Well, I received the first bona fide death threats in a long time yesterday. I got them because a website called www.AsianAvenue.com excerpted some choice bits from my columns and exhorted the troops to barrage me. It was an interesting exercise. Among the things I’ve discovered is that a shocking number of Chinese-pride radicals and “progressive” Asians happen to know a lot of Holocaust jokes. Who would’ve guessed?
Now, I’m not going to go through another Sino-anti-pyrotechnic rehearsal about my alleged racism toward Asians because of this. Besides, the death threats and “Jews-in-the-ashtray” jokes were obviously from a minority (I mean in the numerical sense, of course). Feelings were running very high and many of the protesters made very interesting arguments. But having spent the last 48 hours trying to assuage the feelings of a lot of overly serious but obviously sincere young people, I’m pretty much exhausted with the whole idea that feelings are the most important thing in the world. In fact, I am quite angry about it.
This occurred to me while I was writing a piece for the next issue of National Review critiquing vegetarianism. I came across the fairly famous statement by the founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Ingrid Newkirk, who declared: “When it comes to feelings, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights.”
Now, in the history of public rhetoric few sentences have more profound inaccuracies packed into so few words. First of all, it’s simply not true. Animals don’t have as many “feelings” as humans. Sure, most animals know from primal pleasure and pain, fear, and — maybe in a handful of species — joy. But even dogs, chimpanzees, dolphins, and bureaucrats at the DMV have a very limited range of feelings.
But here’s the relevant point (I knew you were waiting for it), whoever said that feelings were the wellspring of rights? Of course there are a lot of competing arguments about where rights come from, but the idea that they emanate from our feelings is just plain batty. Whether derived from God or from our intellect, rights have always required responsibilities, and the day gerbils start paying taxes, I will administer the citizenship oath myself.
Brown v. Board of Ed & the Dawn of Pain-Feeling
The phenomenon that feelings trump facts is of course very, very old. But the idea that feelings confer rights is of a more recent vintage. And in America the watershed moment for this thinking was the Supreme Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Now, Brown is a very tendentious subject because, as a matter of law, many conservatives believe the Supreme Court did the right thing for the wrong reasons. But because Brown is considered one of America’s holiest of holies, criticizing it automatically elicits charges of racism from certain quarters.
Jim Crow and segregation should never have been established in the first place, and it took too long to abolish them in the second place. But, the Supreme Court’s rationale for finally abolishing “separate but equal” was awful. I bet if you asked most people, they’d guess that the Supreme Court concluded in Brown that segregation was wrong because our constitution is colorblind and that we are all created equal. Errrrr. Wrong.
Brown v. Board of Education was driven by earnestly liberal and patently awful social science. Studies showing that black kids preferred white dolls over black dolls were given more weight than the text of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Declaration of Independence. The court in effect ruled that segregation was wrong, not because we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, but because segregation hurts black peoples’ feelings. Their rights were derived from the fact that it is mean to discriminate. If they had based their ruling on the idea that the law should be blind to race, we might have been saved much of the affirmative action mess of the last thirty years — but that’s a different story.
Of course, this is precisely the sort of paternalism that comes from activist courts using their own personal biases as the basis for social engineering. Social science has its uses, but it has never been a substitute for moral philosophy.
Not surprisingly, the social science proving the negative “psychic impact” of “separate but equal” was often shoddy and clearly inconclusive. As Alan Wolfe, the acclaimed sociologist, points out, so-called “black self-hatred” was higher among black children attending integrated schools.
Regardless, for reasons too extensive to get into here, the NAACP bought into (in a Faustian sense) liberal sociology’s paternalistic view that segregation needed to be abolished not to fix America, but to fix black people. In his book, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996, Daryl Michael Scott writes that “The plaintiffs had to demonstrate first, that black children had damaged psyches; second, that the damage flowed from the schools rather than from their families or social discrimination at large; and third, that the damage to their psyches adversely affected their ability to learn.” Alan Wolfe — a liberal by the way — observed in his review of the book, “Anyone who knows anything about social science will realize that establishing even one of these propositions — and even then with only reasonable certainty — was beyond the capacity of social science in 1950 (and now).”
The Warren Court used bogus social science, rather than the Fourteenth Amendment, in part because Warren was a knee-jerk liberal and because he needed to get a majority; and the court, to it’s shame, was unwilling to throw out Plessy v. Ferguson on equal-protection grounds.
But another factor was the fact that America, thanks in no small part to liberal academics, had launched itself on a campaign to elevate self-esteem and “feelings” above almost any other consideration.
Feelings Aren’t Magic
This became so incredibly apparent reading the e-mails from these many Asian-American college students. I constantly found myself arguing with people who believe that their feelings — and their feelings alone — define what is or isn’t racist. More than a dozen kids expressed their “horror,” “outrage,” or “disgust” that I had used a dictionary for my definition of racism. Literally, the idea that some dictionary could be used to “define” racism struck these people as totally beyond the realm of mortal ken — as if, and I’m sure this is the case, their professors had never even hinted that a mere dictionary might be right on such an issue.
According to scores of these kids, the only thing that defines anything are the feelings of those offended. In this calculation, the entire world is held hostage to the most easily offended people with the thinnest skin. Thus my assurances that I am in favor of increased Asian immigration and the deployment of American blood and treasure for the equally Chinese people of Taiwan, did nothing to persuade these young men and women that I am not a “xenophobe.” Why? Well, not because they think I am lying — they say — but because they feel so strongly that I am a xenophobe.
These kids come from a world in which they were taught that the weakest link in the great chain of self-esteem defines the opinions of an entire community and the social mores of the entire world. The sensibilities of the “Uncle Tom” Asian Americans, who were not offended or at least not outraged, don’t matter in the slightest.
It’s a weird sort of epistemological Midas touch; one person’s hurt feelings can change the world and the smallest offense is equal to the greatest — because all feelings are equally legitimate. Hence so many of these young people felt that telling me they “wished” Hitler had killed all the Jews — turned them into “lampshades” in the words of one — is equal to my joke about Chinese menus (which played on the stereotype of immigrant Chinese people working very hard.) Hurt feelings are always morally equivalent.
Of course we see this sort of thing everywhere on the cultural Left. Anita Hill, for example, always argued that the real issue had nothing to do with whether or not she was telling the “truth,” but rather that her “personal narrative” wasn’t “privileged,” poor baby. In this view, social policy isn’t measured by whether it’s right or wrong but by whether it’s “mean-spirited” or “compassionate.” Recall how Hillary Clinton expressly ran on her unique qualification of being more “concerned” about the issues that “matter.” The fact that she was not from New York and that her ideas come out of a 1960s Swedish economics text book are irrelevant when compared to the world transforming power of “concern.”
But most of all, what defines this world of feelings is the fact that all of it is clouded by an indecipherable argot of hurt feelings, political agendas, literary imaginings, psychological impairments, and secular treacle. Self-defined — and only self-defined — victims hold the high hand and objective arguments and common sense are dismissed as “mean” or denounced as “blaming the victim.”
Half a century ago, the poet W.H. Auden predicted all of this in a long poem entitled “For the Time Being,” in which King Herod muses about the future to come in the aptly named “New Age.”
“Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions … Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old … Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish … The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.”
I don’t particularly like quoting King Herod, but that’s how I feel, so it must be right.