After almost a century, what fruit has the conservative distinction between nature and history yielded? Many conservatives today gather in the shade of the tree grown by Leo Strauss, who concluded that because modern man had abandoned nature and been seduced by history, all things—including the Nazis—were possible. Other conservatives gather in the shade of the tree grown by Alasdair MacIntyre, who concluded that modern man’s real existential alternatives were Aquinas and Nietzsche, the former bringing life, the latter death.
These two trees have offered protection from the blazing sun of modernity to an academic coalition of Straussians and devout Roman Catholics, quietly at odds with each other over the God Question—not only because Jerusalem and Rome are in communion with the Holy One through different testaments, but because not a few Straussians, avowedly or secretly, are atheists, whereas devout Roman Catholics cannot be. The blazing sun of modernity, they both aver, has given us Luther, German idealism, Marx, Nietzsche, historicism, relativism, and progressivism. From these burning rays they together seek shelter, despite their uneasy alliance. The fruit they gather to nourish themselves is the fruit called human nature.
Yet here we are, buffeted by the winds of identity politics, which rip away fig leaves here but not there, which indict all members of certain groups but no members of other groups, by virtue of the stain of their descent. The indictment would be Christian if the stain arose by virtue of common descent from Adam; but this is identity politics, which divides people into groups, ranked in an apartheid scheme from which no Nelson Mandela can liberate us. This arrangement daily prompts many of our fellow citizens to seek relief from the social death to which their undischargeable guilt condemns them. Who among them finds nourishment from the fruit of human nature? What they think about, all they care about, is washing away or covering over their indelible stain. They do not place “Black Lives Matter” signs on their front lawns to affirm human nature; they do it so that, through imputation, they may count themselves among the pure and innocent, so that social death will pass them over—and often, so that they can continue to do nothing while wearing the robes of righteousness.
The recovery of “human nature” shielded conservatives against historicism, against relativism. With due respect to Allan Bloom, who in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) argued that relativism was the modern menace, our problem today is not relativism but identity politics, which seeks to transform all human relations, and all our actions, into a righteous crusade to purge the world of stain. The German Problem, our Europhilic political theorists and theologians claim, gave us relativism. We are not in Europe. We are in America—the exception, the new beginning. To what domains does American exceptionalism pertain? Politics alone? Social conditions? Religion? If the latter, was Tocqueville—the first to propose the American exceptionalism thesis in Democracy in America (1835)—right to associate the Puritans with that new beginning? If so, might, say, the First Great Awakening illuminate the contemporary identity politics crisis, more than do the writings of Strauss, MacIntyre, and Bloom, which focus on the crisis of modernity in Europe?
Today, a Puritanical yearning to work out the economy of innocence and transgression—what spiritual debt do transgressors owe, and to whom?—haunts the conscience of America. No nation escapes its origins. We are living through another Great American Awakening, this time without God, and without forgiveness. Identity politics is the unholy ghost of Puritanism, whose object of cathartic rage is the white heterosexual man, of whom the Puritan preachers of old are irredeemable instances.
From a God’s-eye view, pretending that racial and sexual distinctions matter fundamentally—that is to say, with respect to who is to be glorified—betrays a gross misunderstanding: In the barbaric spiritual economy constructed by identity politics, the line between things pure and impure is horizontal, between man and man, rather than vertical, between God and man (see Luke 22:24). We will someday again need a God’s-eye view to clarify who we are and who our neighbor is. In the interim, we must contend with a misunderstanding, on the basis of which identity politics claims that some groups are pure and others are not.
This spiritual eugenics—let us call it what it is—bears no resemblance to the historical relativism that the conservative movement of yesteryear taught us to fear. Relativism was a pretext for destroying the distinctions, the discriminations, necessary for man to live in truth. Conservatives rightly fought it. Identity politics seeks to destroy distinctions; but it does so with a view to building a New Israel based on group hierarchy, without reference to the God of Abraham. The remnant-elect and the reprobate: The social and political order must now reflect that distinction. This is not relativism, it is a Puritan distinction ripped from its Puritan context.
After more than half a century, what fruit has the “fusionism” of the political arm of the conservative movement yielded? The uneasy but workable truce among its coalition partners—economic liberals, cultural conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks—elected Ronald Reagan and rejuvenated America after the Carter malaise of the late 1970s. But in its dotage, the fusionist coalition elected George W. Bush, who presided over unwinnable land wars in the deserts and high mountains of the Middle East and Central Asia, and free-market policies that hollowed out America’s middle class. Americans found their hope for rejuvenation in Barack Obama, whose administration gave us the rudiments of the identity politics from which we now suffer as a nation. Though never fully articulated, it fumbled toward the following general formulation, now finally explicit: “What matters is not the economic debt that can be assessed in a ledger book, about which libertarians speak, nor the reverential debt we owe our forefathers, about which cultural conservatives speak. What matters is another economy altogether, the economy of innocence and transgression—the economy of spiritual debt, so to speak, which no economic balance sheet can measure, and to which cultural conservatives who see only the goodness of tradition are blind.”
So agonized was the American soul that it sought healing—atonement, really—of the sort that economic liberals and cultural conservatives could not provide, which explains their impotence, and the impotence of their candidates, McCain and Romney, during the Obama years. Republican Party chatter about lower taxes, free markets, the virtues of the Founding, the right to bear arms, and our venerable traditions fell on deaf ears. Obama, the half-black, half-white president, promised more than Republicans could offer. He was the one sufficient mediator between the two races, the great healer who would not only reconcile the races as neither economic liberalism nor cultural conservatism could, but who, by virtue of his anointed status, would heal creation itself and “save the planet.” Fusionism had battled communism abroad and progressivism at home—mere mortal enemies. Obama and the nascent identity politics movement enlisted citizens in a spiritual quest.
Conservatives have yet to understand fully that identity politics is a spiritual quest, which draws its tropes—the scapegoat, the voiceless innocent victim, irredeemable stain—from Christianity, while at the same time seeking to do away with Christianity as it has historically been understood. What need is there for the divine scapegoat, Jesus Christ, who takes away the sins of the world, when a mortal scapegoat can serve that purpose in an America still enthralled by Christian tropes but no longer really Christian? Purge the white heterosexual male and all he has wrought—Westphalia, capitalism, fossil fuels, the American Constitution, the heteronormative family, the homophobic Church, scientific rationalism—and the Egyptian captivity will, without the long-wandering preparation that makes man worthy of release from his bondage, give way to the New Israel.
Fusionism was crowded out, discredited by the religious need of identity politics to purge the stain associated with the world that Pharaoh—the white heterosexual man—built, and through which the pure remnant has been enslaved. Was fusionism not the fruit the white heterosexual male had grown, which now had to wither on the branch in proportion as the brilliant flower of identity politics blossomed? Having no real understanding of what they were up against, conservatives withered.
What of Trump, who would not wither? In so many ways a repudiation of the identity politics that began to blossom under Obama, he was never troubled by guilt. He was troubled by losing. In rare moments of humility, Obama cited the nominally Lutheran Reinhold Niebuhr as his guide. Trump cited the nominally Calvinist Norman Vincent Peale, whose The Power of Positive Thinking(1952) shrugged off the question of guilt and justification that haunts much of Protestant theology, and offered a mid-twentieth-century consumerist doctrine of sanctification, of the sort that has distinguished Calvinists from other Protestants from the very beginning. “Winning” was proof of sanctification. Guilt was for losers. If you are overwhelmed by guilt, then you are not yet sanctified. Calvin the Reformer could have said as much to Luther the Protestant. Disgusted with never-ending identity-politics attributions of guilt, and with marionette presidential candidates yanked to the right by economic globalists and to the left by identity-politics indictments, Republicans and independents voted in 2016 for a nationalist who was without guilt or remorse.
Far from putting out the fire of identity politics, Trump’s presidency poured kerosene on it. The arc of identity politics bent toward the end of whiteness, or at least the permanent requirement that if white heterosexual men do not disappear into the netherworld of pornography, drug addiction, video-gaming, and suicide, they must wallow in guilt and commit to unending DEI training sessions. Trump was, by this measure, the wrong kind of white man, an unapologetic figure who must have been conjured up by principalities and powers—Russians abroad, racists at home. Whites who grasped their standing in the identity-politics economy—guilty until proven “anti-racist”—had to loathe Trump so that social death would pass them over. Hence the descent into rage that became the prolegomenon to every civilized cocktail party, faculty meeting, and job talk for four long years. Trump Derangement Syndrome became the baptismal rite of The Church of the New American Awakening. “Do you renounce Satan?” “Yes, I do.”
Citizens in a liberal order will approve of some presidents and disapprove of others. That is as it should be. TDS, however, is not normal politics. It is evidence of the cathartic rage that lurks beneath the surface of that fragile thing called liberal politics, which is bound to re-emerge when we lose the Christian insight that only a divine scapegoat can take away the sins of the world. No divine scapegoat, no liberal politics. In his Essays and Notes on St. Paul’s Epistles, Locke, the first liberal, wrote that Christ was the scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world. No one today believes he meant it. After Christianity does not come secularism; after Christianity comes the return of the group scapegoating characteristic of pagan man, which makes liberal politics impossible.
Writing at the time of the collapse of Rome, Augustine saw clearly what we no longer see: Christianity is the supernatural overlay that, by the grace of God, covers over paganism, which is natural to man if he has yet to be staggered by the divine irruption we call revelation. With the gospel good news in view, Augustine wrote in City of God that into the pagan world, “[Christ] came to cleanse the heart by faith, turn the interests of men towards heaven . . . and free them from the oppressive dominion of demonic powers.” Without such an irruption, man appeases the gods of darkness, through payment and through purgation. In our time, when the West is on the brink of falling backward into paganism, Trump and the many wrong-kinds-of-white-men who voted for him were not mere political opponents; they were objects of cathartic rage, who had to be purged. In our time, Christ does not free the world from the oppressive dominion of demonic powers; identity politics scapegoating does.
There are others who are not like Trump, who are the right kind of white man. Joe Biden is among them. When his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination was in grave doubt, Congressman James Clyburn delivered to him the South Carolina Democratic primary, signaling that the black vote in America would henceforth back Biden, and signaling to Biden that there was a race-debt to be paid: White elites must authorize further payments to—and a swath of black elites would enrich themselves from—the race grievance industry. All but one of the other candidates dropped out within a week. No black vote, no Democratic Party presidential prospects. Promising the return of adult politics, and wearing the moral mantle of black America, which in a staggering betrayal of the spirit of the civil rights movement now requires the penury of black America’s most vulnerable, Biden ran a successful campaign from the basement of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and is now our sitting president.
His term has not gone well. In the current era, white men in America must not deviate from identity-politics talking points, or they are subject to social death. This is doubly true if they are political brokers of identity politics. If they do not wish to perish, they must orient themselves to the politics of innocence and transgression. Progressives once distinguished themselves from the Founders by asserting that expert competence, rather than citizen competence, was necessary if The Promise of American Life, to cite Herbert Croly’s famous 1909 book title, was to be fulfilled. Many Democrats still call themselves Progressives. Republicans pay them a compliment by accepting this self-description. But these Democrats are like new wine poured into an old bottle (Matt. 9:17)—the new wine of identity politics, poured into the old bottle of Progressivism.
Drunk on this new wine, America enters the third stage of its history: the first, the Founding period, based on citizen competence; the second, the Progressive era, based on expert competence; the third, now upon us in the form of the Biden administration, based on the politics of innocence and transgression. Progressivism as a rallying cry lives on, but expert competence is waning as the real justification for Democratic Party governance. The Biden administration’s three great first-year failings—the collapse of Afghanistan, the termination of the Keystone XL pipeline project, and the national border crisis—have in common that they were the results not of expert competence but of prioritizing the politics of innocence and transgression. In Afghanistan, the American embassy posted a picture of the pride flag—that was the important thing. In terminating the Keystone XL pipeline project, the Democratic Party shut down the future flow of “dirty” fossil fuels—that was the important thing. As for the border crisis, the Democratic Party does not believe in national borders, which are a Westphalian anachronism. To these three examples may be added a fourth: the nomination of the right kind of black woman to the Supreme Court. Janice Rogers Brown did not make the short list; Biden long ago blocked her path to the Court.
The future of the Biden presidency looks grim. COVID-19 has strengthened the resolve of parents across the country who, in the course of the last two years, have witnessed the self-loathing their sons and daughters are compelled to internalize under the pretense of public education. Asians and Hispanics are increasingly disgusted by a Democratic Party that weaponizes guilt about black slavery and its aftermath to empower the one-party state it runs, which seems unfriendly or hostile to the mediating institutions that poor and middle-class Americans of all races need in order to prosper. If “systemic racism” plagues America, the problem is so overwhelming that only the state can save us. Is that not the real takeaway of the 1619 Project? Asians and Hispanics do not believe it, because their experience tells them otherwise.
The portion of black America that is not the direct recipient of the spoils of the race grievance industry has had enough, too. Sylvia Bennett-Stone of Voices of Black Mothers United does not get a hearing at the White House. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and the big three networks ignore her. But much of black America does hear her, or knows of the agony that brings grieving mothers of children killed by street violence together throughout the country. The so-called “people of color” coalition is a grotesque delusion, held most dear by guilty white liberals who aspire to lead a multi-racial crusade to humiliate the wrong kind of white man (whose middle-class profile turns out to be identical to the aspirational profile of black America and every assimilating immigrant group).
Like the wrong kind of white man, black Americans and immigrant groups believe in home-ownership, want safe neighborhoods, perhaps imagine a John Deere to mow the back quarter-acre, take for granted the generative family that only a man and a woman together can form and sustain without the intervention of the state, desire freedom to worship in peace, and want an education about America that soberly acknowledges the gruesomeness of our history—of all history—without losing hope in our nation’s promise. Identity politics has promulgated a racial Cold War that few in America dare acknowledge. This Cold War is not between black and white, but between white and white and between black and black—between the wrong kind of white man and the right kind of white man, between Sylvia Bennett-Stone and Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Fomenting this intra-racial Cold War has brought the Democratic Party to a precipice. Republicans in 2022 and 2024 will probably benefit from a Democratic Party in political freefall. We should not underestimate the likelihood that the Republican Party and its candidates will misread the moment. Philosophers and theologians are illuminated by ideas; partisans hold fast to slogans, often outdated and puerile. The issues of the moment require more wisdom, more hope, than the slogans of either political party can now provide.
An explanation is overdue about the title of this essay, “By the Sweat of Your Brow You Shall Labor.” Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden for their transgression. Thereafter, they were cast into a hostile world of thorns, in which they labored, by the sweat of their brow, for their daily bread (Gen. 3:19-24). Sin preceded scarcity. Someday, some of their descendants are promised, the new heaven and earth will succeed scarcity (Rev. 21:1). Meanwhile, there is never-ending labor. Marxism distorts this sequence of innocence, competent labor, and reunification in one way; identity politics distorts it in another. In Marx’s account, scarcity precedes, and is the cause of, the sinfulness of man. We await the new heaven and earth—the end of oppression and alienation—that will arrive when man’s productive competence is able to overcome scarcity. Man is not born a sinner; he becomes a sinner under conditions of scarcity and will cease to be one when scarcity is no more. History is the account of this long-suffering, wholly mortal achievement. God plays no part in this theodicy.
In the identity-politics variant, history chronicles the steady accretion of debt added to the ledger of transgressor groups (the wolves) and the compound interest accrued by victim groups (the lambs), which now, at the end of history, the latter are entitled to collect. In Isaiah 11:6-9, the wolves and the lambs are reconciled; in identity politics, the lambs receive “equity.” The painstakingly slow yet undeniable development of human competence amid the struggle of history is of no consequence in identity politics. What matters is that the final reckoning has arrived.
That the wolves may have been largely responsible for the development of the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology; may have developed a theory of market commerce through which the wealth of the world has been magnified and standards of living elevated; may have developed the understanding of politics through which a modicum of justice for the many is even imaginable; may have developed a body of philosophical reflection, of artistic grandeur, of literary genius that is perhaps unrivaled; may have been the first on the world-historical stage to challenge slavery on moral grounds, and shed blood so that it might be undone—none of these facts matters, none attenuates the case against them.
For Marx, man’s suffering was the necessary cost of developing the competence that finally brings suffering to an end. Suffering is justified by the developing competence that attends it. Identity politics recognizes no such competence; calling the transgressors to account is the singular political task. Its final judgment is that the American constitutional experiment and our mediating institutions are implicated in the suffering of the innocents, and therefore must be destroyed. Identity politics is not an agonizing theodicy involving an intermixed legacy of suffering and the development of competence; it is a child-like moral reckoning, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light (Matt. 11:30). To this, the Christian must say, the mystery of human suffering and injustice is deeper than man can understand; it is folly to pretend that “equity” balances the scales on which there are weights that exceed man’s ability to quantify. “Where were you,” God asks the pleading and suffering Job, “when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4).
Under what conditions, really, can competence be ignored? This is not a trivial question, for identity politics is thinkable only within this lacuna. Immanuel Kant, the font of Rawlsian liberalism and of Hegel and Marx, wrote that Providence cares not a jot about man’s happiness, only that through painful struggle, mankind develop competence. That that demand could be suspended never occurred to him. At the moment we are living in a dreamy historical and social interlude, which apparently has suspended this demand.
Since 1989, America has had no geopolitical rival compelling her to put competence first. The Apollo program put two men on the moon in July 1969. From scribbles on a notepad to landing the LEM on the Sea of Tranquility and returning three American astronauts safely to Earth, the most advanced feat of engineering in human history required eight years to accomplish. The Saturn V rocket that took them to the moon was 363 feet tall, weighed 6 million pounds, and had more than a million parts. At NASA, the engineers were in charge. Sputnik will prompt that sort of thing. A half century later, the engineers are not in charge. When there is no urgent need to push the envelope of national competence, why should they be? Living in a “post-war” world will prompt that sort of thinking.
The current innocence-signaling administrators at NASA plan to spend thirty billion dollars on the Artemis program, so that a woman can be the first to step off the ladder of some twenty-first-century LEM, and signal by her very appearance that “the future is female.” If China launched manned rockets to Mars, Europa, Titan, and Ganymede tomorrow morning, with a view to exploring, colonizing, and declaring them its sovereign territory, the Artemis program would be aborted tomorrow afternoon. The sober work ahead would require a focus on competence alone. Early risk analysis of the Apollo program gave it a five percent chance of success. The purpose of the Artemis program is not to develop life-risking technological advances that keep us one step ahead of our enemies, but to achieve equity in the aftermath of that patriarchal embarrassment, the manned Apollo program.
National competition produced the competence necessary for the success of the Apollo program. Become a unipolar power, a hegemon, and you can delude yourself that history is over, that you can squander your national treasure on Artemis programs—in the military, in the universities, in our corporations—so that equity is achieved and you can sleep well at night. We have lived in this historical interlude since 1989. The end of history was supposed to bring liberal triumphalism; instead it brought innocence-signaling and intersectional scorekeeping. China has already brought our post–1989 delusion to a close. We just do not know it yet.
The second interlude that has made identity politics possible is social. I call it an interlude but fear it may be a perennial threat. Kant thought that competence would be developed by competition among citizens who wanted to lead the isolated life of an Arcadian shepherd, but who at the same time needed each other to live. Man’s “asocial sociability,” he called it. But what if Kant got that wrong, as Tocqueville seemed to suggest a half-century later, in Democracy in America? What if, in the democratic age, man could really live the life of the Arcadian shepherd?
Aristocracy links everyone, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link. . . . Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.
How does this democratic solitude allow identity-politics parishioners to ignore the ongoing need for competence? Imagine a group of college students, who live in a dormitory designated for “women and transgender persons.” The radiators must be replaced if the students are to stay warm through the winter. The work is successfully performed, and outrage erupts among the students, who feel that cisgender workmen have violated their safe space. “They should have performed this service over the summer, when we were away,” the students declare.
This need not be imagined; it happened on the Oberlin campus this past October, and it is not an isolated incident. Segregation in America today is not racial; it is imposed along new lines, which a twenty-first-century Ralph Ellison has yet to lay bare. Nineteen out of twenty dirty jobs in America—infrastructure building and maintenance—are performed by cisgender Invisible Men, who construct the dis-inclusionary social spaces within which identity-politics parishioners convince themselves that intersectional scores matter and competence does not. Safe spaces from cisgender men are built almost entirely by cisgender men. Toxic masculinity underlies every detoxified space identity-politics parishioners occupy. There never has been and never will be a pure and innocent world; parishioners on the left occupy theirs through excision, forgetfulness, and power. Just as American political hegemony created an interlude in which it could be pretended that competence no longer mattered, so social hegemony in America today allows one class of people to ignore the fact that their daily bread is provided, and the thorns in the recalcitrant world of things are daily cleared away, by another class altogether.
It is true, “man does not live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4). Christians struggle to trust that the gifts of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost will truly feed them. The ascendant elect class have unwavering faith in the gifts of FAANG—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google—which, with a few keystrokes, provide digital nourishment and release from, or control over, the recalcitrant world of things. “Do not Amazon Prime packages arrive to service my every need and whim? Do not the dark people of DoorDash, appropriately masked for my protection, present to me the meals I order on my smartphone?” Amid and in the aftermath of the Wuhan Flu, the social chasm in America and elsewhere has widened and been starkly clarified.
The FAANG elect class have inoculated themselves against filth, poison, and death, while the reprobate have served them without complaint. No, we were not “all in this together.” Reacting to the Freedom Convoy, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laid bare the inner sentiments of the FAANG elect class: Those across the social divide, who bring them their stuff, are Nazis and racists—that is, toxins that the elect have a right and obligation to purge and ruin financially. Yet now, suddenly, the unthinkable has become thinkable: The politics of innocence and transgression, built on this New American Segregation, could collapse at any moment if those cisgender reprobates lock their brakes and stop delivering the goods.
Marcuse worried that Marxism would never take hold if capitalism kept producing the goods. The identity-politics Awakening will falter when truckers refuse to deliver them. The digital world in which the FAANG elect class thinks it lives is a supplement to the analogue world of things, not a substitute for it. The Freedom Convoy is a stark reminder of this invariant fact of human life. Supplements cannot become substitutes. The notion that they can be is the fatal conceit of the FAANG elect class, whose next grand building project is the metaverse.
I have distinguished between the politics of innocence and transgression and the politics of competence. Why invoke politics here? Why not distinguish between innocence and transgression on the one hand, and competence on the other? The answer is that each has a distinctive associated politics, which Tocqueville’s thinking in Democracy in America helps us clarify. Tocqueville anticipated two possible democratic futures, one of which culminated with equality in freedom and the other with equality in servitude. In the former, citizen competence would be developed in and through the mediating institutions of family, religion, civic associations, commerce, and municipal government, and the formidable but modest government envisioned by the Founders would flourish. That was Tocqueville’s formula—the American formula. In the latter, mediating institutions would be weak or absent, citizen competence would remain undeveloped, and the state would grow ever larger in order to compensate.
The former arrangement presupposes adult responsibility; the latter presupposes childlike dependence on the state. The Founders presumed the former; Progressives presumed the latter. Progressives thought that democracy would be vindicated through expert competence rather than through citizen competence. Tocqueville anticipated what would happen if we abandoned the difficult but necessary project of developing and maintaining citizen competence. We would get not a vibrant democracy presided over by experts, but a kinder and gentler tyranny at the end of history:
I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. . . . Over this kind of man stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble paternal authority if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. . . . Thus, it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.
Progressives did not see this coming. They were, by and large, an optimistic, forward-looking lot, who dreamed of secular fulfillment, not gentle tyranny. What has emerged in Progressivism’s wake was not anticipated either, namely the usurpation by identity-politics parishioners of the bureaucracies, agencies, and institutions that once housed and produced expert competence. These parishioners intend to use their political power to destroy America’s mediating institutions rather than to bypass them. It is one thing to say that they are no longer necessary, as Progressives did; it is quite another to say that they must be eradicated, as identity-politics parishioners now do.
It is not difficult to see why the one position easily leads to the other—why Progressivism is an unstable intermediate whose animating insight leads not to a fuller elucidation of the American promise but to the destruction of America altogether. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), Tocqueville noted that hatred of the aristocratic class increased as the power of the state increased, because that class could no longer serve its original purpose of mediating between king and peasant. Substitute “mediating institutions in America” for “the aristocratic class in France,” and we can see the historical rhyme. Citizen competence in America was once produced in and through the mediation of our families, religious institutions, civic associations, commercial enterprises, and municipal governments. The intermediate stage of Progressivism in America strengthened the state and weakened those mediating institutions, no less than the consolidation of state power in France under the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) weakened the aristocratic class. Identity-politics parishioners in America conceive of doing away with those institutions altogether, on the grounds that they are “systemically racist,” “misogynist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” and so on. Our identity-politics parishioners rhyme with the French Revolutionaries, who conceived of doing away with the aristocratic class altogether. The Founders believed in mediating institutions; Progressives let them go fallow; identity-politics parishioners want to extinguish what remains. The power of the state, they aver, must be engaged to complete this purging.
If the rhyme holds true, we can also expect an American Napoleon Bonaparte in the near future. Destroy mediating institutions and you do not get liberation, you get delinked citizens—think “social distancing”—without a manner of being gathered together, and a tyrant who rules over them. “A despot will lightly forgive his subjects for not loving him,” Tocqueville wrote, “provided they do not love each other.” The politics of innocence and transgression will not deliver us from evil; it will set one infantilized citizen against another and concentrate evil in the hands of one man, who promises liberation through state-enforced diversity, equity, and inclusion, yet delivers tyranny. Progressivism was not the definitive repudiation of the Founders’ belief in citizen competence; it was an unstable intermediate, predicated on the belief in expert competence, which prepared the way for the identity-politics onslaught against competence itself. Only a recovery of citizen competence will save us now.
How should we think about this thing called competence, which we recognize, even if we seldom can specify what it is? It is, importantly, not something we can create by recipe, precisely because our knowledge of it exceeds what we can say about it. The competent chef can write out his recipes and give them to others, but his competence is not captured by or contained in those recipes. They are of real use only to those who possess some measure of competence already.
There is no method we can follow to generate competence ex nihilo. Competence is learned, if at all, through long apprenticeships of the sort that mediating institutions facilitate. There, daily practice yields competences that are at once commonplace and invaluable—commonplace, because no higher education formula can generate them; invaluable, because without them, the cost to the state of maintaining incompetent citizens exceeds the wealth of King Midas. That is why Tocqueville wrote: “A central power, however enlightened and wise one imagines it to be, can never alone see to all the details of the life of a great nation. It cannot do so because such a task exceeds human strength.”
This distinction between method-knowledge and apprenticeship-knowledge is as ancient as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Tocqueville sought to elucidate it in the opening chapter of the second volume of Democracy in America. There, he worried that “the American philosophical method” would undermine the competence that mediating institutions fostered. Democratic man, he thought, was always in a hurry, and would look for shortcuts that bypassed the need to develop competence. Method-knowledge was just such a shortcut.
We may follow Tocqueville’s lead, and point toward what competence is by illuminating the shortcuts that seek to bypass it, by revisiting the distinction between supplements and substitutes. This distinction was first worked out in Plato’s Republic. Rousseau invoked it in his First Discourse. It is implicit in several sections of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Even Marx toys with it in his 1844 Manuscripts. I invoke the distinction with a view to saying something about human health and illness in our time.
Proceeding in this way returns us to the question of human nature, about which I have raised doubts. I concede, with Strauss and MacIntyre, that in the absence of an understanding of human nature, relativism will be a temptation. When all things are possible, all things will be tried. But by what authority shall our understanding of human nature be established, so that we may be saved? The Bible? How well has that worked out? The Roman Catholic Church? Same question. Philosophy? In the long aftermath of the Enlightenment, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Derrida have declared for us that philosophy is and always was but a pretext masking dark motivations that must now be exposed: class consciousness, the animal in man who is man, the id, ontological evasion, logocentrism.
To these we can now add identity politics, for which philosophy is a pretext for white transgression. I do not contest that flickers of light belie the dark times in which we live; but I do say that it is not certain they can endure, let alone rekindle a civilization on the verge of abandoning the idea of human nature altogether. A lost civilization, like a lost soul, is seldom drawn to what will heal it; it is repulsed by the medicine it most needs. Plato’s Republic is the first, and second-best, account of this paradox: The medicine we most need—philosophy—is the medicine we will roundly reject. With the death of Socrates in mind, Plato wrote that nothing compares to the cruelty with which society treats its wisest men.
So too Christ: Given to heal man’s illness, he met with betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, torture, and crucifixion. We live in a time when the old authorities—the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church, philosophy—have no authority among those whose only authority is themselves. Tocqueville saw this coming: Homo sapiens is devolving into Selfie Man; and it is therefore to the manner of his falling into illness that we must attend, and to his experience of illness that we must appeal. I cannot prove it, but I suspect this is the path Selfie Man must take to recover an understanding of human nature. The Prodigal Son returns home only after he realizes the husks of corn on which he has been feasting nourish him not (Luke 15:11–32).
I propose that we have succumbed to several variants of a single illness; that in many cases they seem to be not illnesses at all, but promising stimulants; that they seem unrelated, but in fact are species within a genus; that being on the political left is a good predictor of having succumbed to them, but that being on the political right grants no immunity; that they all are shortcuts leading to dead ends; that these dead ends are expensive; that they involve turning supplements into substitutes; that singly and as a whole, they alert us to a trail we can retrace to recover our health; that in each and every case, health lies in a competence that no method-knowledge can teach; and that this competence can be developed only in the apprentice-like setting our mediating institutions provide.
In American Awakening, I named this illness “Substitutism,” and identified opioid addiction, plastic water bottle consumption, fast-food mania, declining birthrates amid growing sexual fixations, social media obsession, online shopping madness, the rapid push to virtual education, infantile dependence on Google Maps, digital entrancement, governmental overreach, immigration confusion, and the crisis of fiat currency as instances of this illness. I would now add that having pets is increasingly a substitute for having children.
More provocatively, because it has implications for how we have organized society since Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), the division of labor has become a substitute for apprenticeship-knowledge rather than a supplement to it. Together, these instances seem to have little in common. With a few exceptions, they are not expressly partisan. They are all cases in which a supplement to a hard-won competence has become a substitute that promises to bypass the need for competence altogether, but cannot. If Jeopardy! questions were composed pertaining to the competences whose supplements have been turned into substitutes, they would read: What is the right use of medicine? What is home? What is preparing and having a meal? What is marriage and its pleasures? What is friendship? What is shopping? What is a classroom? What is navigation? What are building and maintenance? What are mediating institutions? What are justice and mercy, and how are they intertwined? What is wealth and its storehouse? What are children? What is stewardship?
It will be useful to focus on that competence called friendship, with a view to illuminating the broader illness from which we suffer. Friendship requires apprenticeship-knowledge, not method-knowledge, to develop and be sustained. No book can teach it—though if we already know something about friendship, through apprenticeship, books may help us understand it more deeply. Books can be a helpful supplement. To state this relationship precisely: The information books provide is informative only if we already know something that cannot be rendered as information—namely, what friendship is. Social media can supplement our existing friendships; they can be a stimulant, which help us “keep in touch” with old friends when we are not able to confirm, through a handshake, a pat on the back, or an embrace, that we are indeed friends. We feel the “presence” of our friends through this supplement; but the supplement by itself, without the preexisting competence of friendship, cannot produce the feeling of presence.
That is why we are comfortable having Skype or Zoom calls with friends and family members who are far away, but not with strangers. I use the word “presence,” because it is on the minds of many of our Tech Overlords these days. Facebook has changed its name to Meta, and Mark Zuckerburg and his “metamates,” formerly known as “employees,” are betting that the future lies in the metaverse, a digital platform that, he acknowledges, can work only if it is able to deliver the experience of “presence.” Today, billions of dollars are being spent on this project, by Meta and other digital media companies, with a view to building a Tower of Babel with digital bricks (Gen. 11:3–4) that will obviate the need for apprenticeship-knowledge altogether.
They want to recreate the presence we feel through the social media supplement to friendship, but in the form of a substitute for the hard and patient labor—on the playground, in school, after school, in our families, in our churches and synagogues, in our civic groups, and in and through our local political affiliations—that friendship takes to develop and flourish. The mediating institutions through which we form friendships need no longer trouble us, they proclaim. The age of apprenticeship-knowledge has passed.
Friendship once had to be formed in institutional settings where noise and signal could not be disentangled, where filth and festering wounds were always near. Places; always places—places of institutional and bodily regeneration, where man and women were sexed, not gendered; places where we had to labor, by the sweat of our brow, to develop competences, or die. The metaverse will relieve us of a double burden: the burden of long labor in a place, and the burden of the transgressions that attended those labors. Digital Substitutism promises release from both.
Is this a violation of the very order of things? Yes, it is. When supplements are turned into substitutes, they make us ill. The competences that apprenticeship-knowledge develops can be supplemented, but there is no substitute for them. Early forays into the metaverse have yielded the high that was promised—but also lows, such as virtual rape, virtual violence, and verbal cruelty—in short, all the horrible things the world offers, but now without the competences we learn through mediating institutions, which alone can attenuate those horrors.
Just as the highs of opioid addiction go with the lows when a drug becomes a substitute rather than a supplement, so too the metaverse will bring soul-crushing lows if it becomes a substitute for competences that we can develop only through apprentice-knowledge. In the metaverse, rape, violence, and cruelty seem to be ruled out because we have purportedly left behind the world of filth and festering wounds where that sort of thing does happen. In truth, the only way to attenuate rape, violence, and cruelty is to develop the competences that humanize man. We will get rid of toxic masculinity not by purging masculinity through a de-sexed digital alternative, but by assuring that a healthy masculinity is around to quash pernicious versions. Healthy men keep unhealthy men in check. Those healthy men are formed through the apprenticeship-knowledge we develop in our mediating institutions.
If we were to formulate this problem in terms of evolutionary biology, we would say that mediating institutions humanize the primitive, reptilian impulses in man. The metaverse promises transhuman man, but in bypassing the apprenticeship-knowledge that humanizes the reptile in us all, it will result in the high of transhumanism and the low of prehuman barbarism. That is what happens when supplements are turned into substitutes. There are no shortcuts; everywhere we look, we and our fellow-citizens are trying to find them, and discovering the terrible cost associated with the drug-like highs that attend them.
The competence called friendship forms locally, in mediating institutions. Extend the range and the “presence” of friendship with social media, and, eureka, our friendships seem to have no limits. But if we lose sight of the apprenticeship-knowledge called friendship, a loneliness that Digital Substitutism causes and cannot cure will become a central feature of our life, as it has throughout America. Our Tech Wizards seek now to give us the ultimate drug to lift us from the stupor of loneliness that they themselves have manufactured: the metaverse, the high that never crashes. This will not end well.
I have surveyed the inhospitable terrain around us and noted our inability to see it clearly. The political left, I have suggested, is caught up in an American Awakening, without God and without forgiveness. The longstanding conservative distinction between nature and history gives those who see its dangers no way to resist it. The Christian heresy that is identity politics will not abate by our recurring to human nature alone, but rather by Christian renewal. Christ, the divine scapegoat, not a mortal one, takes away the sins of the world. Fusionism cannot help us either, because it has nothing to say about the spiritual economy of debt that now haunts the American soul. Properly modulated, however, it can begin to tame the tempest.
With respect to fusionism’s first pillar: Conservatives should defend market commerce and price discovery, but they must remember that this world of payments is not enough to hold society together. Philanthropy, and charity to those in need—in short, gifts and mercy—are necessary supplements to market commerce. Front and center in identity politics is a distorted understanding of mercy: free college, no borders, everyone gets a trophy. Mercy is properly understood as a supplement to, not a substitute for, the world of payment. Conservative defenders of market commerce can demonstrate this understanding in their actions and in their words. Defend market commerce—and in your next breath insist that philanthropy and charity are the forms of mercy that market commerce makes possible.
With respect to the second pillar: Yes, we owe a debt to our forefathers. The invocation of “tradition,” however, does not go far enough. We must talk about our mediating institutions and the competences they facilitate. And we must emphasize that it is the least among us, especially, who need them. It was through its families and churches that black America attenuated the evil of slavery and emerged from it. The Founders, in turn, could conceive of modest national government only because their fellow citizens had developed competences in those mediating institutions. Talk about the grandeur of tradition—and in your next breath, remind yourself and others that our mediating institutions are most needed by the least among us, and that by making our lives larger, they make the need for government smaller. That, among other reasons, is why they must be defended.
Identity-politics parishioners have our mediating institutions in their sights. These institutions harbor stain and corruption, they aver, and must be jettisoned or modified beyond recognition. That is one formidable threat. The other threat, which I take to be no less grievous, is that almost all of us, irrespective of our political persuasion, are sidestepping the difficult and laborious task of developing competences in the apprenticeships that our mediating institutions provide. In fleeting moments of lucidity, we recognize that we are called to labor by the sweat of our brow to achieve competence. Then we again forget, and resume the addictive search for a shortcut. The digital substitution of the metaverse for the difficult labor of friendship is a particularly virulent form of Substitutism. Make laws that curtail the FAANG Tech Overlords if you wish, and boldly proclaim a second antitrust moment in America. Your laws will be of no avail until we are no longer susceptible to the disease itself, until we resolve, perhaps after many painful trials, that though we are keen to adopt supplements to our apprenticeship-knowledge, we will soberly refuse the addictive highs and lows that are the predictable consequence of turning supplements into substitutes. All signs indicate that we are not remotely ready to do so.
As we approach the 2022 and 2024 political seasons, amid the noise of partisanship, we would do well to remember that identity politics is a spiritual crisis within Christianity, and that Substitutism is a disease whose cure man, restless and always in a hurry, will be reluctant to adopt. Both afflictions may manifest themselves in politics, but their cure requires a medicine that politics cannot offer. Therein lies the truly difficult labor ahead.
Joshua Mitchell is professor of political theory at Georgetown University and a fellow of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life. This was delivered as the 2022 First Things Lecture in Washington, D.C.
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