They start with important truths — slavery was wicked — and get carried away into monomania.
The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin turned an obscure fragment by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing") into an intellectual's cocktail-party game. In a famous essay, published as a book in 1953, Berlin suggested that the world is divided between hedgehogs and foxes — between those who believe in One Big Thing (one all-sufficient super-explanation), and those who are content with a more modest, irrational and even incoherent idea of history's unfolding. Karl Marx was a supreme hedgehog: Everything, for him, was about the conflict of economic classes. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a restlessly improvising fox.
The world's hedgehog population tends to expand in times of stress and change. Lately it has exploded in the U.S. Hedgehogs are thick on the ground, all of them advancing One Big Thing or another — each peering through the lens of a particular obsession. At the moment, the biggest One Big Thing is race — the key, it seems, to all of America, to the innermost meanings of the country and its history.
It isn't really true. Race is one of many big things in America. It is hardly the most important. Americans need to desanctify the subject of race — to mute its claims, which have grown absolutist and, as it were, theological in their thoroughness, their dogmatism.
Critical race theory has spread across the U.S. like — forgive the expression — a virus, coming to infect primary schools and high schools and universities, foundations, art museums, big corporations, the military, local, state and federal government bureaucracies. It's everywhere in the West Wing. President Biden, who spent almost 40 years following the ways of an amiable political fox in the Senate — exchanging pleasantries and now and then doing legislative business with Confederate mossbacks like Strom Thurmond and James Eastland — has, in his old age, signed on with the monomaniacs of the left.
The hedgehog's trajectory may begin on the side of undeniable and important truth — for example, the truth that slavery was a great wickedness in America (as it was elsewhere in the world), and that race prejudice has been a chronic American dilemma and a moral blight that has damaged and scarred the lives of millions of black American citizens over generations.
All true — a truth to be acknowledged and addressed. But hedgehogs, who deal in absolutes, are liable to get carried away. Their truth changes shape as it coalesces into a political movement and gets a taste of power and begins to impose itself programmatically. Its ambitions swell, it grows messianic, it embraces civic idiocies (defund the police!) and beholds the astounding impunity with which it may run amok in the streets and burn police cars and shopping malls, as it did last summer, and the ease with which it may take over city councils and mayors' offices and turn so many of the country's normal arrangements upside down.
It was said in the era of Joe McCarthy that he and his followers saw a communist under every bed. The single-minded ideology of critical race theory sees racism in every white face — a racism systemic, pervasive, inescapable, damning. All white people are racists. The doctrine devolves to the crudest form of what might be called racial Calvinism: Americans are predestined — saved or damned, depending on the color of their skin. This doctrine merely reverses the theory of white supremacy, which damned black people — and consigned them to oppressive segregation — because of the color of their skin.
Virtue, feeling vengeful and tasting power, grows manic — dogmatic, dangerous.
So critical race theory, protesting the old injustice, embraces its lie. This is not progress but revenge. The motive is not justice but payback, lex talionis — an understandable, if Balkan, impulse. Beware a hedgehog claiming the immunities of an innocent victim. Beware when victimhood is his One Big Thing.
The victim wants revenge, and who is more justified in committing any crime or injustice than a blameless victim acting in historic retaliation? Virtue, feeling vengeful and tasting power, grows manic — dogmatic, dangerous. Critical race theory ends by fostering the evil it professes to combat — racism and the hatred that comes with it. "Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return," W.H. Auden wrote. The 20th century taught the lesson over and over again, but it seems to be wasted on the 21st.
The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (younger brother of Reinhold) explained the fallacy thus: "There is no greater barrier to understanding than the assumption that the standpoint which we happen to occupy is a universal one." It is an error embedded in human nature.
When Niebuhr wrote that line, in a 1937 book called "The Kingdom of God in America," he was arguing against the Marxist hedgehogs' economic interpretation of the Constitution — their claim that the Founders were nothing more than capitalists protecting their own interests. Niebuhr meant that it is an error to assume that one's own particular fixation (whether it be money or race or class or religion or environment or animal rights or transgenderism or whatever) is the One Big Thing. The hedgehog's most profound character defects are moral vanity and self-righteousness — his fatal, paradoxical intolerance.
Lance Morrow. "The Hedgehogs of Critical Race Theory." The Wall Street Journal (July 19, 2021).
Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the moral and ethical dimensions of public events, including developments in regard to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and political correctness on American campuses, with a view to the future consequences of such suppressions. He is the author of seven books including: Evil: An Investigation, Second Drafts of History: Essays, and The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Nixon, and Johnson in 1948: Learning the Secrets of Power.Copyright © 2021 The Wall Street Journal
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