The idea that our culture is post-Christian is an antiquated bromide that is dangerous because it masks a truth that is even more troubling. And that truth is that our culture is now post-post-Christian insofar as the last vestiges of any real cultural influence by historic, conventional Christianity are now long gone. Fifty or so years ago Christianity began its slow decline into cultural irrelevance. But at least in the early stages of the decomposition there were still millions of Americans who had been believers at one time even if they had then fallen away into either a generalized indifference or an overt rejection of the Christian claim. And among the millions who had fallen into indifference there was still what I like to call “religion by proxy”, meaning there were many people who did not practice the faith, but who were glad that there were those who did and who found some measure of comfort in knowing that Christianity was still around.
As such, the rot was not yet so deep as to utterly efface certain cultural markers of our Christian heritage, and Christianity still garnered a measure of social respect and immunity from overt attacks on its place in the public square.
However, the handwriting was on the wall and today we find a culture in which the political Left openly condemns Christianity as an agent of oppression, with many quisling liberal “churches” aiding and abetting the assault. One could be excused, therefore, if one were to reach the conclusion that our culture is now a-religious by and large and that the major themes of Christianity are simply gone in any meaningful cultural sense.
But professor and political philosopher Joshua Mitchell argues cogently that at least one of Christianity’s central ideas—the transgression of Original Sin and its resolution in the Divine scapegoat wherein we are restored to innocence—has not vanished at all. It has simply been secularized and immanentized in the modern movement known as “identity politics”.
The central idea that Mitchell develops early in in American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, and which is the guiding motif for the whole, is the notion that when it comes to the question of guilt and innocence, you are really asking a question about justice and its social resolution. Traditionally, as in the Christian view, there are two “economies” wherein justice is sought after, one visible and one invisible. The visible economy consists of all of our worldly efforts to set the scales of justice right and to fight for those who have been wronged and to punish those who were the transgressors.
This is a necessary endeavor but one which Christianity taught could never be achieved with any degree of perfection in this life owing to the inherent sinfulness of the entire human race. You can fight against greed and oppression when it arises, and even vanquish it in localized ways, but somewhere the injustices will return again. Therefore, since we are all sinners (transgressors) in need of divine forgiveness, and since all utopian dreams of a perfectly just society will flounder on the rocks of generalized sin, we become aware that only God can ultimately set the scales right. This is the “invisible economy” of justice which can only be achieved in God’s time, in God’s Kingdom, which we can struggle for even in this life, but which will always remain asymptotic as a goal.
By contrast, modern identity politics seeks to right the scales in the here and now, essentializing groups or “kinds” of human beings into one of two categories: the transgressors and the innocent. The transgressors are white, heterosexual men, and the innocent are everyone else, but most especially non-white racial minorities, LGBTQIA+++ types, women, and anyone who lives in a non-Western culture. In the world of identity politics there is no “invisible economy” of justice and all must be set right in the here and now. And this goal is pursued with an ideological fervor for purity that absolutely demands that a scapegoat be found to purge the social body of the “stain” of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, colonialism, and white supremacy.
Only the righting of injustice in the visible economy will suffice. Therefore this equates to an eschatology of final reckonings, with its narrative of transgressors, the innocent, and redemption through the purging of the scapegoated white, heterosexual males. This eschatological perspective as all the earmarks of an attenuated an misappropriated Christian theology, complete with the full apparatus of a new Inquisition, new dogmas, and the required “confessions” and “recantations” of those who are “guilty” of being in the wrong “kind” of human group.
This is a powerful thesis and Mitchell presses it home with relentless repetition (too much repetition, actually, but that is a small editorial quibble) as he applies this insight to just about every social and political debate in our time, unmasking the proximate, hot-button, “issues” as mere ciphers for the deeper dynamic of the innocent seeking justice against the transgressors via a scapegoating of white, heterosexual men.
However, there is a curious absence in his analysis that is rather surprising. And that is the total lack of any mention of the work of René Girard on the issue of scapegoating as a social mechanism. Perhaps that is because Girard’s thesis is not that modern times represent an immanentized and secularized Christian eschatology. Rather, all human cultures are characterized by the scapegoating mechanism since we all develop early in life what Girard calls “mimetic desires” wherein the child learns what it is appropriate to desire by observing its “model” (parents) and then seeks to imitate those same desires. But we all desire essentially the same things, which leads to conflict and tension that can only be resolved through the violent purging of various scapegoats.
This is not the Hobbesian war of “all against all” but rather a war of innocence and transgression since the acquisition of what we desire is often cast in moral and spiritual terms, with moral and spiritual justifications for those desires grounding the need to assign moral blame to the scapegoated group. And this is why, for Girard, Christianity is the ultimate religious system for breaking this cycle since the “Lamb who was slain” is the divine scapegoat who ends all need for further scapegoats.
But even though Girard’s views are not the same as Mitchell’s, nevertheless, there is a definite overlap between their two approaches insofar as Mitchell’s notion of the invisible economy of justice is nothing more than the salvation wrought by Christ, the divine scapegoat. It is a shame, then, that Mitchell does not take up the Girardian theme of a generalized scapegoating mechanism since even Mitchell notes that modern identity politics is merely an intense modern iteration of a sad legacy of scapegoating by various Christians themselves down through the centuries. Therefore, something more is at play socially, even in modern identity politics, than the dialectic between transgressors and the innocents. And that “something” could be that the groups identified by identity politics as the “innocents” are not only seeking to assign blame and to deflect their own complicit guilt, but also that they are mimetically desiring what it is that the transgressive groups possess: power, wealth, and security.
Mitchell hints at this when he notes that some “kinds” of human beings who are currently “innocent” can be quickly rendered into a transgressive kind, once it is recognized that they too have gained “privilege”. But he only notes this in order to highlight the self-destructive cannibalism of the endless dynamic of “transgression and innocence”, which is like peeling away the layers of an onion in order to get at the non-existing “core”. I think Girard’s analysis is the deeper one on this small, but important, point.
Be that as it may, Mitchell’s thesis rings true as a general explanation of the dynamics of modern American society in general and of identity politics in particular. In fact, insofar as even Girard’s approach is not limited to a desire for material things but also spiritual, it is possible even in his system that what modern identity politics is mimetically desiring is precisely a kind of eschatological salvation modeled by Christianity, which it then secularizes and immanentizes.
Mitchell is not content, however, with mere diagnostics and does have in view a constructive and positive counter proposal. The problem with identity politics is that it destroys the conventional generative family, and almost all other mediating social institutions whereby citizens come together to form what Mitchell calls “liberal competencies”. What he means by this are all of the social and personal skills and moral dispositions required to do the hard work required to build a functional society. His vision is of a society that returns to the Liberal notion of free markets (but not rapacious crony capitalism) and limited government. This is a politics of social compromise rooted in forgiveness of transgressions as we all struggle together to overcome our structural injustices, and the reinvigoration of all of those social institutions wherein all of the competencies required for democracy to work are developed.
His thesis is that identity politics creates a “blame culture” that destroys the very thing that is needed for a society to work. It thus ends with atomized and alienated individuals living within an overweening managerial State. It seeks “freedom” but it ultimately ends in the strange dynamic of a fatalism that sees no hope that it can influence the very State it has created and a concomitant retreat into a digital world of individual entertainments. Freedom thus comes to be equated with idle dissipation in activities that do nothing to build up the very social relations needed for a just society.
In short, Mitchell wants a return to a more classical Liberalism and views identity politics as a very unliberal project.
This then leads to the second half of the book, which is an application of the insights from his main thesis to the topics of “bipolarity” and “addiction”. By “bipolarity” he means exactly what I mentioned above about the strained interplay between the atomized self and the State. He notes, quoting Tocqueville, that in identity politics people think of themselves as “either greater than Kings or less than men.” The “delinked” and atomized individual finds an initial cathartic exhilaration in throwing off all of the traditional constraints and demands, thus elevating themselves into a rarified domain of “freedom” that makes them “greater than Kings”, but soon discover two demoralizing things.
First, that they are not greater than Kings and that the State is impervious to their influence. And second, that such liberation is in fact a form of enslavement to the solipsistic needs of ever more capacious desires, which renders them as something less than a man and on a par with the mere instinctual life of animals. This leads to what he identifies as a dialectic between managerial society and “selfie man”—the latter being a desperate attempt to overcome the insignificance of their enslaved freedom through a projection of themselves into the digital world. This is, in my mind, one of the most exceptional parts of the book as it identifies with scalpel-like precision and with razor wit the destruction of true individuals and true freedom by the corrosive acid of identity politics.
As any sane individual can tell you, true freedom can only develop through a network of prior constraints, many of them moral and spiritual in nature: marriage, parenthood, responsibilities toward parents and siblings, the sacrifices required to have a career, the demands of friendship, and so forth. In other words, you are free in direct proportion to the quality of what you choose to “bind” yourself to. But identity politics destroys all such restraints and all such bindings and leaves us with a diaphanous subjectivity devoid of depth.
The last section of the book deals with the notion of “addiction” by which he means, well, addiction. Our various addictions are the direct result of the creation of the empty “selfie man” who constantly seeks shortcuts to happiness as he seeks to slake the rapacious and endless demands of his various desires. Mitchell develops his theme by tracing the relationship between a “meal and a supplement” (such as vitamins) and notes that in our society of shortcuts that eschews the work of developing competencies we are constantly seeking to make the supplements a substitute for the meal. This then leads to an addiction to the supplements and the destruction of true human enjoyment of the basic goods of this world.
Mitchell’s list of the many supplements our society has turned into substitutes is a long one: plastic water bottles instead of tap water and an old fashioned, reusable thermos; fast food; non-generative marriages in which procreation is no longer the “meal” but a hindrance to sexual fulfillment; social media instead of in-person interactions; Amazon instead of brick and mortar shopping; online education; GPS instead of the “meal” (competency) of reading maps; digital over analog everything (especially in music); statism instead of localism; open borders; fiat currency; and globalist corporatism as a substitute for actually building a real business.
Space precludes me from dealing with all of these topics individually. But the common denominator in all of them is the destruction of various competencies as we seek shortcuts to happiness via cheap substitutes to which we become addicted. Therefore, he does see hope for our future insofar as people do really prefer, in the end, the authentic over the fake, the real over the counterfeit, the meal over the supplement. He sees hope in the fact that there are many people today who are genuinely wearied of all of this and who seek an “alternative lifestyle” such as the back to the landers and various forms of bohemian living. But these too are flawed projects since they seek to “get behind” industrial society in order to “restore our purity”. Mitchell says this will not do since you cannot put the industrial/technological genie back in the bottle.
Thus, our only way out is the development of liberal competencies in a real return to our senses—a return to the meal table.
Let me conclude by simply saying that this is a truly wonderful book and I cannot recommend it more highly. It is quite powerful and its diagnosis is often nothing short of brilliant. It style is eminently readable without being pedestrian. He manages that most elusive of literary styles: academic and yet accessible to almost any educated person. I would also say we should thank Joshua Mitchell for his courage. This book will make him a lot of enemies but, hopefully, many more friends.
American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time
By Joshua Mitchell
Encounter Books, 2020
Hardcover, 296 pages
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