Reflections on Derek Black’s Intellectual Conversion
I finished reading the excellent Washington Post story on the reeducation and conversion of former white nationalist Derek Black. I loved it. It’s a first-hand tour in how one comes into a movement, and how one might outgrow them. Kudos to Derek Black for his intellectual and emotional bravery.
A few observations:
1. This story is why I believe in the power of a humanist education. This is why I believe that some reform to K-16 education is needed to confront what we’re now calling “Trumpism” (i.e. authoritarianism, white supremacy, and crypto/neo/pseudo-fascism).
2. I chuckled at the part, near the end, where Derek’s father and David Duke were in denial. They then forwarded the theory that Derek’s suffered from a kind of liberal arts-based Stockholm Syndrome—i.e. that Derek had grown to sympathize too much with this “captors.” While I sympathize with the fact that, after a certain point in a higher ed institution—say during one’s junior year—there is a point of no return (i.e. no leaving), to say that a student is a hostage to that institution takes matters too far. Plus, it’s clear that Derek’s questions began earlier—with his strong interest in the power of reason and his desire to explore history, and all the historical-critical thinking that entails.
3. The power of a learning community and shared meals, so crucial to Judaism and other religions, comes off as key. While Derek’s newfound education brought him to unanticipated intellectual places, and an openness to “the other,” it was his invitation to share intimacy that brought him over the top—into a better ethical and more just place.
4. Study abroad and the study of foreign languages helped Derek become immersed in something different. They helped take him out of himself and his circumstances. That holiday, if you will, gave him some tools to envision critical distance. History provides those tools, but study abroad and immersion in a foreign language help one live out an objectification of the self.
5. After his conversion, Derek “started drinking tap water.” This seems like a joke, but it goes to the cliche of paranoia that surrounds the anti-intellectualism of the far left and far right. I was both surprised and not to see it crop up here.
6. I’m sure that every Trump story is a kind of trigger for Derek Black. I could understand if he wanted a needed a safe space from the 2016 presidential election. Sometimes, for college students, college is safe space from the ideological damage inflicted by our homes and families. While we were taken care of materially, and even emotionally to a certain extent, to live in this kind of intellectual environment takes its toll. College is where recovery can begin, but immersion in the liberal arts and humanities is where that recovery takes off.
Thoughts? Comments? – TL