“In short, the black studies question, like the black revolt as a whole, has raised all the fundamental problems of class power in American life, and the solutions will have to run deep into the structures of the institutions themselves.”
That’s a fair statement of the “systemic racism” argument that left the corridors of academia a few years back and has landed on the lips of CEOs, star athletes, and Joe Biden. It’s a variant on “structural racism” and “institutional racism,” more names for the standardized but subtle modes of bias that operate through rules and procedures, the racism they carry “written into” impersonal codes and criteria of large bodies. The recognition of them, we are told, is a landmark insight into the workings of injustice.
The idea of deeply buried racist elements has, as well, a practical benefit: it frees reformers from having to identify specific acts of racial discrimination by specific individuals. Hence the call for diving “deep into the structures of the institutions themselves.”
Here’s the thing: that quotation isn’t recent. It’s old. I got it from a book on my shelf, RIGHT ON!: A Documentary on Student Protest, published in 1970 by Bantam Books, the exclamation point in the title formed by a raised forearm and clenched fist. Don’t blame yourself if that surprises you. It’s easy to believe that the quotation didn’t go out a half-century ago. It has the same generalities of today’s racial talk (“fundamental problems,” “American life”), the same vague references (“the solutions,” “the structures”), and, most importantly, the abiding insistence that the entire system be transformed, not just a few components and personnel.
The example tells you just how aged are the ideas and demands of the current hard Left. Here’s another quotation in the book: “It is difficult for anyone who is white to appreciate fully what it is to grow up black in the United States. This is a severe handicap for any of us . . .” That’s not a protester talking, and it’s not a black man. It’s the president of Cornell University, James Perkins. By “us,” he means well-intentioned white individuals who want to advance racial justice, but don’t have the perspective, the actual experience of oppression, necessary to understand the problem and sympathize with the victims. His statement indicates that the current spectacle of white Ivy League leaders telling the rest of us about the struggles of African Americans, too, is an old routine. The head of any top or middling school today could take Perkins’ lament as his own, word-for-word, and nobody would notice.
The media and academic elite have it that America is undergoing a long-overdue racial reckoning. In truth, America is undergoing a dull repeat of the “years of hope, days of rage.” The slogans (“No justice, no peace!”), the jargon (“white supremacy,” “systemic racism”), the forensics (“You can’t understand what it’s like . . .”)—they have all the originality of skateboards, sit-ins, and rap sessions. If you lived through them or have spent time studying them, the radicalism of Black Lives Matter, Antifa, etc. comes off as a platitude, a moldy script, a flat echo of another time.
But how many Republicans know it? If Mitt Romney had done a little background checking, he surely wouldn’t have marched to the White House with Black Lives Matter protesters in June. We wouldn’t have seen an insufferably virtuous op-ed in USA Today in October by the head of Walmart, Doug McMillan, decrying “the weight of history, with its deeply ingrained prejudices and systems of racism,” if he and other members of the Business Roundtable had discovered how many times we’ve heard this before in the same words (there’s the “system” again). No, they would have discerned the similarities between the destructive passions of the 1960s’ version and the anti-democratic “resist” obstinacy of today, and backed off.
It’s a big flaw, and one reason why conservatives lose so many battles in the cultural sphere. Too many Republicans, young and old, don’t know anything about the New Left, about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Yippies, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, and other smarter and more imaginative forebears. The leftists of yore have given the present cohort their words and schemes, and people on the Right are shocked by what they see. Republicans don’t know it’s all been said and done before. How many of them recognize the “years of hope” line above as the title of a major history of the movement by one of the leaders of SDS, Todd Gitlin?
Mention to Republicans the Reagan Revolution and happy visions of tax cuts, deregulation, vigorous Cold War efforts, and the stock market boom fill their heads. They’re right—those were the big stories of his presidency. But there was another Reagan, the ideological warrior of earlier times, not the politician in the White House, the one who fought Communists in Hollywood in the 1940s when he was head of the Screen Actors Guild, and opposed the protesters at Berkeley in the late 1960s as governor of California.
This was an important factor in what made him so effective in the 1980s. His adversaries back then were, indeed radicals—not politicians and bureaucrats—underground and above-ground leftists of a ruthless kind, and Reagan spent many days across the table looking into the predatory eyes of genuine revolutionaries and true believers, and he was usually outnumbered.
Reagan learned their tactics and realized their intentions andunderstood that battles with Communists (some of them bona fide party members) and youth protesters (some of them committed anarchists) could not be a normal debate or negotiation as a conservative might have with a liberal. The differences ran too deep; they were more than political; they were cultural, anthropological, religious.
Reagan won because he saw the truth that behind or below every major political conflict with the Left is a contest over what life is all about. The Left insists upon it, and only a right-wing fool pretends otherwise. Not Reagan. What happened at People’s Park in 1969 helped prepare him for Reykjavik in 1986.
Many years back, I saw Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, on a TV show wondering why conservatives keep obsessing over the 1960s. She thought it was ridiculous, a bunch of old fogies living in the past, whining because the world had changed. It was clear that she believed liberals had moved on, were progressing forward, had absorbed what the ’60s (rightly) wrought and had advanced to fresh matters.
I couldn’t fault her for overconfidence. After all, the cultural and sexual revolutions of that era were among the most resounding victories of the Second Millennium, the utter conquest of a whole society by ideas, values, manners, norms, and figureheads previously existing only on the margins.
But she was giving conservatives too much credit. For every David Horowitz, Stanley Kurtz, and Roger Kimball (who diagnose well the counterculture aggression and adversarial animus of the Left) there are dozens of conservatives who see leftists as merely a more political, more impatient version of liberalism. They are the ones who judged Sonia Sotomayor a liberal jurist who deserved a place on the Supreme Court, not an activist jurist willing to play identity politics from the bench. They couldn’t recognize what Barack Obama really meant when he committed to “fundamentally transforming” our country. They are today’s NeverTrumpers who support a Biden/Harris ticket, not acknowledging that a win will turn the federal government into a Woke hammer that hundreds of appointees shall swing with abandon.
Our Republicans got the wrong formation. They know Hayek and Milton Friedman, yes, but those thinkers, for all their brilliance, are of little help in skirmishes with the hard Left. They can’t explain why the mayors of New York City and Washington, D.C. would paint the avenues as Black Lives Matter territory. What do they have to tell about Walmart ordering conservative legislators in Indiana and Arkansas in 2015 to lay off the social issues?
Black Lives Matter doesn’t care about taxes, school choice, deregulation, or other topics in the conservative canon of the Koch Brothers and Jack Kemp. Ask Professor Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo about the debt and the deficit and you won’t get an answer. If you ask them about white privilege, though, they’ll go on for hours.
Democrats, too, have learned the talking points, and Republicans fumble for an able response. Republicans act as if this is a political debate or a policy dispute, not a culture war. They’re not ready for the fundamentals, a war of the worlds, for there is an entire world view, outlook, ideology, lebenswelt, horizon of expectation . . . whatever you want to call it, that runs through the Left and is radically separate from the conservative vision (and the liberal vision, too). It has different rules and values different things, and the conservative doesn’t often get it, for instance, when a conservative catches a leftist in a rank inconsistency and thinks he’s scored a point—while the leftist shrugs and proceeds on his double-standard way.
What is most difficult for the conservative to absorb is that the Left vision has elements of irrationality and performativity that it prizes. The old Marxism and its putatively scientific approach to history and society has no place in it. Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-Mich.) infamous “impeach the m—–f—-er” line is not an abomination to them—it’s an authentic righteous reply to real abomination, the president. In this calculation, the more unhinged the leftist’s behavior, the more culpable is the opposition: “Look what they’ve done to me!” It’s a tactic that confuses and paralyzes a conservative, unless, that is, he is familiar with the styles and maneuvers of the ’60s rabble-rousers.
Republican leaders need a better briefing, a new reading plan.
- If they want to challenge big corporations for donating millions to the anti-capitalist Black Lives Matter, they should check Tom Wolfe’s remarkable portrayal of the fundraising party for the Black Panthers held at Leonard Bernstein’s Park Avenue apartment in January, 1970, “Radical Chic.
- To understand how mayors of major cities can allow the protests to continue, read another Wolfe effort, “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers,” which details the cynical ritual of community threats and official payoffs.
- To understand the disorienting mix among the protesters of professedly high motives (justice, equity, tolerance) and crass behavior, they should read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” which leaps smoothly from the high art of Georges de La Tour to movies that are so bad that they are “touching and quite enjoyable.”
- To comprehend those faces in the mug shots of arrestees in Portland, the wild hair and tattoos and animal expressions, read about the people on the bus in Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
- Elite liberals explain the melodramatic, self-defeating behavior of angry young black men on the streets by recourse to racism, school-to-prison pipelines, and so on. Conservatives can explode those rationalizations with the help of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.
- To understand the intoxicating blandishments of attacking a government building, read Norman Mailer’s account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon, Armies of the Night, an amazing rendition of the psychology of collective action carried out by proud individualists.
And so on . . .
A friend of mine from long ago, a child of Communists in San Francisco, told me once that a good portion of America fell in love with Fidel Castro during his April 1959 visit to the United States not because of his commie ideas and promises of liberation, but because of that cigar and beard and cap and military garb, while our own leader seemed most comfortable in a golf cart and cardigan sweater. Conservatives think that any grown-ups who fall for such appearances are silly, but the fact that it happens isn’t silly at all. “Styles of radical will” (that’s the title of another composition by Sontag) is an important feature of the Left.
The current game isn’t the one Reagan played with Tip O’Neill and House Speaker Newt Gingrich played with President Bill Clinton. It takes us back five decades to the occupation of the administration building at Columbia, Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers confronting police officers in the middle of an arrest on the streets of Oakland, and the editors of Ramparts magazine endorsing Reagan for governor because, they argued, the presence of a genuine fascist in Sacramento will hasten the Revolution.
Conservatives lost the culture war back then. If Republicans don’t wise up and take some historical lessons, they will lose the political war, and that may be that.