At the Washington Post today, Richard Cohen takes issue with critics (me among them) of Michelle Obama’s comments at the recent dedication of the New York City’s new Whitney museum. After a few unpleasant words about Rush Limbaugh, Cohen gets to his argument, the whole of which is neatly summarized in the second of these two sentences:
When the first lady of the United States suggests that something’s wrong when black and other minority children feel alienated from an institution like the Whitney Museum of American Art, maybe she has reason for saying so. In fact, she was talking out of experience.
I have referred to Cohen’s “argument,” but I regret to say that that is a misnomer. In fact, Cohen has abdicated the responsibility for making an argument, finding it sufficient to pin his conclusion entirely on the first lady’s testimony: Mrs. Obama has felt it, therefore it is a problem. Q.E.D.
In Cohen’s defense, he is hardly the first to do so. Private experience has undergone an apotheosis of late. The 19th-century British thinker Walter Bagehot called his the Age of Discussion. Ours might well be called the Age of Experience. The authority of personal “experience” is undisputable, and it has assumed authority over our public affairs to an alarming degree.
I certainly do not dispute that the first lady may, indeed, have experienced feelings of alienation or discomfort in a Chicago museum. But we have abandoned the duty of distinguishing between feelings that are “real” and perceptions that are true. Mrs. Obama uses her private feelings as evidence of a certain public reality: Because she feels discriminated against, she is in fact being discriminated against. Cohen, for his part, accepts that unquestioningly.
Our unthinking obeisance to the authority of personal experience has real and alarming consequences — as we see at college campuses everywhere. At Columbia University, sexual-assault accusations against Paul Nungesser were dismissed by the college after thorough investigation on three separate occasions. Media investigations and a lawsuit against the university on Nungesser’s behalf present overwhelming evidence that he did not commit rape.
Our unthinking obeisance to the authority of personal experience has real and alarming consequences — as we see at college campuses everywhere.
And yet his accuser, Emma Sulkowicz — who garnered fame by hauling her mattress around the Manhattan campus to protest against her alleged rapist — has been feted by women’s organizations and celebrated by New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand for her “courage.” Much the same could be said about “Jackie,” the pseudonymous subject of Rolling Stone’s debunked story “A Rape on Campus,” whose claims, at least initially, were not subject to dispute.
In matters of race and sex, inner experience has become the arbiter of outer reality. I feel it, therefore it is.
But societies that do not want to be tossed about by every whim and fancy must maintain at least some skepticism of the degree to which private experiences indicate public realities. Consider Mrs. Obama’s commencement address over the weekend at Tuskegee University. “Too many folks feel frustrated and invisible,” she said, because of “structural challenges.” Those feelings may, indeed, be genuine — and to the extent that they are, that is lamentable. But the first lady takes it for granted that they indicate a grave public problem (for which, note, others are entirely responsible). With regard to this, I cannot improve on the response of Victor Davis Hanson, who observes that black Americans are at the forefront of every field of endeavor in American society — though I might add that it’s not just Hanson making that point, but the (black) comedian Chris Rock.
Private experience is an important governing force in a healthy body politic; the anger occasioned by injustice, for example, can be an important spur toward change. But because we are individuals embedded in communities, private feelings must be balanced by public reason. An individual’s claims — that his anger indicates true injustice — must be thoughtfully and dispassionately evaluated by the community, acting together.
Just as the elevation of public reason over private feeling always threatens to bury the individual, so the elevation of private experience above disputation threatens to impose upon the community the pathologies of an individual, or group — a circumstance that has prevailed often throughout history. Again, a balance is required.
As of late, we are listing a great deal to one side.
— Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.