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The Rise of Indulgence Activism
Affluence and Guilt and the Obsession with Questionable Causes
I was reading Michael Scherer’s piece about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s conspiracy-addled campaign for President and the word “indulgence” came to mind. It has a double-meaning. There is the common, voluptuary sense: to indulge oneself in some sort of pleasure. But there is also the feudal Roman Catholic sense: “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins." The selling of Indulgences was a scandal in the Middle Ages: affluent people could pay the Church and have their sins expiated. Martin Luther didn't like the practice very much. It was at the heart of his bill of particulars, Ninety-Five Theses, which launched the Protestant Reformation and got Luther excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1520.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s life has been a series of indulgences of both sorts. In his youth, he indulged in heroin addiction…and since kicking it, he has indulged in a series of causes, both high-minded and mindless, some fine environmental work mixed with scurrilous anti-vaxxing. His life is a prime example of what George Will has called serious silliness. There is, for me, tremendous sadness in this. His father was my favorite politician, idealistic and vulnerable and humble enough to learn, especially from the realities of ghetto life he observed in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. His life was ended at a moment when he seemed to be breaking free, exploring new and more complicated forms of Sanity politics.
I’ve never met RFK. Jr., but was friendly with some of his brothers and sisters—Joe, Kathleen, David. I was rooting for one of them to “pick up the fallen standard” as his Uncle Ted once said, “to carry forward that special commitment to justice, excellence and courage that distinguished [his brothers’] lives.” None of the Kennedy kids did, though some tried; it’s possible none could ever have succeeded. It was an unbearable standard. The spiritual burden had to be overwhelming.
John and Robert Kennedy left a generational legacy for the Baby Boomers, a style that has resided very close to the heart of the moderate-liberal left ever since. A few of my fellow Boomers defined their lives by 1960s idealism. The rest of us “grew” past that. We did very well for ourselves; and looking back on our lives of privilege, we’ve felt the need for a more Medieval sort of Indulgence. There is a constant, reflexive desire for expiation among the upper-middle-class and wealthy left. It is a mixed blessing. The promotion of civic improvement is both worthy and eminently human, but it is easily corrupted. The frantic pursuit of obscure causes—of crusading, of unearthing half- or non-truths—is an old trick among liberals, at least since Dickens’ Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, who spends all her time obsessed with poverty in an obscure African country while her children run around the yard half-naked.
Indulgences are the wages of guilt. And, too often, liberal guilt has curdled as a moral force in recent years, gestating in the Petri dishes of academia. It has become overweening, and self-regarding, the very opposite of the inspired humility of people like the sainted Bowery Catholic social worker Dorothy Day, or Bayard Rustin, the gay man who organized the March on Washington; or David Dellinger, the pacifist whose calm and decency was memorably admired by Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night. There is something maddening about Indulgence Liberals; their campaigns overwrought, driven by the need for expiation. Their unthinking embrace of Black Lives Matter, for example. Their need to associate themselves with the most extreme voices in the black community is an Indulgence. What about all those other—the overwhelming majority of— Black Lives? What about the ones taken by the plague of gang-related gunfire in poor neighborhoods? Black Lives Matter won’t go there and Indulgence Liberals, paralyzed by guilt, won’t challenge them on it.
Indulgence Liberals are essentially dilettantes. They don’t have the experience to feel as angry about crime as most black people do. (This was the difference between working-class Eric Adams and Indulgence-class Maya Wiley in the last New York mayoral race.) Their guilt-riddled “sensitivity” leads them to acquiesce in rhetorical monstrosities like the use of “LatinX,” and their support for woke censorship, the various language codes on campus or in media outlets, and their tolerance of the most extreme Trans proselytizing. Their guilt too often leads to ill-considered vehemence. Vehemence is an indulgence too.
Indulgence Activism is what happens when real oppression largely disappears from a society, as it has from ours. We have renounced the abominations of slavery and genocide. We never embraced state violence or censorship, enforced starvation (as happened in both the Soviet Union and China), or the authoritarian imposition of injustice. In the absence of these atrocities, a search has ensued among the righteous for something to be angry or guilty about, or titillated by, something to fill the time in a society where a larger sense of purpose has evaporated.
There are legitimate grievances to be addressed, of course. There always are. But Indulgence Activists tend to denigrate all the splendid, secure aspects of the middle-class society the American free enterprise has created, the quotidian satisfactions of traditional family life. The elite left sneers at the “little boxes on the hillside,” the tract houses that are far superior to the blue-collar slums where our great-grandparents lived; they sneer at real estate development in general—except for low-income housing (although not in their neighborhoods). They sneer at “dead end” jobs; Alexandria Ocasio Cortez opposed a massive Amazon warehouse, and the jobs it would bring, in Queens. They believe that government spending is an unalloyed good, even when it encourages malignant social effects, as the pre-Clinton welfare system did. They only care about the Indulgence of spending.
Indulgence Activism has become bipartisan now, although the right-wing version is driven less by guilt and more by puerile, inchoate anger. It is fed by conspiracy theories and conspiracies theories are impossible without a demented form of populism—the International Jewish Bankers, the Pizza Parlor Pedophiles, the Deep State are taking our country away—which makes Bobby Kennedy Jr. a perfect Indulgence candidate, who might appeal to a broader coalition of the unhinged. Anti-vaxxers swing from both left and right, distorting reality, endangering public health. Other right-wing fetishes like militia membership, QAnon and AR-15 nuttery are all Indulgence causes; none have any ballast. Affluence, stupidity and moral indolence make them possible. Affluence gives people the time to march on the Capitol, the money to buy the camo and ammo. It allows them to indulge the fantasy that their country is being taken away. If that is true, they are the ones who are taking it.
I am reminded of Logan Roy’s dismissal of his children in Succession: “You are not serious people.” Indulgence Activists are not serious, but they are dangerous. Their “serious silliness” has consequences; it is destroying cities like San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. The Indulgence Activists are a diversion from our real public business, they sap the strength and consistency and rigor needed to maintain a mature democracy.
Cornel West, an extremely frivolous person, has announced his own Indulgence, a Third Party candidacy for President. There are only two possible results of this idiocy: the aggrandizement of Cornel West and the taking of votes from Joe Biden.
I started playing golf when I turned 50, mostly on public courses. I found it to be the opposite of what Mark Twain famously said, “a good walk spoiled.” A friend calls it “a good walk enhanced.” I will never be very good at it, but it’s fun, if you don’t take it seriously. I love the greenery and the camaraderie. Watching professional golf is fun, too—it was Tiger Woods who got me interested in the sport—at least, it was until this week, when the Saudis bought the Professional Golf Association (PGA).
I knew Jamal Khashoggi. He was more a source than an actual friend, but he was a very good guy who was candid about the failings of his monarchy. He wasn’t a “journalist” back then, but was very close to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi Intelligence. It is—it has to be—impossible to forget, and certainly to forgive, Jamal’s murder by the Saudi monarchy. Therefore, the PGA’s willingness to be bought by international criminals is an abomination. I’ll confine my golf watching in the future to the Majors, which exist beyond the purview of the PGA, and also to women’s game, which is a more recognizable form of the sport for us duffers, anyway.