We’ve unnecessarily pulled down and rebuilt a culture.
John Derbyshire, National Review Online, Mar. 24
Writing about George W. Bush’s decision to come out in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment, Peggy Noonan had the following thing to say in the February 26 Opinion Journal:
It would be good, however, to see the president speak about American open-mindedness and what it means in practice and theory. America is now a country — it was not always — in which people feel free to hold whatever private views on all human groups and behaviors while bowing to the moral necessity to show respect and regard for all groups that are different, in whatever ways. We have gone beyond tolerance in America; we have arrived at affection and sympathy and mutual respect. It has been beautiful to see, and I have seen it in my lifetime. It’s worth talking about.
Is this true? Have we really gone “beyond tolerance? Has it really been “beautiful to see”? And is it really worth the president’s talking about?
On the last point, Ms. Noonan has me baffled. I have listened to a fair number of my president’s speeches, and I can’t recall a single one in which he did not pay tribute to “American open-mindedness,” or some close synonym. To offer just one example, here he was in the last State of the Union speech:
America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. … By our actions, we have shown what kind of nation we are. In grief, we have found the grace to go on. In challenge, we rediscovered the courage and daring of a free people. In victory, we have shown the noble aims and good heart of America. … I’ve been witness to the character of the people of America, who have shown calm in times of danger, compassion for one another, and toughness for the long haul.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am entirely on board with the president’s sentiments about the great nation we both have the privilege of belonging to. I myself went to considerable trouble to get here and acquire citizenship, and I didn’t do it for the fun of attending INS interviews. I am only pointing out that if Ms. Noonan thinks the president doesn’t talk about the admirable qualities of the American people as much has he should, she hasn’t been listening.
Leaving that aside, let’s scrutinize Ms. Noonan’s assertion that: “We have gone beyond tolerance … we have arrived at affection and sympathy and mutual respect.” Is this true?
We know, of course, what is in Ms. Noonan’s mind. Fifty years ago black Americans suffered legal disabilities in many states, there were quotas for Jews in some public institutions, women who wished to enter the professions faced obstacles that men did not face, and homosexuals were liable to be prosecuted for their private activities in (I think) every state of the Union. Those things are no longer true.
It does not follow that we have, or should have, arrived at “respect and regard for all groups that are different, in whatever ways.” Why on earth would we do that, or want to do it? We should, of course, approach individual human beings with respect and proper regard, unless or until the particular human being we are dealing with gives us reason to do otherwise. That is elementary good manners. “Affection” and “sympathy”? Here Ms. Noonan loses me again. I feel affection for people — family members, dear friends — with whom I have bonded. I feel sympathy for people who are in distress through no fault of their own. I don’t feel these things for anyone else, certainly not for the large generality of my countrymen, and I doubt anyone but a living saint is actually capable of such emotional abundance.
That is all to speak of individual persons. But groups? “Respect and regard” for groups? I don’t get that at all. It is rather easy to think of groups for whom I not only feel zero “respect” and “regard,” but towards whom I think it would be wrong to feel those things — a group that habitually refers to this country as “the Great Satan,” for example. The real problem, though, is where the issue is less clear-cut. Should I feel respect and regard for a group, as a group, that commits crime at three times the average rate, for instance? Or has a 67 percent illegitimacy rate? Or suppose a group seeks to redefine some major social institution for its own benefit? What about a group that argues that our citizenship itself is of no value, and should be available for the asking to anyone who ambles across our borders? What about a group whose activities spread disease? Do most of us nowadays have “respect and regard” for those groups, as groups? Should we have?
I suppose Ms. Noonan means that 40 years ago, an individual American confronted with another individual American was more likely to assign him to membership of some group, and then deal with him accordingly, than is the case today. Does she truly believe this? I don’t. I think Americans are at least as likely to do this today as their grandfathers were, probably more likely. The subsequent dealings will be different, of course, depending on which of the parties in the transaction is a member of a Designated Oppressor Group and which a member of a Designated Victim Group. A DVG, confronted with a DOG, will behave with just the kind of arrogance, insensitivity and cruelty that Ms. Noonan deplores in her forebears. A DOG, by contrast, is expected to grovel and scrape before the moral superiority of a DVG, and will be abused and insulted — and sometimes sued! — if he fails to do so. This is an improvement? This is “respect and regard”? This is “beyond tolerance”? No, Ma’am, this is Leninism: “Who? Whom?”
For in fact, only some of us have “gone beyond tolerance” to “sympathy and mutual respect.” As a married white Anglo male Christian citizen, I am certainly expected to “bow to the moral necessity to show respect and regard for all groups that are different, in whatever ways.” I must say, though, I don’t see much evidence that anyone who is not a married white Anglo male Christian citizen is so expected. If I were a black American, I could go around calling my white fellow citizens “devils” and my Jewish fellow citizens “bloodsuckers,” and no one would give it a moment’s thought. I should very likely be offered a job at a prestigious university, or made poet laureate of New Jersey, or urged to run for president. If I were a feminist, I could write a book arguing that all my male fellow citizens are rapists, and be sure that it would be respectfully reviewed in all the quality broadsheet newspapers. If I were a homosexual, I could shriek “bigot!” at any person who had the temerity to point out that my sexual activities had helped to spread a horrid plague and I would be applauded for doing so, and the temerarious person would be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail. If I were an atheist, I could make a movie alleging that Christ had sexual intercourse with Mary Magdalene, or a play about Christ practicing sodomy with his disciples, and the reviewers would all swoon with delight. If I were an illegal immigrant, or a person who makes a cash profit from illegal immigration, I could freely slander as “nativist” or “racist” or “anti-immigrant” anyone who dared to point out that I ought to be arrested and/or deported, and all right-thinking people would cheer me on.
The only people expected to “bow to the moral necessity to show respect and regard for all groups that are different, in whatever ways” are we members of DOGs. We are supposed to cultivate the most exquisite sensitivity to members of DVGs, and to tear our flesh in shame at the recollection of past wrongs. They, on the other hand, can insult us as much as they please. They also have a license to loot our assets, make free use of the money ripped from our pockets by force of law as taxes, and trash our cherished institutions. This is where “beyond tolerance” has taken us.
* * * * *
We have not, in fact, gone “beyond tolerance” at all, we have merely invented new kinds of intolerance. We have not swept away caste-feudalism and replaced it with a shining meritocratic egalitarianism; we have just traded in one style of caste-feudalism for another style. This is not a society “in which people feel free to hold whatever private views on all human groups and behaviors.” People are ashamed of their private beliefs and fearful to disclose them. They are baffled by the fact that sincere opinions held by their parents and grandparents, rooted in custom, good sense, scripture, and everyday observation, are now shouted down as “bigoted” and “intolerant.” What use are private beliefs anyway, if they are excluded from the public square by a suffocating conformity, imposed by an ever-vigilant Thought Police backed by armies of predatory lawyers? Under this relentless pressure, private beliefs fade from all but the bravest hearts, to be replaced with the state-approved formulas: diversity, inclusiveness, equality, compassion, respect.
And it is not merely private beliefs that are crushed out of existence by this pressure. I wondered aloud a few paragraphs ago whether I am supposed to extend my “respect” and “regard” to groups with high crime statistics, or groups that spread disease, or groups that hate America. The answer, as we all know, is not merely: “Yes, Sir, you are.” The answer is, that if I even mention such plain facts, I am a very wicked person. The orthodoxy of “tolerance” that Ms. Noonan is so pleased with seeks to stamp out not only private opinions, but also actual facts.
This applies not only at the level of everyday facts that anyone can confirm, but with formal scientific investigation, too. Whole areas of academic inquiry are now out of bounds in America, for fear of what they might uncover about human nature. The human sciences are nowadays radioactive, like history or philosophy in a Communist country. Entire disciplines have ceased to exist. Physical anthropology, for example: An informative and interesting book like Carleton Coon’s Races of Man could not be published nowadays. The topic is too “dangerous” and “insensitive.” Safer to go into a solid, non-controversial field: Women’s Studies, perhaps, or Queer Legal Theory.
Or suppose two professional sociologists do manage to publish a book full of careful, peer-reviewed research, addressed to the important and humane question: How can a post-industrial society offer fulfilling lives to those citizens who are less intelligent than average? What will happen to those sociologists? They will be howled down as “racists”! Intelligence? No such thing! Just a social construct! Every child can be above average! (The U.S. Congress has actually legislated this particular dogma.)
The human sciences in the Western world have been crushed under a mass of intolerance, obscurantism, irrationalism, lies, and fear, as oppressive as anything medieval Europe had to show. I know whereof I speak, having spent a fruitless few months trying to get publishers interested in a book on the human sciences, and watching them flee from me in terror. Meanwhile, nations elsewhere that do not subscribe to our current orthodoxies are pressing ahead, taking the lead in what will probably be the most fruitful and important intellectual endeavor of the 21st century: the scientific understanding of human nature. Our own researchers dare not follow them.
If “we have gone beyond tolerance in America,” we have gone beyond it into a land of sneering and obscurantist in-tolerance on the part of our elites and their favored minorities, towards all traditional and customary values and practices, and all objective inquiry into human nature. You could look at this past 40 years as an inspiring march forward into (to borrow a Soviet image) the radiant future; you could also see it as a vast, sustained exercise in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
How dirty was that bathwater, anyway? Was the America of 40, 50, or 60 years ago really a seething swamp of intolerance and cruelty? I have my doubts. From what I have read and heard, it seems more likely that the uniquely American largeness of spirit to which Ms. Noonan correctly pays tribute did not suddenly spring forth in 1965 from the youthful loins of the Boomer generation. The N-word, for example, was shamed out of existence among respectable people in America long before the same thing happened elsewhere in the English-speaking world. British thriller-writer Agatha Christie’s 1939 book Ten Little Niggers was known by that title in England well into the 1960s. However, when the publishers Dodd, Mead & Co. brought out a U.S. edition in 1940, they insisted on changing the title to And Then There Were None, out of respect for black Americans. Similarly, the notion that homosexuals scurried about in fear of their lives until the Gay Liberation Movement came along is not born out by the experiences and careers of, say, Truman Capote, or, say, Liberace. The America of 40 years ago did not need pulling down and rebuilding; it just needed some adjusting. But we pulled it down and rebuilt it anyway.
* * * * *
The U.S.A. is indeed a generous, hospitable, and openhearted nation. Every foreigner notices this soon after his arrival. I came here to settle in late October 1985. The first national festival I encountered was Thanksgiving, less than a month later. Three different colleagues — people I was barely acquainted with — invited me to share the Thanksgiving meal with them and their families.
Which way is the trend line going, though? Are we preserving these national peculiarities of ours, or losing them? Are we less rancorous, less divided, less inclined to pull together at common tasks, or more so? Do we trust each other more, or less, than our grandfathers did? Are we more inclined, or less inclined, to defer to the opinions of foreigners than we used to be? More, or less, inclined to change our attitudes and practices to conform to those that prevail elsewhere in the world?
Beyond tolerance? I don’t see it. What I do see is a trend towards a European-style society dominated by an arrogant overclass of credentialed intellectuals, who are deeply contemptuous of those less articulate than themselves, and profoundly in-tolerant of traditional customs and morals, of Christianity, of normal sexuality, of manual work, of motherhood, of the military virtues, of any expression of ethnic pride or loyalty by anyone not a certified member of a Designated Victim Group. They don’t actually like America much, don’t believe there is much good to be said about this country, and would like to change us into something quite different.
This overclass intolerance is every bit as heartless, in its own way, as the older kind, and is the more offensive for smothering itself in sugary lying cant about “diversity,” “compassion,” and, yes, “tolerance.” It wields its “tolerance” as a hammer with which Western culture can be smashed to pieces. Here is David Gelernter, writing about one particular swing of that hammer, in one of the great classic political essays of our time (unfortunately not readable online without a subscription).
The Virginia Military Institute used to be male-only. The elite didn’t like that, and set to work. … The elite hated VMI, and no doubt VMI hated the elite — another even match-up, except that, when it occurred to the elite one afternoon on the way to the water cooler that VMI’s way of life ought to be wiped out (just a casual notion, inasmuch as the likes of VMI hardly matter to the elite one way or the other), it was duly wiped out. The old VMI was crushed like a beer can under a tank tread and the Institute is now, needless to say, co-ed. Having put things right and fundamentally refashioned the quirky, proud old college, the elite is unlikely to think about it again for the next 100 years. Again, this is no conspiracy; the lawyers who argued for the Justice Department, the reporters who covered the case, and the Supreme Court majority that decided it just happened to see eye-to-eye with the intelligentsia. — “How the Intellectuals Took Over,” Commentary, March 1997
There is your “tolerance,” Ms. Noonan, there is your “respect and regard for all groups that are different,” there is your “affection and sympathy and mutual respect.” There is the trend line.
These deplorable and anti-human developments have occurred all over the Western world. The pride we Americans should feel, I believe, arises from the fact that resistance to these trends is stronger here than elsewhere. My article in the March 22 issue of Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. on Britain’s outrageous Gender Recognition Bill illustrates what is happening in other nations of the West. Mainly because of the strength of traditional Christianity in this country, and spirited rearguard actions by defenders of the U.S. Constitution, I do not believe that an inhuman monstrosity like the Gender Recognition Bill could be passed by the U.S. Congress.
Rearguard action is what we are engaged in, though, as the VMI incident illustrates. Our resistance, though courageous and noble, is increasingly desperate. As we struggle to hold the line here (“partial-birth abortion”), the enemy opens a new front there (“gay marriage”). The enemy wins most of the battles, and the ones they do not win are inconclusive. They are unscrupulous in tactics, brilliant in propaganda, and show no tender Lincolnian propensity towards magnanimity in victory. Laughing, they ride a mighty juggernaut, which crushes beneath its wheels anyone who dares cleave to anything traditional or customary, anyone who values cool scientific inquiry over superstition and wishful thinking, anyone who stands up for the individual conscience against the settled and self-interested dogmas of the elite. Under the circumstances, self-congratulatory complacency like Ms. Noonan’s is, it seems to me, very seriously misplaced.