What’s the highest pleasure known to man? Christian theologians talk about the visio beatifica, the “beatific vision” of God.
Alas, that communion is granted to very few in this life. For the common run of mankind, I suspect, the highest pleasure is moral infatuation.
Like a heartbeat, moral infatuation has a systolic and diastolic phase. In the systolic phase, there is an abrupt contraction of sputtering indignation: fury, outrage, high horses everywhere. Delicious.
Then there is the gratifying period of recovery: the warm bath of self-satisfaction, set like a jelly in a communal ecstasy of unanchored virtue signaling.
The communal element is key. For while individuals may experience and enjoy moral infatuation, the overall effect is greatly magnified when shared.
One case in point was afforded by the mass ecstasy that accompanied Maximilien Robespierre’s effort to establish a Republic of Virtue in 1793.
The response to Donald Trump’s comments about the murderous violence that erupted in Charlottesville last week provides another vivid example.
Trump’s chief tort was to have suggested that there was “blame on both sides” as well as “good people” on both sides at the Charlottesville protest. I am not sure there were an abundance of “good people” on either side of the divide that day, although Trump’s main point was to distinguish between lawful protest and hate-fueled violence. But forget about distinctions. The paroxysms of rage that greeted Trump were a marvel to behold, as infectious as they were unbounded. One prominent commentator spoke for the multitude when he described Trump’s response as a “moral disgrace.”
I didn’t think so, but then I thought that Trump was correct when he suggested that the alt-Left is just as much a problem as the alt-Right. Indeed, if we needed to compare the degree of iniquity of the neo-nazis, “white supremacists,” and Ku Kluxers, on the one hand, and Antifa and its fellow travelers, on the other, I am not at all sure which would come out the worse. Real Nazis—the kind that popped up like mushrooms in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s—are scary. But American “neo-nazis”? They are tiny bunch of pathetic losers. The Ku Klux Klan was a murderous Democratic terrorist group in its earlier incarnations. Now it too is a tiny bunch (the Anti-Defamation League says it has 5,000-8,000 members) of impotent malcontents.
Antifa has brought its racialist brand of violent protest to campuses and demonstrations around the country: smashing heads as well as property. I suspect that paid-up, full-time members of the group are few, but the ideology of identity politics that they feed upon is a gruesome specialité de la maison of the higher education establishment today.
I also thought that Trump was right to ask where the erasure of history would end. This week it was a statue of Robert E. Lee. But why stop there? Why not pronounce a damnatio memoriae on the entire history of the Confederacy? There are apparently some 1,500 monuments and memorials to the Confederacy in public spaces across the United States. Some of them were erected during the Jim Crow era, something else that was brought to you courtesy of the Democratic Party.
According to one study, a majority of these memorials were “commissioned by white women, in hope of preserving a positive vision of antebellum life.” Why not obliterate all of them? And what about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington? They both owned slaves, as did 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. What about them? To listen to many race peddlers, you would think they regarded Orwell’s warning in 1984 as an aspiration: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been re-painted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.”
Plato was right when he said that politicians are essentially rhetoricians. Rhetoric succeeds or fails not because of its logic or intellectual substance but on the question of its emotional appeal. By that standard, I’d say that Donald Trump, though often rhetorically effective (note that I did not say “eloquent”), missed an important rhetorical opportunity at Charlottesville. He didn’t understand that the politically correct dispensation that rules academia, the media, the Democratic party, and large swathes of the corporate world requires a certain ritual homage to be paid to its reigning pieties about “racism” in America.
I put “racism” in quotes because, as the Australian philosopher David Stove observed in the late 1980s, the word is a neologism so recent that it was still not in The Oxford English Dictionary as late as 1971. But, he notes,
it swept all before it once it did arrive. Nowadays, you cannot open a daily paper or a popular periodical without meeting it. You wonder how journalists could possibly have managed without this word until recently. A politician must now neglect no opportunity to pronounce a curse on “racism.” He can probably still remember the very first time he heard the word, yet he must now pretend that he had always had “racism” on his curse-list.
Doubtless there are many things to criticize about Donald Trump. But being racist isn’t among those things. What infuriates his critics—but at the same time affords them so many opportunities to bathe in the gratifying fluid of their putative moral superiority—is that Trump refuses to collude in the destructive, politically correct charade according to which “racism” is the nearly ubiquitous cardinal sin of white America. He is having none of that, and his refusal to go along with the attempted moral blackmail is driving his critics to distraction.
It is just possible that skirling pack of witch hunters will manage to drive Trump from office or so undermine his effectiveness that he becomes a spent force. I do not think that will happen. It seems to me more likely that Conrad Black, writing last week in the aftermath of Charlottesville, was right: “The campaign of defamation against Trump will fail, and if the Democrats and pseudo-Republicans don’t get to higher ground soon, Trump will pull together the responsible Right and most of the center and wax the Warren Democrats by a margin that will make the Nixon and Reagan reelections look like photo-finishes.”
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