A Crisis of Discourse—Part 1: Cracks in the Progressive Left

Wall crack with fissurometer, to gauge the relative movement of the two parts of the building. Photo: Joe Mabel

Wall crack with fissurometer, to gauge the relative movement of the two parts of the building. Photo: Joe Mabel

I’ve renamed this post so that the post that follows will represent a smoother transition from it, but no content has been changed.

My Pre-Election Reflections

Over the last week or two, in the run up to the American election, I wrote a number of pieces analysing the social phenomena that gave rise to a Trump presidency. I suggested that prominent evangelicals’ excuses for and celebrations of Trump leave evangelicalism facing a crisis of moral credibility and that we might need to reassess the movement and our places within it. I discussed the breakdown of trust that has produced a crisis of truth and authority, providing the context in which a figure such as Trump could emerge. I called upon Christian voters considering voting for Trump to step back from the polarized and polarizing discourse and, rather than letting the rhetoric and behaviour of Trump opponents drive them into his camp, converse with their own consciences and come to a self-defined morally responsible decision, rather than—what I still very much perceive it to be—an irresponsible socially reactive one.

I gave this counsel to those considering voting for Trump prior to the election because I felt many were being pushed in Trump’s direction by the behaviour of the progressive left. When other parties adopt polarizing behaviour and rhetoric and our own groups are becoming polarized and reactive, it is all the more important that we pursue self-defined and responsible behaviour, resisting the dynamics on both sides.

I did not want to foreground the responsibility of the progressive left prior to the election, because I felt it important to avoid fuelling any of the reactivity that was driving people towards Trump. However, after the election, I saw an alternative danger. In my immediate context of vocal #NeverTrump people, I feared that the response to the election risked slipping into narratives of evangelical guilt a little too completely. While evangelicalism undoubtedly bears its measure of responsibility, and must openly acknowledge this, it is no less important that we refuse to be the scapegoat that the progressives want us to be.

Politics of Guilt and Deference

The current politics of the progressive left is a politics of guilt and deference. In the hands of the progressive left, guilt is a tool for social dominance. The more that you can instil guilt and shame in your adversaries, the more you can crush their cultural spirit and render them abject and craven. People’s inability to deal with and atone for guilt renders it an immensely powerful instrument of control. Once a person who cannot appropriately deal with guilt has some guilt placed on their shoulders, the person to whom they owe a debt can act as a usurer, compounding that burden, unjustly laying on ever more guilt, until they are utterly ruined. The one who owes the debt entailed by their guilt can become the slave of their victim. It is imperative that Christians learn to live as a people who are not in the grip of and at the mercy of guilt. If we do not, we will swiftly be reduced to dhimmitude.

Part of the process of resisting the politics of guilt is to refuse the unjust assignment of guilt and shame to us. We definitely bear a burden of guilt, but we must not allow ourselves to become scapegoats, a means by which other guilty parties can displace their own guilt. Guilt must be assigned truthfully and justly. This means, in particular, that we must completely refuse to bear the guilt of progressive liberalism and must, rather, place the burden firmly at its door. We must throw a spanner in the operations of their politics of guilt and moral purity. For instance, we must not allow culturally privileged white progressive liberals to discharge the burden of guilt of the nation’s historic and continuing forms of racism upon the scapegoat of the white working class. They largely brought the election of Trump upon themselves and they were the oppressors.

As a tangential point here, it is sometimes speculated that the Reformation doctrine of justification is much less relevant in the current context. However, once we recognize that the political power of progressivism and its politics of deference to those designated as victims is founded upon the power of guilt, we may discover that, five hundred years after the Reformation, the doctrine of justification is more socially emancipating a truth than ever before. The doctrine of justification means that we can truthfully acknowledge and repent of our sin, without selling ourselves into the cruel slavery of those who would mercilessly exploit and leverage our guilt for social dominance.

This Christian response to guilt, it must be stressed, is no less radically opposed to the politics of guilt immunity and shamelessness practiced by those who acknowledge neither sin nor guilt or who revel in the sin. Racists, for instance, who acknowledge neither historic crimes and injustices, nor present and continuing ones, may refuse all guilt as a means of resisting the cultural dhimmitude brought about by the politics of guilt and deference. However, they ‘deal’ with guilt by lying about and perpetuating sin and injustice. A people that can speak truthfully about sin and guilt without being crippled by it can only exist if some just way has been found to deal with guilt, as it has in our Saviour. We are freed to question claims to victimhood and to refuse to accept unjustly assigned guilt and shame, while also being freed to speak truthfully about the wrong that we have indeed done and the culpability that we do bear for sin.

Posts Following the Election

In light of all of this, I wrote a series of three posts after the election, presenting a case for the progressive left’s responsibility for Donald Trump: ‘How Social Justice Ideology Gave Us Donald Trump’, ‘Further Thoughts: How Social Justice Ideology Fuels Racism and Sexism’, and, finally, ‘In Which A Man Explains Things’. Within the posts, I argued that the progressive left’s ideology of social justice had created a polarized and stifling context, disconnected from both natural and social reality, with a Manichaeanism ideology producing a cultural total war, and tragically radicalizing ugly new strains of nihilistic opposition to it.

Although I think it was already apparent within the posts, I was not arguing against a concern for social justice, but, rather, against the unhealthy way in which such an important concern has been refracted on the progressive left. I was arguing against identity politics, the politics of deference, the politics of guilt and fear, ideological Manichaeanism, and the illiberal closure of discourse. It is imperative that we are people who are practically committed to tackling racist, sexist, and other forms of injustice and not react against the core Christian concerns that are at stake here, simply because they are twisted by those who oppose us. As in the case of our voting, we must be self-defined in our action and not reactive, driven by well-formed consciences rather than by antagonism with others. Racist and sexist forms of injustice remain ugly realities in society, in the church, and in our own hearts and minds and need to be rooted out. However, the way that we handle these things must be markedly different from progressives. As we eschew the politics of guilt and deference, we can speak truthfully about these realities in ways that will directly contradict certain of the claims made by feminists and race theorists, while finding clear common cause with them in others.

Apocalyptic Political Events Change the Climate

Writing my comments, I firmly believed that Scott Alexander’s point that the election result shouldn’t change the narrative was an important one. In most respects, I still do. We should not allow the unilateral character of an election win to dull us to the fuller story: the majority of those who turned out to vote still preferred Clinton over Trump. America is divided and its people are deeply conflicted, both among themselves and within themselves. There is a resurgent form of populist nationalism, but it is nowhere near becoming a consensus. Racist elements have become more prominent in political debate, but the vast majority of people on both sides of the political aisle firmly reject racism. If we forget these things, we are in danger of suggesting that certain positions have a mandate that they don’t possess. Bearing these points in mind, within my post-election reflections I largely developed points that I had already articulated in other contexts.

However, while one can rightly argue the election result merely brought existing reality to light, I didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that ‘apocalyptic’—in the original ‘unveiling’ sense of the term—events such as a surprising election result always change the narrative. It makes a huge difference when a reality that has been largely hidden from people’s eyes suddenly becomes exposed, when a reality that has been denied suddenly becomes undeniable. Apocalyptic events are vast bursts of light upon a gloomy landscape, whose true features are suddenly exposed. After the apocalypse brings reality to light, some parties will necessarily be vindicated and others may be condemned.

Things such as authority, cultural dominance, credibility, and popularity are largely about perception, perceptions that shape the political reality. The emperor was wearing no clothes all along, but something needed to puncture the collective illusion. When the unveiling occurs and perceptions change, the political reality changes with them. The perceptions that prevailed before the election were of the progressive social justice left’s invincible cultural and political dominance, a dominance utterly unassailable by a candidate like Trump who so strongly defied its orthodoxies. The inexorable progressive movement of history was going to continue as it was finally proved that the presidency could come in pink as well as in blue.

Progressive liberals truly believed that they had their finger on the pulse of the country. Other groups on the left were also convinced of their dominance and so went along with them. Conservatives were convinced of their dominance and felt unable to push back against them. Tuesday changed all of this. It was revealed that progressive liberals were out of touch with the country, unable to mobilize key groups behind their vision, and devastatingly alienating for certain others.

The wind has changed.

Not paying enough attention to the importance of unveiling events and the way they change the social reality, I wrote my original piece without having closely followed many of the responses to the election from across the spectrum. My concern was not to allow the ‘weather forecast’ of the result to affect my read of the climate that gave rise to it. However, such a result is the sort of thing that can change the climate.

Elections are a great way to expose preference falsification. Within this essential article, Sarah Perry describes the phenomenon:

Preference falsification is an information theory term for the tendency for people to express a public preference that is different from their private, interior preference. For various reasons, certain preferences may not be publicly acceptable to express; they may be punished by execution, or labor camps, or exile, or social exclusion, or at the very least suspicion and a risk of some of these things. When people do not express their true preferences, they are deprived of the opportunity to coordinate with each other to create a more preferable outcome for both. Preference falsification is not just a political phenomenon, but a product of our dual nature, experiencing ourselves on the one hand from the privileged first-person perspective, and on the other hand from the imagined perspective of others. Pretending to have different preferences than one really does may be necessary to maintain a sense of safety, social belonging, and status.

An election can reveal the level of preference falsification in a society, help people to recognize when it is reaching critical levels and the systems encouraging it are vulnerable to direct assault, tempt dissidents out into the open and thereby enable them to coordinate their forces in a way that they hadn’t been able to do previously.

It is crucial to bear in mind that the power of the progressive left rests in large measure upon perceptions. Upon perceptions of its moral superiority and authority. Upon perceptions of its social invincibility and historical inevitability. Upon perceptions of its widespread appeal and influence. Upon perceptions of the intellectual credibility of its academic output. Upon perceptions of the desirability of membership in its in-groups. Upon perceptions of its immunity from ridicule. These perceptions are reinforced by extensive preference falsification on the part of the population.

Remove these perceptions (not least by weakening the effectiveness of preference falsification) and much of the progressive left may start to look fairly feeble and filled with fainting victims, morally noxious, pathetic and uncool, hypocritical in its sanctimony, ridiculous, and on the verge of academic bankruptcy. The cracks have been appearing for some time but few felt safe to draw attention to them. The progressive left has been exposed to increasing levels of mockery, satire, and parody from across the political spectrum. Fewer and fewer people take it or its culture of exaggerated victimhood seriously any more. Unfortunately for the progressive left, its power is almost wholly dependent upon people taking it seriously.

In short, the progressive left is tremendously vulnerable to apocalyptic events.

The Progressive Left Under Assault

Writing my original post, I thought I was writing a relatively original and independent take, putting forward an opinion that people wouldn’t encounter elsewhere. Perhaps especially on the left.

I was severely mistaken.

In the days after the election, people have turned on the progressive left, for precisely the reasons that I challenged it. Although the progressive left has resolutely pointed its finger at ignorant and hateful white voters and the spectres of racism and sexism, the facts simply don’t fit their story. A great many of the same people who voted for Obama, and have voted for women and LGBT candidates down ticket, supported Trump. A large minority of Hispanics voted for Trump. A comfortable majority of white women voted for Trump. Across the political spectrum people are now blaming the progressive left itself.

Many of these voices are entirely predictable ones, some are more surprising, although the fact they are converging on such a consensus in their interpretation of the situation is important. Most of the people in question were merely continuing analyses that they had advanced before the election, but at this point a determined movement against progressivism is coming into the open on both sides of the political aisle. In a characteristically insightful reflection, Roger Scruton draws attention to the alienating demonization of the white working classes and the way in which their sentiments have been suppressed through stigmatization by smug and morally superior academic and cultural elite. Peter Hitchens maintains that progressives are suffering the consequences of their smug and moralistic dismissals of reasonably voiced dissent and that the future they have invited is an ugly one. John Milbank argues that oppressive left wing identity politics has played a part in producing a movement in reaction against it.

Jonathan Haidt calls the left to retreat from the illiberalism of its identity politics, which merely makes the situation worse.

David French argues that identity politics are tearing us apart:

Since my law-school days, the problem has only gotten worse. Now the true cultural and historical demons are white—gasp!—“cisgender” males, and any white cisgender woman who doesn’t appropriately check her privilege. The ticket to white acceptability in progressive politics is a form of self-loathing: a constant attitude of repentance not just for the sins of the past but also for the benefits of the present, which are presumably enjoyed only or mainly because of the plunder and exploitation of “brown bodies.”

Oddly enough, this self-loathing doesn’t diminish the power of the white progressive. The movement is still chock-full of rich white men and women. Indeed, they mainly lead the American Left. They simply purport to hate and mock “white males” with the same intensity as do their black friends.

But while there’s no price paid by Harvard Law students who “check their privilege,” or by Silicon Valley execs who enthusiastically embrace the latest trends in identity politics—they and their families will do just fine—the rest of white America is not so fortunate. We’re left with the odd reality in which white kids who live in trailer parks are “privileged,” while the sons and daughters of wealthy black doctors are “oppressed”—in which the legitimate concerns of white working-class and middle-class Americans are dismissed as misguided at best (after all, they’re privileged) and racist at worst.

Ed West writes:

Trump seems to have survived by refusing to submit when his opponents took offence and attempted to shame him into backing down, a tactic that has been hugely successful against conservatives in the past.

But Trump is also the triumph of identity politics. For years the punditry have been saying that the GOP is finished because America is becoming more diverse, failing to see that since the Democrats win through identity politics, then Republicans could also play that game.

As he observes, people’s sense of progressivism’s asphyxiating regime leads them to self-censor to a degree that makes their true sentiments impossible to read. The more frequently that the progressive left has weaponized its orthodoxies to drive opponents and their viewpoints out of public life and discourse, the academy, their jobs, and their livelihoods, and forced them to act against their consciences, the more that people resent them and the pressure of resistance will build beneath the surface.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb challenges and ridicules the stupid and effete academic expert—the Intellectual Yet Expert (IYI)—and their failure to grasp that their small-minded but oppressive orthodoxies will be defied when people are offered an unpoliced context where their true sentiments or preferences can be expressed:

Cathy Young writes:

The standard explanation for Trump’s success is the economic anxiety driving the backlash from the “forgotten” white working class. But Trump voters were also driven by anger that their beliefs and values were held in contempt by the elites. Resentment of “political correctness”—which encompasses everything from rhetoric that demonizes whites and males to intolerance toward dissent from progressive dogma—undoubtedly played a role as well.

Noah Rothman:

Trump’s voters have a point. They contend that political correctness is a cudgel used by the left only to silence the demographically undesirable (white, male, and rural). They chafe as the selfless members of law enforcement and the military are denigrated by the influential. They see their livelihoods choked off by regulation and they see their communities transformed by those who do not share their culture or values. What’s more, they are told that all these concerns and the associated sense of estrangement are bigotry for which they must be punished.

Sam Harris argues that the disingenuousness of the progressive left led to Trump. Americans in their masses rejected political correctness, the policing of discourse that stifled honest conversation about issues such as Islamic terrorism and immigration, which deeply concerned them and whose insistent and ugly reality in the news, repeatedly exposed the mealy mouthed inability of progressives to be voices of difficult truths.

Sohrab Ahmari takes aim at identitarian warfare’s provocation of a backlash:

Clive Crook over on Bloomberg:

Apparently it takes more than four years of college to understand this: You don’t get people to see things your way by calling them idiots and racists, or sorting them into baskets of deplorables and pitiables (deserving of sympathy for their moral and intellectual failings). If you can’t manage genuine respect for the people whose votes you want, at least try to fake it.

However, forgive me if I go further. It really ought to be possible to manage some actual respect. The complaints that Trump is addressing deserve better than to be recast in caricature then dismissed with contempt.

A number of people have observed the impotence and the growing counterproductivity of progressives’ favourite shaming words:






Resistance to the social justice left’s language is increasing. John McWhorter writes:

IN OUR MOMENT, my comments will elicit from many the question as to whether I consider Donald Trump a racist. The answer is yes—his feigning lack of familiarity with the opinions of David Duke and his explicit statements about black people’s purported laziness decide the case rather conclusively for me, and I am revolted that he will be our president for this and countless other reasons. However, the problem is treating Ellen DeGeneres, Hillary Clinton, or even Trump voters as if they deserve being discussed in the same vein as he does.

They don’t, and only the mission creep the word racism has undergone lends any impression otherwise. Meanwhile, the melodramatic quality in designating well-meaning people who slipped up a bit as “racists” is clear to most observers, and it dulls their receptiveness to genuine, serious accusations of bigotry. Rather, “racist” starts to come off as a mere angry bludgeon used by a certain set of people committed to moral condemnation and comfortable with shutting down exchange. A common idea among Blue Americans is that the people “out there” shirk the racist label out of what could only be naïve denial. That happens—but what if a lot of them get weary of being commanded to pretend that Ellen DeGeneres is a bigot?

Social justice is about being honest and outwardly focused. Our language must encourage us in that. The way we currently use the term racism does not.

Over on Reason, Robby Soave remarks:

[C]ampus progressives have willfully pushed race-based and identity-group-based classifications: calling for segregated safe spaces and programs for students of color, LGBTQ students, Native American students, Latinos, and so on. At the same time, they have assailed white privilege and white fragility, treating white people like the enemy. In electing Trump, whites may have lived up to their expectations, but I can’t help but wonder whether that was a foreseeable consequence of the left’s campaign to demonize them.

In a very important piece over on Quillette, Uri Harris makes similar points to me about the moralism and the taboos of the progressive left leading it towards intellectual bankruptcy, unable to speak honestly and descriptively about realities of human nature. His argument deserves to be quoted at length:

Consider the values Trump has been promoting throughout his campaign. When he promises to make America great again and complains that America doesn’t win anymore, when he promises to reduce government, when he aggressively goes after his opponents, and when he refuses to couch his words in equivocation, he is not just offering a new political direction, he is thumbing his nose at contemporary moral beliefs, and many people are responding to it, especially men.

People have been taught for years that traits such as competitiveness, individualism, aggression, confidence, and national pride are morally suspect, and here comes a figure who is unafraid to challenge that. I’ve heard mentioned that Trump is tapping into many people’s disdain for political correctness, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion. I think he’s tapping into a broad resistance to contemporary moral beliefs, beliefs that have become increasingly institutionalised over the past fifty years.

The problem is that these are precisely the beliefs that are held above inquiry in the social sciences. Under normal scientific conditions, scientists would simply say ‘oh, it looks like we underestimated the extent to which these values are drivers of human behaviour, let us adjust our models’. But social scientists can’t do that, so all they can do is declare them immoral, whether it be Brexit, or Trump, or the movements in France and Germany and many other Western countries that are currently building.

It isn’t just that social scientists disagree on the details of how important this behaviour is to people, but that even discussing it in anything other than strongly moralistic terms is discouraged. And so, social scientists face a dilemma. Treating individualism, competitiveness, confidence, aggression, and national pride as behaviour worthy of description dilutes the power of ideologies to moralise against them. And this threatens the left, which dominates the social sciences and whose ideology is based on declaring these behaviours immoral. It’s hard for social scientists in this environment to remain objective, and since there are virtually no social scientists with opposing views, the science suffers.

Harris’ registering of the gender dimension here is important. I will return to this in the post that follow this one.

Charles Camosy, in an article well worth reading in its entirety, writes about the failure of the academic left’s mind and imagination:

Religion in most secular institutions, for instance, is at best thought of as an important sociological phenomenon to understand—but is very often criticized as an inherently violent, backward force in our culture, akin to belief in fairies and dragons. Professors are less religious than the population as a whole. Most campus cultures have strictly (if not formally) enforced dogmatic views about the nature of gender, sexual orientation, a woman’s right to choose abortion, guns and the role of the state as primary agent of social change. If anyone disagrees with these dogmatic positions they risk being marginalized as ignorant, bigoted, fanatical or some other dismissive label.

Sometimes the college-educated find themselves so unable to understand a particular working-class point of view that they will respond to those perspectives with shocking condescension. Recall that President Obama, in the midst of the 2012 election cycle, suggested that job losses were the reason working-class voters were bitterly clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” The religious themselves, meanwhile, likely do not chalk their faith up to unhappy economic prospects, and they probably find it hard to connect with politicians who seem to assume such.

Thus today’s college graduates are formed by a campus culture that leaves them unable to understand people with unfamiliar or heterodox views on guns, abortion, religion, marriage, gender and privilege. And that same culture leads such educated people to either label those with whom they disagree as bad people or reduce their stated views on these issues as actually being about something else, as in Obama’s case. Most college grads in this culture are simply never forced to engage with or seriously consider professors or texts which could provide a genuine, compelling alternative view.

As one commentator on Twitter observes, the Democratic Party has increasingly become The Party of the enlightened social elite, with membership in or the semblance of support of The Party steadily becoming a social prerequisite for inclusion in polite society, public life, and much of the employment market.

Douglas Murray in Foreign Affairs:

Nor did either [Cameron nor Clinton] sufficiently address the fact that voters have not been moving to the political left in any large numbers—not least because in the United Kingdom and the United States, the left loathes talking about the identity and immigration concerns of the public and prefers to lecture on why the public is wrong to feel the way it does.

Social liberals have spent years scolding and lecturing conservatives without listening to what the other side has had to say. Rarely did they consider the possibility that the public did not need to be corrected, because the public was not necessarily wrong. Recognizing the existence of the people who have been “left behind” is not the same as doing something to help them. Finding them work may prove difficult. But castigating them for racism and other assorted bigotries is rubbing salt in their wounds.

It is true that Trump used inflammatory language against minorities and women, but liberals should not have attacked his supporters by portraying them as racist, misogynist, and homophobic fascists. Supporting border control or conservative values should not automatically earn one such a violent label. The correct response would have been to acknowledge the legitimacy of concerns over the free market and immigration. The incorrect response was to name call, which Clinton resorted to when she said that many of Trump’s supporters belonged to a “basket of deplorables.”

The status signalling of progressive elites is killing the left (along with the incessant window-dressing of its symbolic identity politics), rendering them incapable of engagement with a population that is turning its back on them.

Many of these concerns are also being reported on the ground. People have had enough of being moralized to and demonized by the priests and priestesses of the prestige faith of progressivism and now those denied cultural status by it are turning against it (this Tweet thread registers the educational dimension—it can’t be reduced to money or power—but misses the way that progressive academic elites have denigrated others through their moralizing prestige virtue cult). Henry Kissinger suggests, ‘The Trump phenomenon is in large part a reaction of Middle America to attacks on its values by intellectual and academic communities. There are other reasons, but this is a significant one.’

Joan Williams, in the Harvard Business Review, recognizes the failure of elite hauteur and how it registers with people outside of their professional class:

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables. Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic.

Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. “Directness is a working-class norm,” notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, “If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. If you have a way you want something done, come talk to me. I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.” Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being “a total wuss and a wimp,” an electronics technician told Lamont. Of course Trump appeals. Clinton’s clunky admission that she talks one way in public and another in private? Further proof she’s a two-faced phony.

Again, the gender dynamics are extremely important here and will have bearing on some of my later points.

The ‘smug style’ in American liberalism is alienating the nation, something Will Rahn is scathing about in an article on CBS News. The coded venom directed at ‘white people’ by (largely white) progressives, which treats the white non-college educated persons as scapegoats for white supremacy, and which is coupled with frequent celebrations of the steady collapse of their demographic into minority status, has the effect of driving them towards stronger forms of nationalism and racism:


Opposition to the behaviour of the progressive left is starting to be voiced in surprising places. Frank Bruni writes in the New York Times:

Other factors conspired in the party’s debacle. One in particular haunts me. From the presidential race on down, Democrats adopted a strategy of inclusiveness that excluded a hefty share of Americans and consigned many to a “basket of deplorables” who aren’t all deplorable. Some are hurt. Some are confused.

Liberals miss this by being illiberal. They shame not just the racists and sexists who deserve it but all who disagree. A 64-year-old Southern woman not onboard with marriage equality finds herself characterized as a hateful boob. Never mind that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton weren’t themselves onboard just five short years ago.

Political correctness has morphed into a moral purity that may feel exhilarating but isn’t remotely tactical. It’s a handmaiden to smugness and sanctimony, undermining its own goals.

When positions one associates with Heterodox Academy start to be articulated in the Harvard Crimson, one gets the sense that something might be changing for the better:

The causes of this ideological imbalance [in the Harvard ‘bubble’] are likely as varied as the reasons people choose to attend Harvard in the first place, and it would be unrealistic to expect our campus to exactly mirror the political divisions of the country at any given moment. But when the disconnect has grown to such proportions, diversifying political expression in all settings ought to become an administrative priority. The pursuit of “Veritas” which undergirds our intellectual life demands not only that each member of our community be able to debate politics freely, but also that we attend to the multitude of political views that exist in our nation. Stifling this discussion on campus is a disservice to our peers in the campus political minority, and to our own educational growth.

In the same vein, administrators and faculty should take active steps to ensure that students of all political stripes feel comfortable voicing their ideas, especially in the classroom. Concretely, this effort will likely involve actively encouraging the airing of different views, and curtailing unnecessary or inappropriate expressions of political favor by professors. Guaranteeing that more conservative professors teach in subject areas that clearly lean liberal, like the humanities, is also crucial.

Nick Cohen in the Guardian:

It is a myth that Trump and Brexit won because of overwhelming working-class support. Nevertheless, they could win only because a large chunk of the white working class moved rightwards. Debates about how to lure them back ought to reveal the difference between arguing with and arguing against your fellow citizens, which most middle-class leftists have not even begun to think about.

You can only argue against committed supporters of Trump. If they believe all Mexicans are rapists and Muslims terrorists, you cannot compromise without betraying your principles. Fair enough. But before you become self-righteous you must accept that the dominant faction on the western left uses language just as suggestive of collective punishment when they talk about their own white working class. Imagine how it must feel for a worker in Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown to hear college-educated liberals condemn “white privilege” when he has a shit job and a miserable life. Or Google the number of times “straight white males” are denounced by public-school educated women in the liberal media and think how that sounds to an ex-miner coughing his guts up in a Yorkshire council flat.

Emotionally, as well as rationally, they sense the left, or at least the left they see and hear, is no longer their friend. They are men and women who could be argued with, if the middle classes were willing to treat them decently. You might change their minds. You might even find that they could change yours. Instead of hearing an argument, they see liberals who call the police to suppress not only genuine hate speech that incites violence but any uncouth or “inappropriate” transgression.

For too many in the poor neighbourhoods of the west, middle-class liberals have become like their bosses at work. They tell you what you can and can’t think. They warn that you must accept their superiority and you will be in no end of trouble if you do not.

Finally, the satirist Jonathan Pie delivers a blistering and profanity-filled rant that mercilessly eviscerates the progressive left:

I take this emerging criticism as a sign that things are changing and indicative of the possibility of a new multilateral movement towards open and pluralistic discourse and away from the discourse of progressivism. The progressive left, though still overwhelmingly powerful in many contexts and institutions, is gradually losing its power, something revealed by the fact that so many people are no longer falsifying their preferences. Its opponents are starting to emerge from their boltholes and to organize against it.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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36 Responses to A Crisis of Discourse—Part 1: Cracks in the Progressive Left

  1. quinnjones2 says:

    Brilliant, Alastair. Absolutely brilliant! 🙂

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hi Alastair, I realise that, in using the word ‘brilliant’ twice, I have tended towards a Trump-like style! I could go through point by point explaining why I think your article is brilliant, but that could make rather boring and pedantic reading and I think your article speaks for itself anyway – those who have ears to hear will take heed of what you have said 🙂

  2. BamBam says:

    You have done so much of the work of dredging up things to read, and voices to consider, that I’m not sure I’ll have much ground left to cover after properly reading this and following many of those links. Great work, man.

  3. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    An excellent piece!!

  4. cal says:

    The reactions generally bode ill. Some of these people promote a kind of peasant fantasy, calling upon the clean power of the real-folk who get sick and tired of limp-wristed academics and intelligentsia. This reminds me of the wave that Ceausescu rode. And of course, Sam Harris’ smugness appears, reflecting his own warmongering and bigotry, a man just as equally contemptuous of the non-brights.

    I’m sure you would make the same criticisms, but for me this all reveals how Christians have generally led by the nose by the stink of prestige and power in This Age. Relevance has replaced fidelity, in a cart before the horse kind of way. Whether its progressive Evangelicals repeating BS about identity-politics in altered, Christianized (and rightly comical to the eyes of the World), form or, going back, Billy Graham’s adoption of propaganda and mass-media techniques to peddle to Gospel, corrupting the message through the form it took, and many others. It’s about somehow gaining a foothold somewhere.

    Unless this is truly targeted as a dangerous instinct, one that comingled in the Imperial institutionalization of the Church in the reign of Theodosius, then we’re bound to repeat the cycle over and over. Perhaps such a phenomenon is decreed, per the figures of Ahab and Jezebel, of Jeroboam, of Assyria and Rabashekh, of Solomon and his harem, of a Babylonian Whore, a defiled wedding bed, the kings of men, and Sea-Beasts.

    That is all to say, Christians have an obligation to see beyond the confines of nation, state, and kin. This election revealed that hand-wringing liberals are still ready to bomb the shit out of brown people (Clinton was clearly ready to invade Syria, continue a civil war in Yemen, continue Obama’s Pivot to the Pacific etc etc.) But the election of Trump shows an exercise of good faith in American strength of arms, rather than the hypocritical non-sense of people who want safe-spaces so they can talk about micro-aggression even as they encourage death from above. It’s good that a megalomaniac represents this country, it completely fits the bill that the selfish identity politics merely reflects in its cocooned life of wealth and power.

    It’s all crazy to me.

    my 2 cents,

  5. Matt says:

    Great article, well written and extremely honest and factual.

    Well done for speaking up.

  6. Physiocrat1 says:

    You’re right that the progressive left is seemingly putting their finger on the problem they have caused however I doubt they’ll change much in practice as they will see that in open debate they will lose and thus return to safe spaces and name calling. Further since their politics is, as your rightly pointed out based on guilt, it relies mostly on rhetoric rather than argument.

    As an aside, could you please define what you mean when you use the terms racism and sexism? In most contexts they are used purely as anti-concepts, as Ayn Rand would put it. They give an impression of meaning but actually are used to avoid genuine discussion.

  7. Jonathan says:

    “It was revealed that progressive liberals were out of touch with the country, unable to mobilize key groups behind their vision, and devastatingly alienating for certain others.”

    It’s not that Clinton’s success wasn’t bound to the progressive left to some degree, but she was hardly their darling candidate. It could equally be argued (and possibly more convincingly so) that the Democrats were out of touch with the country’s distaste for corporatism and willingness to hold their nose and vote for someone who alienated a large part of the support base with her previous political actions. Since the figures show the Democrats losing support rather than the Republicans gaining support (they’re just losing it slower), it’s not necessarily convincing that this represents a sea change in people’s opinion. #NeverTrump was just not a good enough reason to vote for Clinton, and progressives have been saying this for a long time.

    Another thing – I guess this comes under “human psychology”, but claims that people voted Trump out of exasperation at being called racists sounds pretty ridiculous. I mean, congratulations, you’ve now earned that title. The fact that Evangelicals were a major part of the support base says very bad things about them. “People accused me of doing something, so I might as well do it now” is the way that a spoiled child thinks. Also, while some people may see their actions as harmless to others, it’s really up to those other people to say how harmful they are. If people’s response to being told that there are real issues that affect people other than themselves is to vote for the candidate every racist and sexist wants to win, they really need to grow up and learn some responsibility. When people talk about justice and fairness in a context where this has been suppressed in important ways for centuries, people will see equality as an overreach, and there will be opposition to it. This doesn’t mean that those calling for equality should compromise on their demands.

    On the other hand, I think your wider point stands: progressives rely a lot on shame and identity politics, and that can cause shame-resistant people. On the (other) other hand, there are big questions about whether social justice could be achieved by getting more privileged people to agree that others should have equal rights. Every bit of social progress has been accompanied by howls of protest that everything up to this point was reasonable, but now they’ve gone too far.

    • Physiocrat1 says:

      I think if you distinguish between the cultural and the economic left it’s clear that Clinton definitely had more support from the cultural left than did Sanders (who had much more support from the economic left). It was surely the march of history that the next President would be a woman (a card Clinton shamelessly played all the time). Also you have to note that since the 70s the Democrats have an overall strategy of becoming the party of minorities. This can be clearly seen by how they completely wrap up the Black vote (despite the Dems having candidates like George Wallace in the 1960s). The Dems thus place all their efforts into social egalitarianism not economic equality. They can’t play the latter card since all their incredibly wealthy donors would desert them in an instant. All this said I think they’ll need to consciously to move a little leftward economically speaking to bring back some of the non-voters.

      To say that people voted Trump because they’re fed up of being called racist underplays the issue. Many people believe, rightly or wrongly, that the cultural narrative is one of a unique sin by whites, in particular white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males. They deliberately or unconsciously hold back anyone not like them. Thus they need to be stripped of their power to protect officially oppressed groups. Many people are coming to believe that this is nonsense and are fighting back. I think the burgeoning demographic issue whereby Whites will be a minority in America by the mid-21st century has brought this into sharp relief.

      • Jonathan says:

        It seems both the Republicans and Democrats have demographics that they see as safe, provided they don’t disturb a few policies. I would have liked to have seen Trump shake that assumption about Evangelicals on the right, although Pence, his eleventh hour conversion and some other issues seem to have made some difference. Sanders challenged it from an economic standpoint on the left, and Clinton didn’t really give a satisfactory answer. Do Dems expect progressives to vote for her in large numbers despite the fact that Clinton is so friendly with the most economically powerful and won’t make them suffer much in the cause of equality? When she has been behind a lot of damage caused to other countries?

        On the other hand, I don’t really see much of a backlash – this looks more like “a plague o’both your houses”, since the Reps didn’t make much of a gain. However, it’s interesting to note that despite reports of a low voter turnout, it was actually higher than 2012. With some votes left to count, Clinton is currently leading the popular vote by 0.6% and rising, and some mainly Dem supporters may have been prevented from voting.

        I think the whole issue of Privilege is going to be very controversial, whatever its truth value. We like to think that we’ve earned our success, or that we’re not responsible for others’ suffering. It’s a form of the just world hypothesis, as an instinctive way of assuaging our guilt. People keep claiming that this gap doesn’t exist anymore because there’s no slavery, Jim Crow laws, there’s been a black president and so on. That Black Lives Matter is unjustly going into identity politics (don’t ALL lives matter?). The problem is that people on both sides are often reading self-loathing into an argument when it doesn’t have to be there. Of course it does exist to some degree (Robin Morgan is one example, and guilt can often be used as a weapon against others), but people are generally not saying that I should loathe myself for being a white man. They are saying that there are systems benefiting whites, and that I have a responsibility to recognise them and work to level the field. Not that white men should be stripped of power, but that they should have to share it.

        I find it hard to disagree with a number of the claims, since evidence for these systems and biases keeps turning up (most recently the study showing that black entrepreneurs are much less likely to ask for credit, and less likely to get the full amount when they do). In this sense, the term racist is often referring to the culture as a whole rather than individuals in it. White people are not uniquely bad (I’ve been to enough countries to see plenty of bigotry by non-whites), but their bigotry is much more powerful.

        There are definite weaknesses in a number of these arguments, I’d say most clearly seen in the arguments of middle class white women who use other people’s lack of advantage to increase their own.

  8. quinnjones2 says:

    This is a personal comment. If this election result means that political correctness has been, or will be, thrown out the window, then I say ‘three cheers!’. I live in the UK but for many years I have been up against a plethora of things I was not supposed to be saying, especially in my job as a teacher. I tied myself up in knots trying to negotiate a minefield of what I could say without getting my knuckles rapped. My colleagues were also tying themselves up in knots. For instance, towards the end of my years as a teacher, when I was working part-time, I was older than most of my colleagues – my line managers were younger than I was. Some of them seemed to think that they must never mention the fact that I was older. They described me as ‘mature’ or ‘experienced’, but they avoided describing me as ‘an older person.’ In an interview for one temporary job, I was asked by the interviewer how I would feel, as ‘ a more mature person’, to be working for a ‘less mature’ line manager. Maybe people were afraid of being accused of being ageist. If so, I appreciate their difficulties. In a blaming society where people are accused of being ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘elitist’ et al, why would anyone want to add ‘ageist’ to the list?!
    I do not have an ageist attitude to myself. I am just thankful that I am still alive and well. I am 72.
    And now I will get off my soap box.
    I look forward to Part 2 of your article, Alastair 🙂

  9. Physiocrat1 says:


    On the Dems and Reps. The former has been much clearer in appealing to particular demographic groups whereas the latter tended to focus on more the propositional tenets of the Constitution and being an American. After Romney lost the feeling was the Reps had to follow the Dems in courting the minority vote. Trump showed that this was stupid- if the Reps can up the percentage of the white vote they will win at least until 2050 or so. This is what Steve Sailor has advocated for the Reps for ages.

    The concept of privilege is based on the notion of equality of opportunity. The problem is equality of opportunity entails equality of outcome. Suppose you have two families which both originally have equal income and one family spends all their money on foreign holidays etc whereas the other saves their money to put their son to an elite private school. It is likely that, at least in terms of employablilty and future earning potential, the son who went to the elite private school will do better and thus his family will likely be richer. The only way to prevent the privilege in this case is to direct the spending of both families such that neither family can be in a relatively better position than the other.

    Privilege is natural and just a reflection that societies are inherently in-egalitarian for reasons of genetics, environment and choice. Rather than focusing on abstract structural evils one should focus on cultivating personal virtue (especially one’s own).

    Note if someone can prove that an item owned by say their great-grandfather was stolen and bequeathed to the thief’s descendant then it should the returned to the descendant of the original owner. This is the only way any reparations can work without just compounding one evil upon another.

    • Physiocrat1 says:

      Please note, I’m not defending any legal privileges in any form be it in third party limited liability or legally enforced segregation.

    • Jonathan says:

      “Suppose you have two families which both originally have equal income and one family spends all their money on foreign holidays etc whereas the other saves their money to put their son to an elite private school.”

      I don’t see how that is in any way relevant. Black people are not equal. They never were equal, and this was and is deliberate. There is still serious racism in the US that is stopping black people from having equal opportunites, on top of historical inequality.

      This is what bothers me about the opposition to the progressives. Yes, there are a number of weak arguments, but when people point out the huge number of black lives that are lost, white people want to talk about blue lives, white lives, any lives but not specifically the ones who are suffering the most. When people talk about poverty, they want to talk about the angry white people whose jobs have been taken away, not the black people who have been in a much worse situation for a long time – and not just because there are no good jobs in their area, but because they have been deliberately prevented from accessing these good jobs for generations, and there is ongoing bias against them.

      When people talk about why people voted Trump, they go with achingly petty reasons. “I don’t like being called a racist”. Work to combat racism then. Do focus on your own life and your immediate sphere of influence; this is important. But don’t act like this makes the structural evils go away. Read http://www.theatlantic.com/projects/reparations/ without rushing to the practicalities of whether reparations should or could be given, but actually recognising what our ancestors have done to oppress people (and Donald Trump’s ancestors are particularly guilty here). Whether or not this is possible or even advisable, black people are not wrong to bring up the issue of reparations. It’s not just individuals; it’s identifiable groups of people who are still affected, and are now less secure because Donald Trump will soon be in power. But white people want to talk about their own problems. It’s the height of selfishness, especially as Trump supporters have a higher median household income than whites in general – they are not the disenfranchised poor. While I’m not unsympathetic to lower income white Americans, the perception of equivalence has to be challenged.

      • Physiocrat1 says:

        “I don’t see how that is in any way relevant. Black people are not equal. They never were equal, and this was and is deliberate. There is still serious racism in the US that is stopping black people from having equal opportunites, on top of historical inequality.”

        You’re missing the point. Even if you did start with an even beginning (which never happened and in practice impossible) you will always end up with unequal outcomes. Different people make different decisions which lead to different outcomes which become magnified over time.

        Obviously the blacks in the US historically were treated pretty badly (I skimmed the article you provided) however so were the Southern European people who were enslaved by the Islamic Empires in the Middle Ages. And basically any people who were enslaved by another. You cannot change the past, you can just deal with it’s after effects. Reparations only make sense on an individual basis as pointed out before. If you make any attempt to collectivise it, you’ll just harm whites who did not directly benefit from the thefts etc. It just compounds evil upon evil. Also why should we hold the sons accountable for the sins of father? (outside the clear and demonstrable situation I outlined). You should only be responsible for you actions not someone else’s who is long dead.

        White’s concentrate on the plight of whites and the Jews concentrate on the Jews in the same way I’m more concerned with the outcome of my family than anyone else. Race is just an extension of the family.

        I’ll ask you the same question I asked Alastair- how do you define racism?

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        I strongly agree with Jonathan’s comment below, and he’s more familiar with King than I am–which is a lack in my education. (Also, is he the Jonathan that used to comment on Doug Wilson’s blog? I suppose that’s a long-shot, but I always really appreciated “Jonathan’s” contribution there.) But I do think I have something small to add:

        There are real objections to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on reparations. But I too am deeply frustrated with Conservative attempts to understand and address racial issues.

        In much of the country, for instance, evangelicals could join historically Black churches, and not seek leadership, but intentionally seek to learn from our betters–my wife and I tried this, but we weren’t in a position to stop attending our current church, and two services a Sunday was draining. Or, we could read the barest minimum of King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and Douglass and Booker T Washington and Du Bois. Or we could find ways to write and sing modern songs based roughly on Psalm 106 “We have sinned as our fathers have”–repentance that unites us to our fathers, even in their sins, and treats their guilt as ours, rather than separating ourselves from them. Or we could work at inner-city ministries, like Matthew Loftus did. Etc. But we haven’t done either of these, but tend to either ignore articles like Coates’ (and King, for that matter–except when its expedient to quote him in memes, even though we know nothing of the context), or to treat them as threats to our bodily integrity, threats that provoke a reaction, not a response. (Perhaps these ideas I offer aren’t all good ideas. But the conversation hasn’t even gotten off the ground, and because of that, there needs to be a strong willingness to listen to and foster new ideas; even as we critique them.)

        But several points in your comment, I think, deserve a further address. First:

        You’re missing the point. Even if you did start with an even beginning (which never happened and in practice impossible) you will always end up with unequal outcomes. Different people make different decisions which lead to different outcomes which become magnified over time.

        As Jonathan noted, the issue isn’t different outcomes, but inequitable histories and outcomes. Additionally, we need to remember that beginnings are not just initial boundary conditions, but perdure through the life of a people, echoing and rhyming throughout. Just as creation is not just something that happened in the past, just as the Exodus is not just something that happened in the past (Deuteronomy explicitly states that the people entering the land saw the plagues with their own eyes, even though, by and large, they did not), just as Christ’s death and resurrection are not just things that happened in the past, but all continue to life on and rhyme with our lives and histories today; so founding beginnings of the United States, so the two types of Atlantic crossings, so the injustices and justices, so the struggles for freedom, in their differences, continue to live on, rhyming events, corporate and individual, today.

        Race is just an extension of the family.

        A white woman can give birth to a black child. A white man can father a black child. A black woman cannot give birth to a white child. A black man cannot father a white child. Race does seems draw off natural affinities for our people, affinities that are founded in our familial relationships. However, race is not in any straight-forward healthy way an extension of the family. Additionally, that claim contradicts your earlier claim that: “If you make any attempt to collectivise it, you’ll just harm whites who did not directly benefit from the thefts etc. It just compounds evil upon evil.” If race were an extension of the family, then it would be just to give reparations to “that family” from “this family”–as you note.

        Though race is not an extension of family, that framing does raise an important point: Because of the different foundational Atlantic crossings, because of the different foundational sacrifices and struggles, because of the different shapes filial piety can take, there is something of a communal aspect to race. (Though only somewhat–there isn’t a “black community”, as if black people held town hall meetings to decide how to vote, etc.) Because of that, it isn’t ipso facto unjust for reparations to be paid by the US Government, by state governments, and by city governments, to black people, as a people. There would, of course, need to be careful prudential deliberation regarding the shape these reparations would take, or even if they should take shape, and careful weighing of the specific potential justice and injustice of specific proposals. Weighty objections, like the one raised by Cedric Johnson above would need to be heard. It would almost certainly make more sense to pay corporations like Urban Leagues than to just cut checks. And there may be more healthy ways to address the disharmonious and injustices than reparations. Etc. Etc. But we need to begin by thinking through these issues, working to hear our opponents, weigh their suggestions, and not be afraid to find that we have been unjust.

  10. Jonathan says:

    @Physiocrat1 What I’m saying is that this analogy should not have been brought up, since it only obscures the reality. Yes, people who start off as equals end up different due to natural processes, but this has nothing to do with the inequality of black people in America. Southern European people also suffered under Islamic empires. However, when they came to America they ended up being incorporated into the white “race” (after a period of discrimination). They weren’t enslaved in America. They weren’t subjected to Jim Crow laws. Their descendants are not discriminated against.

    As for a definition of racism, there are a number of possible answers, and I’ll use MLK quotes to illustrate two of them:

    1. Active systemic racism:
    “In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

    Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

    But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

    Of course it didn’t end there, but even if it had the wealth and power gap would have continued for generations. The last lynching was in 1968. In 2001, the AP documented some 406 victims of white theft of black-owned land and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. Opposition to combined schooling continues, even though this is a proven way to reduce inequality. Predatory lending as the only option for a mortgage – if you miss a payment before your house is fully paid off, you lose everything and are evicted (and replaced by another black owner). Neighbourhoods with black residents would be downgraded by insurance companies, and majority black neighbourhoods would be “redlined”. This meant that white people wouldn’t sell to black people, and once they did there would be white flight. Donald Trump’s own father refused to rent to black people. Studies still show that it is very difficult for black people to escape the ghetto, even if they are high earners, and their children often fall back into it.

    Nixon’s drug war has been reported by an insider to have been about targeting black people and protesters. Black people have suffered disproportionately from this for decades, even though they don’t use drugs more than whites. There was a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for crack vs. powder cocaine possession under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. A 2013 ACLU study determined that a black person in the United States was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though both races have similar rates of marijuana use. In 1998, African-Americans were sent to state prisons for drug offences 13 times more often than white men, even though they only comprised 13% of regular drug users. In 2009, 4.7% of black males were in prison, compared to 0.7% of white males. At the same time there is self-righteous hand-wringing about absent black fathers, and people act like this is a natural difference in people’s nature. I could go on, but Wikipedia gives a summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_the_War_on_Drugs

    These dual attacks on black property and people, combined with historic violence and exploitation against black people will have a serious effect on their communities. As MLK says:
    “We must also realise that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

    2. Individual indifference:
    “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalise the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”

    And again:

    “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

    And again:

    “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbours and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans…These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”

    White people do directly benefit from racism. White indifference is positively harmful, as it supports dangerous systems. This is why I am so frustrated by this issue: social justice is a major theme in the Bible, and God’s people, the city on a hill that should be a prophetic voice to the world, are pointing in the wrong direction, against meaningful change. Talking about their feelings being hurt by accusations of racism. Voting overwhelmingly in favour of an odious man who represents many of the evils of wealth and power. Who does not keep his word in business, personal life or politics. Who has insulted women and minorities in very serious ways. Who has been accused of rape by over a dozen women, some of them minors at the time. Who has promised to deport 2-3 million undocumented immigrants immediately, seemingly as a grandstanding strategy. Who has gone against the overwhelming scientific consensus and defunded action on climate change. Whose director of African American outreach has talked openly and repeatedly of revenge against political opponents for insulting him in apocalyptic terms:

    “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”

    While those who voted for him are not necessarily racist or sexist, the truth is that their vote said that this was acceptable. Progressives have some weaknesses in their arguments, but Christians have a lot more to answer for.

    • Physiocrat1 says:


      Quoting MLK does not amount to a definition of racism. In those quotes he conflates many issues which do not necessarily rest of race. Take for example paying compensation to former slaves, a position which is eminently reasonable. To claim that the post-war government was racist in not doing this assumes that the reason they did not pay them was because they were black. Now this could very well be true but he provides no evidence that this is the case. It could have been because of general financial considerations such that if they were white slaves the same position could well have been taken.

      The reason I asked for a definition of racism is that I suspected that you would use evidence of differential outcomes as justification which per se does not hold since even beginning with equality of opportunity always leads to inequality of outcome.

      Here is what I take to be a cogent definition of racism:

      A disposition, act, law or view l which is unjustifiably based on a person’s race.

      The key is unjustifiable. Let’s take insurance. Since, for whatever reason, black’s commit disproportional numbers of crimes. Thus depending on how easy other evidence is available it seems entirely reasonable, at least in principle, that an insurance company would use the racial demographics to in part determine insurance premiums.

      On a different matter whilst you could make the case that whites in general benefit from racism (which I would contend) it is unjustifiable to force all whites to pay higher levels of taxation in order to fund reparations. The best article on reparations (which I haven’t read for ages) is this:

      Click to access reparations_slavery.pdf

      • Jonathan says:

        @mnpetersen37 I’m not sure whether I’ve commented on Doug Wilson’s blog or not – I have heard a number of his sermon series though. I’m actually Alastair’s younger brother, and we’ve been arguing like this all my life. (I should also disclose that I am now an atheist, but still very keen to engage with Christians. I’m also not an American, but I married into an American family. When I say we, in some ways I’m not implicated in wrongs particular to America, but I would say that these systems are international and I consider myself responsible to support change where I can).

        I also have real doubts about whether reparations in the form of a straight cash gift would do any good at all. I doubt that reparations in any form will ever be a politically realistic proposition.


        These practical considerations have no bearing on whether black people are justified in their claim that historical wrongs have been done, and should be put right. They are completely separate issues, and should be treated as such.

        I think Bernie Sanders is talking along the right lines when he calls for economic change. I would say that there needs to be a change in the structures of society – again referencing King, building a people-focused rather than materialistic society. I don’t think we should get caught up in dividing people into races, but instead make focused investments at the community level. This is where we can’t fall back on the “rising tide lifts all boats” argument. It should be focused primarily on black communities rather than white ones (although obviously they shouldn’t be excluded from support from other programs). The benefits won’t be restricted to black people, but I don’t think this is a problem. Real structural change without benefiting others is probably impossible in any case.

        Many issues affect black people more, but still have an effect on white people. The war on drugs is a big one. Greater desegregation in schools has also been shown to have positive effects. Greater investment in communities. Representation in government and other authority structures (in numbers, not just figureheads) etc. This will require people to accept their position in the current situation. That even if that is not their fault, it is their responsibility to help to change it.

        Honestly, after 2016, I’m not optimistic.

        @Physiocrat1 We can argue whether something is accidentally or deliberately racist, but we don’t get to make up our own alternate histories. If white slaves had existed in the US (and claims that the Irish count are not convincing), this would complicate matters. But they didn’t, and we are left with the fact that the skin colour of American slaves and their owners was generally very different – and this was not accidental.

        Your definition of racism misses the fact that it isn’t a random series of discrete acts. It’s something we can support without being aware of it or actively participating in it. There are reasons why the racist acts in particular societies go along particular fault lines. In the film Life is Beautiful, Guido and his son see a sign in a shop window forbidding Jews and dogs from entering.

        Guido: “Oh, that. “Not Allowed” signs are the latest trend! …The other day, I was in a shop with my Chinese friend and his pet kangaroo, but their sign said, “No Chinese or Kangaroos Allowed,” and I said to my friend, “Well, what can I do? They don’t allow kangaroos.” Joshua: We let everyone in our shop, don’t we? Guido: Well, tomorrow, we’ll put one up. We won’t let in anything we don’t like. What don’t you like? Joshua: Spiders. Guido: Good. I don’t like Visigoths. Tomorrow, we’ll get sign: “No Spiders or Visigoths Allowed.”

        We can pretend that there’s not a systemic element to this, but this is just something to make us sleep better at night. I didn’t just point out differentials; Jim Crow laws were real and targeted blacks; predatory lending denied blacks the benefits of normal mortgages; redlining and white flight were along race lines that were built into the system. You could be non-racist, but following your economic interests and insisting on segregation was forming a more racist society. Fred Trump didn’t rent to people based on their skin colour. Nixon used the war on drugs as a pretext – an insider has admitted this. The differences in incarceration rates can’t just be put down to other factors. Black Lives Matter is raising serious issues that are documented, and sometimes even videoed. People are being treated differently without just cause based on their skin colour.

        I did read the link you posted – I would say that individual reparations would be a complete nightmare, and certainly wouldn’t bring about true justice. There’s not enough money and a huge amount would go to lawyers, for a start. A slave born more than 150 years ago may have hundreds of direct descendants, who may also be descendants of the slave owner; determining the appropriate sum for each in each case would not be possible. In any case, we are generally not talking about a specific item that can be traced. Even a plantation house is obviously in part the result of slave labour, but it’s also the result of wise investment and good management of resources. You can’t determine damages based on surviving goods. The real harm of slavery and racism that we see today is the much lower standard of living of African Americans (and not just in economic terms). I would say the greatest good we could do is to put greater investment in the communities that are still very disadvantaged rather than arguing the toss about every individual case.

  11. Physiocrat1 says:


    Saying race is an extension of the family does not necessarily imply any form of collective responsibility. Saying race is an extension of family is a biological claims whereas to say that there should only be individual responsibility since a man only has free will over his own actions is an ethical claim. My point about family in this case just rests on the assumption that the deceased is likely to bequeath his property to his closest biological relative.

    Your counter claim regarding race involves mixed race children which just makes the racial waters more complex. But that races developed in geographically distinct locations by the reproduction of the particular families in those locations is entirely accurate. In most cases you will be more closely genetically related to a member of the same race than of another. The fact that in some instances this is not the case does not overturn the fact that it is true in most cases. I can point to the desert and to grassland, since I cannot precisely point to where the desert begins does not imply that the desert does not exist.

    To expand on something earlier, you can make the claim that some whites were harmed by slavery since it reduced the wage employers were willing to pay them since they could purchase slaves instead. How then is it just to charge some descendants of whites who were harmed by slavery, albeit indirectly, to recompense another group which was harmed by slavery? Further, lest we not forget that there were some (not many) black slave owners in the South.

  12. Physiocrat1 says:


    “Your definition of racism misses the fact that it isn’t a random series of discrete acts. It’s something we can support without being aware of it or actively participating in it”

    I fail to see why my definition implies a random series of acts. You can support a whole lot of positions without being aware that you do but when you’re analysing someone’s action to understand their justification we need to have a clear conception of what we’re looking for. I do though state that the actions must be discrete- you cannot point to a vague notion of “structural” issues without them being built upon solid foundations.

    I’ve heard the argument that Nixon used the drug laws to target blacks which is perfectly possible. The solution to this is to legalise all drugs- problem solved. In your point about people being judged by the colour of their skin that undoubtedly does happen the question is how prevalent it is. Now according to some victim and witness crime surveys, the police arrest rate of people of different races actually matches it pretty closely.

    I would contend that white flight is encouraging racism. It is merely a sign of legitimate in-group preference. People wish to associate with people who are similar to themselves and race provides a broad line- if this were not the case Chinatowns would not exist. I am not defending any legal inequality between the races but leaving them to do as they please. This is why the Civil Rights act in part was bad- it replaced forced segregation with forced integration: people should have the entire freedom of association and by implication dissociation.

    Thanks for reading the link, I thought it was the case Block went further in what could be reperated than I now take. You’re right lawyers fees would be high and the investigations necessary would be very difficult. I agree, however we should treat this with the same methods as any other crime and have the same standard of proof. When you say the answer is “investment” that’s just a euphemism for taxing one group to uplift another. This is why only individual justice is true justice and can only work for reparations in the tightly circumscribed areas not initially.

    • Jonathan says:

      “I do though state that the actions must be discrete- you cannot point to a vague notion of “structural” issues without them being built upon solid foundations.”

      Some of the foundations are fairly solid, such as specific laws or business practices. But even then you can argue about any specific act. Stopping black people from accessing normal mortgages and having a direct relationship between the insurance rating of an area and the proportion of black people living there? Well, black areas have more crime. I’m not racist, just anti-crime! If you don’t get a job, there could be many reasons why you failed – the selection process is very subjective. Black people are shot a lot more than whites (about 1000 people killed by police in the US so far, and black people are proportionally twice as likely to be killed – last year was even worse)? In each case you could argue that there are special circumstances and white people wouldn’t have been treated differently. In 1991, Neil deGrasse Tyson could name a dozen encounters with police while at graduate school, and he claimed that when he saw the Rodney King tape it was the fact that it had been recorded that surprised him rather than the fact that he was beaten by the police. But I’m sure you could find white people who have been beaten by police too.

      While it can be difficult to identify discrete racist acts with no compounding factors, it’s like an unfair dice in that a lot of the bias can be seen in the statistics. If you don’t believe the statistics, I find that certain groups can explain the kind of racism they face all the time. This is where the ridiculed term “microagressions” is useful. It’s just the background radiation of bigotry that people face. I thought my city was fairly safe until my wife gave me a tour. This is where she was shouted at when she was alone. She knows what that look means, and it would be a comment or more if I wasn’t there (since her autonomy is respected less than the fact that she’s “taken”). She wouldn’t feel safe walking down this street if I wasn’t there. Explaining to me the kinds of decisions she makes every day. Should I go downtown for a coffee? That would make me feel better, but I’d also have to face people acting in rude and intimidating ways. Should I wear the clothes I feel comfortable in, or the ones that will make me blend into the background more? There are similar decisions for minorities that we just don’t face or even see. They’re not actual crimes, but they have to deal with disrespect all the time that they don’t respond to, because it’s too much energy and it won’t change anything. But it does make life worse, and intimidates people into being less active.

      On a similar issue, I like this cartoon about privilege: http://thewireless.co.nz/articles/the-pencilsword-on-a-plate I like how it underlines the way that it’s a *good thing* that the first person gets these opportunities. He isn’t wrong to make use of them. It’s also not his fault that other people don’t have these opportunities, but it’s very easy to get the idea that we have some kind of equality of opportunity that doesn’t exist. This is why treating it like a crime won’t be enough: it’s a culture and a system supporting it, not just acts in themselves. Going back to sexism and the idea of “rape culture”, Donald Trump may have sexually assaulted a number of women, but it was in the locker room or other areas with men where his view of women was validated. This is similar to the way racism in culture works – it provides an environment where these acts are allowed, where racist behaviour is not taken seriously and where people are not believed when they talk about the realities they face.

      I do think targeted investment and action is important, both in ways that benefit everyone (ending the war on drugs) and more specifically (investing more in schools in particular areas). It is taxing one group and giving it to another, but I don’t think it should just be taken from white people at all. Here in Germany, we pay solidarity payments to benefit East Germany, even after 25 years, and even though it’s not the West’s fault. We have universal healthcare, and the insurance rates are based on income. In many ways, a more equal society helps everyone, not just the direct beneficiaries. But now I’m starting to sound like Bernie again. 😉

  13. quinnjones2 says:

    The dialogue between Jonathan and Physiocrat here has been an education for me as, have the posts from other commenters. I think that we all have concerns about social justice/injustice, but we have different priorities. With regard to the term ‘SJWs’, I was quite a slow learner. It took me a while to discover that a term which was originally neutral or positive ( a bit like ‘prayer warrior’) had in recent years become a ‘snarl term’. It is not good when we become so preoccupied with one social concern that we become blinded to other social concerns. I now realise that in 2016 I have become overly concerned with Brexit and the US election and all the divisions that have been revealed in relation to these events. I have been relieved this week to discover that several people I know are beginning to shrug off the Brexit and Trump nightmares on the grounds that they are powerless to change the situation anyway – they prefer to talk about the cold weather and the need for winter woollies, about a new grandchild, about a new mobility scooter, about seeing a robin in the garden and such things, and I am happy to listen to them. I remain interested in political events and social dynamics, but I seem to getting a different perspective on these matters.
    Thank you again for your brilliant article, Alastair – and my thanks to all commenters here for your comments.

    • Physiocrat1 says:

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve never had anyone comment to the effect that they found comments of others interesting. Very much appreciated. Sometimes comments feel like a one-on-one duel.

    • I am with you here Christine. I have found many of the comments here as valuable, if not more so than the substance of the article proper, however much I may disagree.

      For what it’s worth, I’d deraly love to see what would happen to our brothers and sisters in the Anglican world of middle-England if they were allowed off the leash so. 🙂

      • Matt Sheffield says:

        Though I add, as a 28 year old I am probably slightly more familiar with the taxonomy and terminology of the debate here. For me SJW has only ever been a perjorative, and a largely, if not exclusively, American phenomenon.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Thank you, Matt 🙂 By the way, I am one of your ‘sisters in the Anglican world of middle-England’, and I could tell a tale or two…or ten 🙂

      • Jonathan says:

        Apparently SJW has only really been used as a perjorative since GamerGate, whereas before it was used to refer to prominent people like Ghandi who worked to achieve social justice. I guess nowadays it’s a nudge at some people’s smug sense of self-importance and the way that they can have a very black-and-white, for us or against us mentality, but whenever I hear the GamerGate claim that “it’s about ethics in games journalism” I read that as resistance to the idea that the ethical qualities of games should be critiqued, particularly by feminists (which seems to be much closer to their real objections).

        As far as I’m concerned, social justice ideology owes a lot to biblical principles and to nonconformists. The early Labour Party was dominated by them, according to Kingsley Martin:

        Social revolt in Britain had sprung from dissent. The leaders of Chartism learnt their eloquence in dissenting chapels and the Anti-Corn agitation was led by Quakers and other nonconformists. Dissenters became the backbone of the working-class party, and the ILP was composed of dissenting moralists who would not accept the usual political compromises. They readily responded to the oratory of lay preachers like Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson, and it is no accident that so many of the leaders of the Labour Party have been Christians who believed they were inaugurating a moral and social revolution. Morality and politics were one.

    • Jonathan says:

      “they prefer to talk about the cold weather and the need for winter woollies, about a new grandchild, about a new mobility scooter, about seeing a robin in the garden and such things, and I am happy to listen to them.”

      I think this is really helpful, and I’ve been thinking of doing the same. At the end of the day, it’s probably worse than useless to argue without focusing on improving ourselves and our own sphere of influence, as Physiocrat pointed out. I actually tried to point out a beautiful robin in our garden to my seven year old last week, but he thought it was a Pokemon and tried to catch it.

      Thank you everyone for the conversation, it was very interesting to hear your views and particularly pleasant to have a discussion that wasn’t heated.

  14. quinnjones2 says:

    Jonathan: ‘I actually tried to point out a beautiful robin in our garden to my seven-year-old last week, but he thought it was a Pokeman and tried to catch it.’ – that made me smile – I can imagine my young grandson doing the same 🙂

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  16. “The doctrine of justification means that we can truthfully acknowledge and repent of our sin, without selling ourselves into the cruel slavery of those who would mercilessly exploit and leverage our guilt for social dominance.”

    Hear, hear! Thrice thanks, and keep it coming.

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