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 andpresumably
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.

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