George Scialabba has a wonderful essay about Orwell in Commonweal. Though Scialabba writes in it about Orwell’s criticism of the right, this passage jumped out:
Might Orwell’s sensitive nose have detected a whiff of cant anywhere on the contemporary left? I suspect he would have cast a baleful eye on identity politics. He would, I think, be dubious about “diversity.” Why do every college and corporation in America have a fleet of “diversity” officers? What is gained by ensuring—at enormous expense—that every student or employee is proud of his/her culture and that every other student or employee respects it? According to Walter Benn Michaels in The Trouble with Diversity, what is gained is the avoidance of class conflict. “The commitment to diversity is at best a distraction and at worst an essentially reactionary position…. We would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality.”
Orwell was moderately obsessed with class. He would probably have noted that the explosive growth of inequality in the United States over the past four decades has closely paralleled the explosive growth of the diversity industry, and would have drawn some conclusions. He might have asked: If there were two societies with the same Gini coefficient, but in one of them, the proportion of billionaires by race and gender matched that of the general population, would that society be morally better than the other? Or: If the ratio of CEO to median employee earnings was the same in two societies, but in one of them the proportion of CEOs by race and gender matched that of the general population, would that society be morally better than the other? I’m pretty sure that most diversity bureaucrats would answer “yes” to both questions, and that Orwell would have answered “no.”
Orwell was fearless, so a tribute to him shouldn’t pull any punches. I think he would suggest that there was something irrational about the way we enforce our most sensitive taboo: the N-word. From the wholesale banning of Huckleberry Finn to the many times teachers and civil servants have been censured, and in one case fired, for using the word “niggardly” (which has no etymological relation to the N-word) to the resignation under pressure recently of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, school committeewoman for using the N-word in a discussion of a proposed high-school course about the N-word, we have often made fools of ourselves and done disadvantaged African Americans no good. As the school superintendent summarized the Cambridge case: the committeewoman “made a point about racist language and used the full N-word instead of the common substitute, ‘N-word.’… Although said in the context of a classroom discussion, and not directed to any student or adult present, the full pronunciation of the word was upsetting to a number of students and adults who were present or who have since heard about the incident.” No one, however, as far as I am aware, has publicly expressed hurt feelings over the fact that the average net worth of African Americans in the Boston area is $8. (Eight, no zeros.) As Benn Michaels observes: “As long as the left continues to worry about [respect], the right won’t have to worry about inequality.”
I wrote earlier today about actually existing conservatism being more of a “folk libertarianism” than anything resembling philosophical conservatism. But what about actually existing liberalism?
The surprising triumph of Joe Biden, the most normie Democrat in America, tells us something about actually existing liberalism. Illiberal progressivism dominates in academia, the media, and in corporate America’s human resources departments. A reader sends in this abstract from a paper published by a Penn professor at the Ivy League university’s Wharton School of Business (Trump’s alma mater!) in which she argues that the state should
forbid identity-based discrimination but permit refusals of service for projects that foster hate toward protected groups, even where the hate-based project is intimately linked to a protected characteristic (as with religious groups that mandate white supremacy). Far from perpetuating discrimination, these refusals instead promote anti-discrimination norms, and they help realize the vision of the morally inflected marketplace that the Article defends.
You could say that Biden’s (not yet assured) victory in the Democratic primaries shows that actually existing liberalism is much less interested in wokeness than in bread-and-butter issues. After all, the more self-consciously woke candidates in the Democratic race didn’t get anywhere. I would like to read it that way. But would Biden actually stand up to any wokeness? After all, this is the man who tweeted:
Let’s be clear: Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time. There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic human rights.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) January 25, 2020
This is the problem with the Democrats. You might be interested in class issues, and economic equality, and not at all interested in wokeness. But what you’re going to get is wokeness, because that is what the power-holding class in the Democratic Party really cares about. As James Lindsay, the left-liberal professor who does heroic work fighting wokeness, told me in our recent interview:
Of course [Social Justice Warriors] going to find ways to use this crisis to their advantage. They go around inventing problems or dramatically exaggerating or misinterpreting small problems to push their agenda; why wouldn’t they do the same in a situation where there’s so much chaos and thus so much going wrong. My experience so far is that people are really underestimating how much of this there will be and how much of it will be institutionalized while we’re busy doing other things like tending to the sick and dying and trying not to lose our livelihoods and/or join them ourselves.
It’s very important to understand that “Critical Social Justice” isn’t just activism and some academic theories about things. It’s a way of thinking about the world, and that way is rooted in critical theory as it has been applied mostly to identity groups and identity politics. Thus, not only do they think about almost nothing except ways that “systemic power” and “dominant groups” are creating all the problems around us, they’ve more or less forgotten how to think about problems in any other way. The underlying assumption of their Theory–and that’s intentionally capitalized because it means a very specific thing–is that the very fabric of society is built out of unjust systemic power dynamics, and it is their job (as “critical theorists”) to find those, “make them visible,” and then to move on to doing it with the next thing, ideally while teaching other people to do it too. This crisis will be full of opportunities to do that, and they will do it relentlessly. So, it’s not so much a matter of them “finding a way” to use this crisis to their advantage as it is that they don’t really do anything else.
To be honest, I don’t have a lot of confidence in predictions about what valence wokeness (or right-wing culture war themes) will have in this fall’s election, given the economic destruction upon us now. I do have confidence, though, that if the left gets into power, this professional class of woke activists will march triumphantly through the institutions of government, and implement their identity-politics utopianism. Do I think that most Democratic voters do, or would, favor that? No, probably not. I imagine they would be voting Democratic primarily to oust Trump, and secondarily because they are more interested in income inequality. Unfortunately, the SJWs are part of the package. If Orwell were alive today and writing with his superlative critical pen about them, he would struggle to find publication in one of our major liberal journals.
UPDATE: Just now:
I’m sure Critical Social Justice isn’t quietly reorganizing things that might matter because of the pandemic… Or so I keep being told. https://t.co/LEzvjqbu2B
— James Lindsay, staying home (@ConceptualJames) March 31, 2020