Anglophone intellectuals, including Bari Weiss, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams and Andrew Sullivan, have announced the launch of a foundation to fight racism and intolerance. FAIR is intended to be an alternative to the failing American anti-racist structures.
Launched this Thursday, March 4, 2021, FAIR (Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism), describes itself as “a nonpartisan organization”. Its objectives are to advance “civil rights and liberties for all Americans” and to promote a “common culture based on fairness, understanding and humanity”.
They were known to be close, often accomplices on Twitter, outraged by the same excesses of a woke militancy that many dissect (sometimes excessively) with the help of forums, podcasts and Substack newsletters. They are journalists, academics, lawyers, scientists, comedians, writers, activists, and, although they come from various political backgrounds, all are detractors of the moral scramble which they believe is rife in the United States, but also of the anti-racism promoted by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The crème de la crème of anti-wokism and ‘anti-racism anti-conformists’
31 personalities make up the Board of Directors of this brand new organisation, launched with the help of coordinated tweets from its members (most of whom have large communities on the networks), among whom are:
☞ Journalist Bari Weiss, known for her resounding resignation from the New York Times in the summer of 2020.
☞ Andrew Sullivan, Anglo-American and early blogger, then journalist in the ‘mainstream’ press. He ‘did a Bari Weiss’ in the summer of 2020 and left the New York Mag to set up his newsletter, The Weekly Dish, on Substack.
☞ Megyn Kelly, journalist and host: she is one of the most well-known faces of American television. A former Fox News personality, she was fired from NBC in 2018, after making comments deemed problematic about blackface.
☞ Steven Pinker, Canadian-American cognitive psychologist and professor at Harvard, particularly influential and known for his opposition to ‘woke orthodoxy’.
☞ Abigail Shrier, Wall Street Journal reporter and author of a book, controversial due to her views on trans issues.
☞ Daryl Davis, American musician and activist. He has been travelling around America for more than 30 years to meet the most racist Americans in the country and claims to have convinced nearly 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan to leave the supremacist organization.
☞ Andrew Doyle, British comedian and writer. A figure of anti-wokism, he is the creator of the fictional character Titania McGrath, who aims to parody woke excesses.
☞ Melissa Chen, Singaporean journalist and activist: she writes for The Spectator and co-founded Ideas Beyond Borders.
☞ Zaid Jilani, formerly of The Intercept, now a freelance journalist who writes for both The Guardian and Quillette.
☞ The Dutch-American activist and writer of Somali origin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Awarded the Simone-de-Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom, she collaborated in the writing of Soumission (a short film by director Theo Van Gogh, assassinated in 2004 by an Islamist). This former Member of Parliament is considered by some as ‘Islamophobic’ for her comments on Islam, like the subject of her latest book.
☞ Christopher Rufo, American director, opinion journalist and conservative activist: he is one of the fervent opponents of the Critical Race Theory.
But also, many African-American intellectuals that Le Monde described a few months ago in a cross portrait as “the anti-conformists of anti-racism” and “an iconoclastic black intelligentsia that is growing in power, united in the rejection of a certain anti-racism that it holds for a religion”:
☞ Thomas Chatterton Williams, American author and critic living in France, co-signer of the A Letter on Justice and Open Debate column published in Harper’s Magazine in July 2020, and author of “Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race”.
☞ Linguist John McWhorter, professor at Columbia and contributor to The Atlantic, author of the controversial Losing Race, 20 years ago, and today critic, in particular, of the woke-bible White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.
☞ Coleman Hughes, essayist and host of his own podcast (excerpt below). At the age of 24, he is one of the youngest critical voices of anti-racism today.
☞ Glenn Loury, renowned American economist and author, known for his positions on race and class issues, including criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and concepts such as ‘systemic racism’.
The complete list of board members is available here. In her latest newsletter, Bari Weiss describes the board as “a coalition of liberals, moderates, and conservatives joining together to defend our most essential values”. This diversity of profiles is difficult to contest, but the announcement of certain names has been the subject of numerous comments, pointing out the incompatibility between the name of the organisation, its anti-racist vocation, and the ideas or speeches of some of its members, as in these few tweets:
Since a ranking of all these personalities on the American political spectrum would give rise to an endless debate and cannot be done without a certain amount of subjectivity, CTRLZ leaves it to you to form your own opinion. Above all, it is concrete action in the field that will allow us to appreciate the role of this foundation, much more than the profiles of its board members – whose role should be partly honorary and partly ‘marketing’.
To counter “intolerant orthodoxy”
Before discussing these concrete actions, let’s take a closer look at the ideas put forward by FAIR. On its website, the organisation assumes – or even insists on – the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. (whose photos are widely used in the iconography of the website and as a banner on the Twitter account), and makes the following statement on the context of its creation:
“Increasingly, American institutions — colleges and universities, businesses, government, the media and even our children’s schools — are enforcing a cynical and intolerant orthodoxy. This orthodoxy requires us to view each other based on immutable characteristics like skin color, gender and sexual orientation. It pits us against one another, and diminishes what it means to be human”.
In addition to Martin Luther King Jr., FAIR has two other figures from American history on its home page, each embodying one of the foundation’s watchwords, via a quotation; Frederick Douglass, slave-born, civil rights figure, and the first black man to run for the vice-presidency of the United States in 1872: “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the right of the hearer as well as those of the speaker”. As well as Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth American President, famous, among other things, for having ratified the 13th amendment abolishing slavery: ” We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”. This choice is particularly significant at a time when the BLM movement has called into question the character, who would no longer deserve the memorial tributes of the nation.
The manifesto, available online, explains the values defended by FAIR:
- “We defend civil liberties and rights guaranteed to each individual, including freedom of speech and expression, equal protection under the law, and the right to personal privacy. - We advocate for individuals who are threatened or persecuted for speech, or who are held to a different set of rules for language or conduct based on their skin color, ancestry, or other immutable characteristics. - We support respectful disagreement. We believe bad ideas are best confronted with good ideas – and never with dehumanization, deplatforming or blacklisting. - We believe that objective truth exists, that it is discoverable, and that scientific research must be untainted by any political agenda. - We are pro-human, and promote compassionate anti-racism rooted in dignity and our common humanity.”
In her newsletter, Bari Weiss says:
“The FAIR is an organization which takes up the flag abandoned by the ACLU and the SPLC [two American associations for the defense of rights, ed.] By mobilizing for civil rights, civil liberties, equality before the law, justice, tolerance and pro-human anti-racism”.
This desire to position itself as an alternative to the historic ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is also found in Thomas Chatterton Williams’ launch tweet which refers to the action of the ACLU at Smith College, following a racial controversy (handled in a hasty and unfair manner by the establishment, as reported by the New York Times). The lawyer for the ACLU had recommended establishing the creation of segregated dormitories. It is this point that the writer tackles, and it is precisely in the face of these kinds of policies that FAIR wishes to act.
Each word of the site being weighed to be as unassailable as possible, and no specific example of threat against “civil rights and liberties” being cited, it is a question of reading between the lines, of understanding the terms used by noting also those which are knowingly avoided.
In the tab dedicated to the professional environment, the site writes, before a contact form: “we are here to help you, if you are confronted with neo-racism in your workplace”.
The term ‘neo-racism’, which is also found in several of Bari Weiss’s Tweets, is more or less explained in a short glossary which provides a pluralistic definition:
“Neo-racism, noun 1a. A belief that race is a real and inescapable social construct that determines an individual’s identity, agency, beliefs, ability, or culture, such that members of different race groups can never understand each other due to intrinsic and insurmountable cultural differences. 1b. Prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, or antagonism directed against a person or people based on this belief. 2. Discrimination, behavior or attitudes toward individuals or groups that reflect and foster the belief that members of some race groups are permanently subordinate to members of other race groups.”
‘Neo-racism’ in the workplace is also explicitly mentioned in the testimony below. An African-American cinematographer (whose name is not given), laments that he has been reduced for some time to “a diversity asset”, instead of being recognised for his professional skills:
However, the acronym F(oundation) A(gainst) I(ntolerance) & R(acism) is based on the term ‘racism’ and NOT ‘neo-racism’. What exactly is it about?
In the “FAIR Pledge” – whose 3 strong words are ‘fairness’, ‘understanding’ and ‘humanity’ – it is indicated:
” I believe in applying the same rules to everyone, and reject disparagement of individuals based on the circumstances of their birth”.
Thus formulated, the sentence applies as much to the universal definition of racism against racialised people as it does to the controversial notion of ‘white privilege’ popularised by the work of activist researcher Peggy McIntosh or Robin DiAngelo’s book referred to above. This theory is also one of the factors behind many of the tensions in the school environment mentioned and followed by several FAIR members, such as the recent case of Jodi Shaw, who resigned from the prestigious Smith College after denouncing a “hostile climate” due, according to her, to her skin colour.
The foundation thus gets out of it by a game of semantic balancing act (which may not convince everyone) but which has the merit of being coherent with its global position and the announced intentions.
More than the words used, it is above all the carefully avoided words that give the initiative a universalist ambition seeking to avoid any possible exploitation. For example, the FAIR website makes no mention of the terms ‘cancel culture’ and ‘woke’. Nor does it mention the terms ‘white privilege’ or ‘critical race theory’, even though these are indeed the concepts that are in the crosshairs of its board of directors. The catch-all nature of a term such as ‘woke’, often instrumentalized by the most conservative fringes of its detractors, may explain the choice to avoid these terms, which are as polysemic as they are connoted.
This was already the case with the forum of Harper’s Magazine, of which several FAIR figures were signatories. The forum also scrupulously avoided the use of the expression ‘cancel culture’, preferring much more neutral and factual terms such as “intolerance of dissenting opinions” or “taste for public humiliation and ostracism”. Likewise, the term ‘woke’ was not written once. Moreover, the petition did not target anyone directly but spoke of “a general climate of intolerance that has taken hold on both sides” or even “our culture”. Likewise, it is the passive form that was used to explain examples of excess against which the tribune intended to warn (“editors are fired”, “journalists are barred”). The same philosophy seems to be at work here: to move away from heated debates, while offering a new alternative to existing organizations.
What does FAIR offer?
Following the example of the cinematographer mentioned above, FAIR intends to collect as many testimonies as possible from people who are facing the “intolerant orthodoxy that plagues our schools, communities and workplaces” and encourages Internet users to “find the moral courage” to bear witness via the hashtag #AFewRequests.
Above all, American citizens confronted with the type of intolerance and racism denounced by FAIR will be able to find legal assistance through a network of lawyers being established, according to the site (like what the ACLU does).
This type of networking and the collection of testimonies seem to be at the heart of the strategy proposed by FAIR, particularly in schools. “We offer guidance to parents and educators, connect advocates across the country, develop curriculum, and work to make sure your school lives by values of fairness, understanding, and humanity”, says the organisation, which promises to respect the confidentiality of witnesses. The foundation, based in New York, encourages the creation of local chapters across the United States.
This willingness to support parents, teachers and other employees who consider themselves victims or collateral damage of identity policies recalls the recent Counterweight initiative, with a similar mission. Its founder, Helen Pluckrose (who is also a member of the FAIR board of directors), said she expects “much useful collaboration” between the two structures.
In search of volunteers and donations, FAIR has collected (as of writing) nearly 2,026 signatures to its “pledge of commitment”.
The trap of indignation?
From its inception, the fledgling foundation also took part, in a way, in its first controversy, since the site bannedseuss.com contains on its one and only page the inscription “Erasing books is insanity. Stand up for our common humanity”, followed by a “join us” button that takes you to the FAIR site. If, on the other hand, the site is not relayed either on the foundation’s site, nor on its accounts on social networks, it has been relayed by Bari Weiss, accompanied by an “enough with dividing”:
The Seuss in question is a sacred monster of American children’s literature. And the controversy that has been stirring Twitter for the past few days follows the decision of the organisation managing the author’s heritage to no longer offer for sale 6 books by Theodor Seuss Geisel (out of a total of about 60). These books, most of which were written before 1955, are now considered to convey racist stereotypes that “portray people in a false and hurtful way”, as in the following few examples.
If the site and Bari Weiss – via her tweet – do not shout about cancel culture and do not make a big drama of it unlike others, and if the initiative is perhaps just a means of making the foundation known by surfing on a viral controversy and defending their attachment to freedom of expression, one can nevertheless wonder about the method used for this first ‘public’ position of FAIR.
The name of the bannedseuss.com site (when nothing is, strictly speaking, ‘banned’), the alarmist red banner, and the use of the term ‘erasing books’ may seem rather paradoxical, coming from a foundation that intends to fight against intolerance and racism.
Rather than using such peremptory elements of language, modelled on hysterisation and common approximations on social networks, the foundation would perhaps be more consistent with its commitments (and its ‘appeased’ tone) by adopting a slightly more constructed and nuanced discourse on the subject?
If the launch of the FAIR has, for the time being, not received much media coverage, and the announcement of certain names has made some people grind their teeth, the initiative has, in spite of everything, made some people happy… To be continued!