Continued elsewhere

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Social Justice and its Enemies

On this Martin Luther King Jr day I am thinking (god knows why) of the various people I encounter around the net who are alt-right or just so alienated from the mainstream that they have decided to be on the side opposed to social justice. The mocking term SJW encodes the reality that there is a war going on. They feel attacked and are just fighting back, although what they are fighting for is difficult to pin down.

Perhaps not in the cases of those who are fully given to ethnonationalism or white supremacy. Those types are unreachable and I don՚t care about them. They՚ll always be an enemy, hopefully a contained one.

But there seems to be large amorphous group of people who are somewhere on the alt.right spectrum for other reasons – maybe they are mad at the pious hypocrisies they can detect in liberalism, maybe they feel at a social disadvantage for some reason, maybe they feel that the real injustice is being done to them, that certain groups claim to be oppressed (women, blacks, gays) but really are the oppressor. Maybe they feel that they are smarter than most of those pious liberals, and so resent being told that certain of their behaviors and values are bad by people with no special standing to be superior. Or maybe they detect the Christian roots of the value of universal human equality, and thus hate it for Nietzschean reasons as an insidious form of sklavenmoral. Others take the very real atrocities done in the name of communism and use those to dismiss anything remotely leftist as leading inevitably to the Gulag.

Those are all somewhat valid reasons! But they are reasons to dislike the left, not reasons to be for anything in particular. As a result, these people inevitably drift into alliance with the Nazis, who definitely know what they are for. Or they veer off into pseudo-political ideologies like libertarianism (longing for a pure market that has never existed), or neoreaction (yearning for a monarch that has never existed).

Martin Luther King Jr is our culture՚s archetypal social justice warrior. His legacy is a bit confused because he՚s been raised up to a sort of secular sainthood, which tends to hide the fact that he was a politically engaged activist (you should really read this entire excellent essay):

The King now enshrined in popular sensibilities is not the King who spoke so powerfully and admiringly at Carnegie Hall about Du Bois. Instead, he is a mythic figure of consensus and conciliation, who sacrificed his life to defeat Jim Crow and place the United States on a path toward a “more perfect union.” … King deployed his rhetorical genius in the service of our country’s deepest ideals—the ostensible consensus at the heart of our civic culture—and dramatized how Jim Crow racism violated these commitments. Heroically, through both word and deed, he called us to be true to who we already are: “to live out the true meaning” of our founding creed. No surprise, then, that King is often draped in Christian symbolism redolent of these themes. He is a revered prophet of U.S. progress and redemption, Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or a Christ who sacrificed his life to redeem our nation from its original sin.

Such poetic renderings lead our political and moral judgment astray. Along with the conservative gaslighting that claims King’s authority for “colorblind” jurisprudence, they obscure King’s persistent attempt to jar the United States out of its complacency and corruption. They ignore his indictment of the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” his critique of a Constitution unjustly inattentive to economic rights and racial redress, and his condemnation of municipal boundaries that foster unfairness in housing and schooling. It is no wonder then that King’s work is rarely on the reading lists of young activists. He has become an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.

This is a tragedy, for King was a vital political thinker. Unadulterated, his ideas upset convention and pose radical challenges—perhaps especially today, amidst a gathering storm of authoritarianism, racial chauvinism, and nihilism that threatens the future of democracy and the ideal of equality.

I try and take a very abstracted view of politics, when I can – that is, I am interested in the political as a phenomenon, above and beyond my own personal values and loyalties. Somehow, people form themselves into coalitions, these coalitions then contest with each other for power, with an ever-present threat of violence which threatens to emerge if and when peaceful (symbolic) conflict resolution fails. It՚s one of those fascinating things humans do. Economic self-interest, group interests, and abstract morality all play roles in this process.

And as it happens, there has been a long conflict in the US between the forces that King represents and the values he fought for, and their opponents. This is just a fact of political life. Another fact of political life is that one has to choose a side. Neutrality is not really an option for any intellectually engaged adult, sorry. .

King has come to stand for certain social values: inclusion, equality, freedom, justice, empathy, non-violence. So, dear alt.righters – do you really want to be on the side that is opposed to those? Do all the things you hate about the left really outweigh these ideals?

Of course politics, and King՚s legacy, isn՚t that simple – but you know, on some level, it is that simple. One of the few consolations to living in the era of Trump is that moral/political questions become very stark, and it becomes pretty damn obvious what the sides are and where decency lies.