In the wake of the George Floyd affair—as in the wake of the Tawana Brawley, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray affairs—everyone agrees that it is time to have a “national conversation” about race. But Americans have been talking about race almost incessantly since the sixties, longer and more obsessively, it seems, than about any other single subject with the possible exception of sex. The national conversation about America’s other “original sin”—its puritanical repression of sexual desire—(which also began in the sixties) has led to epidemic divorce, almost a million abortions per year, unremarkable teen pregnancy and promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births that nearly equal the number of children born to families with fathers, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Clinton, along with the polymorphous perversity of fisting, gay “marriage,” transgenderism, non-binary self-identified gender, and “queer studies” becoming the dominant discipline in the liberal arts faculties of our most revered institutions of higher learning—all, or some of which, ought to persuade one that national conversations are not always ameliorative.
I suspect that very few of the monumental moral advances in human history (the superannuation of infanticide, child sacrifice, and incest, the establishment of the principle of equality before the law) have been fecundated by national conversations, and violent mobs (as in the English, French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions) have invariably set the course of civilization back by centuries, if not millennia. If only Alaric’s thugs, when they were going about looting and burning down Rome, had possessed the foresight to name their movement Barbarian Lives Matter.
In any case, when the usual racial hucksters demand that we have a conversation about race, it’s never precisely what they mean. Conventionally, a conversation requires at least two interlocutors, and preferably with differing points of view. A genuine conversation about race would thus plausibly include (inclusion, anyone?) some voices attributing the pullulant sociopathologies that afflict the black underclass to the legacy of slavery, others to different causes; some insisting that racism in America is systemic, others arguing that it is not. Alas, ventilating one of these points of views will get you fired and shunned. As with most other subjects on which progressives demand a “national conversation,” there is only one legitimate point of view, and any other is “hateful,” “unacceptable,” “out of the mainstream.” Indeed, to deny that America is systemically racist is prima facie evidence that the denier is a racist. The same species of eristic will beget any number of interesting conclusions, including that you must be an alien from outer space because you don’t believe that extra-terrestrials are now in charge of the international banking system, or that you are a witch because you deny that you are a witch. The “logic” is admirably adaptable, and impressively medieval.
There is an ever-expanding list of things you cannot say in this age of progressive “tolerance,” and it begets the sort of self-censorship that has always been the norm in totalitarian regimes. In the classroom, one of my students once inelegantly suggested that the attitude of a certain liberal Canadian politician was “anal retentive,” whereupon he was immediately accused by another student of using a term that was “homophobic.” Who knew? Again, you see the infinite applicability of the “logic,” not to mention the failure of irony and humour that engenders it.
In 2015, the prolific Canadian political author William Gairdner attempted to define the differences between liberals and conservatives in his book The Great Divide, concluding that they are now so far apart that they had better just give up trying to talk to one another, and decamp to separate countries. (Note to Mr. Gairdner: they already have; look at the post-2016 electoral map of the U.S.)
Another brilliant political commentator, P. J. O’Rourke, defined the dichotomy as follows: Conservatives, he said, believe in God. Liberals believe in Santa Claus. (And it’s hard to defeat the party of Santa Claus.)
Although O’Rourke is certainly on to something, I have a somewhat different analysis. Conservatives, as O’Rourke suggests, will never succeed in advancing their cause until they recognize the unevenness of the contest in which they are engaged. But that’s because conservatives are from Venus, and liberals are from Mars.
Conservatives think of liberals as odd sorts who hold strange, new-fangled opinions–folks they might eventually persuade; folks with whom they might peacefully co-exist; folks who, at the least, might just leave them alone. Liberals think of conservatives as malevolent enemies (racists, sexists, bigots, homophobes, transphobes, biphobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes) whom they are morally bound to eradicate.
Conservatives are aware that there are millions upon millions of people who disagree with them. They are reminded of this every time they pick up a newspaper, tune in to the news on CBC, CBS, CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, PBS, NPR, Yahoo, or Facebook; every time they watch a movie, TV sit-com, or late-night comedy show; every time they take their families to a Broadway play and get lectured by the cast; every time little Johnnie returns home from school or college and hectors them on their carbon footprint or their endemic white privilege, or tells them that his teacher suspects that a cruel nature has mis-gendered him.
Liberals are convinced by these ubiquitous environmental phenomena that everyone agrees with them, or at least no one disagrees with them who matters. About the only time they hear a dissenting argument is when they collect their cars from the repair shop, and the mechanic, having switched the radio station to the Rush Limbaugh show, has forgotten to restore it to its CBC or NPR pre-set.
For liberals there is a “correct” opinion on every issue–climate change, abortion, transgendered bathrooms, gay marriage, Islam, wealth, poverty, historical monuments–and anyone who holds a dissenting view is beyond the pale. Thus, as Mark Steyn has put it, liberals don’t want to win the argument, they want to ban the argument. They want to criminalize it.
And they’ve succeeded. The proliferating arsenal of slanders (“‘isms” and “phobias”) with which progressives reflexively befoul their ideological opponents no longer merely dun them into silence (thus achieving their purpose of forestalling any debate on the subject), but are the overtures to public rituals of confession and contrition, which more often than not still end in dismissal, the blighting of careers, and miasmal banishment from polite society. Having observed the increasing frequency of such denunciations over the years (males accused, often falsely, by “Believe the Women” feminist activists; workers sentenced to racial or gender sensitivity training; university professors officially admonished for their refusal to use made-up pronouns), an acquaintance of mine, who had escaped from the Soviet Bloc during the Brezhnev era, remarked that they made him feel nostalgic.
A “conversation” on race? More like another monologue.