Somebody once said that there’s only a handful of basic stories in the world, and that novelists and playwrights and movie scriptwriters keep telling these few stories again and again. They change details of personalities, time, and place in such a way that we, the readers and spectators, don’t realize that we’ve heard this particular story a hundred times before. But every new story we read or new play or movie we see is really nothing more than an old story re-told. Almost never does an author invent a genuinely new tale.
Well, the same might be said about political struggles. Take the history of political liberalism, which began with the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. Liberals have fought many different battles during these recent centuries. The setting and cast of characters has changed again and again, but the basic pattern has remained the same. Always there have been three characters in the drama:
• An oppressed class (peasants or workers or slaves or an ethnic/racial minority or women or homosexuals)
• An oppressing class (nobles or capitalists or slave-owners or whites or males or old-fashioned Christians)
• A liberal third party (philosophes/intellectuals or socialists or abolitionists or anti-racism whites or male feminists or anti-homophobic straights) that assists, and often provides indispensible leadership to, the oppressed class in its fight against the oppressors
In this drama, the oppressed class is represented as being in a state of nearly unabated suffering. Sometimes this suffering is acute – as when parents must watch their young child die from malnutrition, or when the slave is subjected to the lash, or when a black man is lynched, or when a woman is raped, or when a homosexual teen is beaten up in school. More often the suffering is a day-after-day dull pain – as when people must live in chronic poverty, or must live with a never-ending consciousness that they and their kind are held in contempt by the happier and more privileged members of society.
The oppressed class is represented as being essentially virtuous. True, there may be a few bad eggs here and there. But they are a small fraction of the whole. Besides, it is their state of victimhood more than their own free will that has made them bad. By and large, those who are oppressed are morally good – which means that their oppression is not just wrong. It is worse than wrong; it is a tragedy of undeserved suffering.
The oppressing class (capitalists, slave-holders, racists, patriarchs, homophobes, etc.) is represented as being made up of wicked persons – not merely foolish persons, too stupid to realize that they are oppressors.
And how does the oft-repeated liberal drama represent the altruistic third party that comes to the aid of the oppressed?
Well, this third party is not only very virtuous, it is intelligent as well. Because they are usually well-educated and well-read, liberal altruists can see the “big picture” in a way that the oppressed themselves cannot. That’s why the oppressed need the aid of this altruistic third party. If the “muscle” of the oppressed can be combined with the “brains” of the liberal altruists, success is possible, and has often been achieved.
But here’s a problem. Suppose liberalism utterly triumphs and society no longer has any oppressed or oppressor classes. If I am a political liberal, and political liberalism is essential to my personal identity, what then happens to me? I become a superfluous person. The world will now be so improved that people like me will no longer be needed.
This explains, I submit, why many of today’s liberals are extremely reluctant to admit that political liberalism has triumphed. This is why they insist, despite a vast amount of evidence to the contrary, that the old oppressor-versus-oppressed paradigm is still perfectly valid in America. And so these liberals insist that gays and lesbians (not to mention bisexual and transgender persons) face massive oppression at the hands of (mostly Christian) homophobes. And these anxious liberals also insist that blacks still face massive oppression at the hands of an American white population that remains (except for themselves of course) predominantly racist.
In sum, liberals cannot psychologically afford to admit that America has become a non-oppressive country.
(David Carlin, a former Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate, is the author of, among other books, Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?)