By: Alex Hu
Recently, Buckley Fellow, Alex Hu, had the chance to interview conservative journalist, Noah Rothman, about his new book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America.
AH: What do you see as social justice and how are the principles of social justice different from the social justice movement that you describe in your book?
NR: The definition of social justice is pretty fluid. It depends on who you talk to, which is why it has become such a malleable philosophy prone to hijacking by disreputable individuals. Social justice as a foundational philosophical notion has pretty robust foundations and noble origins. It comes out of the Catholic Church and John Rawls put a lot of meat on these bones during the 1960s and early 1970s as a way of righting historical wrongs, which is probably why most Americans think of social justice as an anodyne concept, an unobjectionable way of thinking about fairness and equality in society.
In practice, however, in the hands of its activist class, it has become something much different. It is the antithesis of the kind of objective justice we seek at the courtroom, It advocates by necessity discriminatory institutions in order to achieve equality and as such it has created in the minds of its activists a series of pernicious notions that rob them of agency, that force them to think about themselves having to navigate an un-navigable matrix of persecution, and to think of their own allies not as allies but as varying degrees of oppressor. It is a pernicious ideology in its current form. It robs individuals, again, of agency, and makes them fearful of American meritocracy and forces them to surrender their power over to beneficent forces who hold their hands and advocate for their lives. They’re trying to sell you something; in some cases quite literally in the form of the new phenomena of “woke brands.”
AH: Do you see social justice as a strictly left-wing cause? As a self-identified conservative, do you think that dialogue between left and right about this matter is possible?
NR: Well dialogue is certainly possible – I’m actively engaged in it. I’ve been very fortunate insofar as I’ve been taking this message to people who are predisposed not only to disagree with me, but hostile towards the notion that social justice is even something you can question. It has almost theological traits and I treat it in many ways as a religious concept. That’s not a figment of anyone’s imagination – these are vestigial religious concepts. But social justice is no longer a purely left-wing concept. The social justice left and the social justice right mirror each other in a lot of ways. The paralyzing victimization narrative – the notion that you need to erect racially conscious institutions to affect negative social pressure downwards – social leveling – is the sort of thing shared by fringes both on the race conscious right and the social justice left. Both are going at each other in the streets.
AH: How do you think social justice activism will evolve in the future?
NR: Left unchecked, my belief is that the prescriptions social justice advocates want for American institutions are unrealizable. And when you create these moral imperatives that American institutions are not responsive towards one of two things happens to you: one is that you disengage, you withdraw, you become very depressed and say my political activism isn’t worth it and you withdraw from the political process; the second is more dangerous and that’s to radicalize – to resolve to attack the foundations of these institutions; they are so immoral and unresponsive that they cannot be allowed to stand. And that is my view of why we see so much more street violence over the course of the last 10 years, more than we’ve seen in a generation in this country.
AH:I’m curious about what you think about the ongoing case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, since it seems like affirmative action and modern identity politics often go hand in hand.
NR: So a bit of a digression – two things that I get a lot of pushback for from this book. The first and most prominent is that you simply can’t opine on these issues with the requisite authority, by which they mean your accidents of birth prevent you from having an informed opinion about bigotry in America (it’s revealing if you think that someone with a blindingly Jewish last name as mine has never experienced bigotry in America). It’s a form of ad hominem so I kind of reject it – I don’t give it any credence so I can kind of push past and get to the actual ideas. The second is always – well, what about affirmative action? Isn’t that necessary? And I don’t take any particular view in principle because in a philosophical sense you’re talking about individuals with individual mitigated circumstances and applying as much discretion as you can to provide those individuals with the opportunities that you believe that they as individuals have not had access to.
That’s not what we see in this case against discriminatory processes in Harvard and elsewhere. When you see people defend that in, for example, the New York Times opinion page, they appeal to stereotypes. They say that, well – Asian American applicants tend to come from immigrants which is a plus, but they also come from stable homes and have a better than average work ethic, they’re essentially looking at these people not as people and not as individuals, but as classes, as members of tribes, to be treated as collectives and not as individuals. That is the discriminatory mindset that increasingly typifies the social justice movement. And not just that, but no longer are we talking about individuals who need to be lifted up.
The objective here is negative discrimination. They look at these whole tribes and classes and prescribe downward social pressure. That’s a pernicious way to look at life, not only because it is antithetical to the American ideal of meritocratic institutions and ideas, but because it is more than American governmental institutions can deliver. Our institutions are openly hostile to the idea as they have to be to meet the ideals of the founding. So you’ve erected some imperatives that are not going to be met. In my view that leads you to radicalism – as well as prejudice.
AH: But during one of your segments on Morning Joe, critics of your book seemed to argue that identity politics is actually a pragmatic strategy. They say – OK , you recognize institutional discrimination exists, but how else can we mobilize people to confront this problem if we don’t appeal to identity?
NR: Everyone thinks their identity politics is the right identity politics but the other guy’s is dangerous. The book is not an identity politics book although I’m generally hostile towards it. To suggest that you can operate or create a paradigmatic approach to navigating society that rejects identity politics is like fighting against the tide. This is a sort of thing that is tribal in nature and that’s so common to the human condition it’s probably an evolutionary trait. It’s not something we’re ever going to get rid of.
But it is one thing to say you should be racially and culturally aware and pursue self-actualization and communicate with individuals that don’t look like you. It’s another thing to dedicate institutions to seeing people not as people but as meting out justice and outcomes based on accidents of birth. And that’s increasingly what the social justice movement on the left and the right advocates. Again, it’s impossible and profoundly deleterious to the social fabric.
I think that people like Tiffany Cross – my interlocutor there who I spent some time with outside the camera (we’ve since developed something of a friendly relationship) that I don’t think see much of a difference between having social institutions that are dedicated to this sort of thing and simply being racially and culturally aware. Those are profound distinctions that we need to reacquaint ourselves with. Their design is to remake American institutions in the image of a point of view that rejects color-blindness, not just in your life, which I think is also a little dangerous. But I understand the critique there is that you can’t be colorblind in your life – to be colorblind there is to reject the experience of others and therefore to operate in the bliss of ignorance. I get that, but American institutions cannot judge individuals on the basis of other individuals or else they become fundamentally unjust.
AH: Do you think that there is a problem within Rawls’ original formulation of social justice?
NR: Yes, most certainly. Hayek’s critique was the most succinct. He said that once you create institutions meting out justice, seeking outcomes based on treating individuals unequally, then these institutions fail on their own terms. Rawls himself abandoned the concept of the “veil of ignorance” from which an enlightened distributor would have to distribute justice while thinking about it as a finite commodity. Whenever the dictates of social justice demand it – if there was a particular outcome that they thought was necessary, then out goes the veil of ignorance. It was an arbitrary philosophy and capricious in its application. And I think that’s a feature, not a bug, that somebody operating from such a philosophy by definition has to abandon this veil of ignorance in order to achieve social justice in the real world.
AH: I think a lot of modern social justice activists might say the ideas of those “dead white men” are no longer relevant since the times have changed so much. What do you think about that line of reasoning?
NR: I don’t think we’ve improved on fundamental English common law concepts like the presumption of innocence. This is the sort of thing that they seek to abandon as they try to reboot justice. First of all, it is a noxious sort of hubris to think that you are capable of redefining these foundational concepts of Enlightenment thought when you’re not even familiar with them. And now you’re thinking you can remake society in your own image? History is littered with the bodies of people who think they can remake society in a better way than it has been as a result of centuries of experimentation that has led to this Republican form.
When we reboot justice along the lines of what social justice activists want, we get an undesirable status quo that resulted in the 2011 Dear Colleague letter. That letter prescribed for colleges certain ways they could in which they could adjudicate sexual assault crimes on campus because at root, the social justice philosophy that resulted in that letter held that American justice system is ill-equipped to adjudicate sexual assault crimes. The evidentiary standards for conviction in a courtroom are too high – the demand that a victim confront their accuser too traumatic. So they had to pair this back, perform these trials in campus tribunals, and when those “verdicts” were investigated in a real courtroom, they found that very often accused and accuser alike had been deprived of their first, fifth, and sixth amendment rights. Millions of dollars were paid out to people abused in those star chambers. That’s not justice. I don’t know what you would call it, but it looks a lot more like revenge to me.
AH: One final question – do you think that in some sense globalization is contributing to a central sense of anxiety that’s leading to these social justice causes? I often hear that people fear threatened by the rising cosmopolitan tendency to wipe out diversity and connections within local communities – maybe they might be trying to compensate for that in identifying with larger movements?
NR: That’s an interesting thought. I can’t say I’ve put much thought into it. That’s the first time anybody has put that question to me that way. What I can say is that the old left framed identity politics in terms of class-consciousness – class politics, and I don’t relate to that in my book because that’s not really how identity politics is defined or pursued by social justice activists today. Identity for them is accidents of birth – demographic traits, sexual orientation, gender, race, and what have you – and even religion to a minor extent. Socioeconomic status takes sort of a back seat only insofar as individuals who are already perceived to have “privileged” traits are judged on the basis intersectional theory – being white, male, and heterosexual. You often hear socioeconomic status described as a form of privilege, but it’s generally not in the old sense of class allegiance.
AH: Mr. Rothman, thank you so much! We all look forward to reading your new book.
Alex is a rising sophomore in Timothy Dwight College, and can be reached at email@example.com