Canvassing the craven and deviant (which is to say, left-oriented, mainstream) response to the Boston Marathon bombing among media and intellectual elites — yes, the Tsarnaev brothers killed and mutilated but they were displaced, troubled, resentful of Western domination, etc. — Bruce Bawer offers an astute diagnosis. The progressive multiculturalism to which these elites adhere, he writes, is both decadent and jejune, enabling them to remain mental and emotional children who preen themselves on their kindness. “What made multiculturalism attractive to these people,” Bawer continues, “is that it’s tailor-made for spoiled, narcissistic grown children who don’t want to have adult enemies.” He asks, “How do you repair a culture in which mature moral judgment and adult civic responsibility have systematically been replaced by childish, self-aggrandizing displays of ‘sensitivity’? How do you install a moral compass in a fully grown adult?” His conclusion is damning: “these people are missing certain working parts that are essential components of the civilized adult.” Having got used to living in a protected space, “Like any baby in a crib, they feel safe, cocooned, impregnable” and “Like any child, they accept this protection as their due… Their relationship to adult moral responsibility is, again, that of small children.” Empathy — not for the victims but the perpetrators — trumps all.
The syndrome that Bawer identifies has interested me for some time and has led me to parallel conclusions. Several years ago, I wrote of leftism with a focus on its arrested development, noting that the predisposition of the left “derives from a tropism of the mind rooted in what we might call the ‘utopian temperament’ — which is to say, in a condition of prolonged infantilism. The belief that human nature can be either transformed or superseded by social and political legerdemain is a function of arrested development, of the child’s conviction that make-believe can somehow alter the structure of the world he or she inhabits. Adults who feel and act the same way would appear to be differentially retarded, despite their ability to spin ideas, practice oratory and compose intricate texts and ringing manifestos.” At bottom, the left’s hypothetically noble vision of human redemption “is founded in the child’s need for reinforcement and protection, propelling the fledgling spirit into the orbit of the magistral savage or mentoring autocrat and their faux-therapeutic nightmares.”
At some point, one needs to grow up. The fact is, the human quest for salvation, whether personal or social, cannot be left to the reckoning of children. Given the perilous condition to which progressivist utopianism is taking our country, its pubescent psychology deserves to be even more carefully scrutinized. The soft-focus, Pollyanna attitude of the left, which has come to be known as the therapeutic perspective on the world, is often accompanied by unmitigated savagery. Even if the assault on culture is not physical but legislative, its effects are almost universally devastating. The historical register shows that the effort to improve the world by revolutionary violence or by comprehensive and indiscriminate cultural revisionism — therapy gone wild — is practically guaranteed to cause far more misery than it attempts to alleviate.
In The Triumph of the Therapeutic, an indispensable treatise on the subject, Philip Rieff deposes that “whenever a therapeutic elite grows predominantly critical then a cultural revolution may be said to be in progress. Ours is such a time. The Occident has long been such a place.” But our therapeutic elite has grown more than merely critical; it has grown positively rabid, proposing ideas and forms of legislation — same-sex marriage, abortion on demand, redistributive economics, massive bureaucratic oversight and control, multicultural uber-tolerance for malefactors and parasites, the feminist subversion of the courts, Dewey-inspired child-centered pedagogy, across-the-board amnesty for illegal aliens, unelected transnational governance — that weaken or sweep away the adhesives of traditional morality and customs that bind a culture to itself.
The theory is that global concord and a new utopian dispensation are possible with the right set of evolved attitudes and the diligent, enlightened will-to-change. All that is needed is a new morality categorically different from the system of inhibitions and limitations we have inherited. The trouble is that all morality, as Rieff points out, “be it ascetic or hedonistic, loses its force with a therapeutic outlook.” Indeed, “it may not be possible to organize a culture again as an unwitting dynamic of moral demands claiming the prerogatives of truth, exercised through creedally authoritative institutions.” The new ruling elite of “sociologist priests” — an apt descriptor for our intellectual patrician class — cannot fill the cultural vacancy with their Crayola nostrums for social perfection, economic symmetry, propitiation of enemies ,and collective amity. These are the ravings of untutored children. And the hypocrisy is manifest, for these lovers of the so-called disadvantaged and marginalized are often impenitent plutocrats who cling tenaciously to their wealth. They resemble the Taborites of 15th century Bohemia, who abominated the voluptuous life of the rich, yet wore gorgeous raiment beneath their tunics.
Rieff’s thesis can be readily appropriated by the left since it will happily adopt his foregrounding of guilt as an operational concept, not realizing that for Rieff guilt is a source of cultural restraint rather than a harbinger of cultural surrender. As a result of this misunderstanding, in the current jihadist assault on the West, we are guilty, apparently, of radicalizing the Islamic world by our national behavior and foreign policy, and are thus constrained to make amends. The carnage of 9/11, and the more than 20,000 Islamic acts of terror that followed, are due, not to the tenets of the Koran and the violence inherent in the Islamic belief system, but to our own ostensibly aggressive and imperial tendencies. The real victim becomes the attacker, not those who suffer at his hands. But Rieff’s central point is not guilt per se and certainly not guilt as catalyzing the lunge toward clemency and compassion for our enemies at whatever cost to our security, but the collapse of privacy and the rise of collective group think. “A new kind of community,” Rieff writes in Freud: The Mind of a Moralist, “could be constructed, one that did not generate conscience and internal control but desire and the safe play of impulse.” Such, of course, is the psychology of the child at work — or, rather, at play — who lives in a culture that stands for everything and therefore, as Rieff says in Triumph, “for nothing.”
In effect, we are now witnessing what Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium — another essential book for our time — described as the eschatological drama of the left, which features the millenarian role of the redeeming child, the birth of a world-historical innocence that will transform and raise human life from the realm of ferocity into the domain of irenic harmony — though in order to do so, an initial stage of violence is prerequisite. As Cohn puts it, this was supposed to usher in “the Egalitarian State of Nature…the long-lost Golden Age or ‘Reign of Saturn,’ in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which would influence communistic speculation in the Middle Ages,” as well as in the present. Social injustice, class disparities, gender distinctions, and economic asymmetries would all magically disappear. Revolutionary millenarianism, says Cohn, was “a social struggle…not…for specific, limited objectives, but as an event of unique importance…a cataclysm from which the world would emerge totally transformed and redeemed.” In an ironic inversion of Christian lore and doctrine, we might say that a child is born who will change the world, but this child is a squalling infant in the body of a grown man or woman.
Today the movement goes under other names –social justice, neo-Marxism, environmentalism — but in particular Agenda 21, the UN’s so-called sustainable development program which, in its own words, is a “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations system, governments and major groups, in every area in which humans impact on the environment.” As Tiffany Gabbay explains in The Blaze, commenting on Glenn Beck’s novel of the same name, “the United Nations seeks to co-opt, via individual governments, and eventually, a ‘one-world government,’ privately held land under the auspices of ensuring its ‘sustainability.’” The naked land grab represented by Agenda 21, conducted under the auspices of a presumably benign but unabashedly despotic authority, will lead us, we are given to believe, from the abattoir of history into a new Golden Age.
It sounds like something out of Sonka da Monka — the fictive poet of egregious verses (“New things take a stride/And ideas leap outside”) — or the obsessive fantasies of a pampered and deranged child, which is precisely what makes the revolutionary project so sinister and destructive. Cohn concludes, correctly: “revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still.” The child has gone rampant, romantically innocent of moral obligation and duty, divorced from any notion of the past and ignorant of the gradients of human nature. Let us make no mistake about this. The feral sentimentality of our juvenile elders and incontinent prodigies, if not rudely countered, will see to our demise.