Purity of View: Cultural Capital and American Political Culture

Donald Trump is an incapable leader, but he has shaken the moderate right from their decades’ long slumber. Watching their party abandon all moral and political principle over the last two years has forced them to struggle with how out of touch they are. And in many cases, like here with David Brooks, they have sought out sources that mere months ago they would have sneered at as liberal academic nonsense. They realize that the left has no special hold on elitism and that the widening social and economic inequality of this nation (and western society as a whole) are systemic. And *gasp* Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital is not only real, but it has an enormous (bordering on determining) role in society.

There is a real opportunity for cooperation here. While most of the far-left saber rattles about pushing further and further out from the middle, the smart money is on working together with moderates to create real and meaningful change. You’ll never be able to “force” change on the other half of America– whether you are a liberal or a conservative. The best we can hope for in a democracy like ours is to build the biggest coalition we can to address the issues that plague our nation. The Civil War and Reconstruction tore down slavery in name only. Something that even vaguely resembled equal citizenship (and it is still very vague) only came about a century later when it became impossible for most decent Americans to deny the sin of our apartheid. Meaningful social change requires a lot more than a simple majority of votes or representatives. To borrow from George W. Bush, it requires winning over their hearts and minds.

In the immediate aftermath of the Trumpening one of the most powerful narratives that emerged was that liberals had lost all semblance of connection with the common man. This charge is absurd on its face– that a billionaire celebrity sociopath is somehow in touch with the common man is a farcical claim– and does more to obscure the rot at the core of modern liberalism than it does to expose it. Being out of touch with the common man is a problem for both parties. The elites from this nation have as big a social capital lead on the the have nots as they do economically. That is not what sunk Hilliary Clinton (I’d look to the Russians, the popularity of white supremacy in certain areas, and the theologically suspect support of conservative evangelicals for that). The real problem for leftist activists is that they are following the same blueprint that failed the Tea Party movement a decade ago. Put most simply, leftist activists have developed a purity test that shuts down compromise and creates a ceaseless whirlpool that would make governing impossible.

Just as the Tea Party has eaten many of its own the new left is highly cannibalistic. You can be doing great work in educating people about climate change or agitating for civil rights, but if you challenge the wrong assertion, support the wrong cause, or simply say the wrong thing you risk being cast out (or worse). Challenges to this emerging culture of purity are often met with charges that your privilege (whoever you are and whatever that privilege is) has protected you too much from whatever more important point you’ve failed to grasp. This would be fine (if annoying and exactly the sort of preachy self-righteousness that turns off the people who most need to hear the message SJW intend to spread) were the reaction to simply create a larger dialog and exchanging of ideas. It rarely is. Too often, these moments of disagreement turn into ideological purity tests. From classrooms to comment sections, I’ve watched friends, colleagues, and perfect strangers apply litmus tests to one another’s “wokeness” before devolving into ad hominem attacks. Occasionally, it devolves further into some sort of persecution index, as though suffering (individual or collective) should be measured against one another and that the “winner” or more oppressed person should be allowed to impose their worldview on the other. You couldn’t miss the point of social justice more if you tried! Because of this situation, the very intersectionality that my activists’ friends trumpet in their work causes them great anxiety in their social interactions. It builds barriers instead of bridges.

Shutting down dialog is what tyrants do. And it doesn’t have to be done at the end of a gun or a knife– snide and snarky replies have plenty of stopping power. Creating a culture where people have to be just as educated as the most educated person in the room (or forum) in order to have an opinion is an act of oppression. Creating a climate of fear where “wrongdoing” is called out as oppressive or inappropriate without any consideration of context is both childish and controlling. I’ve watched rooms full of people who are natural allies softly question one another’s motives in hushed tones and to distance themselves from discussions because “this isn’t my space” (code for this subject is about people from another identity group). This is largely self-imposed in the physical world– I’ve never seen a wild confrontation over terms or knowledge outside of a classroom in the flesh– but its chilling effects are felt all the same.

Many have pointed to social media as the culprit here. My historians sense tingles whenever someone thinks technology has fundamentally changed human behavior (including the myriad of times I have thought this). If Occam’s Razor tells us to accept the more simple explanation, Herodotus Razor suggests that there is nothing new under the sun. Scale, scope, and the little details may change, but humans rarely do. Thinking more broadly about how ahistorical (and hysterical) our contemporary discussion of social discord is, I can’t help but turn to the much more calamitous 1960s for guidance. As is so often the case, I find the words of Martian Luther King Jr instructive. Wrestling with the pressure of radicalized crowds, King warned us not to simply accept and observe new (or old) conventions:

“Do not conform” is difficult advice in a generation when crowd pressures have unconsciously conditioned our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.  Many voices and forces urge us to choose the path of least resistance, and bid us never to fight for an unpopular cause and never to be found in a pathetic minority of two or three.

Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority.

(From a November 1954 sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church)

Dr. King was talking about the malaise and acceptance of the Jim Crow status quo, but his advice is good for both the traditionalist and the radical. Question everything. Assume nothing– especially your own correctness. Just because everyone accepts something as true or impossible to change does not make it so.

Inequality, in its many and varied forms, is ripe for addressing. As it has spread across nearly every “identity” group in American society calls for closing the gaps are emerging from every corner of the nation. The reaction of many liberals to seeing that conservatives across the economic spectrum are questioning inequality in a serious way has not been to imagine ways to work together. Instead, many leftist activists seem intent on demeaning and belittling those struggles. As though each of our various identity groups didn’t come to the struggle through the prism of their own unique experiences. Others seek to capitalize on the rare weakness of our state, hoping to dismantle the institutions that made and were in turn shaped by the last 500 years of human history. Rather than fantasizing about destroying the old order and replacing it with your more enlightened one, I suggest a more prudent (and ethical) course: work with your fellow Americans to create lasting change within the bounds of democracy in a pluralistic state.

Conservatives are starting to recognize that cultural capital is real– use that momentum to re-establish faith in the public education project in America. No institution or policy can do more to close the cultural capital gap than our schools. Push for fair and equal funding and stop letting small, wealthy enclaves keep all the economic and social gains of society for their own children. Band together over the overreach of the state into our lives and the violence of the state against its people. Let’s use this moment of questioning to rethink our approach to capitalism while conservatives are questioning the dangers of untempered “competition” in both the economic and social marketplace. Fight for free speech– even the shitty kind that promotes evil. Living in a world where certain ideas cannot be spoken publically is antithetical to democracy. We can accomplish more by addressing the ways inequality has altered life for Americans across the board than we ever could playing this binary game of “our ball, our rules” that currently runs the system. Nudge the scrum forward instead of trying to blow it up. We have a system capable of balancing our competing definitions of the good life. But for it to function we need to be more diligent about protecting one another from the excesses of the powerful and more mindful of our common struggles.

King reminds us that this will not be easy:

We must make a choice.  Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds?  Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul saving music of eternity? 

More than ever before, we are today challenged by the words of yesterday, “Be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Risk the criticism and abuse to poke holes in convention. Even in your own movements. Especially in your own movements. Respectability isn’t the purview of squares, moderate, or the oppressors alone– it belongs to all movements that ossify and deny the beautiful complexity of life. Leave room for error and doubt– you just may need such grace one day yourself.

My advice: Be less obsessed with being “right” and more supportive of doing right. Forgive errors and disagreements. Work together, when possible. Disagree, deeply when the issue calls for it, but be willing to put it aside to do good in the world. Democracy requires compromise. Purity of worldview is a luxury that none of us can afford.

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