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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 03-07-2021 23:17

A great time for malcontents

In the rich Western countries and their cultural offshoots, what was once the fringe has become the centre.

Until the late 20th century, issues involving human rights, women’s rights, race relations, social justice, the environment and the like were widely regarded as matters that obsessed sandal-wearing bearded weirdies who should not be taken too seriously. Since then, much has changed. In the rich Western countries and their cultural offshoots, what was once the fringe has become the centre. The vacuum left by the implosion of old-fashioned Marxism was quickly filled by people who, after getting over the loss of an ideology they had found inspiring but which, after its devotees had slaughtered at least a hundred million men, women and children, failed dismally to deliver the promised utopia, decided to devote themselves to first criticising the society they lived in and then doing whatever they thought necessary to make those in power deal with what they regarded as its worst flaws.

For some reactionaries, the activists they accuse of undermining society are simply Marxists in a new guise and much is made of the, in their view, baleful influence on them of the Frankfurt School and the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci. They take it for granted that, guided by a Maquiavellian cabal hidden away somewhere, a horde of malcontents are mounting a coordinated attack on the status quo with the aim of replacing the Western democracies with a collectivist tyranny. However, unlike the revolutionaries of yesteryear who carried in their pockets detailed blueprints of what they wanted to bring about, their alleged heirs do not seem to have any particular socioeconomic arrangement in mind and, in any case, many of their objectives are contradictory. 

Most of them are campaigning on behalf of specific groups they insist have always had a raw deal, but in complicated modern societies what one group – Muslims, say, or people who want to switch genders – desperately wants often runs counter to the interests of others. Identity politics is divisive by nature, so in the United Kingdom feminists and the influential “trans lobby” are at each other’s throats, Muslims are confronting Hindus and believers in freedom of speech are against not just the individuals who have succeeded in making “hate” illegal, but also the police who would much rather arrest people for being mean to “minorities” than waste their time chasing common criminals. Similar squabbles are taking place in the United States, where new-style racists who want whitey to pay for his and her many sins are currently on a roll. 

As was always to be expected, the success enjoyed by campaigners against whatever social wrong, whether major or minor, genuine or merely imaginary, catches their attention is being exploited by a growing number of opportunists. In universities throughout the West, “grievance studies” – which are designed to turn youngsters into militants for a cause the academics responsible for them regard as overwhelmingly important – have flourished to such an extent that they are pushing aside the traditional humanities. The lucrative “human rights industry” has been joined by the even more profitable “race relations industry.” They will soon be accompanied by others based on ecological concerns or, perhaps, the universal right to get free anti-Covid vaccines.

Argentina, where there is no lack of social problems which are rather more pressing than the ones troubling more prosperous countries, has yet to become a major cultural battleground. After the military dictatorship threw in the towel, few people bothered to question the moral authority of organisations supposedly committed to defending human rights, the best known of which went on to make plenty of money. They could do this because, after moving from Santa Cruz to Buenos Aires, Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner realised it would be very much in their interest to enjoy their support. For a time this paid off handsomely, but their willingness to serve a blatantly biased political movement has brought them into disrepute; many who until recently were reluctant to criticise them have taken to pointing out that ostentatiously turning a blind eye to the appalling abuses taking place in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, let alone Iran and China, makes an unpleasant mockery of their high-minded pretentions. 

As luck would have it, up to now Argentina has offered limited scope to entrepreneurs interested in making money from going on about racial relations, but it would not be that surprising if, thanks to president Alberto Fernández’s bewildering allusion to the “Afro-American descendents” of those immigrants who arrived in boats from Europe he had boasted about when playing host to the Spanish premier, some universities do manage to exploit the government’s interest in the subject by setting up new departments to delve into it and come up with the proper solutions. Even so, it would be astonishing if this country were to find room for a host of “diversocrats” like those who are making a tidy living not just in most major North American universities but also on school boards and in commercial enterprises. In the United States, the source of so many ideological innovations which within days wash up on Argentina’s shores, race is now big business and telling white folk that they all labour under an ancestral curse they will be unable to shake off unless they get expert help can earn you an enviable living.

Just how long all this will last is hard to say, but there are signs that in English-speaking countries and France that a counter-offensive is fast picking up steam. This must be ominous for the tens of thousands of young people who have invested a lot of time and money in acquiring degrees in something to which the word “studies” has been appended and could soon find themselves facing a hostile labour market, and for all those expensive specialists in “sensitivity training” who have been hired by academic institutions and business companies to make people of European extraction feel thoroughly ashamed of their allegedly congenital racism. It could also be bad for the politicians, among them Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who made the most of the upsurge in race-baiting that followed the death of George Floyd; they now run the risk of losing the support of the black community on which the Democrats rely, and the “Hispanic” one, both of which by and large want more and tougher policing in crime-ridden cities such as Chicago where few days go by without several people, mostly black, getting murdered, and have good reason to oppose a purportedly anti-racist movement whose fiercest activists are well-off white college students with a strong taste for street violence. 

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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