Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Looking to the Left to See the Right

Cathy Young:

There is a word for ideologies, religious or secular, that seek to politicize and control every aspect of human life: totalitarian. Unlike most such ideologies, SocJus has no fixed doctrine or clear utopian vision. But in a way, its amorphousness makes it more tyrannical. While all revolutions are prone to devouring their children, the SocJus movement may be especially vulnerable to self-immolation: its creed of “intersectionality”—multiple overlapping oppressions—means that the oppressed are always one misstep away from becoming the oppressor. Your cool feminist T-shirt can become a racist atrocity in a mouse-click. And, since new “marginalized” identities can always emerge, no one can tell what currently acceptable words or ideas may be excommunicated tomorrow.

...The social justice movement has many well-meaning followers who want to make the world a better place. But most of its “activism” is little more than a self-centered quest for moral purity.

Irving Howe wrote a viral post identifying the key characteristics of the social justice movement. It was not based on a "politics of common action", because that would require them to make common cause with "saints, sinners and ordinary folk"; rather, it was a "gesture of moral rectitude" designed to set them apart from this fallen world. But none of them actually believe in the possibility of Marxist-style revolution, Howe wrote, and combined with their unrealistic standards and demands, there's nothing left for these would-be radicals to do but maintain "a distinct personal style". Howe noted how strikingly often these fundamentalist preachers of privilege-checking were themselves the privileged offspring of the white middle-class, and fretted over their radical zeal to jettison everything valuable in their Western heritage in the process of striving for "a mode of personal differentiation" in which style becomes "the very substance of revolt".

Now, alert readers, having clicked through the link already, will have noticed that I was funnin' with them a bit. Irving Howe was actually an anti-Stalinist leftist critic, and his essay "New Styles in 'Leftism'" was written in 1965. To go ahead and put a fine point on it, nothing significant has changed about these people in over fifty years. They're still using the same counter-productive tactics that their parents (or even grandparents) were using, still trying to extract ore from the same exhausted vein of narcissistic identity politics. Envisioning themselves in the moral vanguard, they're blind to the ways they're bound by thoughtless tradition. Believing themselves too clever to learn from history, they're oblivious to how their radicalism follows the cyclical whims of fashion. Desiring a world filled with culture wars of liberation, they find themselves within shrinking horizons, isolated and constrained by atavistic tribal enmity.