You can credit social movements for that.
Representative Ayanna Pressley broke with traditional diversity politics last month when she said at a conference in Philadelphia, “we don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.” Instead, “we need you to represent that voice.”
The members of the so-called squad who were also on the panel nodded in agreement. They are the defiant and unapologetic voices of the communities that produced them. Since being elected last fall, these four progressive Democratic congresswomen have pushed the limits of what most liberals mean by the contested term “diversity. ”
Some of their colleagues may have preferred that they simply come in and add color to the room — but in every other way behave as their long-established white predecessors have.
But they have a different agenda. They have a transformative notion of diversity that comes with a different set of expectations and metrics. They insist on bringing the concerns of historically marginalized communities into the rooms where decisions are made, even when that is seen as impolite or inappropriate.
This is evident through their politics, priorities and style — not only their presence. Consider Rashida Tlaib’s “Lift + Act” bill, which comes as close as any to advancing the radical economic principle of universal guaranteed income that Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently advocated some 50 years ago.
They’re exposing the false belief that American foreign policy is infallible. This is exemplified by their critique of Washington’s unconditional support for Israel. And recall the memorable hearing in February when Ilhan Omar challenged Elliott Abrams, a Trump administration official, over his role in supporting Central American death squads in the 1980s.
All of them, along with some other Democrats, have called for the outright abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement because of its widely publicized mistreatment of migrant families and children.
The squad understands that “diversity” is meaningless if the measure of success is “sameness.” The congresswomen are choosing to do politics a different way because they recognize that Congress has never worked for their communities.
From the start, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was urged to stay in her place when she insisted upon committee appointments deemed out of reach for a freshman representative. It was those committees that would have the most impact on the values she was elected to advance, and so she persisted, violating protocol in the process.
She was doing something unprecedented when, as a political neophyte, she introduced the Green New Deal resolution without support from the party leadership. Similarly, Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar have called for President Trump’s impeachment and passionately advocated the rights of Palestinians, breaking with the more tactically conservative approach of the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, on both matters. However, as the scholar-activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in Jacobin, they don’t just represent different personalities vis-à-vis Ms. Pelosi but different worldviews.
Over the past nine months, the squad’s members have made good on their promises to be agents of change, not just fresh faces. Radical inclusivity means that people from different communities, backgrounds and ideological traditions will do their jobs differently and will bring new sensibilities, commitments and understanding with them when they sit at the tables of power. If they are doing their jobs, they will be accountable to people who sent them there, not maintaining the status quo. Anything less is merely cosmetic.
One outcome of exclusion and white privilege is that people of color don’t see ourselves reflected in positions of power often enough. That is the least of it. A more consequential outcome is that our communities are underserved, our children racially profiled by the police, unfairly pushed out of schools or locked up in disproportionate numbers. “We expect elected officials to fight hard for a progressive agenda, and we are not cutting anyone slack simply because they look like us,” argues Chinyere Tutashinda, a leader in the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 black-led organizations across the country.
Ms. Tlaib cares deeply about accountability. She often tells her audiences that she proudly represents Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, one of the poorest in the country, with one of the largest black populations of any district. She is committed to serving its interests and speaking with its voice. When, soon after she was sworn into office in January, she proclaimed that “we are going to impeach” the president, that is the constituency she was speaking for: a population that feels assaulted by Republican policies and abandoned by mainstream Democrats.
The squad has tilled new ground in reanimating a fighting spirit within the Democratic Party and revived its left flank. A more timid approach would have been to go to Washington and blend in. The women’s approach is admirably and courageously to stand out.
This is threatening and offensive to many of their conservative and, dare I say, racist colleagues. In his typical meanspirited manner, the president has hurled numerous insults at them; others have piled on too. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was all but foaming at the mouth on Fox News in July. They are “a bunch of communists,” he said, “who hate our own country.” And “they stand for all the things most Americans disagree with.”
Really? A new poll by The Economist and YouGov indicates that each of the four women has a higher approval rating than Mr. Trump himself. And among independent voters, Mr. Trump still loses by more than 6 percentage points to each squad member. Speaker Pelosi, for her part, has alternated among a mild-mannered defense of her junior colleagues, dismissive comments and an outright reprimand in one instance.A similar dynamic is playing out in politics around the country, as the noted political strategist Jessica Byrd told me. Her electoral firm, Three Point Strategies, has been helping black activists win elections over the last five years. “Without fail, these women are discounted until the voices of the people they represent become too loud to ignore,” she said. “These elections are an incredible symbol that movement can win and is winning. They are a symbol that accountability is possible.”
Many young activists feel protective of the congresswomen, seeing their vulnerabilities as linked. Thenjiwe McHarris was one of 100 black women who hosted a rally in April to protest the attacks and threats against Ms. Omar. “What’s happening to the squad is deeply connected to what’s happening to our communities and our progressive movements,” she told me.
But the squad, and so many other women of color in politics, are not the sit-down-and-shut-up types. And that has earned them widespread adoration. Thousands have signed petitions in their support. The congresswomen collectively enjoy millions of followers on Twitter. And they earn high praise from the millennial activists who have played a monumental but largely unknown role in pushing the party left.
Maurice Mitchell, who now runs the Working Families Party, sees them as central to a seismic shift in electoral politics post-2016. “This moment has radicalized liberals and electoralized radicals,” he told me. Meaning there are new political actors with new agendas and expectations.
I am reminded of another “diversity” moment when the establishment felt threatened. It was when Sonia Sotomayor was being considered for the Supreme Court in 2009. Her opponents had dredged up a speech from eight years earlier in which she said: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
She opined that the experience of racial and gender oppression, learned survival strategies and cultural practices could and should be brought to bear when representatives of marginalized communities assume decision-making roles. This caused quite a stir.
But what she rightly seemed to suggest was that, if who we are doesn’t matter, we are aiming for tokenism more than transformation of elite institutions. She was also intimating that, if I come in, my family, my community, my elders, my people, will in some form, come with me.These women — Justice Sotomayor and the squad — have all insisted upon bringing their whole selves into these insider spaces where women and people of color have been historically told to either “go back” to where they came from, or “listen and learn” in terms of how things are done if they want to succeed. The former message comes from the right, the latter from liberal insiders.
A key demand of this new generation of activists of color has been accountability. They have seen historic numbers of women and black and brown people elected to office, including the nation’s first black president. That alone is insufficient, they have decided. They have seen the limits of representational politics. They want leaders who are immersed in communities who remember where they came from when they attain positions of power. Or better yet, politicians who never leave in all the ways that matter.
Well, the squad members, all with varying activist backgrounds, are a part of that generation. They are products of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Occupy Wall Street and an increasingly militant immigrant rights movement — bold, game-changing social movements that are not afraid to speak truth to power and upset business as usual.
If the millennial social movements are not “your grandmother’s” social movements, then the squad members are certainly not your typical “minority” politicians. They are wisely acting as if they represent the demographic majority that their generation will become. It is significant that a majority of millennials polled by Harvard researchers in 2016 rejected capitalism and leaned toward the left politics that these four congresswomen represent. They are the future of the Democratic Party. So are their ideals. And we need more politicians like them.
Why do Republicans enable right-wing extremism?
Why has the Republican Party become a systematic enabler of terrorism?
Don’t pretend to be shocked. Just look at G.O.P. responses to the massacre in El Paso. They have ranged from the ludicrous (blame video games!) to the almost honest (who would have expected Ted Cruz, of all people, to speak out against white supremacy?). But as far as I can tell, not one prominent Republican has even hinted at the obvious link between Donald Trump’s repeated incitements to violence and the upsurge in hate crimes.
So the party remains in lock step behind a man who has arguably done more to promote racial violence than any American since Nathan Bedford Forrest, who helped found the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization if there ever was one — and who was recently honored by the Republican governor of Tennessee.
Anyway, the party’s complicity started long before Trump came on the scene. More than a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a surge of right-wing extremism. The report was prescient, to say the least. But when congressional Republicans learned about it, they went on a rampage, demanding the resignation of Janet Napolitano, who headed the agency, and insisted that even using the term “right-wing extremism” was unacceptable.
This backlash was effective: Homeland Security drastically scaled back its efforts to monitor and head off what was already becoming a major threat. In effect, Republicans bullied law enforcement into creating a safe space for potential terrorists, as long as their violent impulses were motivated by the right kind of hatred.
No, not exactly. No doubt some members of Congress, and a significant number of Trump administration officials, very much including the tweeter in chief, really are white supremacists. And a much larger fraction — almost surely bigger than anyone wants to admit — are racists. (Recently released tapes of conversations between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon reveal that the modern G.O.P.’s patron saint was, in fact, a crude racist who called Africans “monkeys.”)
But racism isn’t what drives the Republican establishment, and my guess is that a majority of the party’s elected officials find it a little bit repugnant — just not repugnant enough to induce them to repudiate its political exploitation. And their exploitation of racism has led them inexorably to where they are today: de facto enablers of a wave of white supremacist terrorism.
The central story of U.S. politics since the 1970s is the takeover of the Republican Party by economic radicals, determined to slash taxes for the wealthy while undermining the social safety net.
With the arguable exception of George H.W. Bush, every Republican president since 1980 has pushed through tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the 1 percent while trying to defund and/or privatize key social programs like
- Social Security,
- Medicaid and the
- Affordable Care Act.
So how do Republicans win elections? By appealing to racial animus. This is such an obvious fact of American political life that you have to be willfully blind not to see it.
For a long time, the G.O.P. establishment was able to keep this game under control. It would campaign using implicit appeals to racial hostility (welfare queens! Willie Horton!) but turn postelection to privatization and tax cuts.
But for some reason this bait-and-switch started getting less effective in the 2000s. Maybe it was the reality of America’s growing racial diversity; maybe it was the fact that American society as a whole was becoming less racist, leaving the hard-core racists feeling isolated and frustrated. And the election of our first black president really kicked hatred into overdrive.
The result is that there are more and more angry white people out there willing to commit mayhem — and able to do so because those same Republicans have blocked any effective control over sales of assault weapons.
A different, better G.O.P. might have been willing to acknowledge the growing threat and supported a crackdown on violent right-wing extremism, comparable to the F.B.I.’s successful campaign against the modern K.K.K. in the 1960s. A lot of innocent victims would be alive today if Republicans had done so.
But they didn’t, because admitting that right-wing extremism was a threat, or even a phrase law enforcement should be allowed to use, might have threatened the party’s exploitation of racial hostility to achieve its economic goals.
In effect, then, the Republican Party decided that a few massacres were an acceptable price to pay in return for tax cuts. I wish that were hyperbole, but the continuing refusal of G.O.P. figures to criticize Trump even after El Paso shows that it’s the literal truth.
So as I said at the beginning, the G.O.P. has become a systematic enabler of terrorism. Why? Follow the money.
A former dean of the Yale Law School sounds a warning.
Anyone who has followed the news from college campuses over the past few years knows they are experiencing forms of unrest unseen since the late 1960s.
Now, as then, campuses have become an arena for political combat. Now, as then, race is a central issue. Now, as then, students rail against an unpopular president and an ostensibly rigged system. Now, as then, liberal professors are being bullied, denounced, demoted, threatened, sued and sometimes even assaulted by radical students.
But there are some important differences, too. None of today’s students risk being drafted into an unpopular, distant war. Unlike the campus rebels of the ’60s, today’s student activists don’t want more freedom to act, speak, and think as they please. Usually they want less.
Most strange: Today’s students are not chafing under some bow-tied patriarchal WASP dispensation. Instead, they are the beneficiaries of a system put in place by professors and administrators whose political views are almost uniformly left-wing and whose campus policies indulge nearly every progressive orthodoxy.
So why all the rage?
The answer lies in the title of Anthony Kronman’s necessary, humane and brave new book: “The Assault on American Excellence.” Kronman’s academic credentials are impeccable — he has taught at Yale for 40 years and spent a decade as dean of its law school — and his politics, so far as I can tell, are to the left of mine.
But Yale has been ground zero for recent campus unrest, including a Maoist-style struggle session against a distinguished professor, fights about “cultural appropriation,” the renaming of Calhoun (as in, John C.) College, and the decision to drop the term “master” because, to some, it carried “a painful and unwelcome connotation.”
It’s this last decision that seems to have triggered Kronman’s alarm. The word “master” may remind some students of slavery. What it really means is a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit, not only for its own sake, but also as an essential counterweight to the leveling and conformist tendencies of democratic politics that Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed as the most insidious threats to American civilization.
What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.
“In endless pronouncements of tiresome sweetness, the faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities today insist on the overriding importance of creating a culture of inclusion on campus,” Kronman writes.
This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.
Hence the new campus mores. Before an idea can be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, it must first be considered in light of its political ramifications. Before a speaker can be invited to campus for the potential interest of what he might have to say, he must first pass the test of inoffensiveness. Before a student can think and talk for himself, he must first announce and represent his purported identity. Before a historical figure can be judged by the standards of his time, he must first be judged by the standards of our time.
All this is meant to make students “safe.” In fact, it leaves them fatally exposed. It emboldens offense-takers, promotes doublethink, coddles ignorance. It gets in the way of the muscular exchange of honest views in the service of seeking truth. Above all, it deprives the young of the training for independent mindedness that schools like Yale are supposed to provide.
I said earlier that Kronman’s book is brave, but in that respect I may be giving him too much credit. Much of his illustrious career is now safely behind him; he can write as he pleases. Would an untenured professor have the guts to say what he does? The answer to the question underscores the urgency of his warning.
Navigating the tension between work and relationships.
Soren Kierkegaard asked God to give him the power to will one thing. Amid all the distractions of life he asked for the power to live a focused life, wholeheartedly, toward a single point.
And we’ve all known geniuses and others who have practiced a secular version of this. They have found their talent and specialty. They focus monomaniacally upon it. They put in the 10,000 hours (and more) that true excellence requires.
I just read “You Must Change Your Life,” Rachel Corbett’s joint biography of the sculptor Auguste Rodin and his protégé, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and they were certainly versions of this type.
The elder Rodin had one lesson for the young Rilke. “Travailler, toujours travailler.” Work, always work.
This is the heroic vision of the artist. He renounces earthly and domestic pleasures and throws himself into his craft. Only through total dedication can you really see deeply and produce art.
In his studio, Rodin could be feverishly obsessed, oblivious to all around him. “He abided by his own code, and no one else’s standards could measure him,” Corbett writes. “He contained within himself his own universe, which Rilke decided was more valuable than living in a world of others’ making.”
Rilke had the same solitary focus. With the bohemian revelry of turn-of-the-century Paris all around him, Rilke was alone writing in his room. He didn’t drink or dance. He celebrated love, but as a general outlook and not as something you gave to any one person or place.
Both men produced masterworks that millions have treasured. But readers finish Corbett’s book feeling that both men had misspent their lives.
They were both horrid to their wives and children. Rodin grew pathetically creepy, needy and lonely. Rilke didn’t go back home as his father was dying, nor allow his wife and child to be with him as he died. Both men lived most of their lives without intimate care.
Their lives raise the question: Do you have to be so obsessively focused to be great? The traditional masculine answer is yes. But probably the right answer is no.
In the first place, being monomaniacal may not even be good for your work. Another book on my summer reading list was “Range,” by David Epstein. It’s a powerful argument that generalists perform better than specialists.
The people who achieve excellence tend to have one foot outside their main world. “Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer,” Epstein writes.
He shows the same pattern in domain after domain: People who specialize in one thing succeed early, but then they slide back to mediocrity as their minds rigidify.
Children who explore many instruments when they are young end up as more skilled musicians than the ones who are locked into just one. People who transition between multiple careers when they are young end up ahead over time because they can take knowledge in one domain and apply it to another.
A tech entrepreneur who is 50 is twice as likely to start a superstar company than one who is 30, because he or she has a broader range of experience. A survey of the fastest-growing tech start-ups found that the average age of the founder was 45.
For most people, creativity is precisely the ability to pursue multiple interests at once, and then bring them together in new ways. “Without contraries is no progression,” William Blake wrote.
Furthermore, living a great life is more important than producing great work. A life devoted to one thing is a stunted life, while a pluralistic life is an abundant one. This is a truth feminism has brought into the culture. Women have rarely been able to live as monads. They were generally compelled to switch, hour by hour, between different domains and roles: home, work, market, the neighborhood.
A better definition of success is living within the tension of multiple commitments and trying to make them mutually enhancing. The shape of this success is a pentagram — the five-pointed star. You have your five big passions in life — say,
- faith —
and live flexibly within the gravitational pull of each.
You join communities that are different from one another. You gain wisdom by entering into different kinds of consciousness. You find freedom at the borderlands between your communities.
Over the past month, while reading these books, I attended four conferences. Two were very progressive, with almost no conservatives. The other two were very conservative, with almost no progressives. Each of the worlds was so hermetically sealed I found that I couldn’t even describe one world to members of the other. It would have been like trying to describe bicycles to a fish.
I was reading about how rich the pluralistic life is, and how stifling a homogeneous life is. And I was realizing that while we’re learning to preach gospel of openness and diversity, we’re mostly not living it. In the realm of public life, many live as monads, within the small circles of one specialty, one code, no greatness.