Politics & Policy

Involuntary Identity Politics

Nathan Phillips (right) confronts a student from Covington Catholic High School in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2019. (Kaya Taitano/Social Media/via Reuters)
Collective punishment and collective guilt can descend on anyone, anytime.

Some people go out looking for identity politics. Others have it thrust upon them.

The latter is the case with the defamed students — the children — of Covington Catholic, who have, thanks to the phantasmagoric alchemy of the progressive imagination, have been born again as stand-ins for . . . only everything progressives hate: “white privilege,” “patriarchy,” Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, kids who were mean to them in high school, etc. That so much of the progressive-media discourse on the Covington episode consisted of the emotional revisitation of petty (and some unpetty) childhood traumas has given the whole project a Freudian odor, and, like the work of Sigmund Freud himself, it consists largely of intellectual fraud bolstered by manufactured or distorted evidence — claims of fact that are said to speak to a higher metaphysical truth no matter how frequently and how thoroughly they are debunked as claims of fact.

The story that was presented about the Covington students turned out to be a fabrication, but even in the face of what the New York Times antiseptically described as the “fuller picture” that “emerged” (how many sins may be hidden in an intransitive verb!), progressives insisted that the children must be punished for the sins of white men going back to the first uptight specimen of H. pallidus to emerge from the Caucasus in a Brooks Brothers loincloth.

As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru has noted, much of this consisted of an unseemly focus on the character of the children’s faces: Ruth Graham in Slate pouring bile on one boy’s “face of self-satisfaction and certitude, of edginess expressed as cruelty,” Reza Aslan writing about a child’s “punchable face,” etc. Ponnuru writes: “For Anne Helen Peterson, a writer for Buzzfeed, both Sandmann and Kavanaugh have ‘the look of white patriarchy’ — hard to avoid, given that they are white and male — and reminded her of disrespectful kids she used to teach, kids who asked for extensions and plagiarized and snickered in class. She knew hardly anything about Sandmann. She didn’t need to know anything: She had seen his type before.”

If you ever have spent any time around racial bigots of the old-fashioned peckerwood-trash variety, you have seen this dynamic in action: A black man who commits a crime is not a black man who commits a crime, but a type and a representation of his race as a whole; a man of Mexican background who gets into an automobile accident and has no insurance is typical of Hispanic people as a class; a Jewish man who works in a bank is a “Jew banker” and part of a line that goes back through Mayer Rothschild to Judas Iscariot and the moneychangers in the temple. To mentally normal and morally literate adults, this kind of obvious prejudice and hate-mongering is repugnant — until it isn’t. Even when Kavanaugh accusers such as Judy Munro-Leighton confessed fabricating their stories — Munro-Leighton claimed to be one of the “Jane Doe” accusers, which she later admitted was “a ploy” and “a way to grab attention” — the Kavanaugh inquisitors remained unshaken in their faith: Maybe this or that claim of fact turned out to be a lie, but Kavanaugh must be guilty in general if not in particular, because he is one of them.

That this primitive and superstitious notion of collective guilt should inform the confirmation hearings of a Supreme Court justice was unseemly enough — “This is Washington, this is politics,” said CNN’s Jim Sciutto in a remarkably forthright public confession — but to deploy such tactics against children is another kind of thing entirely.

In the Covington fiasco, the very American progressives who boast so tirelessly and tediously that they are “for the People” have reclaimed an ancient prerogative of aristocracy: the whipping boy.

How do they expect the whipping boys to respond?

We know how they think they should respond: with servility. Writing in Slate, Mischa Haider argues that men who wish to be distinguished from rapists and abusers must do more than — focus, now—not be rapists and abusers. She makes the obvious connection to race:

The complicity of all white people in racial oppression stems from the systemic nature of white supremacy, in that it is collective and engineered into social machinery; this counters the long-held misconception that racism operates only at the individual level, in a conscious and intentional manner. This is the same framework we must apply to the gendered hierarchy — it is not enough for men to simply not abuse women just as it is not enough for white people not to be avowedly racist.

Haider’s essay is mostly a nonsensical mishmash of words about words written in a risibly stilted pseudo-academic style, but the fundamental moral illiteracy is there: “the complicity of all white people in racial oppression.” The category of “all white people” is vast, and its members include Anne Frank, Jesus, medieval Europeans who never saw a non-white person and may not even have known that they existed, babies born in Lenox Hill Hospital this morning, etc. The cant and jargon are necessary to disguise the fundamental crudity of the idea: If you are one of Those People, then you are guilty of the sins of Those People, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what sort of life you have lived. You must be forgiven not for your own sins but for those of others, and the price of forgiveness here — as it always is — is joining the cult, prostrating yourself to its idols, adopting its ridiculous language, etc., and, above all, investing the cult with power.

Some people surely will respond that way, though they are bound for disappointment: You are never woke enough.

Others will respond by taking the moral proposition of the progressives and the high priests of “intersectionality” seriously, and come to understand themselves not as individuals or as citizens of a republic but as members of the tribe of white people — particularly white men — and conclude that this tribe has the first and highest claim on their loyalty. The emerging self-conscious white-identity politics that disfigured American public life is the inescapable product of that line of thinking. Given a choice between a moral abstraction — a theory of social justice holding that the presence of white men in public life is a toxin to be diluted — and a more concrete politics of tribal self-interest, the abandonment of the will imagined by Haider et al. is not likely to win out. It is especially unlikely to triumph in an environment that accepts and valorizes the politics of tribalism and collectivism as worthy instruments and blessings available to every group in American society except one. There are crude and cartoonish versions of that — e.g., “Hey, how come there’s no white history month?” — but that tendency to seek a generalization within every particular is a longstanding feature of American public life, not least among progressives: It is the reason we approach the question of the social position of transsexuals in 2019 using the same model we used for the question of the social position of African Americans in the 1960s, even though those situations are radically different from one another. The American political mind can retail only a small number of concepts at the same time, and so the prohibition on “discrimination” comes to be understood in the most general terms. Hence Karen Pence’s association with a Christian school that prohibits homosexuality as “moral misconduct” is, through the clumsy hocus-pocus of overgeneralization, put into the same category of people as Orval Faubus and Bull Connor.

In the case of white resentment politics, this tendency is intensified by the fact that the very people who claim to cherish the diversity of the United States take so little note of its reality. People who have endured poverty, neglect, abuse, and worse do not care for being lectured about their “privilege.” The implicit argument “But think about how much worse things would have been for you if you were black!” is met with the implicit rejoinder, “And how much better they would have been if I were black and wealthy, with college-educated professional parents and a home in Chevy Chase!” One suspects that the people foundering in poverty (people of whatever race) must think it strange and telling that so much political energy and expense is consumed by the question of who gets into Harvard and on what terms, and how that affects the lives of high-achieving African Americans who might otherwise be consigned to Stanford or NYU. You could probably send all of eastern Kentucky to college on what’s been spent litigating the question of affirmative action in elite institutions.

With that in mind, I was troubled by David Brooks’s column on loyalty in the New York Times on Friday. Rediscovering abandoned thinkers and writers is a worthy cause and, writing under the headline “Your Loyalties Are Your Life,” Brooks makes a case for the largely forgotten American philosopher Josiah Royce against his famous friend and colleague, William James. Brooks sets Royce’s politics of solidarity against James’s more conventional liberalism:

James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough. . . . Royce is the philosopher we need today.

Brooks holds out hope that an ethic of loyalty would play out as a politics of tolerance and more, a kind of mutuality in which citizens “loyal to loyalty” not only tolerate the competing loyalties of their fellow citizens but admire them for the love of the virtue of loyalty itself. The thief thinks everyone is a thief, and the liar thinks everyone is dishonest. I think David Brooks must be a very good man to believe that an ethic of loyalty might in reality play itself out in such a catholic way. I do not believe him to be naïve, but like all of us he is captive to his own experience. I know just a little bit about the Main Line world of Brooks’s youth. (I was the editor of the local newspaper, back when it was a newspaper.) The people there are very nice, for the most part, but I do not think that even those nice people are likely to quite live up to what Brooks and Royce expect of them. Brooks is correct that “tolerance is not enough.” But we do not enjoy even a sufficiency of that insufficiency.

James’s tolerance was a cousin to the loyalty that Brooks advocates. He argued that we would treat one another with more charity and indulgence if only we could be made to understand that other people are just as real as we are, and that the particulars of their lives and condition are as real and as legitimate as those of our own. He writes:

A mere bare fraud is just what our Western common sense will never believe the phenomenal world to be. It admits fully that the inner joys and virtues are the essential part of life’s business, but it is sure that some positive part is also played by the adjuncts of the show. If it is idiotic in romanticism to recognize the heroic only when it sees it labelled and dressed-up in books, it is really just as idiotic to see it only in the dirty boots and sweaty shirt of someone in the fields. It is with us really under every disguise. . . . But, instinctively, we make a combination of two things in judging the total significance of a human being. We feel it to be some sort of a product (if such a product only could be calculated) of his inner virtue and his outer place, — neither singly taken, but both conjoined. If the outer differences had no meaning for life, why indeed should all this immense variety of them exist? They must be significant elements of the world as well.

. . . We are suffering to-day in America from what is called the labor-question; and., when you go out into the world, you will each and all of you be caught up in its perplexities. I use the brief term labor-question to cover all sorts of anarchistic discontents and socialistic projects, and the conservative resistances which they provoke. So far as this conflict is unhealthy and regrettable, — and I think it is so only to a limited extent, — the unhealthiness consists solely in the fact that one-half of our fellow countrymen remain entirely blind to the internal significance of the lives of the other half. They miss the joys and sorrows, they fail to feel the moral virtue, and they do not guess the presence of the intellectual ideals. They are at cross-purposes all along the line, regarding each other as they might regard a set of dangerously gesticulating automata, or, if they seek to get at the inner motivation, making the most horrible mistakes. . . . Each, in short, ignores the fact that happiness and unhappiness and significance are a vital mystery; each pins them absolutely on some ridiculous feature of the external situation; and everybody remains outside of everybody else’s sight.

The relevance of the above to our current predicament requires no explanation.

James concludes that if the disputing parties could only see one another “sub specie æternatis, how gentle would grow their disputes! what tolerance and good humor, what willingness to live and let live, would come into the world!”

Tolerance and good humor, willingness to live and let live — that would be a start.

But that of course is impossible with a politics of collective entitlement and collective guilt and a culture that insists that children must be used as whipping boys for slave-traders and conquistadors if — and we’ll have trouble explaining this bit to future generations, who surely and rightly will think us insane — one of them is wearing a hat of a particular color.

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