E Pluribus Nusquam: Pomographic Liberalism and the Parsing of Nothing
Obama: (Just throwing it out there): This should be the campaign.
Obama: This. Just arguing. Arguing about nothing.
Hillary (Dismissing): Yeah, right.
Obama: No I'm serious. That sounds like a good idea.
Hillary: Just arguing? What's the campaign about?
Obama: It's about nothing.
Hillary: No real policies?
Obama: No, forget the policies. --The Pitch.
What is the ultimate basis of the "culture war," and by extension, the conflict between conservative classical liberals and illiberal leftists? What is it's deep structure, the "either/or" at its foundation that is the cause of all the diametrically opposed attitudes on the surface?
The culture war is in fact a "war between the states," the existential states of nihilism vs. theism. For while the left would like you to believe that it is simply a battle between right-wing religious zealots and "free thinking" secular liberals, you can conceptualize it in more subtle ways -- for example, a belief in absolute Truth vs. mere opinion, moral absolutes vs. moral relativism, cultural progress vs. multiculturalism, a complex spiritual hierarchy vs. simplistic "flatland" materialism, meaningful existence vs. existential meaninglessness, teleonomic spiritual evolution vs. the mere random shuffling of Darwinian "evolution," etc. But what is so especially annoying about these hardcore nonbelievers is that they want to impose their new atheocractic testavus on the rest of us.
A while back I mentioned the book Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from the Exorcist to Seinfeld, by Thomas Hibbs. He believes that in America, most of the purveyors of popular culture are in fact nihilists of one sort or another (in the sense alluded to above). You might say that nihilism is an unnaturally natural implication of certain strains of our liberal individualism.
That is to say, liberal individualism divorced form any deeper spiritual impulse does indeed tend to degenerate into a debased, antisocial shadow of itself. You might call it pomographic (as in postmodern) vs. classical liberalism, the latter of which has always recognized the need to cultivate a virtuous population, with the understanding that the whole system breaks down if responsibilities aren't at least equally emphasized along with rights. But why are there no "civic responsibilities activists," and why do we call the champions of irresponsibility, impulsivity, narcissism and sloth "civil rights activists"?
Pomographic liberalism is obsessed only with rights, entitlements, and the unearned specialness of the oppressed victocrat. As Hibbs writes, nihilism does not simply usher in an era of chaos and disorder -- rather, it "involves a simplification of human nature, a reduction of its complexity and range, and an abridgment of its aspirations." In short, it reduces hierarchy to a crude spiritual leveling, and replaces the telos of spiritual aspiration with the mundane enforcement of material equality. The nihilistic left is comprised of Nietzsche's pathetic Last Men, who "have a calm indifference to all elevated aspirations." In their puffed up vanity and pseudosophistication, they have lost even the capacity to despise themselves, so they certainly have no reason to aspire spiritually and surpass themselves.
In a piece entitled Literary Hoaxes and the Proletarianization of Culture, Roger Kimball notes that "where Americans once looked up the social scale for their ideals, many now look to the gutter. He quotes Charles Murray, who observed that “one of the consistent symptoms of disintegration is that the elites... begin to imitate those at the bottom of society”:
“The collapse of old codes leaves a vacuum that must be filled. Within the elites, the replacement has been tenets, broadly accepted by people across the political spectrum, that tell us to treat people equally regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference, to be against poverty and war, and to be for fairness and diversity. These are not bad things to be against and for, respectively, but the new code, which I will call ecumenical niceness, has a crucial flaw. The code of the elites is supposed to set the standard for the society, but ecumenical niceness has a hold only on those people whom the elites are willing to judge -- namely, one another. One of the chief tenets of ecumenical niceness is not to be judgmental about the underclass.
"Within the underclass, the vacuum has been filled by a distinctive, separate code. Call it thug code: Take what you want, respond violently to anyone who antagonizes you, gloat when you win, despise courtesy as weakness, treat women as receptacles, take pride in cheating, deceiving, or exploiting successfully. The world of hip-hop is where the code is openly embraced. But hip-hop is only an expression of the code, not its source. It amounts to the hitherto inarticulate values of underclass males from time immemorial, now made articulate with the collaboration of some of America’s best creative and merchandising talent."
Hibbs notes that the Last Men in our midst are not the courageous rebels of their narcissistic imaginations, but "timid, enervated, self-enclosed, and self-satisfied," conforming with "the dictates of common opinion.'' Fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution, and what has it wrought: spiritually withered New York Times Man, so insular and hermetically creedbound in his views, and yet, like a pinched little sulzberger, so confident of his childish superiority!
These Last Men hate to be reminded that there is something higher or deeper, something transcending their own rootless and self-generated meaninglessness. They are all sheep and no shepherd. And they don't believe in wolves at all. Brawndead leftists with no mametary glands hate the notion that the work -- the manly work, not just the endless party on mom's government teat -- of history is incomplete, that there are real enemies and real heroes -- superior men like General Petraeus who will name and kill the enemy so that the Last Men may sleep soundly in their beds. They believe that there is nothing to be afraid of but the hero!
In a way they are right, for the hero is a painful reminder of their own existential shrinkage. The society of the Last Man "is adept at satisfying nearly all desires for pleasure, but it cannot satiate, indeed it positively frustrates, the will to excel, to prove oneself superior to others" (Hibbs). They are afflicted with spiritual envy, the Satanic Eucharist of secular fundamentalism. Kill the hero is their motto. The victim is the new God, Master of our domain is their creed.