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Liberal Social Fictions By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, July 24, 2002


There are a number of liberal social fictions that we all agree to believe in, or pretend to, because ... well, because everyone else does, and because the smooth functioning of liberal society requires it. Let’s pop a few.

One of the worst sins in the PC calendar is "treating someone like a sex object." But it seems to me that this is entirely appropriate, given that human beings are sex objects. I mean, we are neither disembodied souls nor neuter, which is what it would actually mean for us not to be sex objects. Which are we not, if we're not sex objects? Not sexual? Or not physical objects? Sorry, but we're clearly both. So unless we're going to live a lie, we should be permitted to treat people as such. One may reasonably object to treating people like they're no more than sex objects, but that is a different question.

The other thing the PC police aren't going to enjoy hearing is that beauty, contrary to popular mythology, is not superficial. In fact, it is one of the most enduringly substantial qualities a person, particularly a woman (gasp!), can have. In real life, we all know this, but we keep pretending otherwise. A Social Security number is a superficial characteristic; this is not. Still, I remember a friend of mine looking at Margaret Thatcher at a conference a few years ago and remarking, "who cares about being pretty when you rule 50 million people?" Quite.

Appearance cuts both ways between the sexes more than people think. Ugly men may not suffer as much as ugly women, but society has very definite physical ideas of what it wants men to look like, particularly if they aspire to important roles. Plug-ugly Lincoln would notoriously never get elected today, and I distinctly remember Governor Engler of Michigan being ruled out of the last Republican presidential race because he just looks like a boring old bureaucrat. Unlike, say, former matinee idol Ronald Reagan.

The standards for men are almost as strict as those imposed on women, except that women at least have the advantage that the ideal they are expected to conform to, beauty, partakes of aesthetic sublimity whereas the male ideal does not. So perhaps they get to have some fun while we just have to do what is expected of us?

In an appearance-obsessed age, people are expected to look the part they wish to play. My editor, David Horowitz, certainly doesn't look like a senator, but he absolutely does look like the grizzled intellectual street fighter he is, and I have no problem believing he's smart when I see him on TV. Unlike, say, Laura Ingraham or, worse, Anne Coulter, which I know is terribly unfair, but I can't help it. Camille Paglia looks more intellectual any day. (I have long wondered why people look like their personalities, as most do. Do people see themselves in the mirror and then become what they look like? Or do people treat them as what they look like and force them into the role?)

Similarly, liberals should stop complaining about "glamorizing violence." Violence is glamorous; this is why all cultures have war stories. It is one of the most fascinating things there is. Its glamour makes it plausible for soldiers to be the only men in our society who can credibly wear gold braid and other flashy accoutrements. We have an intrinsic level of respect for people who can exercise it, even if they’re the bad guys. Nobody ever made violence glamorous, though this is not to deny that it is also sordid. One of the most interesting passages in George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia, his book about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, is one in which he recounts his shock at discovering to his dismay that there are moments in warfare "that make you think that war is glorious after all." I don’t believe that it is, but I do believe there is a deep desire inside human beings to feel that way.

Race is also the subject of fictions. Everyone who isn’t a nasty loon believes in racial equality these days, but under the tacit presumption that we don’t really have to live under it because this is still basically a white society and we can rely on the accumulated predominance of the white race. White liberals, who parade their nice sentiments, don't really like to have minorities around beyond a certain point. They observe an intricate code of behavior designed to maintain a level of whiteness around them in racially-diverse environments. For example, here in liberal New York there are some lovely black neighborhoods where you can buy a perfectly fine brownstone for maybe a third of what it would cost you in a white neighborhood a five-minute drive away. Since the Giuliani drop in the crime rate, these neighborhoods are safe, and white liberals could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by living there. But I don’t know any that do. It's just not done. Most maps of New York are printed as if Harlem didn't even exist. It's just kind of understood in the (liberal) media that white people are what New York is all about and that racial minorities don't really count as real people, except in certain stereotypical ways. You see this in depictions of New York in the movies and TV, and in the way people discuss what New Yorkers think and do as if most New Yorkers were white, which they are not.

Liberal whites also have a racial hierarchy in their heads in which non-whiteness is a matter of degree, descending by darkness of skin. For example, most will accept Asians as professional equals, though not social ones, they will allow Hispanics to perform sensitive tasks like fixing their cars or houses, so long as these are purely manual tasks, and they consider Hispanics a notch above blacks, among whom they instinctively distinguish between light-skinned and dark. Various things can "bleach" a member of a racial minority and raise them a notch or two on the scale. Any college helps, but an Ivy-League or equivalent degree confers a status similar to the "honorary white" certificates the South African government used to give out. Being good-looking helps, particularly in the case of Asian women. Even having a nice voice does, at least not an ethnic-sounding one. Being politically conservative? Sure, except with outspoken racial conservatives like Ward Connerly, who raises frightening issues to the surface that people find it more comfortable to ignore. Because he doesn't incarnate black grievances the way, say, Jesse Jackson does, he doesn't have the all-important and much-coveted power to confer racial absolution on guilty liberal whites willing to pay for it. Liberals love feeling racially guilty because the pain acts as what Christians used to call a penance and pays off the guilt in their own minds. If they don’t feel bad, they don’t feel good later. So what good is Connerly? There's something disturbing about someone who turns up his nose at such an obviously sweet racket. Society is a network of mutual pay-offs, and we instinctively rebuff someone who won't play the game. I mean, what if everyone did that? Things might grind to a halt.

Economic pseudo-populism is another social fiction that is too rich a target to ignore. The massive funding of the business press has perfected this particular trope of sophistry to a sublime polish. Its basic argument is that the free market is anti-elitist because it represents the rule of the free decisions of millions of ordinary consumers. On the cereal aisle at the supermarket, this is clearly true, but it still ignores the fact that everyone knows perfectly well that capitalist societies generate a natural hierarchy. I don’t believe in equality, period, so I have no problem with this, but I’d prefer people admitted the truth. The premise of capitalism is egalitarian, but the consequences are reliably elitist. Anti-elitism is a lovely idea when you know you won't actually have to live by it. I double over laughing when I hear paeans to "anarchy" from corporate chieftains firmly ensconced at the top of the economic totem pole. Anarchy that actually threatened them would be met with a sledgehammer. I sometimes wonder if the rich are going to regret one day having sponsored all this anti-elitist propaganda, given that the only reason it is not taken to its logical conclusion is that all existing schemes to produce equality are watered-down socialism and don’t work. If anyone ever finds a way to impose equality that actually works, they're done for, having preached equality all these years. Be careful what you wish for… Still, it’s a lovely combination to enjoy inequality plus the comfortable conscience that comes from espousing the opposite.

One reason our society is so shot through with social fictions has to be that it is a democratic society and democracy itself is to some extent a social fiction (which might perhaps give us pause in being too ruthless in our fiction-popping.) Democracy requires that everyone vote while knowing full well that his vote won’t decide anything. My civics teacher accused me of a "bad attitude" when I told him this years ago, but I’ve been saying it ever since and haven’t heard a rebuttal. What would happen if everyone thought that way? Political collapse, but that is a totally different question. Anyone who has studied history knows that the basic prerequisite for allowing the common man to rule was knowing perfectly well that he would not seriously try. The government of this country remains, as in the days of monarchy, firmly in the hands of an elite, despite the fact that theoretically, the average man in the street is in charge. The moment democracy was permitted was pretty much the moment when the elite realized that the average man was now rich enough to be trusted to behave this way and not kill the elite and take their stuff. Which points to the key flaw in any serious leftism: the common man is never going to rule society for the simple reason that he doesn't want to. We can't even get these people to regularly attend school board meetings; they're never going to aspire to run the government. That's the beauty of the system. The Left is convinced there’s some devious ruling-class manipulation going on to keep the common man from running things. They’re going to look forever before they find it, because the truth is much worse.

The basic ideology of this country isn't democracy and it isn't even capitalism any more. It is consumerism, and the basic social contract is that so long as the elite maintains the supply of goodies, the masses will allow them to rule. Whenever I hear this society seriously attacked in comparison to others, past or present, the blunt response is always the same: our standard of living is our legitimacy. We dress it up as democracy to make ourselves feel better about what we are, though almost all of us care more about our houses than about the right to vote. If someone offered you a better house that you have in exchange for not voting next November, would you really say no? Naturally, this is dangerous in the long run, because it clearly implies that democracy is not so much broken (the moderate left critique) or fraudulent (the hard-left critique), as simply irrelevant, a much more subversive idea. One of the most amazing phenomena in American history is how easily the Constitution was thrown away after 1937; don’t be so sure people are that attached to democracy. In retrospect, it’s quite clear that the new social contract was negotiated in the 30’s: the government takes responsibility for the flow of goodies, and in exchange we let it do pretty much what it wants so long as it refrains from knocks on the door in the middle of the night. I see no imminent threat that people will take this idea of the irrelevance of democracy to its logical conclusion, but one must wonder in the long run, given that ideas have consequences. Civilizing hypocrisy is all very well as the varnish on society, but surely it can't be the foundation.




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