Confident Pluralism argues that we can and must live together peaceably in spite of deep and sometimes irresolvable differences over politics, religion, sexuality, and other important matters. We can do so in two important ways – by insisting on constitutional commitments that honor and protect difference and by embodying tolerance, humility, and patience in our speech, our collective action (protests, strikes, and boycotts), and our relationships across difference.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.
The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?
At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.
Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.
Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.
The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.
The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.
Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”
“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”
Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.
The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.
Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”
But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the
- black culture of Compton, the
- Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
- Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
- Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
- Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
- Cuban culture of Miami and the
- “woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
- conservative culture of the white small town.
But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.
Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.
To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.
Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.
We need an uprising of decency.
If only …
If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal. If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s. If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.
But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.
Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.
He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.
In 1900, there were two great philosophers working side by side at Harvard, William James and Josiah Royce. James was from an eminent Boston family and had all the grace, brilliance and sophistication that his class aspired to. Royce, as the historian Allen Guelzo points out, was the first major American philosopher born west of the Mississippi. His parents were Forty-Niners who moved to California but failed to find gold. He grew up in squalor, was stocky, lonely and probably knew more about despair and the brooding shadows that can come in life.
James and Royce admired and learned from each other, but their philosophies were different, too. James was pragmatic and tough-minded, looking for empirical truth. Royce was more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract.
They differed on the individual’s role in society. As David Lamberth of Harvard notes, James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough.
James’s influence is now enormous — deservedly so. Royce is almost entirely forgotten. And yet I would say that Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.
Royce argued that meaningful lives are marked, above all, by loyalty. Out on the frontier, he had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it’s every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain. He concluded that people make themselves miserable when they pursue nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
So for him the good human life meant loyalty, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”
A person doesn’t have to invent a cause, or find it deep within herself. You are born into a world of causes, which existed before you were born and will be there after you die. You just have to become gripped by one, to give yourself away to it realizing that the cause is more important than your individual pleasure or pain.
You’re never going to find a cause if you are working in a bland office; you have to go out to where the problems are. Loyalty is not just emotion. It is action.
“The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance. This cause tells him what to do,” Royce wrote in “The Philosophy of Loyalty.”
In such a community, people submit themselves to their institution, say to a university. They discover how good it is by serving it, and they allow themselves to be formed by it. According to Royce, communities find their voice when they own their own betrayals; evil exists so we can struggle to overcome it.
Royce took his philosophy one more crucial step: Though we have our different communities, underneath there is an absolute unity to life. He believed that all separate individuals and all separate loyalties are mere fragments of a spiritual unity — an Absolute Knower, a moral truth.
That sense of an ultimate unity at the end things, shines back on us, because it means all our diverse loyalties are actually parts of the same loyalty. We all, he wrote, “seek a city out of sight.” This sense of ultimate unity, of human brotherhood and sisterhood, is what is missing in a lot of the current pessimism and divisiveness.
Royce’s philosophy is helpful with the problem we have today. How does the individual fit into the community and how does each community fit into the whole? He offered a shift in perspective. When evaluating your life, don’t ask, “How happy am I?” Ask, “How loyal am I, and to what?”
But those people who are fishes out of water were often the most vibrant ones in the room. I’ve begun to recognize a social type, the Amphibians — people who can thrive in radically different environments.
.. But if you grew up in war-torn Syria and wound up at a community college in Ohio, you’re almost bound to be magnetic and original. If you grew up in a Baptist home in Alabama and now are first-generation college at an Ivy League school, your life is propelled by an electric, crosscutting cultural dynamic... They were considered liberals in their Midwestern high school but are considered conservatives in college. They come from a mostly black town and work at a mostly white company.. They are within the circle of the group, but at the edge, where they can most easily communicate with those on the outside... Bridging Capital. Robert Putnam speaks of bonding and bridging capital. One binds people within communities and the other binds different communities together. We need more of both kinds of social capital, but we need bridging capital more... Amphibians spend their lives creating centering syntheses. They understand from experience that the only way you can bring different groups together is by uniting them at a higher level...The Amphibians’ lives teach us that backgrounds are more complicated than simple class- or race-conflict stories. Their lives demonstrate that society is not a battlefield but a jungle with unexpected connections and migrations. Their lives teach that what matters is what you do with your background, the viewpoints you construct by combining viewpoints. Their lives are examples of the power of love to slice through tribal identity.
The tyranny of “PC culture” is real — and a threat to liberal society
Political correctness is simple idea everyone should be treated with equal dignity & respect. It’s not cause of terrorism. It’s antidote.
Yet only a few days earlier, there had been a flurry of reports on a very different kind of political correctness. Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, had been subjected to vicious harassment for objecting to a Day of Absence, in which white people were asked to stay off campus for a day. Amid calls for his firing, Weinstein was surrounded and berated by student protesters and finally informed by the police that it was not safe for him to be on campus. There was very little dignity or respect in the way he and his supporters were treated.
So which is the real political correctness?
.. culture critic Alyssa Rosenberg, who argued that attempts to create “bias-free language” — such as “person of size” instead of “obese” — not only leads to “impoverished and clunky” newspeak but also encourages avoidance rather than examination of difficult issues.
.. Muslim Haseeb Ahmed as saying that fear of causing offense made it difficult to talk honestly about Islamist fanaticism and terror groups
.. “PC” generally refers to over-the-top outrage at things no one but a hypersensitive fringe actually finds disrespectful, or rigid taboos on opinions and facts that could be construed as offensive, or extreme and punitive intolerance toward any deviation from the one true faith
.. Yes, there definitely is such a thing as political correctness or PC culture, built around identity politics and intersectionality — an ideology that views life in modern liberal societies as shaped entirely by an entrenched system of intersecting oppressions and sees all human interaction in terms of oppression and privilege.
Because this ideology is intensely focused on changing attitudes and eliminating subtle, deeply embedded biases, speech- and thought-policing are not just unfortunate excesses of zeal but an essential part of the “social justice” project.
2. While critics of the concept of political correctness often assert that PC doesn’t limit freedom of speech but merely exposes the privileged to criticism from the marginalized, many PC incidents are likely to have a very real chilling effect on speech and expression.
.. PC also threatens free debate and exchange of ideas by defining heretical opinions as harmful and violent. The effects are particularly baneful when it comes to discussion of contentious issues related to race, gender, and sexual identity.
.. Tuvel, who fully supports transgender rights, was accused of “enact[ing] violence” and causing “harm” by, among other things, using the term “transgenderism,” referring to “male genitalia” and “biological sex,” and mentioning Caitlyn Jenner’s pretransition name, Bruce
.. 3. The “crimes” targeted by the PC police are not about deliberate or even subconscious bigotry but about violations of ideological taboos (such as cultural appropriation) and/or far-fetched, paranoid interpretations of innocent words and actions (such as the Confederacy allusion in the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”).
.. Since one of the tenets of PC orthodoxy is that questioning the validity of grievances expressed by the marginalized is itself a harmful microaggression, the accusations come with a built-in presumption of guilt. It doesn’t matter if most members of the same disadvantaged group see no offense.
.. What’s more, PC has nothing to do with actual social justice: Stopping white people from wearing dreadlocks will not, in any appreciable way, help with the real problems facing the black community, just as banishing the word “crazy” will do nothing to improve the situation of the mentally ill.
.. In some cases, intersectional PC actively prevents confronting oppression. For instance, since Muslims are defined as marginalized, feminists who speak out against the misogyny of Islamic fundamentalism can be accused of promoting Islamophobia.
.. First of all, political correctness by itself is destructive to the liberal project — to reasoned discourse, free exchange of ideas, culture and community. What makes it uniquely injurious is its rising dominance in spheres of society traditionally associated with intellectual openness and pluralism: the academy, quality journalism, literature, and the arts.
.. Secondly, PC culture also invites an equally or more toxic backlash
.. Political correctness enables bigotry both by trivializing it — if you can be called a racist for wearing a sombrero on Halloween or a misogynist for admiring sexy women, the words lose much of their bite — and by green-lighting it when it’s directed at “privileged” groups. When comments like “yet another opinion from an old white man” become weapons of choice in what passes for debate in PC culture, the principle that people should not be attacked or demeaned on the basis of race, gender, or other aspects of who they are becomes increasingly difficult to defend.
.. Donald Trump’s election victory, itself almost certainly aided by the anti-PC backlash, has made it clear that we need to heal our dysfunctional political culture. One necessary step toward such healing is to restore the classical liberal norms of free thought and free speech. That does not preclude rejecting real bigotry and hate, but respect does not require political correctness. In fact, political correctness is the opposite of respect.
The whole idea of a free society is based on a very simple idea that is very hard to live by: People have the right to be wrong.
.. In the “modern” era, its status as one of the defining ideas of Western civilization can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. After a century of bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants — with Jews often getting caught in the crossfire — the exhausted rulers of Europe reluctantly agreed to a fragile truce. While every nation would still officially follow the faith of the ruler, it was understood that religious minorities would be afforded some tolerance.
.. Cromwell’s Puritan-dominated parliament declared a real “war on Christmas,” banning celebration of the holiday. The Colonial city of Boston followed a similar practice, imposing a fine on anyone who celebrated Christmas.
.. If he thought he could get away with it, he would have made mandatory compliance with his faith the law of the land. But Cromwell recognized that he had to compromise with reality if he was going to end the religious conflicts plaguing his country.
.. The religious conflicts of the past were ultimately about which values, rituals, customs, and ideas should be imposed on everybody.
.. We are a long way off from putting beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword, but that is the logical destination of the path we are on, because we have lost faith in the utility of upholding the right to be wrong.