Magazine | March 25, 2019, Issue

The Social-Justice Movement’s Unjust Crusade

Social-justice activists at a minimum-wage rally in San Diego, Calif., November 29, 2016 (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, by Noah Rothman (Regnery Gateway, 256 pp., $28.99)

Love keeps no record of wrongs, the apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth, and indeed it needn’t. Noah Rothman has done the job expertly.

Rothman, an associate editor of Commentary and a frequent guest on the cable-news shows, has assembled in this, his first book, the most complete record of the social-justice movement’s offenses against reason (and justice) that readers are likely to find. Subscribers to this magazine will recognize much of the rotten fruit that Rothman gathers but will be stunned anew by the sheer weight of the harvest. Conservatives approaching the book with only a vague sense of the problem may well leave it in a state of panic.

Because the fact is that public life in this nation is now almost completely dominated by “the antisocial dogmas that underlie ideological social justice,” to borrow Rothman’s penetrating language. Social justice “influences how businesses structure themselves. It is altering how employers and employees relate to one another. It has utterly transformed academia. [And] it is remaking our politics with alarming swiftness.”

In support of these contentions, Rothman assembles a parade of illustrations that are by turns horrifying and darkly comic. Among them are the sagas of James Damore, the Google employee who was fired after composing an internal memo suggesting that the industry’s “gender gap” might be explained by the differing interests of men and women; Erika and Nicholas Christakis, professors at Yale who were driven from their positions after objecting to the university’s politically correct guidelines for students’ Halloween costumes; and Maggie Stiefvater, whose young-adult novel All the Crooked Saints was condemned as racist while the manuscript was still in progress. Cited, too, are such absurdities as a Reuters report praising a Brooklyn mother’s affirmation of her three-year-old’s transgender identity and the New York City Commission on Human Rights’ warning that employers can be fined for failing to use their employees’ preferred pronouns. Columbia University’s decision to reserve certain campus areas for the exclusive use of LGBT and minority students is examined in these pages, as are the University of Missouri’s 2015 racial kerfuffles and the false rape allegations against the Duke lacrosse team and the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. I could go on. Rothman does.

The great accomplishment of Unjust is that it succeeds in synthesizing these anecdotes (and many others) into a coherent narrative. Though seemingly disparate, such illustrations in sum reveal the extent to which a movement that might have set its sights on the amelioration of legitimate societal ills has instead been transformed into a vehicle for the Left’s worst ideas: “an affinity for racial hierarchies and race-based preferences, antipathy to due process and the presumption of innocence, [and the] reduction of individuals to nondescript representatives of their taxonomic class.” Whatever it could have been, Rothman asserts, social justice is now “a creed born of grievances” — a crusade “fueled by anxiety, a preoccupation with oneself, and the need for a constant stream of new enemies.”

In Rothman’s telling, the assumptions that guide contemporary social-justice activism are dangerous in part because they cross partisan lines. While a less sophisticated conservative polemic might have trained its fire on the Left alone, Rothman is careful to demonstrate that a similar intellectual cancer has taken root on the alt-right, whose white-nationalist program can best be understood as an attempt to achieve social justice for a shrinking Caucasian majority. Thus, Rothman writes, just as “the social justice left is generally hostile toward any distribution of social goods that does not disadvantage that majority,” so “the alt-right is wholly suspicious of any distribution” that fails to privilege America’s white citizens. The consequence of these resentments is, inevitably, a cycle of mutual loathing in which the participants are increasingly indistinguishable. In one of Unjust’s most cogent passages, Rothman peruses a number of Antifa websites and tracts only to find that the bile contained therein bears a striking resemblance to corresponding ravings on the other extreme of the political spectrum. “Replace the objects of [Antifa’s] hatred (homophobes, frat boys, bank tellers, etc.) with the objects of white nationalist hatred (miscegenation, minorities, ‘social justice warriors,’ etc.), and these ugly sentiments are almost ideologically interchangeable.”

Among the additional drawbacks of the grievance-mongering practiced at both political poles is its tendency to inculcate a view of the world (if they gain, we lose) that is both morally and economically illiterate. For the Left, specifically, a further flaw is the rank ahistoricism of the idea that America is uniquely deserving of progressive rage — a notion that Unjust skillfully dismembers. Few would deny — and Rothman readily concedes — that the United States has at times failed to meet the obligations set forth in its founding documents. But all must acknowledge that this nation has taken incredible strides in the direction of equality and racial reconciliation — strides, Rothman argues, “that are unrivaled by any other culturally heterogeneous nation in any similar span of human history.” A failure to recognize that work is a sign not only of ingratitude but of intellectual laziness.

Indeed, intellectual laziness is perhaps the most compelling explanation that Rothman offers for the enduring popularity of social-justice activism on the left. Any idiot (my term) can follow Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter or unearth a micro-aggression or two. Few Americans — few humans — have the time and inclination to participate in meaningful policy debates or to practice sustaining an argument. “It takes work to know what you’re talking about,” Rothman points out. Social-justice activism is attractive precisely because it provides “a convenient method by which the ill-equipped can engage in politics and be taken seriously.”

Like any work of similar scope and ambition, Unjust has its share of imperfections. Though Rothman’s argument is consistently persuasive, the book’s organization feels unintuitive at times, and a stronger ligature of connective tissue would have occasionally been welcome. So, too, is it the case that Unjust’s forays into the historical roots of social justice are underdeveloped and could conceivably have been saved for another project. (To be fair, it may be impossible to pull off at any length a survey whose points include both early-American attitudes toward Iberian Catholicism and ethnic tensions in Soviet-controlled Europe.)

Yet these are, in the end, minor quibbles. Woven into Rothman’s generally excellent tapestry are individual threads that are very nearly worth the price of the book on their own. Among these are a fascinating short history of the John Birch Society, a lucid critique of the corporate hypocrisy that birthed the statue Fearless Girl on Wall Street, and an engaging examination of the rise and fall of Mic, a click-bait factory whose editorial focus was best summed up by the words of a former staffer: “I think a lot of people in today’s day and age want to know, ‘What are we supposed to be outraged about?’”

It’s difficult to imagine a more thorough diagnosis than Rothman’s of the condition that now afflicts us. Whether a cure can be had is, of course, a different matter, and on that subject Unjust is surprisingly hopeful. In part, Rothman’s optimism is due to the fact that social justice is in many cases meted out in a closed loop. “More often than not,” he reminds us, “the people who face retribution” for social-justice-related offenses “are social justice enthusiasts themselves.” Conservatives can avoid a great deal of punishment merely by withholding the “complicity” that is required of victims in the form of false apologies and groveling. And in the longer term? The solution, Rothman suggests, lies with “Democratic lawmakers of stature,” who “must communicate in clear terms why the social justice left’s brand of politics is not only a dead-end but also a threat to the egalitarian system they profess to love.”

Will such a champion arise in the frenzied election season to come? I have my doubts. But he or she would deserve some Republican votes.

This article appears as “The Grievance-Mongers Crusade” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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