New Kantian Man

Under the “Family” heading, The Atlantic recently carried a cheerful little piece titled, “How Well-Intentioned White Families Can Perpetuate Racism.” How is it that we are doing this horrible thing? The problem, it seems, is that we love our kids and want them to do well in life. Which is just the worst, right?

From a rational perspective, of course, this is a deeply silly argument. Yet it perfectly represents some fundamental things that have gone wrong in our culture’s thinking about race, human nature, and morality. It also demonstrates why those ideas are dangerous, because it seems that so-called “Progressives” won’t be happy until you hate your kids.

The article is an interview with Margaret Hagerman, a sociologist who set out to “recruit white affluent families as subjects for the research she was doing on race.” (Here’s a little tip for living in contemporary America: if anybody says they’d like to use your kids for research on race, just say “no.”) The result was a book titled White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America. Amazing, isn’t it, how some people will allegedly do exhaustive research just to come up with the same old clichés about “white privilege”?

What’s instructive here is what this “privilege” consists of.

One of the things I talk about in the book is what I call this “conundrum of privilege,” which is that these parents have a lot of resources economically as well as status as white people. They can then use those resources to set up their own child’s life in ways that give them the best education, the best health care, all the best things. And we have this collectively agreed-upon idea in our society that being a “good parent” means exactly that—providing the best opportunities you can for your own child.

But then some of these parents are also people who believe strongly in the importance of diversity and multiculturalism and who want to resist racial inequality. And these two things are sort of at odds with one another. These affluent white parents are in a position where they can set up their kids’ lives so that they’re better than other kids’ lives. So the dark side is that, ultimately, people are thinking about their own kids, and that can come at the expense of other people’s kids.

The idea that the good of your own kids necessarily has to come at the expense of other people’s kids is a dubious assumption, to say the least, but it’s there to make you feel guilty enough that you will agree to sacrifice your kids on the altar of equality. And what would that mean?

Some of the parents in my book, they rejected the idea that their child needed to be in all the AP classes. They valued other elements of their children’s personalities, such as their concerns about ethics or fairness or social justice. There were a handful of parents in my study who resisted having a separate track for AP students, for example, which can sometimes be a segregating force within schools.

There were also affluent parents who were very much opposed to having police officers in schools, and they were using their position of influence in the community to try to get the police officers out of there. Maybe others would be aware of their own presence at PTA meetings, making sure they’re not dominating them and making sure they’re not putting their own agenda ahead of their peers’ agendas. I’m not sure that I saw tons of behavior like that, but I certainly saw moments where some of the families were concerned more about the collective than their own kid.

So to be a good “Progressive” you should place “social justice” indoctrination over actual education, and maybe also send your kid to a school with increased crime and violence. I could understand, if you grew up poor, if you got knocked around a lot, if you felt like an outsider, it might be natural to resent the upper-middle-class kids, to think they’re too privileged and need to be knocked down a peg. It’s not exactly a healthy way to go through life, but I could understand it. What I can’t understand is thinking that way as a parent about your own kids.

But there, at the end of the quote, we find the real agenda: you must subordinate your own interests to “the collective.” Who, aside from unreconstructed Marxists, still uses the phrase “the collective”? Maybe Star Trek fans, because Hagerman seems to be offering advice on how to assimilate into the Borg. Resistance is futile.

This goes to the real heart of the issue, and it also indicates that this isn’t really about race. After all, which of these arguments has anything specifically to do with kids being white or black, versus being rich or poor? The difference between phrasing this as an issue or race versus an issue of economics is not logical or substantive. It’s merely a matter of intellectual fashion. It’s harder to get people to listen to you if you publish an old-fashioned lefty screed about “class,” but racial politics is all the rage right now and will get you a book deal and coverage in The Atlantic.

That’s why that phrase, “the collective,” is such a giveaway. This is just the old-fashioned Marxist class-warfare agenda repackaged in the language of racial politics. That is what is lingering behind most of our discussions of race these days. Take, for example, the arguments that came up recently in the Sarah Jeong case about how non-white people cannot be racist—even when they are definitely, flagrantly racist—because racism is really about the “dominant power structure.” The “dominant power structure” ends up meaning pretty much the entire capitalist system, including the fact that you are able to make money, own property, and buy things—such as buying a house in a good neighborhood in a town with a good school system, or sending your kids to private school. These are the actual examples used in that interview about people perpetuating racism by providing as well as they can for their kids.

But none of that is really about race. It’s about using race as a stalking horse for Marxist anti-capitalism, because by this logic, racism can only be eliminated “come the revolution.”

If there’s one thing we should have learned from history, it’s that “the revolution” will only make things worse, because nothing more fundamentally runs against the grain of human nature than asking people not to care about their own kids. Yet that is literally the solution offered by Hagerman: “This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink.” After all, she concludes, everything is “socially constructed,” so why couldn’t we just reconstruct society to make human beings not care so much about their kids? Maybe we should go ask the New Soviet Man—but I can’t seem to find any of them.

The impetus behind this is deeper than a political theory. It is a queer kind of moral theory, which popped up recently in its reductio ad absurdum form in the pages of the New York Times. A famous contemporary philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, tells us that even thinking about other humans, let along our own family, is “narcissistic.” We should be thinking about other species.

Over time, the idea of “being human” has surely meant—and will continue to mean—many things. There is and has never been just one answer. But surely one thing it ought to involve today is the ability to recognize that the question itself is a problem.

We humans are very self-focused. We tend to think that being human is somehow very special and important, so we ask about that, instead of asking what it means to be an elephant, or a pig, or a bird. This failure of curiosity is part of a large ethical problem.

This is all a springboard for a long rant about animal rights, though I guess it’s not fashionable to use the terminology of “rights” any more. Instead, Nussbaum talks about “animal entitlements.” She concludes:

The world needs an ethical revolution, a consciousness-raising movement of truly international proportions. But this revolution is impeded by the navel-gazing that is typically involved in asking, “What is it to be human?”

But that ethical revolution has already happened. Nussbaum ought to know what it means to be a bird, because she is merely parroting the man who made the revolution, the 18th-Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was the one who argued that a universal moral principle, what he called a “categorical imperative,” must therefore be impersonal. Notice the sleight-of-hand here. “Universal” is not the same thing as “impersonal,” but having switched out the one concept for the other, he concluded that the only way to be moral is to ignore any personal, individual interests. As I once summed it up in a college paper—and I am very proud of this—Kant’s categorical imperative can be encapsulated in an old Ziggy cartoon: never get personally involved in your own life.

Collectivism was the next logical step, taken by the next generation of German intellectuals. You can see that if you have to eliminate any personal value, that would necessarily mean purging one of the most precious of personal values: the attachment you have to your own children.

In the collectivist theory, this purging of personal values is supposed to produce a corresponding increase in concern for “the collective.” New Soviet Man was going to care for state property as assiduously as economic man had cared for his own property. Caring less about your own kids is supposed to lead, Hagerman imagines, to caring more about other people’s kids. To say that this runs counter to human nature is an understatement. It’s not just that people will psychologically resist caring more for other people’s children than their own, a resistance that might be overcome with indoctrination and willpower. The problem is that the whole idea is a logical impossibility. It asks us to care the least about those things that have the most intimate connection to us and are therefore most capable of earning our affection.

We can only feel love, compassion, or respect for others to the extent that we see our own humanity in them—to the extent that we imagine what it would be like if we were in their place. A man who cares nothing for his own life will actually find it harder to empathize with others. Self-loathing is not a basis for love of humanity. Similarly, to reach the point where you do not wish the best for your own children, how much would you have to hollow out your own personal values and capacity for affection? Hagerman asks us to “think in bigger ways about…what it means to actually have a society that cares about kids.” But how is “society” going to care about kids if you’re asking everyone not to care about their own? How can they be motivated by love after they have crushed their capacity for love at its most intense source?

But we don’t need to ask these questions. New Soviet Man may be hard to find, but actual examples of this kind of socialism in practice are easy to find. What we see is that indoctrination in collectivist ideas does not actually prevent people from favoring their own children. It merely helps them justify not caring about other people’s children. It makes people more willing to expect the other guy to sacrifice his kids—but the children of the leaders, the apparatchiks, the enforcers of the regime remain well-fed and in line for the best jobs. This is how, for example, Hugo Chavez’s daughter ends up living in opulence while regular Venezuelans get to watch their babies die of starvation.

So remember, Progressives won’t be happy until you hate your own kids—or at least until you are helpless to provide for them because everything you have has been looted to provide for their kids. Surely we’ve seen enough by now to know that this collectivist ideology, and the Kantian philosophy of self-negation behind it, are the opposites of love and sure as heck aren’t progress.

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