Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt
Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt
We now live in a "Sensitized World." Not sufficiently displaying public niceties or speaking in a sensitive manner about politically protected groups is the new social sin.
I keep coming back to Paul Gottfried’s excellent book, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt (from here on MPG). As with most of Gottfried’s writings, it is remarkable in its clear, yet nuanced, unfolding of the central themes of our time. Among the most fundamental and prevalent “Dominant Social Themes” (as Anthony Wile of The Daily Bell used to call them) is an underlying narrative of the “systematic problems” of social hatred and intolerance. These phrases, however vague and indefinite they may seem, do not refer to general tendencies, but rather to the alleged reality of specific victimized social classes, only indirectly related to economic status.
The latter qualification regarding economic status is important for Gottfried’s framework because he relies heavily on his well-researched and argued observation that something happened to the radical, once-Marxist left. The left (especially the American left), he argues, was once wholly dependent on narratives relating to economic victims. The statist efforts to solve various economic circumstances produced what he, in his prior book After Liberalism, refers to as “the managerial state.”
The managerial state was supposed to be the perfection of social democracy, with the victim groups similar to Karl Marx’s: the laborers, the proletariate, the impoverished, etc. The managerial state sought to expand its influence in order to protect the economically under privileged. It developed arguments for things like minimum wage laws, labor unions, and rent control.
But things have changed, at least in emphasis. Interestingly for readers of this site, Gottfried observes (in his book The Strange Death of Marxism, page 56) that one source of this change was the complete demolition of a Marxist economic system by, among others, Ludwig von Mises. Mises, of course, showed that without the existence of prices, there could be no economic calculation. And without such calculation, there was no foundation on which to decide the proper employment of scarce resources. Thus, states Gottfried in The Strange Death of Marxism,
The effect of [Mises’] challenge was to push Western Marxists further in the direction of Neomarxism, a form of socialist thinking that borrowed from Marx with increasing selectivity. Neomarxists called themselves qualified Marxists without accepting all of Marx’s historical and economic theories but while upholding socialism against capitalism, as a moral position.
Now, fast forward to the theme of MPG: the left, while of course still employing many economic narratives, seems to have doubled down on a different type of social victimization. Thus, the managerial state eventually gave way to a different kind of state, with new classes of victims and new programs to fix the “problems.” The new costume that the state has put on is what Gottfried refers to as “the therapeutic state.”
Rather than seeing the victim classes in terms of economics, the new victims are those who are culturally underrepresented and “socially oppressed.” The main key terms in this new phenomenon include “racism,” “sexism,” and “homophobia.” Even as I write this, there is a new budding victim-block: the transvestite “community” with a renewed and horrifying emphasis on highlighting the children caught up in this group.
Gottfried mentions that this study of the transition from managerial statism to therapeutic statism should “[begin] with a treatment of the turning of the administrative state, particularly in the United States, away from purely material programs, such as expanded entitlements, toward behavior control.” This treatment is handled in chapter one. In it, he discusses the rise of an emphasis in state-driven “multicultural educational plans” and stiff laws against “insensitive speech and writing.”
Everything for the therapeutic state boils down to which social class one belongs. Individuals are seen not as an individual with rights and the opportunity to make oneself successful (this is dismissed by the therapeutic state as the “heresy of meritocracy”). Rather, they are seen as a member of either a minority and oppressed class, or a member of the oppressing class based on things which are beyond one’s control. In this way, one can’t help it if they were born in oppression and only the state can save them from the evil environment which surrounds.
In the 20th century, upon the failure of economic socialism, the adoption of therapeutic inclinations was the state changing its garments. It does not emphasize in the propaganda outlets as having as its primary role in lifting the impoverished man out of poverty as it once did. It certainly does claim to play that role still, but the dominant social themes of today are things like multiculturalism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. The state is rushing to make people feel better, to blame the world around for too much “judging” and “shaming” and “hating.” We see it in the media and in the movies. We hear it on the radio and on the talk shows. It is all around us and it is intentional. These social themes aren’t arbitrary or random.
This phenomenon in the United States has created a peculiar situation wherein the growth of western governments is such that,
though the United States as a redistributionist state has lagged behind other governments, in one respect it has created the authoritative model for the rest of the world. Our welfare state since midcentury has become increasingly preoccupied with modifying social behavior. And while American administrative democracy has not gone as far economically as nationalizing production, it has moved into socializing “citizens” through publicly controlled education and wars against discrimination.
Such reconstructionist initiatives have been taken in response to what the state, the media, and “victim” groups designate as a crisis, a surging outburst of prejudice that supposedly must be contained and whose representatives need to be reeducated.
Here we have the foundations of what has recently been referred to as a sort of cultural marxism— wherein, because Marxism as an economic doctrine has been unable to withstand the arguments made against it by free-marketers, the emphasis has shifted from economic class warfare to other forms of identitarian class warfare, primarily focused on sexual preference, gender, and race.
But not only is there such identitarian-based class warfare, there is, more importantly, an underlying authoritarianism wrapped around the veneer of “kindness.” In my opinion, this is the heart of Gottfried’s contribution in this book. There are certain social expectations that are managed by the political class, the media, and the intellectuals that intends to morph and manage public opinion. In this form of authoritarianism, the culture of democracy as an alleged representative process is part of the program.
In the postwar period, particularly since the sixties, the administrative state, most plainly in the United States, has come to define itself through a struggle against social pathology. In this struggle the distribution of entitlements has not been the sole or even major justification for extensive political control. More essential have been “fairness,” “caring,” “openness,” and other ideals attached to behavioral policies. And these policies have moved in a particular direction: toward delegitimating established social and familial arrangements while normalizing unconventional and experimental human groupings.
We are expected to take for granted, and view as beyond critical discussion, “universal nations,” “open communities,” “homosexual family units,” and “pluralistic cultures.” Note these reformulations are not simply the hobbyhorses of journalistic cliques or of isolated action committees. These things thrive because of government agencies, the judiciary, and public education. They represent what democracy as public administration holds up as the happy alternative to how things used to be. And if the state moves boldly to ban insensitivity, that may be necessary to avoid mass backsliding into life “before the Sixties.”
Part and parcel to this authoritarian impulse, this attempt to re-mold society in accordance with the Therapeutic Vision, is the need to massage public opinion via a manipulation of the language. Thus, dissenters from the Narrative, or even those who simply don’t express interest, are said to be sympathetic to pre-1960s discriminatory culture, neo-fascist, and even neo-Nazi. Labels such as “racist,” because they are now applied in a general way to so many people, merely by virtue of the cultural class they were born into, are now not strong enough. Thus, as Gottfried points out in this book (and elsewhere), stronger phrases are flooding back into the mainstream, some of which may include “white supremacist,” “white nationalist,” and Fascist. In this way, language itself is becoming a tool for those who seek to control society via the therapeutic state. There is a strong move to make vague the clear rhetoric of prior times.
Brilliantly subtitling his book “Toward a Secular Theocracy,” Gottfried observes a disturbing adoption of religious phraseology to support their narrative. The secularized version of the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity puts certain classes of victimizers in a state of social sinfulness by virtue of the race and class they were born into, independent of their own decisions and voluntary beliefs. Theologically, Calvinism of course teaches that men are bound in their sin such that they cannot by their own volition achieve the righteousness standards of a God who demands perfection unto his eternally just standard. The morphing of this theme into a weapon of the secular state is especially insightful.
Gottfried draws a parallel between the liberal religious themes of public atonement, “dying to oneself,” and responsibility for the sins of one’s father and the phenomenon of politically correct movements.
This kind of [secular theocratic] regime, which imposes political correctness and interprets sin as insensitive behavior, builds steadily upon pervasive social guilt, an attitude and sentiment instilled by American religious culture. It can also be argued that mental and conceptual bridges continue to link the current liberal religion to older American Christian symbols, themes, and experiences. […]
What has allowed today’s fashionable Christian ideas to progress is not only “obscene niceness” but also residual memory. Contemporary liberal Christianity combines rituals of Western self-rejection with established Protestant attitudes about individuality and equality, the radically fallen state of the sinner, and the simultaneous self-debasement and self-elevation of the saint.
A very good example of all this can be seen in the short exchange between Tucker Carlson and his recent guest, a woman who argues in favor of a law in Belgium that criminalizes phrases that “express contempt” for women. The core of the crime, according to guest Cathy Areu, is actually the thought itself, which was the source of the phrase. Society, she argued, needs to be rid of these sinful thoughts and until that happens, people should be prosecuted for expressing them. The Social Organizers, apparently, focus not just on violent actions, but on “the heart” which produces the actions. This is a very clear example of the borrowing of religious themes by the authoritarian Left.
Another item of particular note is Gottfried’s intriguing discussion how social opinions are managed. Gottfried’s observations here are too important to be merely summarized, so I quote at length:
There are at least three ways in which managerial regimes are now engaged in managing consensus. One is for political and media opinion setters to stress that agreement has already been reached, for example, over immigration or multicultural programs; therefore those who oppose the policies now agreed upon either have missed the debate or are stirring up needless controversy.
The second course is what German spokespersons of conscience call Vergangenheitsbewältigung (overcoming the past) and their opponents call Vergangenheitskeule (employing the past as a club). By harping on the real or imagined evils of the past, proponents of state-controlled socialization appeal to the guilty conscience of their listeners. They meanwhile energize the American liberal Protestant mentality and furnish occasions for exhibitions of public righteousness.
But for those who continue to hold out, there is the possibility of treating dissent as a form of illness. Those who disagree with a policy to make us more “diverse,” to help expunge the remnants of fascism, or to accommodate the marginalized are prejudiced and therefore sick. Their sickness requires treatment by professionals whom the state certifies or by sensitive judges who understand the effect of hate speech. In Canada this approach to the sick-prejudiced has been seized on by the courts, which enforce both federal and provincial hate speech codes: “Prosecutors are not required to show proof of malicious intent or actual harm to win convictions in hate speech cases, and courts in some jurisdictions have ruled that it does not matter whether the statements are truthful.”
In an interview with Washington Post reporter Steven Pearlstein, secretary general of the Canadian Human Rights Commission John Hucker explains “our position,” that “you can’t rely simply on the free exchange of ideas to cleanse the environment of hate and intolerance.”
And again, since this is an issue of the “heart” or the mind, not merely of actions, Gottfried writes:
The keeping of “prejudice,” however it may be defined, from becoming oppressive is thought to require state control of social relations, to be guided by “social professionals.” This last point in particular has not gone unnoticed, and perceptive commentators, including Thomas Szasz, Philip Rieff, and Christopher Lasch, underscore the connection between public administration and coercive social and psychiatric services. One reason this cooperation has progressed is that social ideologues, working hand in glove with the state, have been able to depict unfashionable thinkers and retrograde views as “pathological.”
Those who express “prejudice” or who try to open questions that the political class has decided to close do so presumably because they are “sick.” Thus Atlanta pitcher John Rocker, who made disparaging remarks in an interview with Sports Illustrated about the gays, blacks, and Third World travelers he had encountered on Subway Train 7 in New York, was delivered, after a media outcry, to psychiatric care. What would seem more brutal insults directed against whites, policemen, and women by a Seventy Sixer basketball star and black rap singer Alan Iverson did not bring forth a comparable demand for psychiatric solutions.
Unlike Iverson’s vocal artistry, Rocker’s comments, it was decided, were “prejudiced.” They were the unguarded sentiments of a rural white Southerner, which were aimed at politically protected groups and were therefore symptomatic of a sick personality. Not all insults directed at minorities, as seen from this starkly ideological perspective, are “pathological.” Such an epithet is reserved for what the political class does not wish to hear or have said.
Gottfried goes to great lengths to demonstrate the emphasis that the Social Managers place on social guilt, leveraging remorse in order to pressure majorities into accepting affirmative action-type policies. Social guilt is a powerful weapon that is used to silence dissenters and dismiss objectors as perpetuating “hate.” He uses several examples, including: the collective guilt that is expected to be assumed by individuals in the American South, by virtue of their “racist past,” and the even harsher collective guilt that Germans are duty bound to carry due to the historical Nazi treatment of certain people groups. It is precisely because of this class-guilt that these so-called victimizers are expected to not cause trouble as laws are implemented with the intention of addressing historical and collectively-based injustices.
Like Germans, Americans have been exhorted, and now wish to “overcome the past.” That past, including the recent one, is believed to have been so insensitive that it behooves us to root it out—and to assist a caring state toward that end. Although some of the cultural past may be allowed to survive—for example, brownstone buildings that can be gentrified, a symphony or Flemish tableau vivant that minorities may like, or a still “living constitution” that advances social engineering—most of our Eurocentric heritage is thought to express and transmit a reactionary consciousness. From the standpoint of the media and minority representatives, the removal of this consciousness is an eternally present task—and one that must be addressed by reforming public education, renaming buildings and streets, and removing “noninclusive” flags and monuments.
It is important to note that while above I referred to this social authoritarian “Niceness” as a phenomenon of the modern Left, this is not meant to exempt modern day conservatives. I agree with Gottfried’s general Left-Right framework such that what passes for conservatism these days is actually social leftism. In this sense then, neoconservatives have won the day in terms of dominating the definition of modern conservatism, though Gottfried would lament that True Conservatives (not to be confused with the Alt-Right, which he also perceives to be non-traditionalist) have merely been purged from the movement. Thus, Gottfried writes:
Such a strenuous project would seem to have its home on the political left. But in the United States the establishment Right has competed with its opponents in calling for the obliteration of certain insensitive appurtenances of the inherited culture. Conservative celebrities rush to affirm the social progress they believe has been made in the war against prejudice; they dwell on how much the United States has improved in their lifetimes as a result of these extraordinary exertions.
Neoconservative and moderate feminist Daphne Patai deplores recent government zeal in the prosecution of sexual harassment but approves of the concept behind it: “For a brief time it did identify something outrageous that needed to be stopped.” And Patai insists that the heterophobia that pervades contemporary feminism would have been entirely acceptable a hundred years ago. Feminists “would have been justified in taking a more aggressive stance at a time when women’s relationships with men were characterized above all by women’s civic inequality, their extreme economic dependence, their lack of education, and their vulnerability to constant pregnancy.” Patai begins her critique by negatively describing those Western societies in which feminist consciousness has not yet come to prevail.
And in another place:
Today the Center Left criticizes the Center Right for being objectively racist, sexist, or homophobic, that is, for not being sufficiently supportive of compensatory justice and affirmative action. It also accuses “conservatives” of issuing coded remarks about minorities by playing up “crime” and “family values,” unless it decides to appropriate the same code words for itself. Meanwhile “conservatives” scold their opponents for “misinterpreting” the achievements of the civil rights movement, by wrongly associating that noble crusade with “reverse discrimination.” They also maintain that “liberals” insult the legacy of the women’s movement by falsely imagining that working women want more, and not less, economic control by the state. Whether or not the arguments that come from both sides are disingenuous is beside the point: Whatever crusades against discrimination have been launched by the administrative state since the 1960s have become a sacred legacy—and one that only those who are condemned as hopelessly bigoted would challenge.
While American parties and ideologues wrangle about governmental regulation of business and abortion, or whether the distribution of firearms among the populace should be more or less restricted, agreement has been achieved on what European social critics call “la culture unique.” All respectable members of the political culture profess sensitivity on minority issues, call for open borders or “universal nations,” and deplore the opening of moral questions that should have been settled by the awareness of past collective wrongs. Such sins include, but are not exhausted by, sexism, homophobia, slavery, and a by now multifunctional Holocaust, guilt for which has been ascribed to Jewish indifference as well as to Christian malice. The facing of these catastrophes, as an unsubdued past, requires a vigilant, progressive state. Its intervention, moreover, is viewed not as a settled matter but as something that must go on continuously, lest bad habits come to the surface. Thus we read about the renewal of agencies to police once discriminatory voting districts in the American South, and about perpetual federal and state commissions to ensure minority representation both in the workforce and at educational institutions. In Europe judges and state officials make object lessons of those who question details of the Holocaust, deprecate Islamic theology, or propose to restrict immigration.
The adoption of the politically correct narrative spans the entire establishment political spectrum. Even these modern conservatives would look aghast on anyone (Ron Paul) who would have the audacity to oppose the “Progress” of legislative accomplishments such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The libertarian criticism of such a law is that it, in various ways, grows the Federal Government, sets further dangerous precedence of ignoring the nature of federalism according to the Constitution, and, most importantly, directly intervenes with private property rights. However, such reasonable opposition to the Social Intervention via the central state, is seen as mere justification for racism and social regress. Such criticisms of opposition to these mid-20th century efforts appear equally on the modern and establishment political “right and left”— which therefore leads me to view all of them as a product of Progressive, inherently leftist thinking.
In conclusion, to adopt Gottfried’s phrase, we now live in a Sensitized World. Not sufficiently displaying public niceties or speaking in a sensitive manner about politically protected groups is the new social sin. And it truly does have ramifications for political freedom as well. As Gottfried notes, “the politics of recognition is no more than what its name signifies, the reduction of identity to a political tool that elites may wield as they see fit.” And it is not just a tool for domestic control:
Finally, those making these choices do not have to target specifically Western peoples while working for cultural and mental changes. In advertising a meeting of the OAS, scheduled to convene in Windsor in the spring of 2000, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs expressed its commitment to making the gathering “more inclusive, conducted in a spirit of international transparency and openness.” But while this apparent statement of goodwill was framed in multicultural cliché, it also revealed a starkly imperialist intention.
The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs gave as “Canada’s goal” for sponsoring OAS activities the promotion of “the Inter-American Children’s Institute, the Inter-American Commission of Women, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.” Every one of these organizations, assigned by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs to “the family of Inter-American institutions,” aims at altering social patterns as they are found in traditional non-Western societies. Third World critics are correct when they charge these commissions and the UN agencies designed to recondition populations with being instruments of Western imperialism. The advocates of behavior modification are clearly proud that their efforts are now reaching beyond a Western base.
Despite the obvious ethical and economic objections to the policies and programs of Donald Trump, is it any wonder that there was a major social backlash, a cultural blowback against the establishment cultural authoritarianism. It’s easy to criticize Trump in terms of economic policy and increased harm done to private property rights; but observing Trump in the setting of a nation in the throes of intense cultural war, leads to a much more mindful analysis of his rise.
Contra increased identity politics at the national level, radical decentralization is everything. It is the pinnacle of Government and Leftist repudiation. In a world gone mad with the degeneration of language and hysterical labels being thrown about in complete absence of rationality (ie, people who disagree with others are “fascist” and “neo-Nazi”), decentralization and real secession is akin to pulling out the rug from underneath the progressive statists. For cultural conservatives, the point needs to be driven home that taking the battle to Washington and dominating the Federal state keeps the progressive platform alive and well.
But in dissenting, both mentally and physically, from the central state, the entire progressive power structure comes crashing down. Decentralization is everything precisely because the hysterical left needs centralization to push their anti-social narratives.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Austro Libertarian. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and others. He owns several consulting business and actively works on the magazine, for Tom Woods, and lives in Northern CA.