Entry from March 18, 2014

Lately, I found that I was being Twitter-bombed by the sort of person — and what a lot of such people there are on Twitter! — who seem to think it a devastating retort to someone they disagree with politically to call him "moron" or "racist." My sin, in case you haven’t heard about it already from one of these people, was to have suggested last year, in a review of Steve McQueen’s now Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave, that it could only have been improved by the addition of a contented slave or two, or a kind master — just as a token or signal to the audience that the film-makers were at least as concerned with questions of historical authenticity as they were with the starkly-presented moral drama of its main story and all that it implied of polemical or hortatory motives. I thought, perhaps wrongly, that this would have added to rather than subtracted from the emotional force of its moving account of a free black man from New York who was kidnaped and sold into slavery in 1841.

Of course I should have known that the film-makers and their furiously tweeting apologists were a lot less interested in the trials and tribulations of the long dead Solomon Northup than they were in providing a redundant proof of their own burning and eternal hatred of the institution of slavery in North America, also long dead, for reasons that have nothing to do with the search for historical truth. Or, indeed, with history at all. The point, as several of the Twitter bombers inadvertently made clear, was to establish the now-fashionable equivalence between slavery, and therefore racism as they see it still being directed at the descendants of the slaves today, and the Holocaust. Would this moronic racist, they asked (meaning me), also have complained about the absence of happy Jews from Schindler’s List?

But it is not to question the evils of slavery to point out that every evil is not a Holocaust, or that the point of having slaves from the point of view of the slave-owners was not to torture or kill them but to keep them well-fed and healthy enough so that they could continue to work. That can hardly be thought much to their credit, but at least they weren’t, as the Nazis were with the Jews, in the business of wholesale extermination. Yet the aim of much of the racial grievance industry in America today, as in 12 Years a Slave, is to establish just this false equivalence between slave-owning and Naziism in order to fix on the white-dominated American political élite an undying sense of guilt merely for being descended from those who must now be supposed to be as bad as Nazis. That guilt then will continue to yield benefits, perhaps in the form of "reparations," to those who find some advantage to themselves in clinging to historical grievances.

I don’t mean to dwell on the political motives of my numerous detractors, nor on the many and obvious dissimilarities between slavery and the Holocaust. More interesting to me as an observer of the culture is the extent to which, in the popular culture now, as in the academic culture for some time past, the only possible history is Leninist history, or the history of "who/whom?" By applying the Marxist dialectic to "imperialism," which he tendentiously (not to say nonsensically) called "the highest stage of capitalism," Lenin, taught his revolutionary emulators how to adapt it from economic history to that of any power-structure they might wish to dismantle and replace with their own. For him as for his present-day successors taking on racism, sexism, homophobia and whatnot, all history is the history of exploiters and exploited. And nothing ever happens in history except more or expanded exploiting or the revolt of the exploited against the exploiters.

Yet real life, as those not blinded by ideology know, is not like that. Power is not all of one kind, and sometimes those who wield it are not its nominal holders. Sometimes it is exercised for good even when it is held by the class (or race or sex) enemy, and most of the time it is a false constant that is less than helpful as way of understanding the complex relations between people in groups — which are themselves much less rigid and clearly defined than the Leninist model requires them to be. Sometimes, too, we find that good things come out of bad, or that people with the best of intentions produce some monstrous evil, as Lenin himself did. Life is not simple or predictable unless we force it into simple and predictable molds with an ideological commitment to keeping history only for its practical and political uses — which, these days, are invariably Leninist and revolutionary uses, even when they go under the benign label of the "progressive."

In the forthcoming issue of The New Criterion, I speculate on the possible connection between the uses to which history is put by progressives, in talking among themselves about the Russian incursion into Ukraine, and the new "Common Core" standards for history that are already being implemented in American schools. There I note that "history" for the Common Core barely exists as such. There is no body of historical knowledge attached to it, even as a suggestion, and the only thing that students of history will learn in the future is how to analyze "texts" — no doubt according to the latest style of ideological reasoning. A "text" like 12 Years a Slave will clearly present no difficulties for this kind of analysis, and the student who has learned that such analysis is what history is will no doubt be as enraged as the Twitter-bombers are at me for suggesting that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their politically motivated analyses. But the progress of Leninism through the institutions of our society is such that I and others like me, if there are any others like me, had better get used to it.

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