I still regret to some extent that at the beginning of Swarthmore College’s Aydelotte Foundation (before it received its current name) we decided that a good initial test of the ability to have conversations across and within disciplines was best suited to a shared college-wide reading of Jonathan Haidt’s flawed book The Righteous Mind. I would rather have found a book that didn’t frustrate and irritate most of the participants.
I don’t regret the conversations, though. And the odd thing is that I keep coming back to the book with new complaints against its claims, so it did help me actually rethink and refocus some of how I observe and imagine political life.
Haidt argues that liberal political dispositions, which he views (like other political dispositions) as substantially subconscious and intuitive, are unresponsive to blasphemy or sacrilege, that liberals do not cross-wire deep emotional responses connected to disgust or repulsion to politics, do not have strong notions about the sacred and the profane as a part of their subconscious script for reading the public sphere and political events.
My colleague and friend Ben Berger pointed out during one of our discussions that this observation seemed fundamentally wrong to him–that people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious, and that many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do. Ben observed that Haidt might be missing that because many liberals and leftists did not feel deeply trespassed against in this way in their own favored institutional and social worlds, and usually looked upon a public sphere that largely aligned with their vision of civic propriety and ritual.
I’m not opposed per se to Haidt’s insistence that some of our political affiliations and reactions stem from deeper, non-conscious cognitive predispositions: I just think he woefully mismaps those findings to real politics, to history, to institutions, and so on. I think Ben’s point now seems deeply confirmed. Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.
Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.
Even when we intellectually understand that our sense of the sacred in civic and public life may be dysfunctionally entangled in stifling technocratic arrogance or neoliberal visions of governmentality, even when we believe ourselves to be open to a more carnivalesque or improvisational mode of public leadership, we still have very deep feelings about what’s proper and improper, righteous and demonic, sanitary and repellant. And Trump is violating every intuition, every deep reservoir of feeling we have about how one ought to be a man, a leader, a symbol of our national identity. We are not distracted when we respond to those feelings. In fact, we might be better off to articulate our responses as feelings, as intense and profound and utterly righteous feelings.