The Appeal of the New Totalitarians

I am not a follower or a fan of baseball. But I understand that it is, or has been, an important national pastime, beloved by many, not least, as Andrew McCarthy observes in a recent column, because it offered its acolytes a respite or oasis from politics, an arena where our differences of opinion could be redeemed or at least temporarily forgotten in the benign if intense partisanship of fandom. 

It is for this reason that, impervious though I am to the charms of the sport, I regard with disdain the decision on the part of the woke commissars who run Major League Baseball to abandon Atlanta, Georgia. The reason they gave was that Georgia had passed new voter rights legislation requiring, among other things, that voters present valid identification in order to be eligible to vote. They called that a violation of “fair access to voting” when in fact it is legislation, very similar to that in effect in many other states, whose chief effect will be to make elections fairer. You need an ID to board a plane, check into a hotel, enter most urban businesses, but not to vote? 

I see that Delta Airlines has also joined the woke brigade by taking a public stand against the Georgia legislation. How will the airline respond if you refuse to show a valid identification before boarding? (After Delta finished with its woke high horse, American Airlines borrowed it to present its own little exhibition of politically correct grandstanding with respect to similar legislation in Texas.) 

This is all just business as usual in what more and more seems like the twilight of the republic. The cultural critic Stephen Soukup has anatomized the phenomenon in a new book that we just published at Encounter called The Dictatorship of Woke Capital: How Political Correctness Captured Big Business. Quite apart from its illuminating historical analysis, the book is a plea to turn away from the politicization of everything that stands behind such phenomena as sports concessions and airlines—to say nothing of Hollywood, the media, and the fount of it all, academia—insinuating politics into every dimension of life. “The choice here,” Soukup writes in his conclusion, “is simple.”

If we, as a civilization allow even the spirit of capitalism to become part of “the political” and part of the total state, then we will have order—for however long that lasts. If we resist the politicization of business and of capital markets, however; if we determine for ourselves that disorder and depoliticization are the preferable options, then we not only preserve liberty but also preserve the spirit of innovation and expression that harnesses liberty to create wealth and prosperity.

I think Soukup is correct, and his analysis of the way the totalizing process of the politicization of everything has proceeded in other situations should give us all pause. 

Political correctness has always had a silly as well as a minatory side. The silly side is evident in its juvenile narcissism. It is so obviously a product of a rich and leisured society that it is hard to take its antics seriously. There is a reason that it had its origins in the academy. Those privileged eyries could afford to allow their charges to prance around whining about how oppressed or “triggered” or offended they were since they occupied the coddled purlieus of a place apart—apart from the serious business of everyday life and in this country, anyway, apart from the less forgiving imperatives of genuine want. 

But as the spirit of political correctness has leached out into society at large, its antics have assumed a more threatening aspect. This is something that Rod Dreher put his finger on in “Elites vs. America,” his column that takes off from the embarrassing behavior of Major League Baseball to consider the progress of woke ideology in America circa 2021. It is not a cheery tale. 

What is the America against which the elites have pitched themselves? It is the America articulated in the Declaration of Independence: a polity founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Where are we today? Dreher quotes the governor of Vermont, who a few days ago tweeted the news that “If you or anyone in your household identifies as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC), including anyone with Abenaki or other First Nations heritage, all household members who are 16 years or older can sign up to get a vaccine!” So, all men are created equal, but some are more equal than others. 

Dreher began his column with an arresting quotation from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. In a section about the “temporary alliance between the mob and the elite,” Arendt observes that “The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” 

“The destruction of civilization.” It’s a melodramatic formulation, to be sure, but it was entirely apt for the situation Arendt was analyzing. That was the price the elites did, in fact, pay. We are living at a moment that is both increasingly fissiparous and increasingly dominated by a totalizing ideology, the ideology of racialist wokeness and radical sexual exoticism. 

More and more, the disciples of that species of “politics-is-everything” determine the lineaments of our social life. Give obeisance or leave your job. Mouth the platitudes or forgo admission to college. Carry the placards or risk ostracism. To those who are lucky enough to have found a niche on the sidelines apart from the machine-like demands for loyalty (“silence is violence”), the whole process can still seem faintly comical or at least absurd. 

But there is a distinctly malevolent aspect to what is unfolding, as Arendt saw with brutal lucidity. It’s easy to understand and reject the horrors of totalitarianism. It is much less easy to grasp its inexorable logic or its seemingly implacable attractions. It was part of Arendt’s genius to grasp and explain that side of the phenomenon as well, the “irresistible appeal of the totalitarian movements’ spurious claim to have abolished the separation between private and public life and to have restored a mysterious irrational wholeness in man.” It’s what makes the effort to transform politics into God so appealing to susceptible souls, and so dangerous for society as a whole.

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: Abbie Parr/Getty Images

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