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Reflections on Derek Black’s Intellectual Conversion

October 17, 2016

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

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  1. Historiann permalink

    Tim, thanks for alerting me to your post on Derek Black’s redemption from captivity among the white supremacists. (Or as they would have it, his captivation by secular multiculturalist academia.)

    The points you make here about the importance of food and drink (the communal Shabbat dinners and the tap water) is really critical I think. You underscore the importance of these rituals to community building and trust. That Derek Black would sit down to eat with people his family considered “usurpers,” and eventually to drink tap water, symbolizes the permeability of the rigid intellectual and political borders he had been raised with. In decided to open his body to these outside substances, it changed him intellectually.

    RE: the tap water thing. It is a fascinating case of where the loony left and the radical right meet, isn’t it? I make a point of drinking only tap water. Water is like public schools: if more of us used them, more of us would care about their quality, and they’d be better off.


    • Thanks for the comment—and for reading. I think that the sharing of food and drink is a critical part of all education education. I didn’t become a better undergraduate until I started studying with others at restaurants, or at our homes with snacks and drinks (i.e. coffee). And one of the great joys of graduate student life is (to me!) drinking with those colleagues. …This is the problem with autodidacticism (and online learning, sadly), and why it’ll never replace higher education. But I love your point about “open[ing] his body to these outside substances.”

      Ditto on public tap water! – TL


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