Speaking on a podcast last month, English commentator Douglas Murray expressed exasperation with the conservative establishment for how it treats the moral claims of the left. “The left is running rampant with resentment and the right is not playing something back with equal depth,” Murray told his interviewer. When the left exploits inequality to win popular support, Murray argues, conservatives leaders think “they can respond by talking about zoning regulations or a specific tax issue.” This hasn’t worked and will continue to fail, he said. Many, including myself, agree.
It’s hard to see how conservatives messaging about hard-work, personal goals, etc., could find much resonance among people who feel oppressed.
Calls for a re-orientation of how leading conservative thinkers respond to America’s alienated millennials and the Marxist left who exploit them have been bubbling up following the May/June riots. Conservative scholar and commentator Paul Gottfried, for instance, recently penned a piece lamenting the right’s long-time failure in realizing that leftists do indeed see themselves as fighting a moral fight, and are anything but nihilistic relativists. “It is unimaginable that the more fervent and more activist side in our culture wars is not driven by its own morality, which expresses itself in rage,” Gottfried writes.
Similarly, in a recent and widely shared essay, Yoram Hazony wrote that the Marxist left sees itself involved in a moral battle against oppression and injustice, one that’s quite literally between good and evil. All Marxists, he says, see “unfreedom and inequality in society” as evidence of oppression, and “that a revolutionary reconstitution of society is necessary to eliminate the oppression,” one that includes “bloodshed.” With that kind of dichotomous worldview, Hazony argues, appeals to abstract ideas like “equality before the law” or “freedom from coercion” (that ‘chilliest of virtues,’ as Isaiah Berlin wrote) simply won’t cut it.
The same can be said for using practical arguments against the moralizing left. For instance, using the rule of law as an argument against illegal immigration just won’t budge a progressive who sees all illegal aliens essentially as refugees done wrong by their governments (and ours). The same goes for proposing economic solutions to BLM’s list of oppression-based grievances, as Murray alluded to above. (The National Review has actually suggested cutting zoning regulations as a way to answer some of BLM’s claims of white-driven, black economic underperformance.)
Unfortunately, none of these commentators have offered much in the way of how to fight back “with equal depth,” as Murray says. Hazony and Gottfried were more or less silent on how to respond against the left, while Murray, for his part, argued that conservatives “should respond to [left-wing] resentment with aspiration, among other things, doing better for yourself, your loved ones and your family.”
Of course, countering the left with positive messaging is always essential. In hyper-politicized times such as ours, pushing the public to focus on their lives and family instead of politics is simply a must. But as to how much persuading of the left this can achieve is uncertain. Again, says Hazony, the left’s fight is premised on non-whites being unable to fulfill their aspirations due to white-driven “oppression”—not being able to achieve their self-actualization or “self-activity,” to put it in classical Marxist terms, because of whites’ self-interest and interference. It’s hard to see how conservatives messaging about hard-work, personal goals, etc., could find much resonance among people who feel oppressed.
Moral positions can only really be combated with competing moral positions. For instance, advocating explicitly against the left’s intolerance of white America is something that Murray and Hazony could have raised in their complaint about the GOP’s ineptitude—but didn’t. Today, it’s not hyperbole to say that the rhetoric directed towards whites, from sources both top-down and ground-up, is beginning to resemble what French and German Jews endured at the turn of the last century. Without question, it’s something establishment conservatives can and should get much louder about.
THE LEFT’S ANTI-WHITE ANIMUS
The so-called uplift programs designed to put post-civil rights blacks ‘close to the starting line’ with whites (to paraphrase from LBJ’s famous Howard University speech that birthed affirmative action), while clearly discriminatory and damaging, look almost quaint in the current year. There’s the recent example in Megyn Kelly’s kids’ school in New York, where a black functionary there wrote in a newsletter to parents that, among other things, “there is a killer cop sitting in every school where white children learn” and “[white children] happily believe their all-white spaces exist as a matter of personal effort and willingly use violence against black bodies to keep those spaces white.” The school’s decision to distribute this kind of race-baiting propaganda was the final straw for Kelly, who announced her intention to leave the city.
During that same week, the popular YouTube channel The Cut (which boasts 12 million subscribers) published a video entitled “So what exactly are white people superior at?” The five-minute clip features various black “voices” who offer up a quick succession of responses to the all-too rhetorical question, including “lying, stealing, and cheating,” “taking our ideas,” and “destruction of land, destruction of people, destruction of humanness.”
One can now witness express “Europhobia,” anti-white animus, or “whitenessphobia” (as Daniel Greenberg calls it) pouring from nearly every major U.S. institution on a regular basis): major media outlets, places of work, governing bodies (federal and local), and schools at all levels. It would seem hard to argue that there’s little cause for alarm when professors at prestigious universities are sharing white-shaming memes or declaring things like “white lives don’t matter.” Or, when posters mocking white racial stereotypes are appearing in residential neighborhoods and storefronts have to advertise their non-white ownership in order to stave off arson attacks.
Healthy society update: doesn’t seem healthy for so many small business owners to have to declare their ethnic status pic.twitter.com/MCTnNFynsh
— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) June 29, 2020
The toxic ideas borne out of Whiteness Studies and CRT programs have been shown to reduce the level of sympathy that white liberals have for the white working-class. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, increasing rates of white suicide (of both men and women) and drug abuse is being ignored. Political scientist Professor Matthew Goodwin told a parliamentary panel in the UK recently that the educational development among the white lower-classes is likely being stunted by blame-casting and race-shaming ideas such as “white privilege.” Addressing MPs, Goodwin argued that white-working class communities face a ‘status deficit’ amid a national conversation ‘much more consumed’ with other groups in society.
“If we are now going to start teaching them in school that not only do they have to overcome the various economic and social barriers within their community, but they also need to now start apologizing for simply belonging to a wider group which also strips away their individual agency, then I think we’re just going to compound many of these problems.”
School underperformance among lower-class whites isn’t a brand new phenomenon in the UK, but, as Tory MP Ben Bradley recently pointed out, it’s become a “taboo” subject that couldn’t be addressed without being accused of stoking racial animosities (something the Guardian dutifully did soon after the panel hearing).
Elsewhere, in Canada, parents felt compelled to respond to a Got Privilege poster campaign spearheaded by a school district in British Columbia by mounting a #NoWhiteShaming hashtag campaign. “Some argue the [poster] campaign shames white people and only deepens racial divisions. But the school district’s superintendent has defended the campaign, stating ‘We are trying to acknowledge that racism does exist and that some people, as a result of racism, are disadvantaged,’” reports Tylt.
Even classical Marxists see theories of whiteness as damaging, in particular to class consciousness and solidarity, which, in effect, works for the benefit of big business. In her article tracking the history of white privilege theory starting in the late sixties (with groups like the Weathermen), civil rights lawyer Candace Cohn, writing for Australia’s Red Flag socialist publication, called it a reflection of its adherents’ “middle-class student composition,” and called out its “isolation from the class struggle,” and its “elitist distrust of the working class.” Critically, she writes, adherents of this kind of thinking “saw American workers as little more than potential cheerleaders for Third World liberation struggles, cheerleaders who must renounce their imperialist privileges—that is, their wages, benefits, and possessions.”
Most disturbingly, these same toxic ideas have even been used to excuse the most heinous of crimes, including rape (as payback for historical black slavery) and murder (as payback for structural racism). Simply calling the ideas “un-American propaganda” then, as the White House did in its recent anti-CRT directive, is too vague and indirect. They, and the people who espouse them, are bigoted, full stop. It’s not only honest and accurate to call them out as such—it’s strategic, too. Louder voices and far better coordination on the conservative establishment’s part would have much effect in blunting the left’s stridency when it comes to race-baiting.
WEAPONIZING THE PATRIOTIC RANK-AND-FILE
Largely because of the left’s decades-long project of putting racism at the center of every arena of U.S. policy and culture, to be racist today (or deemed as such), as political scientist Eric Kaufmann has put it, is to “transgress the social norms which define good and evil.” When the charge is levied against the left (including self-loathing whites), they can be forced onto the defensive, just as conservatives so routinely are.
While Democrats and many among the left exploit black Americans, it’s simply not accurate to say they have animus towards them. Who they do have animus towards, however, is whites.
Failing to call out expressions of anti-white bigotry in conservative media or in Congress, however, signals that the left is off the hook for their own racism. They’re not, and nor should they be. Demanding an end to the left’s bigotry will also go far in energizing the conservative rank-and-file—a cohort long targeted by the hard-left’s moral intimidation and long denied by their Beltway leaders an effective vocabulary to counter them.
If faced with a strong groundswell of coordinated voices, many among the woke left will suffer a deflated sense of moral righteousness. Conservative tactics may include: boycotts of companies that finance BLM extremism or engage in woke advertising, demands to universities to defund CRT/Whiteness-Studies courses, or open letters from top conservative and liberal voices condemning the more influential Europhobic speakers.
As for the more strident and dismissive among the left, they’ll be forced to proclaim, even louder, that ‘racism against whites is not a thing’—a position that’s far more alienating to the mass public than it is defensible.
In some ways, the conservative establishment has already shown itself willing to use the charge of racism against the left, just in a misdirected way. For years, establishment conservatives have tried to divert Democrats’ routine accusations of Republican racism by pinning it on Democrats themselves. This includes attacking Democrats’ historical connections to the Confederacy and the fact that liberal-led issues like abortion, welfare, unions, and minimum wages arguably hurt blacks. While Democrats and many among the left exploit black Americans, it’s simply not accurate to say they have animus towards them. Who they do have animus towards, however, is whites. And calling that out in the loudest and clearest terms possible would be much more honest, accurate, and effective in terms of advocating against the left.
RELIEVING LIBERALS OF WHITE GUILT
Advocating explicitly against the left’s anti-white animus may have an additional positive effect on the left. The work of author and long-time Hoover Institute fellow Shelby Steele is important here. Moral intimidation feeds off a lack of moral confidence and weakness in the target. According to Steele’s classic 2006 book White Guilt, the 1964 Civil Rights Act represented an admission of guilt on the part of white America. It took away their moral authority and gave it to blacks. In effect, this provided the latter with a moral monopoly.
As defined by Steele, white guilt is “the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one’s race is associated with racism.”
As defined by Steele, white guilt is “the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one’s race is associated with racism.” Such a vacuum cannot persist, however, since moral authority is needed for those in power to maintain legitimacy. So regaining and maintaining it is essential.
Achieving this, however, presents a double-edged sword. What whites in the late ’60s had to do was first “acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it.” But once they did this, says Steele, whites stepped into “a void of vulnerability” in which the authority they lost transferred “to the ‘victims’ of historical racism.” Only blacks could restore white legitimacy, in other words.
Since then, whites have been trying to earn their moral authority back by doing whatever they can to dissociate themselves from the institutional racism of the past. This includes regularly and uncritically giving in to black demands—even questionable ones like race preferences in government contracting and other stigmatizing programs. It’s an uneven situation that represents a serious “black privilege,” Steele says, one he admits he used against white liberals when he was a civil-rights activist in the late 1960s. Specifically, he had obtained the “power to shame, silence, and muscle concessions from the larger society on the basis of past victimization.”
Through Steele’s lens, one could say the linchpin to our current state of affairs is the psychological hang-up of white guilt and a perceived lack of moral authority among white liberals. But if a ‘stop the anti-white bigotry’ campaign was loud enough, and guilted whites grasped that the explicit discrimination now being called against them is mere opportunism and morally bankrupt, many might snap out of their paralysis and complacency with a dominant culture determined to demolish them. And, again, to the extent they do snap out of it, the weakness and pliability fuelling black leaders’ ever-increasing demands would dissipate.
Conservative poet Robert Frost’s famous line about liberals being people who can’t take their own side in an argument applies just as well to the conservative establishment today. The racialization of Marxism and the dehumanizing ideas it spawned through early pushers like Noel Ignatiev, Theodore Allen, Laclau and Mouffe, Peggy McIntosh, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Tim Wise may have been tempered if the establishment was willing to stick up for itself. Largely through their silence, however, phenomena like white guilt and black-identity politics have been allowed to harden into white wokeness, Antifa terrorism, and BLM militancy. If they had only truly leveled the charge of racism where it was due, we might be in a much better position today.