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May 23, 2024  |  
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Declan Leary


NextImg:A Time for Kendi

You really have to hand it to Ibram X. Kendi. The director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and the author of the biggest bestseller you’ve never seen a copy of in real life, Mr. Kendi (ne Rogers) has bluffed and bullied his way into a lucrative career.

He has no valuable skill set. He has no unique knowledge. He is not an especially intelligent man. Sheer confidence has launched the son of Carol and Larry Rogers to the top rank of American public intellectuals.

Yet Kendi feels out of place there, in a slot once occupied by the likes of Franklin and Emerson—even by higher mediocrities like Dewey, James, and Rawls. A lesser man might shrink from the challenge—slink off in peace and a bit of shame to teach middle school history or find a halfway decent office job. The champion of antiracism opts instead to redefine the entire structure of intellectual life around himself.

You see, until Ibram X. Kendi came along, American academia (especially American history) served merely to legitimize existing power structures. It was a docile practice meant to breed docility in turn, to numb the sensitivity of the masses to injustice and to obscure the vision of the present in the past.

This tradition, of course, is alive and well today:

It is uncomfortable for the opponents of truthful history to have the rest of us see them, to have their kids see them. They don’t want anyone to clearly see how closely they replicate colonizers, land stealers, human traders, enslavers, Klansmen, lynchers, anti-suffragists, robber barons, Nazis, and Jim Crow segregationists who attacked democracy, allowed mass killings, bound people in freedom’s name, ridiculed truth tellers and immigrants, lied for sport, banned books, strove to control women’s reproduction, blamed the poor for their poverty, bashed unions, and engaged in political violence. Historical amnesia is vital to the conservation of their bigotry.

That’s where Kendi and the army of antiracist warriors come in. Distinct from the “apolitical” and “measured” intellectuals of the past, they have no problem blending “activism” with “truth finding.” As Kendi puts it:

Their work was more in line with that of medical researchers seeking a cure to a disease ravaging their community than with philosophers theorizing on a social disease for theory’s sake from a safe remove. We need the model these new intellectuals pursued to save humanity from the existential threats that humans have created, including climate change, global pandemics, bigotry, and war.

All this is to say that Kendi sees “intellectual” as synonymous with “social engineer.” His idea of the old intellectual is a kind of dispassionate (and dull) professor of social science who did not exist at all before roughly 1970—and even then only barely, and almost exclusively at lower echelons.

His vision of the new intellectual is just that—actual intellectualism stripped of its genius and vitality—re-imbued with purpose but not with any of the virtues that underlie it. He mistakes the current order for the one that has always been, then seeks to remedy its defects without any recourse to the natural or the old.

Kendi writes that “traditional notions of the intellectual were never meant to include people who looked like me or who had a background like mine,” by which he must mean that the 100 IQ son of a tax accountant and a business analyst would not, in bygone days, have become a distinguished professor and a celebrated author of works of social thought.

Kendi seems not to have the slightest idea that, long before he crawled out of the New York private schools from which he came, the ranks of “intellectuals” were populated by mad prophets and radicals. The great minds of history have not been like the sad sacks with whom I. Henry Rogers studied at Temple University; they have been men of terrible force, whose very presence in the field of thought and action reshapes history itself: Aristotle, Shakespeare, Edison, Marx, Ford.

The men who have come closest to exerting this force of genius on twenty-first century America—Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk—have both failed at decisive points. The one success, Jeff Bezos’s, has been incredibly bleak.

This is not an age of great men, and it is not an age for great men. It is an age for Ibram X. Kendi.

How long can that last, though? A viral report this week indicated that American IQ is dropping substantially. The study’s authors explained the drop away by reference to “numerous possibilities…ranging from poor nutrition to a rise in screens and media consumption to pollution and a decline in overall health.”

All that plays a part, to be sure. The causes are less interesting than the effects. In essence, there are two possibilities here. Either decline means downfall, and the fate of man in the third millennium is half a step above basic animal function. Or the tragedy of the twenty-first century will set the civilizational stage so that the next true intellect will echo and build and turn like Homer singing into the cavern of a dark age or roar like Caesar picking up the sword.