Acton Institute Powerblog

Frank Bruni, Charlottesville, and the retreat from reason

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On Saturday, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a column that appeared to promote the same kind of identity politics that exploded in violence one day earlier in Charlottesville. He began:

I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs. Dad made six figures. We had a backyard pool. From the 10th through 12th grades, I attended private school. So the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others’ struggles and should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.

No commentator would sincerely encourage his readers to disregard his work, so Bruni pivoted by claiming his own victim status as a homosexual. “What does that make me? Oppressor or oppressed?” he asked, before proceeding to argue that the veracity of one’s arguments should not be determined by external factors.

While this may have been a clever gambit a few years ago, his attempt to hoist the modern zeitgeist upon its own petard falls short. Progressives have dealt with such cognitive dissonance by embracing the theory of intersectionality. The theory attempts to navigate overlapping narratives of oppression and victimology by assigning a rotating value based on each concrete situation. Thus, a black heterosexual male may oppress a white lesbian in some cases and be the oppressed party in others. As a tidy way of assigning relative worth in every situation, intersectionality has swept through left-leaning intellectual circles and, as Andrew Sullivan wrote in The Atlantic, has taken on all the trappings of the regnant religion of academia.

The correct response to the miasma of identity politics cannot be an invitation to more identity politics. Instead, the proper way to assure academic and political freedom must come from reasserting the West’s traditional values of human dignity, liberty, and the power of reason.

The idea that insight and cognition are uniquely different for ethnic or social classes is not a new one. Ludwig von Mises summarized the teaching, in his critique of Marxism, in Human Action:

The logical structure of mind is different with various social classes. There is no such thing as a universally valid logic. What mind produces can never be anything but “ideology,” that is, in the Marxian terminology, a set of ideas disguising the selfish interests of the thinker’s own social class.

He likewise described the racialist viewpoint that disagreements between members of different “races” must be considered “arbitrary,” because “those other races have a different structure of mind.”

These twin conceptions of human cognition as a function of status or DNA create strange bedfellows. Although speaking of long-dead Marxists and Nazis, Mises’ descriptions apply equally to the shared views of the intersectional Left and the teachings of modern-day “race realists.”

Both groups divide the world into rigid and impermeable factions, each tethered to its own unique reality. When one self-identifies with a different faction, as e.g, the transgender movement, that creates yet another division. In his Theory and History, Mises calls the exponents of these theories “anti-harmonists” whose ideology proclaims an endless and “irreconcilable antagonism prevailing among various groups.”

This retreat from reason has made dialogue impossible. “Where are the bridges?” Bruni asked. Since there is no overarching notion of truth, or universal standard of rational discourse, the public square has degenerated from a competition of ideas to a fight-or-flight situation. Isaiah’s prophetic invitation to “let us reason together” has been replaced with a stern admonition to “check your privilege.”

The government and economic policy created by such a view are suffused with conflict and resultant top-down intervention. Those who deny human equality on the grounds of racial or identity politics may begin by denying others the right to free speech in some contexts. But they inevitably proceed to strip others of their right to private property, restrict access to education and employment opportunities, and lay excessive tax or regulatory burdens upon members of a given ethnic or religious group. (Compare the Jim Crow laws of the United States and with the economic code of apartheid developed by Hendrik Verwoerd. Similar burdens have been placed upon Christians and other dissidents by the modern Chinese communist regime.)

All exponents of identity politics – whether campus radicals or their mirror image in the Alt-Right – are, at best emphasizing mistaken identities; at worst, they are engaging in idolatry. They assert that a person’s primary identity is his or her race, class, sex, sexual preference, gender identity, or socioeconomic status.

The traditional view of the West, inspired by Christianity, holds that a person’s primary identity is as a child of God. His defining attribute is his immortal soul which, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit and leading a moral life, can elevate anyone of any background to the heights of blessedness and contemplation. Rather than genetics, the Venerable Bede wrote, “Love alone, therefore, distinguishes between the children of God and the children of the devil.”

From the first, Christianity was multiethnic, from the first Ethiopian convert (Acts 8) to the bustling African churches that have remained in an unbroken succession to this day. In the fourth century, St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote:

Very glistening are the pearls of Ethiopia. … He that gave light to the Gentiles, both to the Ethiopians and unto the Indians did His bright beams reach. … The dark Ethiopic women became pearls for the Son; He offered them up to the Father, as a glistening crown from the Ethiopians.

Among other things, this should also dispel the conceit that Christianity is a slavemaster’s religion, and Islam the peculiar emancipator of Africans.

As Roger Scruton wrote in his newest book On Human Nature, this religious view became synthetized with philosophical concepts to define each individual as a person capable of rational thought and, thus, requiring an I-Thou relationship. Human dignity and reason demanded that public philosophy be carefully developed through rational arguments to which all were invited, heard out, and engaged.

The system of government this produces is limited, participatory, and harmonious. A limited government must respect people’s rights and conscience, allowing maximum freedom to live this out in the economic realm. The nature of Western government may be best described in an extract from a profound run-on sentence in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government: “Reason, which is [natural] law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Since all are “furnished with like faculties … there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses.”

It is precisely this conception of government that hangs in the balance. Traditional Western views of human dignity and universally binding norms of reason tore down the barriers, created mutual respect, and developed a culture of free dialogue, economic freedom, and ordered liberty. Identity politics paves the road to irrationality and a thousand more tragedies like Charlottesville. Only jettisoning it and embracing dignity and reason can restore the respect missing from our brittle debate.

(Photo credit: Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates,” which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

Comments

  • Marko Vale

    Beautifully stated, thank you!