America Eats Itself
I think it was Eugene Volokh who once wrote that sometimes societies panic over the things they have the fewest reasons to worry about. In Victorian England, there was widespread concern about the loosening of sexual mores at a time of widespread chastity. I’ve long believed that America is suffering from a similar panic about bigotry and racism. Yes, yes, bigotry and racism still exist (See, Bundy, Cliven). But they are arguably at the lowest ebb in American history.
And yet, there’s a sense of almost witch-hunty panic over “white supremacy” in our culture. I think there are lots of reasons for this. One explanation: When you have a black president and then discover that the presidency isn’t nearly as powerful as you thought or hoped it would be (or that the specific black president isn’t that great at the job) the cognitive dissonance pushes you to develop conspiratorial theories about the “real” reason for his failures.
Another reason is that liberalism hasn’t figured out a moral vocabulary that doesn’t depend on the fight against slavery and Jim Crow. I am amazed how, on every campus I go to, no matter what the subject, liberal kids — not to mention their professors and my debate partners — can only internalize and conceptualize arguments about political morality and action in relation to the black civil-rights narrative. That’s a hugely important narrative. But it is not a tesseract
providing an infinite and invincible moral power to every claim under the sun. Take for example, Chris Hayes’s argument
in The Nation
that the fight against fossil fuels is an analogue to the fight to end slavery. To my mind, this is quite simply crazy talk, as Tim Cavanaugh brilliantly explains here
. But I have no doubt Hayes sincerely believes it, which in a way is far more troubling.
Then there’s another explanation: America’s elite culture is in the painful throes of an ongoing autoimmune crisis. I wrote about this theory last year:
The “hygiene hypothesis” is the scientific theory that the rise in asthma and other autoimmune maladies stems from the fact that babies are born into environments that are too clean. Our immune systems need to be properly educated by being exposed early to germs, dirt, whatever. When you consider that for most of human evolutionary history, we were born under shady trees or, if we were lucky, in caves or huts, you can understand how unnatural Lysol-soaked hospitals and microbially baby-proofed homes are. The point is that growing up in a sanitary environment might cause our immune systems to freak out about things that under normal circumstances we’d just shrug off . . .
If you think of bigotry as a germ or some other infectious-disease vector, we live in an amazingly sanitized society. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, of course. And we can all debate how prevalent it is later.
My point is that the institutions — the organs of the body politic — that are the most obsessed with eradicating bigotry (as liberals define it) tend to be the places that have to worry about it the least. The Democratic party is consumed with institutionalized angst about prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry in America. But the odds are that relatively few of these people (particularly those under the age of 50) have been exposed to much real racism or intolerance.
The same goes for the mainstream media. In fact, many major media outlets have explicit policies dedicated to hiring and promoting minorities, women, gays, etc. Like the Democratic party, some have very strict hiring quotas in this regard. The well-paid executives and managers of these institutions come from social backgrounds where the tolerance for anything smacking of overt bigotry is not just zero, but in the negative range; they bend over backwards to celebrate members of the officially recognized coalition of the oppressed. (Of course, this coalition doesn’t include traditional-minded Christians, but that’s a subject for another column.)
The war on microaggressions tells the tale. We live in a society where racial macro aggressions are appreciably rare, particularly at places like Williams. In response, the molehills of alleged micro-aggressions are treated like the macro-aggressive mountains of yore. An alternative response is to fake instances of real old-timey racism, a very common occurrence at schools across the country (including, I’m told, at Williams), so as to heighten “awareness” of a kind of racism that is not actually present at the school. Williams isn’t a hotbed of racism, it’s an organ of the body politic under attack from self-declared white blood cells. Of course, calling them white blood cells is just another white supremacist microaggression . . .