Progressivism’s Critical Error


Timothy D Padgett

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.” – C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

There was once a time I could watch the evening news with a mind at ease. I could see all of man’s inhumanity to man with perhaps not an indifference but at least a certain sense of equanimity. I cared for the pains of the people I saw on the screen, but they remained always somewhat distant from my own life and experience.

Then things changed.

Part of this change was simply growing older. With more life experience to build upon, more times of ups and, more importantly, more times of downs, I was able to feel in my own heart the hurts of others. What had once been an abstraction soon became a resonance, an echo in my soul what I could only glimpse at in the lives of others.

But the most profound change came not through the general attrition of life, but through the singular significance of children.

You see, it wasn’t just any sort of story that caught in my throat. Sure, I could feel bad about a crime or a family losing its home in a storm, and I could sympathize with an athlete who’d lost her race. Yet, it was those news accounts involving children that could stop me in my tracks.

Before becoming a father myself, I would be sorry to see that a crime or accident had harmed or killed a child, but that was about it. Now, it is different. Now, if I’m reading an article about a child who’s been abused or the terror in a mother’s heart when her baby goes missing, sometimes I simply can’t go on. I can’t bring myself to read abstractly of the pain of a parent without my own fatherly heart breaking as well.

I felt this paralyzing fear this past week as I heard the tale of Cannon Hinnant. This five-year-old boy was playing outside and rode his bike into a nearby yard. In response, his neighbor shot him in the head. In full view of the boy’s two sisters, a grown man slaughtered a child. After reading an account or two, I could not bring myself to seek anymore, finding my own children’s faces appearing in place of this young victim’s. What sort of “man” would kill a child?

This sensation has rarely been more the case than in the terrible story of Emmett Till. Emmett, if your historical memory is failing you, was a boy. Just a boy. He was a fourteen-year-old kid from Chicago visiting relatives. One day while he was in town, a woman accused him, falsely as it turns out, of hitting on her.

On the surface, it’d be hard to know what the fuss was about. After all, even if he had whistled at the her, teenage boys are prone to giving undue attention to the opposite sex. As innocuous as this might have been under ordinary circumstances, these were not ordinary circumstances. Emmett Till was a just fourteen-year-old boy, but he was also a black boy in Mississippi in 1955.

A few days later, men of the woman’s kin came to Emmett’s relatives’ house, took him in the middle of the night, while still in his pajamas. They tortured him, shot him, and dumped his corpse in the river. It’s almost inconceivable. What sort of “man” would kill a child?

Now, we can talk all day long about the big picture, about the role his death played in the nascent Civil Rights Movement. We can applaud the heart-wrenching bravery of his mother to have an open casket, using the mangled remains of her baby boy as a mirror to the face of America to show what we had done. That’s important, but what we cannot miss in this moment is that this was her baby boy.

If you’d asked me some time ago about his story, I might have been able to recite the basic facts. Now, when I see his face, the face of her baby boy, I see the face of my baby boy. My eldest son isn’t quite as old as Emmett was, but he’s close enough that I can’t think of the one being dragged out to his death without seeing my own child in his place, seeing his tears and feeling his terror.

By offering a collectivist solution to our humanist problem, the radical fringes of both Left and Right unite in their rejection of a fundamentally single humanity.

I cannot see the suffering of his life or that of his mother without recognizing the unity that binds us all together. This bond of a shared identity draws me to grieve with her and call for justice for him. But here’s a question: Why should I care?

We know in hearts that we ought to care, but does the world around us tell us why? Does it offer any reason beyond preference to care for another? Is there a basis for loving and respecting my fellow man, particularly those who are different from me, aside from the fact that it suits me or that I’m socially rewarded for doing so?

Is this extension of affection from my child to others based on something substantive, or are we just talking about an illusion, perhaps a self-delusion? If it’s all nothing but the refraction of my children’s image onto these other boys’ faces, then what’s to keep me from doing what far too many have done and caring only for the one but not for the other? Respecting only those who catch my fancy?

What does our culture say? It seems that this is a bad time to ask. Our cities are being torn apart by racial and social strife. Hardly an ideal moment to seek a philosophical basis for loving our neighbor. The need is perhaps clearer than ever, but those very stresses make harder than ever to hear anyone out.

It’s easy to ignore the hyper-individualists who look the other way when facing the pain of others, those who always find they’ve better things to do when called to take a stand for those seemingly unrelated to them. But what about those making claims about identity and justice in this broken world? What do they have to say?

Some of the loudest voices in this rancorous exchange claim to hold the one and only truth, but however they differ in self-understanding, they share a great many assumptions about life, assumptions that leave them inadequate to the task. By offering a collectivist solution to our humanist problem, the radical fringes of both Left and Right unite in their rejection of a fundamentally single humanity.

It is not just the affinity for masks and mayhem that unites the Red Guards of Antifa and the Brownshirts of the AltRight; there is an assonance in their respective messages about human nature. For each side of this mutual antipathy society, there is the shared assumption that the group to which you belong is the key factor by which you relate to others.

The easiest to critique between the two is, of course, the white supremacy of the AltRight. At the core of their ideals is the ineluctable belief that human nature is not one but a series of vaguely related groups, each along a spectrum of moral and essential superiority. This is tripe, and not properly educated tripe at that.

It’s 19th century nonsense that has afflicted the world for far too long. It’s led to the suffering and degradation of thousands upon thousands of people and should categorically rejected without qualification. And so should its rivals in villainy on the Left, and for much the same reasons. Despite its grandiose claims for generosity and justice, secular Progressivism offers no better answers for human nature than its rightly disdained right-wing opponents.

While few, particularly among its adherents, seem to have much knowledge of its (ironically) Euro-American genealogy, the intellectual infrastructure of much of today’s utopian activists comes from what is known as Critical Theory. A full explication of all its ins-and-outs would take more space than we have in this context, but the general thrust is the idea that human problems and identities are the result of structurally based oppression of one group by another. In this way of thinking, humanity is not so much a single whole as it is the venue of competing claims of various groups.

(If you’d like a more thorough rundown of its basic ideas, as well as its flaws, check out Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands by Roger Scruton and The Devil’s Pleasure Palace by Michael Walsh.)

Do you have something worth saying? Do you have a work of art that’s beautiful and true? Do you have a suggestion for social reform that’s worthy of hearing? That depends entirely on the group to which you belong. The value of your work, your right to speak to the watching world, in essence, your entire place in the hierarchy of humanity is set in the stone of your gender and ethnic status.

It is not just the affinity for masks and mayhem that unites to the Red Guards of Antifa and the Brownshirts of the AltRight; there is an assonance in their respective messages about human nature. For each side of this mutual antipathy society, there is the shared assumption that the group to which you belong is the key factor by which you relate to others.

Contemporary Progressivism rejects any single, essential human identity and posits in practice multiple fractured humanities. This gives no place for justice but only a weak facsimile, indistinguishable from petty revenge. It grants no place to love for “the other” but only the abridged affection of loyalty to one’s caste. Taking up such views for the sake of justice and human dignity is like using super glue as a solvent. They practice the very thing that they claim to oppose.

These ideas and much of the current conversation say that we care for Emmett Till because was oppressed. That is true, but the Bible has far higher standards. We’re to love him whether he was oppressed or the oppressor, guilty or innocent. We’re to love him, and anyone else, not because of his place in an ever-shifting paradigm of intersectionality but because of his innate dignity as a human being.

He was made in the image of God Himself. Those who tortured him and murdered him did more than kill a random organism; they desecrated an icon of the Supreme Being of the universe. They took the life of one to whom I am united, to whom all of us are united, by the most fundamental bond possible. He was fellow member of our single human race.

There are many recently who raised their voices in anger and marched in protest over the deaths of the innocent but who couldn’t be bothered with young Cannon Hinnant’s passing. He didn’t fit so easily into a larger metanarrative where they could cast themselves as the heroes. Likewise, there are those today who ignore the suffering of others whose branches in the Adamic family tree spread to lands other than their own. They are “them,” so “we” can’t be bothered.

If we’re to mend our broken and breaking world, we must find a surer footing than what our contemporary culture presently has on offer. I am called to care for Emmett Till and for Cannon Hinnant not only because I have a child but because each of them was a child, a human child, a son of Adam, an image bearer of God Himself. This trumps caste, race, gender, and whatever vain distinctions we make among ourselves. It creates for us the opportunity, and even demand, to respect the image bearer as an act of worship to the One from whom this image comes.


Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973 as well as editor of the forthcoming Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelicalism.


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