It is impossible to expunge from the human mind the idea that punishment is the correct response to wrongdoing.
Amid the disruptions of his own time, William Butler Yeats noted that “The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” That was a hundred years ago. Despite what you might call the prosaic diction, the lines have worn pretty well, and they’ve done so because they hit their mark with the speed and assuredness of a well-laced ball to a wide receiver on a slant route.
Almost nothing in “The Second Coming” fails of its effect: “rough beast,” “vexed to nightmare,” “blood-dimmed tide,” “slouching towards Bethlehem.” For good reason, it is a “thoroughly pillaged” poem, as one writer has sneeringly put it. We even have a New Yorker cartoon in which a physician, looking at his clipboard, says to his patient, “Your best cholesterol lacks all conviction, and your worst is full of passionate intensity.” That’s almost funny enough to get a smile from a humorless Jacobin in an ivory tower.
Amid the disruptions of our own time, when it really does seem as if the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, I would put the poem in as many heads as possible. But as the gyre widens and the falconers go hoarse for yelling, I return more readily to the epigrammatist J.V. Cunningham, who was impatient with what he called “professionals of experience” who seek out crises to prove how strong they are. He called such people “fools” and accused them of “flaunt[ing] a presumptuous innocence.” Here is the poem in full and in all its surgical precision:
If wisdom, as it seems it is,
Be the recovery of some bliss
From the conditions of disaster—
Terror the servant, man the master—
It does not follow we should seek
Crises to prove ourselves unweak.
Much of our lives, God knows, is error,
But who will trifle with unrest?
These fools who would solicit terror,
Obsessed with being unobsessed;
Professionals of experience
Who have disasters to withstand them
As if fear never had unmanned them,
Flaunt a presumptuous innocence.
I have preferred indifference.
During this summer of our discontent, once again the easy binaries of ideology triumph over the subtleties of history: our paper of record accounts as devils the giants of the past because they owned slaves but reveres as gods the dwarfs of the moment because they loot businesses. In such times, it is difficult to believe that wisdom is anything like the recovery of bliss from the conditions of disaster. To read the papers you’d think wisdom is the disaster.
What is not difficult to believe is that the coincidence of a pandemic and racial unrest have combined to provide Cunningham’s “professionals of experience” with the exact crises they have been hoping for, the crises that will not merely prove them unweak but also, at long last, afford them the chance to step in and take their rightful places as masters of all—with terror their servant, of course, in strict accordance with the official revolutionary formula scripted in 1789 (or 1793; take your pick).
I acknowledge the cynicism in this and confess to being uncomfortable with it. But I can’t possibly be alone in being dismayed at the hubris of academics—obsessed, as usual, with being unobsessed—who would go so far as to appoint themselves educators of police officers. I say nothing of the epidemiologists and other “experts” vexed to the very core about whether to ignore their own lock-down instructions so they can join a protest, because, you know, Silence is Violence, and you’re not really one of the socially reprobate if you gather in large numbers for The Right Causes.
Even the nicest people are unbearable right now, with their lists of must-read books and their instructions on how to get the right things out of them.
Tell me, though: does the quietude that comes of circumspection also fall within the new axiomatic verities concerning silence? “A fool uttereth all his mind,” said Solomon, “but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards.” Is even the wise man violent now?
The End of History?
The thing to do these days is not to keep your counsel but to flaunt a presumptuous innocence. You are to pray on the street corners; wear sackcloth; put on ashes. The Professionals of Experience would have it thus. Trifle with unrest. Solicit terror.
And then participate in the moral cleansings: the condemnations by category that have spared no one with any stink about him whatsoever—not Jefferson Davis, not George Washington, not Robert E. Lee or Woodrow Wilson or even Aunt Jemima. Scrub history clean. Cauterize that little place in the brain where bad memories are kept. Only then will all be well.
But why stop there? Why not simply outlaw the judicious study of the past and require that it be policed instead, making sure everyone knows that the past exists only for us to pick through until all the people less pure than we are have been thrown in the river to sink with the statue of Christopher Columbus? Why not revoke the tenure of all historians who refuse to turn their discipline into consciousness-raising? Folks at the Chronicle of Higher Education are staying up nights providing me with advice on how to talk about racism in my classes. I’m afraid there won’t be any time left over for Paradise Lost, which is what the students have actually signed up to hear me talk about.
To engage in this scrubbing and cauterizing is to presume that you have arrived at the end of moral development, that you are the historian who at last stands outside history. Vigilantes have taken the law into their own hands before, but today’s mob is right to do so. These new vigilantes have disasters to withstand them, as if fear never had unmanned them.
Much of their lives, God knows, is error? Nay. None of it.
But it is a species of moral arrogance, not to mention a profound failure of historical imagination, to pass a breathtakingly severe judgment on your forebears, whether near or distant, especially having made no attempt whatsoever to historicize them. And only that same arrogance can then fail to imagine that your descendants, even more bereft of historical awareness than you are, won’t do the same to you, or that there will be no standard left to judge you by—the standard having already been set, today, by you.
The statues you raise today won’t be razed tomorrow? Don’t bet on it.
The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned
If you leave aside the impressive paucity of nuance in the new outrage—an outrage that can detect wrongs done to racial minorities or to members of the gender-legionnaire or to dogs left in cars but none to the dead or the unborn—you are still left with an astonishing lack of charitableness about it all. The standard of judgment according to which you discredit Thomas Jefferson for having owned slaves is a standard that must of necessity discredit every one of us, unless you’re lucky enough to be the one who is without sin and who therefore gets to cast the first stone—a stone that never used to be cast until the morally pure Professionals of Experience arrived on the scene. But the standard would discredit even today’s “pure,” and they’re the crowning achievement, the very apotheosis, of moral evolution. Plus the standard that discredits Jefferson would leave them without the high principles of the Declaration of Independence.
When even the Morally Pure can’t get the Golden Rule right, we’re in for some trouble.
And so we must, as ever, call things by their right names. The Morally Pure are nihilists of the first water: believing in nothing and yet coming to the uncomfortable realization that as humans they ought to believe in something, they cast about for the wrongs that will cost them nothing to oppose. Notwithstanding their revolutionary furor, they follow, like water, the path of least resistance. So they rage against sexism. They rage against homophobia. They especially rage against racism, and they alone know exactly what it is and who the real racists are. No living person will oppose them, and the statue of no dead person can.
The danger these nihilists face is plain to everyone but themselves: they will be followed in time by more nihilists, whose emptiness will be as capacious, whose methods as specious, and whose zeal as consuming as their own. They too will boom like kettle drums—and be just as empty. Today’s Woke will be accounted fast asleep by tomorrow’s Woker, who will also account themselves the wokest who ever walked or talked.
And so there will be an infinite regression of nihilists. The reason for it should not be difficult of description: there abides in so many of us a great disquietude, an apparently imperishable human need: to feel superior.
Writers as different as James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) and Wendell Berry (The Hidden Wound) have both said that at the heart of racism itself is this very need, the need to feel superior. I do not see any evidence that the virtue-signaling antiracists have conquered in themselves the need to feel superior. At the moment they are both powerful and repugnant.
But the heads on the statues they erect today will also be severed. They will be severed because the presumptuous innocence that the Morally Pure flaunt will eventually meet with another presumptuous innocence, which in time will also meet itself, and so on and so on. Boom! goes the kettle drum, and all the while on the inside that same great noise-making emptiness. Yeats was right to say “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
They Don’t Really Want What They Want
Moreover, the Morally Pure cannot afford to see vanish the crises they seek and cling to. Nothing is dearer to the agitator than the inequity or injustice that gives him his raison d’être. He will be quite happy, in the name of charity, to have “systemic racism” keep its grip on the world until he reaches retirement age; in the name of charity, she will deny that the gains of feminism have been anything but token so long as tenure-track jobs and book contracts are still being offered. And both have so little to say; neither knows how to talk about anything else.
I dare say that the morally nuanced, by contrast, will not fail of actual charity. For example, they will acknowledge the indisputable greatness of Martin Luther King, Jr., without requiring that the monuments to him be removed because of his manifest moral failures. Like you and me, Dr. King was sometimes wrong. But fallibility is one of those human traits that transcends us, and in transcending, unites. The Morally Pure, by contrast, have transcended fallibility itself. But in transcending it they have declined its unifying properties. They are not helping—not one bit. If they aren’t careful they just might buy themselves another four years of Mr. Trump, the only upside to which is that, obsessed with being unobsessed, they will still have a raison d’être.
It gets worse: they have all the firepower of the academy to back them. From every grove of academe, bold administrators write their statements condemning racism, as if condemning racism on a college campus were costly.
But condemning racism on a college campus takes less courage than trashing the Los Angeles Lakers in a Beantown bar. What would be truly costly would be to condemn the recent lawlessness that the organs of acceptable opinion have given a free pass to. What would be truly costly would be to recommend the careful deliberation by which you might find unwarranted the giant leap from the killing of George Floyd to the conclusion that our nation is bedeviled by “systemic racism.”
But, instead, something even more perplexing has happened: our courageous academic hand-wringers, following the lead of intrepid and precious celebrities, have gone so far as to vow—in public statements clearly intended to let their left hands know what their right hands are doing—that they will “confront and address their own inherent racism.”
Now this is rich. Normally the openly racist academic gets fired. But not in this scenario. If you’re an openly racist academic but also a faux flagellant seeking crises to prove yourself unweak, you’ll have all you need to pad your next merit review. The self-congratulatory racists will no more get fired than the celebrities will serve 25-year prison sentences for the wrongful deaths that they themselves claim to “take responsibility for.”
I can’t possibly be alone in seeing the insanity here.
Meanwhile, I await the university president bold enough to tell faculty members that feeling good about feeling bad is what narcissists do and that nobody should be doing it, least of all professors. Such a president might add that you certainly don’t write your own purity test and then brag about making a perfect score on it. I await the administrator who recommends (along with what these recommend) the silence born of wisdom, humility, and circumspection.
Grease Up the Guillotine
To make any such statement would be to mortise and tenon your own coffin. For I am quite certain that some academics, once upon a time protected by tenure, are going to lose their livelihoods—not for being racists, as the hand-wringers disingenuously admit to being, but for failing to be antiracists of the acceptable kind. They will either plead guilty to being racists and vow to “confront and address their own inherent racism” or they will stand trial in a kangaroo court and await the inevitable sentence. Like witches they will be guilty if they float and innocent if they sink but, in either case, out of the academy’s hair for good, no longer an impediment to the progress we apparently haven’t made in the 60 years that the Professionals of Experience have been in charge.
For make no mistake: the champions of diversity will tolerate nothing but uniformity of thought. You will either feel good about feeling bad or you will take your unapproved thoughts somewhere else, where backward-thinking is normal—to a rural place, for example, where it’s all guns and Jesus and crises that are unsolicited.
Cunningham ends by saying “I have preferred indifference.” But let us be clear about this. Nowhere does the poem suggest indifference to injustice. The poem is not about injustice. It is about wisdom. And so I don’t mind saying I’m with Cunningham: to those flaunting a presumptuous innocence—but showing little interest in recovering bliss from the conditions of disaster—I too prefer indifference.
And note the governing circumspection: “Much of our lives, God knows, is error.” Would that the Professionals of Experience knew this.
I hope I may be permitted a place at the front of the queue for condemning the killing of George Floyd, even as I hope the Professionals of Experience, together with those who responded to his violent death with lawlessness and complete disregard for the putative “epistemic authority of medical science,” will join me in praying for his soul. I doubt they will. Nor, I wager, will they wonder if that kind silence qualifies as violence.