In an affluent postmodern society of nearly unlimited freedom and opportunity, elite celebrities, pampered athletes, comfortable academics, conniving politicians, and careerist journalists find it hard to prove that they are still relevant in a revolutionary or rather cool sense.
In medieval times, privileged sinners found absolution for their guilt through more formal contractual penance. Churchmen consulted books of penitentials that prescribed precise medicinal doses — donations, pilgrimages, fasting, and a host of other sacrificial acts — to offset particular sins to get them right again with God. The key was to find a way to keep enjoying sinning and still get to heaven on the cheap.
The wealthy, the influential, the intelligentsia, and the cultural elite all broadcast their virtues — usually at a cut-rate rhetorical price — to offset their own sense of sin (as defined by feelings of guilt), or in fear that their own lives are antithetical to the ideologies they espouse, or sometimes simply as a wise career move. Sin these days is mostly defined as race/class/gender thought crimes.
Wearing a mask of virtue is done not to save one’s soul for eternity but to still feel good about enjoying privilege. The sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts or mafia-black outfits of Silicon Valley billionaires can compensate for their robber-baron sins of outsourcing, offshoring, and tax avoidance or simply their preference for apartheid existence with the fellow rich; for George Soros (currency manipulator and European financial outlaw), it is funding leftists who hate capitalists and rank financial speculators like him. All that beats lashings and haircloth.
Not long ago the popular criticism of Beyoncé by her fans was that she seemed in appearance too eager to culturally appropriate “whiteness.” Her routines were akin to reactionary striptease and crassly sexually reductive — hardly the image of a bold black female entrepreneur espousing values consistent with hip feminism.
We do not hear so much flak these days. Beyoncé is just as privileged, probably wealthier, and on her way to multibillionaire Oprah status. But she has suddenly metamorphosized into a social-justice warrior, at least in theory.
In 2014 she and husband Jay-Z, in Marxismo chic fashion, violated the then tourist ban to Cuba to celebrate their fifth anniversary with an ample capitalist entourage in the Communist utopia. At the 2016 Super Bowl, Beyoncé orchestrated an infantile, neo–Black Panther dance skit. Her recent video peddled the discredited Black Lives Matter/Ferguson meme of “hands up don’t shoot.” And at the MTV awards ceremony, her retinue playacted being shot by police.
Of course, Beyoncé’s 0.00001 percent world could not exist in Cuba. She counts on legions of security officers and expects the police to protect her separatist celebrity status. She certainly does not manage her various fashion and music corporations on the principles of Black Panther hokey socialism. The poor do not, in Cuban style, sublet the guest houses of her estate. Yet she has now landed her privileged soul in social-justice heaven — and the profits roll in without guilt. Inner-city youth who study physics are pilloried by contemporaries as “acting white”; the super-wealthy who appear white are “acting black.”
Little need be said of the buffoonish antics of San Francisco 49er backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand up for the national anthem because of purported racism against people of color, but who plays in a lucrative, elite league in which black players are, to use a good progressive term, “overrepresented” at nearly six times their percentage of the general population The NFL is that rare American institution in which there is no guiding concept of proportional diversity, disparate impact, or affirmative action to remedy radical ethnic and racial imbalances. Until recently, Kaepernick was known mostly as a former star NFL quarterback and, off the field, for a unique ancestry — of mixed racial background, raised by white adoptive parents in the Midwest, mostly a product of white suburban culture, and stung with a prior accusation by NFL authorities of using the N-word racial slur.
The sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts or mafia-black outfits of Silicon Valley billionaires can compensate for their robber-baron sins of outsourcing, offshoring, and tax avoidance.
Recently Kaepernick’s career had slumped to the point that fans wondered what exactly he did to merit nearly $20 million in salary a year — at about the same time he had paired up with an edgy Islamic-activist girlfriend, Bay Area 97 DJ and MTV host Nessa Diab. She does a local radio show emphasizing her country’s various sins.
Presto, Colin Kaepernick is now no longer just a near has-been but is on the social-media barricades of Black Lives Matter — and praised as a trail-blazing civil-rights warrior by no less than President Barack Obama. He dons a Castro T-shirt, wears socks emblazoned with images of the police as pigs, and refuses to stand during the national anthem and thereby honor what he suddenly in his 28th year finds as an unfair, racist, and sinful country not worthy of his standing respect. Kaepernick did almost everything except make the argument that police shoot unarmed black men in percentages that are disproportional to their share of those arrested; or explain why 12 percent of the population accounts for more than 50 percent of many categories of violent crime; or why 93 percent of black homicide victims were killed by fellow blacks; or why, in rare interracial crime, blacks commit violent crimes against whites as at rates approaching eight to one, despite being a sixth of the size of the so-called white population.
It is hard to know whether such cheap penance (the multimillionaire under criticism has just belatedly promised to fund a charity) reflects a cagey career move (to recapture former public attention now lost by mediocre performance), or is a sort of preemptive deterrent to explain away his possible dismissal as racially charged retribution, or is choreographed by his new Lady Macbeth to transform himself from spoiled athlete into a cutting-edge racial activist. Such cynicism is warranted because the water in which Kaepernick for a while longer swims is rich, privileged, and dependent upon lesser hoi polloi.
Lately, journalists – from the New York Times’s James Rutenberg to MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski — are climbing on the activist barricades as they vie to outdo each other in denouncing Donald Trump, the more learned citing historical precedents that demand they now must tragically shed any last vestige of their supposedly ingrained impartiality.
Jorge Ramos — the Univision multimillionaire anchor whose daughter works for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, who has lived in a Coconut Grove gated community, who sent his kids to private schools, and who checked out of Mexico when his free speech was threatened — has never been plausible as a disinterested journalist or even as much of a grassroots activist. He has made a career out of blasting his adoptive country as racist, xenophobic, and nativist for wanting to enforce its border (now open) in a fashion that would still be anemic in comparison with Mexico’s current immigration-enforcement policies and its racist language about immigration enshrined in its constitution.
Ramos’s open-borders boutique activism is key to his career (a closed border, along with legal, diverse, and measured immigration would accelerate assimilation and reduce Univision’s Spanish-only audience to 1960s levels) and self-image, allowing him to square many circles: the Florida multimillionaire as radical, open-border activist; the biased pseudo-journalist who is suddenly and reluctantly forced to become a rank partisan in direct opposition to his supposedly lifelong disinterested reporting; fury at Trump’s crass language that compensates for his curious past silence about everything from “typical white person” and “punish our enemies” to the racist condescension uttered by the likes of Joe Biden and Harry Reid to the Francoist-inspired La Raza nomenclature. With a few cheap utterances, Jorge Ramos can do the work of a Clinton operative and yet playact as another William L. Shirer warning us from prewar Berlin about the Nazi threat, or as Edward R. Murrow of the 1950s taking on Joe McCarthy.
Hillary and Bill Clinton, on a trajectory to become our versions of Juan and Eva Peron, became multimillionaires by peddling the anomalies of what would otherwise have been a termed-out presidency. Unlike all other presidential couples, the two could promise to reenter the White House under Hillary’s auspices. In the interregnum, she would not be shy in selling face time as secretary of state and president in waiting, while violating intelligence and national-security protocols to shield her communications with the Clinton Foundation’s quid pro quo profiteering.
A person from Mars who reviewed the long record of the Clintons – from the young women who fell into the lair of Bill’s predation, to the unapologetic greed from the 34-trillion-to-1 odds in Hillary’s cattle-futures con, to “Chancellor Bill” of Laureate University as the highest annually paid university head in education history, to the privileged lifestyle of huge estates and private jets, (some of it fueled by ensuring the Clinton Foundation would dispense only about 15 percent of its annual expenditures to charities) — would size up the couple as grasping Gilded Age plutocrats whose reactionary lifestyles reflected a lifelong counter-revolutionary self-obsession.
But it is not so. Hillary now amplifies Black Lives Matter (long forgotten is Bill’s racialist dismissal of a young Senator Obama). She has gone from border enforcer to the left of Barack Obama on immigration laxity, from Wall Street Journal free trader to blue-collar protectionist. And the result is that the richer, the more privileged, the more elitist, and more lawless the Clintons have become, the more insatiable become their appetites — and the more their souls find penance and are at peace.
What enrages the public about virtue-mongering is that, according to the laws of their own value system, the elite sin and then fob such failings off on others to find resolution. Kaepernick makes more in a month than most Americans whom he insults will make in a lifetime; and most Americans have never used the N-word to slur someone of color. Most Americans do not get rich off overseas coal plants like the green Tom Steyer did, or dump worthless cable channels to the Islamist and anti-Semitic Al Jazeera in order to get rich from carbon-exporting Qatar, in the fashion of the global-sermonizing Al Gore. None of us in the manner of the Clintons have boarded a Lolita Express jet or tried to peddle diplomatic passports to the wealthy and connected. I have never met an American who bought up all the homes surrounding his own to redefine his neighborhood as did Mark Zuckerberg, who derides walls and border enforcement for others. And yet we are lectured about our social-awareness failings ad nauseam by these masters of the progressive universe.
The Reformation — and Counter Reformation — mostly ended the selling of penances. Only something similar will end our pathetic version, perhaps when the public tunes out at the tired boilerplate of “racist,” “sexist,” and “nativist”; or when we quit sending money to the “safe space,” “trigger warning,” “micro-aggression” Ivy League; or we flip the channel when NFL gladiators playact as robed philosophers; or we laugh off celebrity activists as the new John D. Rockefellers tossing out a few of their shiny new dimes.
— Victor Davis Hanson is an NRO contributor, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.