by Victor Davis Hanson
Some progressives lamented the apparent defeat of radical progressive African-American candidates such as gubernatorial nominees Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Florida’s Andrew Gillum by blaming allegedly treasonous white women. Apparently white women did not vote sufficiently en bloc in accordance with approved notions of identity politics tribalism.
According to this progressive orthodoxy, being female, gay, or minority trumps everything else. But, of course, no one believes in such mythical notions of solidarity, least of all progressives themselves.
White women were expected in Michigan, for example, to vote against a sterling African-American senatorial candidate John James, whose résumé was far more impressive than his victorious opponent, incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow.
There was no such thing as minorities on the collective barricades when it was a matter of defeating California congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng, first-generation child of refugees, Asian, female, former Stanford student body president, and Yale MBA in her singular bid to unseat a seven-term white male Democratic incumbent.
The outraged identity politics industry has entered the realm of insanity when it screams at the “treason” of white women while bragging that 95 percent of black women voted for a white male Robert O’Rourke against Latino Ted Cruz—while deploring that 59 percent of white women who voted against white male O’Rourke.
In fact, progressive advocates sought to ensure that lots of black, Asian, and Latino men and women lost their senate, congressional, and state house races anytime they were pitted against white-male or white-female left-wing opponents, often with far more power, money, and influence at their disposal.
So dispense once and for all with the idea of the universal sisterhood of identity politics. Or at least re-calibrate and redefine minority status as being a progressive of any race or gender first, and, only incidentally, female or nonwhite.
Conform or be Cast Out
Ideology, more even than superficial appearance, is what progressives worship. Most, of course, long ago grasped the reality behind the rhetoric, whether by the borking of Clarence Thomas, the demonetization of Allen West, or the decades of vitriol directed at Thomas Sowell. But the latest iteration of progressivism, with its monotonous mantra of “white privilege,” might have deluded young naïve hipsters enough into thinking that the party doctrine of nonwhite victims deserving reparatory compensation was actually serious.
In truth, cynical progressives despise minority and female conservatives for their supposed “ingratitude” in not “appreciating” liberal supposed sacrifice “on their behalf” and they surely hate them as supposed apostates far more than they do white male conservatives.
Nor are progressives earnest about the pernicious influence of “dark money,” at least once it dawned on them that today’s Gilded Age riches are no longer the property of conservative capitalists who built empires in construction, manufacturing, farming, mining, or oil.
Multibillion-dollar fortunes are now usually the domain of progressives who were enriched through globalized high tech, international finance, and media. The ensuing rules are that when the Koch Brothers give money, it is “dark,” and when the masters of the universe at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and the likes of Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett, George Soros, or Tom Steyer give far more millions to enhance progressive agendas, the cash is as light as can be.
We saw that disconnect unapologetic in 2008 when the progressive reformer and social justice warrior Barack Obama railed about big right-wing cash, while becoming the largest fundraiser on record and in particular the greatest recipient of Wall Street cash in history. Obama set a precedent of being the first presidential candidate to reject federal campaign financing since the law’s inauguration, in order to ignore all the dark-money restrictions on fundraising that go with it.
Simplified, the progressive notion of campaign cash is as follows: big money is always bad when given to candidates on the right; in contrast, such generosity can become also a legitimate means to the noble end of progressive power. And in terms of the donor, liberal giving offers medieval exemption from the usual progressive charges that “You didn’t build that” or “There will be time for them to make profits. Now’s not that time” or “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” Give a pile of cash to a Robert O’Rourke, Barack Obama, or Elizabeth Warren, and you most certainly did make that money, and it is surely past time to make more, and there is absolutely no point at which you need worry that you made too much.
“Cultural appropriation” is a favorite progressive slur. Translated from its incoherence it means one culture cannot take as its own cultural legacies and protocols from another, especially if in the appropriation it makes greater profits and or gains greater influence from the transaction. So on Halloween, frat boys are not supposed to wear ponchos. Suburban white girls are not supposed to wear dreadlocks. And would-be white boy rappers are not supposed to sing like Snoop Dogg or Kendrick Lamar.
But these “appropriations” are minor fare and campus talking points among adolescents that do not exist in the real world. I just returned from a Central Valley Walmart in rural California. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that a quarter of the almost entirely Latino female shopping crowd either had blond hair or blond-streaked hair, as if they were expropriating my own Scandinavian Viking heritage. Robert O’Rourke appropriates a Latino nickname and with it by implication a false Latino identity—and all for the better, progressives say. A buffoonish Elizabeth Warren called upon DNA tests to prove her less than 1 percent Native American ancestry apparently to show us that she did not culturally appropriate Indian ancestry for careerist purposes.
So cultural appropriation is little more than a one-way neurosis of the upper-middle class and mostly university crowd. It has no relevance in the real world where daily minorities, as they should if they so wish, simply pick and choose which particular European tradition or protocol they wish to absorb or partially borrow or profit from, whether they be Asians mastering the violin or blacks playing King Lear.
Again, incoherence is the key. If Ted Cruz, up for a tough reelection bid in 2018, had decided to go by his authentically given name of Rafael to pick up key Latino voters, progressives would have damned a conservative Latino for appropriating the nomenclature of the Latino community—in a way they would not for his progressive white male opponent who had created a Hispanic identify out of whole cloth. Did Barry Soetoro appropriate an Indonesian/white identity or a native African one when he re-calibrated as Barack Obama? Or both? Or neither?
So there is no such thing as the construct of cultural appropriation. People are human. They make the necessary ostentatious cultural choices on the basis of perceived self-interest.
In a racially obsessed culture of 1960, immigrants named Juan instantly became Johnny and spoke unaccented English; a half century later, in an equally racially obsessed culture of 2018, a third-generation, half-Mexican-American John, who cannot speak Spanish, rebrands himself as Juan as he trills his r’s. Many of my best Greek students at CSU Fresno were first-generation Mexican immigrants, some of them in the U.S. illegally, who, along with me, felt free to expropriate Plato and Thucydides as if they were our own.
Power, Not Principles
Finally, progressivism is not particularly courageous as we are led to believe. Speaking truth to power usually translates as stubbornly clinging to conventional norms. What is courageous today is an unapologetic Christian objecting to on-campus abortion advertising—given the vast majority of his peers and superiors will find suitable retribution for him.
In popular culture, progressivism is the now the staid choice, as it is on campus, in the media, and among entertainers. When CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta stages his periodic psycho-dramatic shout-downs of Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Donald Trump, he is no Edward R. Murrow bucking Joe McCarthy, but rather he is one-upping his progressive like-minded journalists, virtue-signaling to his CNN liberal audience, and scoring career chits with his left-wing bosses and employers.
Progressivism in many professions, certainly on campus, in the news, and increasingly in professional sports is what belonging to the Rotary, Elks Club, or Masonic Lodge was in the 1950s, a sort of easy affirmation of normality and acceptability. When a modern dean writes his weekly memo of anguish about perceived bias on campus, it is no more or less a cry of the heart than that of a Little League director in 1960 reminding players to line up and shake hands after the game. Progressivism is now a state establishment religion, which makes the idea that its slavish devotees are martyrs as absurd as it is comical.
A right-wing late-night comedian? A MAGA college humanities dean? An African-American Republican in the Senate? A traditionalist at Facebook? Those are just the sort of nonconformities that run real career risks.
As with any ossified dogma, no one any longer is bothered that formerly four-legged progressives now strut proudly on two legs. The once radical campus idea of unfettered “free speech” became a boring progressive trigger warning and boilerplate “hate speech,” in the manner that segregated dorms are back, along with segregated safe spaces, along with Trotskyizing history, iconoclastic monument destruction, and Orwellian renaming of any building or street that does not endanger careerism and profit-making.
Progressivism has become little more than a monotonous check-off box that provides safe and boring entre for the powers that be from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, from the NFL to Hollywood, from Harvard to the State Department. Expecting such a dogma to be radical, consistent, or coherent is puerile. The progressive war has always been one over power not principles or even consistent politics.
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Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won (Basic Books).