From Mark Steyn’s June 16, 2014 column:
The world is decaying into twin totalitarianisms. On the one hand, the Islamic imperialists on the march through Iraq and elsewhere, insisting that Islam is beyond discussion, that certain things cannot be shown and certain things cannot be said, or you’ll be decapitated. On the other, the supposedly liberated hedonists of the west, likewise insisting that you can’t say this and you can’t say that, or you’ll lose your job. I would bet on the former in the long run, but these are differences merely of degree.
In Chronicle 463 I spoke of the evacuation of the traditional “center” of American life, the middle class norms of dress, food, and entertainment, as described at the beginning of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. It’s not just Piketty and the rich-get-richer argument. Behind what remains today of our postwar douceur de vivre is the constant erosion of a sense of normality. The barbarous violence of the jihadis enforces norms that not so long ago were largely shared in less violent form by the inhabitants of civilized nations: male honor, female modesty, respect for the sacred and its organized manifestations in religious ritual. The “hedonists” Steyn speaks of, whose latest adventure seems to be the drive to legalize marijuana, treat these traditional norms as though only jihadis had ever sought to enforce them; the idea that homosexual marriage might not be a good thing becomes anathema, although decapitation is not (yet) suggested as the remedy. Can a society survive when it can no longer rely on a “typical” image of itself? Perhaps all this is rapidly becoming moot; we’ll stop worrying about “cisgenderism” after the next 9/11. The fecklessness of the current administration need not be parsed from within; it is fairly well crying to be attacked from without.
A society that has lost its center needs increasing doses of scapegoating to survive. The other day I saw a young woman on the UCLA campus in a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hate the Haters”—a step beyond “Haters Gonna Hate”—illustrated by the silhouettes of two elderly “white” men. So now the majority ethnic group, which whatever its sins has been mostly responsible for creating this nation and making it prosper, is now a subject of disrespectful opprobrium. Hostility to firstness is extended from the Jews and Israel (antisemitism) to the United States (oikophobia, or as Pierre-André Taguieff calls it, hesperophobia, hostility to the West), from the foundational religious to the modern economico-political example of firstness. Despise firstness, and you can’t lose, for only the first can do real damage. We can be certain, for example, that were America ruled by the Indians, as in the days of the peaceful Aztecs, or Europe colonized by tribal Africans, peace and harmony would have reigned. If only the “Orientals” were writing about the “Occidentals,” Edward Said would have had nothing but praise for the sensitivity of their understanding. But alas, the winners are by definition the worst of the competitors, for they are bad enough to win. History, formerly written by the winners, is now unwritten by their triumphant victims, like a revision of the Soviet Encyclopedia. How much longer will we remain bad enough to go on winning?
The parlous state of the Republican party, the party of Hateful Straight White Males, is a depressing indication that the current administration’s policies are not as far from the mainstream as irony makes them appear. The Republicans are supposed to be the “party of the rich,” and perhaps most businesspeople vote for the GOP, but not only are the super-rich famously liberal on the whole, but only particularly strong convictions would prevent any person with major moneyed interests from expressing the “progressive” views that, with no harm to his bottom line, would insulate him from the increasing hostility directed at the “1%.” The Sterling case referred to in Chronicle 463 shows that one can exploit black slum-dwellers for years to the praise of the NAACP so long as one avoids making “racist” remarks in the presumed privacy of one’s living room. Why would a business executive express disapproval of “gay marriage” when there is nothing whatever to be lost in expressing approval? No doubt something like the Keystone pipeline is a more serious business matter, but unless you are directly affected by it, you might as well be on the side of greenness and light.
Culture is, no doubt, about “symbolism”; language begins and ends with the sacred. Although its practical functions are more transformational, this is only provided the sacred ones are first taken care of. The evacuation of “central” normality is very much the equivalent of the loss of the sacred center first discovered/invented in the originary event, what Girard calls a “mimetic crisis.” Gabriel Tarde, for one, saw the everyday rituals of bourgeois life, such as reading the newspaper, as a kind of sacred communion, a point on which we should no doubt award him first place over his younger rival Emile Durkheim, for whom the “anomie” of modern industrial society could be reduced to manageable dimensions only through explicit social welfare measures. (One might, in consequence, consider Durkheim and Tarde as, respectively, the patrons of the Democrats and Republicans, much as it hurts me to associate Durkheim with “Hate the Haters.”)
The emptying out of this middle-class sacred, this half-conscious sense that “we” are all engaged in comparable pursuits, wearing similar clothes, eating similar foods, and so on, does not in itself imply that the middle will be replaced by the victimary. But we should think of this substitution as that of a marginally more for a less violent mode of sacrifice. The old norms were not explicitly directed against anyone; the abnormal was implicitly excluded, which is how norms are meant to work. (Which does not entail an absence of compassion, although it does not enforce it as itself a norm.) Men and women had generally separate interests, there was relatively little mixing of racial groups, not even to speak of the Jim Crow segregation in the south; public displays of affection tended to be limited, and certainly not considered appropriate between members of the same sex… But with the decay of these norms comes the realization of their exclusionary nature, partly inadvertent, partly overtly discriminatory, and in the case of “deviant” lifestyles, quite deliberate. The decline of the normal, so to speak worn away at the edges, reflects the bipolarization of the culture and economy, and at the same time contributes to it; the line of causality is less clear than the overall dissolution of common values and an increased desire to express “rebelliousness” from the norm. It was one of the great clichés of the fifties “youth culture” that took over the world’s popular entertainment that all those “youth” were more conformist in their rebellion than their parents in their conformity. Well, yes, but… The parents “conformed” without thinking much about it. Take a look at a prewar photo of spectators at a ball game or passers-by in the street, even a 30s breadline, and you’ll see they all wear hats, shirts, and ties. For a while it was the lack of hats that seemed to distinguish the postmodern era, but the disappearance of shirts and ties from ordinary working- and middle-class men is the most striking change, unless it be women wearing clothing that in my youth would have risked being associated with prostitution.
The kind of “solidarity” exemplified by Tarde’s description is implicit; it involves no act of adherence, and is all the more powerful for that. All those spectators wearing ties are affirming “non-thetically” that “this is the way things are, one dresses ‘properly’ to go out.” On the contrary, the 50s “youth” wearing pompadours and peg pants and, more recently, T-shirts emblazoned with “Hate the Haters,” are insisting on a new set of norms, one that exists only to the extent that it is foregrounded, made into a praxis. But a praxis of sacralization is essentially a praxis of sacrifice. The old norm took form by the unconscious coincidence of many wills, and to that extent expressed an unintentional harmony to which nothing was overtly sacrificed. Starting in the 50s, we had to show our solidarity by rejecting the old norm, certainly, but above all those who were associated with it. Wearing a shirt and tie or reading the newspaper was not, in the days of Tarde, an act of exclusion, but wearing the t-shirt certainly is. Thus it is false to affirm that there is no more a sense of the normative. There are conflicting norms, but the one that is more aggressive, that affirms its virtue and purity, is both the more violent and the more blind to its own violence, as the silly T-shirt slogan makes embarrassingly clear.
The increasingly sacrificial insistence on symbolic domestic politics should not be understood in a void. To return to the Steyn quote at the top of this column, it corresponds on the international level to a challenge, the greatest since the Cold War, to Western and above all to American hegemony. The most stringent restrictions on free speech come from those whose point, unlike Westerners, is to impose with barbarous strictness a set of traditional differential rules rather than deconstruct a set of already rather benign ones. The partisans of Sharia are said to attack our norms from the “right” rather than from the left, but the left’s fear of “Islamophobia” reflects the fact that the right-left terminology imposed by the French Revolution (inherited from the Tory-Whig dichotomy of the British 17th century) is irrelevant and misleading: both trends are equally hostile to Western liberal values.
No doubt the most obvious proof of the sacrificiality of the victimary is that for the president and many in his party, now faced by the overrunning of Iraq and Syria by barbarian fanatics, the most crucial problem facing the world remains global warming, which the Ministry of Truth has renamed “climate change.”
The symbolic nature of environmentalism is made clear by the easy and wholly unanalytic passage from virtuous gestures against “climate change” to, as Obama put it back in 2008,making the rise of the oceans begin to slow and the planet to heal. Whether or not “climate change” is as certain as the moon isn’t made of green cheese (which, btw, should really becream cheese), one thing that is certain is that one’s gestures on its behalf have many orders of magnitude more symbolic than practical weight.
The debates over warming, melting Antarctic ice, the Mann hockey stick (which has incredibly spawned a libel suit against “denier” Mark Steyn), the failure of world temperatures to continue to rise over the past fifteen years… are not really my point. What is important is not whether the planet is warming or even whether human activity is warming it, but whether the human activity that attempts to combat global warming has an effect in any way proportional to its cost. It is here that the sacrificial nature of this behavior is revealed. Obama’s “stimulus” may not have produced effective results, but at least it was a prima facie reasonable response to an economic crisis. Even Obamacare, whatever its flaws, was a “remedy” applied to deficiencies in the American health care system. But building windmills, refusing to approve the Keystone pipeline, letting the EPA impose punitive regulations on coal-powered power plants… all this has essentially no effect whatever on the world’s carbon dioxide production, and no measurable effect on “global warming.” Never has so much energy, time, money, and political capital been expended with so little effect on the problem one purports to solve. It seems obvious that if we really need to prevent the planet from warming, some global solution, such as seeding the atmosphere with materials that reflect sunlight, would alone provide a reasonable solution. Perhaps such research is indeed taking place, but it is certainly not what we are always hearing about. And the reason is all too evident: If researchers do come up with a simple global solution, all the apotropaic activity that “science” has been providing for us as a substitute for religion would be revealed for what it really is. If we didn’t need to divest from fossil-fuel producers and build windmills to generate a tiny amount of energy by making a horrible racket and killing birds, life for many would lose its meaning (not to speak of crony-capitalist profits).
There is something just a bit terrifying in realizing that nearly the entire intellectual class fails to grasp the quasi-religious nature of a growing proportion of its activities. To the extent that (in Murray’s terms) “Belmont” pulls ever farther away from “Fishtown,” so do its inhabitants’ spiritual needs require ever more sacrificial behavior, be it ecological or social, whether through the ritual cursing of fossil fuel or the ritual expulsion of “racist” Donald Sterling. The more emotional energy is devoted to these pursuits, the more “solidarity” is created within the professional class, and the more justified is its superior economic status with respect to what used to be called the “great unwashed,” the decreasingly respected and self-sufficient “working class,” many of whose white members are unwashed enough to vote Republican.
There are many similar victimary attitudes that are revealed as primarily sacrificial by the fact that concern for the victims takes a back seat to angry hostility to the purported victimizers. Such has been the attitude toward “gay marriage,” which is not so much humanely tolerated as a variant on traditional marriage as affirmed as a right toward which any hint of doubt arouses wrath and where possible, punishment. Now that “marriage equality” has become widely accepted, the latest attack on normality concerns the “transgendered,” considered to have a “right” to whatever gender they prefer, regardless of their original physical conformation. For the vast majority, self-righteously accusing others of “transphobia” is a much more consequential act than performing any services for the minuscule transgendered segment of the population. Like the rare but exemplary incidents of racial slurs a recent survey uncovered at UCLA, incidents of “transphobia” are significant as symbols of “haters gonna hate,” and the righteous indignation they arouse surely absorbs far more energy than the acts themselves. “Hate the haters” expresses this with a refreshing, if not exactly charming, naiveté.
It is possible, in a hopeful mood, to interpret this increased victimary activity as a spike rather than a trend, attributable to the Left’s need to solidify its appeal at a time when its policies are so egregiously demonstrating their ineffectiveness on the international scene, where the US has probably not been treated with so little respect since the War of 1812. Any dip in the president’s ratings may be expected to provoke a new attack on “white male hegemony” in some guise or other. If this is indeed the case, it is not terribly serious in itself, although the international situation it reflects seems destined for long-term instability and no doubt irreversible changes.
But more pessimistically, Obama is not an aberrant bogey-man, but the twice-elected leader of a divided country, a majority of whom identify with the victimary perspective he embodies (despite occasional ceremonial rhetoric to the contrary). If Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleeza Rice (not to mention Murray himself) cannot be heard at a public commencement ceremony today, what would make them more welcome in 2017 under a possible Republican president? Clearly it is less the specific set of commencement speakers shouted down than the new policy granting student “activists” veto power over them that is the real cause for concern. This kind of mob rule is an unfailing symptom of the sacrificial. With the decline of the “normal,” we do not simply become freer and more “tolerant”: let everyone choose his/her/its own “gender,” and all will be well. No, for the more “genders” there are, the more groups will there be to be examined for “disparate impact,” and their potential “oppressors” for discriminatory behavior. Or to take a recent example, the more employers such as Hobby Lobby, who prefer not to pay (that is, to let the government pay) for abortifacients (not ordinary contraceptive pills) will be denounced as “interfering with women’s bodies” or “indifferent to women’s health.” At a time when wealthy people are more and more likely to share these same victimary views, out of conviction or as a safety measure, it is far easier to identify the “1%” with stigmatized traditional values while identifying with their “victims” than to focus anger on the rich themselves, or what would be potentially far more beneficial, to liberate the economy from some of its bureaucratic restrictions in hopes that its growth rate might become less anemic.
If this analysis is correct, then perhaps Piketty is right, whether or not for purely economic reasons. Independently of whether the secret of late 20th century prosperity was the temporary suspension of r>g as a result of the two world wars, it is beginning to seem as if we will need some kind of catastrophe to convince the citizens of the West of the desirability of preserving their liberal democratic system, “disparate impacts” and all, as the maximally effective and productive mode of human social organization. Perhaps this is the only solution to the social dissolution of Coming Apart, to the dependency of the “47%,” to the impossibility that all social groups achieve equal results in every domain… in short, to the disparities of market democracy under current conditions. But to answer such questions even tentatively with a reasonable degree of confidence, we must await a change in the party in the White House, whether in 2017 or farther in the future. Let us hope that when this comes about, something will still remain of the postwar hegemony of the liberal democracies.