It would be nice to think that since GA constitutes a genuine advance in human self-understanding, it should be able to contribute to the defense of Western liberal democracy. It has allowed us to grasp the importance of Trump, still invisible to both the left and the never-Trump right, which continues to speak of him with undisguised and tasteless contempt. But Trump had no need of GA to get elected, and even if we stipulate that GA provides the best explanation for the victimary PC phenomenon, it offers no remedy for it other than expressing faith in the familiar democratic-republican political mechanisms to put an end to its “progressive” extremism.
This frustrating situation is an occasion for further reflection. Now that we have deepened our understanding of the connection between language and the sacred, we should better understand the source of the need for religion’s posited certainty of faith as a factor in the perpetuation of belief-systems. Faith in this sense, as manifested in the institutional-religious side of representation, is of a different character from either the tacit “formal” faith embodied in our ability to use language, what we might call the “meta-faith” of the liberal-democratic “social contract,” that the essential questions of human social organization are open to political debate and compromise, and can in morally neutral matters be entrusted to the mechanisms of the marketplace.
Here is the crux of the matter: With the exception of a few persistent points of contention (abortion, homosexual marriage…), those who put this liberal meta-faith into question today are not the religious believers who make up the majority of Trump voters, but on the contrary, the victimary left, which has transformed what in a liberal system are political questions into religious questions, grounding its positions on non-negotiable moral values. The fideism of the victimary left is blatantly revealed in its insistence on seeking immoral causes for racial and ethnic disparities that, as writers like Thomas Sowell has been pointing out for decades, require no such explanation. Micro-aggressions and covert racism are not objective realities; like original sin, they are dependent on a transcendental explanation.
When Christian thinkers lament the failure of modern “liberalism,” the object of their hostility is, I think, less the liberal tradition as such, nor even the “liberalization” of sexual mores, than the growth of PC-victimary activism and its erosion of the ethical basis of our liberal polity. I have insisted from the start that this was the point that set Trump off from the other Republican candidates and ultimately won him the election. Libertarian individualism certainly does not entail denouncing white people as racists and males as sexists and forcing them to undergo “diversity training.” On the contrary, the institution of such phenomena as gay marriage and the right to abortion is the product less of a libertarian than of a victimary line of argument: that those who had been denied these “rights” were victims of discrimination.
Far beyond these measures, anathema to religious critics of “liberalism,” but marginal in relation to the overall political order, the victimary agenda delegitimizes in principle the totality of the articulations that make up our social life. As proof of this, we witness the steady accumulation of neologisms denoting new ‑isms and ‑phobias. Any evidence of “disparate impact” can be singled out for condemnation, and those that have not remain under permanent suspicion.
This behavior is best understood as religious, albeit without the benefit of a pre-existent ritual system. Which is to say that, in contrast to the liberal-democratic meta-faith in the community’s ability to regenerate order from linguistic exchange, it seeks, as in ritual, to reproduce the originary unity directly. The victimary religion generalizes the reciprocity of the scene of representation to the virtual universe of the entire human community, including different nationalities, ethnic groups, and sexual identities.
Thus, as revealed by the semi-ironic term political correctness, our judgment of social institutions is subjected to the conditions of polite conversation that presuppose this “originary” unity. If, in such a conversation, we would normally refrain from pointing out, say, to a black man that blacks commit a higher proportion of crimes than whites, then we cannot accept this truth in reality as other than the result of racism. This is the entire substance of PC.
The ideal of economic equality that had been the touchstone of the various socialisms remains a distant ideal of the victimary religion, but only as a footnote to the war on ascriptive discrimination. The claim that women are paid less than men for equivalent work is far more salient than the explicit “discrimination” among salary scales for different jobs, which had previously been the focus of attention.
The irony of the situation, then, is that the deplorables, who cling to their guns and religion, and voted for Trump in 2016, are now the ones who retain their faith in secular liberal democracy and who remain concerned with the traditional politico-economic problems of crime, national prestige, the loss of manufacturing jobs, etc. In contrast, the progressive activists of the Left, college-educated readers of The God Delusion, have all but transformed the Democratic Party into a religious organization committed to excommunicating the Trump constituency from decent society.
What we might find mysterious is that resentment, a term used by the media exclusively in reference to the irredeemables in flyover country, instead increasingly dominates the (largely prosperous) coastal-urban, “globalist” left. I can vouch for the absence in Sugar Creek, MO of anything like the vicious resentment that one finds among the coastal elites. The number of four-letter words in the first half-hour of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO exceeds that heard in a year in the towns on which Ebbing was purportedly modeled.
Take a look at the obscenity-laden Twitter-lynchings that emerge from the coastal-sophisticate class. The only way to dignify these imprecations is to understand them as akin to the curses hurled at unbelievers by the followers of the Islamic State—with the not unimportant difference that the victimary faithful are not wont to sacrifice their lives, or very much else, in the service of their belief.
As political religions go, although Marxism and Fascism didn’t offer pie in the sky, they did offer an apocalyptic historical vision—one mimicked by Fukuyama in his vision of a liberal-democratic “end of history.” The victimary, in contrast, is not truly a revolutionary ideology. Its mode of action is not that of a Leninist “vanguard” party, but of an already dominant elite, who would modify the present system only by delegitimizing its remaining opponents. Now that the failure of the socialist experiment has become manifest, the victimary belief-system, even when it calls itself “socialist” à la Bernie Sanders, remains dependent on the market, to which it expresses pro forma hostility, but which it seeks to control rather than to destroy.
This is a quasi-Calvinism without an explicit notion of salvation, yet with a procedure for self-purification, and above all for moral judgment. Here I speak only of the “majority”; members of minorities, as the success of such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Linda Sarsour reveals, have no need for humility. On the contrary, their role is to act as accusers, obliging the “white-supremacist” majority to reflect continually on its hidden yet indelible racism. (Certain black thinkers, now including Kanye West, realize that this is just the old “soft racism of low expectations,” blaming Whitey to avoid trying to solve black problems. But it will be slow to roll back, given its benefits to the overseers of what West calls the Democratic “plantation.”)
As for the majority, although a life of virtue-signaling does not offer them a promise of eternal bliss, their real payoff is from the market itself. By emphasizing the sinfulness of the Western nation, indelibly stained by slavery and colonialism, the victimary religion provides cover for the amoral globalism of international capital markets. In many professions, and I speak from experience, PC is as much a qualification for entry and advancement as formal credentials. One of the wonders of the market system, which the progressives have no interest in recognizing, is its ability to translate symbols of “anti-establishment” rebellion into worldly success. Those, on the contrary, who resist the new gospel pay a steep price for their “unbelief.”
What this suggests is, perhaps surprisingly, that the hidden raison d’être of the victimary belief-system is its claim to be the most effective endgame for the market system. Given, on the one hand, that a positive attitude toward the differential rewards of the system is increasingly felt as a crass violation of the moral model, which, as recent Supreme Court decisions make clear, has become our fundamental ethical principle; and given, on the other, that the market system remains dependent on differential rewards, not merely as a principle of motivation but as a test of efficiency, there can never be a reconciliation between moral principles and practical-ethical modes of behavior. On the contrary, the inexorable increase in the intellectual qualifications for decent jobs makes such reconciliation increasingly less conceivable. Hence the only possible equilibrium might seem to consist in a transcendentally grounded insistence on the system’s injustice, its sinfulness, to satisfy the resentments of both the “victimized” minorities and the “enlightened” majority, whose obsessively signaled White Guilt redeems their privileged status.
Under these circumstances, it is necessary to continually discover and condemn new forms of ascriptive discrimination. This may not prepare minorities to function as well as the majority, but it roots out “disparate impact” in less sensitive areas, while lamenting the lack of diversity in specialized professions as a sign of the intractable racism of the majority.
In this manner, uprooting old prejudices just means discovering new, more subtle ones. The fundamental guilt for “privilege” will never disappear, so that the victimary religion must remain a permanent feature of the “final stage of capitalism,” which can be expected to last as long as Western society retains anything like its present configuration.
To put this conclusion in perspective, the victimary religion is not, for all its fervor, ultimately incompatible with a renewed liberal polity. Despite its radical rhetoric, it tacitly relies on the unchallengeable nature of the liberal-democratic social order, and consequently on the Fukuyaman principle of its “finality”—a position on which Trump and Obama may be said to be in agreement (see Chronicle 503). Nor, as Trump’s victory and the rise of European “populism” has been showing, does it go uncontested. It has recreated the US Democratic Party, the British Labour Party, and others in its image, but although its zealousness makes compromise difficult, when the dust settles, the US and most European countries will still be dominated by two camps that disagree in principle on the relative importance of moral equality and firstness, yet are both dependent on the liberal-democratic market system.
The victimary religion may well be the last great hope of the Left, the final means of preserving the social legacy of the moral model in a world where the old Marxist belief in the fungibility of “labor power” grows every day less relevant. We should remember that, just as resentment, the menin of the Iliad, is the first word of Western culture, so the need to turn away its destructive power remains as ever the dominant, and defining, human problem.
One final point. It might appear curious that, whereas in the original right-left opposition, it was the right that claimed religious sanction for its values, and the “godless” left that insisted on the rule of “reason,” the current right-left opposition, although not simply reversing the roles, has certainly shifted the emphasis on revealed morality as opposed to functional ethics.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 566, religion was until very recently designed for lives that were heavily weighted on the side of suffering and unhappiness. Even for the privileged few, expectation of “the good life,” led in comfort and unblighted until old age by disease and bodily decay, is a quintessentially modern one, generalized to most developed countries only in the baby-boom generation.
This is not to say that traditional religion’s consolations were spurious. They reminded suffering mankind of the necessity of doing one’s part to perpetuate the social order, which can indeed be understood as God’s gift to humanity. But at the dawn of the modern era, revolutionary rationalism clearly had a point in denouncing the failure of the Old Regime to lighten the feudal-ritual burden.
Today, in contrast, it is the “deplorable” sufferers from the victimary religion who seek to impose rational criteria on those in power. This is yet more obvious in Europe than in the US. Whatever problems may be imputable in the US to immigration, there is nothing here like the no-go zones found in many Western European cities and banlieues, or the “grooming” scandals that went on for years unchecked in full view of the British authorities. The victimary true believers decry their “populist” opposition and impose severe penalties for “hate crimes” that consist merely in expressing criticism of behavior incompatible with Western values. In the US, where the First Amendment remains the law of the land, we have thus far only known occasional flare-ups in minority neighborhoods, with major PC outbreaks confined to university campuses.
Those born, as I was, into the Harry Truman left in the forties are likely to have become Trump voters seventy years later. The Donald doesn’t have superficially much in common with Harry, whose old home in Independence, MO wouldn’t pay for a broom closet in Trump Tower, but their fundamental values are far more similar than the anti-Trumpers realize.
We can be fairly confident that America still has enough common-sense old-school liberal-democrats to keep the victimary crowd at bay. About Europe, the best we can say at the moment is that there are glimmers of hope.