A Universalist Vision

“I am human and I think that nothing of that which is human is alien to me. “

– Publius Terentius Afer, now known as Terence, a Roman poet and former slave

***

Like most Americans, I have been following the violence employed as a political tactic around the country by the “antifa” left, and now by white nationalists in Charlottesville, with horror. These groups are mirror-images of each other, and not just in the tactics they employ. They are splinter-group reflections of a culture that has been discarding the universalist ideal (“All men are created equal”) in favor of narrower – and ugly – group interests.

I can’t begin to match the clarity of this (https://www.facebook.com/brendan.oneill.79/posts/1450097131747042?pnref=story) post on the sense of victimhood that drives the Social Justice Warrior extremists on the one hand and their white nationalist enemies on the other; as the post’s writer (Brendan O’Neill) points out, the groups’ perspectives are remarkably similar. In confrontations like the one that took place in Charlottesville, the raging “protesters” are competing for attention as to which is more aggrieved, implicitly leaving behind the rule of law as well as the traditional American ideals of individual rights and equality before the law.

In the Olympics of victimhood there are no winners.

***

This country was founded on a proudly universalist ideal – that all men are created equal and possess unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, the Founders did not apply these ideals to the Africans who had been brought here in chains, Native Americans or women – it would take many generations for the vision they articulated to overcome the biases of their time, and be applied to all (adult) citizens; but the very universality of the vision that they had proclaimed at inception was a beacon lighting the way to universal enfranchisement.

(And, for what it’s worth, I believe that the current fashion of denigrating the Founders for their failure to apply their ideals to all is profoundly in error: in the world of their time, slavery, the subjugation of competing nations and cultures and the non-enfranchisement of women were – as they had been throughout history – universal and unquestioned facts of human existence. The Founders should be praised for having articulated the Enlightenment-based principles that would eventually overcome the worldview that supported such travesties rather than blamed for having not immediately seen all the implications of their then-wildly-radical ideals. It was the nations of Europe and North America – forced in no small part by the universal appeal of the ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence – that eventually broke these once-global patterns of human debasement. By advocating for the calumnization of the Founders, today’s mobs are impugning those who took the first great – and risky – steps toward the freedoms we enjoy.)

America’s self-proclaimed universalist ideals attracted millions to throw off their native cultures and come to build new lives as free people. It was these ideals – rather than ties of tribe or religion – that made this country what it is.

***

What is driving the splintering of the universalist ideals on which this country was founded?

When the government treats – and both encourages and in many cases effectively forces private institutions to treat – different groups of American citizens in different ways, members of each group will naturally be inclined to spend their time thinking about how to maximize benefits for their defined groups. They will increasingly think of themselves not as individuals who are simply American, but as hyphenated-Americans, and they will advocate for their particular kinds to get bigger slices of whatever is on offer.

Diversity comes to mean the counting of heads based on skin color, language-group, religion, gender or sexual orientation. When diversity, so-defined, is elevated to the highest priority, other characteristics – like new ideas and personal merits – must be devalued. The world is seen in terms of group-based rights or grievances. When that’s the case, to many people it won’t seem strange that, say, the son of a prosperous African-American lawyer is to be advantaged over the white daughter of a coal miner for college admission, or that our most eminent colleges demonstrably discriminate against Asian-Americans.

To justify preferences for some, others must be made to seem guilty or, at a minimum, less deserving – so, for example, all manner of moral failings are to be ascribed, to white, heterosexual men. Consequently, it is now a widely expressed consensus on the left that those who share my particular involuntary characteristics must per se be racists unless they tirelessly advocate for “social justice” defined in group identity terms. Can there be any surprise, then, that white nationalism is growing, particularly among whites who do not feel at all privileged?

If the government and popular culture teach people to think in terms of groups, they cannot be expected to not think of their own kind, narrowly-defined.

***

A couple of days ago, I had a dispiriting email exchange about all of this. My correspondent ended with a question as to what I thought could be done about the splintering of the American body politic and, more broadly, the sense of American identity. I responded that I don’t know.

But I do know. The solution is deceptively simple.

We can deal with each other as individuals rather than as members of favored or disfavored groups. We can judge people, as Dr. King had it, “by the content of their character” rather than by the color of their skin (or other similarly involuntary characteristics). We can remember, always, that our rights are, like the love of our Creator, personal and unalienable. And we can demand that our government and our public and private institutions do the same.

As Chief Justice Roberts wrote of the racial aspect of discrimination: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” That’s also the only way that people will stop obsessing about race and coalescing around characteristics that say nothing at all about character, culture or personal merit.

For the center to hold, we must think of ourselves, and behave, as un-hyphenated Americans – as humans who share a culture of respect for each other, individual rights and the rule of law.

 

M.H. Johnston

 

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