With the introductory Public Discourse essay of October 13, 2008, Ryan T. Anderson articulated the aim of the newly founded journal: to fill the vacuum of “serious moral reasoning” so evident in “a sound-bite age” in which “considered judgments often yield to pressure for quick reactions.”
The ten years since that first essay have only confirmed the need for Public Discourse. There’s little evidence that our society has overcome its rush to quick reactions and sound-bites or developed the habit of sober reflection.
The decade has been one of accelerating cultural change. 2008 may have seemed like “a sound-bite age,” but that was before the explosion of social media. Facebook became widely available in 2006, and it had 100 million users in the months prior to the founding of Public Discourse. By 2016, that number had risen to 1.8 billion users. After its founding in 2006, Twitter took three years to reach one billion tweets. There are now 200 billion per year. (To put this in perspective, Public Discourse launched before the first tweets of Kourtney and Kim Kardashian.) Instagram did not yet exist in 2008, and Snapchat only launched its Android app in 2012. The first (very costly) iPhone was released in 2007, and fewer than 1.4 million phones were sold. In 2015, there were 231 million sold.
The exchange of content accelerated, as did the mad rush, even at venerable news outlets, to get the scoop or provide the first “hot take.” The decentralization or democratization of news content has continued unabated.
It’s not simply the speed of content delivery that has accelerated but also the alteration of social norms. For instance, Proposition 8, the California amendment reaffirming that marriage is a union of husband and wife, passed just after Public Discourse appeared in 2008, but that seems a lifetime ago. Prop 8 was struck down by a federal judge in 2010, Obergefell was decided by the Supreme Court in 2015, and the Obama Administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter instructing schools on gender identity and transgender status was sent in 2016. Meanwhile, outside select university departments, few Americans were familiar with terms such as “heteronormativity” or “cis-gender.” In fact, until 2014 Facebook recognized only two genders, and Jordan Peterson saw no need to insist on the pronouns “him” or “her” until 2016.
These debates intensified and accelerated dramatically during the two terms of President Obama, erupting into “Resistance” after the election of President Trump. While many decry the lack of civility, and a good many (selectively) lament departure from established political norms, we now, apparently, live in an era of “post-truth” politics. Some suggest constitutionalism and due process are simply expressions of power and privilege. Free speech, too, is called into question.
It all feels “accelerated,” and increasingly heated and angry. We have become accustomed to terms like “radicalized” and “rage,” and to reports of angry protests, demonstrations, and mobs, some quite violent. There is a simmering resentment in our common life.
The Ideology of Equality
But just what is accelerating? What is the change unfolding so quickly before us, for better or worse? Is there an underlying cause? Looking forward ten years, are we likely to experience accelerating cultural changes swinging randomly in this and that direction? Or is there a fundamental idea working itself out?
While I am generally somewhat skeptical of grand explanations, I would suggest that a significant factor in our current culture of resentment is the outworking of the ideology of equality.
The natural law and natural right traditions informing Public Discourse’s exploration of the ethical foundations of public life, foundations that our first essay affirmed as “inherently public, open and accessible to all fellow citizens,” tend to make strong claims about human equality. That is, given that no person is essentially more or less human, it follows that each and every person ought to be recognized as essentially equal in dignity, rights, and standing before the law—whatever their abilities, social standing, race, sex, religion, and so forth. Before the law, no one ought to be more privileged, for all are equal.
This account of equality recognizes a higher law to which all are beholden. The natural law is not something humans invent or control. It is normative, and we are all equally obligated to obey it. But we are not equal to it—it commands, we obey. When equality is thus differentiated, our self-regard and desire to exercise our freedom as we see fit are constrained by normative principles somewhat remote from us. Should someone chafe and rage at these constraints, he is raging at something quite removed from his neighbor. He may resent his neighbor’s disapproval, but the neighbor is as constrained by the higher principle as he is.
For many in developed Western societies, however, such differentiation is either unknown or consciously rejected. For the “cultured” readers of The New Yorker and Salon, it seems quite obvious that any and every constraint on freedom is a product of human choice and invention, and that, while some constraints may be necessary, none bears the approval of a “higher” source of normativity. Appeals to higher laws, including natural law, are deemed arbitrary exercises in power.
Consequently, the power that limits freedom is not at all remote: it is a neighbor, a voting bloc, five justices, or this or that institution. But what gives them the right? They do not speak for God, they are not oracles, they are no more authoritative than any other, for we are all equally non-authoritative. Any claim to “authoritatively” constrain freedom is nothing other than an exercise of (arbitrary) power. Resentment cannot but bubble forth, but now the object of resentment is very near—this neighbor, that voting bloc, this institution—and resentful ire easily finds a target on which to vent (or dox, or protest, or silence).
Tocqueville describes this phenomenon, at least in part, with his usual prescience:
the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete. . . . It perpetually retires from before [men], yet without hiding itself from their sight, and in retiring draws them on. At every moment they think they are about to grasp it; it escapes at every moment from their hold. They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them; and before they have fully tasted its delights.
To these causes must be attributed that strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance, and that disgust at life which sometimes seizes upon them in the midst of calm and easy circumstances.
Tocqueville is speaking mostly of the desire for material equality. We do see resentment about material inequality, to be sure, as well as an ungrateful melancholy and disgust for life, in spite of the unparalleled abundance, security, health, and ease we enjoy. Yet the vicious resentment unravelling our civic life, poisoning our relationships, fragmenting our schools and universities, and eviscerating the habit of calm reflection is mostly evident in moral resentment.
Resentment, Rage, and Identity Politics
René Girard adds to Tocqueville, explaining how the fans of “the liberation of desire that is not being constrained by anyone” concoct a mythical force myth of prohibition, “an omnipresent and omniscient ‘power’” interfering with the realization of their desires. This oppressive power can be denounced in a variety of ways, as “toxic masculinity,” “heteronormativity,” “fundamentalism,” “whiteness,” “Beckys,” “clingers,” or “deplorables.” The use of these terms is symbolically powerful. They are icons against which to direct resentment for their apparent power and oppression. But mythic structures can be personified, as well, as in the insatiable rage directed by the “Resistance” against President Trump, for example.
While not quite a Never-Trumper, I was very much a Not-Trumper. Still, I find the Resistance and the Days of Rage and screaming into the sky after his election bizarre. While he very likely does not understand the intricacies of our constitutional system, I do not resonate with the breathless claims about imminent totalitarianism, Nazis, The Handmaid’s Tale, and feelings of being unsafe. Really, what justifies these hyperbolic anxieties?
We observed another peaceful transition of power from one duly elected president to another. While I didn’t much care for either, we are not near a totalitarian regime, although well into a period of decadent dysfunction. Instead, this is about identity politics—a term only the informed used a decade ago, now familiar to many—informed by decades of similar irrationality in the schools and colleges, with a person, Trump, standing in for the “omnipresent and omniscient ‘power’” that confines and constrains freedom. (President Obama also suffered, albeit for different reasons, as the target of other forms of identity politics.)
More recently, similar dynamics unfolded in the Kavanaugh hearings. I don’t know if he is guilty of the allegations or not, but I do know that he is not guilty simply because he is an instance of a type—rich prep kid—or because of his originalist judicial philosophy. Such thinking is mythical; it is resentment looking for a concrete target. He stood in for allegations against entire classes of people, with resentments searching for a scapegoat to bear collective hate. Such scapegoating doesn’t bring peace or resolution, however, since the scapegoats remain members of the society, now nursing grievances and resentments of their own. This is evidenced by the rise of the alt-right, the Proud Boys, and various forms of identity politics within majoritarian culture.
Given this dynamic, it’s unsurprising to see resentment directed against proponents of higher law principles. Proponents of such norms cannot but be viewed as retrograde, supporters of (arbitrary) normative principles judged hegemonic, harmful, and oppressive to those who wish to define the meaning and limits of freedom and reality for themselves.
Interestingly, we have also seen some proponents of traditional norms conclude that there is no hope for Public Discourse’s method, no “inherently public, open and accessible” forms of reason that allow us to deliberate together without emotivism, majoritarianism, or appeals to revelation in non-rational ways. Some who might agree with our normative positions have nonetheless concluded that natural law, public reason, and liberalism are ineffectual, or worse. They believe that better options are to be found in integralism, strategic retreat, alternative forms of politics, resigned localism, and so forth.
The Coming Decade
Those political and intellectual debates remain to be resolved—and we certainly intend for Public Discourse to make a robust contribution. There will be much to do in the next ten years of the journal’s work.
Still, the problem of resentment remains, a resentment fostered and fed with the ideology of undifferentiated equality and its wild, undifferentiated view of freedom. Whatever forms this takes in the next ten years, the logic of resentment will continue on its merciless path. For if there is one thing that the prophets of egalitarian ideology cannot abide, and increasingly hope to squelch, it is the true and sincere believer in normativity—the person who judges that we are, each and every one of us, obliged to exercise our freedom in keeping with a higher law.
Such believers can be tolerated for a time, as quaint inhabitants of a past world. But, as thinkers such as Philip Rieff and Ryszard Legutko note, the time seems to be upon us when the resentful will do their very best to thwart and silence them:
“Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations.” Nothing must remain of the old tradition’s desire for excellence, transcendence, beauty, and hierarchy. The stubborn proponents of that tradition are thus “extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms”—and they should be “treated with the harshness they deserve.”
I’m uncertain just what harshness is coming in the next ten years, but I am especially anxious about two areas: (1) the freedom of religious organizations to follow their deepest commitments, and (2) the freedom of parents to educate and raise their children in keeping with their beliefs.
Pray that I am wrong.