Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
They Said It:
The new principle, which is higher and which defeated the ancient state, the Platonic state could not withstand; it is of Christian origin. It is the principle of the “infinitely free personality,” of every individual man as such. Christianity made this principle of historic importance by placing every human being equally in a relationship with God. . . Whole continents, Africa, and the Orient, have never shared this idea, nor do they share it now; the Greeks and Romans, Plato and Aristotle, even the Stoics did not share it; on the contrary, they knew only that man becomes truly free through his birth. . .or through strength of character, education, philosophy. This idea came into the world through Christianity, according to which the individual as such is of infinite value as an object and end of the love of God, and is thus intended to have an absolute relationship to God as spirit, having this spirit dwelling within.
Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche, 1964.
LEWIS VS. TRUMP; IDENTITY VS. THE UNIVERSAL ASPIRATION.
During the last five hundred or so years before the birth of Christ, the peoples of the Mediterranean – Greece, Rome, Israel – were the incubators of ideas that were among the most radical in human history. The Hebrew Bible, the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, the writings of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, and other similar metaphysical milestones in the saga of Western Civilization offered a novel perspective of man and his place in the cosmos, one that would, in time, become the philosophical and moral cornerstone of the West. These foundational works eventually found a cohesive, amalgamated expression in Christianity. As Pope Benedict XVI noted in his celebrated homily on the Solemnity of the Epiphany in 2013, Christianity was the world’s first religion for ALL people, the first great cultural force to offer itself to “men and women of every place, of every continent, of all the different cultures, mentalities and lifestyles.”
The late, great James Q. Wilson called this force the “universal aspiration,” and, in his classic tome The Moral Sense, described it like this:
The most remarkable change in the moral history of mankind has been the rise—and occasionally the application—of the view that all people, and not just one’s own kind, are entitled to fair treatment. Americans are so familiar with the passage in the Declaration of Independence asserting that “all men are created equal” that they forget how astonishing and, in a sense, unnatural that claim is. . . .
However common the savagery, bloodletting and mendacity in contemporary life, a growing fraction of mankind lives under the claim that men and women are entitled to equal respect. The spread of that claim is extraordinary; even more extraordinary is the fact that so many people sometimes obey it. We are appalled by occasional stories of torture, but at one time thoughtful people approved of its routine use. We are angry at terrorists who take hostages, but once diplomacy was largely conducted by the mutual seizing of hostages, and hardly anyone save their immediate families thought their fate was of the least interest. People are inclined to treat equals equally, but where once people were thought to be equal only if they were of the same sex, age, class, and religion, today people are often thought to be equal regardless of their rank or station provided only that each has made the same contribution of time and effort to some joint endeavor. People have a natural capacity for sympathy, but where once sympathy extended to those closest to us, today it often extends to people whom we have never met and animals that are not our pets.
You will note here that Wilson does not make the mistake of confusing this universal aspiration with its universal application. In other words, he acknowledges that this ideal stipulation that “all men are created equal” has only “occasionally” been applied. In our own country, of course, we have struggled with this application for the entirety of our history. Indeed, there is considerable irony in the fact that the man who penned the document insisting that all men are created equal was himself a slaveholder, someone who shared at least some culpability in the nation’s “original sin,” i.e. “otherizing” and treating as chattel men and women of African descent.
That said, one can also argue – reasonably and convincingly – that no nation on earth has ever striven so hard and so long to rectify its shortcomings and thereby to fulfill the universal aspiration. In addition to fighting a long and bloody civil war on the matter, the country and its people have worked, over the course of the 150 years since that war, to resolve those issues that were left unchanged; that is, to make its de jure equality de facto as well. The Civil Rights movement proved to be a watershed in American – and Western – history, the point at which the promise of the universal aspiration began to be transformed into reality.
Given this, it is a satisfying coincidence that just this week – a mere eight days after the celebration of the Solemnity of the Epiphany – Americans honored with his own federal holiday the man who led the Civil Rights Movement and who helped create this new reality. In what is undoubtedly his most famous and highest regarded proclamation, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. phrased the universal aspiration in his own, stirring words, describing his vision of American ideal:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope.
When Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968, the United States was well on its way to fulfilling both his dream and the promise of the universal aspiration. King’s leadership had helped to produce the revolutionary Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made the type of discrimination that had haunted the country since its inception illegal. One week after King’s assassination, President Johnson signed another Civil Rights Act (the Civil Rights Act of 1968, a.k.a. “The Fair Housing Act.”). Between Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the two Civil Rights Acts, the nation had built a realistic and remarkable framework, designed to end discrimination against minorities, and especially against Black Americans. In short, it had both a moral and now legal obligation to move toward the realization of Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the universal aspiration.
As you may have heard, over the past week or so, a feud broke out between Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and President–elect Donald Trump. Lewis, we should note, is a Civil Rights “icon” or “legend,” if you prefer. He was one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNNC, an important Civil Rights organization) and had his skull fractured in the famous march on Selma, Alabama. And as you might have guessed, he is no fan of Donald Trump.
Last Sunday, Congressman Lewis declared emphatically that Trump is “not a legitimate” president, that he was elected fraudulently, and in part because of his racism. Next, Lewis announced that he would boycott Trump’s inauguration, an act which the mainstream media called “unprecedented.”
As is his wont, Trump responded, calling Lewis “all talk and no action,” and suggesting that perhaps he would better serve his constituents by worrying more about his crime-ridden district and less about making a production out of the inauguration. Needless to say, to the Democrats and to the mainstream media, all of this is proof that Trump is a racist who will try to turn back the clocks on civil rights . . . or something. Whatever the case, they all insist that the problem is Trump.
There’s one little catch, though. It turns out that this isn’t really about Trump. It’s about John Lewis. You see, Lewis has made a habit of calling Republican presidents “illegitimate.” Indeed, he called the last one – George W. Bush – precisely that. Moreover, his “unprecedented” boycott of Trump’s inauguration isn’t unprecedented at all. He skipped Bush’s as well. As for Trump being uniquely racist in contemporary American history, again, you’d never know it by John Lewis. In 2008, he declared that “Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division,” and that “What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history.” McCain and Palin, it turns out, reminded Lewis of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama-turned independent presidential candidate. Four years later, Lewis told the Democratic National Convention that voting for Mitt Romney would be tantamount to returning the days when “blacks were beaten” in the streets.
Now, for the record, none of what follows should be taken as diminishing Lewis’s actions during the Civil Rights movement. He was unquestionably among the bravest Americans around at the time, and he earned the label “hero.” At the same time, however, he is, in many ways, perfectly emblematic of what has become of the fight for racial equality in this country in the 49 years since Martin Luther King was killed. To put it bluntly, this fight has ended, or, more accurately, it has morphed into a battle for personal, political power. John Lewis, like Jesse Jackson and countless others, is no longer fighting for civil rights and equality, but for partisan advantage and the tangible, material benefits that accrue to those who hold that advantage.
In a write-up about the Trump-Lewis feud, the Associated Press declared, uncritically, that Lewis “has devoted his life to promoting equal rights for African-Americans.” But this claim is questionable at best. Does crying wolf about perfectly milquetoast, Republican moderates like McCain and Romney help African-Americans? Does absurdly suggesting that Republicans will beat and put black people in chains help African Americans? Does sitting in Congress for more than 30 years, growing fat and complacent on the taxpayer’s dime help African Americans?
On the off chance you hadn’t guessed, our answer to all these questions is “no.” We don’t think John Lewis is helping African Americans, not anymore. Nor are most of his contemporaries. Moreover, we don’t think that Lewis, Jackson, the Democratic Party, or even the whole liberal establishment care any longer about “equality,” of the universal aspiration. Instead, they care about status.
Let us explain.
As noted above, the 1960s was a period of great political, social, and cultural turmoil in the United States, much of which was necessary in order to bring the nation’s laws and actual behavior into line with its ideals. Unfortunately, these advances were accompanied by the rise of the New Left, the postmodern rationalization of the failure of Marxism, and the concomitant full-scale desecration and desertion of the nation’s traditional mores, morals, and social norms, all of which led to highly destructive and counterproductive governing ethos.
What had been a collection of movements dedicated to equality under the law and the realization of universality quickly morphed into a set of pressure groups, each trying to obtain political power through the expression of its grievances. These pressure groups did not seek to achieve equivalence and justice but to destroy the existing social structure, which they said was unable to appreciate their unique tribulations.
To put that into English, black Americans sought to emphasize the fact that their experience of America is different from white Americans’ in ways that only they could understand. Feminists emphasized that their perceptions were different from men’s in ways men couldn’t possibly grasp. Likewise gay men and women, and so on. Instead of focusing on the uniformity of people as “Americans,” the Left emphasized the differences between people in America and the political solutions that would be necessary to mitigate past wrongs that created and perpetuated those differences. In short, the American Left abandoned the quest to end economic equality and adopted a new political philosophy aimed at securing acknowledgement of and reparation for cultural inequality. Identity uber alles. The existentialist and feminist philosopher Sonia Kruks described the phenomenon of identity politics this way:
What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.
Identity politics – like most of the Left’s political endeavors over the last 50 years – is based on the premise that there exists no hard, objective reality. Each identity group has its own reality, its own weltanschauung, derived from its own subjective experiences.
Despite this anti-realism, the first substantive manifestations of identity politics seemed both valid and reasonable. Affirmative Action, for example, made a certain amount of sense. Because of historical discrimination, certain minority groups – blacks especially – were disadvantaged in ways that couldn’t be rectified simply by changing the law. Blacks could never participate fully in the American dream unless and until their unique experience in America was understood and palliated. They could not succeed as a group – academically, professionally, etc. – if their unique conditions were not accounted for and corrected.
Over time, however, the focus of identity politics shifted and expanded. No longer was it adequate to focus on the deficiencies in societal participation created by historically different experiences. The purported cause of those differences, the source of the divergent historical experiences had to be identified and rebuked for its uniquely oppressive role in human history. And so for much of the last quarter century, the identity politics movement has aggressively demonized and derided such characteristics as “toxic masculinity” and “toxic whiteness.” Over the course of five decades, then, the white man went from being a force for liberal change and for the realization of the universal aspiration to the source of all iniquity and oppression.
Consider, for example, the following, which is part of Carlos Lozada’s Washington Post review of Michael Eric Dyson’s new book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. Dyson, who is black, is a well-known and well-respected professor of sociology at Georgetown University. And as Rod Dreher points out in an essay for The American Conservative, Dyson is also an important player in the “formal and informal cultural-liberal power structure.” Lozada writes:
There is little comradeship in these pages, and if there is love, it is of the toughest kind imaginable. Dyson makes clear that he regards much of white America as a pernicious force. “We can do nothing to make our tormentors stop their evil,” Dyson laments to the Almighty. “How can we possibly combat the blindness of white men and women who are so deeply invested in their own privilege that they cannot afford to see how much we suffer?”
He likens law enforcement officers to terrorists (“We think of the police who kill us for no good reason as ISIS”) and slave drivers (“The police car is a mobile plantation”). He admits that he’d like to pay violence back in kind. “Lord, Dear Lord, I don’t want to feel this way, but I swear to you I want to kill dead any Godforsaken soul who thinks that killing black people is an acceptable price to pay for keeping this nation safe. But then, am I any better than that soul?” . . .
Dyson recounts what he calls the stages of white grief, pulled out whenever white Americans fear their dominance is threatened. They plead ignorance of black life and suffering; appropriate black culture; or simply deny, rewrite or dilute America’s racial history. So please don’t show up with tales about the economic insecurity of the white working class; for Dyson, the 2016 election was entirely about the revenge of whiteness, “how it is at once capable of exulting in privilege while proclaiming it is the least privileged of identities . . . and how it howls in primal pain at being forgotten while it rushes to spitefully forget and erase all suffering that isn’t its own.” The presidential election was also a reaction to fear, Dyson writes. Donald Trump, “more than anything else, signifies the undying force of the fear unleashed by Obama’s presidency.”
At times, though, there seems to be a built-in irrefutability to Dyson’s case. Any effort by white people to disassociate themselves from charges of privilege, to bypass or mitigate guilt, is dismissed as just another case of “innocent whiteness” — of reckless, blind denial. “You are emotionally immature about race. . . . You have no idea that your whiteness and your American identity have become fatally intertwined,” Dyson accuses. “Your resistance to feelings of guilt is absurdly intense.”
Any argument against Dyson is then, by definition, confirmation of his point.
Here’s where things get sticky. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with Dyson or think he’s a fraud and a lunatic. It doesn’t matter whether you’re part of the cultural-liberal power structure or a member in good standing of the Trump coalition. It doesn’t matter whether you buy into identity politics or think it’s yet another in a long line of Marxist, postmodern rationalizations for the failure of the socialist utopia. In all cases, the conclusion is inescapable: identity politics – the principal political ethos in American liberalism today – is patently dedicated the recognition and actualization of differences in status among various identity groups. It is, in its essence and at its core, antagonistic to that which James Q. Wilson called the “universal aspiration.” It is hostile to the message of the Epiphany. It is inimical to the message of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is, in short, consciously and viciously opposed to the very foundational tenet of Western Civilization.
Now, on the one hand, this is troubling to say the least. The amount of damage that the identitarians have done over the last few decades is substantial. This is especially the case in higher education, where whiteness and masculinity are, more or less, treated as disorders requiring modification or exorcism. For decades, students and faculty alike have purged college curricula of the most important and most valuable texts in Western Civilization because their authors were too white or too male or too heteronormative or . . . whatever. The risks here are obvious. Not only are we mis-educating generations of students, we are also jeopardizing our civilizational knowledge, our understanding of the forces and ideas that shaped our world.
On the other hand, it does appear that there is an opportunity here for the right person or group of people to exploit. When Donald Trump declares that John Lewis is “all talk and no action” he has a point. As a young man, Lewis was dedicated to justice and to the realization of equal rights among all men and women. As a Congressman, Lewis has been dedicated to the cultural-liberal power structure, to the acknowledgement and celebration of differences between various identity groups. The largely undeniable effect of this is that his constituents have indeed suffered for his ideological preoccupation. They remain poor. They remain part of the economic underclass. They remain beset by crime and other social ills. And they remain beholden to a party that doesn’t really care about these concerns. Identity politics, recall, is a moral endeavor, not an economic undertaking. It is concerned not with tangible progress but with righteous indignation.
Donald Trump won the presidency promising to bring economic benefits – i.e. tangible progress – to the white working class, which has been left behind in the global economy. But here’s the thing: economic growth and progress need not be limited by its beneficiaries’ identity. If it’s true that “a rising tide lifts all boats” then black boats, Hispanic boats, Asian boats, indeed ALL boats will be lifted alongside those of the white working class.
In our post-election piece this past fall, we argued that one of the surprises of a Trump administration could well be its outreach to black communities. The myopia of the liberal power structure and its obsession with cultural rather than economic “progress” is a big reason why we believe this to be the case. Most of the average, everyday people who live in these communities are indifferent to the elites’ cultural preening. They could not care less whether John Lewis makes a stand against an “illegitimate” president, much less how he spends his time on January 20th. What they want is the same thing that everyone wants, namely a better life for themselves and for their families. Trump has the opportunity to provide this and thereby to demonstrate the hollowness of the moral outrage of identity politics.
It is easy to dismiss Donald Trump’s “American greatness” rhetoric as hokey and jingoistic. And maybe it is. But maybe . . . just maybe . . . it’s not. Maybe Trump understands that the United States is still represents world’s best chance to achieve the universal aspiration, to provide economic security, in addition to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to the greatest number of people. Maybe he understands the message of the Epiphany. Maybe he understands that “men and women of every place, of every continent, of all the different cultures, mentalities and lifestyles” share a common humanity and a common desire.