Children of the Revolution


Number one most-read article in “The Atlantic” monthly at the moment is a very interesting piece by Yascha Mounk, lecturer on government at Harvard, titled “Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture”, which summarises a report by Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Miriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” produced under the aegis of More in Common, an organization founded in memory of Jo Cox, the British Labour MP murdered in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. As “The Atlantic” story argues, most people don’t like the Political Correctness. Despite the impression to the contrary you might get from the media and the social media, this is neither a new nor a controversial contention. Last year, for example, I blogged about a similar public opinion research in Australia. The really interesting aspect of what More in Common have done is analysing the political demographics of the whole electorate:

 On social media, the country seems to divide into two neat camps: Call them the woke and the resentful. Team Resentment is manned—pun very much intended—by people who are predominantly old and almost exclusively white. Team Woke is young, likely to be female, and predominantly black, brown, or Asian (though white “allies” do their dutiful part). These teams are roughly equal in number, and they disagree most vehemently, as well as most routinely, about the catchall known as political correctness.

Reality is nothing like this…

If you look at what Americans have to say on issues such as immigration, the extent of white privilege, and the prevalence of sexual harassment, the authors argue, seven distinct clusters emerge: progressive activists, traditional liberals, passive liberals, the politically disengaged, moderates, traditional conservatives, and devoted conservatives.

According to the report, 25 percent of Americans are traditional or devoted conservatives, and their views are far outside the American mainstream. Some 8 percent of Americans are progressive activists, and their views are even less typical. By contrast, the two-thirds of Americans who don’t belong to either extreme constitute an “exhausted majority.” Their members “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.”

“Progressive activists” in fact are the only section of the society which strongly supports the PC culture, or what nowadays more colloquially is being called “wokeness” – all the other six “tribes” strongly dislike it. This carries through all age groups – including the Millennials – all races – with the African-Americans only fractionally less opposed to it than the whites – and all socio-economic groups.

But what I found particularly fascinating was the description of the “progressive activist 8 per cent”, and it explains to a large extent why ideas and policies which have so little general support in the society are nevertheless so prominent in the public discourse and popular culture:

Compared with the rest of the (nationally representative) polling sample, progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year. They are nearly three times as likely to have a postgraduate degree. And while 12 percent of the overall sample in the study is African American, only 3 percent of progressive activists are. With the exception of the small tribe of devoted conservatives, progressive activists are the most racially homogeneous group in the country.

In other words, it’s exactly what I would have expected based on my observations of the political scene over the years, but it’s nice to see it confirmed by research. Now, whenever you hear somebody on the right joke that “The Huffington Post” editorial team or the local antifa branch (or, in Australian context, a Friends of ABC public meeting) are whiter than a KKK rally or a Coldplay concert – well, it’s funny, and it’s true, and it’s funny because it’s true, and it’s also backed by statistics.

But all this, in turn, reminded me of something else, different but similar, but much darker a piece of modern history. I’m reading at the moment the third volume of Frank Dikotter’s “The People’s Trilogy”, which is essentially a nauseating catalogue of Maoist crimes in China from 1949 to 1976. The third volume, “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976”, narrates the comparatively least bloody but in some ways the most familiar to us in the West chapter of Chinese communist history. Towards the beginning of the book, Dikotter describes the background of the student Red Guards, whom Mao unleashed throughout the country as his shock troops to destroy the last vestiges of the old order as well as to settle scores with his potential competitors within the Party who were branded rightists, capitalists and backsliders:

Not everyone was allowed to become a Red Guard. The youngsters praised by Mao for first having organised a Ref Guard detachment belonged to an elite middle school administered by Tsinghua University. They were the children of high-ranking cadres and military officers, and they had learned through their parents that revisionists inside the party were opposing the Chairman. In other middle schools, too, the core of students who threw themselves behind the Chairman and formed gangs of Red Guards had parents who were party officials. They had been brought up in an environment dominated by political intrigue, and they had privileged access to classified information.

And later:

The Red Guards also turned against some of their classmates. For years they have harboured deep resentment of students from bad family backgrounds who often performed well, having to rely on their marks rather than their status to succeed. Only two years earlier the Chairman had voiced his opposition to an education system he viewed as dangerously meritocratic, demanding that admission of children from “exploiting families” be limited. The Red Guards now craved a system of permanent discrimination. They were born red,  their enemies were born black. Students from bad class backgrounds were locked up, forced to carry out heavy labour on campus, humiliated and sometimes tortured to death. Students from families that were neither “red” nor “black”, for instance the children of clerks, office workers, technicians and engineers, were allowed to assist the Red Guards.

The Cultural Revolution unleashed millions of red youngsters onto Chinese cities and countryside. Up to million and a half of people were murdered, millions of houses ransacked in search of remnants of the pre-revolutionary China (anything from old porcelain to old books and photographs), historical buildings and monuments were pulled down, millions of people sent into the countryside and the gulags for “re-education”.

We have our own youthful Red Guards, mercifully constrained by the institutions of liberal democracy, but the same habits of hysteria and extremism can be seen in everything from vandalising statues of “incorrect” historical figures to the desire to chase off the campus anyone who sins against their woke orthodoxy. You can see it the violent rhetoric and actions of “antifa” who want to “punch a Nazi” (Nazi being pretty much everyone to the right of them with whom they disagree), you can see it in the efforts to restrict free speech, you can see it in the mobs of screaming activists chasing people from restaurants. Thank God for democracy, eh? It could be so much worse.

A few decades ago (how time flies), P J O’Rourke was driving around Washington with a friend when they passed by another left-wing rally for or against something or other, prompting this exchange (from memory):

Why don’t you see right-wingers protesting as often?

We have jobs.

This, again, was funny and true. But today we live in a world where activism is increasingly a job, thanks to benefactors like George Soros and countless others woke billionaires and businessmen. Take the two seemingly random women who accosted Senator Jeff Flake in a Senate lift and inspired him to support the FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh (which in the end postponed his confirmation by a week without providing any ammunition for his enemies):

One of the two protesters who confronted Flake in the elevator is Ana Maria Archila, an executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD). The other protester, Maria Gallagher, is an activist with the group. The CPD is indeed heavily funded by George Soros through the Open Society Foundation.

“The Washington Post” maintains that this does not mean that Soros is “paying the protesters” but for me it’s a moot point. Activism is now a big industry, where Archila has earned some $176,000 in 2016. No wonder the woke activism enjoys publicity well in excess of its actual support.

Whether Red Guards in China or “progressive activists” in America, the revolutionaries are almost always the children of privilege – they are, after all, the people who have the education, the time and the resources to try to tear down the old and build the new (even if they have little idea what that new is). Their education and socio-economic status mean their voices are heard louder than others. It’s ironic, but not unexpected, that those who cry the most about “the white privilege” are the whitest and the most privileged in our society. Guilt, as Catholics know very well, is one of the most powerful emotions there is.

I’ll leave the last words to Yescha Mounk:

In the days before “Hidden Tribes” was published, I ran a little experiment on Twitter, asking my followers to guess what percentage of Americans believe that political correctness is a problem in this country. The results were striking: Nearly all of my followers underestimated the extent to which most Americans reject political correctness. Only 6 percent gave the right answer. (When I asked them how people of color regard political correctness, their guesses were, unsurprisingly, even more wildly off.)

Obviously, my followers on Twitter are not a representative sample of America. But as their largely supportive feelings about political correctness indicate, they are probably a decent approximation for a particular intellectual milieu to which I also belong: politically engaged, highly educated, left-leaning Americans—the kinds of people, in other words, who are in charge of universities, edit the nation’s most important newspapers and magazines, and advise Democratic political candidates on their campaigns.

So the fact that we are so widely off the mark in our perception of how most people feel about political correctness should probably also make us rethink some of our other basic assumptions about the country.

It’s a good corrective against hubris for all of us involved in politics. While conservatism no doubt enjoys greater popular support than progressive activism, I don’t claim to represent “the nation” or even “the majority”, even if I think that many of the positions are hold do enjoy broad public support. But I don’t kid myself about my messianic status or mission. We all need to look and live outside of the bubble.