Posts Tagged ‘Social Justice Warriors’

Buzzwords circulating heavily in the public sphere these days include equality, equity, inclusion, representation, diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, and privilege. How they are defined, understood, and implemented are contentious issues that never seem to resolve. Indeed, looking back on decade after decade of activism undertaken to address various social scourges, limited progress has been made, which amounts to tinkering around the edges. The underlying bigotry (opinion, motivation, activity) has never really been eradicated, though it may be diminished somewhat through attrition. Sexism and racism in particular (classics in an expanding universe of -isms) continue to rage despite surface features taking on salutary aspects. Continued activism use the buzzwords above (and others) as bludgeons to win rhetorical battles — frequently attacks on language itself through neologism, redefinition, and reclamation — without really addressing the stains on our souls that perpetuate problematic thinking (as though anyone ever had a lock on RightThink). Violence (application of actual force, not just mean or emphatic words) is the tool of choice deployed by those convinced their agenda is more important than general societal health and wellbeing. Is violence sometimes appropriate in pursuit of social justice? Yes, in some circumstances, probably so. Is this a call for violent protest? No.

Buzzwords stand in for what we may think we want as a society. But there’s built-in tension between competition and cooperation, or alternatively, individual and society (see the start of this multipart blog post) and all the social units that nest between. Each has its own desires (known in politics by the quaint term special interests), which don’t usually combine to form just societies despite mythology to that effect (e.g., the invisible hand). Rather, competition results in winners and losers even when the playing field is fair, which isn’t often. To address what is sometimes understood (or misunderstood, hard to know) as structural inequity, activists advocate privileging disenfranchised groups. Competence and merit are often sacrificed in the process. Various forms of criminal and sociopathic maneuvering also keep a sizeable portion of the population (the disenfranchised) in a perpetual and unnecessary state of desperation. That’s the class struggle.

So here’s my beef: if privilege (earned or unearned) is categorically bad because it’s been concentrated in a narrow class (who then position themselves to retain and/or grow it), why do activists seek to redistribute privilege by bestowing it on the downtrodden? Isn’t that a recipe for destroying ambition? If the game instead becomes about deploying one or more identifiers of oppression to claim privilege rather than working diligently to achieve a legitimate goal, such as acquiring skill or understanding, why bother to try hard? Shortcuts magically appear and inherent laziness is incentivized. Result: the emergent dynamic flattens valuable, nay necessary, competence hierarchies. In it’s communist formulation, social justice is achieved by making everyone equally precarious and miserable. Socialism fares somewhat better. Ideologues throughout history have wrecked societies (and their members) by redistributing or demolishing privilege forcibly while hypocritically retaining privilege for themselves. Ideology never seems to work out as theorized, though the current state of affairs (radical inequality) is arguably no more just.

More to unpack in further installments.

My inquiries into media theory long ago led me to Alan Jacobs and his abandoned, reactivated, then reabandoned blog Text Patterns. Jacobs is a promiscuous thinker and even more promiscuous technologist in that he has adopted and abandoned quite a few computer apps and publishing venues over time, offering explanations each time. Always looking for better tools, perhaps, but this roving public intellectual requires persistent attention lest one lose track of him. His current blog (for now) is The Homebound Symphony (not on my ruthlessly short blogroll), which is updated roughly daily, sometimes with linkfests or simple an image, other times with thoughtful analysis. Since I’m not as available as most academics to spend all day reading and synthesizing what I’ve read to put into a blog post, college class, or book, I am not on any sort of schedule and only publish new blog posts when I’m ready. Discovered in my latest visit to The Homebound Symphony was a plethora of super-interesting subject matter, which I daresay is relevant to the more literate and literary among us. Let me draw out the one that most piqued my interest. (That was the long way of tipping my hat to Jacobs for the link.)

In an old (by Internet standards) yet fascinating book review by Michael Walzer of Siep Stuurman’s The Invention of Humanity: Equality and Cultural Difference in World History (2017), Walzer describes the four inequalities that have persisted throughout human history, adding a fifth identified by Stuurman:

  • geographic inequality
  • racial inequality
  • hierarchical inequality
  • economic inequality
  • temporal inequality

I won’t unpack what each means if they’re not apparent on their face. Read for yourself. Intersections and overlapping are common in taxonomies of this sort, so don’t expect categories to be completely separate and distinct. The question of equality (or its inverse inequality) is a fairly recent development, part of a stew of 18th-century thought in the West that was ultimately distilled to one famous phrase “all men are created equal.” Seems obvious, but the phrase is fraught, and we’ve never really been equal, have we? So is it equal before god? Equal before the law? Equal in all opportunities and outcomes as social justice warriors now insist? On a moment’s inspection, no one can possibly believe we’re all equal despite aspirations that everyone be treated fairly. The very existence of perennial inequalities puts the lie to any notion of equality trucked in with the invention of humanity during the Enlightenment.

To those inequalities I would add a sixth: genetic inequality. Again, overlap with the others is acknowledged, but it might be worth observing that divergent inherited characteristics (other than wealth) appear quite early in life among siblings and peers, before most others manifest. By that, I certainly don’t mean race or sex, though differences clearly exist there as well. Think instead of intelligence, height, beauty, athletic ability, charisma, health and constitution, and even longevity (life span). Each of us has a mixture of characteristics that are plainly different from those of others and which provide either springboards or produce disadvantages. Just as it’s unusual to find someone in possession of all positive characteristics at once — the equivalent of rolling a 12 for each attribute of a new D&D character — few possess all negatives (a series of 1’s), either. Also, there’s probably no good way to rank best to worst, strongest to weakest, or most to least successful. Bean counters from one discipline or another might try, but that runs counter to the mythology “all men are created equal” and thus becomes a taboo to acknowledge, much less scrutinize.

What to do with the knowledge that all men are not in fact created equal and never will be? That some are stronger; more charming; smarter; taller with good teeth (or these days, dentists), hair, vision, and square jaws; luckier in the genetic lottery? Well, chalk it up, buddy. We all lack some things and possess others.

A bunch of unrelated things I have been reading and hearing suddenly and rather unexpectedly came together synthetically. The profusion is too great to provide a handy set of links, and backstage analytics indicate that almost no one follows the links I provide anyway, so this will be free form.

Hyperanalysis

As I have previously blogged, peering (or staring) too intently at a physical object or subject of inquiry tends to result in the object or subject being examined at the wrong resolution. An obtuse way of restating this is that one can’t study the cosmos under a microscope or cell biology through a telescope. The common mistake is to study minutia and fail to perceive the whole, rarely the reverse. Iain McGilchrist suggests that hyperanalysis is a hallmark of an imbalance in brain lateralization, where the left brain (the Emissary) takes primacy over the right brain (the Master). Others building on McGilchrist’s thesis have theorized that human culture and styles of cognition have swung in and out of proper balance periodically throughout history. One theory used portraiture to support how depiction of the human face can be either humanistic or clinical in orientation. What artists perceive then produce divergent aesthetics where the eyes and mouth in particular suggest different ways of encountering the world. Using art to develop theories of psychohistory fits well with one of the preoccupations of this blog, namely, the nature of consciousness.

Intervention

Armed with a precise appreciation of some small aspect of a whole, often abstracted and idealized independently from easily observed fact in actuality, some make the leap that human activity can be acted upon confidently with entirely foreseeable outcomes. Thus, incautious decision-makers intervene to correct, adjust, or game areas within their concern and control. The applicable aphorism that restrains cautious people is “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Perhaps the Dunning-Kruger Effect helps to explain (at least in part) why actors plunge forward despite ample evidence that outcomes don’t adhere reliably to planning. Indeed, the rise and fall of many institutions demonstrate the fallibility of interventions in dynamic systems. Just ask the Federal Reserve. Periodic recourse to warfare is also characterized as a breakdown of peaceful stratagems accompanied by a fog where clarity of purpose is lost. Faced with deteriorating conditions, the demand that something be done, not nothing, also testifies to human frailty and frequent refusal to accept unknown contingency or inevitability.

Micromanagement

When ideology truly misfires, strenuous interventions take the form of tyranny in an attempt to force resistant outcomes into predetermined channels. Too many awful examples of abject failure on that account to mention. Small-scale tyranny might be better recognized as micromanagement. Control freaks adopt that behavior out of any number of motivations, such as distrust of others’ competence, inability to delegate or share responsibility, and hero syndrome. Ironically, the targets of control are often petty and do not contribute meaningfully to enhanced behavior or function. Rather, they focus on a subsidiary metric as a proxy for overall health, wellbeing, and effectiveness.

As people encounter ideologies and learn to systematize, they are especially prone to using incomplete understandings of complex systems and then seizing upon one intervention or another to attempt to solve problems. This is not limited to students in the early years of college who discover a supposed Rosetta stone for fixing ills but rather includes any reform political candidate or newly minted CEO with a mandate to remove corruption, dead weight, or inefficiency. This is also the domain of specialists, experts, and academics who have concentrated their efforts in a narrow subfield and feel confident generalizing that acquired skill and applied knowledge outside the area of focus. Of course, it’s warranted to rely on brain surgeons for brain surgery and car mechanics for automotive repairs. But no one expects them to offer advice on intractable social problems, correct historical wrongs, or develop a centered philosophy of anything. Indeed, institutions and societies are so complex and inherently unsteerable that, despite many futile attempts, no one has ever developed a comprehensive understanding sufficient to engineer programs that lead anywhere remotely in the vicinity of utopia. Yet with an abundance of confidence, agitators and activists — sometime quite young but unafraid to instruct their elders — seek to implement their ideological designs, by force if necessary, to enact desired change. Maybe those changes are considered humble baby steps toward improved social justice and greater equity, tinkering around the edges perhaps, but I doubt most ambitions are so constrained. While that energy is absolutely necessary in a pluralistic society to avoid cynicism and stagnation, it often becomes a victim of its own success when radicals gain power and impose orthodoxies that are ultimately self-defeating and thus short lived. History is full of movements, civil wars, and revolutions that demonstrate the point. Dystopian fiction also forewarns how tyrannies develop out of misguided application of ideology and power.

I probably haven’t described any too well the power law that coalesced in my thinking. Nor do I pretend to have solutions for anything. As I’ve often written, given the myriad problems global civilization now faces, it’s well nigh impossible to know what to wish for with much clarity since deliverance from one set of problems often exacerbates others. World systems theorists try to piece together various dynamics into a coherent unified theory, and I admire the effort to understand how the world really works, but I still subscribe to the precautionary principle when it comes to implementing globe-spanning programs.

In the sense that all news is local and all learning is individual, meaning that it’s only when something is individualized and particularized that it takes on context and meaning, I may finally understand (some doubt still) Sheldon Wolin’s term “inverted totalitarianism,” part of the subtitle of his 2006 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Regrettably, this book is among the (many) dozens that await my attention, so I can’t yet claim to have done the work. (I did catch a long YouTube interview of Wolin conducted by Chris Hedges, but that’s a poor substitute for reading the book.) My process is to percolate on a topic and its ancillary ideas over time until they come together satisfactorily, and my provisional understanding of the issues is closer to “proxy tyranny” than “inverted totalitarianism.”

I daresay most of us conceptualize tyranny and totalitarianism in the bootheel versions that manifested in several 20th-century despotic regimes (and survives in several others in the 21st century, names and locations withheld) where population management is characterized by stomping people down, grinding them into dust, and treating them as an undifferentiated mass. Administrators (e.g., secret police) paid close attention to anyone who might pose a problem for the regimes, and neighbors and family members were incentivized to betray inform on anyone who might be on officialdom’s radar. The 21st-century manifestation is different in that computers do most information gathering — a dragnet thrown over everyone — and we inform on ourselves by oversharing online. Close attention is still paid, but human eyes may never see extensive dossiers (forever records?) kept on each of us until something prompts attention. A further distinction is that in bootheel totalitarianism, intense scrutiny and punishment were ubiquitous, whereas at least in 21st-century America, a sizeable portion of the population can be handily ignored, abandoned, and/or forgotten. They’re powerless, harmless, and inconsequential, not drawing attention. Additionally, there is also no bottom to how low they can sink, as the burgeoning homeless population demonstrates.

If tyranny is normally understood as emanating from the top down, it’s inversion is bottom up. Wolin’s inverted totalitarianism is not a grassroots phenomenon but rather corporate capture of government. While Wolin’s formulation may be true (especially at the time his book was published), government has relinquished none of its power so much as realigned its objectives to fit corporate profit motives, and in doing so, shifted administrative burdens to proxies. Silicon Valley corporations (of the big data type especially) are the principal water carriers, practicing surveillance capitalism and as private entities exercising censorious cancellation of dissenting opinion that no formal government could countenance. Similarly, an entire generation of miseducated social justice warriors scours social media for evidence of noncomforming behavior, usually some offense of the meme of the moment a/k/a “I support the current thing” (though racism is the perennial accusation — an original sin that can never be forgiven or assuaged), waiting to pounce in indignation and destroy lives and livelihoods. Cancel culture is a true bottom-up phenomenon, with self-appointed emissaries doing the work that the government is only too happy to hand off to compliant, brainwashed ideologues.

In the Covid era, nonconforming individuals (e.g., those who refuse the jab(s) or call bullshit on continuously shifting narratives announced by various agencies that lack legal standing to compel anything) are disenfranchised in numerous ways even while the wider culture accepts that the pandemic is indeed endemic and simply gets on with life. Yet every brick-and-mortar establishment has been authorized, deputized, and indeed required to enforce unlawful policies of the moment as proxies for government application of force. Under threat of extended closure, every restaurant, retailer, arts organization, and sports venue demanded the literal or figurative equivalent of “papers please” to enter and assemble. Like the airlines, people are increasingly regarded as dehumanized cargo, treated roughly like the famous luggage ape (and not always without good reason). In most places, restrictions have been lifted; in others they persist. But make no mistake, this instantiation of proxy tyranny — compelling others to do the dirty work so that governments can not so plausibly deny direct responsibility — is the blueprint for future mistreatment. Personally, I’m rather ashamed that fewer Americans stood up for what is right and true (according to me, obviously), echoing this famous admission of moral failure. For my own part, I’ve resisted (and paid the price for that resistance) in several instances.

Ask parents what ambitions they harbor for their child or children and among the most patterned responses is “I just want them to be happy.” I find such an answer thoughtless and disingenuous, and the insertion of the hedge just to make happiness sound like a small ask is a red herring. To begin with, for most kids still in their first decade, happiness and playfulness are relatively effortless and natural so long as a secure, loving environment is provided. Certainly not a default setting, but it’s still quite commonplace. As the dreamy style of childhood cognition is gradually supplanted by supposedly more logical, rational, adult thinking, and as children become acquainted with iniquities of both history and contemporary life, innocence and optimism become impossible to retain. Cue the sullen teenager confronting the yawning chasm between desire and reality. Indeed, few people seem to make the transition into adulthood knowing with much clarity how to be happy in the midst of widespread travail and suffering. Instead, young adults frequently substitute self-destructive, nihilistic hedonism, something learned primarily (says me) from the posturing of movie characters and the celebrities who portray them. (Never understood the trope of criminals hanging at nightclubs, surrounded by drug addicts, nymphos, other unsavory types, and truly awful music, where they can indulge their assholery before everything inevitably goes sideways.)

Many philosophies recommend simplicity, naturalness, and independence as paths to happiness and moral rectitude. Transcendentalism was one such response to social and political complexities that spoil and/or corrupt. Yet two centuries on, the world has only gotten more and more complex, pressing on everyone especially for information processing in volume and sophistication that does not at all come naturally to most and is arguably not part of our evolutionary toolkit. Multiple social issues, if one is to engage them fairly, hinge on legalistic arguments and bewildering wordplay that render them fundamentally intractable. Accordingly, many waive away all nuance and adopt pro forma attitudes. Yet the airwaves, social media, the Internet, and even dinner conversations are suffused by the worst sorts of hypercomplexity and casuistry that confound even those who traffic regularly in such rhetoric. It’s a very long way from “I just want to be happy.”

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From an otherwise, rambling, clumsy blog post, this portion from an extended analysis of Mad Max: Fury Road caught my attention:

Ideas that cannot be challenged, that cannot bear even the slightest scrutiny, are ideas that can’t evolve. It doesn’t matter whether they are right or wrong.

They are static, mechanical and ultimately devoid of life itself.

This is our world today in the hands of the Woke Left, a world where the destructive and vindictive feminine has been elevated to the point of unimpeachable rightness. But this isn’t any kind of healthy feminine. It’s a Furiosa-like feminine, devoid of nurturing, all implied violence, all sexuality suppressed to the point of masculinity.

Look at Furiosa and tell me it isn’t asking another vital question, “In a dying world, is there any room for fertility while clinging like moss for survival?”

In our world feminism has robbed women of their greatest attribute, the ability to gestate and nurture life itself. Hollywood has spent two generations giving us female action heroes who are ultimately nothing more than Doods with Boobs. It’s the ultimate power fantasy of Third Wave feminism.

It’s not as destructive an archetype as the sluts on Sex in the City, mind you, because at least it can be tied in some ways back to motherhood, i.e. Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens, but it’s still damaging to the cause of the healthy feminine nonetheless.

Furiosa is what happens when gender roles are maximally out of balance.

Although disinclined to take the optimistic perspective inhabited by bright-siders, I’m nonetheless unable to live in a state of perpetual fear that would to façile thinkers be more fitting for a pessimist. Yet unrelenting fear is the dominant approach, with every major media outlet constantly stoking a toxic combination of fear and hatred, as though activation and ongoing conditioning of the lizard brain (i.e., the amygdala — or maybe not) in everyone were worthy of the endeavor rather than it being a limited instinctual response, leaping to the fore only when immediate threat presents. I can’t guess the motivations of purveyors of constant fear to discern an endgame, but a few of the dynamics are clear enough to observe.

First thing that comes to mind is that the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s was pacifist and isolationist. Recent memory of the Great War was still keenly felt, and with the difficulties of the 1929 Crash and ensuing Great Depression still very must present, the prospect of engaging in a new, unlimited war (even over there) was not at all attractive to the citizenry. Of course, political leaders always regard (not) entering into war somewhat differently, maybe in terms of opportunity cost. Hard to say. Whether by hook or by crook (I don’t actually know whether advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was suppressed), the U.S. was handily drawn into the war, and a variety of world-historical developments followed that promoted the U.S. (and its sprawling, unacknowledged empire) into the global hegemon, at least after the Soviet Union collapsed and before China rose from a predominantly peasant culture into world economic power. A not-so-subtle hindsight lesson was learned, namely, that against widespread public sentiment and at great cost, the war effort could (not would) provide substantial benefits (if ill-gotten and of questionable desirability).

None of the intervening wars (never declared) or Wars for Dummies (e.g., the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on drugs) provided similar benefits except to government agencies and careerist administrators. Nor did the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks or subsequent undeclared wars and bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere provide benefits. All were massive boondoggles with substantial destruction and loss of life. Yet after 9/11, a body of sweeping legislation was enacted without much public debate or scrutiny — “smuggled in under cover of fear” one might say. The Patriot Act and The National Defense Authorization Act are among the most notable. The conditioned response by the citizenry to perceived but not actual existential fear was consistent: desperate pleading to keep everyone safe from threat (even if it originates in the U.S. government) and tacit approval to roll back civil liberties (even though the citizenry is not itself the threat). The wisdom of the old Benjamin Franklin quote, borne out of a very different era and now rendered more nearly as a bromide, has long been lost on many Americans.

The newest omnipresent threat, literally made-to-order (at least according to some — who can really know when it comes to conspiracy), is the Covid pandemic. Nearly every talking, squawking head in government and the mainstream media (the latter now practically useless except for obvious propaganda functions) is telling everyone who still watches (video and broadcast being the dominant modes) to cower in fear of each other, reduce or refuse human contact and social function, and most of all, take the vaccine-not-really-a-vaccine followed by what is developing into a ongoing series of boosters to maintain fear and anxiety if not indeed provide medical efficacy (no good way to measure and substantiate that, anyway). The drumbeat is loud and unabated, and a large, unthinking (or spineless) portion of the citizenry, cowed and cowering, has basically joined the drum circle, spreading a social consensus that is very, well, un-American. Opinion as to other nations on similar tracks are not ventured here. Running slightly ahead of the pandemic is the mind virus of wokery and its sufferers who demand, among other things, control over others’ thoughts and speech through threats and intimidation, censorship, and social cancellation — usually in the name of safety but without any evidence how driving independent thought underground or into hiding accomplishes anything worthwhile.

Again, motivations and endgame in all this are unclear, though concentration of power to compel seems to be exhilarating. In effect, regular folks are being told, “stand on one leg; good boy; now bark like a dog; very good boy; now get used to it because this shit is never going to end but will surely escalate to intolerability.” It truly surprises me to see police forces around the world harassing, beating, and terrorizing citizens for failing to do as told, however arbitrary or questionable the order or the underlying justification. Waiting for the moment to dawn on rank-and-file officers that their monopoly on use of force is serving and protecting the wrong constituency. (Not holding my breath.) This is the stuff of dystopic novels, except that it’s not limited to fiction and frankly never was. The hotspot(s) shift in terms of time and place, but totalitarian mind and behavioral control never seems to fade or invalidate itself as one might expect. Covid passports to grant full participation in society (signalling compliance, not health) is the early step already adopted by some countries. My repeated warnings over the years of creeping fascism (more coercive style than form of government) appears to be materializing before our very eyes. I’m afraid of what portends, but with what remains of my intact mind, I can’t live in perpetual fear, come what may.

Fantasies and delusions rush into the space
that reason has vacated in fear of its life.

—James Howard Kunstler

Since I first warned that this blog post was forthcoming, conditions of modern American life we might have hoped would be resolved by now remain intransigently with us. Most are scrambling to adjust to the new normal: no work (for tens of millions), no concerts, no sports (except for events staged for the camera to be broadcast later), little or no new cinema (but plenty of streaming TV), no school or church (except for abysmal substitutes via computer), no competent leadership, and no end in sight. The real economy swirls about the drain despite the fake economy (read: the stock market a/k/a the Richistan economy) having first shed value faster than ever before in history then staged a precipitous taxpayer-funded, debt-fueled recovery only to position itself for imminent resumption of its false-started implosion. The pandemic ebbed elsewhere then saw its own resumption, but not in the U.S., which scarcely ebbed at all and now leads the world in clownish mismanagement of the crisis. Throughout it all, we extend and pretend that the misguided modern age isn’t actually coming to a dismal close, based as it is on a consumption-and-growth paradigm that anyone even modestly numerically literate can recognize is, um, (euphemism alert) unsustainable.

Before full-on collapse (already rising over the horizon like those fires sweeping across the American West) hits, however, we’ve got unfinished business: getting our heads (and society) right regarding which of several competing ideologies can or should establish itself as the righteous path forward. That might sound like the proverbial arranging of deck chairs on the RMS Titanic, but in an uncharacteristically charitable moment, let me suggest that righting things before we’re done might be an earnest obligation even if we can’t admit openly just how close looms the end of (human) history. According to market fundamentalists, corporatists, and oligarchs, Socialism and Marxism, or more generally collectivism, must finally have a stake driven through its undead heart. According to radical progressives, Black Lives Matter, and Antifa, fascism and racism, or more generally intolerance, deserve to be finally stamped out, completing the long arc of history stalled after the Civil Rights Era. And according to barely-even-a-majority-anymore whites (or at least the conservative subset), benefits and advantages accrued over generations, or more generally privilege, must be leveraged, solidified, and maintained lest the status quo be irretrievably lost. Other factions no doubt exist. Thus, we are witnessing a battle royale among narratives and ideologies, none of which IMO crystallize the moment adequately.

Of those cited above, the first and third are easy to dismiss as moribund and self-serving. Only the second demonstrates any concern for the wellbeing of others. However, and despite its putative birthplace in the academy, it has twisted itself into pretzel logic and become every bit as intolerant as the scourges it rails against. Since I need a moniker for this loose, uncoordinated network of movements, I’ll refer to them as the Woke Left, which signifies waking up (i.e., being woke) to injustice and inequity. Sustained analysis of the Woke Left is available from James Lindsay through a variety of articles and interviews (do a search). Lindsay demonstrates handily how the Woke Left’s principle claims, often expressed through its specialized rhetoric called Critical Theory, is actually an inversion of everything it pretends to be. This body of thought has legitimate historical and academic lineage, so it’s arguable that only its most current incarnation in the Woke Left deserves scorn.

Two recently published books exemplify the rhetoric of the Woke Left: White Fragility (2018) by Robin DiAngelo and How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram Kendi. Although I’ve read neither book, I’m aware of numerous scathing reviews that point out fundamental problems with the books and their authors’ arguments. Foremost among them is what’s sometimes called a Kafka trap, a Catch-22 because all avenues of argument lead inescapably toward guilt, typically some form of original sin. Convinced they are on the righteous right side of history, Woke Left protesters and agitators have been harassing and physically threatening strangers to demand support for the cause, i.e., compliance. What cause is a good question, considering a coherent program has yet to be articulated. Forcing others to choose either side of a false binary — with us or against us — is madness, but that’s the cultural moment at which we’ve arrived. Everyone must align their ideology with some irrational narrative while being put at risk of cancellation and/or destruction no matter what alignment is ventured.

If things go south badly on the heels of contested election results this fall as many expect — the pump already primed for such conflict — and a second civil war ensues, I rather expect the Woke Left to be the first to fail and the other two, each representing the status quo (though different kinds), to be in an extended battle for control of whatever remains of the union. I can’t align with any of them, since by my lights they’re all different kinds of crazy. Sorta makes ya wonder, taking history as an indicator, if a fourth or fifth faction won’t appear before it’s a wrap. I don’t hold out any hope for any faction steering us competently through this crisis.

I’m aware of at least two authors who describe American character in less than glowing terms: Alexis de Tocqueville and Morris Berman. Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (two vols., 1835 and 1840) is among the most cited, least read (by 21st-century Americans, anyway) books about America. (I admit to not having read it.) Berman’s American trilogy (titles unnamed, all of which I’ve read) is better known by contemporary Americans (those who read, anyway) and is unflinching in its denunciation of, among other things, our prideful stupidity. Undoubtedly, others have taken a crack at describing American character.

American identity, OTOH, if such a thing even exists, is somewhat more elusive for a variety of reasons. For instance, Americans lack the formative centuries or millennia of history Europeans and Asians have at their disposal. Moreover, Americans (except for Native Americans — multiple synonyms and euphemisms available) are immigrants (or their descendants) drawn from all around the globe. Accordingly, we lack a coherent unifying narrative about who we are. The American melting pot may come closest but is insufficient in its generality. National identity may well be fraying in other societies as each loses its distinctiveness over time. Nonetheless, two influential factors to formation of a loose American identity are negative identity (defining oneself as against others, e.g., adolescent rebellion rather fitting for a young nation) and borrowed identity (better known as cultural appropriation). The latter has been among the chief complaints of social justice warriors.

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Apologies for this overlong blog post. I know that this much text tries the patience of most readers and is well in excess of my customary 3–4 paragraphs.

Continuing my book blogging of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Chapter Two (subtitled “History’s Winners and Their Illusions”) focuses on the thought revolution that followed from the Enlightenment in Western Europe and its imitation in non-Western cultures, especially as manifested in the century leading to the French Revolution. Although the American Revolution (more narrowly a tax revolt with insistence on self-rule) preceded the French Revolution by slightly more than a decade, it’s really the French, whose motto liberté, égalité, fraternité came to prominence and defined an influential set of European values, who effectively challenged enthusiastic modernizers around the globe to try to catch up with the ascendant West.

However, almost as soon as this project appeared, i.e., attempting to transform ancien régime monarchies in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Russia into something pseudo-European, critics arose who denounced the abandonment of tradition and centuries-old national identities. Perhaps they can be understood as the first wave of modern conservatism. Here is Mishra’s characterization:

Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking. [p. 48]

Aside: The phrase “rights-bearing individual” has obvious echoes with today’s SJWs and their poorly conceived demand for egalitarianism not just before the law but in social and economic outcomes. Although economic justice (totally out of whack with today’s extreme income and wealth inequality) is a worthy goal that aligns with idealized but not real-world Enlightenment values, SJW activism reinforces retrograde divisions of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. Calls to level out all these questionable markers of identity have resulted in intellectual confusion and invalidation of large “privileged” and/or “unoppressed” groups such as white males of European descent in favor of oppressed minorities (and majorities, e.g., women) of all categories. Never mind that many of those same white males are often every bit as disenfranchised as others whose victimhood is paraded around as some sort virtue granting them authority and preferential treatment.

Modernization has not been evenly distributed around the globe, which accounts for countries even today being designated either First, Second, or Third World. An oft-used euphemism is “developing economy,” which translates to an invitation for wealthy First-World nations (or its corporations) to force their way in to exploit cheap labor and untapped natural resources. Indeed, as Mishra points out, the promise of joining First-World living standards (having diverged centuries ago) is markedly hollow:

… doubters of Western-style progress today include more than just marginal communities and some angry environmental activists. In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies — or, most of the human population — might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment — manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests, and devastating floods — the non-West also has no real prospect of catching up … [pp. 47-48]

That second paragraph is an unexpected acknowledgement that the earliest industrialized nations (France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) unwittingly put us on a path to self-annihilation only to be knowingly repeated and intensified by latecomers to industrialization. All those (cough) ecological disturbances are occurring right now, though the public has been lulled into complacency by temporary abundance, misinformation, under- and misreporting, and international political incompetence. Of course, ecological destruction is no longer merely the West’s trauma but a global catastrophe of the highest magnitude which is certainly in the process of catching up to us.

Late in Chapter Two, Mishra settles on the Crystal Palace exhibition space and utopian symbol, built in 1851 during the era of world’s fairs and mistaken enthusiasm regarding the myth of perpetual progress and perfectibility, as an irresistible embodiment of Western hubris to which some intellectual leaders responded with clear disdain. Although a marvelous technical feat of engineering prowess and demonstration of economic power (not unlike countries that host the Olympics — remember Beijing?), the Crystal Palace was also viewed as an expression of the sheer might of Western thought and its concomitant products. Mishra repeatedly quotes Dostoevsky, who visited the Crystal Palace in 1862 and described his visceral response to the place poignantly and powerfully:

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath. [p. 68]

And later, describing the “world-historical import” of the Crystal Palace:

Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging onto this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is not to accept the material world as your ideal. [pp. 69–70]

The prophetic finality of the Crystal Palace thus presaged twentieth-century achievements and ideas (the so-called American Century) that undoubtedly eclipsed the awesome majesty of the Crystal Palace, e.g., nuclear fission and liberal democracy’s purported victory over Soviet Communism (to name only two). Indeed, Mishra begins the chapter with a review of Americans declarations of the end of history, i.e., having reached final forms of political, social, and economic organization that are now the sole model for all nations to emulate. The whole point of the chapter is that such pronouncements are illusions with strong historical antecedents that might have cautioned us not to leap to unwarranted conclusions or to perpetuate a soul-destroying regime hellbent on extinguishing all alternatives. Of course, as Gore Vidal famously quipped, “Americans never learn; it’s part of our charm.”