You know how utopia keeps never arriving? How we keep thinking it’s going to, or at least that it’s getting closer, and then we suddenly get shoved backward a few miles and have to start all over again?
It’s because people get bored so easily. That new movement for social change that seemed so fresh and exciting when it started—to the next generation it just seems like Mom’s social movement, and everyone knows how boring and out of it Mom is . . . let alone Granny.
Social movements go stale and age out rapidly because humans have such pathetically short attention spans. Politics is subject to fashion like just about everything else we do or have—clothes, cooking, music, child-rearing; we like a style of thing for a while and then it goes flat on us and we want a change, dammit. Churn or die.
That sounds very frivolous, but what can I say? We seem to be that frivolous. We chase novelty as if it were a meal and we hadn’t eaten in a week. Thus the better world keeps receding over the horizon as our attention wanders to a new candidate for Wretched of the Earth.
The ur-candidate, the working class, went out of fashion long ago. Well it would, wouldn’t it—how can the working class ever be fashionable? It hasn’t got the money. There’s nothing sexy about factories and mines, much less union dues and collective bargaining agreements. Hence the shift to identity politics, where we get to talk about attitudes and language rather than wages and benefits.
One obvious aspect of this shift is that it makes things a lot easier for activists. Getting the bosses to raise pay and improve working conditions is a hard slog and tends to require physical participation, while changing attitudes is a matter of talk—a point made succinctly by the epithet “keyboard warriors.” A less obvious one is that eventually—if global warming doesn’t make “eventually” meaningless—we’ll run out of new groups to “center” in our activism. The quest for the new Most Marginalized Group will come up empty; there will be no new team entering the Oppression Olympics.
This may be the depressing logic of the consumerist demand for the Latest Best Most Perfect Cause, along with the contemptuous or even hostile dismissal of all the preceding “waves.” Feminism is on its fourth or fifth wave now, even while the third wave is still explaining to the second wave how wrong it got everything.
It’s as if there is no politics really; there’s only an endless family drama, with the woke kids rejecting the compromised parents over and over and over, like Sisyphus climbing up and tumbling down and never turning off sideways to find a better path.
But then what will happen when they run out of marginalized groups? Will they have to make the criteria stricter so that people have to check more and more boxes to qualify? Or will they make marginalization the only criterion, with the result that the new Most Oppressed will be people who are marginalized for good reasons: narcissists, bullies, and assorted assholes? It seems unpleasantly likely that the Left will drift ever further into navel-gazing and explorations of the self, with all the attendant concerns over authenticity and validation and proliferating new identities that must be respected and included and centered, to the neglect of people battling more material forms of oppression.
It’s notorious that this happened in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam. The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, in his book Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years, said of this move:
It’s safe to say that there has never been an age that had so many buzzwords prefixed with self- (esteem, -realization, -fulfillment, -actualization, -discovery), or for that matter, that used the prefix so often its reproaches, as words like self-absorbed and self-involved, became dramatically more frequent. Whether or not the self was the only thing on people’s minds, it was undeniably a major focus of interest.
I lived through the Me Decade, and even then, in my starry-eyed gormless youth, I was repulsed by it. I was interested in too many things outside my self to waste time obsessing over the inside of it. One’s own self is just too small, too finite, too enclosed to be of much interest, and self-obsession is certainly no basis for politics.
We need basic self-respect and self-concern so as not to be run over by the rest of the world, as Martha Nussbaum explains in her lecture “The Feminist Critique of Liberalism”:
What does it really mean, then, to make the individual the basic unit for political thought? It means, first of all, that liberalism responds sharply to the basic fact that each person has a course from birth to death that is not precisely the same as that of any other person; that each person is one and not more than one, that each feels pain in his or her own body, that the food given to A does not arrive in the stomach of B. … [Liberalism] says that the fundamental entity for politics is a living body that goes from here to there, from birth to death, never fused with any other—that we are hungry and joyful and loving and needy one by one, however closely we may embrace one another.
Food for the family or the community thus has to be shared with every individual; it’s no good just giving it to the biggest or the loudest. But once we’re clear on that basic fact and what it entails about human rights—that I have them just as you do, and you have them just as I do—it’s time to look past the self to a larger world.