I have a friend who is racist. He wouldn’t use that word to describe himself, and it’s probably unfair of me to use it. But given what he’s done and what he’s said, I think most of the rest of the world (our part of the world, anyway) would say that he’s racist. So I’m not going to waste time arguing about the definition of the word, or explaining that my friend doesn’t actually hate people of other races. The fact is that my friend did something that most decent people with any awareness of our country’s history would find abhorrent: He donated money to the campaign of David Duke, one-time head of the Louisiana-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t fully understand what the KKK is or was: The Ku Klux Klan was founded in the 1860s, and used violence to pursue the agenda of white supremacy. This included the extra-judicial hunting down, torture, and murder of thousands of black Americans between the 1870s and 1950s. We refer to these acts as “lynchings”, but that word does little to convey the full horror of what was done. Nor does it fully convey the motivations behind the atrocities.
Lynching has come to be associated with vigilante justice, as if it was simply one method used by angry mobs to punish those who they (rightly or wrongly) believed to have committed violent crimes. But that’s not what lynching was all about. Yes, some lynching parties went after blacks and others who they believed to be criminals. But just as often, they sought retribution against blacks who were deemed too “uppity”, who competed too successfully with white business owners. This was not about protecting white people from black criminals, but protecting them from social and economic competition. It was about – violently – keeping blacks “in their place.” And the accounts of how that was done are stomach churning.
So I completely understand why anyone would be shocked and offended to find that the owner of their favorite Chinese restaurant was in any way associated with this organization.
I wasn’t especially shocked, when I found out that my friend had been “outed” for having donated $500 to David Duke’s campaign. Roger and I have been friends for more than thirty years, but in recent years we have drifted apart as he became attracted to white racial-identity politics. I made a real effort to understand where he was coming from, and I know him well enough to know that he doesn’t just take on a new point of view or philosophy without doing some serious study of that view. In the end though, I see identity-based politics as being antithetical to civil society and peaceful coexistence, and none of the writing or thoughts he shared with me made me think otherwise.
So when I saw that there was a campaign to boycott his restaurant, the O’Mei, in Santa Cruz, because of his donation, and that the O’Mei’s Yelp page and social media sites were full of comments referring to my friend as a “racist”, “white supremacist”, “nazi”, and a few other choice epithets, I wasn’t entirely surprised. But when I learned, a few days later, that the O’Mei had closed, the news hit me like a stab in the heart.
Roger and I met in the mid-80s, at UC Santa Cruz. He was helping to start an alternative student newspaper (an alternative to the monolithically left-wing official student paper) and I became the editor of that paper. We disagreed about pretty much everything from the beginning. He was a conservative, with an appreciation for free markets, and I was an anarcho-libertarian. We both had an interest in China: He had lived in Taiwan many years ago, and had created what I was later to learn was one of the best Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area; and I was getting ready to head off for my junior year abroad in Hong Kong.
We spent a lot of time together over the years, both in Santa Cruz and in the various parts of Asia where I was living for most of the late 80s through 2000. I have fond memories of staying up all night to get the newspaper out only to find stacks of it dumped in trash bins on the UCSC campus; of heated arguments over the value (or lack thereof) of indifference curves; of listening to him discuss the finer points of recipes with cooks in China; of deep conversations about cultural differences over cans of Asahi on the streets of Tokyo. And of many, many, meals at the O’Mei.
When I said that the O’Mei was one of the best Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area, I was being modest on Roger’s behalf. I spent about a decade in Asia, living in three different countries and traveling quite a bit in China. I’ve eaten a lot of really really good Chinese food. But I’ve never encountered anything quite like the O’Mei.
It was unique. There is something that Roger did, not “Westernizing” traditional dishes, as many Chinese restaurants do, but something else. Re-creating them almost: Pine-nut shrimp with crunchy spinach, pork (or tofu) roasted with dates and yams, a crispy Taiwanese snapper that was nothing less than heavenly. He would take an already delicious dish and push it up a level, turning it into something even more beautiful and memorable. I guess that’s called “cultural appropriation” now. I call it genius.
Roger and I argued all the time. About everything. In hindsight, it seems odd that we were such good friends, when we had so little to agree about. But I think it had to do with the fact that we both cared about the big questions, and we had enough respect for each other, and for the pursuit of the truth, that we could be brutally honest with each other.
When the story emerged that Roger had made a donation to Duke’s campaign, and there were calls to boycott his restaurant, people who knew me asked for my thoughts. I tried to find a way to express them. But I couldn’t.
How could I say anything in my friend’s defense and not simply be dismissed as a “racist” myself? How could I condense a 30-year friendship into a comment on a FaceBook post? And how could I even begin to explain the revulsion I feel – absolute revulsion – at those who have decided that the only crime for which there can be no forgiveness is the holding of racist beliefs, but who tolerate and even admire those who perpetrate institutionalized violence and authoritarianism?
I’m not going to defend Roger’s views, but I’m also not going to pretend that they can be dismissed as simple “racism” or “white supremacy.” In his own words, commenting on the campaign against his restaurant:
“We are just a token in a much larger process of terrorizing White European Americans into silence in what has come to be known as the ‘war on Whites.’ My campaign contribution was to one of the men supporting European American Civil Rights. As a European American, it would be insane for me to not support said rights.”
Again, I don’t support his position, but after decades of being told that all the problems in the world are the fault of white males and that there is “no such thing” as racism against white people, I can understand his desire to defend what he sees as the interests of his group.
Nor am I going to equate my friend’s support for David Duke with the actions of the KKK a hundred years ago. In fact, Duke has said that he left the KKKK because he “…disliked its associations with violence and could not stop the members of other Klan chapters from doing ‘stupid or violent things’”. And in any case, the KKK today is hardly a force to be reckoned with. At its height, the Klan’s membership numbered in the millions. Today, it is estimated to be between 5,000 and 8,000, and is held in contempt by most of society. The KKK is a symbol of great evils committed in the past, but hardly one of the most serious threats to life and liberty today. Even its extrajudicial killings of black Americans has been appropriated by state and local police forces – yet I don’t see widespread calls to boycott those.
I can’t help thinking that the people who shut down my friend’s restaurant are more concerned with symbolic gestures against evil than they are with combatting actual evil in the world.
Do I find my friend’s views on race to be repugnant and indefensible? Sure I do. But I find the views of most of the people around me to be repugnant and indefensible. If I were to “disavow” my friend who donated money to a man who was once a leader in the KKK, then I would have to disavow pretty much everyone I know.
One friend, for example, worked on the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama. You remember, the guy who went on to oversee the murder of thousands of civilians – more than six times as many as his predecessor; who could have ended the federal war on drugs but did not; who continued to imprison and torture people charged with no crimes in Guantanamo after promising to close it; who allowed unprecedented spying on the American people; and who gave himself the power to put any human being on earth on a “kill list”, as well as to wage war without Congressional approval. My friend knows how I feel about his support for this man, but I haven’t “disavowed” him. And oddly, no-one has pressured me to.
I have friends who support the military; I have friends who have no problem with the police state, or with throwing people into prison cells for years of their lives when they have harmed no-one; I have friends who eagerly support the idea of re-distributing other people’s wealth at gunpoint; I have friends who openly support the ideology of communism, seemingly unconcerned about the hundreds of millions of corpses it has produced; I have friends who supported the warmongering and authoritarian Hillary Clinton; And I frequently eat at restaurants that display photos of murderous heads of state on their walls. I find those photos to be offensive.
Here’s what offends me: Violence offends me. War offends me. Slavery offends me. Imprisoning innocent people offends me. I know, I’m weird that way. I am told that the only things that should offend me are racism and sexism and “micro-aggressions.” But I am more bothered by the macro-aggressions.
I wrote about this a few years ago, when Helen Thomas was forced out of her 67-year career in journalism over “offensive” remarks about Israelis:
“…there is nothing out of the ordinary about politicians calling for mass murder, torture, preemptive war and other acts of barbarism, while their careers remain intact. Meanwhile, a comment that can be construed as racist, or offensive to certain groups, can ruin a mere plebeian. We have elevated name-calling to a higher offense than advocating (state-sanctioned) mass murder and wars of aggression.”
If I boycotted my friend’s restaurant, then I would be a hypocrite if I did not boycott a whole lot of other restaurants. I’d certainly have to stop going to the empanada shop down the street from me that proudly displays a photo of then President Obama stopping in. If I boycotted every business owner, or denounced every friend or relative, who holds views I find repugnant, I’d be living a pretty isolated life.
This crusade that has been launched against my friend and his business is not about “standing up to evil” or “speaking out for what’s right”. If that’s what these people were up to, they’d be calling for a boycott of of the military-industrial complex, of the TSA, the drug warriors, and a host of other genuine criminal enterprises. But they aren’t interested in confronting the real evil-doers in our society. They’re interested in easy targets. They are interested in looking good, and in getting to feel good about themselves without having to do the uncomfortable work of confronting the evil they may actually support and enable in their own lives.
So now a phenomenal restaurant no longer exists. Getting it closed hasn’t changed anyone’s views – certainly not those of my friend, who I’m sure now feels more persecuted than ever, and more justified in his belief that there is a campaign to stamp out those who speak on behalf of white males. But a lot of self-styled justice warriors get to feel like they’ve accomplished something.
I am sad that my friend has gone down the path of identity-based politics. Not only because I abhor the collectivist, racial-identity-based view he has adopted, but because it seems to me such a waste of what he has to offer the world. It is no exaggeration to say that Roger is a genius at working with Chinese cuisine, and he has the focus and discipline to create pretty much whatever he wants to in the world. For as long as I’ve known him, Roger has always been immensely creative, always coming up with new ideas for his restaurant, or for the many other projects he has taken on, whether writing a bike-tour guide to Japan or learning to play the accordion. He is a very thoughtful person and very well-read. He knows more about Marxism and left-wing ideology than do most of the people who advocate it, and knows more about getting to know other cultures than do most people who consider themselves to be tolerant and open minded.
But none of that matters now. Roger has been tarred with the brush of “racism” and so nothing he says or thinks matters anymore. He has been effectively shut out of public discourse, by people who – I am absolutely certain – have no idea what he really thinks or believes about race or anything else.
And this is what is most insidious about this kind of political correctness. It has become little more than a bludgeon for shutting people up, and shutting them out. I guess I wouldn’t mind so much if it was shutting up the right people, but it’s not. Madeline Albright hasn’t been shut up. As of 2010 she was bringing in between $60,000 - $75,000 for speaking engagements, even after her offensive statement that the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq were “worth” the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. Yet I don’t see calls to boycott her speaking engagements, or to shut her out of public discourse.
There is a reason for this. As I wrote about Helen Thomas in 2010:
“There need to be some forms of behavior at which we can all shake our fists and declare ‘shame!’ Everyone wants to feel righteous, to feel that they stand on the side of the good and against evil, and when someone like Helen Thomas makes a remark that offends an entire group of people – particularly a group of people who have been persecuted in unthinkable ways – she provides an outlet for that need. Those in government pile on too, not so much to deflect attention from their own acts of actual violence, but to reinforce the idea that while state violence is legitimate, name-calling and insult are not.”
When the people who want me to disavow my friend start to turn their attention to the serious evildoers in our world, then I may begin to take them seriously. In the meantime, for those who have asked me for my thoughts on the controversy, here they are:
Roger Grigsby is one of the best people I’ve ever known. He’s one of the hardest working, most creative, and most genuine people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. I am proud to call him a friend, and I’ll be damned if I help to sacrifice him on the altar of feel-good politics.