Salvo 09.14.2023 9 minutes

What You Don’t Owe Them: On Debt Collection

Reparations March UK & Afrikan Emancipation Day in London

Don't bend the knee to wokeism.

Left politics today is a twisted moral calculus. Woke revolutionaries spend enormous time and resources cataloguing the political and historical sins of their enemies. Those wrongs are then tabulated according to an ideological arithmetic that takes into account the identities of the victim and victimizer, and crunches the numbers according to the Intersectionality Theorem. Ultimately, the final tally serves as a measure of a person’s moral worth. Those found to be beneficiaries of “privileges”—whether resulting from accidents of birth, history, or identity—are deemed oppressors, and are thus less worthy of respect. The moral inferiority of the privileged individual is a result of his indebtedness. His debt may be historical, monetary, or political. But regardless of the type, Left activists will make every effort to collect it.

Consider slavery. While it is true that slavery had enduring economic ramifications for blacks in America, this particular debt is impossible to calculate in monetary terms. The debt owed for slavery was primarily a moral debt rather than an economic one. Indeed, many Americans believe this moral debt was paid through the enormous bloodshed inflicted during the Civil War, which eliminated slavery (and the later sacrifices made during the civil rights era to make good on the founding premises of the nation). Still, the Left keeps insisting that this debt is outstanding. That’s because they now recognize that when a moral debt is satisfied, no one gets paid. Thus “reparations” for slavery remains at the top of their agenda and seems likely to be implemented eventually at the federal level (based on recent state-level legislation).

But make no mistake: even after reparation checks go out, this debt will still be marked unpaid and past due. In fact, as prominent voices on the Left insist, it can never be repaid. Obama called slavery America’s “original sin,” and as we know, our sin in Eden can’t be paid through human effort—it took divine intervention. We should take her at her word when Nikole Hannah-Jones says racism is in the DNA of the country…and as everyone knows, you can’t change your genetic makeup. The Left will never allow the last payment to be made on that debt—if only because its cancellation would release their enemies from any further moral obligation.

Slavery is not the only example of a debt that the Left wants to leave hanging over the heads of everyday Americans. They constantly remind citizens that they are drowning in debt of all kinds: debt for the privileges of whiteness, debt for the privilege of being male, debt for the mental peace of being “cis-gendered,” debt for having a successful career, debt for the benefits of being raised in a two-parent household, debt for consuming more than their individual allotment of fossil fuels. The list goes on and on. You must be made to feel that your debts are so enormous that you can never get out from under them. Only then will you be forced to surrender—to declare a kind of spiritual and political bankruptcy that will neutralize any resistance that you might have otherwise mustered to the “fundamental transformation” of America as we know it. The penance you must pay is your acquiescence to those who aim to “dismantle” our society.

Given the strategic usefulness of identity-based debt to the woke agenda, we have good reason to believe that our balance has been grossly overstated. Effectively resisting that agenda depends on recognizing that we don’t owe what they say we owe—and understanding that what we do owe, we don’t owe to them. When you are presented with a bill for goods that you didn’t consume or for services that were not rendered, you contest it. And when you’re billed twice for a debt that you already satisfied, you don’t pay it again.

Given that we aren’t simply talking about monetary debt here, it’s worth making explicit what we don’t owe to the collectors.

You don’t owe them the denigration of your own culture, traditions, or ancestors—neither your participation in it nor the condoning of it. When they falsely smear America as too Christian, or too white, or too provincial, you are not obligated to help them “dismantle” the institutions, routines, or values that have defined this country over the last 250 years. When they speak poorly of our forebears, they do this as a way to speak poorly of us. It’s true our families do define who we are in part, but those relations are ultimately the product of chance. They never affirm the dignity or goodness or contributions that your ancestors made to society and history—it’s always criticism and denigration. That’s evidence that they aren’t operating in good faith—a telltale sign that you don’t owe them anything.

You don’t owe them affirmation. Do not accept the idea that the people who the Left insists are unfairly “marginalized” are therefore off-limits for criticism. Don’t buy the claim that the marginalized are unable to endure criticism, or that offering criticism somehow inflates your debt. Our opponents want us to believe that disrespecting someone’s beliefs or values is necessarily an attack on their humanity or personhood. It’s not. We are obligated to respect the personhood of every individual—but pretending that we respect ideas that do not deserve respect is a form of lying. And to lie to someone is a form of personal disrespect.

You don’t owe them money. The Left routinely uses economic disparities as emotional blackmail. You don’t need to be wealthy to be a target of this kind of manipulation. Anyone with an income or savings that exceed the poverty line must live and work under a presumption of guilt. The idea is that any comparative financial well-being is morally and rationally unjustifiable. When applied to most Americans, this is another lie. Differences in our talents, drive, and luck will necessarily produce economic disparities. No society in history has successfully sidestepped that truth, and if our era’s revolutionaries ever manage to fulfill their redistributionist aspirations, they will also fail. So, don’t let them try. Keep your money. You earned it.

You don’t owe them your silence. When they present you the bill for any of these things—things you don’t owe them—you aren’t bound to sit in polite silence, acting as though their demand that you pay a non-existent debt is reasonable or worthy of respect.

You don’t owe them a performance. Once the radicals identify you as an oppressor, it’s easy to fall into the trap of affirming their premises with your body. There is a certain comportment that you are expected to bring to any conversation about serious matters if you are seen as a beneficiary of “privilege.” You are expected to carry yourself in a particular way: Sit in the back of the room. Use facial expressions to signal that banalities spoken by others are valid and novel insights. If you speak (you probably should stick to listening), you must speak in a cautious, apologetic tone: adopt an air of uncertainty—as though you aren’t quite sure whether you believe what you are saying. Look at the ground. Slump your shoulders. Signal your penitence. Conforming to any of these bodily expectations conveys to your interlocutors that you have already accepted their argument—that you are an oppressor, that you know it, and that you do, in fact, owe them something. By validating those suppositions, their victory is half-won at the outset of any dialogue.

You don’t owe them your privileges. Everyone has privileges. Until very recently, we taught children that their privileges are to be enjoyed and exercised, but that they also entail obligations to those who might not have the same advantages. Only now are we told that all privilege is wrong, and that it must be eliminated. You don’t owe them a disavowal of your privileges, or a commitment to refrain from exercising them. After all, it’s often impossible to divest oneself of one’s privileges—and even when they can be disavowed, the result will never be perfect “equity.”

You don’t owe them your opportunities. Even on the rare occasions that the Left concedes that you can’t simply abandon your privilege, they will argue that this fact requires you forego future opportunities. For example, if someone was born to a white family, grew up in a two-parent household, and had the opportunity to study at a good university—three “unearned privileges”—it is often suggested that one should eagerly take oneself out of the running for excellent opportunities in the workplace or other areas in an effort to atone for the privileges that one enjoyed in the past. In short, they are demanding that you atone for the unatonable. That’s a fool’s errand.

You don’t owe them your time. Woke activists are constantly calling for an “honest conversation” on this or that issue. When you take that bait, you will quickly learn that the conversation never counts as an “honest” one until you concede all their points before the dialogue begins. Basically, an “honest conversation” can only happen when you concede that you owe them a debt—the exchange can only address how and whether that debt might be satisfied. The time you invest in these charades is taxing, and they divert energy and resources that could be used to defeat the forms of Left activism that insist upon your humiliation and self-disdain. Spending time in futile conversations of this sort serves their aims.

You don’t owe them your happiness. Our revolutionaries want you obsessing about what you owe, to whom you owe it, and how you can alleviate the spiritual weight of that debt. Ultimately, they want you miserable and defeated. They want you resigned to your personal debt—and to the idea that it can never be paid. Once they convince you of these things, they have eliminated any fight that might have remained. Then, there is no remaining spiritual will to resist their objectives—no will left to speak truth, no will left to defend your culture and your beliefs, and no will left to defend your own dignity.

You don’t owe them your sanity. They say that masks are only for health care workers, and then they shame regular people for not wearing two of them. They insist that the results of election after election are rigged or flawed, and then they indict anyone who does the same. They profess their total obeisance to settled science, but then they tell you that a man can become a woman. Their hypocrisy, gaslighting, and inconsistencies are glaring, and often they are just facile attempts to square an ideological circle that stubbornly remains round. But another aim of their relentless assault on common sense and reality is to make you doubt yourself: your rationality, your eyes and ears, your memory, and indeed, your very sanity. Their lies are so brazen and frequent that any logical person occasionally wonders: “Is it me who’s crazy?” You can find comfort that this kind of self-examination is a sign of your sanity. Few of our opponents have this level of self-awareness. That, in itself, is a major indicator that it’s not you—they are the ones losing their grip on reality.

Refuse the Bill

We all carry a burden of debt. The Christian tradition teaches us that our indebtedness is cosmic and transcendent. As such, it is unpayable through human efforts. The Left’s fixation on personal debt shows again that wokeness amounts to a secular religion. Rather than acknowledge our moral debt to God, woke activists elevate themselves as the god to whom we must sacrifice. And they demand that we sacrifice everything—our culture, our self-respect, our reasoning—all while insisting that no sacrifice could ever expiate the guilt that they say we owe simply through accidents of birth and history.

We must recognize these demands as logically untenable. Our future depends on our refusal to pay a debt we don’t owe.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

Suggested reading

to the newsletter