The Agonist Journal

One of the defining events of the age is how political correctness and woke politics have not only become mainstream values, but have also succeeded in transforming the inner lives of millions across the West. Such a change has occurred at a level that runs deeper than politics, altering the basic sense of right and wrong and opening the door to the fundamental reconstruction of the human personality itself. Liberals will insist that political correctness is no different from ordinary politeness and decency, but it is the apparently innocuous conflation of progressivism with good manners and a kind heart, and thus the resistance to progressivism with backward manners and a cruel soul, that lays bare the mechanism by which progressives seek to bring about a fundamental shift in values. This project has already advanced quite far in its aims, as large numbers of ordinary, middle-class Americans have become convinced that the unconditional tolerance of all racial and sexual identities and the unquestioning acceptance of the claims of the oppressed are the moral principles that all right-thinking people should embrace.

"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in the inverted hierarchy that places the least capable and the most dysfunctional groups at the top, whites are permitted to outdo each other only in the expression of masochistic sentiments."

The wide acceptance of this outlook indicates that it is not the result of an unfolding left-wing revolution, since such an undertaking would involve collective struggle and mutual sacrifice for communal ideals that necessarily exist at a remove from an unjust reality. Rather, it is a case of the middle-class changing the objects and directions of its conformity. It has swapped its familiar codes and conventions, in which Christian morality stood in tension with sexual desire and economic self-interest, with explicitly racialist thinking and uncritical approval of sexual experimentation. Political correctness may incite individuals to endorse politically radical goals that sever social bonds and destroy the basis of economic prosperity, but its virulence stems from the way it has elevated politically radical aims into the markers of liberal middle-class respectability. This new definition of respectability at the same time reflects the terminal point of bourgeois modernity, since it seeks to compel Americans and others across the West to forsake en masse their most pragmatic intuitions and to commit to their most defective desires, all in the name of bringing about a just social order.

Seen pejoratively, the bourgeois is that human type who struggles to distinguish between what is morally right and what is socially approved. His primary desire being for material success, his ambitions habituate him to the idea that moral goodness and social approval are always to be found together, a belief which Alexis de Tocqueville summed up as “self-interest, properly understood.” The impulse to identify the moral good with social convention has served to elevate prudence into the supreme virtue of middle-class life. The bourgeois is thus quick to recognize the practical side of every moral maxim, so that when the Gospels instruct him not to judge others, lest he himself be judged, he realizes that such a principle furnishes him with advantages in the marketplace over the long run. If, for example, we do not wish to be robbed, we should not steal. If we do not wish to be injured by others, we lower the risk of harm to ourselves if we refrain from injuring others. Acting impulsively to gain an advantage over another comes not only with the risk of retaliation, but also imposes on one the distress and worry that some day in the future, one will also become the victim of another’s impulsive behavior. This feeling for reciprocity may border on superstition, but it has on the whole served bourgeois society quite well, as it has encouraged people to forgo retaliatory acts against each other while making them conscious of the need to uphold the common good. But one of the chief consequences of identity politics, which rejects all neutral and universal principles as masks for bigotry and exclusion, has been the erosion of the intuitions that have been shaped by centuries of common sense. These intuitions, moreover, were grounded not only in the virtue of prudence but also in the social advantages to which only this most practical of the virtues could provide access.

The destruction of the culture’s feeling for reciprocity recently found a particularly striking expression in the controversy provoked by the Des Moines Register over the sudden internet fame of a young Iowa resident. The third week of September saw Carson King, a young security worker at a casino, being celebrated in the media for using a joke sign asking for beer money to raise more than a million dollars for the state’s Children’s Hospital. His time in the spotlight predictably turned sour when a reporter at the Des Moines Register uncovered offensive tweets which King had posted while still a teenager. This revelation caused his principal corporate sponsor, Anheuser-Busch, to break ties with him. There would be a further twist in the story, however, when the social media history of the journalist, Aaron Calvin, was itself investigated, and was found to contain racist statements as well. Calvin was promptly sacked by the editors who had given their approval a short time earlier to their reporter’s fishing expedition. But a still more crowning irony was to come: Calvin, before his firing, had retweeted a story by Osita Nwanevu in The New Republic denying that there is such a thing as “cancel culture” at all.

Public shaming scandals have come to follow a familiar pattern. Someone, whether famous or not, makes the news. The notoriety leads to an investigation of his social media history, turning up posts expressing insensitive attitudes or off-color jokes. The individual in question makes a public apology for the remarks in question, but these apologies fail to quell outrage on social media and more importantly send the institutions connected to the individual into a panic. He then suffers the loss of corporate sponsors or a breakthrough opportunity, as in the case of comedian Kevin Hart, whose remarks about homosexuality deprived him of the chance to host the Oscars. In the case of Carson King, the offending statements were tweets that he had made at age sixteen of jokes which were taken from Tosh.0, a raunchy show on Comedy Central. When Aaron Calvin, a writer for the Des Moines Register, confronted him with these posts from his teen years, King duly apologized for the tweets and deleted them.

The reason given by Calvin for digging up these social media posts from seven years ago, when King was still a minor, was that the newspaper’s policy is to carry out background checks on those individuals whose stories they tell. Such a procedure, as Carol Hunter, the editor of the Register explains, “helps [the readers] to understand the whole person.” But what would racially insensitive tweets made by Carson King as a teenager tell us about his character? That, like millions of others, he enjoyed a risqué comedy program on cable TV? Or that whatever admirable or socially beneficial actions he may go on to perform will be forever marred by sharing a couple of offensive jokes with a few friends? The letting loose of aggression and hatred in the name of social equality has fueled the creation of online outrage mobs that are perfectly willing to condemn an individual as a moral reprobate on the basis of posts he had made on social media as a teenager. Moreover, the essential precondition for such a vindictive judgment is that the condemned person must belong to a privileged group. Hence, in an article which relates how King became catapulted to national fame after his sign went viral, the revelation of his offensive tweets strikes a blaring, discordant note in the upbeat story of a modest working man who becomes an unexpected philanthropist and local hero. It comes across like a warning label attached to a popular and useful product: “Beware, the young man whose generosity has helped to raise $3 million for a children’s hospital has been guilty of racism and sexism.”

For when it comes to the woke, no amount of apologizing can ever appease their fury. Any offensive statement only reinforces the fact that racism, sexism, and other phobias are intrinsic elements of American society. There can be neither forgiveness nor leniency so long as this remains the case, and hence the need to bring about the collapse of society for the sake of bringing down its hateful hierarchies. Surely, both the editor and journalist must have realized that the act of publicizing King’s old tweets could have aroused the outrage mob against him, and thus that a possible and likely consequence would have been to derail his fund-raising drive. Indeed, the declaration of the editor of the Des Moines Register that it was never the intent of the paper “to disparage or otherwise cast a negative light on King” can only come across as flagrantly cynical or stupendously naive. At the very least, Hunter and Calvin were guilty of being careless about the damage that could have come to King’s reputation as well as to his efforts to raise money for the children’s hospital. But they also turned out to have underestimated the intensity of the backlash against the exposure of King’s social media history. Members of the public, infuriated by what they saw as an unjustified attempt to take down an innocent for the flimsiest of reasons, looked into Calvin’s social media history and discovered that the journalist had himself posted his own share of offensive material. Calvin, it turned out, had referred to the n-word in his tweets, ridiculed the legalization of gay marriage, and posted “fuck all cops.”

Gannett, the parent company of the Des Moines Register, responded to the furor by forcing Calvin to resign, a development which, astoundingly, took the journalist wholly off-guard. He was fired even after he had reluctantly complied with the order from his employers to post a tweet apologizing for his old posts, which he later claimed “were taken out of context” and which he insists should not have been used to make a “blanket characterization” about him. Calvin later complained to Buzzfeed about feeling “abandoned” by the Des Moines Register, presumably because he was fired not for violating the policies of the newspaper but instead for fulfilling them. In Calvin’s perspective, his predicament was all the more puzzling to him because he denies that cancel culture even exists in the first place. Indeed, his decision to make public King’s embarrassing tweets, Calvin declares, was undertaken in accord with his conviction that “people’s past social media statements should [not] be made to make blanket characterizations about them.” Since there is no such thing as cancel culture, and since one cannot be a victim of something that does not exist, the journalist was not wrong to expose King’s social media history. The experiences of having his social media history exposed and then being fired from his job have not led Calvin to entertain second thoughts about the wisdom of revealing the insensitive or intemperate tweets of others. He brushes off the decision of Anheuser-Busch, in a fit of panic over possible bad publicity, to sever ties with the young philanthropist, with the remark that King has succeeded in raising much more money since his tweets became public knowledge. There was never any “danger” for Carson of “being canceled,” he declares.

Concerning his own fate, Calvin’s perspective likewise sharply diverges from the opponents of cancel culture. From the standpoint of the latter, the journalist got his comeuppance—a representative of the media, however lowly, was given a taste of his own medicine. But in Calvin’s view, the pill that he has had to swallow is a mere placebo for the genuinely bitter indignities which, he is convinced, “journalists who are women, LGBTQ, or people of color suffer on a routine basis.” He repeats the woke cliché that as a “straight white man,” he has “enjoyed a great deal of privilege.” Although he laments the fact of being “publicly pushed” from his job, there is no reconsideration on his part about the practice of depriving people of their reputation and livelihoods over statements that give offense to woke progressives or about the politics that justifies public humiliation. He has chosen, it appears, to become a martyr to his own virtue, of whose reality he appears never to have been more certain.

Calvin’s worldview, in other words, gives him no other way to interpret his experience except according to the clichés and dogmas of woke politics. He possesses privilege, so he cannot complain about his own mistreatment unless he also invokes the worse suffering of members of approved victim groups. Calvin wants everyone to know that as a straight white male, his suffering is necessarily less intense and less meaningful than the suffering of those born without his advantage or of those who, by surgical means, have deprived themselves of one of them. But such self-abasement is more self-serving than it initially appears. For in declaring that his position in society is fundamentally illegitimate, on the basis that it derives from historic and continuing injustices, Calvin can at least regard himself as superior to those in his identity cluster who are in denial of the unfair advantages that they have received as members of the dominant group. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in the inverted hierarchy that places the least capable and the most dysfunctional groups at the top, whites are permitted to outdo each other only in the expression of masochistic sentiments. It accordingly matters little that members of victim groups will not lavish Calvin’s self-abasement with praise or recognize him as a helpful ally—for reciprocity is no longer a desirable value when all politics are about grievances over identity. All that matters for Calvin is that he is not contaminated by the toxic beliefs and values he ascribes to those sharing his racial background and sexual preferences.

Another lost intuition from before the time of the progressive hegemony is the principle that people do not respect those who fail to respect themselves. An individual who hates himself is in the end not trustworthy, because his interpretation of the golden rule is likely to be counter-intuitive. Yet, for the middle-class as it enters its terminal phase, self-respect is precisely what must be sacrificed if one is to be able to demonstrate, both to oneself and to others, that one holds the correct values. For such sacrifice to be binding and meaningful, something precious and vital must be given up. In the recent past, it would have been easy to condemn Calvin’s self-recrimination as a false gesture, that no man or woman will truly give up the advantages he or she enjoys. But today, the signaling has become profitable, in a symbolic sense. Even if we cannot know how serious Calvin is about renouncing his privilege, we have arrived at a point in our culture where performing such a gesture earns one symbolic rewards. For woke whites like Calvin, this symbolic reward takes the form of creating a social climate where it becomes easier to injure and victimize members of their own identity group.

Although the preoccupation with one’s ostensible social privileges has a deeply solipsistic character, the masochistic aggression it fuels has a way of overflowing the mind that wallows in it. It contributes to a society where white teenagers can easily be vilified and exposed to death threats for standing their ground, peacefully, before a hostile Native American activist. It also creates an atmosphere of perverse leniency in which the media lavishes enormous attention to hate crimes that turn out to be hoaxes. The swift reversal of fortune in the encounter between Carson King and Aaron Calvin reveals that the anger against the progressive drive to persecute anyone who is not a member of an approved victim group is forceful and potent. Still, it remains a defensive reaction to forces that are bent on liquidating civilization by imposing values and an ethic that are fundamentally counter to those which have shaped industrial society. In such a project, the death instinct exemplified by a neophyte journalist fired from the Des Moines Register comprises the arena of transition to a new society with novel values, which can only be the cruel and grotesque opposites of the moral intuitions that have shaped social existence in the West for millennia.