Vengeance Politics

February 22, 2021 Updated: February 22, 2021


Actually, forget politics, forget liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, and drop the idea that we have two parties competing over public power and two ideologies battling in the marketplace of ideas. Those debates and that kind of partisanship are over, no matter how often the guests on news shows still speak as if it’s 1995.

Normal politics were fully put to rest on Nov. 9, 2016, and the defeat of President Donald Trump four months ago hasn’t brought an iota of restoration. We’re in a state of atavism. It’s not enough to defeat Trump in the ballot booth. Democrats in D.C. and elite liberals everywhere want retribution; they want humiliation. People who supported him have to pay; people who worked for him have to be shunned. Liberals and leftists in businesses and organizations aren’t satisfied with control of them. Conservatives (particularly the social/religious kinds) must be rooted out, or at least informed that they better keep their opinions to themselves. This isn’t politics, it’s vengeance.

To understand it, don’t read policy papers from the think tanks or National Review. Group psychology, mob tactics, and rituals of purification aren’t their thing. Instead, read René Girard on scapegoating and sacrifice, social scientists on guilt and conformity, “Fahrenheit 451” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Brave New World” and “The God that Failed.” Read about the Cultural Revolution in China and reeducation camps in Cambodia. Watch “The Lives of Others” and “The Death of Stalin.”

That what’s happening now in America—with the cancellations and quotas, the firings and grotesque apologies, ideology-distorting science, Critical Race Theory sessions and diversity training, and the like—doesn’t approach the violence of Asia in the Sixties and Seventies doesn’t matter. The dynamics are the same.

For instance: “As long as there exists no sovereign and independent body capable of taking the place of the injured party and taking upon itself the responsibility for revenge, the danger of interminable escalation remains.”

That’s from René Girard in a book from 1972, “La Violence et le sacré” (“Violence and the Sacred”). He’s talking about the cycle of vengeance that continues so long as justice remains in the hands of the aggrieved. One young man beats up another, the second man’s brothers beat up the first, the first man’s father targets the brothers, and so on.

Girard’s point is that if vengeance for the first act is taken up by some recognized independent authority, vengeance becomes sanctioned punishment. The state takes revenge out of the hands of the victim’s family, assuming responsibility for the prosecution of the culprit. When the first assailant is jailed or fined, then, his family may not respond in the old way. Blood feuds and long-running vendettas cease.

For Girard (and the anthropologists he quotes), this is how societies contain the difficulties and the squabbles that inevitably occur whenever people band together. Tensions arise, and they must be eased before they get physical. Disagreements and competitions pit one against another, and they must be channeled away from open warfare. Primitive societies did it through modes of sacrifice, modern societies through a judicial machinery (Girard, in fact, breaks with anthropologists in that he sees violence and sacrifice as lingering in modern systems of justice).

Obviously, for the modern system to work, the central powers must secure and maintain the general acceptance among the population of their authority. People have to believe not only in the law, but in the administration of it, too. They have to trust the administrators. If they don’t, they revert to the pre-modern tack: They take justice upon themselves. Vengeance is theirs.

This is, in fact, what the Woke revolutionaries are doing when they demand “social justice” and “racial justice.” Leaders of large institutions—college presidents, corporate boards, editors of major newspapers, Democrat politicians—would have you believe that the object of these protests are the racists, sexists, homophobes, and xenophobes in our midst, but that can’t be so. The individuals listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Human Rights Campaign as purveyors of hate have no power to advance or to hinder justice in America. They don’t run anything except their own tiny groups.

No, it’s the liberal leaders of those institutions who are on the spot. They make up the “sovereign and independent bodies” charged with identifying victimizations and punishing evildoers. To insert the word “systemic” into the problem is no help to them at all. They run the systems!

And they’re doing it poorly. They’re incompetent, or selfish and greedy, or weak and frivolous, or themselves closeted racists and sexists. That’s the implicit accusation of Woke. The authorities have let us down; they won’t secure justice for all; we must act on our own.

This theory of abdication by the authorities fits with current data on attitudes among young Americans. Here’s what a population survey (pdf) conducted last year concluded about Millennials:

“Millennials are seen as ‘tolerant.’ Yet the AWVI [American Worldview Inventory] 2020 findings show that Millennials—by their own admission—are far less tolerant than other generations. In addition, they are more likely to want to exact revenge when wronged, are less likely to keep a promise, and overall have less respect for others and for human life in general.”

If Girard and the anthropologists are correct, then we look for the cause of Millennial vindictiveness precisely in the failure of powerful organizations and powerful people in America. If the young are not confident that their elders are responsible and just people, that the main institutions of modern life treat people fairly, and that the country of which they are citizens is worthy of reverence, well, it’s time to become an activist and take some revenge.

And what, in fact, have Millennials heard for years on these matters?

That the nation they call home kidnapped from another continent and enslaved here at home millions of innocents and their progeny, committed genocide against the natives, and fought imperialist wars.

That their parents and grandparents had horrible attitudes toward gays and trans-persons.

That corporations and colleges and the professions were (and still are) shot through with systemic racism.

Churches might have given Millennials a transcendent authority to obey, but their parents didn’t take them to church. In school, they might have encountered Western Civilization or some other tradition that would have acquainted them with a core of greatness and genius and beauty, but multiculturalism got rid of any such lineage a long time ago.

In sum, our mass culture and education system denied to the young any respect for the dead. It left them with no inspiring past and only an ineffectual present. We should be altogether unsurprised, then, that so many young Americans have turned to Antifa, Black Lives Matter, or other “justice” movement as they’ve matured. The attractions of cancel culture are hard to resist when they have no trust that institutions will make the world a better place.

It’s easy to be vengeful when you don’t believe that officials and professionals and politicians will right historic wrongs. The authorities have told them so. They have said, in effect, “You, the rising generation, we haven’t handed you a proud society—we don’t particularly love our country, and you shouldn’t, either—we have no roots, no foundations, no abiding faiths, no Great Books and sublime creations that we can offer—we are no example to you—you’re on your own.”

Politics don’t explain why Millennials lean way to the left in political orientation. This is a matter of the world they experience, their relation to the elders, and feelings of betrayal and responsibility. We need history and anthropology, psychology and literature and religion for that.

The more Republicans focus on the traditional politics, on lower taxes and limited government and deregulation, instead of ritual, authority, youth and age, sacrifice, and justice, and propounding a conservative definition of those things, they’re not going to win very many converts.

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.