I love books that take a broad view of American politics and find something good, and something bad, in each of the main currents of our modern political life.
That's why I'm enjoying George Packer's "Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal" so much.
Because I'm a progressive, I found his critique of the liberal political narratives -- Smart America and Just America -- to be more interesting than his critique of the conservative political narratives, Free America and Real America.
Most of what I'm sharing in this blog post are excerpts from Packer's take on the Just America narrative. I agree with his key critique: that too many social/racial justice warriors, though well-intentioned, go overboard on wokeness, political correctness, and stifling of free speech.
Here's a very broad overview of the four narratives. Check out Packer's piece in The Atlantic, "How America Fractured Into Four Parts," for a much more detailed description of the narratives.
All four of the narratives I've described emerged from America's failure to enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years as a multi-everything democracy in this century.
They all respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have.
Free America celebrates the energy of the unencumbered individual. Smart America respects intelligence and welcomes change. Real America commits itself to a place and has a sense of limits. Just America demands a confrontation with what the others want to avoid.
They rise from a single society, and even in one as polarized as ours they continually shape, absorb, and morph into one another.
But their tendency is also to divide us up, pitting tribe against tribe. These divisions impoverish each narrative into a cramped and ever more extreme version of itself.
This is an overview of the Just America narrative.
Call its narrative Just America. It's another rebellion from below. As Real America breaks down the ossified libertarianism of Free America, Just America assaults the complacent meritocracy of Smart America.
It does the hard, essential thing that the other three narratives avoid, that white Americans have avoided throughout our history.
It forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today -- the betrayal of equality that has always been the country's great moral shame, the dark heart of its social problems.
But Just America has a dissonant sound, for in its narrative justice and America never rhyme. A more accurate name would be Unjust America, in a spirit of attack rather than aspiration.
For Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled. In some versions of the narrative, the country has no positive value at all -- it can never be made better.
And here's passages dealing mostly with what goes amiss in the Just America narrative.
But talking about race rarely gets to the heart of the matter. The talk is crippled by fear, shame, hurt, anger, politeness, posturing, self-censorship, self-flaggelation, and the inability of flawed human beings to rise to the subject's huge demands.
No one says what they think when the setting is a university classroom, an anti-bias training session, a newspaper op-ed, or a tweet. These are all performance spaces.
It would be better to have real conversations, two people of different races alone in a room together, speaking, listening, responding, on and on, for an hour or two or three, telling the truth.
Do it with a hundred different pairs, film the conversation, disguise the identities of the participants, and stream them unedited on You Tube. The project would achieve more than all the bestsellers and workshops in the world.
There are too many things that Just America can't talk about for the narrative to get at the hardest problems.
It can't talk about the complex causes of poverty. Structural racism -- ongoing disadvantages that Black people suffer from policies and institutions over the centuries -- is real. So is individual agency, but in the Just America narrative it doesn't exist.
The narrative can't talk about the main source of violence in Black neighborhoods, which is young Black men, not police.
The push to "defund the police" in Minneapolis and other cities during the George Floyd protests was stopped by local Black citizens, who wanted better, not less, policing.
Just America can't deal with the stubborn divide between Black and white students in academic assessments.
The mild phrase "achievement gap" has been banished, not just because it implies that Black parents and children have some responsibility but also because, according to anti-racist ideology, any disparity is by definition racist, as is any attempt to analyze the disparity with other terms.
Get rid of assessments and you'll end the racism along with the gap.
...In the summer of 2020 people suddenly began saying "BIPOC" as if they'd been doing it all their lives.
("Black Indigenous People of Color" was a way to uncouple groups that had been aggregated under "people of color" and give them their rightful place in the moral order, with everyone from Bogata to Karachi to Seoul bringing up the rear.)
The whole atmosphere of Just America at its most constricted -- the fear of failing to say the right thing, the urge to level withering fire on minor faults -- is a variation on the fierce competitive spirit of Smart America.
It's the terms of accreditation that have changed. And because achievement is a fragile basis for moral identity, when meritocrats are accused of racism they have no solid faith in their own worth to stand on.
...the rules in Just America are different. The parameters of publishable opinion are a lot narrower that they used to be. A written thought can be a form of violence. The loudest public voices in a controversy will prevail.
Offending them can cost your career. Justice is power. These new rules are not based on liberal values; they are post-liberal.
...The culture of Just America rejects the idea of any sphere of life autonomous from politics, especially identity politics.
In the name of inclusion it overthrows the liberal values of the previous generation, whose elites -- because they no longer believe in those values, or because words like "justice" and "racism" freeze their tongues, or because they want to hold on to their places, or because it's humiliating to be old and irrelevant -- offer no resistance.
...But Just America goes in a different direction, down a dead-end street. Its origins in theory, its intolerant dogma, and its coercive tactics remind me of left-wing ideology in the 1930s.
Liberalism as white supremacy recalls the Communist Party's attack on social democracy as "social fascism." Woke aesthetics is the socialist realism.
The dead end of Just America is a tragedy.
This country has had great movements for justice in the past and badly needs one now. But in order to work it has to throw its arms out wide. It has to tell a story in which most of us can see ourselves, and start on a path that most of us want to follow.