March 7, 2016: Let’s hear it! Three tears for equality!

There’s a dominant storyline in America today: victims. Who knew there could be so many? Not that there aren’t victims. Last year, sixty million people were displaced by wars advanced by despots, and the vacuum created by America’s conquest of Iraq. When Wall Street got the Glass-Steagall Act removed by the congressmen they bought, gamblers speculated with our money to trash the world economy. Immediately after which they gave themselves $18.4 billion in bonuses. Plus they had several trillion in taxpayer dollars in their pocket, and kept their tools of the trashing—CDOs and derivatives—exempt from regulation, so why not get a bonus? Meanwhile the taxpayers, some of whom can share blame along with governmental programs to prod Freddy Mae and Mac, lost their jobs, homes, families. Since taxpayers can’t afford a politician of their own, America is run by people who serve somebody else. We’re all victims of that. But there are even those—like a man on Staten Island—who get strangled by police after failing to give the state its tax for cigarettes sold on the street. After which a man angry about the incident executed two police officers unrelated to it.

There are plenty of victims, but the victims I’m concerned with are those who seem to be pretending. The radio laments an upstart author who was compared to successful, established authors, constituting an insult to her identity. The TV tells me there’s a lack of racial diversity among LGBT characters on television. And some African American leaders claim that multimillionaire NBA basketball players are slaves on a plantation. Had I known as a boy I could be a victim of such inequality, I’d have paid attention during basketball practice.

But did you hear that the Amazon’s golden toad, Yantze River dolphin, Pyrenean ibex, black-faced honeycreeper, and West African black rhino just went extinct? Driven into extinction, forever, by one globally dominant species. Now those are victims. The rhino’s horn was ground up as a beer additive for—among other false claims—better sex, as though the planet needs more humans. Since rhino horn is made of the protein keratin, drinkers could have trimmed their own toenails as an additive and saved the rhinos.

Instead, if you live in America, while these species and 2000 others blinked out of existence last year, you would have heard the sobs of college students. Coast to coast they marched, screamed, and sobbed, until their administrators resigned over hurtful “micro-aggressions.” One micro-aggression occurred when a white student “commandeered” the Spanish word fútbol instead of the word soccer. Another was a photo of two girls with a mustache and sombrero as part of their Halloween costume. Never mind that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it made Hispanics victims of…something. Incredulous? See the link below and its references. [1]

Video of these events garnered all the requisite outrage and media attention meant to imitate community shame, now that communities are dead. There were apologies, contrition, and tears on camera to dramatize the great conversion that perpetrators of micro-aggressions make in their obedience to conformity. Once done, we could all forget about it in time to feign outrage for the next aggression, a kind of American pastime.

Worldwide ecosystems collapse, America continues its slide unabated with what could be our first Emperor in Chief of Pomposity, and 300,000 were killed in Syria, while we hyperventilate about sombreros. As Chantal Delsol tells it, a people are made by hardship. They are also made by its absence. Hence, she notes, we have become a petty people. [2]

Some might see this striving for victim status as one of the sacraments of political correctness (PC): the oxymoronic notion that a common good of group-preferentiality must be obeyed, while simultaneously rejecting that any common good can exist, much less intrude on individual free choice. Every era has its fashions. But there seems something more fundamental to our tantrums than mere PC. I suggest one component is our concept of equality.

Equality was a central support of Enlightenment individualism. Our Founders gave us a Bill of Rights (not a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities) to ensure equality and freedom of individuals (not communities). What was the foundation of equality? Did it mean something? Or did equality evolve from something of substance to something now trying so hard to be taken seriously?

Enter French philosopher, Phillipe Bénéton. [3] Bénéton’s book elaborates how innovative humans are with social structures, norms, and values—something the ancients saw as reckless. We’re never satisfied. Like the latest gadget, there’s got to be a better way, be it phones or rights, computers or equality. According to Bénéton, Enlightenment innovation in equality lacked a solid foundation. As the demarcation between Medieval and modern thought, arguments abound as to its Christian influence. Is Enlightenment equality a Christian inheritance thanks to Christianity’s idea of the person, each endowed with a unique essence? Or, while a Christian inheritance, does modernity make equality practical by transposing it from the spiritual realm to the temporality of everyday life? Or, lastly, is modern sovereignty of the individual something new, no connection to Christianity? (I chafe at these notions of sovereignty as no one is sovereign. At the very least each has been utterly dependent on a mother, without which they would not exist.)

As Bénéton tells it, Christian perspectives promoted rules of life for spiritual salvation, while modernity promotes rules of society through a legal process for what might be called material salvation of peace and prosperity—Plato vs. Aristotle. The Christian model imitated the Aristotelian with its stress on moral education to make humans more than they are. But modernity now tends to leave humans as they are, elevating our flaws as an expression of identity. Early on, equality was expected to play out within confines of Christian morality with its checks and balances on individual excess. “But,” he writes, “the Founders failed to see they were setting a time bomb.”

Not according to George Washington. In his 1797 farewell address he said, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” But religion defined how? By a loving God of the New Testament, or the same God that kills innocent first born, including infants and toddlers? See Exodus 4:21. God denies Pharaoh a choice, despite sending Moses with His demands, as though Pharaoh could choose.

The result of our more recent procedural society is that, “We no longer engage the heart to create indissoluble bonds,” writes Bénéton. Though he does not note that bonds fostered by common belief are unlikely in pluralistic societies with no state sanctioned religious or moral system. (See The Federalist for Madison’s brilliant but portentous solutions. [4]) Instead, we replace these indissoluble bonds with what we hope to be more dependable laws, procedurally administered by dispassionate third parties. Equality then depends not on common sentiments, but formalized rights.

One can see how we replaced sentiment with reasoned process, but as Michael J. Sandel has it, rights put the individual prior to the social. [5] This puts an important edge on the Self, a preconceived posture in opposition to the social before the social is even recognized. What we give ourselves in one way, we take away in another.

For Bénéton, these evolving ideals have denied us the capacity to share the same elevated essence. All are the same but we have nothing in common except our freedom to have nothing in common. With rejection of a common good and its hierarchy of values, rights float in constant clash, without anchor in nature, authority, or religion. “If rights are no longer based on nature, there is no reason to limit them,” writes Bénéton. “Anything one wants becomes a right.” Hence, there’s now a right to carry guns in University of Texas classrooms, a right to “non-sexed” restrooms in Iowa, autonomous cars reveal a right to drive, and from one presidential candidate, anyone claiming sexual assault “has a right to be believed.” In that case, the 2006 Duke Lacrosse team, and 2014 University of Virginia fraternity pilloried by The Rolling Stone should be imprisoned on false accusations. Human rights which substantiated equality have become particular to groups, not to humanity.

The ancient’s respect for vital distinctions of character is rejected by modern equality as the old view places some above others. Character threatens autonomy through inevitable comparisons, with the potential to create another victim. Today the right to be different applies only to certain insignificant surface features. These differences make no difference, not the way character used to make heroes. And if differences make no difference, distinctions between a host of issues are easy to lose, claims Bénéton: genius vs. farce, profound vs. superficial, decency vs. indecency. Under modernity every dogma is outlawed save relativism. “It is an evil to speak of the Good,” writes Bénéton. Because just what would that be, and who’s going to define it? We no longer have a reference. The modern human is liberated, separated from an order that transcends them, pronouncing a death sentence to meaning.

Part of that old order belonged to institutions Bénéton views as now a loose assortment of functions. Institutions like the family, school, civic associations, political organizations, church, and state, all having lost their forms (think Plato). And all, as Robert Putnum shows, descending in America. [6] Somehow, forms that once animated society held substance for people. Sentiments, not laws.

I wonder if this represents modernity's prioritization of creative innovation of these forms, over and above the forms themselves. Forms that once made the man more than a man: the minister in regalia behind his podium, the judge in gown seated above proceedings. And conjure this: the father as patriarch of the household. These are precisely the forms we relish in dismantling. Even a child of post Sixties America in the Seventies (like I was) could see this dismantling as a means to self-indulgence. I was able to hide behind the latest evolution in equality to demand due consideration with adults, as a child, at the expense of community to demolish traditional restraints on me. Bénéton marks this era of the Sixties as “late modernity,” when final condemnation of the forms take place. Individualism’s battle against tradition won.

Given this evolution, deep down, does equality with our fellow human beings now mean nothing more than a statute? The evolution of equality’s reach has rectified many wrongs, from slavery to women’s suffrage. But today, popular violations of equality sound like pretending. To garner victims special rights and privileges under what Bertrand Russell called, “The superior virtue of the oppressed.” One more factor in the disconnected existence we’ve come to accept as normal. Where does this evolution lead?

Until the first Monday in May, the 2nd, 2016.


[1] Lukianoff and Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind , The Atlantic, September 2015
[2] Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World, ISI, 2003
[3] Philippe Bénéton, Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement, ISI, 2004
[4] Hamilton, Jay, Madison, The Federalist, Modern Library, 1937, (1787)
[5] Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Belknap Press, 1998
[6] Robert Putnum, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Touchstone, 2001
Revised for grammar and word choice, 11.22.2018
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Published on March 07, 2016 10:16
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