Reflecting on Campus thought police

In my recent post Campus Thought Police, I suggested that all the attention campuses pay to hate crimes and intolerance ends up diminishing individuals’ sense of agency and empowerment.  Looking at it after the fact, I wondered if I could make the connection more clear.

To clarify on sense of agency: when the community is given no sense of progress, it comes to feel powerless.

The messaging that comes from the campus establishment treats hate and intolerance as if they were perennial, unparalleled mortal dangers.  The constant use of such an urgent tone makes it seem as if the Civil Rights era counted for nothing.

But there has been much progress.  Racism, sexism, and other bad -isms have become stigmas to a culture that is now loathe to harbor stigmas.  Nonetheless, instead of placing us somewhere on the long arc of the moral universe, campus voices convey to us that we are in a Sisyphean task: rolling the boulder ever up the hill with nothing to show for it.  The unending klaxon calling us to battle stations against intolerance eventually convinces us that we are fighting some insurmountable evil.  No reasonable observer can maintain hope if they take the academy’s message at face value.

To clarify on empowerment: activism shunts individuals to the radical margin when they should be integrating with the mainstream.

All the prevalent theories on race, class, gender, and so on shove earnest young souls like cattle onto the divisive boat of oppression politics.  If they stay for the ride, they go on to commit civil disobedience, plan direct actions, and lead generally counterproductive lives.  The dogma that they are in mortal combat with oppressive forces locks them necessarily into solidarity and cooperation.  For the sake of comrades and self, they’re never free to think that oppression may not actually define their existence.

But if their worldview is mistaken, then in all their sound and fury they are missing their true calling.  Instead of uncritically fighting on some far flung front of the war on oppression, students should be preparing to constructively enter a society that is on balance more just than unjust.  They should experience the wonderful challenge of interpersonal competition rather than the dull drumbeat to cooperate with comrades.  The university prides itself as a marketplace of ideas, but if there is any such competition, it hasn’t pierced the Berlin Wall that upholds the politically correct dictums of the academic establishment.

Campus leaders’ actual if unintended conveyance of a lack of progress erodes onlookers’ sense of agency.  The shunting of students into unfruitful radicalism not only bereaves society but dis-empowers the students as well.  The leading voices of the academy need to re-examine the message they’re sending to the world.

The Elephant in the Room of Economic Development

A couple weeks ago, David Kestenbaum of All Things Considered reported on the Indian economy, artfully mixing interviews of Indian economic experts with the slice-of-life story of an elderly, impoverished, street-dwelling shoe-shiner Umrao Singh.  The words of both the Indian academics and Singh pointed to a shared sense of fatalism.  In pondering why the Indian growth rate has in recent decades been much lower than comparable developing economies, the experts jokingly alluded to the “Hindu growth rate . . . maybe it is there in the scriptures.”  Meanwhile, Singh justifies his poverty as he looks on the dwellings of his wealthy neighbors by saying, “this is what God has chosen for me.”  Like his countrymen, he concedes that “what is written is written, you can’t change it.”
A famous destination for seekers of wisdom, peace, and enlightenment in the 1960s, India has  regained the spotlight in recent years as a new wave of thinkers and celebrities have  attempted to answer the question of “happiness.”  Michael J Fox touted the Indian culture of cosmic acceptance in his 2009 TV special, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.  I even read a New York Times article that somehow was able to proclaim a certain Tibetan monk as if with some degree of scientific authority, the happiest person in the world.  Fatalism and acceptance are compelling themes for the frenzied denizens of postindustrial societies.  But do these ideas really do justice to the marginalized poor in developing economies?  Given the shared outlook of Singh and his nation’s experts, and the fawning enchantment of India’s onlookers, does a problem of justice and marginalization even exist?

In his report, Kesterbaum supposed India’s problem was a lack of manufacturing jobs.  And while manufacturing has been credited with building the modern middle class everywhere from America to China, it is not the key ingredient that India lacks.  Rather the one thing that will satisfy the technical questions of the economists, the existential needs of the poor, and the postindustrial search for happiness is a proper fulfillment of the Christian concept of Imago Dei.  As apologist JM Njeroge noted in a recent interview, this idea is the root of much of human progress in recent centuries.

To answer the economists’ riddle, consider the innovators and the moralists who steered their societies through the original industrial revolution.  The scientists who accumulated knowledge of the physical world and the inventors who applied that knowledge as technology took as a given what astronomer-astrologist Johannes Kepler posited in the seventeenth century: because man is made His image, we can “think God’s thoughts after Him.”  Likewise, what would become the human rights movement snowballed with the successive propositions of moral philosophers.  In the American Revolution, we clearly see ideas and corresponding actions rooted in the affirmation that man is created in the image of God.  The same is true for subsequent moral movers, including abolitionists, suffragists, and labor activists.  Even when modern authorities on development point to the necessity of institutions like the rule of law, they are indirectly appealing to the outworking of Christian faith.

A society’s confidence in Imago Dei is also the basis for its sense of agency, without which the innovators, capitalists, and producers of wealth will find it hard to be motivated beyond immediate gain.  Wherever this notion does not prevail, you will see a society’s actors either jockeying among themselves for a sliver of a fixed socioeconomic pie, or consigned as ones marginalized without
hope for advancement.  But where there exists this understanding of agency, it enables those with economic capital to grow the sum of human wealth, and it allows both reformers and the destitute an actionable hope for change.  For this reason it is important that we permit ourselves to make meaningful distinctions between cultures and parse through the differing assumptions that animate them.

Whether informed by detached, journalistic diggings like Kestenbaum’s, or the ponderous musings of would-be “happiness” gurus, our notions of human development and spiritual fulfillment will remain incomplete if we forget that the Image of God has been the singularly transforming force for good in our world.

Bootstraps versus Knapsacks

The California state budget fiasco has afforded me some free time recently, so I’ve been doing some spring cleaning.  Among the relics I unearthed from recent months were the collected handouts for a class  on race taught at my church last year.  It was a sad reminder that leftist agitprop had infiltrated the Sunday classroom.  I mean no disrespect for those who earnestly pursue God’s will in matters of race and justice.  Yet,  the ideas propagated in those papers and discussions contribute to an unhealthy, counterproductive worldview.

One particularly troubling area of the race curriculum is its prescribed journey from bootstraps to knapsacks.  Since I first encountered these two concepts in the same context, they have always seemed at odds.  Bootstraps and knapsacks are mutually exclusive; people tend to love one and hate the other.  In one corner is the classic “up by the bootstraps” idea that hard work begets success in America.  As an alternative, progressives offer the red pill notion that any comfort, success, and prosperity are owed instead to an “invisible knapsack of privilege.”  No, you can’t make this stuff up.  The  idea originated in the 1980s with feminist Peggy McIntosh.  Now if you take success and prosperity to be synonymous with  being white, you have the original gist of the knapsack.

McIntosh’s personal revelations notwithstanding, I find the knapsack lacks effective explanatory power from where I stand as a mixed race, conservative man in a tremendously free and prosperous society.  I find it more relevant to look at success in America as a general whole rather than assume that success is the exclusive reserve of some monolithic group called  “whites.”  Yet knapsack proponents are eager to showcase McIntosh’s writing as a contrast to bootstraps in the hope of inducing an aha! moment that race is integrally relevant to American success.  Any serious-minded person who encounters these two tangling visions must decide which one will ultimately color (no pun intended) their own life at the everyday level.

In their existential tendencies, knapsack and bootstraps could not be more divergent.  In spite of its good intentions, knapsack supplants bootstraps’ twin senses of gratitude and agency with a new malaise of victimhood and guilt.  In doing away with bootstraps, knapsack denies us the ability to thank our parents, ancestors, and even our Creator for their respective roles in contributing to our current comfort and success.  From its secular Leftist roots, knapsack can only give us an impersonal, monolithic explanation that oppression is the true father of our prosperity.  Its as depressing as when Luke Skywalker discovers that Darth Vader is his dad. Progressive Christians mean well when they attempt to carve a path for American repentance, but they damage worldviews when they uphold knapsack and dismiss bootstraps.  American history is marked more by opportunity than by oppression.  But supposing the facts to be in dispute, such an assertion would be better defended in a separate post.  Existentially, bootstraps thinking cultivates an “attitude of gratitude” that in turn nurtures desire for stewardship. This then necessitates individual accountability, and all three of these are integral to Christian living.  Knapsack, however, turns us to navel-gazing and perpetually renewed  calls for dialog that might make good sound bites but do little to effect meaningful change.  Instead of attending ponderous powwows that reinforce progressive dogmas, Christians sincerely pursuing what is right and good should look critically at knapsack thinking and reclaim as their own the virtues of the bootstraps ethic.

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