Protest, polarization, and opportunity.
The challenge of a complex, diverse society is, in the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”
King was a Black man who was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. The video footage led many of us to believe the officers would be convicted in a court of law. But their acquittal sparked riots in LA.
And here we are again.
“Us versus them” seems built into human nature—we are a tribal species.
Some ideologies amplify tribalism. Other ideologies mitigate tribalism.
The United States has never fully embraced the idea that we are all created equal. This doesn’t mean everyone is equally good looking or talented. It means we should all have the same rights, and no one should be denied opportunity because of their race, gender, religion, etc.
That’s what liberty is all about, and liberty works against an “us vs. them” mindset because it views people as individuals rather than demographic labels.
But too many people feel like they’ve been denied this respect. That may be why we see left-wing protesters pulling down not only Confederate statues—symbols of exclusion and oppression—but any statue of a white male, even abolitionists who died for the cause.
When Thomas Jefferson declared “that all men are created equal,” British critic Samuel Johnson responded, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
The consequences of this glaring contradiction haunt us today. And I’m concerned that while serious reform is essential, both far right and far left ideology will only make things worse.
America’s Contradictory Politics
There are three major strands of American political thought:
- Right-wing authoritarianism, which originally sought rigid social control—enforced with violence—to prevent slave revolts;
- And progressivism, which also borrows from liberty and authoritarianism,—the latter derived in part from the intellectual descendants of Marxist thought.
We’re all familiar with the the alt-right, the latest incarnation of right-wing authoritarianism. Right-wing talk about liberty all too often is “liberty for me, but not for thee.”
But many of us are unaware of the authoritarian leanings of left-wing “woke” ideology.
Marx’s zero-sum framing of the competing self-interests of workers and business owners amplifies “us vs. them.” In 1930s Germany, the Frankfurt School extended this zero-sum thinking beyond economics to other cultural conflicts.
Decades later, this line of thought became popular in American sociology, and critical theory was the eventual result. Intersectionality began as the important observation that the discrimination Black women face is more than just the sum of racism and sexism—it’s a unique dynamic.
But among the woke, intersectionality has become a competition for moral status as some people claim greater oppression than others by stacking more and more marginalized identities together (the “oppression Olympics”). A corollary to this is that the more privileged identities other people have, the more “problematic” these individuals are.
Taking the Red Pill
This, in turn, has led to right-wing identity politics. “Taking the red pill” (a reference to Neo, in the film The Matrix, seeing true reality) often means seeing men, whites, and Christians as the truly oppressed.
But while the right sees racial and gender differences as biologically based, the left attributes sociological causes.
For the woke, it’s not that whites, as such, are racist. It’s that “whiteness” as a social construct is irredeemably racist. But because whites are socialized into whiteness, whites can’t help but be racist as a result—even if only implicitly so.
And a white person denying they’re implicitly racist is evidence that they are, in fact, racist. This self-insulated belief is also found in other ideologies. If you disagree with Marxism it’s because you have a false consciousness. If you disagree with Freudianism it’s because you’re in denial.
A Double Bind
This two-fold zero-sum set up—identity group status competition combined with a circular insistence that wokeism is above refutation—is a dead end street.
A society based on wokeism would ultimately degenerate into chaos. Look at the French Revolution, where the head choppers got chopped in the end; or the mess that became of CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, which was created in Seattle as part of the protests following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s tolerance of the alt-right only intensifies polarization.
No One’s Perfect
Final thought: I read a Twitter comment asserting that people who believe in the perfectibility of human nature are more punitive, but people who think human nature is irredeemably flawed are more forgiving.
That we’re all flawed and always will be might sound cynical, but it’s true. So, when we see other people’s flaws we can remind ourselves of our flaws. This doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but it does call for a more measured response.
Utopianists, however, try to eradicate people’s flaws. But that only leads to eradicating people. Just look at the twentieth century’s two great utopian experiments, Nazism and communism.
American liberty was never intended to be utopian. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers (51) that,
If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself.
But the far right, with their Orwellian definition of liberty (for me but not for thee), has twisted American ideals into a utopian ideology.
And progressives seem to have accepted this definition, thus rejecting our founding philosophy rather than seeking its fulfillment.
We’re not angels. We can acknowledge our past failings—slavery, genocide, Jim Crow—and get to work taking seriously the promise that we are all created equal.