Memoirs of a Microaggressor

Will Collins traces the aristocratic roots of the social justice warriors’ search for purity

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

To understand our current moment, start with public apologies. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, surely thought he was on safe ground when he came out in favour of delaying a Philip Guston exhibition because it included depictions of the Ku Klux Klan. Walker’s language, however, was unforgivably retrograde: he said that showing the paintings would be “tone deaf” during a moment of racial unrest. To the uninitiated, the argument was debatable, but Walker’s language was inoffensive. To those steeped in the culture of social justice, on the other hand, the case for delaying the show was self-evident, but the real issue was Walker’s use of ableist language. 

The entire ritual — a slight so minor that most missed it, “outrage” seeming only to exist on social media, an elaborate public apology that always ends with a promise to “do better” — has become tiresomely familiar. Critics, including many on the left, argue that the social justice movement’s esoteric language is self-defeating. But the jargon’s very impenetrability explains its appeal. Rituals and language have long been used to distinguish insiders from hoi polloi. 

That the terminology of a putatively egalitarian movement tends to exclude suggests elitism lurks beneath its surface. Indeed, the best way to understand the cycle of offence, outrage and tortured apology is to look to the aristocratic customs of yesteryear. The habits and rituals of the minor European nobility in its final days, wittily chronicled by Gregor von Rezzori in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, are a useful starting point. 

Mocking the minor faux pas of social climbers was just a way to signal your elevated status

From the title and the book’s interwar setting, one might assume Rezzori’s book is an account of one man’s descent into Nazism. Indeed, some reviewers took it that way — a critic in Time wrote that the book shows how the narrator’s prejudice “magnified many millions of times, led civilisation itself to the brink”. This is badly mistaken. The book’s aristocratic protagonist is no Nazi — he would have considered them vulgar and brutish. 

He laughingly refers to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a way to dissuade the maid from taking a better-paying job with a Jewish family. His haughtily antisemitic aunt saves a Jewish physician from a gang of toughs in 1930s Vienna because physical violence was simply “going too far”. The refined antisemitism of these languid aristocrats was quite different from the crude bigotry that incited pogroms. Their prejudices are best understood as twisted antecedents to our own culture of offence-taking. Mocking the minor faux pas of social climbers was just a way to signal your elevated status. 

The protagonist and his distinguished family — Austrians with Italian roots stationed by the Habsburg empire on the frontiers of modern Romania — were products of an older, quasi-feudal order that was rapidly crumbling under the pressures of modernity, technological change, and the rise of an assertive and prosperous bourgeoisie. The avatars of this upheaval were often Jews — recently enfranchised, successful in business, science and academia, and unforgivably pushy and ill-mannered by the standards of the old ruling class. 

The social missteps of these newcomers were the equivalent of today’s microaggressions: invisible to most, but acutely painful to the narrator and his fellow sophisticates. Meanwhile, the narrator’s reaction to perceived slights anticipates the hyper-sensitivities of twenty-first century America. Snobbery that was once the province of a few high-born misanthropes has migrated into the wider culture. 

As more college graduates compete for fewer slots, microaggressions provide a pretext for thinning out the competition

The supposed infractions of various Jewish characters invariably seem ridiculous to the modern reader. The narrator’s father is aggrieved he can no longer afford to hunt in Austria, which he blames on rich Jews buying up all the land, though he admits game is more plentiful in Romania. The narrator’s uncle, another aristocrat in the decaying Habsburg empire, would rather mock the German accent of the local Jewish doctor than accept the friendship of the only other educated family in town. 

The narrator himself falls in love with a Jewish widow in Bucharest, only to sabotage the relationship because he can’t overlook her “flattened vowels”, her petit-bourgeois background or her habit of leaving her spoon standing in a coffee cup “like a pitchfork in a heap of manure” — quelle horreur! — instead of placing it delicately on the saucer. 

The narrator also indulges in his own bizarre form of authenticity politics. He denounces “Jews who changed their names” as “crooks and swindlers”, but is strangely nostalgic for the Hasidic peasants of rural Poland and Romania, amusing his sophisticated Viennese acquaintances with impressions of their accents and mannerisms. “One related to Jews,” he explains, “in the same way as an Englishman to foreigners: one assumed they would not act like us. If they did so nevertheless, it made them look suspicious. It seemed artificial. It was unsuitable.” 

The implied class anxiety is hard to miss. The Hasidic peasants on the rural fringes of Eastern Europe were no threat to the old aristocracy. It was the educated and upwardly-mobile Jews who challenged their status. Middle-class liberals today are faced with a similar predicament: as more college graduates compete for fewer slots at elite institutions, microaggressions provide a convenient pretext for thinning out the competition. 

Democratic-voting African-Americans are closer to Republicans on immigration enforcement than their white political allies

Snobbish antisemitism was not confined to Eastern Europe: in France at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, virulently antisemitic papers were bankrolled by the gratin (crust), a coterie of old families who indulged in royalist and reactionary politics, though they mostly disdained to involve themselves in electioneering. In America, the impeccably-mannered Henry Adams was an avid reader of Le Libre Parole, the most stridently bigoted of the anti-Dreyfus papers.

But as with many goods formerly reserved for the elite, hyper-sensitivity has become a mass-market commodity.
Friedrich Nietszche anticipated our predicament: “Sensitivity increases with affluence; the most minor symptoms cause us to suffer; our body is better protected, our soul sicker. Equality, a comfortable life, freedom of thought, but at the same time, hatred and envy, the infuriation of needing to succeed, the impatience of the present, the need for luxury, the instability of the government, the suffering from doubt and having to search.”

Towards the end of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, the unnamed protagonist, now a university student in Vienna, asks some pointed questions about his place in the world. How does one reconcile grandiose aristocratic pretensions with the grubby realities of modern life? Where does one’s loyalty lie when the dynasty your family served for generations has disappeared in the cataclysmic aftermath of the Great War? Perhaps most importantly, what does one do when the money runs out? 

As the ground shifts under the narrator’s feet, his snobbery is best understood as a coping mechanism. Something similar has happened in the United States, where the leftward lurch on racial and cultural issues has taken place mainly among the white, the educated and the affluent. 

Racially-tinged snobbery has been replaced by performative anti-racism

A potent cocktail of justifiable anger over police abuse, internet-enabled groupthink, and economic and status anxiety has created a culture of social justice one-upmanship. Entire segments of our intellectual class have devoted themselves to this project, inventing baroque academic theories and impenetrable new jargon in the process. 

Lest there be any doubt that this is an elite-led phenomenon, consider the fact that white liberals are now significantly to the left of minority voters on racial issues. Democratic-voting African-Americans are closer to Republicans on immigration enforcement than their white political allies. Lily-white anti-racism protests have rocked Portland, the least diverse major American city, for months on end. 

The legacy of mass affluence, combined with a surplus of college graduates and a recent narrowing of economic opportunities, has introduced the educated middle classes to neuroses formerly reserved for the aristocracy. The subtle means of distinguishing oneself from the crude and the ignorant have changed — racially-tinged snobbery has been replaced by performative anti-racism — but the goal of signifying status remains. 

Nearly a century after Rezzori, we can afford to laugh at people who bridled at a mispronounced word, a misplaced piece of cutlery, or a garish cufflink. One wonders what future generations will make of public figures apologising for having said “tone deaf”. 

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