Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A year ago in April, a student group at the university where I teach invited Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to speak on the topic of racial inequality. Days before the talk, the faculty email list exploded with vituperative attacks on Wax and on the student group that had invited her.

The tenor of the remarks was astounding. Wax’s work was characterized in scatological terms. The abusive language was justified on the grounds that speaking in such a way is a prerogative of marginalized minority groups, who are excluded from scholarly discourse thanks to white supremacy. Faculty called Wax’s published writing the equivalent of a swastika or a burning cross. The students who had invited her were called fascists who would soon enough turn to violently assaulting students of color. The departments and programs that had helped defray the cost of the talk were denounced. One department succumbed to the pressure and rescinded its contribution. One ­faculty member inquired as to whether there would be trauma counseling for faculty and students harmed by Wax’s appearance. Another called on the rest of us to attend a conference taking place that week at a nearby campus. The topic: the state of being white as a grave threat to American democracy.

As a social theorist, I was struck by the emotional fervor and moral symbolism that characterized this convulsion. I thought my field expertise might illuminate this episode and others like it, so common today on American college campuses. Multiculturalism, I find, has the characteristics of a primitive religion, albeit a confused one.

Émile Durkheim described religion as “a vast symbolism,” a structure of ritual and teaching that enables a social group to bond in powerful and lasting ways. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he focused on the religious life of totemistic clans in aboriginal Australia. This primitive religious form, he believed, provided a window into the origins of religion and exemplified the essential elements of religious ­practice.

Elementary Forms is a long and complex work of sociology, but Durkheim’s basic theory of religion can be simply stated. He argued that all religions consist of collectively held and obligatory beliefs and practices organized around sacred objects. These sacred objects embody a special energy. They are thought to be uniquely life-giving, which is why the rituals surrounding them are closely tied to sex, food, and the activities necessary to secure the survival of the clan. This survival is always precarious. By Durkheim’s analysis, the elementary forms of religious life cast challenges to survival as an ever-present threat of pollution of the sacred by the profane. These two opposed categories, the sacred and the profane, are “as two worlds between which there is nothing in common.” The classic example from Australian aboriginal culture is the bullroarer—oblong pieces of wood or polished stone that produce an eerie noise when whirled through the air. The bullroarer bears the image of the totem, which gives power both to heal and to kill, depending on the ritual state of the individual who touches it. Those not ritually prepared—all girls and women and boys not yet initiated into manhood—are prohibited even from beholding the bullroarer.

In Durkheim’s system, the positive cult of honoring the sacred is always bound up with the negative cult of repudiating the profane. The profane poses a dire threat to the sacred. The triumph of the profane would not only demolish the religious system; it would jeopardize the group that adheres to it, indeed the entire world. In a real sense, honoring and protecting the sacred has a metaphysical urgency. The Australian aboriginal societies Durkheim studied were careful to store sacred objects such as bullroarers in secret places, just as Catholic priests place the consecrated host in the tabernacle. Anyone who came into contact, physical or visual, with the sacred object without proper purification was a source of pollution and threatened the sacred—and thus the very foundations of reality.

Anthropologists describe the aboriginal religion as “totemism” because the sacred resides in the clan’s totem, an entity in the physical environment with which the group strongly identifies. The totem may be a bird or a reptile, an animal or a plant. Members of the clan view their totem as the primordial force that animates them. It is their ancestor, their progenitor, and the very source of their deepest natures. In Durkheim’s analysis, the totem is the life-giving symbol of the group itself. Members of the clan sometimes inscribe their bodies with the totem’s image or modify their appearance with special headgear or clothing to approximate the totem animal. Assimilation to the totem is the ideal. Put on the body of Christ, St. Paul urges. The Durkheimian would say that totemism is the source of this ­imperative.

Durkheim relied on fieldwork done by others. His contribution was to theorize the way in which aboriginal religions anchored an entire form of life. Totems are the fundamental elements from which Australian clan groups produce systems of ideas that represent and classify all the objects in the known world. ­Everything—from physical objects and forces to other societies—is in some structured relation with the totem, whether one of familial affinity or of profane antagonism. The positive or negative valence of the relation to the totem determines the understanding and behavior of the group.

Durkheim’s analysis applies not only to primitive tribes: He is remembered as a founding figure of modern sociology because he pressed toward general ­theories of society. He recognized that the positive cult of the sacred and the negative cult of the profane endure in more advanced societies. I’ve given the example of Catholic ritual, but Durkheim sees that so-called secular modernity continues to operate in accord with a religious logic of honoring totems and purging the profane. For the proponents of the Enlightenment, reason is a totem of sorts, and “superstition” is the profane. Durkheim was convinced that even advanced societies achieve cohesive, ordered form by enacting the patterns evident in the most primitive religions.

With Durkheim’s analysis in mind, we can better understand contemporary multiculturalist symbolism and outrage. As many have observed, a great deal of moral energy revolves around those who are deemed victims of discrimination. College students are attuned to hierarchies of oppression. Someone resides at the top of their hierarchy—a black lesbian, perhaps—and other students organize themselves around this ideal victim. The goal is to identify with “the marginalized.” On the surface, this identification is framed politically: One must support the cause of the victim. But the identification has emotional and even physical manifestations as well. Not unlike the aboriginal warriors who wear bird-shaped tattoos, white middle-class students sometimes affect the style of speech and dress associated with inner-city blacks.

This kind of behavior brings into view what can be theorized as the positive cult of a contemporary totemism. Here, the totem is the Virtuous ­Victim, an object of innocent purity. This may sound far-fetched—what do bird totems have to do with multiculturalist ideology? But consider what multiculturalists actually say and do.

In the Covington Catholic incident at this year’s March for Life, the Virtuous Victim was a Native American drummer, Nathan Phillips. This wise elder with the stoic face of the long-suffering martyr was not a real person in media accounts. He was a totem: the peaceful Indian whose way of life has been destroyed by genocidal whites. He presented the perfect visual antithesis to the laughing white Covington boys, who played the role of anti-totems, the pollution images of the profane. As Laura Wagner at Deadspin wrote:

What was happening was clear and unmistakable, not just resonant but immediately recognizable as iconic. If you wanted to compress the history of relations between the powerful and the powerless in America . . . into a single image, you couldn’t do much better than to present a white teen in a MAGA hat, surrounded by a screaming horde of his peers, smirking into the face of an old Native American man.

Wagner’s purple prose was exceptional in its ­explicitly mythological self-consciousness. But a survey of commentary on the episode shows that the basic dialectic of sacred and profane was nearly universal.

Likewise, Phillips’s account of what took place on the Mall was consistent with the logic of the clan totem. It started when, supposedly, the boys verbally assaulted a group of Virtuous Victims: black men demonstrating peacefully on behalf of their faith. (In fact, the men were members of a sect called the Black Hebrew Israelites and, in keeping with that sect’s conventions, were assailing the Covington boys with racist and anti-gay slurs.) The boys were on the verge of physically assaulting (“lynch[ing]”) the Black Hebrew Israelites, according to Phillips, when Phillips decided to intervene. He later described the Covington youths as “angry,” “well-fed and healthy and strong and ready to do harm to somebody,” evincing a “mob mentality” like that of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry during the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of the Sioux.

That Phillips would conjure this cartoonish account is not surprising. He is, as it later emerged, a professional activist who knows how to mythologize. More telling was the widespread credence given to his account. Hysteria seemed to grip commentators. Liberals and conservatives alike denounced the boys from Covington. After video evidence revealed that what had transpired was very nearly the opposite of Phillips’s account, most commentators backtracked. But the episode revealed the power of the multiculturalist clan organized around the Virtuous Victim totem. Most media leaders are members of this clan and feel strongly the power of the totem. Given the nature of indoctrination over the last generation, I would venture that the majority of university-­educated Americans are also members.

The Jussie Smollett case is another example of the power of the Virtuous Victim totem. When the actor told Chicago police that he had been attacked by two white males yelling racist and homophobic slurs, members of the multiculturalist clan again responded with outrage (only to be embarrassed again when the incident turned out to be a hoax). Just as telling was their enactment of the positive cult by their ritual honoring of the totem. Smollett’s co-star Taraji P. Henson described Smollett in hagiographic terms: “Jussie is love, that’s who he is, and that’s all he knows. . . . I just told him to walk in his truth, just stay the Jussie that everybody loves.” Senator ­Kamala Harris tweeted in a similar vein: “Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know.” In the multiculturalist cult, the totem is always pure, always to be exalted and honored. The Virtuous Victim could not possibly speak anything but the truth. He is love and kindness, the very life force for any future worth having.

The Virtuous Victim possesses a basic goodness that brings life to members of the multiculturalist clan. But as ­Durkheim observed, totems operate in a binary system: The sacred is under constant threat by the profane. The profane forces are in radical opposition to the totem, and they can sometimes take on form as an anti-totem. Members of the clan honor the totem by protecting it from pollution by the anti-totem.

The Twitter discussion of the Smollett case brought out some of the multiculturalist clan’s anti-totems. Celebrities and other status-rich multiculturalists embraced Smollett’s narrative and condemned President Trump and everyone who supports him. Actor George Takei tweeted: “This is horrific. What kind of country do we live in?” His followers answered in terms that evoked pollution and the need to purge society of the profane:

“A broken one. Magat [i.e., ‘MAGA hat’ transformed into a homonym for ‘maggot’] gangs roam the streets, causing ruckus, then news outlets spend weeks arguing on their side. Magats are dangerous. They have a sadist streak a mile wide.”
“We live in a sick and twisted Trump America. MAGA is indeed a dog whistle for racism, homophobia, and misogyny.”
“It’s time for the maga gang to be identified as an organized criminal entity with intent to harm & disturb the peace. They are a gang and the redhat is a gang symbol. People need signs that say ‘no redhats’ at this point. No gang members allowed.”
“Is this okay with you, America? @Alyssa_­Milano was right: maga hats really are the new white hoods.”

The red MAGA hat is an anti-totem. The symbol alone is enough to evoke the fury of multiculturalist clan members. Even the acronym has dreaded symbolic power. The anti-totem is sacrilege.

Over the last two years, the multiculturalist clan has stigmatized MAGA hats as symbols of a polluting racism. This was true in the reactions to the Covington boys and to Smollett. Even after evidence debunked the early accounts of both incidents, MAGA hats remained potent images in the minds of multiculturalists. I am confident that a young white man wearing a MAGA hat to class at any major university would become an object of fear, anger, and anxiety among students who are members of the multiculturalist clan. Indeed, it is striking how emotional students now become in response to what once were conventional means of political partisanship: hats, banners, buttons. But it is wrong to see this as a sign of fragility. In my experience, the outraged students are anything but fragile as they seek to destroy the source of profane power. They are better viewed as participants in a primitive religious mindset, fiercely loyal to the Virtuous Victim and ruthlessly antagonistic to its anti-totems.

Yet this characterization insults the totemistic outlook. The dialectic of totem and anti-totem is more subtle than simple antagonism and aggression: There are many points of cooperation, and points of conflict follow a ritualizing script that domesticates the tension. Sacred and profane powers are maintained in equilibrium. By contrast, the multiculturalist clan imports into its totemic system the modern ethos of total warfare. It combines the bewitchment of primitive religion with the all-or-nothing character of more advanced versions of monotheism. But it does not await the all-or-nothing triumph of the divine over evil, as do the classic monotheisms. Instead it cherishes, as an inner-worldly aspiration, the annihilation of the anti-totem.

In classic totemism, ascetic privation and suffering are elements of the negative cult. Durkheim observes that pain is one of the negative cult’s necessary conditions. He gives examples of clans whose members prepare themselves for hunts by swimming in ice-cold waters and lying naked on the banks. Some slice their skin with fish teeth to toughen their muscles, or deliberately wound their arms to enhance their ability to make fire. Girls amputate parts of their fingers to enhance their ability to find yams. Thighs are mutilated to enhance sexual potency. The experience of pain separates the sufferer from the profane world from which he comes. In suffering, the Australian totemist proves to himself that he has changed status, has moved from the mundane, which is polluted by the profane, into contact with the sacred.

Members of the multiculturalist clan pursue analogous quests of self-purification. When the focus is on race, white members are often required to narrate the psychically painful journey from clan outsider to defender of the Virtuous Victim. When the totem is defined by sex or sexual orientation, ritual self-­repudiation and self-abasement are required of members who are male or straight (or both). This process can be characterized in political terms as a renunciation of one’s privilege. But it has clear religious dimensions as a rite of purification, an ordeal of ­self-exorcism.

Online, white members of the multiculturalist clan describe the harrowing process by which they became “woke” to the racist whiteness that dominates our society and lives as an active, evil force inside their very selves. Robin DiAngelo, a consultant in “critical racial and social justice education,” describes how her “group locations . . . socialized [her] to collude with racism” and how, though she grew up in poverty, “her experience of poverty would have been different had [she] not been white.” These accounts may seem overwrought, given the high drama with which the woke acknowledge the seemingly banal fact of the advantages that accrue to the well-born. Their anguish suggests a sensibility more attuned to the profane and its dangers than to sociological realities.

Websites provide tools to calculate your “intersectionality score,” to determine your place in the hierarchy of victims. Members of the multiculturalist clan who have low intersectionality scores, especially white heterosexual males, understand that at any moment they may be reminded of their inferior status by members with higher scores and be compelled to abase themselves before the totem.

I have seen many instances of this phenomenon at my university. At one diversity training session, a white male colleague wept as he “confessed” his privilege publicly. Another colleague, nominated to stand for a committee position against a nonwhite female colleague, wrote a note to the faculty detailing his privilege and describing his journey to wokeness. He withdrew from the contest and asked his colleagues to join him in voting for his opponent.

Classic totemism asks the members of a clan to identify fully with the totem and understand themselves as inhabited by its nature and force. But the totem of the multiculturalist clan is paradigmatically a nonwhite victim of white racism. Nonwhite members readily identify themselves with the victim totem, and theories of intersectionality offer modes of identification for white women and homosexuals as well, though these must be applied with caution. But straight white males can never identify with the totem. They are called to defend and champion it and to destroy representatives of the anti-totem. But they must recognize that they embody the anti-totem in their flesh. This creates a profound tension, one that encourages relentless self-abnegation.

Critical race theory expresses the clan’s logic of totem and anti-totem. According to this way of thinking, racism is a structural fact, a phenomenon that does not require explicit racist beliefs, much less discrete acts of racism. It exists by virtue of the polluting power of the anti-totem. The contortions to which this theory drives white multiculturalists are startling. Ali Michael, who directs a center for “race equity in education” at the University of Pennsylvania, titled a reflection on Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identifies as black, “I Sometimes Don’t Want to Be White Either.” Michael recalls her own “Rachel Dolezal phase,” during which her realization of the polluting power of whiteness caused her to renounce the possibility of reproducing: “Everything I learned about the history of racism made me hate myself, my Whiteness, my ancestors . . . and my descendants. I remember deciding that I couldn’t have biological children because I didn’t want to propagate my privilege biologically.” Again, this seems overwrought. But we should not underestimate the psychological power of totems, which, as Durkheim recognized, organize the clan’s very perception of reality. “The lesson for me,” Michael goes on, “is remembering how deep the pain is, the pain of realizing I’m White, and that I and my ancestors are responsible for the incredible racialized mess we find ourselves in today.” Self-effacement is the only principled way forward.

Not even the young are spared. The multicultural clan calls for psychological tests that purport to show implicit racism in children. They advocate for educational measures at the earliest level to combat white privilege. Their goal is to force those in whom the anti-totem inheres to repent and be reeducated. The punitive cruelty of these methods indicates a religious impulse toward purging all pollution, such as was revealed in many responses to the Covington boys. Some on social media called for the boys to be burned alive or shoved into wood chippers. I don’t take these reactions as serious proposals for action in the real world. But social media sites, with their properties of virtuality and anonymity, relax moral inhibitions, allowing people to express religiously inflected emotions of revulsion and rage. People who comment in this fashion express a powerful desire to protect the Virtuous Victim totem from pollution—which means purging whiteness.

In the primitive religions Durkheim surveyed, the positive, “pro-totem” element was the focus of cultic behavior. The war against the profane was important, but the role of the negative cult was to prepare believers for interaction with the positive cult of the totem. By contrast, in the multiculturalist clan, the assault on pollution takes priority over identification with the victim. For multiculturalists, the positive cult offers temporary relief from oppression, rather than an upsurge in vitality. This is why political correctness feels so dreary—the policing and compelled confessions are not matched by ecstatic moments of communion with the totem. In this sense, the Virtuous Victim, while outwardly similar to Christ on the Cross, lacks true saving power. Reviewers often speak of Ta-Nehisi Coates as our generation’s James Baldwin. No doubt the comparison is apt in some respects, but times have changed. Baldwin framed white racism within larger questions about our struggle to live full, human lives, and toggled between affirmations and negations, whereas Coates’s writings run entirely on an anti-white rhetoric that aims to keep blackness pure. The multiculturalist clan spends almost all its time fending off the floodwaters of whiteness.

I have a great deal of foreboding about this relentless focus on purging pollution. Aboriginal totemism operated in a timeless world. The historical revolution of biblical monotheism shattered the primitive sense of an unending ebb and flow of life, and introduced to our spiritual imaginations the promise of a final triumph of the sacred over the profane. This prospect raises the stakes of the spiritual life, implicating the individual in the struggle between sacred and profane, recasting it as a struggle between good and evil that is both cosmic and interior. The effect has been to disenchant the world. As a sociologist, I can see that the form of the totem endures: The consecrated host in the Catholic mass echoes older religious forms. But spiritually, totemism is without real power in the contemporary world. The hawk or snake is too small to function in the cosmic role required by monotheism, and too exterior to play a fundamental role in the interior struggle to cling to the good and purge evil.

The totemism of skin color poses problems within a spiritual economy shaped by the good-triumphs-over-evil expectations of monotheism. Whereas totemistic clans understood their totems in structural relationships with other totems and anti-­totems—relations that included conflict, raiding, and ­warfare—those tests of totem and anti-totem aimed at equilibrium, not final triumph. The ­interior lives of totemistic peoples reflected a similarly integrated ethos. Everyday experience for the aboriginal ­Australian was predicated on the idea that what we moderns distinguish as separate aspects of reality—psychic life, social bonds, the natural world, the realm of myth—were interdependent aspects of the same whole. Ritual was never designed to advance one element of the world over others; it sought the cosmic maintenance of an eternal sameness. In such a worldview, there is no room for aspiring saints or anxious sinners fearing damnation.

As totemism returns, we will see profound spiritual investments in outward characteristics that cannot bear the weight of our all-or-nothing expectations. When it comes to saintliness, the self-abasement of woke whites is so far the best the multiculturalists have mustered. This strikes me as existentially unsustainable. I do not think it is possible for us to splinter into identity clans organized around congenial totems of blackness, brownness, whiteness, maleness, femaleness, gayness, and straightness while we engage in low-stakes ritual conflict with one another. The Virtuous Victim is a powerful totem because it plays on our desire for the full and final triumph of justice—a sentiment at odds with the logic of totemism. The totem raises spiritual expectations. I see it in my students, whose eschatological expectations of the dawning era of justice become vivid when they worship the Virtuous Victim. But the mechanisms of totemism are ordered toward managing spiritual tensions between the sacred and profane, not guiding us toward their final resolution. Thus the anguish, frustration, and bitterness that so often accompany multiculturalism. Members of the clan are anguished because they never seem to see any progress. But progress is not the aim of totemism.

In sociological terms, identity politics might work as a mechanism for distributing spoils in a postmodern competition for social status and economic resources—ritualized warfare among clans in a late-modern pluralistic democracy. But it cannot work as a mechanism for achieving a more just society, since that project entails a standard of justice that transcends the conflict of totem and anti-totem. Again, the dilemma: The proponents of identity politics draw purpose and resolve from their desire for a more just society, but their methods work in a very different fashion, leading to frustration and calls for still more finely sorted identity categories applied with still greater urgency and indignant fury.

It is with curiosity and trepidation that I await further developments in the evolution of this strange phenomenon. The stakes are raised by the fact that the multiculturalist clan’s beliefs are so widespread among our cultural elites. The Virtuous Victim is held up for veneration by many American ­institutions—educational, media, corporate. By my reckoning, we are likely to see still greater anger at the lack of ­progress, shriller calls for loyalty to the totem, and more aggressive efforts to purge the anti-totem, until the clan members collapse in spiritual and political exhaustion. May that time be soon. 

Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.

Photo by Dominick D via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.