America today is suffering from a tyranny of abstractions. Ostensibly, we’re seeing a mass movement against racial injustice—but what specific injustice are we talking about? Is it the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis? The police officers involved have been fired and criminally charged. Is it a problem of police brutality in the Minneapolis police department? It’s up to the elected district and state’s attorneys to investigate those involved in police misconduct. Is it a problem of anti-black police brutality across the country? A study from August 2019 finds no evidence of anti-black disparities in cop shootings. Is it that black people are being killed in general? In 2018, there were 7,407 black homicide victims; 90% were killed by other blacks.
The problem, then, seems lamentably unclear, and this abstraction is hardly incidental. Racism traditionally referred to acts between individuals; individuals can be held responsible for their actions. But discussing racism as a systemic problem makes everyone responsible—and no one.
The wide berth given to the charge of racism thus allows for great flexibility, enabling Black Lives Matter movements to spread across the world. While other countries may not share America’s particular narrative about slavery, most can point to some act of discrimination in their past. Discrimination of some sort is inevitable, since every community that comes into existence does so with a shared sense of who it is and who it is not. Unfortunately, racial differences are one of many ways that groups have historically distinguished themselves from one another. It was the genius of the American Founding Fathers to lay the framework for a community based on what all humans can believe in—namely, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In this shared conviction there are no masters and slaves; all humans are dignified and partake of true equality.
This clear and noble project is now being defiled by incoherence and the tyranny of ideological clichés. If both the problem and the guilty parties are unclear, then the putative solutions will be just as unclear. If the problem is the system itself, can it be reformed from within, or will the reforms themselves be tinged with racism? The Left’s inability to discuss this problem coherently is symptomatic of a deeper problem: its inability and unwillingness to think politically and tackle concrete challenges, which would require effort and commitment beyond petulance and sloganeering. For the Left, society is a homogenous mass, to be molded according to the vagaries of social justice.
The Left’s view of homogenous society is replicated in its view of history. Gone is the drama of the American narrative, with all its successes and setbacks, the struggles and triumphs of its great men and women of all races. Instead, everything has been filtered through the lens of race, and history becomes nothing but a web of injustice. Like Dante in The Inferno, the progressives witness no change, only endless punishment. Time is nonexistent. There is no ugly past triumphantly overcome, nor a bright future to hope for, only the eternal damnation of the imperfect present. There are no heroes, only villains. Progress, it turns out, is unknown to the progressive.
But progressive intellectuals don’t let such details get in the way of their ideology. For it is they who defend the thugs tearing down the monuments of American history. The intellectual class—mainstream media, entertainment, and academia—is so caught up in the babble about systemic racism that it can speak of blacks only as victims, robbing them of both their agency and their dignity. The intellectual class is a hair’s breadth away from confessing that violence is necessary; indeed, when it sees that rewriting history will not help the people whom it purports to represent, then more drastic measures will seem necessary, because the Left’s ideal is perfection and it cannot tolerate the crooked timber of humanity. The intellectuals are slaves to public opinion, but they also know that they have no real authority and can be abandoned at any moment—so their haughtiness is accompanied by sycophancy.
In this, they are a perfect counterpart to the cowardly political class. America has produced far nobler individuals, endowed with virtue and a much keener sense of history. In an 1812 letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson remarks that he has given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides and is much the happier for it. History, written by proper historians, is edifying and instructive. The Founding Fathers understood this. In his response, Adams praises Thucydides’ and Tacitus’s style as “elegant, profound and enchanting,” but he has nevertheless grown weary of them, for “[w]hen I read them I Seem to be only reading the History of my own Times and my own Life.” Tacitus’s eloquent account of his time is as poignant as it is relevant for us today:
It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty is to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciations. But this was a tainted, meanly obsequious age. The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals. There is a tradition that whenever Tiberius left the senate-house he exclaimed in Greek, 'Men fit to be slaves!' Even he, freedom’s enemy, became impatient of such abject servility.
If America’s political class will not rediscover the virtues of the statesman, then depraved circumstances will introduce a much meaner ruler, just as they did in Rome after Tiberius.
Scott B. Nelson is Research and Strategy Advisor at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria. His book Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought was recently published by Peter Lang. He is presently writing a book about Cicero and modern politics.