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The historical dice are loaded

Peter Brimelow begins his book Alien Nation by calling current immigration policy “Hitler’s posthumous revenge” on America. The war against the Nazis, he says, left the U.S. political elite “passionately concerned to cleanse itself from all taints of racism or xenophobia.” Now it appears, from a new book called Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, that what brought on the messianic antiracism that transformed American politics was instead Kennedy’s assassination—or rather, its interpretation as the result of the bigotry, intolerance, and hate supposedly endemic in America and not as the work of the communist with close personal ties to the Soviet Union who actually carried it out.

So far as I’m concerned, both theories are wrong. People today think it’s really smart to emphasize the radical contingency of historical events, but sometimes events are not all that contingent. Great moral transformations correspond to fundamental changes in forms of social cooperation. If how life is carried on changes moral standards will change correspondingly. If one event doesn’t provide an occasion for making the change official and organizing to carry it through comprehensively something else will do the trick.

Social institutions have been getting more and more rationalized on technological and industrial lines. That’s been going on for at least a couple hundred years. At the end of that process the only authorities still considered rational are money and markets, laws and bureaucratic regulations, and private tastes and whims. Under such circumstances ethnic, cultural, sexual and religious ties and distinctions come to seem simply irrational and therefore weird and evil. They gum up the smooth operation of the system and make life harder for the people who run things. They make no sense, so who knows where they might lead? Better to get rid of them. That being so, what difference does it make whether it’s Hitler or segregation or the horrors of the ’50s suburban lifestyle that provides the excuse for sweeping away pre-60s America?

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