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Identity or Character, The Young Have Chosen

My pal Carl, better known on the twitters as @HistoryBoomer, was kind enough to stop by Casa de SJ for dinner last night. Among our varied conversations, not the least of which was his eating peccadilloes, we talked about the kids. As a prof, Carl has a closer view of what young people are thinking and saying than an old lawyer like me, and his sense was that the unduly passionate are mostly on the fringes, with the majority of students reasonable, kind and open-minded. It was truly good to hear.

But then, what to make of this Harvard/Harris poll?

There is an ideology that white people are oppressors and nonwhite people and people of certain groups have been oppressed and as a result should be favored today at universities and for employment. Do you support or oppose this ideology?

Note that 18-24 number. The poll asked a complex question, which is unfortunate as it appears to conflate two issues of concern, whether white people are oppressors and whether people of color should be favored at universities and employment. It’s certainly possible to believe one and not the other, or believe one strongly enough to overcome a tepid sense of the other. But it may also mean exactly what it says, and even if the 79% reflects more one question than another, which one?

But there’s more.

Do you think that Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors or is that a false ideology?

While the percentages are somewhat different, they aren’t different enough to suggest that responses to the earlier question about white people are an anomaly. Are these the responses of a cohort that’s “reasonable, kind and open-minded”?

Carl is a very nice guy, forgiving to a fault and even more idealistic than me. It may be that the students who take his history course are more inclined to be open-minded, less dogmatic, in their embrace of progressive identity politics. It may also reflect the possibility that personal engagement tends to be more reasonable than grasping platitudes to one’s breast. It’s much harder to dislike any individual in real life than it is to hate an identity as a group or from a distance.

But I’ve long had a sneaking suspicion that much of this ideology has already become embedded in the basic worldview of young people. They don’t think about it, question it or challenge it. It’s simply what is, much as premises such as free speech and the ability to agree to disagree were basic premises of my liberal youth. We valued tolerance of impure thoughts. They value ideological purity. We heard the words of Martin Luther King ringing in our ears, to judge people not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. They put people in an identity slot, which informs them who is right and wrong, good and evil, and the only work left was to argue for their outcome until their interlocutor got too tired or annoyed and walked away. They believed they won, even though they persuaded no one outside their cohort.

As Eugene Volokh explains, the survey appears to be fairly valid.

This survey was conducted online within the United States from December 13-14 among 2,034 registered voters by The Harris Poll and HarrisX. Results were weighted for age within gender, region, race/ethnicity, marital status, household size, income, employment, education, political party, and political ideology where necessary to align them with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

And despite there being a fairly large margin of error, the results remain, well, unfortunate.

It seems likely that, of the 2,034 registered voters, only about 170 or so were age 18-to-24 (12% of the adult population, discounted for lower voter registration numbers), which would yield a margin of error of ±8%; even with that margin of error, the view that whites and Jews are oppressors would get huge majorities among 18-to-24-year-olds.

Considering this, what does this survey portend for young people as they leave classrooms like Carl’s and take their place in the workforce, Senate Hearing rooms or the street? It’s one thing to support affirmative action based upon historic oppression of black people, but to hate Jews is where they ought to come to the realization that there is something deeply awry with their identity politics. But while some are seeing it, most appear to be quite satisfied putting Jews next to white people in the oppressor column so they know who to hate.

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