Along with the improvements in quality of life that Steven Pinker is perhaps the only respected thinker who dares take seriously—living twice as long as our great-grandparents, universal indoor plumbing with clean water, surgery with anesthesia, countless “labor-saving devices,” and now carrying the Internet in our pocket or purse—we tend to view the miseries of life that we do suffer as no longer divinely fated but imposed by the inequities of the social order. As the components of this order evolve from castes to classes to general classlessness, the sufferer, far more from envy than deprivation, becomes ever more likely to blame his social superiors rather than God or destiny.
True caste systems are compatible only with religiosity and tyranny, generally both. This is as true today as in the days of the Pharaohs. We have little opportunity to study the private thoughts of North Koreans or Chinese not at the summit of their politico-economic ladder, but whether the average citizen truly believes in the quasi-sacred status of the Great Leader or is merely terrified into submission, the real point is that it does not matter, for as a “political animal” he is the equivalent of what the Romans called a res mobilis, an animate thing.
The long-term stability of modern tyrannies would have surprised the victors of WWII, who had really fought the (hot) war-to-end-all-wars. And after the end of the Cold War in 1989, their children’s generation quite plausibly imagined democracy breaking out all over. Yet, as the pharaohs knew of old, tyranny remains quite effective in maintaining itself in power, whether with spears and clubs or with laser weapons and surveillance cameras.
But what is even more unsettling in the face of this stability is that in the liberal democracies whose “freedom” we all claim to appreciate, things keep going in the other direction. The liberal-democratic faith in a benevolent sacred, undecidably religious or civic, that allows us to transcend our local disputes through our use of language (“jaw, jaw” as opposed to “war, war,” dixit Churchill), seems to diminish by the day. In the absence of the sense of transcendence that led Lincoln to call the United States an “almost chosen nation,” the least offenses to one’s or another’s sense of moral equality serve to activate the “woke” epistemology of resentment, to the point where Belmonters are by and large unable to resist the proposition that looting and violence from (nonwhite) “victims” and their allies, so long as they are exercised on third parties, are justifiable “reparations” for the injustices they have long suffered.
To sum up what I have been saying in these Chronicles about the changes wrought by the digital era’s emphasis on symbol-manipulation, the farther we get from a hereditary system of castes and the closer to classless meritocratic competition, the greater the perceived sense of ascriptive (“racial”) injustice and the ideological attraction of “socialism.” Fortunately, there is still a vast difference between the Chinese Communist Party and our Antifa mobs, but it is one of firepower and determination rather than ideology. One can say “it can’t happen here” one time too many…
No doubt the digital era has accentuated the gap between the rewards for mental over physical abilities. But the decline of the power of the Judeo-Christian religions whose values have underwritten the success of liberal democracy from its roots in England and Holland is not an effect of the digital alone. The advanced industrial society in which I and most of my readers live is characterized by a quality that we take for granted, for it is inseparable from it: the near-total absence of physical violence, and in particular, of the deliberate infliction of pain, either in everyday life, by parents and peers, or by legal authorities.
I think that this near-disappearance of human violence, and more specifically, the decline of the corporal punishment that the old adage claimed would “spoil the child” is, even more than the removal of the fear of death to the ninetieth or hundredth decade, the fundamental explanation for the decline of the sense of the sacred.
As we have recently experienced, in the absence of this sense, whether traditionally religious or as the civic sacred that the French call laïcité and Americans express as patriotic “allegiance to the flag,”** the foundation of liberal democracy in the reliance on political dialogue under the auspices of the Constitution erodes very quickly. The low-level unrest that has plagued the country for the past few months gives us a foretaste of something far more troubling: the collapse of liberal democracy and the devolution of the US and perhaps some of the other Western powers into dictatorships of one kind or another.
The man-on-the-street’s explanation of why religion arose in the first place is not that favored by today’s woke intelligentsia (leaders’ “claim[ing] that they have somehow been anointed by a deity” as a spurious source of legitimacy), but rather that the “afterlife” offers a means of escaping the finality of death. But death meant something very different to those of previous generations than it does to our own.
Most humans throughout history would have accepted the description of their lives as, although not “solitary,” certainly “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” more so even than in Hobbes’ “state of nature,” given the miserable existences of agricultural workers and slave-laborers in traditional societies over the millennia since the Neolithic Revolution.
And if by chance a man survived the decades of back-breaking work or a woman the trauma of multiple childbirths into old age (reached at 50 or so), they would be beset by ailments and bodily failures that could not be corrected. I would hardly be able to see if I had not had my cataracts replaced by plastic lenses, an operation only a generation old. Nor would I hear much without a hearing aid. Not to speak of living without teeth. Old age was misery, and much of earlier life as well; death was for many more of a relief than an object of fear, and the consoling idea that in dying, a loved one had “gone to a better place” was in most cases no exaggeration, afterlife or not.
What we find increasingly difficult to realize today is that the “afterlife” was primarily not a substitute for our joys, but for our suffering in this “vale of tears.” Now that life in developed countries is largely free even from the trivial kind of suffering that comes from black eyes and occasional broken bones, we are no longer inclined to evoke the transcendent power that emerged to protect us from one another.
Since WWII, Americans of the middle class and above can live their whole lives without experiencing real physical violence. Such lives were unknown, even among kings and noblemen, in past generations. The scions of leading families volunteered to risk their lives in wars down to WWII and Korea, on the example of the Kennedy boys or the late George Bush Sr., one of the youngest Navy pilots in the war. There are still similar examples of this attitude of noblesse oblige today, but these heroic young persons no longer set the example for their generation, for which their absence of “wokeness” provokes more scorn than respect.
My friend Michael suggested that one might try to demonstrate this point by contrasting the religiosity of the approximately twenty million veterans of the US military with that of their non-serving peers. Such a study would surely be of real interest. But it suffices to examine the fund-raising literature distributed by veterans’ groups to find oneself in the same patriotic ambiance that I remember from my childhood. The civil sacred and the religious sacred are nowhere more closely allied.
This does not mean that today’s pain-free young people are happy. Few generations seem more discontented than millennials and even more, the post-millennials of “Gen Z” who make up the bulk of Antifa radicals—as well as a number of (mostly peaceful) alt-rightists. Although these young people are free to indulge their sexual and other desires more than any previous generation in memory, they are largely frustrated in their career possibilities, owe money on student loans, no longer look forward to marriage, take more drugs than they should…
But the fact that few of them turn to God and the hope of post-mortem redemption strongly confirms that, although religious thought has always been preoccupied more with moral than physical suffering, with sin more than with pain, human suffering is fundamentally physical. Or as Oscar Wilde cynically expressed it, with explicit reference to the divinity: God spare me physical pain and I’ll take care of the moral pain myself.
It has become fashionable even for professional soldiers, in discussions of the efficacy of torture, to reject this obvious truth—one no criminal or despot would dream of denying. Extreme physical pain is of a wholly different intensity than “moral pain” of any kind. It is pain’s virtual disappearance from our lives, providing relief not just from pain itself but from the threat of pain, that leaves our soul free for the cultivation of its fundamental “narcissistic” passion, which is not Eros but resentment.
Because the first lesson of the originary event was that the reciprocal exchange of the sign is the basis of communal peace, any experience of a lack of reciprocity provokes a “visceral” sense of injustice. This has been the case since the beginning. But in earlier generations, young people were made to learn that outward manifestations of resentment bore the risk of incurring severe punishment.
Not so today. In a number of recent films—the frequency suggests that such things are no mere fantasy—I have heard children say with impunity things like “F… you!” to their parents, as an apparently accepted expression of intra-familial discontentment. Not to speak of the more physical forms of acting out.
The reluctance to punish goes well beyond spanking. In our enlightened democracies, punishment of any kind, and particularly the infliction of pain, is increasingly seen as barbaric. Just as death has been largely expelled from the normal course of middle-class lives, the absence of physical punishment, and often of punishment of any kind, for the sort of offenses now being perpetrated by our street “protesters” serves to diminish the awe of social authority that is the worldly correlative of respect for the transcendent.
Perhaps corporal punishment is no longer necessary; perhaps spanking is indeed a barbarous custom, let alone real beatings. But when, as a result of their own life experience, young people learn to judge any violence at the hands of figures of authority as scandalous and avoidable, we arrive at the largely unpunished mob anarchy we have seen recently in a number of American cities.
What it would seem that our youth has “woke” from is the repression of resentment by authority, formal and informal, which has virtually vanished from the lives of children of all but the lowest economic levels. This helps to explain these young people’s identification with those who suffer real pain, along with their desire to find the source of this pain in their own “privileged” social group, to the point of condemning the entire social order in the name of presumed victims of racial violence such as the unfortunate George Floyd.
The solution to these problems cannot be found by turning back the clock. But although I am not myself a “believer,” I see no reason why an effective moral doctrine for today cannot express itself in religious terms. Whether I refer to “God” or “the sacred” in these writings, in no case am I denying the essential feature of transcendence. Even to accept a purely Durkheimian perspective on religion as the expression of the values of the community (“society”) should not imply the denial of what Girard called the “vertical” aspect of transcendence.
A social scientist might say that our sign-sharing human community, beginning with the handful of participants in the hypothetical originary event, can be understood sociologically as just another social group of homo sapiens. But once a sign is shared among a community, its meaning can only be understood as located in a transcendent “mind” which, if not analogous to a single human being (“anthropomorphism”), in any case acts upon the members of the group as the equivalent of a “divine will.”
The use of the term “woke” today by the victimary left, which astute observers rightly see as a quasi-religious term, is best explained (see Chronicle 667), as “awakening” the initiate to the “moral model,” the principle of moral equality realized in the originary reciprocal exchange of signs. However irritating the application of this intuition, we should realize that this term is by no means a denial of the transcendent, but rather an attempt to reduce it to its lowest terms, as though following the urges of our “moral instinct” of resentment would return us to a Rousseauian “state of nature.” This has always been the attraction of “socialism” in its various forms, and to reject its utopian vision of “equality” should not mean denying its source in the transcendent core of the human.
This suggests that those of us who would promote respect for the institutions of liberal democracy, including the US presidency, should not deny the intuitive truth of the “woke,” but must at the same time defend the mature historical understanding that it is only the long evolution of human transcendence beyond its egalitarian beginnings that has permitted humanity to create the modern world and its pain-abolishing comforts.
The beneficiaries of modernity’s expulsion of everyday violence are short-sighted indeed in imagining that their childhood utopia could be extended to the entire human universe in the form of “socialism.” The remaining adults in the room must not fear exposing the participants in these so-called “Marxist” movements, as well as their funders and defenders, for what they are: not “progressives,” but on the contrary, proponents of regression to the minimal conditions of humanity. It is no accident that every attempt at creating a “socialist” state has resulted in violence and tyranny.
**Just yesterday, in an act that I hope was not a warning from above, someone broke off the American flag I had flown safely on my car ever since shortly after 9/11. The vehicle was then located in a UCLA medical staff parking lot. Cela fait songer.