africa, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” You’d think after all the people who have gotten in trouble on Twitter, there’d be more caution. This tweet and other stupidities cost her job. Since she was the company’s PR director, how in hell did she think she’d be able to get away with this? The answer. If you want to make racist wisecracks, get a job with the police department. Well, maybe not more recently.

Bari Weiss came up with a different martyr, the Palestinian owner of the Holy Land grocery in Minneapolis named Majdi Wadi. She told Maher that the poor guy has been victimized because when his 14-year old daughter foolishly praised Hitler, everybody ganged up on him. He lost his lease and much of his business. How can anybody hold his daughter’s stupidity against him?

It only took me ten minutes to learn what was really happening. It was not a simple case of cancel culture as Sahan Journal points out, a local online magazine covering immigrant issues, particularly those affecting Somalis as Hibah Ansari reported on June 19, 2020. He interviewed Mahad, a Somali woman who worked at Holy Land:

Mahad started working at Holy Land in 2013 and asked to be identified by her middle name since she currently works with members of the Wadi family.

Mahad, who is Somali, alleged she was paid less than her Arab coworker who was hired around the same time as her and who once showed Mahad her paycheck.

“Nobody spoke out about it because our jobs would be on the line,” Mahad said.

If a white or Arab customer came to the store, Mahad was encouraged to “give them extra bread,” while customers of color, the majority of Holy Land’s clientele, weren’t treated as well.

According to Mahad, Lianne and her father would follow black customers to make sure they weren’t stealing. Comments from customers on social media echoed the same concern.

“Every time they would see a black family grocery shopping, [Lianne] would leave the cash register all the way on the other side, run and tail that black family just to see if they’re stealing,” Mahad said.

Hana Muse also said she witnessed Lianne follow black customers when she worked there in 2015.

“There were a lot of Somali families that would come to that restaurant,” Muse said. “They were treated like crap.”

Muse said she once came to work with her hair braided, but her managers told her to “take out your hair.”

“They were just so harsh,” Muse said. “I thought that this was how every work environment was, until I quit Holy Land.”

At the end of the night, Muse said Lianne would watch over any black employee counting the cash drawer.

Asked about the complaints regarding pay, Wadi said Holy Land pays employees in accordance with the law and the current market rate for the position.

“I can confirm that we have never paid anyone below the minimum wage,” Wadi said in a statement to Sahan Journal.

Employees subjected to possible discrimination should notify a manager or the human resources office, according to Holy Land’s employee handbook. Human resources would then investigate the allegations and implement corrective action.

Wadi said to his knowledge, no one has complained about any racist experiences in the past.

But Muse and Mahad both said the management perpetuated a “take it or leave it” attitude towards complaints. Neither of them ever felt comfortable filing a complaint about racism with a manager.

Now, I can’t say which side is telling the truth but how can Weiss simply omit the version that contradicts her own? Oh, I forgot. She’s entitled because she is in favor of free speech. At the risk of sounding like one of those cancel culture people, I am glad she and the NY Times parted ways. The paper is much better than it used to be, although it still must be read critically. Weiss and James Bennet are bad news. Let them go work for Rupert Murdoch where telling one side of a story is par for the course.



  1. All these closet–and (Weiss) not-so-closet–reactionaries babbling about civility as their masters in the DNC prepare the new Democratic Red Scare. I seem to recall reading that Nazis used to complain about the Jews not being willing to sit down and discuss the Jewish Question in a calm and civil fashion–so rude!

    Who exactly do these fakers think they’re kidding? I find myself perusing videos about semi-auto shotguns on YouTube. I keep seeing those smug, hypocritical faces under some cinematic hail of shot and stage blood. Uwe Boll, where art thou?

    Thomas Chatterton, BTW, as every schoolperson knows, was a precocious English medievalising poet and political writer who began publishing at eleven and committed suicide at seventeen in 1770. He is supposed to have influenced Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, etc., and was commemorated by Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. I wonder if Bill Maher knows that.

    My guess is that the half-educated Maher dimly recalls that there was a poet of that name and presumes that he must have been knighted, hence the affected “Sir Thomas.” What a dick.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 10, 2020 @ 5:33 am

  2. Mr. Proyect (is that the proper appellation?),

    I’ve linked to your blog-post about the series of letters between the smarmily execrable Steve Allen and the true Patriot Dalton Trumbo (hard to figure out where my sympathies lay, eh?) in a number of communications.

    First, thanks so much for reposting it. I read it when it came out, and if my enfeebled memory served, it was in a bound collection of stories in Esquire’s 50th (or, was it 25th? No matter) anniversary edition. It was a blue book, and though I’d read the magazine for decades, it was wonderful to have an aggregate of so many great pieces.

    I’ve a tiny quibble on your intro; some of us actually did read Playboy cover to cover, and I found the plasticene centerfolds less erotic, more like decent poster material when an adolescent. When they succumbed to Penthouse’s thrown gauntlet and included pubic hair, well, that’s market-meeting at its finest. But I digress.

    I read, cover to cover, every playboy magazine from ~’68-95. Their writers were on a par with Esquire, at least often. Bradbury, Updike, Heller, Fleming, and dozens of others. Short fiction from which movies were made (“Duel”). Progressive (for the magazine world. And their interviews were nonpareil (again, in the mass media): https://www.ranker.com/list/a-list-of-playboy-interviews-of-the-_60s/playmate-hound And that’s just the sixties. What other magazine gave full voice to the grand Kleagle of the KKK, Malcolm X, Nehru, Sarte, Miles Davis, Nabokov, and…. dammit, The Beatles. And Orian Fallaci….. and Rudolf Hess, FFS. C’mon, can we get a small “amen”(not for Hess, but the interviews)?

    Before whatever transition point ( I’d stopped by then ) had them become more literariliy neutered, Playboy was worthwhile.

    Wishing you well, and with appreciation,


    Comment by Dan — August 11, 2020 @ 6:59 am

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