The modern era has disconnected us from our cultural and intellectual heritage, leaving us vulnerable to ideology.
There have been many accounts, my own included, of the philosophical roots of what is now widely known as “critical race theory,” itself part of the larger ascendancy of identity politics, in America and throughout the West. Some of those accounts have seen the “Cultural Marxists”—the line of thinkers including the Hungarian Marxist György Lukacs, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the mid-century Frankfurt School, and especially the member of that contingent known as the “father of the New Left,” Herbert Marcuse—as most directly instrumental in the rise of our metastasizing identitarian cancer. Others, most prominent among them being Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in their 2020 book Cynical Theories, ascribe a larger role to French post-structuralist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and their many acolytes and progenitors in America.
But these are all explanations of the philosophical foundations of identity politics that were imported into our universities from abroad. Another question, a psychological question, is just as interesting: What would convince so many people, most of whom in no way schooled in any of the philosophical doctrines at issue, to be swept up in the identitarian tide? Why would so many of us abandon the high road and adopt an approach—one that our own history and Europe’s tragic 20th century history should have shown us is so self-evidently morally wrong and so plainly politically destructive—of judging people based on their skin color and their other most superficial characteristics?
One recent attempt at an answer to that question was eloquently presented in a First Things essay by Mark Bauerlein. In his account, the moral relativism and universal skepticism of French theory opened up a vulnerability in the academic humanities, which stripped them of their role as fora for weighty intellectual combatants to wage a contest of visions as they clambered to the top of their lofty ivory towers, from which they could offer us their exalted views of timeless truths. But after the initial frisson of deconstruction’s upturning of apple carts had worn off, students remained eager to learn—indeed, still sensed intuitively—that something deep and significant was at stake in the great artifacts of the Western canon. Neo-Marxist theories swept in to fill that void.
Turned over to the care of theorists who resented everything the landmark canonical works represented, interpretation was no longer about discerning the actual or potential aesthetic and intellectual insights infused by great creators or even about finding “the hidden roads” that lead from one installment in the Tradition to the next, to quote the great literary critic Harold Bloom. It became, rather, about ferreting out the power relations and systems of oppression and domination of which such works were held to be emanations. And, thus, we could use the Tradition as a mere occasion to undertake the same repetitive and reductive exercise of spinning out histrionic tales of the big bad white man keeping all the rest down.
Bauerlein is surely correct; or rather, his explanation seems compelling enough as far as it goes. But it stops here: It leaves open the question of why it was these neo-Marxist ideas, rather than anything else that came along, that happened to fill the void created by the project of deconstruction. What made people susceptible to these ideas in particular?
I have offered one partial response in a recent essay in which I advance the argument that our influential, wealthy white elites, the very people most likely to have inherited their wealth from ancestors who lived in a time when true white supremacy existed in America, rushed opportunistically to the forefront of today’s “progressive” wave in order to work off their guilt; they have taken the indictment that had been aimed squarely at them and diffused it to all people with white skin, most obviously their poor, backward “white trash” cousins, the ones that, ironically, were least likely to have received any actual benefit from America’s sordid racial history. But this explanation also leaves something to be desired, because it accounts, at best, for the racial part of the picture, while the identity mania extends to gender, sexuality, religion, disability, body shape (i.e., obesity), and all manner of similar labels. To say this another way, the racial guilt of white elites does not explain their rage for exotic pathologies such as policing pronouns or replacing mothers with “birthing people.”
What does? In a word, the flattening out of human consciousness caused by technological shifts has made us superficial and, thus, increasingly focused us on our most superficial differences, while the gradual breakdown of organic local and regional communities and the homogenization of the populations of most Western nations has left us with little more than those superficial differences to look to in our inevitable pursuit of personal identity.
How We Became Superficial
Let us begin with the first part of that thesis, the flattening of human consciousness. The earliest period of the Western tradition that has come down to us was a product of a largely oral culture, in which all the essential knowledge, spiritual fulfillment, and light-hearted distraction we needed to get by and to enrich and adorn our lives had to be stored inside our own minds, as bolstered by others in our clan or immediate community. All our songs, hymns, and poems were ready-at-hand. We knew Homer by heart. Those oral texts we had available to us were few and select, but they were truly our own, mastered and domesticated by repetition undertaken as a labor of love, more love than labor, like the lullabies our mothers sing to us night after night and that we add to our eternal storehouse before we are even old enough to take command of our own consciousnesses.
The introduction of writing into our milieu cost us our memories, as Plato warned. Because some texts could now be stored “out there,” they no longer needed to be held in stock “in here.” But writing wasn’t all bad, of course. It allowed many more significant works to be created and preserved, including types of works that no one could or would ever have bothered to commit to memory—such as Aristotle’s dry but eternally significant lecture notes, all we have left of his corpus. Moreover, the technology of the time—scrolls and, later, codices—meant that creating a written record remained a time-consuming affair, such that our memories still had an ample role to play. It was not as though, assuming we were one of the very few who were literate at all, we could simply go down to the local library, much less to our own bookshelf, to refresh ourselves on that stray line that had gotten away.
The invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century marked our next milestone. Now, many more texts could be cheaply written, copied, circulated… and forgotten. Now, mass literacy and mass culture could begin to emerge. We could start off this new era with the Protestant Reformation and a Bible in every home and end with an entire home library, composed of works that were invaluable and those that were disposable. We could start off with an assumption that everyone was familiar with key cultural touchstones and end with no guarantee that next-door neighbors inhabited the same cultural universe. The proliferation of words and ideas stretched out our minds but simultaneously thinned them out, too.
Enter, then, the internet, the world wide web that we now hold in our hands or wear on our wrists—a near-endless profusion of texts, sounds, and images, rare diamonds unrecognizable amid the flickering neon lights. As Harold Bloom said upon being asked during an interview about the internet’s potential to usher in an age of mass enlightenment, “I myself am not an appreciator of that great gray ocean of the internet in which I think too many young people with inadequate educations drown—because how, out of that mass of information, are they to know the difference between information and knowledge, let alone knowledge and wisdom?”
The internet represents a dramatic broadening and, by the same token, further thinning out of our culture base and of our consciousness. We are now, both as individuals and as a civilization, a mile wide but an inch deep. We have no more reason to retain anything inside when all the knowledge in the world is right out there, a few clicks away—though discerning the right sequence of clicks is, as Bloom suggested, sometimes akin to deciphering a secret code or undertaking a perilous journey with Circe’s lures or the Sirens’ song always threatening to keep us from our destination.
Here is the problem we now face: aesthetic and intellectual traditions are cumulative. Appreciating and enjoying a complex 20th century work such as Joyce’s Ulysses requires, at the very least, a command of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, and that is just one example that is easy to invoke because its channeling of prior-going literature is right there on the surface. My point, however, applies almost universally, even where express references to earlier works are absent.
The difference between great art and mere hobbyist art or crafts is that great art must be original; it cannot repeat or even veer too close to what has already been done before. Without a thorough steeping in the Tradition, this is nearly impossible to achieve for the artist or to appreciate for the artist’s intended audience. The same is true of intellectual pursuits, such as philosophy. The best new work builds upon earlier foundations. Nietzsche’s anti-metaphysical sweep is impossible to understand without knowledge of the metaphysical heritage he is trying to sweep away.
What this also necessarily means is that, with time, the list of works the audience must know in order to grapple with new installments just keeps on getting longer even as our internal cultural storehouse keeps on contracting. We are increasingly unprepared to process the Tradition’s greatest hits. Add to this our increasing distractibility on account of the same technological revolution and our resulting inability, as observed by thinkers such as Nicholas Carr and Adam Garfinkle, to engage in deep, immersive experiences of the sort required to derive pleasure and insight from most great works, and what we have is a tragic mismatch between our capacities and our heritage.
Consider, now, the plight of today’s student, who walks into a college literature or philosophy class and feels unable to understand and appreciate the landmarks on the syllabus because the everyday reality I have described above has left him woefully unprepared. When faced with such a challenge, only a few of us will put in the extraordinary effort required to rise to it. A handful of unusually self-aware students will fail but grasp that the failing is their own. The rest will turn to the more predictable human response: sour grapes. They will respond with dismissal and resentment. When handed an ideology that brands canonical works as products of an elitist, racist white patriarchy and that encourages students to judge works based on their creators’ superficial characteristics, they will fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Through that mechanism, a noxious ideology built on resentment will be able to find its initial foothold in the academic humanities and win over a generation of converts among aspiring elites—becoming prominent entertainers, journalists, activists, attorneys, and politicians—armed and ready to spread the poison far and wide.
Identity Replaces Community
There remains the second part of my thesis, the part that accounts still more for why the gospel of tribal balkanization imposed itself so successfully upon the general population of individuals who had no connection to the academic humanities. The disproportionate influence of that rising generation of elites in media, entertainment, and politics explains part of what occurred, to be sure, but it is not the whole picture. The rest of the story tracks an argument echoed by many, including the renowned critic Dwight Macdonald and the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, but made most fully and forcefully in the Berkeley sociologist Robert Nisbet’s Community and Power (1952).
Countering the traditional historical narrative of the progressive emancipation of the individual, with his growing panoply of rights, liberties, and entitlements, from the various forms of physical, cultural, and economic bondage that had held him firmly in place in the feudal societies of the Middle Ages, Nisbet offers an alternative history that tracks, over the same period, the gradual decline of communal life and its various forms of association: families, churches, village communities, unions, guilds, social clubs, and so on. Such associations, for Nisbet, were the source from which “the individual commonly gains his concept of the outer world and his sense of position in it[, h]is concrete feelings of status and role, of protection and freedom, his differentiation between good and bad, between order and disorder and guilt and innocence.”
When these naturally arising communal associations lose their traction, Nisbet argues, we are left isolated, unmoored, bereft of a guiding light and, as such, eager to pledge allegiance to whatever promising battle flag may come our way:
“Only through its intermediate relationships and authorities has any State ever achieved the balance between organization and personal freedom that is the condition of a creative and enduring culture. These relationships begin with the family and with the small informal social groups which spring up around common interests and cultural needs. Their number extends to the larger associations of society, to the churches, business associations, labor unions, universities, and professions. They are the real sources of liberal democracy. The weakening of these groups reflects not only growing spiritual isolation but increasing State power. To feel alone — does this not breed a desire for association in Leviathan? The individual who has been by one force or another wrenched from social belonging is thrown back upon himself; he becomes the willing prey of those who would manipulate him as the atom citizen in the political and economic realms. Given nothing but his own resources to stand on, what can be his defenses against the powerful propaganda of those who control the principal means of communication in society?”
Writing in the age of left and right totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century, Nisbet saw the principal danger to individuals, stripped of communal bonds and homogenized into undifferentiated masses, as coming from desperation for solidarity and community resulting in our eagerness to pledge almost religious allegiance to the one overarching institution still able to unite us: the State. But he also recognized the appeal the powers-that-be could make to our craving for identity, as “[t]he disenchanted, lonely figure, searching for ethical significance in the smallest of things, struggling for identification with race or class or group, incessantly striv[es] to answer the question, ‘Who am I, What am I[?]’”
In our own time, with patriotism and loyalty to the nation being undermined by a spate of divisive, anti-nationalist, anti-patriotic rhetoric, and revisionist history aiming to cast most Western nations and their founding figures and principles as irremediably evil, that craving for identity is fulfilled, instead, by identity politics. As the late philosopher Roger Scruton argued in England and the Need for Nations (2004), “Ordinary people live by unchosen loyalties, and if they are deprived of nationhood, they will look elsewhere for the ties of membership — to religion, race or tribe.” And that is precisely what has occurred.
A Nation of Last Men
Critical race theory and the larger identity politics movement rising up from academia hit us at just the right moment, when we were vulnerable because we had no other resources available to us to stave off alienation and anomie and unite us with our fellow man. The poison spread to students in our university humanities departments because it gave those students a ready excuse to reject our great canonical texts that a technological revolution had rendered them ill-equipped to read, while the superficial categories of race, gender, and so on were a perfect fit for our increasingly skin-deep personhood. These same ideologies then swept out from those humanities departments as a new generation of graduates, projecting their toxic learning through all the channels of media, social media, and entertainment, targeted a populace of individuals who had been robbed of communal identity and were searching for rootedness in something larger than themselves.
What they found was something larger than themselves and yet, in another sense, a more important sense, something far smaller, pettier, meaner, and more barbarous. It was merely an upside-down variant of the venerable Us vs. Them ideology that Hitler had so skillfully deployed to mobilize his mythical pure-blooded Aryans against the effeminate, mongrelized, racialized Other. Now, the vengeful Other was striking back. Instead of realizing the liberal dream of accepting and transcending our differences, we were—we are—descending into a neo-Marxist spin on the old Fascist nightmare, in which group differences are weaponized to create status hierarchies.
Here, coming to pass before our very eyes, is Nietzsche’s prediction of a new, inverted social order erected by the forces of “ressentiment.” The Nazis pined for Nietzsche’s Übermensch; whether they know it or not, our own effete elites are bringing to fruition the Übermensch’s very opposite, the herald of a human animal that has lost the capacity for greatness and that, when confronted with great old relics, curses them and tosses them aside. There he is, just on the horizon, decidedly middle-aged but dressed in a younger man’s clothes, thin-limbed, a bit pot-bellied, shaggy, slouching, shuffling lazily along, dragging his feet, distracted from any particular line of thought, his only purposeful looks being vaguely jealous glances cast in every direction, as though searching for his next suitable target. All hail the Nietzschean “Last Man.”