Are We Having Fun Yet?
This week you, dear readers, have called my attention to two recent articles attempting to make sense of things in this crazy world. One, by former editor of the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, trys to explain the grim left. That one is entitled “Doing the Work: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Wokeness.”
The second is NYT’s columnist, David French’s attempt to explain the happy right. That one was headed, “The Rage and Joy of MAGA America.” Sub-title, “Come for the Joy, Stay for the Vituperation.” Doesn’t that sound like fun? For those of us who don’t get the appeal of Trump or MAGA, French explained that these folks are having a good time. The Woke? Not so much.
French’s article is shorter and a little easier to summarize, so let’s start with it. What we Never Trumpers don’t get, according to French, is that the MAGA movement is fun. Trump is entertaining. Going to his rallies is a hoot. French recalls the 2020 MAGA Boat Parades, which were a combination political rally and booze-cruise.
“It’s no coincidence that one of the most enduring cultural symbols of Trump’s 2020 campaign was the boat parade. To form battle lines behind Trump, the one man they believe can save America from total destruction, thousands of supporters in several states got in their MasterCrafts and had giant open-air water parties.”
The Trump Rally, “the signature event of this political era,” is a similar combination of fun and fury. French quotes a report by Andrew Egger about the “front row Joes,” who travel from rally to rally, like fans of the Grateful Dead once did. “For enthusiasts, Trump rallies aren’t just a way to see a favorite politician up close. They are major life events: festive opportunities to get together with like-minded folks and just go crazy about America and all the winning the Trump administration’s doing.” Not only are the MAGA folks having fun, they get a sense of belonging. MAGA as a social club. Well, okay. While I try to avoid glib Nazi references, I imagine that people at Hitler’s rallies also enjoyed a “sense of belonging.”
Still, French has a point, one that probably does escape many of us who abhor Trump and MAGA. They are having fun and finding kindred spirits. Not so much fun being among the Woke, whom Buruma, following linguist John McWhorter, terms, “The Elect.” Buruma is intent on linking today’s progressive left to historic American Protestantism and its fabled “Protestant work-ethic.” And, it’s true, “Doing the Work” is a kind of quasi-liturgical formula of the self-identified Woke.
Buruma reminds readers of the terminology of “the father of sociology,” Max Weber, and his writing on the Protestant Work-Ethic. “It was the ‘spirit of hard work’ that characterized those striving to meet the Protestant goal of ethical perfection. This could be interpreted literally, as the work of accumulating wealth through honest labor. But this labor, and its material fruit, go together with the spiritual work of moral improvement. There are clear contemporary parallels in what theorists of antiracism call ‘doing the work,’ which functions as both a sign of one’s current enlightenment and of his or her commitment to continuous and endless self-improvement.”
There’s an irony here. Right-wing booze-cruises sound more “inclusive” and fun, if you’re into that sort of thing, than corporate “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” trainings. Just don’t come to the boat parade in drag!
Buruma is right. There is a strong dose of good old Protestant “works righteousness” on the left. You are saved by using the right words, by striving for continual enlightenment on matters of race and gender, by insisting on rigorous and unremitting interrogation of your self and others. It is Protestantism at its worst, that is, all moralism, no grace.
I suppose a MAGA boat parade or Trump rally could be fun. But it is fun, usually, at the expense of some “other,” be it drag queens, or Joe Biden, or the Woke. It seems to require a scapegoat. It’s all fun and games until it isn’t. Then it’s get out the AR-15s.
If Buruma finds the flaw in the Protestant DNA, our healing may lie there as well. The real core of the Protestant movement is grace. Nowhere in Scripture do you find the line Buruma uses to sum up Protestant Christianity, “God helps those who help themselves.” God is the help of the helpless, those who cannot save themselves, which is all of us. Every last one of us need help and mercy. Grace means that we aren’t saved by our own moral perfection or superior enlightenment, as on the left. But grace also means that we don’t need a victim, or a scapegoat, to feel good about ourselves, as on the right.
Assured of God’s benevolence towards us, despite our foibles and failures, we might as Otis Redding put it, “Try a Little Tenderness.”