The Lure of Outsiderism

Published April 24, 2018

National Review Online

In a Wall Street Journal piece this weekend recounting his brief and harrowing recent experience at The Atlantic, Kevin Williamson ably notes a common pattern in this moment in our national life. Discussing a panel he attended at the chic South by Southwest conference, he writes:

Which brings us back to that event at South by Southwest, where the Atlantic was sponsoring a panel about marginalized points of view and diversity in journalism. The panelists, all Atlantic writers and editors, argued that the cultural and economic decks are stacked against feminists and advocates of minority interests. They made this argument under the prestigious, high-profile auspices of South by Southwest and their own magazine, hosted by a feminist group called the Female Quotient, which enjoys the patronage of Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Deloitte. We should all be so marginalized.

In his G-File on Friday, Jonah made a similar point about the campus Left, and concluded:

I’d have so much more respect for the progressives who control the commanding heights of our culture if they had the courage to admit that they control the commanding heights of the culture and that they’re in the business of imposing orthodoxy. But they can’t do that because, in America, rebellion is the fashion, and claims of oppression and persecution are the cultural currency.

This is really a defining feature of this American moment, and it seems to me that it’s not just about the appeal of fashionable rebellion but also about avoiding the burden of responsibility and the constraints of institutions. The advantage the rebel enjoys is that he’s not constrained by obligations, but the disadvantage he normally suffers is that he has no real power. Many of today’s faux rebels, however, actually do have power, they just pretend they don’t to avoid being constrained by responsibility even as they deploy that power. This distorts their power, and corrupts the social space in which it should be exercised.

And needless to say, we can see this pattern well beyond the cultural Left. It’s evident throughout American life — in many of our professions, across the new and old economy, in our cultural and religious life. And it is also powerfully evident in politics. It is at the core of the Trump presidency, for instance, and it is also a defining feature of the institutional culture of the Congress now.

What’s going on when the president tweets “What does the Department of Justice and FBI have to hide? Why aren’t they giving the strongly requested documents (unredacted) to the HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE? Stalling, but for what reason? Not looking good!”? Or when he tweets “Department of Justice should have urged the Supreme Court to at least hear the Drivers License case on illegal immigrants in Arizona. I agree with @LouDobbs. Should have sought review”? Or in countless similar presidential statements that position our chief executive as an outside observer and critic of his own administration? Who is “they”?

Trump often seems to view the presidency as a platform for commentary more than an institution for the exercise of executive power vested for a time exclusively in him by our Constitution. And many members of Congress approach their institution the same way — not as the locus of legislative power in our government, a portion of which they sought intensely and now are responsible for exercising, but as a noxious and abhorrent force oppressing our society and leaving us all with frustrations and complaints that they would like to channel. They often can’t wait to get off the floor of the House or Senate, find a camera, and start complaining about Congress.

In a sense, this is all pretty silly and ridiculous. But it’s also a serious problem because it amounts to people charged with real responsibility neglecting that responsibility. It’s a pattern we can see across our society: People with roles to play inside institutions instead see those institutions as platforms for them to perform on, and the performance they offer up is generally a morality play about their own marginalization. As a result, too often no one claims ownership of the institutions of our society, and so no one accepts responsibility for them.

We are pretty much all guilty of this in some form, but we avoid seeing that by focusing on how terribly guilty other people are. This usually takes the form of ignoring how guilty we are of dereliction in institutions that are near-at-hand, in our civic or religious or professional surroundings, and instead complaining about how guilty people in Washington or Wall Street or Hollywood or the academy are of ignoring their responsibilities. In those political, economic, and cultural power centers the dereliction is harder to pass off as happening somewhere else, but the people in charge still manage to just behave like outsiders and complain about their own institutions as if they were someone else’s responsibility.

But if everyone’s a rebel, there is no solid establishment against which to rebel. That is roughly our situation now, but our politics and culture are taking that fact as further evidence of the corruption of our establishments, and so as further cause for more intense rebellion rather than a reason to recapture some sense of responsibility.

That’s what a real rebellion would involve now. It would involve saying “us” and “we” rather than “they” and “them” when we see problems where we are that need to be addressed. It would involve acting like insiders in those places where we have or could have some responsibility.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “people won’t do this.” But I’m not talking about “people.” I’m talking about you, and me. There are some corners of our society, some institutions, where you are or could be an insider. Are you acting like it? I think it’s fair to say we could all improve on that front.

Maybe seeing that and trying now and then to do something about it is where the renewal we’re looking for could start. We can hope that “they” start acting this way, and by all means we should keep complaining when they don’t. But we can also make sure we start acting this way where we can.

— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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