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A Politics of Denunciation

Political correctness is gelding liberalism, as Jonathan Chait recently observed. A punitive spirit of denunciation haunts pretty much any conversation among liberals. We’ve seen it for a generation in higher education. Now social media allows the harpies of political correctness to troll for transgressions, ready to ramp up the volume of denunciation should someone slip up.

I saw this in action when I recently spoke at a conference hosted by the Trinity Church here in New York. The topic was economic inequality. The afternoon session featured Barbara Ehrenreich. Her talk drew on material from her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which recounts her experiences working with and among the poor.

What Ehrenreich had to say was long on anecdote and short on analysis. But there’s no question that her stories are representative. The rules of the game in America have been changing over the last generation. It’s now very tough to make your way in the global economy with a high school degree.

During the discussion I made some points about how a Sixties-inspired deconstruction of middle-class manners and morals contributes significantly to the disorientation and dysfunction of today’s working class. Ehrenreich tends to speak as if there’s a coordinated effort to “criminalize” poverty, which seemed to me simple-minded. But I admire her genuine concern about what’s undoubtedly one of the fundamental challenges we face in America today.

Then another panelist, Traci West, a professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University, intervened to denounce the entire thrust of Ehrenreich’s presentation and the discussion. Her charge: We were ignoring women of color, transgendered homeless youth, and others. My own statements about the way in which the decline of marriage contributes to the difficulties facing the working class were singled out as suggesting that unmarried women with children were somehow responsible—blaming the victim.

I’m used to being denounced in this way. In any event, I don’t think West was interested in addressing me. Her real concern seemed to be to reprimand the liberal audience and prevent them from being distracted from what really matters, which is race, gender, sexual identity, and so forth. Ehrenreich’s response was what West expected. Ehrenreich accepted the public spanking and offered the usual apologies. “What I said in no way was meant to exclude. . . .”

My first reaction was a smug satisfaction that Ehrenreich had become a victim of left-wing friendly fire. Later, as I thought more about the incident, I came to see how bad the identity-politics of denunciation is for our body politic. We need a debate about what we can do about the erosion of middle-class life in America. (If in fact we can do much.) But as Chait points out, that debate among liberals gets short-circuited pretty quickly by identity politics.

This is not a problem I can help solve. Almost all liberals treat conservatives as wicked people. Our voices don’t count. It’s going to take some moral seriousness and political courage among liberals to put an end to the reign of terror. I hope they find both.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

A Greek Thatcher?

Tyler Cowen wonders if Greece could have its own Thatcher. It is difficult-to-impossible for Greece to have Thatcherism for many reasons, but one is the lack of Greek Thatcherites. There is a vast institutional and ideological gulf between Thatcher and Greece's market reforming politicians.Thatcher had (and was a strong supporter of) the UK pound. Greece's free market politicians are the strongest and most unconditional supporters of Greek membership in the euro. Thatcher jealously guarded UK sovereignty (even as she was a strong defender of the Western alliance). Greek free marketers are for maximum integration into the transnational EU in
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Stop Blaming the 2012 Republican Primaries

I'll have more to say about Romney's choice not to run for president (and why it is a loss) later on, but right now, I would like to take on the idea that Romney's running would have resulted in either Romney getting the nomination as a weakened candidate, or a Romney candidacy weakening whoever else emerged as the Republican nominee.Implicit in that argument is the suggestion that Romney lost in 2012 partly as a result of the tough primary season. This is nonsense. Obama in 2008 faced a far more formidable primary opponent than anyone Romney faced in the 2012
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Solidarity with Raif Badawi

In response to a deluge of requests by people from all over the world who wish to join us in asking to take a portion of the punishment of Raif Badawi, my dear friend Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights, has created a website where people can sign up to offer to take some of Raif’s lashes. By sharing this website, I do not mean in any way to pressure anyone to sign up. This is a purely personal and vocational decision. No one is deficient in respect for human rights—and no one is a coward—for not joining us. In my opinion, God calls all of us to bear moral witness, but he does not call all of us to bear it in the same way. 

For example, not everyone was called to join Dr. King in going to jail in Albany, Georgia or Birmingham, Alabama. For those who feel called in this case, however, Katrina and her Foundation are making this website available. The one thing I would call everyone to do is pray for Raif and his family, and for the softening of the hearts of the Saudi officials responsible for the horrific injustice being committed against him. (For those who are reading this note who are not believers, may I suggest that you nevertheless join us in prayer, praying in the mode of Charles Ryder in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited: Oh, God (if there is a God), I ask you to . . .”)

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