Writing at First Things, David Azerrad believes he has uncovered “the great paradox of contemporary progressivism: It both affirms and denies man’s unbounded freedom to define himself.”
Azerrad begins by explaining “the Left’s ultimate goal,” which is:
a world in which all children, regardless of the accidents of birth, have the same chance to succeed in life and in which all modes of oppression against marginalized groups—including unintentional discrimination, perceived slights, and dominant cultural norms—have been eliminated. Until such a world is created, freedom and equality are but hollow formalisms meant to reassure the lucky few that their privileged station in life is merited, when in fact it is the result of chance propped up by oppression.
Described that way, Progressivism does not seem such a bad thing. According to Azerrad, however, a crippling paradox emerges when the Left attempts to grapple with the nature of human existence:
On the one hand, man is the undetermined being, radically free to be whatever he wants to be. Neither God, nor nature, nor tradition, nor the duties he may have previously contracted should limit man’s endless capacity to reinvent himself, at any point in his life. The state is bound to affirm our choices, subsidize them (as much as possible), insulate us from their unpleasant consequences, and, increasingly, silence those who might criticize them.
Alongside this promethean progressivism, which grows ever more voracious—how long until we can choose our race?—there exists a streak of determinist progressivism. For all the freedoms we have in principle, the Left reminds us, we are all born into families that shape our capacities to act on them in practice. In the great race of life, they say, everything hinges on our parents. And we don’t choose our parents.
According to this strand of progressive thought, we also don’t choose our identity. With apologies to Simone de Beauvoir, one is born a woman. Or a homosexual. Or a Latino. Or a member of whatever-oppressed-group. Individuals, in this view, are deeply imbedded into particular “communities” to which they owe loyalty and which stamp upon them an indelible identity.
The contradictions between these two ways of looking at the world, promethean and determinist, are obvious. Either we are autonomous individuals who transcend the accidents of birth or we are members of whatever identity groups we happened to be born into.
Paradox has always been understood as being part and parcel of human existence: we are free and we are bound, we are apes with angel glands, we are the crown of creation and the cause of creation’s ruin, we are immortal spirits and we are but mortal flesh destined to be ashes and dust. We are a thinking reed and a trousered ape. There seems no reason why Azerrad’s “either/or” can’t be rephrased as “both/and”: we are autonomous and we are determined.
Azerrad again summarizes the Left’s ultimate goal, while revealing its current strategy for reaching that goal:
Individual autonomy remains the end goal of modern progressivism. Eventually, all individuals—especially members of currently marginalized and disadvantaged groups—will be equally capable of expressing their individuality. If this dream is to become a reality, we will have to control for the effects of the unjust birth lottery and remove every last vestige of discrimination (in both cases, by leveraging the formidable might of the modern administrative-welfare state).
The first step is to become aware of the manifold structures of discrimination and unearned privilege. For the time being, the fight for social justice requires strong group identity and keeping pressure on the dominant, oppressive groups to check their privilege.
In case I haven’t made it clear, David Azerrad is a critic of “contemporary progressivism,” and his comments are designed to unmask both its aims and its contradictions. For my money, however, Azerrad has fairly presented the progressive case: explaining why “the fight for social justice” entails both affirming and denying freedom, and noting the necessary role of government in achieving progressive goals. If the paradoxes prove, in the end, irresolvable: progressives can still say that, faced with injustices and inequities, at least we've tried.