Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy
by Paul Gottfried.
University of Missouri Press (Columbia and London)
158 pp., $34.95 cloth, 2002.
While shaken by the imbroglio of post-victory Iraq, many American conservatives nevertheless intuit something like a triumph. Conservative ideas, as National Review and The Weekly Standard periodically affirm, have long since prevailed: even the current Democratic presidential candidate, who has never met a tax-hike for which he would not vote, proclaims his preference for tax-cuts and, like his forerunner of two decades ago, shuns the label of liberal as though it were a communicable disease; the same candidate (than whom none is in fact more liberal) regularly professes his outrage that prosecution of the Terror War has pushed the federal budget into its largest deficit since the Democrat-dominated late-1970s. In the ongoing debate, in other words, a litany of GOP commonplaces (“balance the budget” and “family values”) has swept the field, altering the rhetoric of American politics and putting the supporters of the erstwhile Great Society on the defensive. Conservative celebrities have appeared. There is Bill O’Reilly, a pugnacious cable-television editorialist. There is Ann Coulter, a law school graduate and political observer whose glamorous mien and deft pummeling of the entitlement-mentality have made her a combination of Veronica Lake and Mohammed Ali for the College Republican crowd. It is good, certainly, that tax-and-spend senators nowadays feel that they must pay homage to fiscal responsibility and that Cokie Roberts now has sexy competition in the person of Miss Coulter of the Tresses. The phenomena today are definitely other than they were twenty years ago.
Has a conservative agenda really prevailed, however, against the vestiges of a waning liberalism? Political scientist Paul Gottfried, author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and one of the most perceptive of contemporary social thinkers, believes their view to be not only wrong but delusional. The conservative critique of “the politics of guilt” has proved itself vain, while the state-sponsored imposition of guilt-based social reconstruction has not avoided “bullying” and “strong-armed tactics” where it wants to get its way. “The new social engineering,” writes Gottfried, “depends on and strengthens the fit created between popular morality, shaped by churches, schools, and the entertainment industry, and the reforming role of the administrators of the state.” On this basis, “focal points of opposition” against political correctness and against the reform of a stigmatized mental disposition “have been progressively eliminated.” If Gottfried were right, none of the events or conditions mentioned above would do anything to hinder the encroachment on all areas of traditional life in North America and Europe of what, in his subtitle, he calls a secular theocracy. In fact, argues Gottfried, the mantras of “individualism” and “democracy,” ripped from their primary context and endowed by misuse with inchoate glamour, all too seductively lose their normative significance and become “the [rhetorical] pons asinorum leading to behavior control by the managerial state,” in which “social engineering is carried out to ‘empower’ nonactualized individuals or on behalf of groups judged by administrators to be in need of collective assistance.” As Gottfried has said in an interview, with reference to the Clinton administration’s Balkan adventure:
Multiculturalism has the same relation to the present managerial state as the Catholic Church did to medieval European monarchies. It travels in the baggage of the American empire, as was evident during the unprovoked attack on Serbia.
State administrations have been around since the High Middle Ages, while the managerial state refers to the social engineering, redistributionist regime that came into existence with mass democracy in the twentieth century. Mass democracy is a term used to describe a government that rules in the name of the “people” but is highly centralized and operates increasingly without an ethnic-cultural core. It is a bureaucratic empire that distributes political favors and provides a minimal level of physical protection but is no longer capable of or interested in practicing self-government.
The Left, in Gottfried’s words, might no longer have a single all-motivating “large political project” like building up the welfare state or dismantling the colonial empires, or a conspicuous sponsor like the Soviet Union, but this does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that no cohesive program unites the forces that arrogate to dub themselves as progressive. The Left indeed nowadays pursues a globally collective, but politically subtle, agenda that amounts to a far-reaching war on received culture everywhere: no less than “the conversion of mankind” according to the model variously designated as sensitivity, tolerance, diversity, or multiculturalism. This goal requires the eradication of all historicaland normative biases, such as a preference for one’s ancestral customs, any negative attitude toward deviations from a received moral code, and any sense of the unique rightness of what the mavens of postmodern thinking now tell us are arbitrary cultural dispensations. But the audacious “conversion of mankind” does not end there. It demands of designated individuals—invariably those who belong to a majority demographics of one kind or another—that they internalize a conviction of ontological guilt with regard to carefully demarcated groups of alleged victim-peoples. Thus, Christians should extend special understanding to Muslims, or heterosexuals to homosexuals, or men to women. The instrument of this program, labeled by Gottfried under his rubric of the managerial or therapeutic state, no longer slings invective at capitalism and private enterprise (scapegoats of an outmoded animosity) while plotting to undermine them. Rather, the state now targets a range of what it claims to be deleterious attitudes, positions, or behaviors in unreconstructed persons that invidiously marginalize or offend sanctified victim-minorities. Gottfried argues in a sub-thesis that the managerial-therapeutic state knows full well that it cannot exist without the economic basis of free enterprise, whose munificence it appropriates in order to fund its millennial plans. It is exactly in this way that the new, multicultural Left differs from the old, socialist Left: does the goose lay golden eggs?—then spare the goose! Therapeutic control of national populations, which has gone farthest in Europe but is well under way in North America (and has bounded ahead in Canada), leaves the economic status quo alone, in Gottfried’s words, so as “to present as mere psychological and educational matters . . . increasingly intrusive uses of government power to alter social behavior” and by so doing to sort national populations into the two great pseudo-moral but easily manipulated categories of “victims and nonvictims.”
So Gottfried traces the encroaching therapeutic-totalitarian regime in Europe and North America not directly from an older socialist politics, although he notes that it assimilates elements of socialism, but rather from “an altered religious consciousness that has affected Protestant majorities in the United States and in other Anglophone countries.” From this home ground, the therapeutic premise has then been exported, along with the North American managerial style of political governance, to other nations like Germany and the Scandinavian states. Behind this essentially religious “transformation of the self-image” of the ruling elites in the societies under examination lies the old Calvinist paradox of the righteous sinner. This person has had a redeeming vision of his own moral wretchedness—the revelation amounting to grace—and now wishes to recast his neighbors in his patented, personally vouchsafed model of righteousness. Of course, he mandates that they begin by declaring their unworthiness. This beginning, moreover, can take a long time. Gottfried does not mention Auguste Comte, but the regime thathe describes in The Politics of Guilt as currently in place bears some resemblance to Comte’s projected Religion de l’humanité of the 1830s, under which a crusading priesthood would undertake the re-education of mankind so as to eliminate all sin and inculcate the altruism (Comte’s coinage) on which the paradise-on-earth would rise. Like Comte’s Cultof Man, or like the Puritanism of Calvin’s Institutes, the rising secular theology seeks for its elites a species of visible immanent grace that will mark them out from all others as delivered from the damning, fallen consciousness (of racism, sexism, and so forth) that predisposes men to evil. The elites, once ensconced as the administrators of government programs, will “invoke a particular social consciousness, whether a sensitized one for the nonvictimized or an indignantly revolutionary one for designated victims.” As missionaries for their cause, the administrator-therapists will “seek others in the community” who seem receptive to the new grace and will “express their spiritual state through suitable verbal gestures.” By establishing such networks and restricting access to public media, they will create universal pressure to conform to the new ethos. In Gottfried’s judgment, “liberal Protestant theology is entirely compatible with the managerial state’s evolution into a regime promoting victim self-esteem.” To support his argument, Gottfried points out that political correctness has had the least success in non-Protestant countries like France and Italy, where the reforms of Calvin and Luther encountered the most resistance.
The case in The Politics of Guilt is not without important filiations and affinities. Gottfried mentions, for example, that Eric Voegelin has explained modernity as a prolonged religious rather than political crisis; he also gives credit to René Girard for having shown how the Biblical revelation of the so-called victimary mechanism (Girard’s term) has become the kernel of a peculiar post-Christian religious sentiment, in which nothing at all exists except ubiquitous victimization and the mandatory repenting from it. One might also cite the work of Henri de Lubuc and Raymond Aron, who, like Voegelin, have documented the peculiar spiritualization of socio-political anguish since the age of the encyclopédistes. The cultic characteristics of the French Revolution and the apocalyptic and messianic traits in Marxist and National Socialist politics are by now widely recognized among political scientists and historians. Gottfried’s strength is that he convinces us to lower our sights from the awful, hence mesmerizing, vista of Robespierre, Hitler, and Stalin so as to contemplate the superficially less roiled but equally revolutionary scene of our own contemporary circumstances. The malefactors of the modern centuries have hitherto appeared as war-leaders (Führer, Vozhd) as well as prophets of a new humanity; their method was the Blitzkrieg or the Gulag, so that when we fail to see such things, we are lulled into the certainty that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. But all is not right with the world, as many uneasy traditionalists sense in the marrow of their bones despite Republican control of all three branches of the federal government. The metanoia of “sensitivity” has spread everywhere, Gottfried writes, until even politicians of the center-right (to describe the Republican Party accurately) adopt its rhetoric and presumably invest in its principles. Recently, Senators Trent Lott and Rick Santorum discovered, to their chagrin, that politically incorrect speech will be tried summarily in the court of media opinion and the transgressors swiftly punished. They also discovered that the definition of offensive speech is any speech that offends the elites, notwithstanding the speaker’s intention—and despite any logical or evidential analysis of the locution favorable to him who uttered it. In the matter of immigration, for example, which poses significant problems for the traditional culture of North Americans, Republicans have by default, because they are afraid of the issue, taken the same position as the liberal advocates of multiculturalism; so too has big business, which common sense still thinks of as “conservative” in its orientation. Gottfried insists repeatedly, however, that the secular theology is emotive rather than rational:
Public penance and the accompanying confessions have a long, colorful history in the United States and are characteristic of the political and moral conversions of public personalities. In a genre at least partly descended from St. Augustine and the seventeenth-century Puritans, a Jewish Marxist with “second thoughts,” a onetime Communist who became a Quaker and conservative, and an erstwhile conservative turned gay left-liberal activist have all expressed themselves in a confessional form betraying a distinctly American Protestant mentality. . . . Making others aware of one’s personal and ancestral guilt gives evidence of virtuous intention and signifies a reaching out to the benighted in one’s own society and to bigots and victims elsewhere.
The phrase “ancestral guilt” tells fully of the ontological claim in the redemptory argument. Sex and skin-color, language and parentage, are nowadays posited by the saints as indicia of an individual’s moral state, as is, in the opposite way, a professed sympathy with the downtrodden and abused. The politics of guilt is also the politics of the good intention. The accession to power of the therapeutic order thus entails many paradoxes. The secular theocracy does not launch unambiguous blitzkriegs or establish indisputable gulags, but it is zealous in its determination to eradicate vice—and this insistence extends all the way to the employment of Faustrecht, just as Janet Reno demonstrated in the case of the Branch Davidians. Above all else, the regime of sensitivity cannot tolerate the existence of rivals, a fact underscored by the common derivation of both the Koresh-cult and the implacable politics-of-caring that quashed it from a Calvinist idea of opposition between the elect, who know who they are, and the preterit, who are barely human and whose knowledge is an illusion consisting of wicked falsehoods. This notion of an elite stems from a Gnostic concept of election (chosen-ness, ontological superiority), where it serves to justify all the deeds of the priesthood; in such a zealous dispensation, whether ancient or modern, no two elites can occupy the same cultural space at the same time. By the same token, only sensitized liberals can be allowed to teach in taxpayer-funded humanities departments, and only judges vetted by the National Organization of Women can be allowed to serve on the Supreme Court. Christian symbols must not encumber public spaces, like schools, but students on the other hand must dress up in Muslim garb—as some in California were asked to do in the aftermath of September, 2001—in order better to understand the ubiquitous “other.” In accepting such impositions, Gottfried notes, “Euro-Americans express a collective duty to atone for their racist past.” That widespread resistance to the ritual is not apparent suggests that the “program of mental purgation” entailed by multiculturalism in the managerial-therapeutic context will likely continue unhindered into the foreseeable future.
Gottfried’s level of alarm is high, and Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt thus makes for painful reading—precisely because the book presents its case so convincingly. Not coincidentally, Gottfried is associated with the journal Chronicles and with the attendant Rockford Institute, where the theory is that in a collapsed civilization it is up to individuals to create islands of ethical order of their own in the sea of moral chaos and barbarian intimidation. On the other hand, Gottfried is also a university humanities professor, and the vocation of teaching implies a kind of faith in the future, no matter how much that faith is tempered by empirical conditions. Readers of The Politics of Guilt should be aware of another book, Howard Schwartz’s Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness, especially of its chapter on “The Sexual Holy War and the Meaning of Work.” Where Gottfried undertakes a Nietzschean (and Voegelinian and Girardian) analysis of secular religion, Schwartz undertakes a Freudian analysis of the same, but the arguments converge. Schwartz, like Gottfried, sees multiculturalism, feminism, and the cult of sensitivity as a recrudescence of religious primitivism against the real gains—and complexities—of modern life. A dialogue between Schwartz and Gottfried would be most interesting. Perhaps, in some far-sighted forum, it might occur.
Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English literature at SUNY, Oswego.