Capacious liberalism is the prerequisite for successful, empirically based social reform and the rule of law.
In a recent Law & Liberty Forum, Molly McGrath has written a very good introduction to woke justice, the popular ideology among our elites. She calls it “sacrificial politics,” arguing that a generation of “sacred victims” is necessary to serve the purposes of justice as understood by Progressives. Indeed, Progressives want something miraculous—to make a perfect future by destroying the dead weight of the past. And by identifying the right kind of victims—those who actually deserve it—purification and progress can go together!
David Azerrad has, however, pointed out that this account isn’t quite adequate, since it does not explain why there is so much of what Nietzsche called ressentiment among wokies, a combination of envy and resentment that turns into a new theology. We need to find out why the enemies of traditional Christianity are the most ferocious exponents of a distorted doctrine of original sin, a problem which requires an apocalyptic overcoming.
I want to answer these two thoughtful essays by showing three paths of inquiry that will further advance our understanding of woke theology and politics. For the foreseeable future, wokeness will remain the central Progressive idea of justice, so a thorough grappling with it is necessary for the good of our country and for our sanity.
Azerrad pointed out that we typically see woke ideology administered by elites against either their political competitors or ordinary people whose only claim to public attention is that a mob was encouraged to ruin their lives. Formulated as an attack on “systemic racism,” woke ideology condemns most Americans as exploiters, and casts their successes as the result of unexamined—and certainly unearned—privilege. But this condemnation proceeds on the authority of rich white liberals, the very people who can be said to exploit the nation, if, as they claim, being white and well off is inherently exploitative.
As Azerrad points out, the rhetoric of whiteness plays a central role in woke ideology, always obsessed with fighting inequality, but also with practicing it, since wokies require special status for themselves. Primarily, whiteness rhetoric would seem to be the way rich liberals justify their institutionalized privileges—they are themselves white, but it’s alright, because they are champions of the oppressed who are mostly not white, whom they nevertheless want to keep at a distance in the real, as opposed to the rhetorical, world. White themselves, though they profess to hate white privilege, our elites are in a trap of their own making. Every human sacrifice they offer to a vengeful mob, or to fate, buys them some more time and some moral justification in the supposedly inevitable march to absolute equality. The worse they treat other white people, the better our white liberal elites are themselves.
But despite the crusading against “white privilege,” the archetypical white liberal remains the very ideal of woke ideology, since it is administered by precisely those people. Everyone must become the kind of person that woke American liberalism decrees, despite the contradictions this creates. Our white liberal elites advertise they are race traitors—betraying the evil white majority—but also that they are themselves beyond race, in a sense, the proper administrators of all forms of equality, including to do with race. Some white people, they themselves, end up on top however equality is explained rhetorically, legally, or politically.
Accordingly, our liberal friends who call Trump’s America a fascist regime because it puts children in cages and treats immigrants so savagely also continuously urge that more immigrants should come into this supposed mouth of hell. Given the monumental contradiction inherent in this, one could ask: If they really believe what they say, do they secretly hate the immigrants and wish them ill? Probably not—but apparently only in the America of “white supremacy” can people of other races become free. Liberal piety requires that they must become what they are supposed to hate: American.
Woke feminism operates the same way. Liberals tell us the patriarchy is destroying women, that colleges are nightmares of rape and sexism, that America’s past is endless oppression of women. But these same voices turn around and in the very next breath require that women imitate men in everything concerning attitudes toward sex, work, self-assertion, and whatever else is topical. Only by becoming the enemy can women be themselves!
This is, of course, also true of racism and the problems facing black Americans, whose historical oppression has been the center of political conflict in America since the Civil War. The liberals who cry racism from their comfortably elite perches prioritize racial integration even as the logic of their ideology would seem to suggest separation as the only way to protect the oppressed from the viciousness of their historical oppressors.
Everywhere, people must become like white liberals. If minorities aren’t for open borders, liberals want them to shut up. If black Americans are Christian, atheistic liberal elites ignore it, because it embarrasses them. And, as a woke, northeastern, white liberal has recently pushed, Hispanic Americans are expected to describe themselves with the term—Latinx—that elite scholars created for them. Why do these oppressed minorities keep disappointing their liberal champions? We may never know the answer, but we can see that for liberals, love of the oppressed ultimately reduces to self-love.
All this follows from a woke doctrine of original sin recast within a Marxist history of oppression. White liberals think of themselves as perfected people at the End of History. They find most minorities historically backward, retaining obsolete beliefs in Christianity, retrograde cultural traditions, and the like. Mankind is made wicked, but it’s the white people, the makers of history—of modernization, colonial empires, and globalization—who are the authors of this evil. Minorities participate in original sin mostly as victims, but they are not exempt from suffering. Minorities may seem to be sacred to the woke, as McGrath suggests, but that could never account for why it’s always white liberals in charge, almost never minorities. Azerrad’s insistence on who’s actually in charge and at whose expense they may be making sacrifices is important here. Not even minorities are really free from original sin, it’s just something we can’t talk about—but if they need white saviors, they cannot be sacred, can they?
This leaves liberals with no realistic framework to understand the suffering that non-white Americans inflict on each other, or the existence of conservative minorities. Their only recourse is a standard Marxist answer: false consciousness. But even if we granted this cognitive dispensation, the capacity for false consciousness, like the commission of injustices, would also show that non-whites are imperfect and fallen just like whites are. Mankind is actually united in disappointing the moral expectations of rich white liberals.
Rhetorically, liberals exclusively identify whites as the irredeemably evil group. This focuses anger for political purposes, as Azerrad says. I don’t mean to downplay this—it’s no accident that liberals help their woke epigones stoke media hysteria against any traditional social or political arrangement. They have been disappointed in their hope for the End of History and someone must pay. Moreover, the best form of revenge is to make the white authors of History and Progress become its victims.
But the need for human sacrifice is a necessity beyond self-interest and partisan politics. The woke need to do this because they hate mankind. Both the perpetrators and the victims of historical injustices are manifestly tied together—remember, the most oppressed Americans, blacks, embraced Christianity, the religion of their oppressors. They all ultimately deserve their fate. We see this because our white liberal elites do not mix with the people they supposedly hold sacred. They do not share their beliefs or habits. The elite enclaves include ethnic minorities primarily as servants. It turns out, holding minorities to be sacred is largely rhetorical—it would be similar to someone professing Christianity but running away from churches and their fellow Christians.
The only way minorities could redeem themselves would be to become obedient liberals—to leap into freedom by abandoning the past, and join liberals at the End of History. But since elite white liberals do not have complete control of America, because they cannot rely on minorities to vote for them in the required numbers, political change of a Progressive character stalls again and again. In this situation of recalcitrance to Progress, human sacrifices are a requirement of self-creation, of a future where freedom, not oppression, is the rule. This is why those who self-destruct by attempting to transform their very nature are woke heroes: Today, people mutilating their bodies to turn into what liberals assure them is merely a social construct—another gender.
America’s mid-century confidence is gone. Liberal arrangements to correct past injustices have failed. White elites punishing the white majority for their failures won’t suffice, because the last hope has been lost—whether you think of it as the Clinton years or the Obama elections, there was a pre-woke hope that elite liberalism would take over the world through globalization, and take over America, too, through elite institutions and TV popularity. This existential frustration makes mankind itself hateful to our elites. The logic of human sacrifice always comes down to a fear that suffering and catastrophe are man’s inescapable lot, and therefore it’s better to be the hammer than the anvil, to commit acts of cruelty instead of suffering them.
So I believe McGrath is right to point to human sacrifices as constitutive of elite ideology even as Azerrad is right to point out how one-sided and self-serving the liberal-woke alliance is. We need to understand, that is, woke piety or theology in its political context. The only reason this alliance sort of works is that it’s always the other guy’s ox being gored. This is a sign of regime-level madness. The more complicated the intersectionality of oppression and the more universal mankind’s wickedness is, the more strenuous the woke response must be. From the perspective opened by the most perfect conceivable victim of oppression, everyone in America, the world, and in world history is an oppressor. Today, the pluperfect victim is an ethnic minority transgender queer disabled person with mental health issues who portrays their life on Twitter as a kind of damaged goods chic. The cult of such sacred victims, against whom everyone else is inevitably, systemically transgressing, which McGrath astutely diagnoses, is intended to feed a hatred of being human as such. This cult, under guise of morality or justice, damns as wicked the vast majority of human beings, for disappointing liberal hopes about the End of History. Such hatred of mankind does not make for trustworthy, competent elites.
Nature and Justice
At a certain level, the challenges we face are the consequences of our nature. So, we cannot be cured, only dealt with reasonably—through laws. But moderation requires stopping our mad elites. Their sentimentality about minorities and immigrants leads them to inflict pious cruelty on everyone—whether they be profane whites or sacred victims. Sentimentality about animals and the environment leads them to hatred of people, looking forward almost eagerly for the burning climate Armageddon to punish us for our failure to “act.”
These are not reasonable people with reasonable disagreements. They are looking to punish everyone they can—to exempt themselves from a fearful fate—the mortality they hate, the one thing they share with us, our human nature. The visions of the end of the world elites entertain—an evil AI, aliens who judge us mad, or climate change—are all angry demands to destroy mankind for its wickedness. And we must understand that wickedness primarily as an unwillingness to obey elites. Our legal justice, once the crown jewel of liberal rationalism, is so procedural that it divorces anger from punishment and can lead people to feel the system itself is betraying justice. Sacrificial politics restores that connection in the worst way—woke mobs, on- and off-line. And especially satisfied elites distributing suffering that they themselves may be spared.
The desire for an End of History, of perfect peace without strife, is natural. We read of it in Isaiah, and Christ promises to overcome all division and conflict. We read of it in Plato’s dialogues, too: the Republic offers first and foremost a city where humans live in perfect peace. The Statesman offers the Age of Kronos, when men were led by gods as sheep by a shepherd. Locke and Rousseau present the state of nature in a way that encourages people to believe a similar myth. Heidegger talks of dwelling in the same way. In some sense, putting an end to injustice is what we desire, and it moves us to treasure and long for perfect innocence. It’s why we love babies and animals—they don’t harbor evil thoughts or maddening fears. This is what the woke want to accomplish through their infinite punishments. They mourn lost innocence, as they should, since there is no wisdom to compensate them.
To accept necessity, imperfection, and our mortality is hard—much harder than we have gotten into the habit of believing. Without laws, it may be impossible for us to stay sane. We must restore laws and justice within the limits of politics. If we understand the woke madness and the deeper liberal madness driving it, we should be able to fight for America without descending intellectually to the level of wokies.
The hypocrisy, self-interest, and self-delusion of our elites add up to a desire to offer human sacrifices. This is neither an accident nor a joke: If our fears about wokeness are justified, things will get worse, and if they get much worse, our very freedom will be in danger. We now need to address the problem of justice in a way that brings together as large a majority of Americans as possible, under the guidance of elites who can run institutions, guarantee justice, and remind the people of the goodness of our past as a guarantee that the future will be good enough.