interesting times

America, Land of Brutal Binaries

Minds will not be changed. Photo: Getty Images

It was entirely a coincidence that I found myself reading Jonathan Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind in the same week that Brett Kavanaugh was credibly accused of sexual assault in his teens, and Ian Buruma lost his job as editor of The New York Review of Books, after publishing an essay by a man credibly accused of 23 separate instances of sexual abuse, but cleared of all criminal charges. And the book does not, of course, address the specifics of either case. But it’s a sharp analysis of the toxic atmosphere in which our current debates take place, a reminder that it is close to impossible, in this polarized climate, to deal with the specifics and complexities of each scandal from a non-tribal perspective.

And so it seems that Kavanaugh is either a perfect exemplar of judicial expertise and impeccable moral conduct, or he is a lying rapist determined to destroy and control the lives of all women. Ghomeshi is evil, and granting any space for such a monster to defend or account for himself is itself an act of oppression, which must be shamed and punished. Those appear to be our choices, ladies and gentlemen, in this particular polarization cycle. There is little nuance in these battles and absolutely no mercy for anyone unlucky enough to get caught up in its swirling vortex. This is what our culture is driving us toward, and it’s a culture where each moment of conflict galvanizes and tribalizes us still further, in what seems like an endlessly repeating loop of resentment, righteousness, and revenge. It’s now even invaded the Catholic church.

Haidt and Lukianoff note how humans are constructed genetically for this kind of tribal warfare, to divide the world instinctively into in-groups and out-groups almost from infancy. For homo sapiens, it is natural to see the world, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, as radically “divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad.” It is much harder to see, as Solzhenitsyn did, even after he had been sent to the gulag by his ideological enemies, that good and evil run through every human heart.

And it’s this reflexive, reptilian sorting of in-group and out-group that has now been super-charged by social media, by Trump’s hideous identity politics, and by campus and corporate culture. There seem to be just two inalterable categories: the oppressors or the oppressed; elite globalists or decent “normal” people. You are in one camp or the other, and, as time passes, those of us who don’t fit into this rubric will become irrelevant to the discourse, if we haven’t already got there.

After a while, the crudest trigger points of tribalism – your race, your religion (or lack of it), your gender, your sexual orientation – dominate the public space. As Claire Lehmann, the founding editor of the refreshingly heterodox new website Quillette has put it, “the Woke Left has a moral hierarchy with white men at the bottom. The Alt-Right has a moral hierarchy that puts white men at the top.” The looming mid-terms will not be about healthcare or executive power or constitutional norms (although all these things will be at stake). They will primarily be about which tribe you are in, and these tribes are increasingly sorted racially and by gender. The parties are currently doing all they can to maximize these tribal conflicts as a way to seek power. This isn’t liberal democracy.

And in this fevered, fetid atmosphere, where the stakes are always sky-high, there are no constraints. Dox, harass, troll, lie, smear, mock, distort, harangue, and preferably ruin: those are the tools of the alt-right just as much as they are the tools of the woke left. In such a civil war, the idea that the Supreme Court could ever perform the role it was designed to – interpret the law in a non-tribal way – is laughable. Indeed, the notion of a filibuster becomes moot, because it requires some sort of common ground between senators, and this is regarded by both sides as complicity in evil. Even a private, confidential hearing for accuser and accused is now, according to Senator Gillibrand, equivalent to silencing the accuser. I lean toward believing Christine Blasey Ford, as I believed Anita Hill and Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones, but I cannot know about something that happened 36 years ago. So I favor an FBI investigation and see no reason to rush a confirmation vote. But offering someone a chance to provide testimony in a private session wherever she chooses is not “silencing” her. Senator Hirono has gone further and told half the citizenry to “shut up” solely because they are male.

Equally, Republicans are so terrified of losing a Court seat (we’re on a rhetorical Flight 93 and have to rush the cockpit!), they cannot wait for a few days for an FBI investigation, even though they were prepared to wait over a year to fill an empty seat when a Democrat was president. Their tribal double standards continue to take my breath away. For Ed Whelan — a former Supreme Court clerk, no less — to spout off on Twitter yesterday, actually naming some other dude who’s a middle school teacher as the “real” assailant, because of a floor plan, is mind-bogglingly reckless and wicked. You first argue that no one should be accused of attempted rape without proof because it forever tarnishes his reputation — and then you go and actually name someone else as the culprit while simultaneously saying you can’t prove anything. This is how tribalism destroys minds.

In tribal warfare, there are no degrees of tribal loyalty. It is Manichaean, and it is binary. And so a movement that began with the exposure of horrific sexual abuse of power swiftly expands to cover much less serious offenses. Start with the crimes and horrors of Harvey Weinstein … and end with firing Ian Buruma for publishing a controversial essay. For a single lapse of judgment, if that’s what you believe it was, Buruma has now been punished in the same manner as Les Moonves, a grotesque serial abuser. (Full disclosure: I have known and deeply respected Ian for decades.)

And the reaction of the tribalists to this purging of an editor is … glee. “Halleluia!” tweeted someone who probably didn’t know who Ian was until last week. “It’s good. It’s so good. Actions have consequences,” tweeted another. “He can go back to the Netherlands!” tweets another. One of the leaders of the social-media push to see him fired, Nicole Cliffe, did a victory lap: “I wish I worked at a desk and not in bed so I could spin my chair around instead… Seriously, though, props to everyone at NYRB for this, it’s rare to have a win.” The “win” was a journalist getting another journalist fired for attempting to start a difficult conversation.

Mobs and tribes have always been with us, as the Founders well understood. But Haidt and Lukianoff suggest a variety of specific reasons for the sudden upsurge in toxicity. There is a serious disconnect between the winners and losers of globalization, and this has been exploited by demagogues. Social media has given massive virtual crowds instant mobilization, constant inflammation, and – above all – anonymity. Give a street mob masks, Haidt and Lukianoff note, so they can hide their identity and their capacity for violent and aggressive conduct suddenly soars.

Haidt and Lukianoff are particularly acute about how the generational shift has intensified the trend. Their hypothesis is that the members of the iGen generation (those born in the mid to late 1990s) have been raised (unwittingly and with good intentions) in such a way to maximize tribal identities rather than dilute them.

They have been told, in Haidt’s and Lukianoff’s view, that safety is far more important than exposure to the unknown, that they should always trust their feelings, and that life is a struggle between good people and evil people. This infantilizes them, emotionalizes them and tribalizes them. These kids have been denied freedom, have little experience of confronting danger and overcoming it themselves, have been kept monitored to all times. They tend to have older parents and fewer siblings. There is a reason the safest generation in history is also the most anxious, the most depressed, and the most suicidal. It is not that it’s all in their heads – prejudice and discrimination exist – but that they do not have the skills to put any of this in perspective. And so rather than rebel against their authorities, as students used to do, they cling to them like safety blankets, begging them to protect them just as their parents did.

This is what a cultural revolution feels like. It is given legitimacy by the top, but it is enforced horizontally from below. You are encouraged to denounce and expose your friends, your co-workers, and your bosses for the harm they inflict. Colleagues vie to signal that they are not guilty of being an oppressor, partly because they are not, and partly to avoid being the next scalp. Soon, silence is not enough – in fact, it’s suspicious. And so it becomes necessary to endorse the revolution, celebrate it, and enforce it, prove that you are in good standing. Examples are made of slackers – the more arbitrary the better – to keep fear alive in the minds of everyone. If you so much as quibble, you’ll be the next head on the chopping block. When the very existence of people is at stake – and it always is for the catastrophists – there is no limiting principle.

We live then in a paradox. Our society has less crime and less danger than ever, and yet we see threats everywhere. It has become more racially and culturally diverse than any society in the history of humankind, but it is plagued by “white supremacists” or “hordes of illegals.” And you cannot question these feelings because subjectivity is more important than objectivity, and sensitivity trumps reality. Gay, lesbian, and transgender people live in a world unimaginable to the overwhelming majority of humankind, and to our predecessors of only five years ago, and yet we are told by our leaders that we are “under siege.” As women kick ass in our economy and culture, as they achieve success that previous generations would have thought extraordinary, what is the response? Rage, of course! Furious rage!

This is a mind-set that Haidt and Lukianoff see as very similar to a clinically depressed one, catastrophizing, paranoid, leaning into ever-escalating feelings of victimhood rather than pushing against them with reason. Our entire society, they argue, needs a good cognitive-behavioral therapy session, to get some kind of grip on our emotions – and not a constant ratcheting up of tribal fever. CBT has been clinically proven to work for individuals – and Lukianoff tells the story of his own CBT recovery from depression. It helps you regain agency over your feelings. But individual agency is the last thing tribes want. They want you absorbed into a collective victimhood that constantly feeds on itself.

Look at the Kavanaugh-Ford nightmare. Both individuals are besieged by haters and trolls, requiring police protection. She or he has to be believed in the entirety of their claims, with no qualification. So because Ford is a lefty, she must be lying. Because Kavanaugh is an affluent white male, he must be guilty, and even if he isn’t, his privilege will compensate, so who cares? Kavanaugh’s striking record of hiring and mentoring women as clerks becomes evidence of his creepiness, not his decency. Ford’s completely understandable reluctance to go public is deemed proof of her duplicity. The idea that we should suspend judgment until an investigation concludes and we know all the facts we can know is not exactly a popular one.

The younger generation Lukianoff and Haidt identify and describe has had a huge influence on shifting the culture as a whole — the very atmosphere in which these two controversies of the past week are playing out. At the same time, our market economy wants to capture young adults more than any demographic. It’s salient to observe how Buruma’s job seems to have become untenable in part because of fears that university presses might remove their advertising from the NYRB, under intense pressure from their campuses. Similarly, campus rules and race and gender ideology have been imported wholesale into vast swaths of corporate culture. Working at Google is now indistinguishable from attending Yale. And the nonnegotiable defense of feelings, rather than objective reality, is contagious. It’s a short cut, it’s easy, and it can become its own reward.

These tribal instincts are as emotionally satisfying as they are toxic. I am not immune to them either. None of us is. They are the reason why we have this tribal president, who has, in turn, intensified the tribalism of his supporters and his opponents. They are the reason our universities are purged of non-leftists in the humanities, why Fox News fires its dissident conservatives, why the editors of our newspapers and magazines are slowly being intimidated into excluding any diversity of opinion.

I was struck in Haidt and Lukianoff’s book by a quote that is almost a perfect inversion of today’s political conversation. “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.” Those words were written in 1945 by Pauli Murray, a transgender, black civil rights activist. Her words foreshadowed the approach taken by Martin Luther King, a humanizing approach that today’s cultural revolutionaries have little time for. But Murray and King made a huge practical difference in moving everyone forward a little. They made things better by including more. That was also how we won marriage equality, the biggest civil rights victory of my generation. We did it by drawing larger and larger circles, by treating the other side as arguing in good faith, and appealing to a shared humanity, to what we have in common as citizens, rather than what divides us as members of a tribe. Today’s well-intentioned activists — the ones driving much of the conversation around Kavanaugh and, on a much smaller scale, Buruma — in contrast, are drawing an ever smaller, purer, more tightly policed circle, in order to wage a scorched earth war against another, ever-purer, tightly policed circle. And God help anyone who gets in their way.

The original version of this essay misidentified the author of the quote, “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them” as Martin Luther King Jr. It was Pauli Murray, as the text now indicates. My apologies for the mix-up.

Brexit Uncertainty Continues

Brexit was about to turn a corner this week, but instead it stayed exactly where it was. The E.U. summit in Salzburg was supposed to be a step forward in the negotiations. It was, in fact, a step backward, as both sides misjudged and misread each other. Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet-backed compromise offer on trade with Europe was brusquely dismissed by the E.U. at the summit. E.U. Council president Donald Tusk simply told May her plan would not work, but didn’t seem too happy about it. French president Emmanuel Macron put the boot in: “We all agreed on this today, the proposals in their current state are not acceptable.” He seemed to relish this state of affairs, because it exposed the fantasy of the Brexit right (and of the anti-E.U. governments in Poland and Hungary and Italy) that a new deal for a less constricted relationship within the E.U. would be easy to negotiate and entail very few costs. Britain will be punished pour decourager les autres. The E.U. leaders are prepared to damage their own economies and cripple Britain’s rather than give an inch on their rules.

May found this out an hour before her post-summit press conference, where she appeared shocked, ticked off, and off-balance. She shouldn’t have been. Anyone could have told her that the E.U. would never compromise and give Britain a break. In fact, lots of people did. She somehow thought she could charm or blackmail her way to the next level of negotiation. But charm is not her strength, and her negotiating position is terribly weak.

And the problem of Ireland remains. A hard border between E.U. member Ireland and non-E.U. member Northern Ireland would risk inflaming the sectarian conflict, which the E.U. framework did so much to calm. An open border, however, with the single market covering the entirety of the island of Ireland, with tariffs added retroactively after the goods crossed the Irish sea, would sever Northern Ireland from the U.K. Most mainland Brits couldn’t give a shit about this, but May only has a Commons majority because of support from a Northern Irish party that would bring her down if she wobbled on this. E.U. leaders believed — not unreasonably — that May would propose something to resolve this somehow at Salzburg, but instead she said that a solution was impossible before the deadline of next March. That seems to have done it.

So we won’t have a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit by next March. We will have, as James Forsyth explains here, a blind Brexit, with Britain formally leaving the E.U. next year with no idea what the future relationship will be. That empty and vague option is probably all that could get through Parliament anyway. There is, however, a transition period that ends in December 2020, when the old trading rules expire, and something has to replace them, if only WTO rules.

The extreme uncertainty — and chance of catastrophe — will therefore continue, making it hard for businesses or the government to plan for it. And this will happen as British politics remains deeply unsettled, with both major parties divided, with their leaders openly disdained by a whole swath of their own members of Parliament, and with no one having any idea who will be running the country as it speeds toward an economic cliff edge. Good times. In their sublime moment of direct democracy, a majority of Brits voted for Brexit. To paraphrase Mencken, they’re going to get it, good and hard.

See you next Friday, if I’m lucky.

Andrew Sullivan: America, Land of Brutal Binaries