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National Observer Home > No. 56 - Autumn 2003 > Book Reviews

Book Review: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy

by Paul Edward Gottfried

Columbus, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002, pp. 200 and index.

Whilst the observation is hardly original, it still deserves emphasising: America's finest, most courageous university presses are the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries' nearest equivalent to those mediaeval monks who kept civilised scholarship's lamp burning while, outside the cloisters, Goths and Huns rampaged. Such presses have placed all of us who care for the life of the mind into an intellectual and moral debt that we have no chances of repaying. As a good example of what they can achieve - not just in terms of disseminating sharp and astute prose, but in conveying it via fine, clear, typo-free print on satisfyingly opaque paper - we need only examine Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt. This quietly and learnedly devastating appraisal of Political Correctness in all its forms has been undertaken by a professor from the Department of Political Science at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania.

The author's subtitle carries even more weight than does his title: for Political Correctness is indeed a religion in its own right, albeit an awe-inspiringly twisted and intellectually worthless one. This blindingly obvious truth has yet to be perceived by most Australians, whose knowledge of religion in general is even more embarrassing than their practice of it. But for Professor Gottfried, who has publicly called himself "a Jewish agnostic", it constitutes the foundation of his entire analysis. The sainthood popularly ascribed to the dishonest Marxisant debauchee Martin Luther King, and the crucifixion imagery in which America's New Class couched its descriptions of Matthew Shepherd - a Wyoming homosexual murdered in 1999 - demonstrate in themselves Professor Gottfried's point. To quote his own trenchant words:

"Neither social engineering as a political project nor the victim-therapy practised and exported by the American political class would be enjoying its present status without a deformed Protestant culture. The stress on individual salvation, unmediated by ecclesiastical authorities, prepared the way for a late modern society, without strong communal ties or respect for a collective past."

Professor Gottfried furnishes especially instructive statistics on a topic much discussed in the United States but much underestimated elsewhere: the collapse, over the last half-century, of America's mainline Protestant denominations. Of these, only Lutheranism has survived more or less adequately, helped along by geographical concentration (the Midwest) and ethnic particularism (today's active Lutherans tend to have nineteenth-century German and Scandinavian immigrants as ancestors).

The others, proverbially powerful as recently as the Nixon era, have since suffered such severe haemorrhages that they amount to little more than a joke. Nowadays the novels of John Cheever, John Updike, James Gould Cozzens and other such chroniclers of upper-class W.A.S.P. Angst read like period pieces, much farther from contemporary Americans’ concerns than anything in Boccaccio or Rabelais.

Between the 1950s and the 1990s, membership levels in the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodists all fell by up to one-third. Conversely, Pentecostal churches and other fundamentalist types of Protestantism appear permanently huge - America now has sixteen million Christians who identify themselves as Southern Baptists - and are without doubt impressively young: their congregations are almost all under fifty. Professor Gottfried, content to note this phenomenon, makes no comment on whether or not he considers it desirable. Historian Philip Jenkins - whom Professor Gottfried rightly respects, and lavishly quotes - has maintained, in his recent investigation The Next Christianity, that this development is all to the good. Let a hundred Pentecostal flowers bloom (argues Professor Jenkins), and they will simply crowd out the whining feminists, welfarists, crypto-atheists, and sodomites who now rule Western ecclesial bureaucracies.

Those of us who lack Dr. Jenkins’ natural generosity of soul may continue to differ. There remain few indications that fundamentalist Protestant doctrine has shed its vociferating anti-intellectualism, or that it has arrived at any philosophy of government more nuanced than good old-fashioned sixteenth-century German peasant wars, or even that its spectacular recent surges of popularity (above all in Africa and South America) amount to much more than a middle-class status-symbol, the notionally theological equivalent of owning Nike shoes or Jennifer Lopez CDs.

How much is Political Correctness really a type of "Protestant deformation"? The inroads it has made among American Catholics are, as Professor Gottfried's evidence shows, alarming; but they do not much affect his basic thesis either way. After all, from 1775 onwards American Catholic officialdom has been (dare this Australian Catholic say it) little more than Protestantism mixed with bells-and-smells, as well as latterly with massive servings of Irish post-famine grievance. Every basic tenet of mainstream Catholic administration in America - flag-waving hubris; sovereignty of the people; limitless social arrivisme; above all, the shunning of contemplative orders in favour of ill-disguised Muscular Christianity - was condemned as heretical by Pope Leo XIII as long ago as 1899.

Professor Gottfried points out that wherever two or three leftists are gathered in America, Catholics have repeatedly been in the midst of them. He drives home the enlightening contrast between their outlook and that of their co-religionists in pre-modern Quèbec, which for fifteen of the twenty years from 1939 to 1959 was a parliamentary theocracy under Premier Maurice Duplessis. Among the Quèbecois, divorce as well as contraception remained illegal; publicly sanctioned abortion, naturally, remained unthinkable; while - for all the alcoholic and sexual vagaries that marked Duplessis’ private life - censorship of books, magazines and films remained draconian. (If such rigour left Quèbec's intellectual activity crippled beyond rescue, Professor Gottfried supplies no evidence of such damage.)

Yet this tome's insights range well beyond the Western hemisphere. Scrutinising Europe, Professor Gottfried finds overall confirmation for his argument: the loudest agitation in favour of religious schools’ right to keep crucifixes on display (a right that even Hitler and his thugs had once conceded) came from German Catholics, while all conceivable forms and most hitherto inconceivable forms of ethical chaos have been endorsed in the last decade by leather-lunged German Protestant officials. Today - this assertion is so astounding that one must read the relevant sentence again and again before believing it, but Professor Gottfried affords no reason for scepticism - more Germans are rotting in prison for "hate crimes" than were ever gaoled in many anti-Communist endeavours by East Germany's 1980s Stalinists. Against such "hate crime" witch-hunts, Mediterranean Europe, however degraded in other cultural respects, has thus far largely held out.

An essential technique of those witch-hunts, wherever they occur, is the medicalisation of political dissent. You need never confront, let alone refute, a single argument if you can demonise the arguer as "homophobic", or "sexist", or best of all - why not, since it worked for Andropov's K.G.B.? - mentally disturbed. Professor Gottfried rightly stresses the indispensable role played in this form of intellectual corruption by the Frankfurt philosophical school, principally renowned through what is one of the most pernicious books published anywhere in modern times: T. W. Adorno's and Max Horkheimer's The Authoritarian Personality (1950).

This olla podrida of caprice, parochialism, statistical distortion, Marxist sermonising, and energetic fraud makes Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa seem like the last word in nuclear physics; but generations of political "scientists", not all of them Soviet stooges, managed to take it seriously. (The Adorno-Horkheimer atelier's cutting-edge research techniques included a delightful bizarrerie called the F-Scale, F signifying "Fascist.") Far from having confined such drivel to academe, the comedians responsible for The Authoritarian Personality wrapped their unpleasantness - fortunately for their bank balances - within the language of democracy and human rights: language which, of course, in the American context can never fail.

Nor did trivia like the Berlin Wall's collapse deter for more than a passing moment Adorno's and Horkheimer's successors, who spouted similar universalist shibboleths even as they junked the Frankfurt gurus’ Marxist baggage. Francis Fukuyama, that reductio ad absurdum of the one-world government brigade - a reductio as loftily indifferent as ever to whether one-world government's nerve centre is atheist Moscow or atheist Manhattan - has boldly gone where no secular utopian has gone before.

In a 1999 article cited with understandable distaste by Professor Gottfried (whose German-Jewish father escaped only by good luck from the Nazis’ extermination-machine), Fukuyama dismissed the entire bloodbath of twentieth-century warfare as perhaps the price paid for a situation in which forty per cent of the world's population live in politics that can reasonably be labelled democratic - shades of Screwtape's advice to junior devils: "Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose."

Professor Gottfried's pessimism as to whether campaigns against "the politics of guilt" can achieve more than the most trifling and transient victories takes particularly eloquent form when he discusses the moral cowardice by which America's establishment Right - let us pray he never has to endure Australia's - eulogises black supremacism for fear of being called "bigoted". "Not even quotas and affirmative action in education", he writes, "have aroused a national opposition as noticeable as what is counterpoised on the other side."

If the tiniest glimmer of hope is nevertheless admissible in such circumstances, it probably depends upon two factors of which Professor Gottfried says nothing. First, the collapse - unmistakable to every American outside New York City, and fairly obvious to most of the citizenry even there - of Freudianism: which by its unstoppably blazing antagonism towards Christendom supplied much of Political Correctness’ rocket-fuel, as it were, within the American empire.

Secondly, generational change. Cannot the malice of a Clinton and a Blair (to say nothing of their abject apologists in the English-speaking world, many of whom now misleadingly call themselves "conservatives") be attributed to the typical baby-boomer's craving for one last exercise in global destruction before shades of the nursing-home begin to close on him? It is surely notable - although in itself it fails to prove anything - that the most cordial loathers of the Clinton-Blair mindset are overwhelmingly in their twenties and thirties.

From this age group has come, according to opinion poll after opinion poll, the firmest support for John Howard's tough stand against illegal immigrants. From this age group has come the most conspicuous fervour, not merely for the abovementioned Southern Baptism, but for traditional Catholicism. Each Sunday this reviewer plays the organ at a Melbourne Catholic church where the Latin Mass is said; where priests warn of sin and hell instead of issuing encomia to the United Nations or the joys of Islam; and where, gratifyingly, at least a quarter of the congregation is under thirty-five years of age, as it is with similar Latin Masses overseas. Straws in the wind? Perhaps no more than that; but all straws of one provenance, all indicating wind from one direction, and all capable (if their travel keeps up) of inducing profound fear in secular theologians.

By now there should be no doubt about Professor Gottfried's expertise, breadth of reading, courtesy towards antagonists as well as towards allies, and diagnostic skill. Before the Internet's advent, tributes to his accomplishments would have been largely meaningless in an antipodean magazine, so forlorn were all aspirations for obtaining any books that lacked a British or Australian distributor. These days, when owning a modem and pressing a few buttons make available all the stocks of Amazon or Barnes & Noble (to say nothing of less celebrated American booksellers), there need be no excuse for doing without Professor Gottfried's terse yet dense production. Though not cheap, it represents very good value for money.

R. J. Stove

National Observer No. 56 - Autumn 2003