Friday, April 21, 2017

Trouble on the left

Just as it is the duty of every patriotic historian to be harder on his own country than any other--a tradition that began with Thucydides the Athenian--it behooves every politically active person to be critical of his own side.  This is not especially difficult for me today, since the academic left and the ideology it has espoused for at least 30 years is so foreign to my own beliefs, but some may wonder why I am taking the trouble to do it.  One reason is the increasing evidence that that ideology is now firmly established in the nation's newsrooms and plays in important role within the Democratic Party.  Yet it has been politically disastrous and is increasingly at odds with the fundamentals of our civilization as I have always understood them.  If there is not a change on the Left, the Democrats will have great difficulty ever returning to power and will not be able to do much good if they do.

As David Brooks reminded us all this morning, the tradition of western civilization included universal principles of law, justice, and increasingly since the 18th century, of equality.  (To paraphrase Orwell, since I seldom agree with David Brooks, it gives me all the greater pleasure to record my agreement with him on this occasion. It believed that both natural and human science could improve life on earth.  Here in the United States, western civilization, having corrupted itself by importing African slavery, fought a huge civil war in the 19th century to abolish it and established legal equality among the races--even though it took a century to make legal equality a reality.  Women also received political rights in the first half of the twentieth century.  In the middle of the century the world fought a titanic ideological war among liberalism, Communism, and Fascism. The imperial powers retreated from colonialism in the second half of the century.  By then, aspects of western civilization--the rule of law, equal rights for citizens, and attempts to raise the general standard of living--had become a model for virtually the entire world.  The initial post-independence regimes in previously colonial territories were based on some form of western ideology, from liberalism through communism.

The new ideology that now dominates academia was developed by men and women who were children during the great crisis of the 1940s, but spread more widely by my own generation.  It denies the autonomy of ideas and really denies their importance as a motive force in civilization.  Instead, it sees civilization--and ideas--as nothing but a power struggle among different groups, defined by race, by gender, and by sexual preference.  And thus--to get immediately to the heart of the matter--rather than portray western civilization as a triumph of certain ideas that was, to be sure, mostly invented by white men, it portrays western civilization as an instrument used by white men to establish and maintain their domination over other groups--and which, therefore, has to be undone, in fundamental respects, to create real justice.

Let me take another paragraphs to introduce my own perspective.  I became a comparative historian at an early age, not only comparing different countries in the same period of history, but comparing different periods of modern European history.  A comparative perspective, it seem to me, is a good antidote to overly positive or negative views of human nature, since its judgments can be based upon reality.  Now unless one returns to the most primitive hunter-gatherer societies, there seems to be little doubt that western civilization has been less oppressive, on the whole, than any other developed civilization.  That is why movements for racial equality, equality between men and women, and, most recently, gay rights, originated in western civilization, and why such ideas have advanced the most in the most westernized countries.

Now let us go to the new orthodoxy.

The new orthodoxy holds that any attempt to see ourselves as equal citizens in a civic realm is at bottom a fiction designed to preserve the hegemony of white males.  It argues that every one of us is defined by our membership in either a dominant group (straight white males), or an oppressed or "marginalized" one (including all white women, all gays, and all nonwhites.)  Not only that, but everyone of us is morally and emotionally linked to the perceived historical role of those groups. Every straight white male, bears the guilt for the oppression of all other groups, whatever his personal history may be, and every woman and every nonwhite actively suffers from the scars of oppression.  And such oppression is expressed not only, and not merely, through specific, identifiable disadvantages in wealth, income, and opportunity, but through language and culture.

Last week, students a Claremont McKenna University in southern California successfully blocked the audience from hearing a talk by the conservative commentator Heather MacDonald, who is a critic of the Black Lives Matter.  The letter a black students' group wrote to the President of Claremont McKenna moved me to do this post, because it stemmed logically from the ideology whose origins I have just described   The letter replied to a critical statement by the President of Claremont McKenna, arguing that however one felt about Heather MacDonald's views (and I personally disagree very strongly with some of them myself), the Enlightenment value of free speech had to respected.  Here are a few excerpts from that letter.

"Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth--’the Truth’--is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.

"The idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical. If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist. Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live. Why are you, and other persons in positions of power at these institutions, protecting a fascist and her hate speech and not students that are directly affected by her presence?

"Advocating for white supremacy and giving white supremacists platforms wherefrom their toxic and deadly illogic may be disseminated is condoning violence against Black people. Heather Mac Donald does not have the right to an audience at the Athenaeum, a private venue wherefrom she received compensation. Dictating and condemning non-respectable forms of protest while parroting the phrase that “protest has a celebrated” place on campus is contradictory at best and anti-Black at worst."

Now I am not suggesting--as the authors of this letter probably would--that this letter expressed the views of most black students at Claremont McKenna, much less elsewhere.  While few black people (and few white people) regard the United States as perfect, many of us are still proud to be Americans.  What makes this letter important is that it expresses an extreme version of what has become mainstream ideology on campus.  Humanity, according to this ideology, is divided into oppressors and oppressed who are defined by race, gender and sexual orientation.  (Class occasionally gets a reference, but economic status is not treated as equally important to these three.)  The oppressors are constantly inflicting great emotional pain on the oppressed, and this must stop.  "Eurocentric values"--that is, the values of western civilization--have always been, and remain, oppressive and suspect.  And those ideas are either the implicit or explicit premise of many thousands of pages of academic writing about "oppressed" or "marginalized" groups that has appeared over the last few decades.

This post is already too long, and I will confine myself to a few fundamental counterpropositions.

1.  The new ideology has sprouted in universities because they are safe spaces whose white male administrators adopted diversity and inclusion as their mission 20-30 years ago.  That mission has become more important than any purely intellectual function, certainly in the humanities and social sciences.  University administrations spend a great deal of time worrying about their facilities (which will affect their U.S. News ranking), their diversity, and the happiness of their minority students.  They spent almost no time trying to develop the best humanities curriculum, and they have given up preserving the heritage of western civilization as a major goal.  

2.   The new ideology has, as I have said, become very powerful in the mainstream media, which accepts the idea, in practice if not in theory, that the problems of "marginalized" groups are more important than anyone else's.  But it has obviously alienated more than 100 million Americans who do not live on the East and West Coasts (and a non-trivial number of those who do.)  After 30 years of political correctness in the universities, we have a self-identified sexual harasser as President and a very traditional white southerner as Attorney General.  Hillary Rodham Clinton in her campaign took pains to make clear that she took the concerns of marginalized groups more seriously than anyone else's.  Quite a few Democratic consultants and commentators look forward eagerly to the day when whites will constitute a minority of the electorate.  The reaction against all of this has been devastating and it was inevitable.

3.  The constant emphasis on the thoughts and feelings of "maringalized" groups--again, everyone but straight white males--is, among other things, a denial of any common value system that unites us all.  When I appeared on a couple of weeks ago, I was immediately followed by a female historian named Arianne Chernok. As you can here, she peremptorily dismissed everything I had to say about Strauss, Howe, and the crisis that the US is obviously going through on the grounds that "there were no women" in the story I had told. This was, to begin with, false:  Hillary Clinton had not only come up in my conversation with host Chris Lydon, but he had played a clip from her famous 1969 commencement speech.  Professor Chernok was repeating the most common claim of postmodernist historians: that traditional "narratives" of history left out women and nonwhites because they focused on political leaders, who were (in the Atlantic world, anyway) white men.  But whether or not that is true, it remains true that we are ALL political beings who live subject to laws and must inevitably be affected by the great political changes that occur every eighty years. Yes, some will in some ways be affected differently than others, but all of us will be affected in the same way by some of the changes that took place.  We do share a common experience that is very important to us all.

And that leaves me to a last, more tentative point.  The emphasis not only on marginalized groups and identities also denies that there is such a thing as "normal" human behavior.  The concept of "heteronormativity" was originally defined as the idea that heterosexuality was the only proper form of human sexual behavior.  I certainly join in rejecting that idea.  But in many instances, I believe, the concept has gone further, so as to deny that there is any biological or other significance to the heterosexuality of most human beings.  15 or 20 years ago, the American Historical Association cautioned teachers not to assume that their students with either heterosexual or homosexual.  This is connected to the postmodern idea that the heterosexuality of most human beings (a statistical fact) is not biologically determined, but culturally imposed.  Now to repeat, it is vitally important to respect the feelings and rights of those whose sexual orientation is different from that of the majority of their fellow human beings.  But I honestly wonder whether a society can hold together, in the long run, if it does not include some ideas of what constitutes normal behavior, in  a statistical rather than a moral sense, even if we recognize that there will always be people who behave differently and whom we must respect all the same.  One of the biggest functions of crises or fourth turnings as identified by Strauss and Howe is indeed to create or reaffirm a value system, both politically and personally, according to which most of us--never all--will live.  And historically, when societies cannot do this by consensus, some one does it by force.

In my opinion, the constant encouragement of young people in particular to define themselves by race, gender and sexual preference is making it much harder not only to find common ground across these barriers--which I regard as essential to our national survival--but also much harder for them to discover the most important thing about themselves.  Many of us have become obsessed with electing a female President--but no one was ever obsessed with electing a male President, because that was a given.  Because it was a given, the citizenry (male and female) could focus on the difference between the men they might elect, a difference defined by their party affiliation, their views, and what they might accomplish.  The emphasis on race and gender as qualifications for anything implies that there is nothing wrong with our institutions that could not be fixed by redistributing the rewards they offer along gender and racial lines. But there is, in fact, a great deal wrong with all our institutions that cannot be cured that way, but will require leadership that sees things more broadly.  And there is very little evidence indeed that simply increasing diversity at or near the top of powerful institutions actually changes the behavior of those institutions.

Great historians, I like to say, do not argue with history.  What has happened over the last few decades ot left wing thought must have been in some sense inevitable--but that does not make it right.  We need a rebirth of a vital center that can call on everyone.  Events, I think, will eventually force us to move in that direction.  The question is when.


Free-Behind-My-Mask said...

Equality remains a fundamental value of the Left. It is because of that attention is paid to the ways this value is still not being realized. Why do you object to paying attention to the groups who still aren't getting equal rights? Isn't this the only way we can work for equality, which you called a core value? Yes, I agree that there is an objective truth. But white men don't have a patent on that truth.

I think the problem with Democrats is not identify politics. It is a craven cowardice that makes these opportunistic politicians unwilling to take a stand for the very oppressed people they are supposed to represent. That is the poor and disenfranchised whatever race or gender. The Occupy movement nailed it by saying the 99%. The ruling class divides the 99% by giving different privileges to some of us. It is unseemly for the more privileged to seek a bogus "unity" which protects those privileges and keeps the less privileged down.

Bozon said...

I was struck by your connection of the nation's liberal newsrooms with academic administrations, faculties, and curricula, which both have adopted such views.

One can see a similar fragmentation on the right, nevertheless, though less marked perhaps.

Certainly no one would want as a vital center a center composed of marginalized groups from both parties, because it would doubtless not seem particularly vital in any recognizable sense, but that is mostly all that is out there, on both sides, it seems. Hate to put it quite that way.

There are a lot of reasons why things worked out this way. Can't get into all that here really.

We, here, are unfortunately not alone in this disorienting fragmentation.

I try to explain its origins on my site, go into some detail, repeat myself quite a lot, but no explanation, or combination of explanations, is very satisfying. I concluded the problems surfacing go back a rather long time, and have deep roots in the Western tradition.

All the best

ed boyle said...

I believe it is termed cultural maxism. Leading feminists here in Germany are becoming right wingers while others support islam and the right of women to wear full body chador/burkga, etc. The left, in its pursuit of fredom, is suppressing free speech(facebook) and using antifa mobs to attack politically opposing groups. This has come full circle. 'Normal' has become oppressed. In the 50s one told ethnic jokes to relieve emotional pressure betwen immigrant groups(italian, irish, etc.). This became in bad taste, then tabu. Dumb blonde jokes were normal, nowadays male pupils are heavily disadvantaged academically and professionally. Things are coming full circle. Oppressed groups are becoming oppressors. Ideology of logic (greek invention) is being replaced by group identity politics. As Greek society dissolved it became a chaotic fight between interest groups, city states and fell prey to foreign powers. Eventually the same occurred to Roman republic. In effect this is the leading wedge of a civil war which will leave The West open to conquest by whoever wishes. A black female lesbian jewish or muslim disabled president is a sort of joke of the average white guy. Assimilation, not integration is the only long term solution. I saw a film a couple days ago where a main character got married. He was obviously jewish and ceremony was so. Girl was not. 71% of non orthodox jews marry non jews in USA. Blacks also increasingly where they are more in contact with whites(effective segregation in older urban centres of east, midwest prevent contact for example except when they go to colege, facilitating cultural marxist theory.) My wife and I each have two ethnic, religious backgrounds which were traditionally enemies, my kids have four with 3 languages fluency(irish died out). I work now, since the economic crisis, in janitorial, mostly with foreign, muslim, black, asian people and have become much more practical, flexible, open to non european, non christian peoples. Contact, friendship between individuals, not ghettoization, confrontation is the only way forward. However we see in France for example a similarity in living condtions of blacks/muslims to USA ghettoization of blacks. This can only lead, in economic crisis times to lines of extremist opinion and civil war, genocide, ethnic cleansing. USA has divided itself voluntarily ideologically, sorted out. This enables civil war as well. The West will be easy pickings for unified Chinese or Russian nationalist cultures.

Steven said...

Although only a small portion of your overall argument, I did want to let you know that you actually have an incorrect definition for heteronormativity here.

Heteronormativity is not defined as "the assumption that heterosexuality is normal behavior", but "the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm." The terms "norm" and "normal" are not interchangeable here, as "norm" refers to a society's expectation of how a person is supposed to behave - not how a person is most likely to behave.

In other words, a more correct definition of heteronormativity for your article would be "the assumption that heterosexuality is the only correct human behavior."

As such, an argument against heteronormativity is actually, by definition, an argument specifically against intolerance.

David Kaiser said...


I very much appreciate that comment, which has made me think.

I have been checking definitions, and it does seem that the closely related words norm and normative are generally (normally?) thought to carry with them a moral connotation. Normative behavior, in other words, is defined as correct behavior. That is not how have thought of the word.

Thus, it seems also that the inventors of the term heteronormativity were referring to the idea that everyone should be heterosexual which I think I made clear is not what I think at all.

However, although unfortunately I don't have a citation at hand, I am quite sure that I have seen peopled attacked for "heteronormativity" or "heterosexism" simply for making statements that assumed most people were heterosexuals. Since that remains a statistical fact, I don't see why anyone should be criticized on those grounds.

I will revise the original text accordingly.

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

You mentioned Bannon in the radio segment linked within this post. There's something in the tactics often ascribed to Bannon (religious ban, border wall, immigration crackdown, etc.) that suggests he grasps something from generational theory that I've not heard anyone call out before.

In the Revolutionary crisis, we fought our fathers. In the Civil War crisis, we fought our brothers. In the Crisis that ended with WWII, we fought our cousins. These data points suggest that before America will pass through to the First turning--when the rebirth of the vital center you call for will occur--a confrontation is required with an enemy who is greatly related to us. This reading explains why the present war on terror has been insufficient: because the jihadists are almost completely unrelated to us.

Bannon's tactics suggest he believes the appropriate enemy today to be our neighbors. Whether he (or we) read generational theory correctly is unclear, but Bannon does seem to grasp the importance of relatedness in the last three confrontations that ushered in Highs in America.

Jude Hammerle

Carol in Houston said...

I received a graduate degree in history in 1978 so I have not been involved in academia in a long time so I can't comment on what things are currently like there. I am a Democrat and I do value diversity,perhaps because I am a woman and I remember what things were like before the women's movement. There are so many things people take for granted now. For example, during the 1970's college-educated women started rape crisis centers and shelters for battered women. These women changed the way society views violence against women and I think that is a good thing. I have read that business school studies of decision making show that if a group is diverse in race and gender, the decisions tend to be better. So in practical terms, it is good to give a wide range of people a seat at the table when decisions are made.

David Kaiser said...

Thank you for your comment, Carol. I can't see anything that I said that contradicts what you said. If you can, I'd appreciate it if you would point it out.