I belong to a private facebook page that was created to discuss issues relating to generational theory. It has a fairly broad range of opinion, including a few Trump acolytes. The other day we got into a discussion of the nature of p.c. One poster, a bright young man who has just graduated from college, made the following comment to explain the modern leftism to which he has been exposed in college--but clearly without adopting it fully. Keep in mind that the author is only 23, I believe, and probably has only some dim memories of Bill Clinton. I have edited slightly just for readability.
"Many view the progression from slavery -> Jim Crow ->
what people call "New Jim Crow", as an all-around trajectory of
progress. Ta-Nehisi Coates views it as the culmination of an intentionally subtle
and insidious web of formal and informal institutions descendant from
slavery. Same with people who view crony capitalism and income
inequality as more sophisticated incarnations of aristocratic and/or
oligarchic systems from the past, designed to entrap citizens. Same with
a Glenn Greenwald or Oliver Stone, who look at the military industrial
complex + surveillance state + multilateral institutional architecture,
and see an intentionally complex web of systems and institutions that
entrench (what they call) Western imperialism and make it hard to step
"A lot of it is based in Critical
Theory/Marxism, which we discussed a ~month ago. Left
philosophy/ideology is based in a goal of emancipation from old
exploitative systems. Thus leftists (Coates, Stone, Greenwald) have far
more cynical perspectives of America that say we're simply moving into
more inconspicuous--thus unseen and difficult to prove to well-to-do
decision-makers far away from issues of the underclasses-- incarnations
of slavery in the social realm, an oligarchic + crony aristocracy in the
economic realm, and imperialism in the foreign realm. You're right, it
isn't the full story/perspective of history, but it is one side of the
coin that we have to be aware of. It's why people on the left view
incremental change as a non-starter. It's viewed as preserving or
further entrenching descendant systems of: slavery, oligarchy, and
"Imo, the tricky part is that those
views of our social, economic, and foreign paradigms are more true than
false. The part I've grown to criticize, is the inherent cynicism that
accompanies this view of history. Coates says, we still have significant
forms of oppression, inequality, and imperialism entrenched complex
institutions; it's a tragedy that says exploitation is both feasible and
profitable without much consequence. On one end, leftists may be driven
to activism. On the other hand, leftists may say, "America is hopeless"
while only despairing about our society without getting politically
involved because the system is too icky to reformulate from the inside.
for me, we'd recognize how complex and dichotomous America is, being
conscious of our institutional history while not neglecting how we
overcame/evolved beyond certain paradigms and behaviors. To me it's as
simple as, positive and negative exists; it's part of life. In my more
romantic view, challenges create stronger people and societies if we
confront them without fear, but rather with an interest in creating
success stories and improving life."
What struck me is that John had grasped the essential belief of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Oliver Stone, Glenn Greenwald, and many others: that the system is hopelessly rigged and always has been. That is a slight oversimplification in Stone's case, at least, since he has made clear at various times that he thinks American history might have been very different if Henry Wallace had remained Vice President in 1945, or if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated. (For the record, I think things would have been quite different had JFK served out two terms in the short run but that we would probably be in about the same place now anyway.) Coates, whose father was a Black Panther in the 1960s, has emerged as the Generation X's leading spokesman for black rage, in the tradition of James Baldwin (GI), Eldridge Cleaver (Silent), and Nathan MacCall (Boomer.) Fame and fortune have if anything made him more shrill, and at a recent event on Harvard and slavery, he said,
“We talk about enslavement as though it were a bump in the road,” nd I tell people it’s the road, it’s the actual road.” The idea that the United States is fatally flawed by original sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia is extremely popular in academia and has been eagerly embraced by many young protesters on campus.
My own view is close to John's, but I would put it differently. Yes, racism has always existed in the United States and had terrible consequences, beginning with the introduction of slavery and continuing to this day. Yes, corporate power has posed a potential or actual danger to liberty, as recognized by Presidents including Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Yes, women could not vote until 1920 and did not begin to secure equal rights in the workplace until the 1960s. Yet I would always keep two things in mind.
The first and most important is to take a broader historical perspective to place US history in the context of world history. White males in Europe and the US did not invent racism, economic oppression, racism, homophobia, or imperialism. All those phenomena have characterized all the major civilization that we have been aware of since the beginning of time. Few, if any major ethic groups now live on land which they did not take from some one else. Economic inequality has been the norm, not the exception, for most of human history, especially among developed civilizations. To get specific, in the context of western civilization, Ta-Nehisi Coates is wrong: slavery in North and South America was a detour from the road. It had been abolished in western Europe well before the 16th and 17th centuries, when settlers introduced it into the Americas. They did not bring their slaves form Europe, but bought them in the very active slave markets of West Africa, where different tribes continually enslaved one another. The United States fought a successful and very bloody war to abolish it, after most of the Latin American nations and the colonial powers in the Americas had already done so.
What distinguishes western civilization in general and the United States in particular is that they were the first civilization to develop a doctrine of equal rights, and to design institutions based upon it. Of course their original application of the doctrine was limited to free men, but they did not state it in that way--certainly not in the US Constitution--and inevitably, excluded groups were going to demand the rights proclaimed in founding documents. The same drama played out rather rapidly in the European colonies elsewhere, as soon as South Asians, Vietnamese and Africans were educated in the principles of British and French liberty. Unfortunately, very few young people learn much about the true history of civilizations before the modern era nowadays, and are more likely to learn about the hopeless defects of the West. In the last 30 years colleges and universities have usually replaced Western Civ with World History, which often turns into the story of the west's exploitation of the rest of the world.
The history of the United States has in fact been divided into periods tending towards more democracy (1801-1836, 1861-1876, and 1901-1980) and those tending towards oligarchy and corporate power (1787-1800, 1877-1900, 1981 to the present.) An understanding of those different periods would allow young people today to see where the wretched state of the nation is coming from and how it truly could be improved. Instead, young people are being taught a Manichean view of a society based upon oppression, faced with a vision of a world free of all evil which colleges are trying to bring to life on their own campuses. It is not surprising that so many young people (although not my young friend) are completely disillusioned with politics in general and politicians in particular, and even hope for a kind of Democratic Donald Trump--Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, or Mark Zuckerberg--as a presidential candidate.
My young friend, whose opinions I have learned to respect over several years, has not given up hope for the US, although he thinks today's leftist view is "more true than false." I agree that inequality and imperialism have been on the rise again, although I'm not so sure about racial inequality. What he seems to understand, however, is that the pessimistic left wing view simply can't be the basis for an effective political movement. Having seen it first emerge in the late 1960s, take over academia, and now become mainstream within a good deal of the media and the Democratic party, I think that that is true. Liberalism has declined as leftists have lost all faith in it. My friend does have some ideas of pursuing a career in politics and government, and I hope he does--armed with a true sense of the place of the US in world history and the possibilities for change its history offers.