Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Past and Present Customers of the Grievance Industry

Over at the First Things weblog Stephen Webb discussed an academic's critique of academia:

[Timothy] Brennan laments the "deadening effects of middle-class immigration and entry into the university of intellectuals who were, or were related to, formerly colonized peoples, and who therefore automatically registered as the oppressed when this was often far from the case." I think this tortuous sentence means that there are a lot of professors who spend a lot of time posing as victims of menacing social forces that have pushed them into the safety of an academic career.

This is indeed a tortuous sentence. Brennan, it seems, is lamenting a pseudo-leftist professorial class whose activism is as ineffective as it is obscurantist. Yet as I read Brennan's words, I think not just the professoriate or the adjuncts make a show of identifying with the oppressed, but also the middle-class students themselves. An Irish-American student, say, could see his professors lacerating Victorian England for its various failings and bigotries. He could think to himself "those Brits really were as messed up as grandpa's incoherent mumblings implied." Ruminating upon his instructors' anti-Puritan rhetoric, he can think with pride that one of his ancestors was a bootlegger, while another brewed moonshine. If the instructor denounces the abuses of slavery, such a student can think back on his great-great-uncle who was gunned down by roving paramilitaries.

The culture of critique would touch upon this student's own culture only indirectly, at most.

I once witnessed something like this in one of my few English college courses. One of my professors was lecturing on a topic that would inspire guilt in any Boston Brahmin--I believe it involved Hawthorne and early American Puritanism. When this professor attempted to use New England Puritanism to say something general about American culture, one of my fellow students brought up the old WASP hegemony and effectively distanced himself and his people from both Puritans and the post-Puritan Boston Brahmins.

It is a regrettable but curious dynamic. The university system, shaped to inspire guilt-ridden self-examination among American elites in order to provoke social change, can hardly reach the ordinary rabble. The category of WASP itself seems to have been, in part, a rhetorical tool used to induce in the ruling class shame and surrender to aggrieved parties. Being an animus passed down for generations, a used grievance is surprisingly durable.

At present non-WASP whites, Catholic or Scots-Irish populist, have picked up such identity-based critiques from their boomer parents yet find their complaints curiously impotent before the moralising authorities on diversity committees. Identity politics has moved on to other groups, yet third-hand resentment among the mainstream abides and festers even in its attenuated form. Caught between both the old establishment and the new benefactors of establishment largesse, the social climber must affect either the demeanor of the establishment lacerating itself over is privileges, or put on the airs of the novel minority groups displaying for group preening the gaudy slights they have suffered.

Surely a better option is available.

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