The most notable thing about intersectionality is its breathtaking stupidity.
Ideas have consequences.1 And bad ideas have bad consequences.
Nowhere is this more evident than among today’s so-called Progressives.
In an earlier post I traced the origins of today’s Progressive movement to nineteenth century Marxism.2 In this post I examine the ideas that underlie the politically correct stance of Progressives. I call these ideas conceits. I use the term conceit in two of its commonly used meanings—-first, as a product of self-pride, and second, as a fanciful idea unmoored from reality.
Progressives have little tolerance for free expression of ideas—-despite their claims to the contrary. As Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out, today’s Progressives eschew the liberal idea of free expression in favor of censoring any and all ideas that contradict the Progressive world view. In that sense, Progressives are the most illiberal of liberals.
What are the Progressives’ conceits?
- People should be judged according to their group membership.
To Progressives, a person’s membership in a group becomes as important, or more important, than that person’s quality of character, skill, accomplishment or individual history.
Affirmative action is an example of this conceit. It operates in the same way in college admissions, hiring and employment, and government contracting. Policies based on this conceit require that preference be given to women, blacks, Latinos, or the disabled. A chilling example of this is the Obama administration policy to encourage the use of affirmative action in a federal program to train air traffic controllers. Here, a “diverse” workforce becomes more important than getting the most capable employees with the goal of ensuring public safety.
The group membership conceit leads to other unanticipated outcomes. For example, affirmative action programs often draw on those women and minorities who are the most advantaged. Therefore they exclude the very people they were designed to help. And they further disadvantage men and non-minorities who, by their individual histories, may be more disadvantaged than many minority individuals.
When I began teaching at Florida International University in the heavily Cuban-American Miami area, I quickly realized that the school’s affirmative action program was not working as intended. The program passed over many blacks, because the generally more educated and advantaged Cubans (considered a minority) filled the slots that advocates had intended for blacks.
When I completed my doctorate and applied for faculty jobs, I was told many times that the school “had to hire” a minority or woman. Although the Progressives would say that I had privilege due simply to my white skin, the women and minorities who were hired in my place had more privileged backgrounds than I did. That was always the case. After all, I came from an impoverished family with little advantage. Both my parents were Holocaust survivors—uneducated because the fierce anti-Semitism of their home country severely limited educational opportunities; impoverished because their homes, possessions and life savings had been stolen; isolated because they had no ties or “connections” in their adopted country; and culturally deprived because they did not speak English nor were they familiar with American culture or legal, educational and social systems.
Yet the Progressive conceit judged me based on my group membership rather than my individual history, talents or achievements. Many other white males have faced similar situations.
- Society is divided into two groups: the powerful and privileged; and the powerless and underprivileged.
The greatest conceit is that different rules apply to these groups. One of these is the Punch Up-Punch Down Rule. According to this conceit, privileged persons often punch down—that is, oppress—underprivileged groups. To a Progressive’s sense of “social justice” it is therefore just and fair that underprivileged groups punch up against the privileged.
According to Progressives, punching down (by the privileged) is morally reprehensible. Engaging in the same behavior in the opposite direction, that is, punching up (by the oppressed) is admirable.
This is why, according to Progressives, whites can be racist but blacks cannot. It matters not to Progressives that the prevalence of strong anti-Semitic attitudes is much higher among blacks than among the population as a whole. And this is why the feminist Progressive, Linda Sarsour, says her support of the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan is OK because Farrakhan, as a black man, “can’t hurt Jews.” She’s just punching up. Progressives believe we should admire her spunk and ignore her anti-Semitism.
And of course, Progressives never ask the question: “Who gets to decide which group is to be favored?” Presumably, they do.
On college campuses, administrators jump into action and bemoan their “white privilege” in response to an isolated slight against students of color. Equally egregious displays of anti-Semitism earn no more than a yawn from administrators. These privileged administrators have learned that their Progressive students will turn whiny and violent in the former scenario. And that there is no need to worry about the supposedly powerful Jews: they won’t cause a fuss.
There will be no Progressive student outcry against anti-Semitism. In the slight against students of color, Progressive students believe they are merely punching up—-a noble act in defense of the powerless. On the other hand, Progressives consider that Jews fighting back is bad form—punching down by the powerful.
A danger is overlooked by the illiberal liberals: They have overthrown universalism, the idea that the same rules apply to everyone. Today, Progressives get to apply their rules to groups they favor. They don’t see that tomorrow someone may apply a different set of rules to them.
- Success is a four-letter word.
Nothing reveals the Marxist roots of Progressivism more than the Progressive contempt for success.
As economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, it is never the case that everyone in society is successful. That means that some will be more successful than others. This is irksome to a Progressive, who has absorbed the Marxist ideal of a classless society.
On a speaking tour, President Obama encountered a fellow who pointed to the hard work he had invested in creating a successful business. Instead of praising the fellow, Obama “corrected” him. The hard working fellow did not create his business on his own, Obama opined. Rather, he built it upon the backs of others.
To a Progressive, the observation that some are more successful than others is a “social injustice” that must be corrected.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was built on the observation, repeated ad nauseam, that the top one percent earned a lot more than they should. Neither Sanders nor other progressives stopped to ask if part of that wealth was earned. The sin lay in the unequal outcome regardless of individual effort or merit.
The remedy for success is of course, interventionist government. Because only government, with its coercive power, is able to redistribute wealth according to the Progressive agenda.
With this Progressive conceit, we enter the realm of anti-intellectualism.
According to intersectionality, every form of oppression is the same as every other form of oppression. The actors change, but the roles of oppressor and oppressed do not.
Thus, Progressives tell us that police subjugation of blacks in Ferguson, Missouri is the same as Israeli subjugation of Palestinians. Progressives believe that when the “white power structure” exploits immigrants in the US, that is the same as when European colonialists exploited people of color in their colonies. And, the struggle of American Indians for justice is the same as the struggle of Latin American countries against US imperialism.
A corollary to intersectionality is that it is selfish and immoral for any oppressed group to advocate solely for itself. Every oppressed group is morally obligated to insist on justice, not only for itself, but for all oppressed groups.
This imperative, of course, may clash with the first conceit: clinging to one’s group membership. For emphasizing one’s group and the justice of its particular grievances pits one group against the other. Progressives may well ask, “Who is most oppressed”? And thus, “Who is most deserving of redress”? We see this for example, in the complaints of black feminists who lash mainstream, i.e., white feminists, for their insensitivity to black concerns; or the complaints of lesbians that the gay liberation movement advocates for men and ignores women.
The most notable thing about intersectionality is its breathtaking stupidity. To liken the situation of blacks in Ferguson with that of Arabs in Israel is to ignore culture, history, language, economics, law, religion and just about everything else that makes two groups of people different. The one constant is that the Progressive sticks to his conceit: this group is good. That one is bad.
- Diversity and Inclusivity
These catchwords have infected progressive circles in academia, business, government and the media. They have spread faster than a measles epidemic and are about as useful.
Their greatest use is to confer an aura of virtue upon the Progressive speaker. Who could be against diversity and inclusivity?
But the more I listen to Progressives, the more I realize that they are promoting the opposite of diversity and inclusivity. Why else would Progressives favor some groups over others? People of color, immigrants and LGBTQs are in; white heterosexual Christian males are definitely out.
If Progressives are committed to diversity and inclusivity, why do they support black- only campus lounges? Black-only and Latino-only graduation ceremonies? Latino academic advising services? Academic programs, conferences and journals only for women with the appropriate views about the “male hierarchy”? Programs to recruit only certain minorities (definitely not Jews, whites or Asians)? Banishment of Israelis from universities and boycotts of Israeli businesses? Moral outrage about white racists but silence about black racists?
- Non-Western civilizations are better than our own.
I thank Victor Davis Hanson for pointing this out in his lectures. He has commented, for example, about the disappearance of courses on Western civilization from American university campuses. They have been replaced with politically-aligned disciplines such as African-American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Women’s Studies.
Think of the irony. Progressives lay claim to liberal values. Yet they don’t seem to know where these values came from—-values such as respect for the individual, free expression of ideas, free and open debate, and representative governance with power derived from the people. These ideas were devised and nurtured over many centuries. They have their roots in Judaism, Christianity, and Greek and Roman philosophy. The founding fathers of our country, and many who came after them, died for these ideas. And yet, Progressives have largely discarded them with a contemptuous wave of the hand, declaring them to be inferior to foreign varieties.
This is a Progressive conceit because it is akin to the adolescent who rebels against everything his parents stand for. Perhaps Progressives, like matured adults, will one day return to appreciate these values.
Progressives believe their ideas will better society. But Progressive ideas are largely bad ideas. Far from ensuring a fair and just society, they do the opposite.
- The phrase, “Ideas have consequences” was coined by author and philosopher Richard M. Weaver in his book by the same title. Weaver used the phrase in a context different from my use in this post. See: Ideas Have Consequences, Wikipedia, Retrieved August 14, 2018 from: