The journalist Gavin Haynes has a great phrase for a familiar and disturbing phenomenon: the purity spiral.
Mao’s cultural revolution provides another classic example. In the late 1960s, the Red Guards took to the street to identify and destroy anyone and anything involved with traditional Chinese culture. The result was an orgy of destruction and murder on an industrial scale.
Seeking PowerThe point is that the logic of the process transcends ideology. In every case, as Haynes notes, what we see is “a bidding war for morality turned into a proxy war for power.”
Freud put his finger on one aspect of the purity spiral in his discussion of “the narcissism of small differences.” Tocqueville sifted through the same psychological sands when he noted that the more equal people become, the more sensitive they are to whatever small differences remain.
“The use of the term ‘white supremacy’ to mean not the KKK or the antebellum South but American society as a whole in the 21st century has become routine on the left, as if it were now beyond dispute. The word ‘women,’ J.K. Rowling had the temerity to point out, is now being replaced by ‘people who menstruate.’ The word ‘oppression’ now includes not only being herded into Uighur reeducation camps but also feeling awkward as a sophomore in an Ivy League school. The word ‘racist,’ which was widely understood quite recently to be prejudicial treatment of an individual based on the color of their skin, now requires no intent to be racist in the former sense, just acquiescence in something called ‘structural racism’ which can mean any difference in outcomes among racial groupings. Being color-blind is therefore now being racist.
No LimitsExactly. And where does it end? At this point, no one knows. Haynes focuses on two niche activities, the world of knitting and young adult fiction. Are there any more unlikely candidates for corruption by wokeness?
The examples that Haynes describes are plenty surreal. And a look at the day’s news is full of examples of the purity spiral at work. First, it was statues of Confederate soldiers. Then, it was the statues of imperfect abolitionists. Then, it was Lincoln himself.
CapitulationPurity spirals end only when confronted and exposed. Efforts at conciliation, like the habit of appeasement, serves to increase their ferocity and their velocity. Haynes notes that purity spirals involve a process of “moral outbidding ... which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.” The key to disrupting them is to find strategies to short-circuit that metabolism, disrupting the pipeline of rewards.
Just recently, word came that Keith Christiansen, perhaps the single most distinguished curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was beset by the mob. His tort? Commenting on his Instagram account on a drawing by the French archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir. Lenoir devoted himself to saving French monuments from the all-consuming maw of the French Revolution.
According to a story in The New York Times, although Christiansen “appeared [only “appeared”?] to be arguing for the preservation of monuments, he also struck some as insensitive and tone deaf.”
Oh dear. “The post,” reports the NY Times, “was criticized in a tweet by the advocacy group of arts workers, Art + Museum Transparency”:
“Dear @metmuseum, one of your most powerful curators suggested that it’s a shame we’re trying to ‘rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve’ by removing monuments — and, worse, making a dog whistle of an equation of #BLM activists with ‘revolutionary zealots. This is not OK.”
In my view, Christiansen had two viable choices. One, he could simply have ignored the criticism. Two, he could have responded with a two-word Anglo-Saxon imperative whose second word is “you.” He did neither.
Rather, he took down the post and closed his Instagram account. In other words, abject capitulation. The Met’s director, Max Hollein, hopped onto the self-abasement cavalcade, pulling on his metaphorical forelock and whining that “there is no doubt that the Met and its development is also connected with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy.”
Courage NeededLong ago, Aristotle pointed out that courage is the most important virtue because without courage we are unable to practice any of the other virtues. Courage has been in notably short supply in Western countries in recent months as people have allowed petty bureaucrats to turn them into sheep who obediently quiver in place and refuse to be seen out-of-doors without a mask.
Hooligans and anarchists, seizing on the spurious excuse of the death of a black man in police custody, have rampaged across the country destroying property, attacking the police, and terrorizing ordinary citizens.
A statue of Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln has nothing to do with the death of the unfortunate George Floyd, neither, for that matter, do statues of Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson.
An innocuous comment by an eminent art historian about a figure from the past whose actions helped to preserve the material deposit of civilization is not “disgusting,” it is salubrious and illuminating. To pretend otherwise is to play into the hands of the zealots and enable them to ride the purity spiral another turn or two higher.