Flick of the Switch

Classic albums: Marvin Gaye, What's Going On (1971). – Rearview Mirror

Yet another unintended consequence of popular causes like Black Lives Matter and #Me Too may be the revival of “reverse discrimination” indictments, which were first leveled decades ago and which have never quite gone away from the realm of racial and gender politics. Even if reverse discrimination can never be conclusively proven, that it’s persistently believed to exist should give us all pause. As so many dynamics are upended, inevitably some will ask whether we are advancing toward greater inclusion and tolerance, or only trading one set of prejudices for another.

In an earlier era, demands for social justice were predicated on protecting the vulnerable. Disadvantaged or demographically inferior people sought the fundamental security promised by democracy, so that they would not be unduly dominated by a privileged majority – the appeal was to sympathy. But today, social justice advocates assert that they are in fact replacing an old, outmoded establishment, that it is their turn – the appeal is to power. Both generations of protest wanted fairness, but the previous one defined the term as the absence of double standards and artificial barriers imposed upon them, whereas the newer defines it as standards and barriers they can impose on others.

Although the rhetoric arising out of these two definitions seems similar, their concepts of what is fair contradict each other. One invoked a weakness in constant danger of being exploited; the other invokes a strength with imminent potential to be mobilized. One was a plea; the other is a threat. This attitude has been called the “successor ideology,” a post-civil rights, post-feminist agenda implying, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has perceived, “not reform but reeducation, not interracial dialogue but strict white deference, not a liberal society groping toward equality but a corrupt society being reengineered.”

These differences now appear everywhere from political debate to pop culture. In the past, a charge of racism, sexism, or homophobia might have been taken as a narrow complaint from a self-interested source – not necessarily invalid or trivial, but just one perspective to be balanced against a range of others. Richard Nixon, for example, was recorded speaking crude anti-Black, anti-Jewish, and anti-gay remarks while he was US President, but these were hardly the defining moments of his term in office. Today such comments would be career-killing outrages, at least for people not named Donald Trump. Likewise, statues of Nineteenth-Century explorers or Prime Ministers with “problematic” biographies are vandalized or dismantled in 2020. What used to be considered merely insensitive is now deemed quasi-criminal. The difference is in the weight of reaction, and the collective influence of the reactors. People in general haven’t gotten any better, but the erstwhile victims now get to be vindictive.

A lighter instance of this shift can be seen in Rolling Stone magazine’s recent retabulation of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Assuming that either music albums or Rolling Stone still have any relevance, it’s noteworthy that the 2020 ranking displaces music by a lot of familiar white male artists (the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones) with works by women (Joni Mitchell’s Blue is now Number 3) and Blacks (Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – a great record, for sure – is Number One). Yet here too the sense is less that the cohorts of Mitchell and Gaye are finally being awarded overdue credit, as that the evaluation process is ceding to the new cultural clout of new judges. The 500 Greatest Albums list is as biased as it ever was; only the particular bias has changed.

The discrepancy between historic and contemporary social activism – between “Give us a break, for once” and “Get out of our way, or else” – may eventually be blamed for provoking ugly responses, in the form of white supremacists, straight pride parades, and incel fanatics. There’s no excuse for violence or bigotry, of course, but the language of revolution and reckoning has a way of inciting the angry, the fearful, and the unstable, who infer that they’re the ones who’ll be swept up by the impending Terror, whether it’s online, on the streets, or in Rolling Stone. For now we should expect continued clashes between the successor ideology and its holdouts. In the long term it’s hard to see how simply turning the tables is any substitute for truly changing minds.

3 thoughts on “Flick of the Switch

  1. Douthat is being a little over dramatic in my view with the either/or propositions you quoted, “reeducation” is such a loaded term to throw around. For the main points you raised I went back to Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which I feel like if it were written today many would consider it to be inflammatory and divisive (possibly by Douthat). For King, as he argues in the letter, the main obstacle to progress in America was never the bigots or the hate groups, but the white moderate, “who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.” The quiet complacency and the comfort of the status quo made any form of progress on racial issues next to impossible, the moderate’s reluctance to act on anti- lynching legislation and segregation being two historical examples. The victories of the Civil Rights Movement stemmed from the direct activism of people literally putting their lives on the line (in my view) and forcing politicians (and changing the minds of some) to act who otherwise would’ve content with the way things were. The main point I’m trying to make is that I see more continuity between the social justice movements of then and now.

    • Thanks for reading, Eric; all fair points. My (and Douthat’s) concern is that today’s activism seems to be invoking a social or political clout (the way the winds are blowing) rather than a moral one (the right thing no matter what). I’m not sure where all this will lead. If you’re in the US, good luck on Tuesday.

      • Fair point – Douthat does engage with the left and right (has many critics on both sides) and I do respect him for his willingness to engage. As for the election, things are on edge here in the U.S. (multiple scenarios always running through my mind) and I’m just hoping for the best!

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