In memoriam Thomas Bertonneau, 1953-2021
Concerning our beleaguered nation, an astute commentator wondered: “Are the ones in charge very confident or desperate, or some bizarre combination of both?”
Being very confident and being desperate converge when leaders feel that destiny is out of their hands, when they have put their faith in a transcendent power. This is, curiously enough, the phenomenon the US, and by extension, the West, faces today. I have already noted the curious fact that the woke movement has no Führer, that those who implement its directives are never truly their source. Not only are the Democrat leaders all of mediocre character at best (although some like Pelosi are highly skilled at “getting things done”), above all, they take their orders from without.
The woke movement is embodied in an anonymous mass of young people, who may find their ideas crystallized in the writings of such as Ibram X. Kendi, but who receive these ideas in the first place from their own deconstructive moral intuition. We are witnessing the curious spectacle of corporate leaders and tech billionaires setting their moral compass, not even by the activists who shout slogans, but by the Twitter-fed intuitions in which these activists and their followers indifferently invent and discover the latest manifestations of the woke Weltanschauung.
It is sadly fascinating how a generation of adults who brought up their children virtually without discipline are now willing to take orders from these children as the recipients of the woke revelation. If the Zeitgeist tells them that boys should use the ladies’ room—more precisely, if some young hysteric complains of unsafeness on learning that a boy-girl has been turned away—the adults hasten to obey this latest revelation like the followers of a holy man.
But unlike the words of holy men, these dictates are intuitively unanimous. The woke intuition is always the same; it needs merely to fall on some new element of normality to detect an element of sinful non-reciprocity. Meanwhile, save in egregious cases like that of Jeffrey Epstein, where “suicide” is the appropriate solution, the sins of the powerful are overlooked or ignored. No one expects the authors of the Afghanistan debacle or those of the Trump-Russia-collusion scheme to suffer any punishment, nor the Bidens to be penalized for the contents of the famous laptop(s). The point of wokeness is not to attack individual but categorical violations of morality. A racist or transphobic remark threatens all of us, privileged cis-white as well as victimized trans-of color. While individual peccadilloes remain the privilege of the great, no moral scruples can be allowed to detract from the fight against “white supremacy.”
The drawback to this soft totalitarianism is that, in the absence of a système concentrationnaire, it can only make examples of symbolic offenders like Derek Chauvin or the January 6 “insurrectionists” rather than shipping millions off to Auschwitz or Siberia—or Xinjiang. It relies on a combination of passive acquiescence and marginal manipulation of the electoral process, and thus lacks the solidity of the Hitler/Stalin model. What its current run of success suggests, however, is that “liberal democracy,” though it may be the best system except…, is fast becoming a non-viable utopia, for the moment still honored in the breach, but already incapable of keeping order in its own terms. For the chief difference between our totalitarianism and the hard version practiced in China, and in an explicitly anti-Western mode by our Islamic friends, is that our softness is not simply weakness, but a reflection of the woke “global” elite’s insistence on maintaining its privileges at the expense of the social order that nourishes them.
Credo quia absurdum
Christians have not accepted Tertullian’s (slightly modified) slogan, but the point of faith is that one does not need it to believe that 2+2=4 or that “the sky is blue.” Human culture, beginning with human language, would never have gotten started if the first humans had not felt compelled to believe that their “aborted gesture” was in fact a sign designating the sacred force that interdicted the object of their appetite so that they could peacefully consume it. This gesture was consequently the means of creating a new concept of community by intending the sign to possess a meaning common to all, for my gesture to be but one instance of a transcendent signifier.
Religions in the real world ask their believers to have faith in apparently absurd realities, not simply as an “entry fee” that like a hazing or an “ordeal” obliges believers to commit themselves, but because such belief accepts one’s humility before the sacred will that in its providential concern for humanity commands the originary scene, and in consequence, the whole of human culture.
Why bring this up now, in our “secular” world where Judeo-Christian religions no longer command respect, and Islam only as the religion of our “victims”? Because the often mentioned religious aspect of wokeness is real, and its real source of strength.
As I said in Chronicle 695, however repugnant we might find Pelosi and co. kneeling in Ashanti scarves before the spirit of George Floyd, we should not see this expression of spirituality by some of the most cynical people on the planet as itself a gesture of cynicism. These acts performed by near-senile politicians in obedience to revelations transmitted to them by their children and grandchildren are surely far more heartfelt than most of the perfunctory invocations of the deity in the political sphere.
These quasi-religious gestures, along with desultory riots and increased crime statistics in lower-class neighborhoods, are small prices to pay for distracting our society from its need to accentuate rather than relax its degree of meritocracy in the digital age. And it may well be that the current system is more stable than these lamentations suggest. The previously unheard-of level of symbolic fussing about race and gender is possible only because the basic economy, including its all-important digital element, has no difficulty finding, whether in the US or abroad, the employees it needs, and whether minorities really learn to compete or are bought off with welfare and affirmative action is relatively unimportant. Even the possibility that Chinese society may already be or will become in the near future more efficient than ours may not have the dire consequences that some of us fear.
Perhaps, in other words, in the place of the top-down dictatorships of 1984 or the biological determinism of Brave New World, not to speak of the dictatorship of the CCP, soft woke totalitarianism from below may be more stable than we think. As in 1984, we all live in front of screens, which in their own way observe us, but instead of endlessly displaying the figure of Big Brother, the screens of 2021 alternate hedonism and righteous indignation in a proportion chosen by their individual users.
Let us reflect more closely on the relationship between the woke conscience and that previously present in the minds of the new converts. How indeed do new religions act on the souls of their proselytes? Hitherto I have spoken of the human “conscience” as if it were, as the term Superego suggests, a fixed set of moral rules not modifiable by new inputs. But the least observation of the woke movement as of countless others reveals that the rules the conscience applies to one’s actions are not immutable, and that in the modern world they are particularly open to discussion and modification. How then is this related to the notion that the conscience is the trace of the originary sacred interdiction?
As I have previously indicated, and as its name implies, wokeness does not present itself as a new revelation, such as those typically at the origin of new religions. Instead, its point is to awoken us to previously unnoticed violations of the originary moral model of symmetrical reciprocity that had lain hidden in hitherto unquestioned ethical norms.
The white privilege/racism complex that all whites purportedly share is thus presented, not as a deliberate infringement of this model, but as the effect of unconscious habits so deeply ingrained in whites as the result of centuries of racial discrimination that even conscious efforts to remove it are never fully effective. The praxis thus imposed on them, often in Cultural-Revolution-like “training” sessions, requires them to meticulously examine their actions and attitudes in an effort to eliminate the least signs of racial dissymmetry, while recognizing that this elimination will never be complete. Instead of focusing the conscience on acts of consequence, we are asked to interrogate the least details of our attitudes and their possibly unconscious physical manifestations in the realization that they can never be fully purged of differential racial content.
Up to a certain point, this is not unreasonable; people do make inconsiderate comments or gestures without intending to offend. But the secret of wokeness is that by instilling a constant awareness of the possibility of revealing a differential racial attitude, it seeks to inspire in whites a permanent sense of guilt. For we are all sinners against the golden rule, vulnerable to the accusation of retaining vestiges of historical non-reciprocities that modern societies have now repudiated.
This is humiliating, but at the same time, empowering, since on observing any evidence of less intense concern on the part of fellow whites, one is led to feel superior, and encouraged to denounce attitudes that strike one as inappropriate. In short, this “conscience-raising” technique leads to a culture of denunciation remindful of the days of Bolshevism/Stalinism or of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Why are so many white people in fact glad to discover their previously ignored or invisible racism, as though the ghost of past inequities had been called up to haunt them and to blackmail them into all sorts of—largely symbolic—gestures? How does a chain of moral reasoning that begins with the fact that white children score better on math tests than blacks persuade a young white woman to teach her elementary school pupils that there’s no such thing as the “correct” answer to a math problem?
The effect of wokeness is to pit the moral model against firstness as such, using past American racial inequity as the model for all differential evaluation. Blacks serve here as a convenient symbol, and some, particularly the most cynical, are indeed helped by the resulting policies, but as black conservatives have never ceased to point out, the result of affirmative action policies has been to lower the level of black public school performance, as well as to increase the power of gangs and drug dealers in black neighborhoods—the increase in black-on-black crime not being, as they say, part of the narrative.
This behavior can be explained from the standpoint of the self-interest of the elite, and indeed of the American economy as a whole. It’s a lot easier to keep people fighting over symbolic trivia than to attempt to fix the real problems of communities whose economic functionality has largely been destroyed by moving manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere. But the secret of the attraction of wokism, like that of the Marxian socialism from which it derives, is the fragile status of firstness in market society. And in particular, its secret weapon is that mere material difference is far less productive of resentment than social difference. The essays of George Orwell (e.g., the 1947 “Such Were the Joys”) reveal the strength of his resentment as a “scholarship boy,” less of the wealth of the upper classes than of their sense of superiority—which reflected the conditions of a time before “labor-saving devices,” when only these classes could afford the servants that liberated the women of the family from the drudgery of housekeeping to practice what Veblen baptized “conspicuous consumption.”
In a society like the USA, snobbery has found a new life among the jet-setters, but their snobbery derives precisely from the fact that they do not interact socially with the middle class. Thus the latter rarely feel snubbed. In contrast, they are sensitive to any residual sense of superiority they may feel toward blacks and Hispanics they meet as store clerks, nurses, house cleaners… Bernie Sanders can well rail against the millionaires and billionaires, but in the real world, wokism incites a virtue-signaling snobbery of the white middle class over working class whites that provides a hidden moral benefit while avoiding the need to compare oneself with the really well-to-do. Thus the society can profusely reward the masters of hi-tech without penalty, while leaving the White Guilters to take out their frustrations on the rednecks of flyover country and the diners at the Olive Garden.
A clarification is in order concerning the relationship between our egalitarian moral “instinct” and its application to what I have been calling firstness, which might more simply be described as non-reciprocity.
Returning to our hypothesis, the originary human community was limited to the participants in the scene, and later to the other members of the community who would presumably come to participate in ritualized versions of the scene preliminary to a communal “equal feast,” as epitomized by Robertson Smith’s camel sacrifice.
It is plausible that in the egalitarian societies anterior to the accumulation of agricultural surpluses and the birth of social hierarchy, such unanimous rituals, in which the moral model derived from the originary event would be reenacted, remained the dominant function of what we would call religion. Whether or not a plurality of linguistic signs or utterance forms developed at this stage, the absence of socially mandated non-reciprocity outside of age- and sex-differences would suggest that questions of ethics did not come in conflict with this model, whose quasi-instinctive presence in all humans throughout history is well attested.
Yet societies beyond the most elemental level cannot function in the absence of systemic non-reciprocity. Thus hierarchical society necessarily involves an ethical conflict between our “moral instinct” and the social order. It is here that we find the explanation of why historical religions invest the sacred with more than the enforcement of the “golden rule,” while recalling these moral roots in their more enlightened moments. Indeed, we can define the religions of the “Axial Age”—notably, Judaism and Buddhism, even Confucianism—by their reaffirmation of the foundational nature of these roots, in contrast with the “compact” religions of the archaic empires, which were, as Seth Sanders points out in The Invention of Hebrew (Illinois, 2009), revealed specifically to the rulers rather than to the people as a whole, and whose moral obtuseness supplies the pretext for the “enlightened” contemporary dismissals of religion such as that cited in the previous Chronicle.
Given the contrast between the quasi-instinctive status of the moral model and the anti-intuitive ethical rules necessarily inculcated in children by adults, it is easy to explain why the breakdown of the pre-industrial order and the concomitant weakening of caste-like traditions led to the weakening of these religion-based ethics and to the rise of the epistemology of resentment, or victimary thinking.
The clean bill of health consistently given to “socialism” by each new generation in spite of its disastrous economic and moral record is a tribute to the persistence of the moral model as its ostensible governing principle (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”) in even its most monstrously hypocritical implementations: Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Castro’s Cuba, Chavez’ Venezuela, the Kims’ Korea… Wokism is a version of “socialist” theory tailored to liberal democracy, rendered both more hypocritical and less disastrous by concentrating its element of violence in the symbolic domain, in middle-class “cancelings” and occasional righteous riots.
Can we reeducate our consciences to resist what the French call le racialisme? Is there an antidote to wokism that does not depend for its ethics on traditional Judeo-Christian religious institutions, themselves all too often awokened?
Unlike the children’s crusade, this will require real leadership, inspired in good measure by Donald Trump’s pioneering example, but without the antinomian elements that made his triumph tragically incomplete. We can only hope that a newly emerging generation of political leaders will display the wisdom necessary to rescue liberal democracy from its heedless children.