Progressives view American culture the same way that Vladimir Lenin viewed politics: “Who, whom?” Who will dominate whom? The rest is just noise.
Lenin’s understanding of political struggle turned out to be fatally flawed, as the twentieth century showed how societies are actually stronger when the operative impulse is less domination and more facilitation. Because what are democracies and republics if not vessels for facilitating free association and cooperation? Allied victory over totalitarianism was above all a triumph of capitalism over socialism, yes, but it was also vindication for a way of life over that of the martial collective operating with scientific efficiency and with one communal voice, visions shared by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Roosevelt. The New Deal can be understood as one big effort to copy what Hitler and Mussolini were doing in the 30’s. Western elites and progressives were utterly enamored with Il Duce’s model in particular. What leftists of every stripe loved about these regimes was the way they used “science” to justify their vision and also guard them against criticism. Let the left and right argue over dogma; we disinterested observers are here with the science!Those wishing to turn politics into an empirical science are adopting a stealth approach to Lenin’s axiom. By claiming their so-called “pragmatism” will use disinterested and data-driven analysis to solve complex social problems, these wizards are promising an impartial politics of efficiency and prosperity attained through expert administration. But there is no algorithm that unlocks the secret to the free society. There is, however, that nagging question of “who, whom?” and still far too many who subscribe to the Hobbesian vision of nature that says man’s domination over man is the default condition of humanity. Those claiming the expertise have no expectation of landing on the whom side of the equation. And while we who stand athwart the collectivists know that Lenin’s question is ultimately wrong, we still must contend with the myriad forces that seek nothing less than total domination, even those who do so under the guise of disinterested civil servants.
Marx and the socialists were ostensibly defeated with the end of the Soviet Union. Communism’s ultimate discrediting was supposed to mean the end of history, when the superiority of capitalism was beyond dispute. But you don’t exist as a revolutionary movement for a century and a half and go quietly into the night, and socialism’s strictest adherents were never going to surrender their ideological commitments just because the Cold War ended. Rather, in their obscurity they re-evaluated where they had been successful and vowed to rise again against capitalism, through means other than purely economic. Thus do we see the utterly socialist aims of modern environmentalism, third-wave feminism and other movements of the anticapitalist left.* If they cannot dominate through economic doctrine, the war must be fought on the cultural plane.
Identity politics is just Marxist classism dressed up as enlightened diversity. The ultimate aim of Marxist-socialist theory was to give agency to disaffected and disadvantaged classes of people, and to encourage them to rise up and be heard in a world ostensibly dominated by rapacious capitalists. But as the economic prescriptions favored by these classes and their advocates proved utterlydisastrous, it was inevitable that the focus would shift from economics to culture. For it is just as easy to agitate on behalf of those superficially marginalized by race or gender as it is to do so on behalf of the poor. But what happens when such agitation is successful, as the cultural revolution of the 1960’s surely was in advancing equality under the law? Victory, right? Wrong. There is always be more oppression to fight, and always another injustice in need of eradicating. Thus is the great progress made on behalf of racial, gender, sexual and religious minorities deemed insufficient. It is not enough to ensure equality under the law; the new normal must be celebrated, not merely condoned. Thus does critical theory emerge and meld with postmodern instincts to treat truth as malleable. Moral relativism reigns. This is how modern academia comes to regard Israel as the enemy and Hamas as the victim. Truth is subordinate to injustice because facts are not as compelling as grievance.
Culture warriors understand a fundamental truth of human nature: we understand what we know and care about what we see. Economics escapes the average person’s understanding and concern because it is difficult for him to see it operate in tangible form. Culture, on the other hand, is ubiquitous. It is impossible to be indifferent towards culture because one is forever awash in it. And those whoinstigated the culture war in this country understandably became addicted to the psychic satisfaction that comes from expanding access to natural rights hitherto denied to certain people. (That the belief that successful movements for women’s rights and minority civil rights actually meant the initiation of new rights rather than the restoration of natural ones escaped them is another discussion altogether.) It makes sense then, that this social vanguard would continue looking for victims to unshackle, but at some point you just run out of victims, at least as far as the law is concerned. Suddenly we are concerned with a person’s “right” not to be offended, or we overcorrect to the point of seeing mysoginy everywhere. This is how suchabsurdities as #YesAllWomen and trigger warnings enter the lexicon.
And this new century of ours is particularly vulnerable to outright implosion if social politics continue to define us. Much of the advancement in tolerance, diversity and general acceptance is owed to the laudable impulses of the original culture warriors who came onto the scene in the 60’s. But just as Marxist economics failed because it lacked limiting principles, the culture wars will end badly because the agitators simply don’t know when (or don’t want) to stop. (Abraham Maslowwould agree.) In one respect, it is not hard to see why: playing identity politics and demanding new rights for an ever increasing number of victims will inevitably lead to bigger government and more bureaucracy. If it ain’t broke… That the aims of anticapitalists coincide with the culture warriors’ is also no coincidence. The desire to destroy laissez-faire through regulation does not meet pushback from those looking to invent new rights (right to healthcare, right to housing, right to food), usually because they’re the same people. And when the anticapitalists and social justiciars congregate – in academia, in federal bureaucracies, in Hollywood – the only thing that stands out is the utter lack of any actual diversity, that is, diversity of thought.
The cult of diversity has become so strong and pervasive that among young people in the 21st century it is now obviously safer to tow the line of superficial tolerance (i.e. to conform) than it is to express a heterodox opinion about something,especially something involving the hollow vapidity of our hallowed “diversity.” The word has literally come to mean the opposite of its literal meaning, as Daniel Hannan says. And yet, our future leaders are overwhelmingly consumed by the cult of physical (shallow) diversity. Millennials define themselves politically by social issues, not economics. It is a positional good, a way of signaling one’s status as a member of the tolerant, progressive, enlightened crowd, the group that shuns religion and tradition in favor of “science.” They are happy to tell you that they are better than you, owing not to any particular achievement or education, but simply to the fact that they are not the “other.” Despite marching in lockstep conformity of thought, they impugn their perceived enemies as hopeless and ignorant neanderthals, secure in the knowledge that their identity and worth are defined by what they are not.
It’s morality on the cheap; wholly unearned, but bolstered all the same by a profound sense of “being on the right side of history,” a Marxist trope if ever there was one. Culture matters, and caring about injustice is basic human nature. Much of the social progress that has been made in America and around the globe owes a debt to our friends of leftwing persuasion, even the virulent anticapitalists among them. But you must have a limiting principle, and leftists simply do not. The American Revolution was about restoring limiting principles to society, whereas the French Revolution had the Terror, the guillotine and ended in Napoleanic despotism precisely because there was no philosophical appreciation for such principles. The Jacobins believed they could remake the world entirely anew, that the past was irrelevant, tradition useless. The same phenomenon is again taking place today, only it is confined blessedly (for now) to the culture wars. Increasingly, these battles are bleeding into our politics, and that is a problem. Even worse, future generations are coming to view politics as merely an extension of cultural arguments, rather than of debate and deliberation on eternal matters like the composition of the state, the laws of economics, and the propensity for man to abuse power even when he doesn’t intend to.
If millennials continue to define themselves politically over the social issues they care about, this republic will be lost. The basic truth that 20th century tyrants understood about this country is even more profound today: America can never be destroyed by conquest, but only from within. The next few generations bear a heavy responsibility to not succumb to the cheap satisfactions and faux-morality of “social justice,” which is just a rebranding of class warfare in the most destructive sense. The kids need to get over themselves and their identity politics and understand that there is so much more to the relationship between citizen and state than a fleeting promise of more free stuff, like contraception. Whatever the government today grants you as your “right,” it can tomorrow take it away from you. Only our natural rights are sovereign and unassailable, and it is only the government that can infringe on those.
So this curmudgeonly millennial will end with a plea to his fellow generation: please stop with the identity and social politics. If Reason continues polling young people and continues hearing that they care less about economics and role of government than social issues, we as a nation are sunk. And as the carpenter said to Lord Business at the end of the Lego Movie, “you don’t have to be the bad guy,” so do I say “you don’t have to be the who, and we don’t have to be the whom.” Nobody has to dominate the other, culturally, politically, economically or otherwise. We are all equal under the law and free to live cordially in a pluralistic society that allows for wildly disparate opinions and perspectives. We are all “the special.”