Maybe not all but certainly some of the civil unrest that is both cause and consequence of the murder of five Dallas police officers last week is owing to the impoverishment of our political language. Take the slogan “Black Lives Matter”—an example of hashtag politics whose vacuousness makes even the bumper-sticker politics of the recent past look sophisticated by comparison. As political aspiration it means literally nothing more specific than “I have a grievance,” and is therefore designed to keep that grievance alive and the anger it implies on the boil. It guarantees—and is meant to guarantee—that the grievance can never be redressed and the anger never assuaged.
For how is it even conceivable that black lives could ever “matter” merely as such? No lives, or almost no lives, matter in this absolute sense. Our consolation must be that almost all lives, including black ones, matter to somebody, or some limited number of somebodies. But justice wears a blindfold because the law cannot be allowed to take these feelings of particularity into consideration and still be the law. Nor can police and other law-enforcement officers care about black lives—or any other large group of anonymous lives—simply because they are black. “Mattering” is something that can only be predicated of particular lives, not lives in general.
The fact is that black lives, like most other lives, don’t “matter” to more than a handful of people and never will. To protest by shouting a slogan that is patently false is to protest against the nature of things. But of course that’s what the Left has always done in a country like ours where it hasn’t anything more serious to protest about. It’s the same kind of politicized emotion that we see in Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, someone who also thought he had a right to “matter” to the world at large. “Attention must be paid!” Willie shouted. Who says it must? And why to Willy more than anyone else? In short, the protesters demand the impossible, which therefore automatically produces the anger necessary to keep the protest going.
At some level they must know they are protesting against reality itself—something that also ought to be evident when we reflect that the “matter” meme comes from advertising speak. “At Mazda,” we have been told, “driving matters.” Meanwhile, TIAA-CREF is alleged to produce “financial outcomes that matter.” Journalists, who increasingly deal in the language of hype as well, are also growing fond of the usage, telling us for instance, “Why Biden not running for president matters,” or that a murdered member of Parliament “felt being an MP mattered.”
Well, it certainly mattered to her, just as being policemen mattered to the murdered officers in Dallas. But the absolute usage merely gives a factitious importance to something you want other people to take notice of, while corresponding to nothing in substantive terms.
Thus, too, Yale University Press has lately produced (I learn) a whole series of books in what is called their “Why x matters” series, from Why Architecture Matters (by Paul Goldberger) to Why Acting Matters (by David Thomson) to Why Beer Matters (by Evan Rail) to Why Truth Matters (by Ophelia Benson). I suppose there must be people who have bought and continue to buy such books, but it is hard for me to imagine what kind of person feels it necessary to pick up a book to find out why beer “matters.” Nor does it seem to have occurred to anybody that if you have to write a book explaining why truth matters it rather suggests that truth doesn’t matter—as, indeed, our politics every day supplies further evidence it doesn’t.
Maybe that’s the reason for the craze for mattering. We sense, as a culture that there is less and less that does matter on any scale larger than the personal one and feel obscurely that that is something to be protested against. The trouble is that we protest by dragging the personal into the public realm rather than the other way around. What really should “matter” to people in general are not the local loyalties that remain strong only because they are local but public goods—like law and order—that can only be weakened to the point of final loss by the kind of special pleading that comes from identity politics.