The Religious Quest of Identification Politics
Richard Reinsch (00:04):
Today we’re talking with Joshua Mitchell about his latest book, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. It’s my honor to welcome Josh Mitchell to the program. He’s one of our best thinkers and writers about politics. In the academic discipline of political theory, he’s the author of a number of books and numerous essays and reviews, including Tocqueville in Arabia, which I reviewed at Law & Liberty, which was an account Mitchell provided of his teaching of Tocqueville’s democracy in America to students largely from the Middle East when he was at Georgetown’s campus, I think it was in Doha. Josh, we’re glad to welcome you to the program and to discuss American Awakening.
Joshua Mitchell (01:04):
My pleasure. I’m really looking forward to our conversation.
Richard Reinsch (01:08):
A basic question here at the beginning, what has woken up in America?
Joshua Mitchell (01:12):
Periodically, America has religious renewals, Tocquesville observed this, we know this from history. What has happened is that the left has decided that we have to have a different kind of accounting system. What we need to measure is transgression and innocence and there’s a whole scale that you can use to assess who you are. I think one of the big mistakes that people make is they say, “Oh, identity. I have an identity. Identity is just this kind or that kind.” Lebanese or French, whatever it happens to be, black or white. Identity politics is about the kind that you are.
When we say I have an identity these days, we mean something more than time. We mean the group of which we’re a member that has a certain status in the great continuum of innocence and transgression.
What I’m suggesting is that’s a colloquial use, but it’s not an adequate use. What identity politics is trying to do is to measure relationships between groups, not a person, groups that individuals are instances of that have a certain victim score, or transgressor score. There’s a whole hierarchy here. They’re literally trying to build a world where we look at each other in terms of our identity score, whether we’re a transgressor or whether we’re a member of the innocent group. That’s a profound taxology. What I do in the book is I set up what I call becoming identity politics of innocence, versus what I call the liberal politics of competence.
Richard Reinsch (02:40):
When you say identity, can we talk more about that? What does it mean to say I have an identity, in your account?
Joshua Mitchell (02:49):
Most people will say of course we have an identity, but I’m old enough to remember when we didn’t even use the word. This is the latest intellectual fashion. When I was growing up I would say I’m an American, I’m a man, but we would never use the word identity. Somehow, I think starting in the ’90s, maybe a little earlier, I don’t want to nitpick on dates here, some time along in the last 30 years we started saying things like, “I have an American identity. My identity is this. My identity is that.” It’s very curious, surely on the basis of intellectual history, why would we need to add the thing when we used to say, “I’m an American.” That’s the kind I am. I’m an American, I’m French, whatever it happens to be. I think identity doesn’t mean just kind, I think people are invoking it to signal something. I make very clear in the book that I think we have to stop using the term virtue signaling. Virtue is a Greek thing. Innocence is a biblical thing. I think because we’re involved in a pseudo religious awakening, people who want to call this out have to start using the term innocence signaling.
When we say I have an identity these days, we mean something more than time. We mean the group of which we’re a member that has a certain status in the great continuum of innocence and transgression. As I say in the book, the prime transgressor who is blamed for everything and all that he does is the White, heterosexual male. I said, to be clear right at the outset, I have no interest whatsoever in defending White nationalism or whatever you want to call it. My point is that the White heterosexual man now has a kind of symbolic standing as the cause of all the transgressions in the world. As I say in the book, every single major party platform idea in the Democratic Party can be linked to this idea that the things that White heterosexual men have brought a problem. Capitalism, burning fossil fuels, the nation state, the heteronormative family, Christian religion, every single one of these things is traceable to the idea that there is a stain in the world and that is the White, heterosexual male and, in order for us, the innocent to be liberated, he must be purged. That is a profound distortion, in my view, of Christianity.
Richard Reinsch (05:18):
Now your book is an exploration of identity politics as a spiritual, religious manifestation into our politics that has taken over our politics, but maybe we can get into it this way more specifically. You use this term towards the beginning of the book, you talk about the “invisible economy of man.” What is that? Why does that matter for identity politics?
Joshua Mitchell (05:45):
I would give the left some credit on this. I think the deepest theological insight we have from the Hebrews and from Christians is that there is in fact two economies. I make mention of a couple of these things in the preface to the book. I note, for example, one of the gospels, the opening passage, or one of the opening passages, Joseph and Mary had to go back to their place of birth because all the world was to be taxed. The way I characterize this is one of the gospels opens up with the idea that there is this thing called a world of payment, dollars and cents and taxes. Everything gets accounted for in the ledger book. Everything visible can be accounted for in the ledger book. The gospel is very clear, they don’t stay at the inn, they stay in probably a cave, Jesus is put into an animal feed trough, it’s completely off the ledger books of the world of visible payment. I think that’s what the gospel writer is trying to say. Christ came into the world not to address the visible world of payment, but the invisible economy of transgression and stain and to offer redemption in that way.
Then I think the more glaring example of this, the most beautiful example of this is Judas. It’s very clear that Judas, he praised Christ because he is thinking of this visible economy. Oil is poured down onto his head, think of the money that was worth. He feels like Christ is not being the revolutionary in the visible economy to help the poor. Christ says the poor will always be with us and it means any number of things, but among other things, it means that there’s something deeper going on here in the world than just this visible economy. He comes to offer relief from the transgression that no world of payment can understand. This is the deepest Christian insight, it’s a profound insight. I give the left credit for that, or the identity politics credit for that. It’s announcing, saying a more profound economy than the world of payment. I’m not saying it’s one that has to be replaced, we have to live with both economies, this is the problem. We have to pay our taxes and yet there’s something deeper going on in the human soul than just the payment of taxes. That’s the credit I give to identity politics.
The problem is that it wants to think that problem through now, think that issue through now in the world of politics and replace the world of payment, capitalism, et cetera, with this new economy that’s concerned only with innocence. That’s why, by the way, AOC and others can offer a new green deal and they don’t care if it costs 50 trillion dollars, because the more important economy is the invisible economy. I’m saying the invisible economy is more important, but we can’t live without the visible economy and the place where this invisible economy has to be wrestled through is in the churches and the synagogues, this is where we have to wrestle through this. It’s not an accident, in my view, that the collapse of the mainline churches in the aftermath of the Vietnam war didn’t put an end to the category of transgression and stain. It shifted. The Pew Charitable Trust poll indicates that a larger and larger number of Americans are among this group called the none, they have no religious affiliation. I’m saying that’s not true, they have a profound religious affiliation. They are addressing the problem of transgression and stain, but they’re just not doing it in the churches, because they have a new place and a new way to do it and it’s called identity politics.
We’re still desperately looking for atonement, this is a human thing, but when you only have the longing for atonement but no longer have the old mechanism for doing so, you’ll come up with all sorts of new modes of atonement that you think will solve your problem of guilt
Richard Reinsch (09:21):
Your account of the invisible economy of AOC, or of the woke and conflating that or trying to infuse that into the world, another manifestation would be defund the police, I think.
Joshua Mitchell (09:35):
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Richard Reinsch (09:37):
The quarterback, the woke quarterback, although he’s not really playing anymore, Colin Kaepernick called recently, I think over the weekend, to abolish prisons in America. You mentioned the Green New Deal. I mean it was basically a draft proposal someone had dashed off that they released to the public. I mean everything from flights to killing the cows in America was contemplated as a level of control there. I guess an older idiom of thinking about this, also somewhat spiritual, would be Voegelin’s idea, well-known idea of immanentizing the eschaton. That is the perfectionist impulse of the woke and trying to make that our politics. Your account is sort of like that, sort of different.
Joshua Mitchell (10:21):
Yeah. I do think it’s embedded to Christian categories. I mean I do agree with most of Voegelin on this. It’s embedded to Christian categories, but it’s a kind of … well, it’s an end of history scenario. We’re going to finally get away with all the filth in the world, get rid of dirty, fossil fuels, we’re going to get rid of all the dirty things. There’s going to be an accounting at the end of … we are at the end of history, this is the most important thing, we are at the end of history. We have the task of all that came before us that’s implicated and stained and, to use the passage from Isaiah that I think is most apt, the lion has to now lay down with the lamb. We’re at the end of history in toto. The only thing left is that there has to be a complete accounting of all the stains and transgressions that history has provided for us. In Europe, I’m very worried about what’s happening in Europe, you’ve got a post-Christian Christian region where … what I mean by that is people aren’t going to church, but they’re still haunted, haunted by the transgression of history, notably two world wars and colonialism.
The deal that the European elite are cutting here, you are indelibly stained because of your history, especially the Germans. There is no theological mechanism for you to atone and to begin anew, because God’s forgiveness doesn’t give us a way forward to have a new day, because we’re always haunted by guilt we can never expunge. The deal that the left is offering, and in America, the only way that you can disburden yourself from your guilt is to renounce your history and to renounce your nation. That is now the reason why the European Union is pushing back against the very idea of nations. It’s a religious attempt to find relief from stain and impurity, but without the religious mechanism of doing so. That’s why in Eastern Europe, where you still have a strong Catholic church, people don’t fall for this.
Yeah, sure, bad things have happened, but we know where stain is gotten rid of, it’s called at the altar before Christ in the churches. In Eastern Europe, terrible things have happened there, but they’re not going to fall for what Western Europe is falling for, namely that there’s no Church left, so the only way that we can atone is by renouncing those sites, mainly the family, the nation state with rule of law, the nation state itself, that’s the deal that you have to cut. We’re still desperately looking for atonement, this is a human thing, but when you only have the longing for atonement but no longer have the old mechanism for doing so, you’ll come up with all sorts of new modes of atonement that you think will solve your problem of guilt, well nothing will solve your problem of guilt outside the Church, but you’re going to try everything. You’re going to purge the White people, you’re going to get rid of the nation. It’s a desperate and sick attempt to find a way towards cleanliness. That’s what’s happening here at the end of time. The immanentization of the eschaton in the sense it’s the end of time, but we’re looking for atonement, it’s a deep, personal thing too. That’s the crisis of our moment.
Richard Reinsch (13:40):
You have in the book a line that wokism introduces … well, it doesn’t introduce, it changes the meaning of the traditional Protestant, or I’ll say Christian theological concept of original sin. There’s no original sin in wokism, but there’s an original sinner. Also you express this idea that there’s also no forgiveness. Ultimately there’s no possibility of atonement. Those who are the transgressor, right now the transgressor is the White, heterosexual male, and of course we can talk about and I’d like a discussion of how a parade of transgressors will follow but kind of beg for sufferance from those he has oppressed. I think a number of us have seen this, certainly these videos and displays throughout the summer of people, particularly Whites in these protests kneeling down in front of minorities. I’ve seen kissing the boots, things like this, to try to show an attempt to atone or seek absolution for the crimes of their race or gender overall.
Joshua Mitchell (14:42):
Yeah. I think we have to make an important distinction. I think, as Americans, we have collective responsibility to heal wounds, but not collective fault. I mean my family, at least a large half of it came over in the 1890s from what’s now Lebanon. How am I implicated in slavery? There’s a desperate attempt to find atonement. My point about original sin is that what it means is that deeper than your lineage, deeper than the fact that I might be part Lebanese and part Welsh, deeper than that is something that is always already there. It’s original to the human condition. The absolutely profound insight that Christianity gives us is that you can’t solve the stain that’s always already there by looking for a mortal solution to it. You can’t look at that other group and say, “If I can just scapegoat them and purge them, then everything’s going to be fine.” The problem is deeper than any inheritance you have or they have. This is so unbelievably profound. Rousseau saw this. Rousseau’s a nut, but he saw some amazing things, he understands some amazing things. He said this is what changes when you move from Pagan politics to Christian politics, because in Paganism you really did think that by purging that other nation with other Gods through cathartic rage that you could purify yourself. The Christian claim was no, the problem of stain is so deep it goes back to Adam and your inheritance, whether you’re Lebanese or French or whatever and that other person with some other inheritance, you can’t solve your problem of stain by purging another group. The problem is original. It’s always already there.
We’re always … I mean I’m haunted by Genesis four through seven, Adam and Eve sinned, there’s a transgression there and Eve says, “The serpent made me do it,” and Adam says, “The woman who you gave me, it’s your fault, God.” We’re always looking … that statement right there, it’s this astounding statement about human nature. We have fault internal to us and we’re always looking out there, external to us, to find a way to hide, to find a fig leaf to hide from our transgression. That’s what identity politics is. It’s saying we recognize fault, we recognize there’s an invisible economy and the way we’re going to solve it is the Pagan way. We’re going to purge groups. We live in this really strange time where we still have some Christian understanding that we really probably shouldn’t do that, there’s a thing called the rule of law and every group, every member of every group is supposed to have a standing independent of the group. This itself is a remarkable achievement of Christianity, but we stand on the cusp of returning to that Pagan idea of purgation.
The Christian claim, and I come back to Rousseau’s politics, that’s not going to work. That’s why Augustine comes up with the Just War doctrine. What it means is we can’t just go to war expending cathartic rage on the enemy. That’s not what war can be about anymore. This is a profound breakthrough. I understand that the question of original sin is involved in all sorts of huge debates between Protestants and Catholics, I’m actually trying to go back and move beyond that debate and say, “What does it mean for us today in light of identity politics?” My point is, if it’s original, then we can’t solve the problem of stain and impurity by purging another group, which is exactly what identity politics is trying to do. The Christian claim is, the only way out is to recognize that all of us are broken, whatever we may have done to each other as groups or individuals, all of us are broken and there is a divine innocent one. There’s no mortal innocence. What identity politics does, and here we return to Voegelin, is it immanetizes the innocent one. That would be my difference with Voegelin. He says it immanetizes the eschaton, I say it immanetizes the innocent one.
Richard Reinsch (19:09):
The innocent one by definition doesn’t sin, they are only sinned against, which unleashes tremendous-
Joshua Mitchell (19:18):
Richard Reinsch (19:18):
… arrogance and hubris which we’ve seen on display throughout the past four months in this country. You can do no wrong, but wrong can be done to you. What I ask, something that I keyed in on in the book and it resonated with me because I grew up in the ’80s in a small town in Tennessee. What I remember learning in the public schools about Martin Luther King Junior, he was called Reverend and I distinctly remember that. Also I attended a Methodist Church growing up. Reverend Martin Luther King I heard about.
the only group that can stop this identity politics madness are Black Americans who will say, “Wait a second. This is not what Martin Luther King signed up for.”
You talk about, and only a few people have noticed this, the transition. It happened some time I think in the ’90s from Reverend to Doctor. You talk about the meaning of that and how that helps us think about identity politics. That resonated with me because I understood as a kid in some way that the Reverend meant not only did he defeat segregation at law, he understood what it was really about and how to defeat it spiritually, but you go on to talk about that.
Joshua Mitchell (20:18):
This is, I think, something people who are concerned with the real legacy of Martin Luther King need to constantly talk about. He was the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King. What that meant was he understood exactly this theological formulation that I gave and advanced it. It would be impossible for Martin Luther King as a theologian to advance identity politics, because identity politics makes the grievous error of presuming that there are innocent and guilty ones here in the world of time and that we can find a solution to the problem of transgression by scapegoating other people. Martin Luther King, I remember on occasion said, “Look, the problem is not White people, the problem is evil, the problem is principalities and powers. That’s what we have to fight against and the ally we have in that fight is Christ.”
As we know, you read the gospel, he’s exorcizing the demon, so only Christ has power over evil itself. Of course sensible people can’t talk about evil and sensible people don’t believe in incarnation, but sensible liberals … remember there was something about transgression and innocence in the 1960s, so now we’re going to do this without the theological accoutrements altogether. You have the categories without the profound theological insights, so you have to separate the world now between the innocent and the stained. Before all the world was stained and God alone was the innocent one. You see the innocent voice as victim, but that category now is taken up by particular identity groups. This is, again, a profound distortion of Christianity. I say that, through the indication of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we actually have a way to begin to wrestle with this problem of innocence and transgression. Through the indication of a Doctor Martin Luther King, which is the way the identity politics people now do it, the only thing you have is one group aggrieved against another and never ending cathartic rage, anger and resentment and then defensive postures, which never allows us to build a world together. That’s where we are today.
Richard Reinsch (22:28):
That is also a way of thinking of the Black experience in America. You talk about this in the book. You quote Robert Woodson, who was a community activist, rightly understood, I would argue, who was trying to rebuild civil society and Black neighborhoods in America. He talks about this idea now, the part of the Black experience in America that was heroic in an age of real oppression and very real segregation forming mutual self insurance societies, fraternal societies I should say, building their businesses, churches and how that worked. That’s sort of forgotten and there’s the plantation and there’s oppression and there’s the Democratic Party doing an activist thing and that’s it. It’s like you’ve whitewashed even the history, you’ve taken that out. Woodson says it’s like Blacks are another identity group and their experience is this ever growing fund that new minority groups draw on to vindicate their claims.
Joshua Mitchell (23:34):
A couple of things on that count. Bob and I have become good friends. We’re actually working together very closely on something called the 1776 Unites project, which is in response to the 1619 project. We’re on a weekly call with a dozen or two dozen people, largely Black, who are pushing back against this idea of systemic racism. Bob’s claim … two things. First, I think Bob and other serious Black intellectuals are realizing that their movement has been co-opted. I say this in the book, making reference in a sly way to Rosa Parks. I mean Black America is now asked to sit at the back of the Democratic bus. Black America was what I call the template of innocence that feminists, gays and transgenders now have adopted. The argument is, of course, as civil rights go, so goes women’s rights, gay rights and transgender rights. You look at Martin Luther King and what he understood was Black Americans survived slavery because of family and Church. What a paradox now.
The left starts with the template of innocence of Black America and now it’s gotten to the point where the group it’s defending want to undo the family and the Church. Something has gone seriously wrong here. Bob knows and he and I have talked at length about this, his view and mine is that the only group that can stop this identity politics madness are Black Americans who will say, “Wait a second. This is not what Martin Luther King signed up for.” The expectation is that Blacks are just going to go sit in the back of the bus while new groups keep taking on the crown of thorns using the template of innocence of Black America. My sense of this, I don’t know if it’s this election or the next or who knows when, but it cannot be the case that, in order to be inclusive now, to use that leftist word, we have to oppose heteronormativity, we can’t be cisgender, we can’t believe in the Church because it’s really homophobic and we can’t live that way. Most importantly, and this is Woodson’s point, belief among us absolutely needs those institutions. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, Bob is upset because he says there is a grand history of Black achievement against incredible odds. He and I are trying to set up something called the Center for the Study of Resilience. We’re trying to find a university where we can do this. What we want to do is simply chronicle, either in video or a written form, the extraordinary exemplars in the African American community, but it can’t be only them, it’s immigrant communities, it’s the American story against all odds to build families, to build communities, because our young people, rich and poor, desperately need some evidence that there’s human agency and there’s hope in the world of time. The real objection to the 1619 Project is, yeah, it’s bad history, that’s fine, but look, forget the history, what is at stake is the politics of this. The politics of systemic racism is this, the problem of racism is so deep that your families can’t help you, your Churches can’t help you and your neighbors can’t help you.
Only the state can help you. What that teaches is there’s no human agency and there’s no hope. The real message of the 1619 Project, the real message of those who claim systemic racism is that you can’t do it on your own. Nobody’s saying you do it on your own, our view is a Tocquevillian view, which is we build a world together in our families, in our Churches, in our neighborhoods, in our local communities, in our towns. That’s how we do it. My favorite line of Democracy in America is feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, the mind expanded only by the reciprocal actions of men, one upon another. It’s one of the most beautiful lines in Democracy in America. He’s saying that everything in the modern world conspires to isolate us, conspires to let the state step in because you and I find forming human relations difficult and that will produce the kinder and gentler tyranny at the end of history.
Bob’s addition to this is, the people who are first hurt by this are the least among us. They’re the ones that most need the mediating institution in order to pull themself up. Bob is a profound Tocquevillian. I’ve been a Tocqueville scholar all my life and when I met Bob two years ago I think, oh my God, here’s Tocqueville in action. He is, as you say, he’s the right kind of activist, meaning someone who is really interested in empowering local people. You find the people who’ve been able to make their communities work and you help them. Bob tells a wonderful story. First he says, “80% of my friends are exes, ex-cons, ex-prostitutes,” and he finds the broken among us. He says, “When I go into a town, I go to the barber shop and I say, “Who do you go to when things are bad?” We’re not saying go down the welfare agency, but who is the person you go to? They’ll invariably, after talking to 10 or 12 people, there’ll be two or three people that you identify and he goes and meets them. He says, “What’s your secret?” He hears these incredible stories, oftentimes of regeneration from alcoholism or prison or whatever, it completely transformed their life, they become the pillars of the community.
Bob’s answer to the problem of racism in America is a really straightforward one. It’s a Joseph/Pharaoh model in Exodus where you find the Joseph of the community who has prevailed against all odds and has immense respect and you say, “How can we help?” That’s how you address racist America. It’s a profoundly Tocquevillian understanding of what we are to do. I’m so hopeful that the kind of thing Bob is doing can start to resonate. What we’re finding is that Conservative donors are beginning to realize that there is a way to talk about race in America that doesn’t require that we capitulate to the left, it says, “Well okay, there’s a problem of racist America, that’s why we have to have more state programs.” That was the model for 40 or 50 years. The right, not wanting to grow government, decided they didn’t want to talk about race. That’s wrong. We have to talk about race in America. There’s a really constructive profoundly Tocquevillian way to do so and Woodson, he’s 83 years old now, he’s been showing the way for half his life and we have to get behind this man who’s a national treasure. I cite him a number of times in the book.
Richard Reinsch (30:06):
This book, there’s identity politics, there’s also a discussion about bipolarity and addictions and also substitutes and shortcuts as well. Could you talk about those parts of your book? I mean I was going to talk and maybe we can, I think you’ve been giving us a really nice understanding of the liberal politics of competence versus the identity politics, I think you’ve done that well, but the bipolarity and addictions, what do you mean by that?
Joshua Mitchell (30:34):
I have been fascinated in my readings of history and political thought to observe this idea that human beings … I’ll be brazen, naturally oscillate back and forth between highs and lows. I see this as early as Plato’s Republic book nine when he’s talking about the tyrannical soul. It’s in Saint Augustine, the Confessions. Yes, it’s a beautiful account of the cosmos and the journey to God, put if you look at Saint Augustine, he himself, he shows, he tells in his confessions about how he has these moments of tremendous highs and tremendous lows. His answer of course is there is no rest until I rest in peace, until I rest in the presence of God.
I can show this in the writings of Hobbes, I can show this in the writings of Rousseau and absolutely in the writings of Tocqueville. The most troubling thing is that this phenomena that has been known about since people began to think seriously about the human soul, has been rendered as a biological problem with the brain and this is a tragedy. This is in a way the fuller development of Huxley’s work in Brave New World where he says all these deep longings, all these deep anxieties, which should point at the human freedom, will be medicalized away. That was the dystopia that Huxley’s raising and laying out in Brave New World. I dare to suggest to a world that can only see this problem as a medical problem that in fact, in Tocqueville’s language, it’s a problem of human association. Tocqueville says, at the end of Democracy in America line two, which I think is the deeper line, he says, “In the distant future I can imagine a time where we will think of ourselves as greater than kings and less than men.”
What he means by this is we will become so socially isolated that we will have no other people who check us, so, to use my language, will become selfie man, completely isolated. We’ve got our Facebook pages and our social media platforms and we de-friend anyone who raises the slightest question about the things, the crazy things that we believe. We produce selfie man on the one hand, this is the I feel greater than kings, I’m the sovereign of my universe, but it’s precisely those conditions of social isolation that lead us to profound loneliness and emptiness and feelings of impotence. When Tocqueville says I foresee a day when we will sense ourselves to be greater than kings and less than men, he’s saying the full consequence of a world where all of the links have been broken is bipolarity. He’s literally saying that. I say that the problem of bipolarity is a problem of human association on the Tocqueville I’m reading. Now I’m not going to step in and say well therefore go off your medicines. I think medicines can be supplements and we’re really interested in that section, they can be supplements that can help us return to health, but they can’t be substitutes for that health.
In Tocqueville’s reading, until we build a world of rich human association, we’re going to oscillate back and forth. He says in one passage, he says yes, in Europe there’s going to be suicide, but in America there will be madness. There will be all sorts of mental instability. He thinks it’s because we’re going to become increasingly lonely and isolated. It’s only by building a world together that we can ameliorate, not solve, but ameliorate that problem. That’s again why that passage, feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, the mind expanded only by the reciprocal actions of men, one upon another is so important. He’s saying if we don’t do that, we’re in deep trouble. To come to what I take to be the important insight of the new national conservative movement, is, I think, completely on board on this, the biggest project that we have is to rebuild the mediating institution. Yes, it’s important who’s the president, but if we’re just looking up then we’re not putting energy into all these mediating institutions that we so desperately need in order to build a life together. That’s what Tocqueville saw.
Richard Reinsch (34:58):
Just listening to your analysis, it should not surprise us that identity politics, anti racism, systemic racism has come full bloom in this time of COVID isolation, of job loss, of all the things people are experiencing. You talked about … it was before the podcast, what you think some of your students are going through and then this movement erupts because of George Floyd, although the more I think about it, I mean it’s just the cause and effect is just ridiculous. It’s horrible what happened to George Floyd. How that though has justified the last four months, or could justify it is just … it makes me scratch my head every time I think about it. I think arguments have been made, we haven’t realized it, I haven’t realized it, how deep they had gotten and then they met this crisis and opportunity with the COVID restrictions.
Joshua Mitchell (35:58):
First on my students, I’m teaching at Georgetown now all through Zoom and my experience at Georgetown is not unique, so it’s not a Georgetown problem precisely, but I’m starting to get emails from my students saying, “Listen, I can’t get that test in, I’m really suffering from serious anxiety.” Actually the first thing I wrote after the COVID outbreak was on social distancing and how what we’re doing is really doubling down on exactly the pathology that Tocqueville thought would happen and the consequences will be untold. We’re always looking at how many deaths from COVID, well let’s talk about the grave collateral damage, the number of suicides that are going to happen. As I drive out here to the eastern shore I see a big billboard for opioid addicts saying you are not alone. Guess what? You are alone. You can’t go meet people. The people who are addicted, they know this. I have friends who are in Alcoholic’s Anonymous. They can’t have real meetings. When you meet face-to-face, to come to your second point, we have all the correctives we need. A great Christian insight is that the imagination can really cause all sorts of trouble. God sent the floods because they became vain in their imagination. This is very important. Tocqueville sees this problem by the way.
The more and more isolated you become, the more you have a demonic imagining of who the other person is. The only antidote to that, the only way to diminish our assessment of the demonic-ness of other people is this never ending face-to-face association. We know this, because we’re all involved in groups where we might not like someone and we’ve got to work with them. You go into the meeting and you’ve been imagining all sorts of terrible things about that person and then you go into the meeting and you have to work out some solution, all of you have to come up with an answer to a problem and you do. You make compromises and you walk out of the meeting and you say, well maybe that person isn’t as bad. They still might be bad, but they’re not as bad. You attenuate our demonic imaginings of the other only through face-to-face associations.
Okay, so now let’s run the clock. We’re supposed to have a two week lockdown and we’re now six or seven months into it, what do you think is going to happen to people’s imaginations? That’s the first thing. Then the second thing, you mentioned the George Floyd riots. I wrote something about this for First Things. It is a curiosity that these people who insisted on social distancing, on locking down, instantly went out and protested and rioted. This calls out for an account. My account is it’s a deeply distorted Christian understanding. Let me explain why, background. Plato, the opening lines of the Republic are about going down to the Piraeus and they’re worshiping at a festival with Bendis where death is ever near.
The central problem of the Republic is death and how to avoid it. It’s only through the philosophical practice of death that you can see the light of eternity. Philosophers are concerned with overcoming death with noetic knowledge. That’s the brief format. Christian’s don’t think that’s right. Death is the second problem. Death is the consequent problem because of the first problem. It’s because Adam and Eve sinned that death came into the world. Now plug that in to what happened with COVID and George Floyd. Everyone says death is the problem, death is the problem, we have to isolate from one another, but if sin is a deeper problem than death, then people are going to give up on the death thing as soon as sin becomes the real problem, or the perceived sin becomes a real problem.
That’s why people who mask on the left who are scared to death of death, ultimately they still have this Christian sensibility. This is what I’m trying to say, it’s a deeply distorted Christianity. That’s the bad news and the good news. At least it’s a distorted Christianity, but that’s why people went out on riots, because the problem of sin is deeper than the problem of death in the Christian world. I’m saying that people went out to riot is a perverse confirmation that understanding is still the deepest one in the psyche of the west.
I’m thankful for that, but if I may, here I would like to invoke Nietzsche, by the way it’s his birthday today, what Nietzsche saw was that the west had purportedly renounced it’s Christianity, this is in the 1880s, but that it was still trapped by many of it’s categories. The fateful question was whether it could fully renounce the questions and move on. This, by the way is the alt-right, because to move on is to forget. It’s to not be oriented by guilt and sin and stain. The language of stain and purity, the language of the innocent victim, these are all Christian terms.
He wanted to completely jettison it and move on to the new/old aristocracy, which would be a return to the aristocracy of cruelty, where the only categories were weakness and strength, not innocence and transgression. I think that’s really the fateful question that we have in front of us right now, because I think Nietzsche got this diagnosis right. I’m a Tocqueville scholar, I love Tocqueville, but Nietzsche adds something to the picture that we really need to pay attention to. We’re living in a world of Christian categories without the Christian architecture. The question is whether we’re going to go forward with the Nietzsche product and the alt-right is doing this in Europe and in America, we’re just simply going to forget, we don’t care about slavery, we don’t care about colonialism, we don’t care about 60 million people dying in World War I and World War II, we don’t care.
My whole project here is I want the categories of transgression and innocence. I don’t think we’ve achieved human responsibility. I don’t think we’ve achieved the depth of soul without being constantly attentive to the categories of identity and transgression. Within the Christian context, which allows us to go forward with self consciousness about fault, but with the understanding that we can build a world tomorrow on hope notwithstanding that, that’s the good news of Christianity, so I’m frightened to death by the current moment. I mean on the one hand I should be thankful we’re still invoking the Christian categories, but without the Christian architecture, it just reminds people that they have a guilt they can’t get rid of and then people are going to say, “Well maybe Nietzsche’s right. Maybe the only way to go forward is to forget and to go back to the old cruelty.”
That’s the moment I think we are in in the west as a whole. We can talk about the collapse of the mainline churches in America and how that contributes to identity politics. I think that’s true, but I think the deeper issue is the historical moment in which we find ourselves, which is not secular. I mean if identity politics doesn’t prove that we’re not living in a secular age, I don’t know what will. We’re using all these theological categories. This is not a secular world. This is a world where we’re searching for answers to the problem of transgression and innocence without God and forgiveness. That’s the American awakening right now. We have really two choices. We can go back and put these categories back in their proper theological context, or we can go forward to the alt right and to the new cruelty. Those are our existential choices.
Richard Reinsch (42:59):
It’s interesting in this regard thinking about your discussion of addictions and the place of addictions in America now and how it encompasses so many things that we do. As I finished your book I thought the ultimate addiction will be identity politics, precisely because of these categories-
Joshua Mitchell (43:19):
Richard Reinsch (43:20):
… you’ve been discussing and the ability to find a transgressor and place everything on that person. Also, as you discuss, though very nicely put about the 1619 Project, the power of the state, that itself becomes it’s own deity that can call forth our worship because of what it can offer us if we get it right and getting it right also means finding who’s getting it wrong. Why is there an unending series of transgressors in your account? The White heterosexual male will be displaced at some point and a new, probably White females will enter that place and so on and so forth, why is there a need for constant transgressors?
Joshua Mitchell (44:03):
Identity politics is a theodicy. It’s an account of how there is evil in the world. The way I … well, I have to return to what I said at the outset, which is that it’s a relationship. The Christian theological formulation, the Son is eternally present as the innocent one and we are eternally present as the transgressors, by virtue of our inheritance from Adam. That’s the Christian theology. The identity politics theodicy is an eminent theodicy of good and evil. Here’s the problem, now we dumped everything on the toxic male, toxic masculinity. Of course toxicity is a medical term and so is purgation. We’re using these medical terms to indicate that we have to expunge something from the body social. Let’s imagine that we do, let’s imagine that we socially avoid our natural desire to be protective and to go to battle for noble causes, it’s okay, we’ll send them into the video universe. They’re going to stay there. They know where they belong, they’ll just play their games, we’ll let them do that. Let’s imagine we purge the White male. You have a theodicy problem. People are still experiencing this sense of guilt and stain, so they need to find a new person who can bear the burden for this, because the problem is clearly not within them. The Christian claims it’s within you, because you’re all inherited with Adam, but no, it can’t be. But wait, we’ve gotten rid of the White heterosexual male. You need a new scapegoat. You always have to have a scapegoat. The great Christian insight is there’s a divine scapegoat, stop looking at other people. If you get rid of that divine scapegoat, then you’re going to have to find a new scapegoat group. My argument is the next group will be White women. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe … it’s very interesting to look at the tension between Nancy Pelosi and the squad.
Richard Reinsch (46:03):
Joshua Mitchell (46:04):
One way of looking at that is that, in point of fact, this is the beginning of the purging of the White women. Look, Joe Biden is kind of an impotent man, that’s the only reason he’s allowed to be the candidate. He proves everything that identity politics says about the White man. He’s impotent, he’s a buffoon, he’s perfect. We get rid of him, Biden’s the last of the White men and then, look at Pelosi and, I put this in quotes, women of color who want to take over the Democratic Party. The White woman is next, she’s clearly next. Then my point is it’s the Black heterosexual male who believes in the family and goes to church, he is the next guy. He’s Martin Luther King. He’s the next guy, because if you have a theodicy and it’s based on eminent groups, then once you get rid of the transgressor, you need to find another one and it will go on and on and on and on.
You need to have the high, to come back to your point about addiction, you need to have the high of saying, “That’s the person.” If we can just purge him, if we can just shame him and humiliate him and call him a leper by declaring he’s a fascist homophobe, I’m going through my list, hater, denier, Nazi, what are the other ones? Transphobe, Islamophobe, I mean these are all equivalent terms. They basically mean you are the scapegoat on whom I’m going to vent my cathartic rage in order to get high. That’s identity politics. It can never end. It can never end. At the end, as I say, I speculate hundreds of years into the future, I say at some point, after hundreds of years of cruelty to one group after another, it may occur to someone that maybe the guilt that never goes away can’t be expunged by looking outwards. Maybe it has to look inwards and maybe we have to recognize that there’s only a divine solution to this guilt that’s always eternally within us. That’s the agony. It can’t work is what I’m saying. It can’t work, but people are continuing to try.
Richard Reinsch (48:15):
Now you and I would like to avoid that fate of hundreds of years of agony, of the sclerosis that would result from this kind of politics. You know this, being in higher education in our elite sectors of our society, journalism, education, politics, entertainment, law, more and more institutions, it’s not that just that they’ve been overtaken, I mean they’ve just willingly given in, surrendered and now wear this stuff. That was sort of the story as the sporting season’s got underway. There’s willingness to take this on and to flaunt this. The question is renewal, I think your answer would be the liberal politics of competence, but we have really only one political party, some of it’s people understand what’s going on. Your prospects though for renewal here are, what?
Joshua Mitchell (49:10):
I said one thing which is Black Americans. The beginning of the end of identity politics will take two forms. One, when Black Americans say, “No, this is not what the Reverend Martin Luther King had in mind.” No, you cannot trade on what happened in slavery, I’m very precise about what I mean here. You can say women have been oppressed, gays have been oppressed, fine, you can say all that and it’s true. In a society that’s concerned with generation, women and people outside the generative mode are going to have a second place standing. If we’re not concerned with generation then all bets are off, but it can’t be the case that those groups can say, “Our problems are like what happened in slavery.” What happened in slavery was the destruction of the family, this is what we have to get. Every feminist I know had a mother and a father. Every gay person I know can at least say they had a mother and family that wasn’t ripped apart by law. That’s the difference. That’s why the family, the so-called heteronormative family, sorry, you don’t touch it. You don’t touch it for the reason that the least among us need it. Full stop.
Now a plural society, and here’s perhaps where I differ from some Conservatives, whatever your religious convictions may be, a plural society will be one which does not demand that everybody do the same thing, but it does demand that generation has to come first. I’m perfectly fine being tolerant, but I’m not prepared if the tolerance means that I am guilty of a thought crime called heteronormativity. Sorry, that cannot work. That’s not liberal. Liberal is there are things that a society must do and it must do them first. If there’s room for other things, those are political decisions that we can make and you have to live with the political decisions. In that sense I’m not quite in the Conservative camp on this matter. But where I think we must push back is we have to say, “Look, a society has to regenerate itself and you can’t tell the people who are doing that, especially, as it were, the least among us who are struggling, you can’t say that the very institution through which you can find stability to do that is guilty of a thought crime.” It can’t work. I think the first hopeful sign is that Black Americans are beginning to wake up. I hear from Bob Woodson through his network there is a slow awakening here. There’s something seriously wrong with the left right now that claims to have the backs of Black American. They do, by the way, just before every four year election and then you forget about them. I think that’s exactly what Black Americans are seeing.
The other place of renewal, and I don’t see it right now but it’s going to be necessary, are the churches and the synagogues, because they’re the only place where this can be set right. I don’t think there’s a political solution to this problem, because the problem is that the category of transgression and innocence has just drifted out of religion into politics. Only when it returns to religion will we be able to return to a liberal politics of competence. That’s a very tall order and I don’t see it happening really in the divinity schools. I think the Martin Luther King idea of what a Church is supposed to be is still alive and well in some portions of Black communities, although identity politics has penetrated there too. The so-called White churches, they’re the worst of it. They’re practicing, as you say, White people going out and kissing the feet of the innocent ones, this is really twisted. Do we have a legacy that must be fixed? Absolutely. There’s a wounded America that we have to pay attention to. I’m not saying it’s unimportant, it is tremendously important, but we have to get it right. We have a collective responsibility, but not collective guilt. I mean, look, most of us can’t trace ancestors back who had slaves. Even if we could, are we to bear the burden of things that happened generations ago? Or is there a promise of redemption? That’s the great question. The churches themselves have betrayed their charge.
Richard Reinsch (53:04):
Well Joshua Mitchell, on that, why don’t we bring this conversation to an end? This has been wonderful. Thank you so much. Josh Mitchell discussing his book, American Awakening.
Joshua Mitchell (53:16):