I promised to make some final comments about the coming election; please excuse their desultory nature.
History no doubt involves a certain degree of randomness, but the unsatisfactory nature of this year’s choice of candidates, which is apparent to all, can’t simply be a matter of chance. In the October 22 Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan, as always a voice of good sense, bewailed the fact that Trump appears to be unable and is certainly unwilling to put away his “nutty” crank persona to appeal to the electorate as a man of good sense and equable disposition, as many had been hoping he would after his nomination. And this week she wondered why this was impossible.
For it has appeared since the beginning that the Trumpian persona, authentic in its own terms, was not merely a central facet of Trump’s appeal to others, but above all a necessary element of what made Trump able to detect and attack the chief pathology in the body politic, which most call PC and I prefer to name victimary thinking. I think that those who associate Trump with the alt-right, even those who see Trump as the spokesman of the “white working class” once at the center of the Democratic party—ah for the days of Harry Truman—are taking too narrow a view.
I find it ironically distasteful to attribute identity politics to the “white working class” when, as has sufficiently been pointed out, they are faced not simply with the discriminatory privileges of affirmative action but above all by an “inverted” racist rhetoric which is considered not just acceptable but praiseworthy when practiced by minority members, and that has become in less extreme versions the lingua franca of the media and the business world—not to speak of the universities, where I’d hate to think how much, over fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, is being spent on “diversity.” The indignation felt by the white working class, as well as by others like myself who are not “elite” enough to afford the delicious masochism of White Guilt, is not identity politics: it is a revulsion at identity politics. The “white” in White Guilt is not pink skin-tone so much as unmarked status. My idea of being “white” is that the test score I get is the score on my test paper.
The USA is supposed to believe in E pluribus unum, not in “identity politics,” and the valid aspect of Trump’s role has been to demonstrate his independence of the moral posturing of those, for example, who talk incessantly of police racism and never dare mention the high black crime rate. Indeed, one of Trump’s most positive (and seldom praised) actions has been his attempt, no doubt futile, to appeal to the black community against those who exploit their racial pride and resentment to establish corrupt local governments that maintain their residents in poverty and dependency. These “inner cities” are far more unlivable now than when as a Columbia student in the late 50s I would walk regularly through Harlem and even, something unthinkable today, get my hair cut at a black barbershop.
But this is only the most salient element of the pathology I refer to. I don’t share Adam Katz’s tolerance for the alt-right, perhaps because we tend to understand this term in somewhat different ways. But his central point that, once one begins to attack “discrimination” beyond its grossest forms, such as white and colored drinking fountains and “No dogs or Jews need apply,” one discovers that one has entered a system of endless regression, uncovering micro-aggressions and nano- and pico-aggressions, that can end only with hypocritical quota systems promoting “diversity.” And the real damage done by these systems—aside from the “soft racism of low expectations,” which is certainly no joke—is not taking away from “whites” to give to “underrepresented minorities.” It is the undermining of the principles of our national unity through the indiscriminate application of the moral model of symmetrical reciprocity to human interactions and systems of organization where differentiation was and is essential.
The original principle of affirmative action, as we tend to forget, consisted in helping the disadvantaged to achieve a common level of competence rather than simply compensating them for their victimary status. Meritocracy, evaluation according to substantive (rather than ascriptive) criteria, was supposed to be the cure for “privilege”—which is not to say either that “privilege” is simply evil and that all of past history is simply to be condemned as Satanic because of its failure to embody full moral equality. But now that the objective criteria of meritocracy are constantly questioned, the very principles by which modern society functions are placed in doubt, and indeed, rejected by large numbers of “millennials,” who profit from Western prosperity without any concern for the social infrastructure of this prosperity.
I say this knowing that one not a member of a victimary group has to be extremely careful to avoid raising the suspicion of “racism.” This very term, like resentment, is demonized and applied in one direction only. One used to see mentioned occasionally Jesse Jackson’s heartfelt admission that if he were walking along a street at night and came upon a group of young men, he would be relieved to discover they were white. Is this “racism”? Could a white man recount this same incident today without finding himself the victim of a Twitter-storm? (Few institutions offer better confirmations of Girard’s focus on scapegoating than Twitter.) The fact that Trump has emerged as the spokesman, not for “discrimination” or “white privilege,” but simply for non-discrimination, is a devastating sign that the “progressive” flight from the normative has left vast segments of the population unable to articulate their frustrations.
I think that the fact we are left with the choice between the egregious hypocrisy of Hillary Clinton with her six-figure speeches and nine-figure foreign contributions and the crudeness of Trump with his late-night tweets and hostility to free trade is the sign of a real crisis in what is after all essential: our ability to articulate the terms of the “good society.” I hate to refer to the ancient Greeks as though we had learned nothing since then, and this is a side of Conservatism that I have always found distasteful, but one must admit that the simple idea of being able, like Socrates in The Republic, to formulate in any terms the contours of a “good society” is the fundamental task of philosophy, and of human discourse in general. I have always respected the liberal John Rawls, whose theory of justice offers the best approximation to a liberal-democratic model of “the good society” that we have come up with so far—a point not coincidentally correlated with the fact that his “original position” is as close as standard Western thought has come to GA’s originary hypothesis.
I might be accused of harping on what is after all a fairly minor problem in the perspective of the overall national economy and America’s place in the world. But it seems to me part and parcel of a transformation of the scene of human communication that if it cannot be checked puts in danger the survival of liberal democratic society, and most crucially, its ability to defend itself against its enemies.
It is easy to denounce PC, but its very inclusion of the word Correctness already reveals the problem. The application of the victimary critique to all social difference proceeds from a common principle that is presented as a moral imperative, yet is incompatible with any realizable moral system. The principle is to make explicit all such differences as exemplifying “discrimination” against specific ascriptive categories, obliging those who would maintain them to justify this “discrimination.” (Where proportions are favorable to victimary groups, as with the near-60-40 dominance of women in college admissions and attendance, the result is simply ignored. If these figures were reversed, we can be assured that Deanships of Gender Equity would be created instanter.) Once the “normal” can be subjected to an explicit interrogation as to its “justice,” those who would defend it are placed in a situation of pragmatic paradox. Either one is forced to defend as a good thing the fact that, for example, the number of black students in the institution is less than their percentage in the population, or one must promise to “do something about it.” To suggest that the black students should improve their grades and test scores—perhaps by attending the charter schools “progressives” vote against—would be “blaming the victim.” The only way of avoiding opprobrium is to cave in to at least a good portion of whatever “demands” are being made. And the victories won by victim-groups are never final, only interest on the ultimate debt to be paid. Once procedures are understood only in terms of their outcomes, the very notion of procedural equality is undermined and the “rule of laws rather than men” comes to an end.
Attitudes such as “PC” are self-perpetuating and, like the diametrically opposite polite forms of discrimination of the pre-War era, difficult to complain about in the face of the broad consensus behind them. The Trump candidacy can be understood as a protest against victimary thinking, but the inarticulate “Archie Bunker” expression of this protest that Trump not simply cultivates but clearly identifies with is a sign of the inarticulate nature, not simply of Trump, but of the protest itself—which neither the Left, which embodies victimary resentment and insists on its virtuousness, nor the anti- or never-Trump right, which judges the election according to “traditional” measures of conservatism such as lower tax rates and less regulation rather than the ascriptive-victimary criterion implicit in their opponents’ position, can openly oppose. (On this last point, I recommend David P. Goldman-“Spengler”‘s recent https://pjmedia.com/spengler/2016/10/25/small-ball-conservatism-or-national-greatness .)
Diagnosing a critical situation is incompatible with proposing an easy solution to it, but let me suggest a direction that might help as a form of micro-pacification in bringing both sides to a less belligerent state.
As the title of these Chronicles indicates, I have thought a good deal about resentment, including my own, and am willing to give it its due as a source of understanding. Traditional religions, whether or not they use the word, condemn resentment and the acts it inspires. Having resentful thoughts about someone is surely at the head of the list of sins Catholics request absolution for in the confessional. But how many of us, of any faith or none, are willing to admit to ourselves the degree to which our actions and attitudes are dictated by resentment? Beyond Eros, the desire for the (sexual) other, I began these Chronicles by defining love as the transcendence of resentment (see Chronicle 6).
What is lacking in the “progressive” mindset of the Left is any compunction at expressing and defending resentment, provided it be on behalf of an appropriately chosen victimary group. At least since the French Revolution, “consciousness-raising” has been a deliberate effort to deny the sinfulness of resentment. Why should I accept with equanimity the privileges of others? Those who accept their lot cheerfully are dupes who perpetuate tyranny. This language is still heard unchanged today.
Except that now it is being heard on both sides. This is the situation that in the interwar period led to the near-symmetrical rise of communism and fascism, each resentful of the other. For the moment, we constantly hear from the media and politicians on both sides of the aisle about the “resentment” of Trump and his supporters. In contrast, the simple fact that the Left is not simply resentful but defined by resentment is never brought up. Instead, progressives equate this “good” resentment, in all its occasional nastiness, with virtuous hostility to injustice—whence their ironically bestowed title of “Social Justice Warriors,” trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
Well, no. Resentment is an essentially destructive attitude that must be restrained and/or recycled, not encouraged. “Love thine enemy” does not imply surrender; it means accepting him as a fellow human being even as we combat him. It certainly means not calling others “irredeemable”—and calling them “losers” isn’t quite the thing either. The current bankruptcy of formerly respectable social discourse is frustrating and dispiriting, but it is also a learning experience. When civility is defined down to the point where the simple realities of the social order, its indispensable elements of firstness, have become simply unspeakable, it is time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.
Trump’s candidacy is no doubt a crude beginning for this reaction, but it offers vast opportunities for pointing out the need to abolish the asymmetrical tolerance of resentment on one side but not the other. This same change in perspective extends all the way to defending Western Civilization against facile post-colonial-“orientalist” accusations of immorality, as though the societies designated as victims of the West were peaceful communities of Rousseauean forest-dwellers. We are all the products of millennia of history that cannot simply be judged by the criteria of the contemporary university campus. These are points that even some university administrators have begun to make.
Our task on the plane of social interaction might be described as making resentment uncool. Our current president has given us many lessons on how cool resentment, especially his snarky contemptuous variety of it, can be made to appear. In this respect, given the uncoolness of both Clinton and Trump, either one will be an improvement—nor does either have the historic excuse for resentment that comes with black skin in a former land of slavery.
For example, when confronted by symmetrical hostility of the hate the haters variety, accusing others of “transphobia” and the like, rather than responding in kind, we should point out the “Girardian” nature of this kind of resentful symmetry, perhaps even mentioning the “first stone” we’re not supposed to throw. At the very least this would surprise, nor need it be put in explicitly Christian terms, for indeed, the truth of Christian moral ideas should not need to be linked to Christian ritual practices. Above all, we should work at transcending our own resentments and avoid participating in the shameful “shaming” attacks on Twitter and elsewhere in the social media. The reestablishment of a space for civil political discourse depends on dissuading people from these facile expressions of personal frustration. Hopefully the maturing of the Internet age will also lead in this direction, but our political future depends on our taking seriously the problems revealed by the disturbing nature of this year’s presidential campaign.
As to my own choice: To the extent that Trump’s campaign, in all its inchoateness and incoherence, is less assured of its base than Clinton’s, with its unabashed pandering to various victimary groups (with inside deals with “elites” in the background), it seems to me the better choice for the voter who hopes for a return to “normal” politics. No doubt Clinton too would be likely to run an administration less arrogantly tendentious than Obama’s, if only because she is less popular and cannot play the “race card” with the same degree of self-assurance as her predecessor (the “gender card” is a far more volatile commodity, backed by far less than Obama’s 95% racial support). But the energy to de-ascriptivize American society along the lines of the old melting-pot, which I very much believe is still active in everyday American life—and I will insist once more that in my experience daily interactions between whites and blacks have become visibly more cordial and relaxed since Obama’s election—will not emerge from the left side of the aisle, where Clinton, perceived by the Warren-Sanders faction as insufficiently “progressive,” will have little incentive to return to Bill’s “New Democratic” center. The frequent references in this context to the Supreme Court are indicative of this; the recent justices chosen by Democrats, however well qualified, tend to vote en bloc for a “progressive” reading of the Constitution, and a couple more would mean a leftward shift as great as that of the New Deal.
Trump is not my kind of guy, but I believe that, if only because of his lack of universal approval and his often-uncertain policy choices, he will in part despite himself reactivate the political dialectic that has so suffered under the current administration. If Trump can help make resentment uncool, that will in itself greatly contribute to a return to political civility that is bound to have repercussions in more sensitive areas of the government, notably in foreign relations. But I would hope that even a Clinton victory might lead to at least a modest retreat from the current victimocracy.