Thursday, December 17, 2020

As Went Blackness So Went America's Elites

unherd |  The Left’s posture of liberationism provided an interpretive frame in which the deadly riots and wider explosion of urban crime in the 1960s was to be understood as political rather than criminal. This interpretation played a key role in the wider inversion: it is “society” that is revealed to be criminal. The utility of urban rioting for the new Left lay in the fact that it was thought to carry an insight into the illegitimacy of even our most minimum standards of behaviour. The moral authority of the black person, as victim, gave the bourgeoisie permission to withdraw its allegiance from the social order, just as black people were gaining fuller admittance to it.

Consider the images that had so impressed the nation in the 1950s and lead to the passage of civil rights legislation: marchers demanding equal treatment, and being willing to go to jail as a demonstration of this allegiance to the rule of law, impartially applied. The civil rights movement began as an attack on the injustice of double standards; it was a patriotic appeal to the common birthright of citizenship, as against the local sham democracy of the South. Notably, the civil rights activists of this time wore suits and ties, the costume of adult obligations and standards of comportment. But in a stunning reversal achieved by the new Left working in concert with the Black Power movement, Lasch points out, “the idea of a single standard was itself attacked as the crowning example of ‘institutional racism’.” Such standards were said to have no other purpose than keeping black people in their place. This shift was fundamental, for shared standards are what make for a democratic social order, as against the ancien régime of special privileges and exemptions.

For the new Left, then, it was not capitalism but the democratic social order altogether that was the source of oppression — not just of black people, or of workers, but of us, the college bourgeoisie. The civil rights movement of black Americans became the template for subsequent claims by women, gays and transgender persons, each based on a further discovery of moral failing buried deep in the heart of America. Hence a further license, indeed mandate, granted to individual conscience, as against the claims of the nation.

But the black experience retains a special role as the template that must be preserved. The black man is specially tuned by history to pick up the force field of oppression, which may be hard to discern in the more derivative cases that are built by analogy with his. Therefore, his condition serves a wider diagnostic and justificatory function. If it were to improve, denunciation of “society” would be awkward to maintain and, crucially, my own conscience would lose its self-certifying independence from the community. My wish to be free of the demands of society would look like mere selfishness.

The white bourgeoisie became invested in a political drama in which their own moral standing depends on black people remaining permanently aggrieved. Unless their special status as ur-victim is maintained, African-Americans cannot serve as patrons for the wider project of liberation. If you question this victimisation, you are questioning the rottenness of America. And if you do that, you are threatening the social order, strangely enough. For it is now an order governed by the freelance moralists of the cosmopolitan consensus. Somehow these free agents, ostensibly guided by individual conscience, have coalesced into something resembling a tribe, one that is greatly angered by rejection of its moral expertise.