Self-Righteousness in the “Age of Trump”


Faculty Lounge, USA

Since the general election last November, the normal every-day self-righteousness you expect to see on college and university campuses has turned into a popularity contest the likes of which no one has suffered through since junior high. (And I’m told by the users of anti-social media that the self-righteousness is even worse than I know. This I can believe.)

Witness the recent “Statement of Confession and Commitment,” reported on by that nerve center of Hire Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education. The statement acknowledges “a contentious election and post-election season marked by fear, polarization, and violence.” Those who have signed the statement “join [their] voices with those who are most vulnerable”—that is, the victims of racism, misogyny, nativism, and economic disparity.

There’s a group missing from that list of the most vulnerable, but more of that anon.

“The fear of deportation is real,” the Statement declares. “The anxiety of being assaulted is real. The fear of being forgotten or mistreated is real. Many people of color, women, and other marginalized groups feel increasingly alienated.”

The consequence of this is that “a large portion of our communities is weeping.”

Weeping, eh?

I’ll be the first to admit that this topic deserves better treatment than I’m able (or patient enough) to give it, but here’s a start: buy Kleenex.

Meantime, understand if you can that another “portion of our communities” (“our”? “communities”?), smaller apparently, is grinning, and the reason is that the people in them see the normal every-day self-righteousness not as a popularity contest but as another example of how utterly unhinged the Left has become.

(Keeping up with the Right is a tough job, but it must be done.)

Mind you, these grinning observers might deplore the mistreatment of vulnerable people too. And they should. They might even go one better than The Statement and include among the “most vulnerable” those who fear being vacuumed out of the womb (the fear of being vacuumed is real). And, again, they should. For these grinning observers might on the one hand sympathize with, say, their Muslim colleagues and friends and on the other hand abhor that sanctioned violence perpetrated against those who are truly the “most vulnerable.”

But there’s a difference between the grinners and the contestants in the popularity contest: the grinners can’t manage to stir themselves up into the same froth of self-righteousness that plays so well right now among the highly-credentialed.

Or, to speak for myself, I can’t manage to do it. And remember: I’m on record dissenting from the peckerwood sonofabitch who won the general election. (I’m also on record dissenting from his hawkish opponent, the shrike who was so self-assured, dyspeptic, and oily that she couldn’t even beat a peckerwood sonofabitch.)

But if you are a professor of, say, British and American literature, what do you do, surrounded as you are by so many people who are outraged that you’re not outraged? What do you do among all the self-appointed custodians of the social order who are worked up into auguries of frustrate bitchery because all you can do is smile?

As a member of this smiling minority I can say that, as a matter of first business, I thank the relevant gods that my classrooms still have doors. For a few hours each day I can shut out the self-righteousness. And, once the door is shut, I can remind myself that there is real work to be done.

Such as reckoning with a Trappist monk, who says:

In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.

Such as reminding young people starved for guidance of what Raphael tells Adam:

In loving thou dost well, in passion not,
Wherein true Love consists not; Love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious, is the scale
By which to heav’nly Love thou may’st ascend.

Such as putting before these same morally orphaned trustees the sage of Burlington, Iowa:

We classify ourselves into vocations, each of which either wields some particular tool, or sells it, or repairs it, or sharpens it, or dispenses advice on how to do so; by such division of labors we avoid responsibility for the misuse of any tool save our own. But there is one vocation—philosophy—which knows that all men, by what they think about and wish for, in effect wield all tools. It knows that men thus determine, by their manner of thinking and wishing, whether it is worth while to wield any.

Here’s some advice from someone who’s been in this racket a long time and who has learned to take the long view, even in times “presided over” by peckerwood sonsabitches: Concern yourself with the governing metaphor of the pilgrimage, with Freud, with Hopeful Monsters, with the year 1859, with case endings, with the first ecumenical council, with social contracts, with social trinitarianism, with the mystery of the topsoil. But stop acting as if your country needs you right now. It doesn’t. Or, if it does, it doesn’t need you in self-righteous turbo mode. And it manifestly doesn’t want everyday life turned into an eternal day in the eighth grade.

And one more thing: this isn’t the “age of Trump” or anyone else.

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