In the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which roughly two-hundred and fifty white nationalist protestors clashed with counter-protestors, culminating in an attack by a white nationalist that left one woman dead and dozens wounded, the already prevalent debate over the role of racism in American society has again been brought to the forefront. The actions of white nationalist and neo-Nazi activists there are repugnant, both in word and deed, and the man responsible for the death of an innocent woman should be punished to the full extent of the law. No reasonable debate or entertainment of contrary views can be had over these points.
A very different question, however, which the left and many in the media would have us hastily accept without careful thought is whether an event such as this—even before the car attack—is a representative sample and irrefutable proof that, as the left would allege, we live in a deeply and pervasively racist society full of hate and bigotry. After all, when the shock of Charlottesville abates and it is no longer such an acute current event, it will join the ranks of other stories—some legitimately related to racism, others not so—which are offered as evidence in the left’s case against American culture. Yet the ability of some of the most prominent white nationalist leaders in America (Richard Spencer’s scheduled speech in Charlottesville being the main draw for many white nationalist protestors) to assemble a crowd of 250 seemingly lower-income, lowly educated individuals together for one day in a nation of 326 million people is perhaps not so remarkable.
That is, it is not so remarkable if you accept a realistic vision of the world as consisting of diverse groups of people holding an even more diverse array of moral ideas, many of which will be found objectionable by any person of integrity. If one accepts that any society which upholds freedom of thought and expression will observe some individuals using that freedom to express irrational, contemptible ideas, then the observance of .00008% (rounded up) of the American population showing up to express revolting, tribalist views is no less condemnable, but nor is it cause to declare a crusade on American culture and lead social media pogroms to weed out the hidden racial bogeyman lurking behind every corner in our society. Indeed, of the world’s many nations and cultures, what evidence there is on popular racial views places the United States far on the tolerant end of the spectrum and is more incriminating for the left’s beloved and allegedly morally superior ideal: Europe.
In the 2013 World Views Survey, which asked what sorts of people respondents would not want as neighbors, the United States joined the rest of the English-speaking world and Latin countries in having the most racially tolerant views, whereas Europe emerged as a very mixed bag, the Middle East was yet less tolerant, Asia leaned even more towards racial intolerance, and India and Jordan specifically proved the very most racially intolerant countries in the world. A separate Harvard study conducted from 2002 to 2015 broadly confirmed Europe’s mixed views on race (albeit asking slightly different questions).
These findings, however, cut sharply against the leftist narrative of America as a deeply racist society and of capitalism as having failed to diminish the prejudices of former ages. Indeed, reportage on America’s successes in such surveys appears and then is just as quickly dismissed without comment. The question, then, is why such good news of cultural progress is so summarily greeted with a shrug by those who are allegedly so concerned with the dangers of racism. The answers are two, and I will leave it to the reader how he wishes to weight them, but I believe that both are essential to understanding the matter.
First is craven political gamesmanship. If not for accusations by the left that everyone who doesn’t vote Democrat is either a Confederate-flag-waving redneck who longs to revive chattel slavery or a “one-percenter”, country club racist reclining on a yacht and turning the volume knob on the radio down when the latest report of police brutality in inner cities comes over the airwaves, political news coverage would otherwise have to focus on a decade of economic wage stagnation, near-zero interest rates, the legacies of bailouts, the failures of ObamaCare, renewed global trends towards authoritarianism, and the emboldenment of Iran and North Korea under the Obama administration. What’s more: it would be nearly impossible to lay these failures at the feet of Republicans or to somehow strike a bipartisan balance in the allocation of blame.
Unfortunately for the left, aside from perhaps some limited successes in branding this or that tax cut, government shutdown, or minimum wage argument as “racist,” under the weight of introspection, the incessant racial narrative has consistently failed at the voting booth. It has succeeded in dominating news cycles as dutiful evening news producers pay their respects to the Democratic Party, but when your political strategy for a decade consists of convincing Americans that their neighbors all have Klan hoods in their closets, you go against the evidence of voters’ lived experiences and the everyday interactions with normal, decent people that undercut those fear-mongering caricatures.
Second, and somewhat deeper, is the political philosophy at the root of leftism and its conception of the relationship between man and the state. As we have written many times elsewhere in these pages, the philosophical foundation of leftism is subjectivism. In metaphysics, this means holding implicitly the primacy of consciousness over the primacy of existence: facts are not independent of man’s mind and there to be judged by him but are created by his mind in the act of thinking. In essence, one’s views are seen to manufacture reality, not to interpret it. In epistemology, this corresponds to a belief that all truth is relative, never absolute, and that it is entirely dependent upon the perceiver. Not only beauty but reality itself is in the eye of the beholder according to this vision of the world. Subjectivism in philosophy can take two forms. The first, individual subjectivism, if taken seriously, ultimately rules out any possibility for consensus even between two people. Without reality as evidence, who is to say that two subjectivists even mean the same thing when using the same words? Thus, they resort to social subjectivism. Far from accepting the impossibility of consensus, social subjectivism insists upon it and enshrines it as all-powerful, contending that truth is whatever society agrees to be true, usually as dictated by a simple majority.
In morality and ethics, individual subjectivism leads to hedonism, with no objective standard for proper behavior or relations with others. Social subjectivism, by contrast, leads to the view that whatever society judges to be right is automatically made so—again, usually judged according to majority rules. It is easy to see how such a moral premise manifests in leftist idealization of democratic socialism and the unlimited power of majorities. It is an inherently anti-constitutionalist philosophy which, through turns both subtle and overt, attempts to make “society” synonymous with the state and to interpret every action of government as a manifestation of some greater purpose, as though every new piece of legislation were willed by the universe itself. It is also easy, in light of this perspective on leftism, to see how such a philosophy would leave its adherents bewildered by consistent political losses and long-term political minority status.
Most pertinent for our subject here, however, is the response of someone influenced by such a philosophy to the existence of opposing views. If popular opinion is the ultimate barometer of truth, as they implicitly hold, then the existence of even small minority opinions contrary to their own is elevated to the status of a major threat. Ideological debate is not viewed as simply a dispute over perspectives on the facts of reality but a struggle for reality itself. Further exacerbating their fears is that, unlike someone who believes in an objective standard to which we might resort in answering tough questions and making crucial judgments, no such standard exists for subjectivists. Thus, in an effort to salvage some sense of moral self-esteem and a belief in their own goodness, an increasingly subjectivist society (or an increasingly subjectivist subculture within a society) has no metric by which to prove itself good. With enough consensus, it could surrender to total hedonism and embrace its lack of standards, but if it remains a minority in its own society then to command any power or respect it must demonstrate some form of moral character. But how does a standardless culture choose a moral standard? The same way that social subjectivists choose anything else: by popular opinion.
Enter the “-isms.” According to modern leftist ideology, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are the fatal flaws of American culture. Rape culture (contrary to crime statistics) is said to be in the ascendant. Oppression of all kinds are, in the leftist view, being perpetrated daily all around us. One could scarcely find ills more universally agreed upon to be bad. Who, aside from the small-minded tribalists at a white supremacist rally, would defend racism? Who would defend sexism as such? Who, in twenty-first century America, would be taken seriously by a majority for defending homophobia? Who but the insane would defend rape? These are not controversial moral positions; they are the safest possible positions one could take in wanting to appear moral (both to others and to oneself) without having the standards to take a stand on any truly difficult question.
These are token convictions which, in word, command attention from those legitimately concerned with injustice but which are revealed, in spirit, to be hollow when it is shown that by “perpetuating rape culture” a leftist writer really meant that the accused was merely taking up too much space on a bus bench and that an accusation of “homophobia” means merely that the accused recognizes the legal and philosophical nuance behind the question of whether business owners should be forced to vend to marriage ceremonies inconsonant with the proprietor’s religious beliefs. The resulting picture leaves the impression that such moralistic demonstrators and campus blackshirts care little about racism, sexism, homophobia, or violent crime at all but merely instrumentalize such issues to assert their own social and political power in the absence of any real moral positions on nuanced issues. They swing at the low-hanging fruit of ethics, and when the debate drifts to higher and more intellectual questions, they engage in the most elaborate argumentative stunts in order to turn a more nuanced debate into a debate over “-isms” and pull it back down to a level more accessible to those who have not bothered to cultivate independent minds or a belief in objective morality.
Intriguingly but unsurprisingly, for all of its condemnations of racism and endless parade of accusations, the left never presents an alternative standard to racism, sexism, homophobia, or any of the prejudices we are all alleged to hold. It never states clearly, “Rather than racism, we should embrace __________.” Leftists will frequently invoke the term “equality,” but equality is merely a descriptor which pertains to the relationship between two entities; it says nothing of their absolute status. Equal on what terms? Equally beholden to what laws and customs? Serfs under communism are equal, but they are equally enslaved, oppressed, and exterminated when it serves the party. Leftists occasionally refer to “human rights” as a standard, but they never go further to define what those rights are or the standard by which they should be chosen, leaving it as open-ended and underdefined as an endorsement of merely “doing good.”
The reason for this is that the only rational argument to be made against racism or any other form of prejudice is found in individualism, and the only political standard capable of warding against oppression is individual rights. Social subjectivism and individual rights are incompatible, however, and leftism, true to its guiding philosophy, rejects individual rights along with any firm principle, save one: the right of the majority to unlimited rule. So long as it remains as such, the left will remain frantic whenever it finds itself in a minority status, as it has no moral premise which allows it to condemn the power of the majority or to fully embrace constitutional limitations on majority power. It is disarmed by its own premises. Still, even in the minority, it remains dangerous at a cultural level for the deceitful ways in which it attempts to convince all Americans of their own innate bigotry and moral inferiority and presents the only path to salvation to be an acceptance of leftist doctrine. For the original sin of being American, it enjoins us to pay our indulgences every other November at our local polling place.
The proper response, however, is simple. In answer, Americans must learn to condemn bigotry at a personal level while accepting neither guilt for living in the same world as bigots nor a social responsibility to shout their condemnations from the rooftops on a daily basis. In both cases, they must recognize that a man’s moral character is his own and is independent of the moral character of fellow members of his demographic group. And they must appreciate that just as that is an argument against judging individuals according to their race, it is as much an argument against accepting unearned guilt and the moral duty to bear the sins of one’s ancestors. In essence, they must uphold the most anti-racist doctrine in existence: individualism.