(Author’s Note: I originally wrote this essay at the end of 2016. My thinking has evolved quite a bit since that time. Maybe I’ll write a followup at some point.)
Since the presidential election, a number of pundits have blamed the social justice movement for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Sometimes this takes the form of an attack on identity politics, sometimes critics target political correctness or campus culture. Whatever the specific grievance, I can assure you that these pundits have two things in common. They disliked the social justice movement before Clinton ran. And they would have gone on disliking it even if she’d won.
The election? Only a convenient excuse for raising the topic.
Still, in essence, I agree. I’m not sure exactly what role social justice rhetoric played in liberalism’s defeat. But I do hope it will be discarded during liberalism’s revival.
What exactly is the social justice movement?
I’ve chosen this term in preference to near-synonyms (identity politics, anti-oppression, intersectionality, wokism, etc.) in part because I mean to refer to something very broad, a set of behaviors as well as a set of ideas. I think most people now recognize these habits as characteristic of a particular subculture:
- Denying a platform to conservative speakers
- Calling people out for racist and sexist microaggressions
- Seeking to expose coded forms of discrimination
- Grading works of culture on their depiction of minority groups
- Conducting online shame campaigns
- Arguing about what makes a good ally
- Challenging America’s free speech laws
- Attacking forms of cultural appropriation
- Demanding mandatory trigger warnings
- Demanding safe spaces
- Effacing symbols of America’s racist past
- Using a characteristic and ever-evolving lingo–“you need to check your privilege,” “you need to unpack that,” “you’re centering whiteness,” etc.
This is a partial list of familiar ingredients. Stir enough of these ingredients into a community, and you start to get something that looks like the social justice movement, the key edicts of which seem to be these:
- That politics pervades every aspect of life: any given decision is, in some respects, a political decision;
- That politics is mostly a matter of oppression (and that people who claim otherwise are concealing or justifying forms of oppression);
- That oppression is fundamentally a personal matter: we should fight oppression not because justice matters in an abstract sense, but because of the suffering it causes.
The product of these assumptions is a curious hybrid, a movement that mixes together elements of political theory, cultural criticism, and private therapy. When a champion of social justice says that such and such a cultural work should be boycotted because it encodes harmful assumptions, the claim of harm evokes a therapeutic conception of trauma, the reference to coded assumptions reflects a critic’s habit of interpretation, and the call for a boycott reveals an activist’s interest in mass protest.
This singular blend of self-esteem, social critique, and radical politics has a long academic pedigree. As with Marxism and psychoanalysis, the scholarly theories behind the social justice movement–poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, critical race theory, gender studies–have leaked out of the university and invaded the popular consciousness. In the process, they’ve come to serve as a pidgin ideology, a set of shibboleths and assumptions holding together a host of political factions. Those factions sometimes organize protests or marches. But the larger movement has no organization, no leadership, no standards of membership, and few explicit policy goals. It persists as a set of habits, hangups, and instinctive affinities–a method of castigation, a manner of self-expression, and a mode of complaint.
One generalization seems fair. As a political project, the social justice movement has progressive aims. And the main thing to be said about progressive aims is that, whatever alarmists claim, they’re mostly grounded in old-fashioned values.
Liberty. Freedom of worship. Equality. Acceptance. Respect. Openness. Getting along with different kinds of people.
Most progressives, like most Americans, also believe in the need to strike a tricky balance. They believe that the state should protect people from exploitation and harassment. But they also believe that people should protect each other from state power.
True, there are people who reject those ideals. And there are disagreements about facts on the ground. People even disagree about the search for truth itself–how to find the answers to important questions.
But the basic bundle of ideals is widely shared. Equality. Tolerance. Individual rights. Lots of people, at the very least, want to live by those values.
The thing is, when you look closely at those values, you notice that they’re also very familiar. They look a lot like what we used to call American values. They come to us from a tradition running back through Western history. When I was growing up, every time someone talked about what made America great, this was the set of ideals they praised.
The problem for the social justice movement is that it consists of people who embrace the ideals America was founded on, but reject the notion that America (or Europe, for that matter) has any special claim on them. They see themselves as victims of American actions, not champions of American virtues. At best, they feel like castaways, served with a lot of empty promises but shut out of the American dream. At worst, they see America as the enemy, a corrupt regime using lofty talk to justify brutal oppression.
Apart from these feelings, the groups the social justice movement brings together don’t really have much in common. There are Black Protestants who deny evolution. There are Muslim Americans who embrace traditional gender roles. There are Chinese Americans impatient with affirmative action. There are Latino Catholics who oppose abortion. There are transgender activists who insist that gender is inborn, not socially constructed. There are immigrants who question affirmative consent laws. There are white feminists who oppose every one of those positions. And many more.
Social justice partisans aim to speak for all these people. But how is that possible? It’s the same old problem of diversity, the problem America has always had. How can you build a community of people who don’t actually see eye to eye?
The traditional solution is nationalism. Yes, we have our differences, the story goes, but we’re still one people—the American people. We don’t always agree, but we rise above our disagreements. We’ve made terrible mistakes in the past—tragic mistakes, hideous mistakes—but we have a proud tradition of looking forward to the future. We’re well aware that we share a planet with other cultures, and we see ourselves as an example to them, embodying the great things a country can achieve when different people learn to get along. We come together to share and enjoy the things that make us unique, and in doing so we become that rare and unlikely thing, a tight-knit community of independent-minded individuals.
This is exactly the vision of national greatness that social justice rhetoric repudiates. So what takes its place? What dream can unite so many different Americans, if they reject the validity of the American dream?
The problems with social justice activism begin here: members of the movement have no good answer to that question. There are hopeful and well-meaning people in the movement, dreamers and speakers and activists who embody the high ideals of progressivism. But they have no shared, coherent, optimistic vision for the future. They have no theory of what would make a good society. They’re angry at American culture, but can’t agree on what should replace it. In a vague way, they embrace American values, but they’re alienated from the Western tradition that gave rise to those values.
Still, they need to share something. How can a movement survive without dreams, without myths, without traditions to link past and future? How can it thrive without encouraging its members to feel pride in a shared heritage, faith in a shared destiny? How can it advance without laying out an inspiring project for the society to come?
All movements have opponents. The striking thing about the social justice movement is that it alienates so many potential friends. It does so because, having no good answers to the questions above, it uses various strategies to evade them.
The oldest gambit in politics is this: if you can’t go positive, go negative. And the second oldest is probably this: when you can’t go big, go small.
Nothing brings people together like hatred of a common enemy. And even an organization without a long-term plan can keep its members occupied by fussing over procedural issues and claiming symbolic victories.
That’s what we’ve seen with the social justice movement. It brings together a large variety of groups, most of them with origins in earlier protest movements. A lot of those groups once put forward utopian schemes, grand ambitions that still survive within various subcultures and factions. There are Muslim scholars who long for an Islamic renaissance. Black nationalists who push for an independent state. Feminists who trade tales of matriarchal and communal societies. Sexual rebels who fantasize about overthrowing the traditional family. Immigrant groups who still believe in the old American dream of opportunity. Since the social justice movement often draws on other leftist causes in pursuit of a stronger coalition, we might add in Marxists who hope for a socialist state, environmentalists who plan for a sustainable paradise, and champions of other radical schemes.
A lot of those dreams sound delusional to outsiders. But that’s precisely because they’re visionary, idealistic, almost mythical. They’re the kinds of plans that give people something to fight for, not just things to fight against.
In today’s progressive politics, the grand, ambitious, hopeful parts of those schemes have mostly calved away, making the negative features salient—the bitter cultural critiques, fears of marginalization, rage at elites, suspicion toward white men, complaints of hidden bias, contempt for people outside the movement, and furious condemnations of quiescence and dissent. The message seems to be: “Everything we see around us, every aspect of our history and society, is rotten, biased, unjust, and corrupt. And if you can’t see that, if don’t spend your life consumed with fury over that, if you’re not filled with shame at your complicity in that, you’re part of the problem.”
Hardly a cheerful message. But it certainly is a revolutionary message. Out with the old. Tear it all down. The thing is, such stern talk usually comes with a revolutionary promise. Tear it all down and then build … what? Something better. Something beautiful. Something new.
Today’s progressive partisans never seem to finish the sentence. They agree that things are awful right now, but never get around to saying, in any vivid or detailed way, what would be better. What kind of new society are we supposed to create, once our storm of righteous fury has eradicated the existing one?
In the absence of a shared, positive vision, but needing a reprieve from rage and recrimination, members of the movement end up focusing on minor goals. Sure, the feminist utopia is a fading sixties dream, but at least more women are starring in action movies. Plans for a new Black nation have moved to the fringe, but maybe we can make African-American Studies a mandatory part of the college curriculum. The existing Marxist states are bizarre hybrids of crony capitalism and totalitarianism, but you can always spread devastating memes online. As for the Muslim renaissance … well, maybe it would help to read more memoirs by Palestinian authors. If the green-energy paradise seems slow in coming, you can still vent at idiots in your Twitter feed. And if gender norms are turning out to be depressingly resilient, well, we can always have a serious talk (social justice advocates are always up for a serious talk) about Caitlyn Jenner, or what Kanye said, or video games.
There are no new lands to settle. There are no welcoming homelands to return to. There are no inspiring revolutions to point to. But take heart, friends. We still have our social media accounts, our academic postings, our consumer preferences.
Eventually, this obsession with minutiae starts to wear thin. Worse, it starts to look like surrender, a capitulation to the status quo. What good is a revolution against American hegemony, if its members end up wallowing in the grosser aspects of American culture: the careerism, the materialism, the narcissism, the parochialism? Sure, people say they’re opposed to everything America stands for. But here they are, drinking from the plastic bottles, enjoying the sexist movies, buying the sweatshop products, moving to the gentrified suburbs. Still taking the wages of white supremacy, fawning over rich celebrities, luxuriating in cultural appropriation, teaching the colonizer’s history, turning a blind eye to offensive speech. Buying into the whole wicked regime.
So the righteous fury boils up again. Fights break out. Some members of the movement attack others. Those members push back. Everyone ends up with hurt feelings–bitter, angry, contrite, wounded. What happened? This was supposed to be a redemptive movement, not a tangle of personal grievances.
Still, every group has its squabbles, right? When fights break out, that’s a time to reflect on what truly matters. To lay new plans. To rally, to heal, to draw strength from shared sources of inspiration. In a dark hour, a community comes together to reflect on its deepest values, its proudest traditions, its brightest dreams, its fondest hopes.
But there are no visions. There are no dreams. That’s the whole problem: the members of the social justice movement have no glorious tradition to rally around, no unifying plan, no shared heritage. Not even, really, a common culture, except for the reviled Western culture that caused all the trouble in the first place.
What members of the movement do share is mutual frustration. Hurts, resentments, rage at common antagonists. Plus, for some, a sense of shame at being entangled in an evil system. And the frail comforts of intersectionality: people may be hurt and miserable and angry for different reasons, but at least they can all be miserable together.
In a time for moving beyond personal grievances, it turns out there are nothing but personal grievances. So this becomes the focus. The hurt feelings can’t be assuaged, but they can at least be validated. It doesn’t matter exactly what caused the hurt feelings—or rather, it does matter, because hurt feelings are the only thing that’s holding the movement together. Ergo, whatever caused those feelings is, of necessity, a symptom of what makes the movement necessary. Feeling bad becomes, in itself, sufficient indictment of a bad society. The personal is political. The political is personal. Validating feelings is reconceived as the essential political act.
And if validating feelings is a political act, then not validating them is also a political act. So which feelings are deserving of validation? Which feelings should be scorned and dismissed? Which people deserve empathy? Which people deserve mockery? The vitality of the movement comes to depend on these questions.
A further trouble: feelings are vague, messy, unclear. It’s hard to know what other people are feeling. It’s hard to know what we ourselves are feeling.
As a result, attention shifts to a kind of political pop psychology, an effort to tease out hidden dynamics, diagnose secret hatreds, evaluate symbolic actions. Political activism becomes synonymous with amateur mindreading. Political solidarity comes to depend on feats of emotional display. The exchange of ideas gives way to exhibitions of pain and sympathy. Political debates end up revolving around analysis of these displays, judging them on sincerity, tone, wording, timing.
Eventually, all this collective soul-study brings discussion back to where it started. Society is so complex, and people are so complicated, that there’s no way to judge feelings without judging everything else. So members of the movement run through it all again: the cultural critiques, the hunt for hidden biases, the contempt for outsiders, the condemnations of nostalgia and quiescence and dissent … the grousing and garment-tearing that initially caused so much grief.
Which throws us back on the original question. Can a political movement thrive on bitterness alone? Can it survive without offering an inspiring vision of the society it hopes to create?
Should it survive?
Imagine a day in the not-too-distant future. Donald Trump’s reign is a fading memory. Environmental collapse, economic turmoil, and demographic trends have shifted politics to the left. The liberal coalition is now truly ascendant. White men are a shrinking minority in America. Their hold on power is broken, their dominion annulled. There are still plenty of white men around, but the proximate goal of proportionate representation has been achieved. Women and minorities effectively run the country.
Well? Now what? What are the women and minorities going to do? How are they going to get along? What plans and rituals and symbols will unite them? What inspiring stories will they tell about their past? What common projects will they pursue?
Is it just going to be business as usual? American media, American military, American corporations, American flags? The same old American system so many people loathe?
Will these multicultural leaders keep the free market? Scrap the free market? Polyamory: yes or no? Should religious institutions be forced to accept transgender members? Should Americans try to spread their values around the world? Should macho men of all ethnic backgrounds, in all nations, be upbraided for toxic masculinity?
How should society be structured? As a matriarchy? As a theocracy? As a socialist commune? As a Confucian empire?
Liberal values—keep them, or discard them as a relic of the white man’s era? If liberal values are to be kept, should people teach them without mentioning their origins in European history? If liberal values are out, what’s the alternative? Should speech be policed? Should the judicial system be overturned? What kind of property rights will be enforced? How will terrorists be dealt with? If a Chinese-American cis-hetero man writes a novel about a trans Inuit woman, and trans Inuit women get mad, is that cultural appropriation? Should it be stopped?
And if we’re not going to stick with American culture … well, what then? Will it be time to found a new government? A whole new society, with new rules, new customs, new norms? If so, who writes the laws? What political traditions will they draw on? Who will be in charge?
Or is the movement going to keep on the way it does now, reveling in consumer culture while writing blistering critiques of consumer culture, feuding over terminology without deciding on terminology, arguing over who has more privilege while bonding over the outrage du jour, validating feelings in lieu of exchanging ideas, searching for outsiders and quislings to berate—keeping everything basically the same, but complaining about it endlessly?
There’s one other option. The social justice movement could hold together by directing ever more anger at white men, even as they shrink in numbers and status. Let’s not ask how that would turn out.
I’m not trying to be alarmist. I’m trying to point to the gaping void behind the barbs and critiques of social justice rhetoric. The movement bristles with attacks and quarrels and demands. But where’s the hopeful vision? Where are the long-term plans? Where are the inspiring prospects?
Nothing is simple. What I’m calling the social justice movement is less a political movement than a collection of ritual utterances, thoughts, and actions. Those rituals hold together a diverse coalition of groups and ideas. There’s a lot of variety down in the trenches, a welter of coteries and factions rubbing against one another. And twenty-first-century progressivism has indeed had some big successes.
We elected our first Black president. The Black Lives Matter movement mounted major protests, got a ton of media coverage, and made headway on shifting policy. Transgender rights advanced. And then there’s the big, unequivocal victory: the legalization of gay marriage.
But when you dig into the details, it’s not clear that the social justice movement, as a movement, really did much for those causes.
How did Black Lives Matter extend its reach? Not through finicky arguments about political terminology. Not through scathing movie critiques. Not through sophisticated theories retailed in academic seminars. Certainly not through careful stewardship of safe spaces. The movement rose to prominence through news coverage of lurid killings, amplified by the spread of graphic videos: awful, raw footage of innocent citizens getting murdered by cops. Bizarrely, social justice partisans and campus activists worked hard to redirect attention toward arguments about the regulation of speech. But the lesson of those videos was the opposite of a trigger warning. Look what’s happening. Don’t blink, don’t censor the content, don’t shy away. Look at the death. Listen to the gunshots. Hear the cries, the words, the human voices, the people of your country, brothers and sisters, neighbors and fellow Americans, crying out in terror: I can’t breathe.
The legalization of gay marriage? That’s been a long time coming, and one thing we’ve almost forgotten is that when the push for it started, many leftists were opposed. Why? Because of the same sweeping cultural critiques that are still in fashion. “Who cares about marriage?” the radical leftists said. “It’s a bourgeois institution. A patriarchal tool. A holdover of religious dogma. A symbol of heteronormativity. It represents everything wrong with the past–the backwards, stupid, sentimental fascination with family, home, and hearth. Forget about broadening access to marriage. Get rid of it.”
Not everyone on the left talked that way, but a lot of people did. I know, because I was one of them.
In the end, it was conservatives like Andrew Sullivan who articulated the winning case for gay marriage. And they did so by doubling down on the sentimental notions that radical leftists sneered at. Marriage, they said, wasn’t a repressive institution. Marriage was a beautiful institution. That’s why gays wanted to share in it. Don’t jeer, they said, at concepts like family and commitment. Family and commitment are the most precious things in the world. That’s why it’s cruel to deny them to gay citizens.
The sophisticated theories, the jibes at uncool institutions, the flippant denunciations, all faded away. And the sentimental arguments, drawing on humanism and faith and Western values, triumphed. As well they should have.
As for Obama, he may be a darling of the social justice movement, but all his political rhetoric is a repudiation of the movement. Conservatives have demonized him as a divisive figure, and in many ways he’s been a victim of hyper-partisanship. But in his speeches, Obama strives for an inspiring and inclusive tone, returning again and again to traditional themes and classic American values. It was this soaring rhetoric that helped get him elected, even in a time of bitter divisions.
The case of transgender rights … this one’s especially thorny, and especially interesting. How did a relatively small group come to command so much national attention, inspire so much debate, make such rapid (if precarious) progress? There are a lot of reasons—the inspiring precedent of the gay rights movement, the media obsession with celebrity exemplars, the idea that transgender people were the last significant overlooked minority—but I think one that’s been scanted is that this was one of the few leftist groups that actually put forward a hopeful vision.
Don’t let anyone tell you who you are, they said. Only you can know who you are.
Don’t let others force you to conform, they said. Take courage, and make the world conform to you.
Don’t assume, they said, that we have to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. Fixed sex? We’re more creative than that. We’re building a new world, and with a little help from the miracles of science, everyone will be free to assert his, her, ze’s, or their own identity.
In other words, pure Americanism, doped with a heavy strain of California dreaming, shot through with all the utopianism and individualism and big thinking and technical know-how that make this country so weird and unique. The movement for transgender rights has more going for it than a bid for representation or a gripe about marginalization. It has a vision, a promise, a plan so crazy it just might work. Imagine if, working together, we can move beyond the irksome idea that anatomy is destiny. Impossible? Never! We’re the authors of the future.
This grand vision spread far beyond the usual precincts of campus theory and intersectional outrage. It reached the lower classes through tabloid culture and schlock TV. It attracted allies among tech-utopians and libertarians and transhumanists. Above all, it lit up the souls of the young. “Forget the past, the rules, the conventional wisdom. You are the owner of your identity.” That’s the kind of talk that inspires a generation.
Some of the attention, to be sure, was sheer prurience. And we saw the usual pushback and crass jokes. But don’t let that blind you to the excitement the movement for transgender rights has generated. It offered more than a condemnation of the status quo. It offered a vision of something better.
Social justice rhetoric? If anything, it’s been a drag on these causes. It swamps their most powerful appeals with sniping, histrionics, and doctrinal bickering. The hopeful and inclusive messages–gay marriage won’t hurt the family, it will strengthen the family; Obama’s career is a celebration of American opportunity; people should get to define their own identities; Americans must band together to defend innocent people from cruel treatment–collapse under an onslaught of recriminations, arcane theories, language policing, and jockeying for attention.
Groups like transgender activists are in something of a bind. They’re a small community faced with big challenges. Social justice rhetoric offers a way to build alliances with other movements–especially the biggest liberal bloc, the white feminists. But the resulting coalition is rife with disagreements, including basic disagreements about who should get attention. For reasons given above, the movement hangs together by prioritizing outrage over optimism. But the outrage ends up alienating moderates and unconventional thinkers. Activity consolidates around an angry core of vocal agitators with rigid views and loud voices. Other people feel ignored. Because one of the promises of the social justice movement is its offer of emotional support, this neglect is experienced as a political betrayal. Shared hopes disintegrate into a blizzard of apologies, accusations, complaints.
Eventually, some people get fed up. But where else can they go? The acrimony of the social justice movement inflames political divisions. People who try to break away are attacked by their former allies as traitors, even while they’re exposed to abuse and terror from right-wing thugs. The only option is to play along, using the politics of pain and disdain to try and make one’s views heard.
In a way, the problem is even worse, because minorities and activists who don’t reach out to the social justice movement will get drawn into it anyway–yanked into its warm, wet, loving hug, whether they’re happy about it or not. I often wonder how many people of color, especially young men of color, cringe at the words of social justice activists, but end up shrugging and playing along. What else are they going to do? Move to Trumptown?
Back in what now seems like the ancient past, a month before the 2016 election, a writer at The Week published an essay that brought together the two great topics of the day.
Donald Trump was running for president. And Bob Dylan had just won the Nobel Prize.
“These are not easily separable events,” the author averred. Her explanation was depressingly formulaic. Both figures were white men, she pointed out, and both had drawn on America’s past for inspiration. Forget the obvious differences between a popular songwriter and a presidential contender. In her analysis, Dylan and Trump were two slightly different symptoms of one omnipresent problem, disposable icons of a sick society.
For that matter, the writer went on to argue, we probably ought to throw a lot of other things into the same cultural wastebasket: Thomas Pynchon, Mad Men, the legacy of the sixties, the American literary tradition, Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical style, fandom, the notion of American greatness, the “language of inspiration” itself. It might seem, naively, that there are meaningful distinctions between loving a folk song and persecuting a religious minority. But reader, you need to reckon with your own complicity. In this way of thinking, it’s all of a piece, and it’s all bad.
So we’re left staring, again, into the gulf of that enormous, unanswered question. If everything is really this awful, if we’ve gotten to the point where being a fan of a song or TV show is all but indistinguishable from a lifelong penchant for sexual assault … what next?
The author herself certainly recognized the importance of the question. But, as usual, she had no answer:
“As for what greatness can mean in the present? The concept is under construction.”
This is the task we have to face: the need to construct such a concept. Without a great story to congregate around, without a hopeful message to extend to the unconverted, without a serious and passionate effort to reclaim “the language of inspiration,” progressivism will continue to languish in a culture of constant complaint.
So what’s the answer? How can social justice partisans rediscover the politics of optimism?
Potential sources of political inspiration are infinite. Realistically, however, there are three ways forward.
First, the movement might simply fall apart. Again, the social justice movement isn’t a movement in any organized sense, but a tangle of tropes and theories and norms that serve to hold together a jumble of political factions. If this rhetorical mode falls out of favor, those factions will drift apart and be free to make their own plans.
Already the old-school leftists have broken free, frustrated with the ways in which identity-based activism has muddled their plans for a socialized state. Further divisions could free other groups to reinvest in their own distinctive dreams. We could see a resurgence of African-American separatism. Today’s corporatized feminism might undergo a crackup into radical and moderate factions. Transgender activists weary of being overshadowed by cisgender allies might follow the example of gay cultures past, investing in local enclaves and cultivating nurturing subcultures. Muslim Americans might fall back on establishing stronger ties to a diaspora united by faith. Latino and Asian-American communities might be split among assimilationists and hardline traditionalists. Environmentalists might drift back into drop-out culture, scientific futurism, and communalism. Many people might abandon political or ethnic sources of identity, seeking shelter in different ideological homes, such as churches or professional organizations.
These movements would be in constant conflict, both with one another and with society at large. Some of them would be radicalized to a degree currently realized only in the right’s fever dreams. Their very existence would galvanize reactionary hatred in ways terrifying to contemplate. But they would also offer something to their members that today’s liberalism can’t: a sense of shared mission and passion and culture, a collective pride in common experience, a joyful hope for future triumphs. And they would serve as incubators for new plans, new schools of political thought, new models and modes of self-expression.
The second option is for the social justice movement to hang together, continuing its bitter critiques of white supremacy and American culture, but to embrace a new, positive vision that complements its many complaints. This would probably take the form of a pan-national (and anti-nationalist) cosmopolitanism, with members of the movement reaching out to build relationships with beleaguered communities around the world. Gays in Iran, feminists in Nigeria, activists in China, rebels in Guatemala–not to mention the many likeminded souls scattered through Europe–such allegiances would be cemented with dreams of a new global order, aided by hi-tech tools, distinguished by reverence for Earth as a whole and characterized by an ecumenical humanism. Horrified by the populists in their home countries, activists would go whole hog for internationalism, immersing themselves in a network of transoceanic ties.
A movement of this kind could draw young people, scholars, scientists, artists, and not a few entrepreneurs, all assisted by (and obsessed with) technology, all working to knit together diverse cultural traditions, all enamored of brainy ideas. Members would see themselves as stewards to the deep heritage of human civilization, joining hands and hearts across borders while the dying empires of the colonial era tore themselves apart. Effectively, they would carry on the world-spanning projects of the colonizers, communists, and American imperialists before them, but without the support–or the baggage–of national militarism. They would say, “Let the fascists preach. Let the nations fight. Let the white men cling to their guns and flags, their corrupt and decaying institutions. We have taken up the long project of human flourishing. And we will emerge from the rubble of today’s broken polities to carry that dream forward into the future.”
In a sense, this project is already underway. Much social justice rhetoric hints at such a vision: commitment to humanity as a whole, impatience with statism in particular. And in a worst-case scenario–barring total apocalypse–it may be the only choice. But at the moment, there’s a third way. The members of the social justice movement could lay hold of a rejuvenated nationalism. They could wrest the mythos of American greatness back from the white-pride nativists. They could revive the American dream.
Call it the Obama option: a revitalization of American optimism. At first blush, the chances of this seem small to nonexistent. The near future is almost unimaginably bleak.
For one thing, members of the social justice movement are understandably leery of patriotism. Should Native Americans take pride in a society that nearly exterminated them? Should Muslim-Americans take pride in a society that demonizes them? Should Black Americans take pride in a society that once enslaved them and now routinely murders them? Should women take pride in a society founded on their disenfranchisement? Should Americans of East Asian descent take pride in a society that often treats them as threatening aliens? Don’t all these people have good reason—more, a moral duty—to reject the rhetoric of patriotism?
Then we have the uniquely pressing problems of the present day. Even before Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the right had sunk into a bog of paranoia, obstructionism, and crackpot ideology. Trump’s presidency is likely to strain even a fervent patriot’s faith in America. Liberals and lefties impatient with dissent will always have good cause to point to the brutes and wildlings of the right and say, “Why is anyone criticizing us? Those crazies are the real problem.” This has been the social justice movement’s tactic all along, even before Trump’s cabinet appointments enfranchised the far right. Why should anything change under Trump’s presidency?
As if this weren’t bad enough, Trump’s tenure is likely to prove frustrating to liberals in ways they haven’t anticipated. I have no doubt Trump and his cronies will make awful decisions. Liberals, understandably, will seethe. But they’re likely to find that the country as a whole remains maddeningly indifferent to their concerns.
For one thing, most people are always maddeningly indifferent, at least from an activist’s point of view. For another, Trump’s administration, through media stooges and the leader himself, will flood us with an unremitting stream of nonsense, scandal, palace intrigue, gossip, bald-faced lies, and propaganda. Contrary to common opinion, the main effect of propaganda is not to brainwash a citizenry into zealous compliance, but to stupefy them into cynicism and apathy. “Who cares what anyone says?” people end up thinking. “It’s all just lies and palaver.” Bereft of trustworthy ideas, people come to rely for guidance on strong emotions, making them insensitive to subtle or reasonable appeals. Dramatic actions, threats, vainglorious posturing, and seductive conspiracy theories come to command attention.
Finally, with his thrashing of the Republican party, his control of the executive branch, and his tribe of ultra-loyal yahoos, Trump is in a position to take at least a few decisive actions before his personal defects bog him down. Maybe he’ll build tremendous structures. Maybe he’ll go to war. Maybe he’ll crush dissenters, on the streets or in the government itself. Whatever his choice, the fact remains that people are suckers for decisive actions, even wicked or stupid ones. Trump stands to gain in power and popularity even if he does things Americans don’t like. What matters is that he act in ways people like: with conviction, with brio, with flashy displays of personality and power. All hail the Great Entertainer.
All this means that Trump is likely—though not, of course, certain–to be more popular, or anyway less obviously unpopular, than many liberals suppose.
And even if we put aside Trump and his hooligans, conditions are hardly ripe for a political reawakening. Extreme inequality, ethnic tension, the collapse of old media, failures of education, terrorism, the crumbling of the international system, all conspire to poison the cultural soil.
For these reasons, champions of social justice are likely to grow more extreme in the years ahead, prone to bitter inter-factional feuds, fascinated with ideological purity, contemptuous of moderates and the politically disengaged. If there’s one thing recent history teaches, it’s that many activists find sanctimony more satisfying than success. Leftist agitators will redirect their anger from Trump himself toward politicians who compromise with Trump, then toward Americans who make excuses for those politicians, then toward leftist allies with differing ideas and competing strategies.
Nevertheless, I think social justice activists have at least one compelling reason to embrace the language of American idealism. However genuine their anger and however justified their complaints, most of them are essentially American in spirit. They may as well make the most of it.
What does it mean to be American in spirit? Does it mean reflexively excusing every one of Thomas Jefferson’s misdeeds? Does it mean accepting the Founding Fathers as unimpeachable moral authorities? Does it mean passing ordinances against flag burning, whistling Dixie and attending rodeos, cheering when American warplanes bomb Pashtun villages?
I believe it means something deeper. America has always been unusually willing to present herself to the world as an adoptive homeland: settle on our soil, we say, embrace our values, comply with our slipshod bureaucracy, and you’ll be as American as anyone, in essence and in status. And to the rest of the world, American culture is a distinctive modus vivendi, characterized by rowdy individualism, instantiated in commodious toys and gadgets, broadcast via bombastic movies, and distinguished by a kind of frenzied obliviousness. Our clothes are childlike, our food is an embarrassment, our schools are pathetic, our entertainment makes an art of decadence. But we sure know how to keep busy.
The social justice movement spans the world, but most of its participants embrace aspects of American culture, and some are wholly steeped in it. They flock to American summer movies, fantasizing about being up there on the screen, a beautiful face framed in glitzy CGI. They have a guilty weakness for Cinnabon or Starbucks or McDonalds. They don’t read much, but they talk a hell of a lot—and indeed, they take both the right to speak and the ability to read for granted. They probably believe that their taste in pop music says something significant about who they really are—and they almost certainly believe this about their taste in consumer technology. They get a kick out of cosplay, face filters, and Halloween, they live far from their parents and are willing to move for work, they travel for Thanksgiving, they gripe about Christmas, they’re always grateful for an excuse to drink something sweet. They may not be Gamers with a capital-G, but they’ve crunched a few candies and launched their share of angry birds. They use the pronoun they with a singular antecedent, especially in phrases like, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion.” They’re at home on the road, in cars or trains, and have meals on the go, in bar form or smoothie form, as if it’s a normal thing to do. They’re heading to the gym right now, or at least that’s what they claim, and they may be too busy to listen to a symphony or fix a decent meal, but they’re not too busy to binge-watch a whole season of Walking Dead. They’re Americans.
To be sure, champions of social justice harbor no special affection for John Quincy Adams. Jefferson’s thoughts on agrarianism impress them far less than his sexual exploits and exploitations. They didn’t care a whit about Alexander Hamilton until they heard him rap. As for fifties culture, they think it should stay in the fifties. In these attitudes, too, they’re quintessentially American. This is a country that celebrates its prospects, not its past. We’re not sure exactly where we come from—wherever it is, most of us didn’t come from there anyway—but we’ve got a lot of noisy ideas about where we want to go. That’s what brought us together, isn’t it: a nagging voice in someone’s head, asking what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?
If there’s one thing that holds together the crazy patchwork of American culture—one thing that smooths over the greedy competition, reconciles the multiplicity of idiosyncratic plans—it’s a set of values so deeply held and widely shared that most of us don’t think much about them at all. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. An obsession with private truth and personal autonomy. A bone-deep resistance to being bossed around. Are there any values closer to the heart of the social justice movement? To be sure, the movement has made grievous errors, like the campus left’s challenges to the principle of free speech. But if the social justice movement has one overriding theme, it’s that Western nations ought to make good on their lofty promises. Social justice activists are often dismissed as crybabies, but their demands are childish only in the sense that they’re idealistic:
Keep your promises, America. Keep your promises to your citizens, be they Black, brown, female, male, asexual, gay, transgender, Muslim, able-bodied or differently abled, and on and on.
For this argument to have any force, however, the promises have to mean something in the first place. Part of American culture has to be worth keeping, worth praising: the part that values freedom, venerates equality, guarantees due process, and enshrines certain fundamental rights.
Why not just say it? Advocates of social justice are sometimes tweaked for speaking as a this or as a that. “As a cisgender single Muslim WoC, I believe …” It shouldn’t be a strain to add another designator. “As an American, I stand up for the rights and security of my Black fellow citizens.” “As an American, I believe in the power of independent thinking, so I think we should keep an open mind about gender.” “As an American, I’m ashamed of what my country has done overseas.” “As an American, I believe that everyone, rich or poor, male or female, white or brown, deserves a fair chance to get ahead.”
Will it change anything if social justice advocates talk this way? Will it win over moderates and principled conservatives? Who knows? The point is that leftists who share American values ought to say so. And those who reject American values ought to be able to say what values they prefer.
Perhaps some would call this a strawman argument. Of course social justice activists are proud of America. Who says otherwise?
If this is true, the message hasn’t reached me. I have in front of me an editorial in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The author, Katherine Franke, makes the case that classic, liberal values are all but synonymous with white supremacy. She provides a partial catalog of America’s sins, writing with a fury proportionate to the ugliness of our political moment:
Let me be blunt: this kind of liberalism is a liberalism of white supremacy. It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction. It is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of “common interest” can and should be built. And it is a liberalism that regards the protests of people of color and women as a complaint or a feeling, ignoring the facts upon which those protests are based — facts about real dead, tortured, raped, and starved bodies.
The sins are real. But when you read the entirety of Franke’s piece, it’s hard to deduce what kind of liberalism she might prefer. Any essay that assails “abstract ideas of ‘citizenship,'” that belittles “commonalities between Americans,” that attacks the “grander, transhistorical idea of a nation,” that sneers at “an attachment to shared liberal values,” that forcefully repudiates, “a commitment to what we all have in common”–is raising far more questions than anger alone can answer.
Is the liberal tradition only a thin cloak for white male supremacy? Or have civil rights activists and social justice advocates become that tradition’s true inheritors? Is the American project such a wreck that it’s not worth saving? Or should we all work harder, at this moment of crisis, to rescue the American dream from people who would despoil it? Do women and minorities have no choice but to give up on America? If so, where does their allegiance now lie?
So hasty and single-minded is Franke’s attack that she ends up making the mistake she seeks to correct. She takes issue with a political adversary’s claim that “Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience.” In Franke’s view, this translates to: “White people, aka ‘Americans with a conscience,’ have been given a window into the reality of the daily violent racism with which Black people live.”
But is that really the obvious interpretation? Are there no Indian Americans with a conscience? No Egyptian Americans with a conscience? No Native Americans with a conscience? No Latino Americans with a conscience? Franke is so eager to impute bad faith to her opponents, so focused on the evils of white supremacy, that she ends up slighting the very diversity she affects to champion.
Maybe it’s time to rescue American values from America’s historical crimes. Or maybe it’s time to give up on nationalism, and put effort into building a borderless coalition dedicated to human rights around the globe. Or maybe it’s time to invest in a multiplicity of insular political projects, with communities of feminists, socialists, and ethnic sodalities all pursuing their respective utopias.
At any rate, it’s time to start taking the crisis of liberalism seriously, and ask not only whether it’s real, but what to do about it. We see all around us the creaking relics of a political project begun by European men three centuries ago. Those men gave us, along with the legacy of their various prejudices, a system of governance, a system of jurisprudence, a system of study and education–all teetering. If we don’t shore up those institutions, they’ll collapse. If we want them to collapse, we may as well tear them down. Either way, it’s a good time to ask–maybe it’s always a good time to ask–what kind of society do we want to live in?
In early 2016, a writer for the New Yorker interviewed student activists at Oberlin College, a hotbed of social justice culture. These young activists had many complaints. They were tired of a conservative society that didn’t value diversity, but tired, also, of progressive institutions that trivialized diversity. They were tired of activism, tired of education, tired of working to get ahead, tired of feeling left behind.
One of them had grown so tired that her only remaining ambition was, “Just getting the eff out of America.” The nation, in her view, was “a sinking ship.”
But if America’s situation had gotten so hopeless, if the only reasonable course was to leave, where would this young woman go? What would come next? What was her guiding vision, her motivating purpose, her plan, her inspiration?
“Working my piece of land,” as she put it, “… and living autonomously—that’s the dream.”
Sounds like another dream I’ve heard about. There have been people–waves of people–who chased that dream over the years, who struck out, set sail, sought their piece of land, yearned for the autonomy of the open frontier. Some of them even realized their hopes, arriving at these shores, centuries ago, determined to found a new society.
You know what happened next.