Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Culture of Transgression

Our antinomian elite’s war against tradition has become a war against the working class


Michael Lind
July 30, 2023, Tablet

Everywhere we see our political, cultural, and financial elites bankrolling activists to dismantle traditions. While flags and slogans celebrating racial or sexual identity are proudly displayed by Western governments and corporations, overt displays of national patriotism are regarded by establishmentarians on both sides of the Atlantic as vulgar and distasteful. Religions tend to be viewed with distrust and contempt by the trans-Atlantic elite, unless their premodern teachings have been modified into alignment with the views of the campus left. The Western canon, instead of being enlarged to include unjustly excluded authors, has been jettisoned, and liberal education has been replaced by ideological indoctrination in the name of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI).

Iconoclasm is nothing new in history. The term was coined to describe the controversy over icons in medieval Byzantium, and has come to mean any attack on cherished traditions and familiar imagery. Radical Protestant reformers broke the stained glass and smashed the statues of Mary and the saints. The Taliban dynamited Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001, and later ISIS destroyed many ancient Mesopotamian monuments and statues.

In most historic cases, programmatic iconoclasm has been temporary and accompanied or followed by the fabrication of new traditions and the imposition of new orthodoxies. In communist Russia, the statues of the czars went down and statues of Lenin and Stalin went up.

Some on the Western right fear that the wave of statue-toppling which began with Confederate statues and spread to practically any historic statue in North America and Europe will lead to the rule of a woke Taliban. But the cancellation of the Great Books curriculum has not led to a new consensus canon featuring minority, female, and nonbinary authors along with a smaller number of “dead white males” who are deemed acceptable. Instead, much of the energy of woke jihadists goes into purging or censoring existing works of art and thought—rewriting the novels of Roald Dahl, for example—or randomly parachuting nonwhite or “queer” characters into movie remakes instead of creating something new.

The cultural ferment in contemporary North America and Europe does not feel like an interregnum between one cultural regime and a stable successor. It feels like a permanent revolution.

Put another way, the Western elite culture of transgression is an example of antinomianism, not iconoclasm. Unlike iconoclasm, antinomianism is not a temporary campaign of destruction of older iconography and traditions to clear the way for the imposition of new canons and orthodoxies. Derived from the Greek words meaning “against” and “law” or “norm,” the term antinomianism refers to the view that all laws and norms are oppressive always and everywhere, and that the act of transgression in itself is virtuous, if not holy.

Antinomian sects have popped up in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, usually to be repudiated and sometimes violently suppressed by the orthodox. Luther and his Catholic opponents could agree that Christian antinomians were heretics. In the early years of political or religious revolutions, antinomians sometimes flourish, only to be crushed by other revolutionaries whose goal is to create a new order, not permanent disorder.

At the moment, the fashionable justifications invoked by the elite antinomian vandals attacking Western society from within are climate change, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, and “anti-fascism” as a catchall category. Upper-middle-class young men and women who throw paint at artistic masterpieces or glue themselves to trains claim they are defending the earth’s environment, but they could just as well say they are fighting white supremacy or patriarchy. They are acting out the ethos of a Western elite culture that believes the act of transgression itself is virtuous; the alleged goal of the transgression is merely an excuse.

Call it “the culture of transgression” of the dominant overclass in North Atlantic democracies. The three saints of transgression are the illegal immigrant, the transsexual, and the woman who proudly celebrates abortion. All three are idealized by our revolutionary ruling class precisely because they violate traditional norms—the traditional norm of patriotism, based on the legitimacy of the city-state or nation-state or kingdom and its laws and borders; traditional gender norms; and traditional family norms, which celebrate the capacity of women to give birth and to nurture their infants and of men to provide for them. Most of what is called “progressivism” today is really transgressivism.


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