January 31, 2020
A little while back, a friend of mine had a poem accepted by The Paris Review, a magazine that, though in steep decline since it became politically correct, remains a big deal in the world of letters. The poem was never published, though, because after googling the poet, the editor found that she’d published some pro-Trump articles at American Thinker. Of course, in regard to literary merit, one’s politics, like one’s race and sex, are a non sequitur. Still, in the largely left-wing literary world, to support Trump is to be persona non grata.
But Irony—look and see Him everywhere—is an unsparing god. He pardons nobody, being so just, and hence leftists are finding more and more that their groupthink and dogmatic notion of what they call “equality” is self-defeating. In his essay “The Enemies of Writing,” published in The Atlantic on Jan. 23, George Packer observes that writers today are crippled by a
fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.
In the context of The Atlantic, this is pretty rich, the weak man Jeffrey Goldberg having given Kevin Williamson the ax almost immediately after the publication of his first column, since the conservative writer doesn’t have the “correct” (that is, liberal) views on abortion.
At times, as he tries to explain what’s causing the “orthodoxy enforced by social pressure,” Packer fails utterly, descending into the stalest of progressive clichés:
The attraction of moral clarity is obvious, never more so than in the Trump years, when everything of value—honesty, kindness, tolerance, loyalty, courage—is daily trashed by the most powerful people in America. The Trump presidency is tremendously clarifying, and the duty of a citizen is also clear—to uphold those values in every way possible.
To his credit, Packer emphasizes that the facile appeal of “moral clarity” is deadly to serious writing, for it simplifies the complexity of hard problems, and disallows the fertile ambiguity that is essential to a writer’s restless and probing mind.
Himself a leftist, Packer doesn’t note (perhaps because he’s biased) that the conformity he describes is worse on the left than on the right. In order to understand this difference, we must grasp what the left has become in our narcissistic culture. In short, the identity-politics left is Christianity on the cheap. The left derives from a monotheistic, Christian worldview, but where the devoted believer strives to face his sins and self-deceptions in order to live a better life, the leftist insists that others compensate for his own inadequacies and failings.
In place of the Christian belief that all people have intrinsic dignity, the leftist—motivated by envy for the superior and, rather less often, pity for the weak—posits sheer status. Like a child throwing a tantrum, he demands equal outcomes, because in this way everyone, in our effectively post-Christian society, is supposed to equally matter in a kind of vague ultimate sense.
The left is embarked on a desperate and anxious project, because insofar as leftists lack traditional sources of value—family, community, religion, romantic love, intrinsically satisfying work—and insofar as they, in their “freedom,” are clueless regarding how to make these values meaningful parts of their lives, leftists become even more ardent about realizing what they call equality, and even more ferocious opponents of justice, excellence, and meritocracy.
For what the leftist project entails, among other things, is an erroneous commitment to social constructivism. Everybody is entirely a product of his environment, according to this doctrine. There are no innate or natural differences between the sexes and racial groups; we’re all just social constructs all the way down.
What’s more, judging by their reflexive aversion to “inequality,” leftists seem to think that interests, talent, ability, conscientiousness, and so forth are the same from person to person, and equally distributed across the sexes and across racial groups. As a result, unequal outcomes must be due to “privilege,” “systemic racism,” and “sexism,” for since everyone is “equal,” how else could they be explained?
And indeed, such “discrimination” must be “corrected.” In the current issue of City Journal, Steven Malanga writes:
Many Americans probably have never heard of a “chief equity officer,” but it may be the hottest new job in municipal government. The emergence of the position is part of a broader movement to get local governments to look beyond the fundamental American ideals of equal treatment and opportunity and instead demand equity, which generally means the achievement of similar outcomes for all groups. While certain programs pursued under the equity banner—minority contracting set-asides, say—have been around for years, others are newer and more radical.
Here we have just the sort of thing to which the alt-right has been reacting all along. There will probably be many more chief equity officers and other vulgar levelers in the future, because the last thing the diversity crowd wants is diversity itself.
If we want to understand why the world is such a diverse place, and why unequal outcomes are inevitable, we need to be willing to consider the differences in interests, behavior, skills, intelligence, ability, and conscientiousness between the sexes and racial groups. To this end, it would be quite helpful if people would realize that sex differences and racial group differences, qua differences, are value-neutral, and that, in general, the value of a thing is determined by its function in a particular context. Thus, men are higher in aggression than women, both on average and at the right tail end of the distribution of the characteristic (the most aggressive people in the world). As such, men account for most murders in the world. And yet, this same sex difference—or “toxic masculinity,” if you prefer—allows men to be of especial value as enforcers, protectors, and defenders. Law and order depend, of course, on force to uphold them, and this is an eminently male business.
Whether you’re male, female, black, white, or whatever, it goes without saying that you don’t have to define your value as a person by your social status. On this I think everyone would agree. But how quickly people, once their pride and status envy are aroused, lose their minds! Back in 2005, Harvard president Larry Summers was promptly defenestrated for expressing his opinion that the greater male variability in intelligence (GMVI) may partially account for the lack of “gender parity” in physics and mathematics departments at elite universities. Fifteen years later, academia is even more intolerant of free thought. It is a corollary of GMVI that there are both more idiots and more geniuses among men than among women. If we consider GMVI, the differences in interests between the sexes, and the fact that men are higher (on average) in motivation than women (more willing and able, that is, to rise through dominance hierarchies), then the ongoing lack of “gender parity” in math, science, and elsewhere is only to be expected.
Still, we aren’t supposed to talk about these factors when it comes to explaining unequal outcomes between the sexes. For feminists are prone to reading their own anxieties and insecurities into empirical, value-neutral subjects. Their reactions and judgments imply that truth is determined by their feelings: If something upsets them, it can’t be true, or publishable. Hence feminists, in an amusing irony, live up to the most negative stereotypes about women: that they are too emotional, irrational, and illogical. It’s as if feminists wanted to confirm stereotype accuracy.
With respect to understanding the varieties of human behavior and achievement, the most formidable obstacle is nothing less than the human mind itself. There are very few people who are capable of objectivity and detachment concerning “sensitive” subjects, and this is to say nothing about the education and intelligence one needs in order to try to understand them. “We see what we perceive,” said F.H. Bradley, “and the object of our perceptions is qualified by the premises of our knowledge, by our previous experiences.” By “qualified,” Bradley means that “the premises of our knowledge” and “our previous experiences” constitute a certain epistemic perspective. Moral values serve the same function. So it is that, quite unconsciously, people frequently perceive in external phenomena what they internally (as willing, moral agents) want to be the case, or do not want to be the case. For while very few people can think well, everyone has a stock of prejudices at the ready, and it’s quite natural for people to treat events as occasions for affirming what they already value and believe.
Notice, for instance, how victimist leftists, in article after article, in newspapers and “scholarly” journals, declare that poverty is “linked to” some social evil whose origin they want us to think has been explained. Thus, in trying to account for racial differences in crime rates, they smuggle in some vague idea of causation, since they can’t establish what they want to be true. Logically, all they’re actually saying is: A and B; ergo, A causes B. And, of course, this is not a valid argument.
That leftists are motivated by sheer bias in such endeavors is clear from simple group-by-group comparisons. Why is it, for instance, that we are never told that poverty is “linked to” crime rates among Asians in New York City? The answer is that although Asians are the poorest racial group in New York City, they are nevertheless highly underrepresented in crime rates there (especially in violent-crime rates, where blacks are massively overrepresented). By contrast, every year many articles are published in which innumerate journalists and “scholars” declare that poverty is “linked to” the high crime rates among blacks in New York City and elsewhere. What’s the reason for the difference? That in the case of blacks, many people simply want to believe that poverty causes crime—after all, there’s a lot of the latter to “explain”—and so they do. You may think this is quite mad, but why assume people understand themselves or want to?
The bias and the cognitive limitations I’ve described are by no means specific to the left. Last July, at the National Conservatism Conference, Amy Wax made a case for “cultural distance nationalism,” and in response, Joshua Tait and Cathy Young—two middling, virtue-signaling writers—accused her of “racism.” Having, out of perverse curiosity, read a fair amount of Tait and of Young, I believe they’re simply incapable of understanding Wax’s rather complex and nuanced argument. Certainly, anyway, they misrepresented it. Nor is that a wonder, the two having been quite out of their depth in regard to Wax. And yet, Tait and Young undoubtedly have higher-than-average IQs and, as people go these days, are surely better educated than most. If they are too dull and too touchy to consider the implications of cultural differences for immigration policy; if they, though right of center, are nevertheless moved to respond to Wax with a lefty-like moralism, what is to be expected from people in general on this difficult and important subject? In William Butler Yeats’ words, “What if the Church and the State/Are the mob that howls at the door!”
But the main problem for the right is its characteristic weakness of character. Up against an insidious and uncompromising left, the right often refuses to fight a principled fight. Where moral courage and intellectual integrity are needed, many conservative intellectuals choose conformity and cowardice, careerism and lucre. Nor are the rare and brave individuals such as Amy Wax sufficient. Winning the culture war requires collective action, so the right will be doomed if it doesn’t get some guts. Will it ever? It is this vital subject that I will write about in next week’s column.