Politics & Policy

The Politics of Humiliation

Roy Moore speaks to reporters after voting in Gallant, Ala., December 12, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
The desire to punish one's tormentors is a powerful motivation.

African Americans occupy a strange social niche. They are at once profoundly alienated from the mainstream of American society and somewhere near to the heart of it, inasmuch as black culture is one of the great wellsprings of American culture. Though the Main Line WASPs are still out there in the country clubs and on the charity-ball circuit, in American popular culture — music, television, film, sports, fashion, and such highbrow pursuits as literature and drama — black America, currently just 12.6 percent of the population, punches above its weight. But African Americans are profoundly overrepresented in the prison population, in the murder-victim population, and in the poor population, as well.

Until quite recently, I thought it was remarkable that black Americans took such a deeply conspiratorial view of politics and public affairs: Louis Farrakhan and his insane racial just-so stories, the wider anti-Semitic paranoia, the familiar myths about the CIA bringing crack and HIV to black neighborhoods for nefarious purposes. Even among African Americans who do not buy any of those fanciful tales entirely, there is a sense that, however wrong they may be in the details, Farrakhan et al. speak to a deeper and more subtle truth. This can produce some perverse outcomes: Some years ago, the Philadelphia Daily News ran a cover including the police mugshot of every fugitive currently wanted by the local police in a homicide case. The faces were all black and brown, not because the editors had excluded the white fugitives from the cover but because there were none. The outcry was difficult to parse: No one really claimed that the cover was wrong in any particular — those pictured were wanted and those wanted were pictured — but Philadelphia’s black leaders insisted it was wrong on some deeper and more mysterious level. The editor of the newspaper in the end agreed and, in a baffling move, apologized for his newspaper’s entirely accurate portrayal of a situation of great public concern.

What may be at work here is something that is difficult to talk about: humiliation. Beyond the CIA-centered fantasies and Jew-hating Farrakhan nonsense, you hear a lot of claims about the state of black American life that are demonstrably untrue. It is not the case that the Ku Klux Klan or white-power skinheads are staging murderous raids on black neighborhoods. It is not the case that police commonly shoot unarmed black men who are simply minding their own business. Those things are in fact exceedingly rare. But what about the often-repeated, less dramatic accounts of petty (and not so petty) humiliation in everyday black life: being followed around stores by clerks who assume that black customers are likely to be thieves, questionable traffic stops in which black drivers are subjected to invasive and discourteous interrogation, unfriendly loan officers and apartment managers, hostesses who look at black customers like they’ve wandered into the wrong restaurant. Is that all made up, too?

Some of it. The different outcomes experienced by the median white loan applicant and the median black loan applicant much more closely track income and credit rating than race. It is implausible that the radically different criminal-conviction rates of whites and blacks are unrelated to differences in real crime rates. And there are rude people of all races who are rude to people of all races: A few years ago, waiting to meet a friend for lunch at the Harvard Club in New York (I was the guest, not the member), I was very amused when a harried, middle-aged man on a cell phone rushed in and handed me his car keys, having mistaken me for the valet. (I was wearing a bow tie, in fairness.) Happily for him, the car wasn’t worth stealing, and I silently handed the keys back to him.

But of course if all that silly talk of “privilege” means anything at all, it means that reasonably well-off white men having lunch at the Harvard Club or the Union League experience these situations in a fundamentally different way than someone who hails from a community that is, whatever his own individual circumstances, poorer, less powerful, less socially mobile, less likely to propel him to the corner office, and more likely to propel him to prison. Take all that as understood.

I wrote above that I thought the prominence of mass paranoia in African American life was remarkable “until quite recently” because — I doubt this even requires explaining — it has become such a prominent and unwelcome feature of life where I live politically: on the Right, which is overwhelmingly (and more and more self-consciously) white, Christian, relatively affluent, and male-dominated. For many years working as a newspaper editor, I published ordinary stories about workaday crime in and around Philadelphia, and I’d routinely hear from black leaders and black readers that media outlets such as mine “always make our neighborhoods look bad.” Now, I hear cries of “fake news!” from the right every time there’s a story discomfiting to the Trump administration or to Roy Moore or to whichever right-wing populist figure is the cultural totem of the moment. To have coordinated a fictitious case against Roy Moore on sexual-misconduct grounds would have taken a wide-ranging conspiracy involving scores of people unknown to one another — and Roy Moore would have been one of them. What else could his claim not to have dated young girls “without their mothers’ permission” be taken to mean, and what else could be made of his conflicting accounts of his encounters with those girls? (Never mind, for the moment, the many other aspects of Moore’s résumé and his character that render him unfit for office.) But those black leaders who assumed I was trying to make black neighborhoods look bad rarely if ever had any particular complaint with any particular detail of my coverage. In that, I was markedly unlike the powers that be at CNN, who have given the “fake news!” crowd so much fodder.

There is a better way to go about organizing the country than bonk-you-on-the-head tribalism, but it requires a measure of maturity and forbearance that we do not seem to be able to muster just now.

What’s happened and is happening in Alabama is not about policy. “I’d rather vote for Roy Moore, who might be a bad guy, than for a guy I know favors abortion!” goes one line of argument, but that’s unpersuasive. Moore’s absence from the Senate would be unlikely to have any effect on abortion law or on which party controls the chamber. And, given that the election today is only for the remainder of Jeff Sessions’s unfinished Senate term, even losing the seat to a Democrat would almost certainly represent a very short-term setback.

This, too, is at its root about humiliation. Progressives scoff at the notion that economic insecurity drives right-wing populism, and they point to the fact that Trump’s supporters in the Republican primary were relatively high-income, not out-of-work blue-collar factory men. That’s a little narrow: It is entirely possible to have fears about the economic prospects of one’s children, one’s extended family, or one’s community irrespective of one’s own circumstances. (At the risk of belaboring the parallel here, wealthy African Americans are in fact slightly more supportive of welfare programs and economic redistribution than are poor African Americans, even though they themselves are much more likely to pay for such programs than to benefit from them.) Progressives would prefer this be all about racism, which makes it a simple and satisfying black-hats/white-hats contest. The emergence of self-conscious white-interest politics is certainly a part of what is happening, but there is more to all of those millionaires and billionaires and alleged billionaires raging about “elites” and “elitism” than old-fashioned Bull Connor–style racism, or newfangled Richard Spencer–style racism, either. And if you can get past the “white genocide” stuff and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (strange what unites black America and white America), you will hear stories of humiliation rooted in a sense of growing powerlessness: university administrators who assume that young white men are guilty of whatever it is they happen to be accused of, a popular culture that sneers at life outside of the coastal metros and holds in contempt the people who prefer a different and less crowded mode of living, an economy that has less and less use for people who cannot bring the chops of Silicon Valley or Wall Street to an increasingly globalized world, institutions that mock and degrade faith, family, and — especially — fathers. These voters look at the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and see only naked kulturkampf, a plot to humiliate a well-meaning and well-intentioned Christian carried out by culture warriors who could have found a wedding cake anywhere but insisted that this man be brought into conformity — and they are not entirely wrong about that.

It was not policy that brought them to Donald Trump, and it is not policy that brought them to Roy Moore, however much they talk about abortion or the Constitution or anything else. It is the desire to humiliate their tormentors, from the social-justice warriors on campus to the powers that be in politics and the media who either ignore or harass them. Their strategy is to meet the world’s bullies with a bigger and more sadistic bully. They have not come around to Roy Moore in spite of his many disqualifying defects but because of them — democracy means that you can make the other side swallow whatever you want, if you have the numbers. Whether they really have the numbers, and whether those numbers will prove enduring, is a longer-term consideration about which they are not very much inclined to think at the moment. But the new wore off Trumpism pretty quickly, a fact that should concern Republicans and conservatives.

There is a better way to go about organizing the country than bonk-you-on-the-head tribalism, but it requires a measure of maturity and forbearance that we do not seem to be able to muster just now. The founding generation had Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams. We have Trump, Moore, Schumer, Pelosi. If the Almighty had wanted to teach us not to put our trust in princes, He could hardly have done any better. But this is our doing. We have this situation because we choose to have it, because we put our faith in naked political power and therefore choose to elevate the worst and ugliest among us. This is all on us.

READ MORE:

The Comprehensive Case against Roy Moore

Don’t Choose the Lesser of Two Evils

What Happens if Moore Wins?

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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