There is a transformation at work today in the American left. Not an introduction of new or different ideas—to the contrary, it is arguable that the left has had no new or different ideas since the 1960s. Rather, the transformation at work is the result of a generation of leftists, for the first time, taking those ideas seriously and applying them consistently across a broad spectrum of issues. Raised and/or educated by those who lived through its development in the 1960s, these are the true, pedigreed children of the New Left—a movement that transformed much of the American left from a belief in statism based upon a (misplaced) confidence in the productive power of socialism and government controls to a belief in statism simply because. It mutated the leftist cries for equal prosperity into cries for equality regardless of prosperity—equally prosperous, equally miserable, it is all the same.
In the name of socialism and Mother Earth alike, they mourn dictators like Hugo Chavez as the lights go out in Venezuela, all while denouncing the productive power of capitalism because it is productive, because it transforms the world to better suit man’s nature, and because it enables the realization of freedoms that make man both prosperous and independent. Whether or not these aspiring autocrats have a clear vision of the ends to which their actions are directed, guided by the voices of their professors they are striding ever faster toward nihilistic, destructive ends.
Gone are socialism’s proud boasts of being able to out-produce the free world. These gnashing, virulent young totalitarians do not even attempt to recast the fall of the Soviet Union as happenstance or mismanagement—why bother? Socialists who try to argue for the superiority of the system are only missing the point: power for power’s sake. They are, however, learning one of the great lessons of twentieth century statism: the greatest heights of power are best achieved by those who first cast themselves as powerless. All great socialist heroes must begin as victims.
Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, written from prison, is an attempt to cast German society as a perennial victim to its Jewish minority and the machinations of other European powers. It set the tone for Nazism’s dichotomous vision of Germany as both a perennial victim and an indomitable power. Fidel Castro achieved his rise after imprisonment by the Batista government and would ideologically ground his revolution in the victim mentalities of Marxism, dependency theory, and anti-colonialism. One struggles to find a socialist revolutionary movement that does not ground itself in a long history of weathering abuses. Personal histories involving exile, ostracism, and imprisonment have been used as complements to socialist doctrines by such leaders as Juan Peron in Argentina, Sukarno in Indonesia, and Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia as well as other totalitarian ideologies. The exile of the Ayatollah Khomeini from Iran in the 1970s only strengthened the loyalty of his followers, making his subsequent rise all the more heroic in their eyes and solidifying their belief in Islamic totalitarianism. Prison time was practically a prerequisite for the resume of any would-be 20th century autocrat.
Lacking any definitive world leader today who can be idealized as a socialist hero, the New Left has adopted a new tactic, democratizing these claims of suffering and making victims and tyrants of the masses. One needn’t be unique or possess any particular leadership skills or ambitions to contribute to the cause. One need only play the victim, and if enough victims can be amassed over time then, the plan goes, a critical mass of guilt in those who stand against them can yield ever greater powers and reforms. As in the twentieth century, victimhood is used as a tool by socialists to lure any morally unconfident observer into a long, insatiable series of concessions: reforms of rules on college campuses, restrictions of free speech, new hiring rules for businesses, greater power for regulatory agencies—so on and so forth forever. Do not be fooled: at the end of every leftist social crusade is political action of some kind. An ideology that sees solutions for every problem in the arms of an all-powerful state cannot help but make more laws. In the process, no amount of compensation or concessions will ever revoke or weaken their status as aggrieved victims. Lest we think so, they are quick to remind us that their individual well-beings are irrelevant in the context of the overall well-being of their class, race, gender, religion, or whatever the label may be. If that category as a whole succeeds, then it is to their ancestors that society owes an unlimited debt. If no particular injustice can be cited, thus begins the task of manufacturing grievances.
Today’s focus on “microaggressions” is, one hopes, the last word in this process. Roughly defined (one mustn’t define aggressions too strictly—the harder to prove them) as any comment or question capable of making someone else uncomfortable, the doctrine of “microaggressions” provides essentially unlimited license for any company employee or university student to issue a complaint against another worker, student, or professor for any comment they wish, no matter how objectively harmless it might seem. It is not a matter of what is said, they urge, but how it made the listener feel. On the flip side of “microaggressions” by the perpetrators are the victims’ “triggers.” Just as “microaggressions” are unknowable beforehand (who can see into the emotions of another?) yet nonetheless punishable, so “triggers” are emotional sensitivities in the victims over which they have no control and cannot be expected to gain control. Every individual’s “triggers” are as different as their own personal history and psychology, so one cannot know when one is perpetrating these “microaggressions” against them. Convenient. This affords them unlimited license to respond however they like without responsibility for their actions or to demand action by the host institution (usually a university) against the unwitting perpetrator. As the long stream of accommodations to such irrationality pours in, one wonders how administrators will respond the day that an angry mob pleads that it was “triggered” and could not help its violent response.
Taken together, the system being constructed before us is censorship—if censorship were monitored and judged by a highly insecure, paranoid schizophrenic with bad reading comprehension skills. In this spirit, a recent news story told of one student at an Ivy League school issuing a complaint against another for publicly agreeing with him in a class discussion. The plaintiff claimed that by proclaiming his statements to be true, the defendant was commanding a sense of authority over him and the right to determine for the group what is true and false. To its credit, the university dismissed the charge. Not all are so lucky, however.
According to a recently publicized set of guidelines issued to University of California professors in 2013, the unforgivable offenses of complimenting a foreign student’s mastery of English, asking where they or their parents are from, or referring to the United States as “the land of the free” constitute discriminatory and intimidating acts of aggression. Meanwhile, in a remarkable parallel with the 60s, many professors and students are held hostage to non-objective outbursts of the activists’ rage while others egg them on and university administrators cower in their offices, placating the most rabid voices by firing thought-provoking adjunct and associate faculty and cancelling campus debates and speakers who might “trigger” the students.
A final thought: in the mid-20th century, much of (but not all of, lest we forget George Wallace et al) the Democratic Party achieved political success by crafting itself as a hero to victims, a hope for America’s marginalized and forgotten. In the process, it achieved some good (greater civil rights for minorities) and some bad (Affirmative Action, the Great Society programs, etc.), but throughout it all was preserved an image of the Democratic voter: the working man, the working woman, the trial lawyer, the ambitious but idealistic student, etc. That image is fading, and while many who fit those descriptions still make up much of the party’s base, they are no longer its face. They have shuffled in to be its rank and file as the front lines are increasingly manned by rabid social justice warriors.
Leftist students today appear to be cashing in early, seeking the much easier status of victims than of heroes and finding it in a movement that tells them that prejudice and injustice are everywhere in everything, even the most harmless of acts; that teaches them to think of themselves as victims in a flawed universe. Such self-pity and paranoia is irrational and cannibalizes those who embrace it, but it is highly contagious. Nonetheless, this new wave of victims may be the fertile soil of statism, but history tells us that from among them must come leaders for the process to be complete—power-hungry would-be autocrats willing to water their grievances and harvest the all the rights and powers that these feigning masses so eagerly, slavishly yield up. In the interest of America’s future, we should culturally and philosophically take these sniveling mini-tyrants seriously and oppose them. All the better if we should do so before they find their strongman.