Before the recent presidential election, I contemplated writing a Chronicle assessing the candidates, but there never seemed to be a clear role for GA in making such an assessment. And whatever my sympathy for McCain (the last chance to have someone older than myself in the White House!) and my objections to Obama’s thin and highly partisan record, in the absence of a well-articulated Republican policy, it was difficult to make a case against changing parties in an economic crisis. Nor did all the predictable clichés make Obama’s rise less historic. Perhaps one day it will even strike us as bizarre that this man of half-Caucasian, half-African descent was unthinkingly called our first Black president.
In the aftermath of the election, with Obama showing welcome signs of honoring his campaign promise to lower the temperature of partisanship, it becomes possible to understand this year’s contest not as an ideological watershed but rather as one of those moments we call an “end of ideology.” Like history, of course, ideology never ends, but also like history, it has points of stasis when an era’s defining conflict (e.g., the struggle for life between “communism” and “capitalism”) has been resolved and the next critical opposition has not yet become clear. The practical realities of such moments do not corroborate previously defined ideological positions. The electorate voted for Obama as a figure of reconciliation, politically as much as racially. His election does not mark the end of partisanship, but it bodes in the short term a weakening of polemics and a strengthening of consensual responses in the face of our current economic and political difficulties.
On October 11, David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, deplored the Republican party’s “disdain” for the professional class and its increasingly blue enclaves on the coasts. My only point of disagreement with Brooks is that this “anti-elitism,” as exemplified by Sarah Palin’s campaign rhetoric pitting small towns against coastal metropolises, is less a strategic decision than a resigned reaction to the dominant political tendency of the universities and those formed by them.
The explanation for the continued progression of the already lopsided liberal dominance of the professional classes is the unchecked triumph of the victimary paradigm. Just after 9/11, when radicals like Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag were being widely repudiated, I over-optimistically surmised (e.g., in Chronicle 253) that we were witnessing the birth of a “post-millennial” liberation from victimary thinking. We have since learned that the success of the victimary paradigm resides in an epistemological strength that cannot be countered simply by coming to the defense of the normal—however much it deserves a little praise after decades of hectoring. Only “facts on the ground” can lower the victimary temperature.
The history of organized opposition to racial preferences illustrates the frustration that results from confronting victimary attitudes directly. It is significant in this regard that only a potential beneficiary of such preferences could take the lead in combating them; for Ward Connerly, the movement’s dominant figure, the demand for their abolition is an act of renunciation rather than of refusal. Yet even when, as in California in 1996, racial preferences are made illegal, the university and other professional institutions treat this interdiction as a dead letter and have no compunctions at skirting the law in the service of “diversity.” This suggests that Connerly’s heroic stance is historically premature; the principle he asserts is prophetic rather than “an idea whose time has come.”
The only sure way to reduce victimary claims is to provide exemplary demonstrations of their invalidity. It is in this context that Obama’s election can be understood as “transformative.” Obama’s accession to the presidency will not put an end to demands for racial or ethnic preferences, but it weakens the credibility of such demands, leaving the intellectual classes less obsessed by White Guilt and potentially more open to a constructive assessment of what constitutes normality.
No doubt those wedded to the victimary paradigm have already anticipated this and have moved beyond human victims to championing human reciprocity with animals and even plants, or with “the planet” or “nature” as a whole. The originary moment on which this paradigm is fixated is the supremely human one of the deferral of appropriation, but whose anthropological function—deferring human conflict—is forgotten in a fascination with the efficacy of the act of deferral itself. For the victimary “believer,” human self-assertion is blameworthy in itself; to act on human appetite is to commit sacrilege. Yet the shift of victimary passion from the human to the ecological sphere suggests a tacit admission that it has become less plausible to accuse Western society of creating human victims. The “religion of impending disaster” (see Chronicle 349) is at the very least an assertion of ultimate human solidarity.
With regard to the “culture wars” between left and right, a similar analysis applies. History is not made by the triumph of les bons sentiments. It hurts me to say it, but the Democrats’ hyperbolic rage against “W” is itself an argument, if not logical, then barometric, for electing a Democrat. The unsavory surmise that a McCain victory might have sparked riots leads to the same conclusion. The liberal paranoia of “religious right” domination, fueled if not justified by the contrary resentments of the Bush administration, should now sharply diminish; the atheism books that flooded the market two years ago are likely to witness falling sales. Democratic elections work because they express and thereby release the resentful passions of the electorate; disaster-threatening crises aside, society’s most urgent task is reducing the general level of resentment, a task elections perform with a minimum of violence or even personal humiliation. The success of democratic polities reflects the fact that, outside the narrow areas in which objective expertise prevails, resentment remains government’s most effective epistemological tool.
We are not about to bask in an era of irenic good feeling; there will be plenty of political battles on the domestic front. Yet hopefully the fighting will become less fierce in the international arena. Humanity is always in conflict; peace among rivals reflects the need for a common front against external adversaries. At the moment, our greatest need as a nation and indeed as a civilization is to defend our values against the last-ditch yet potentially fatal attacks of those who reject modernity in the name of premodern social formations. The danger posed by these forces is enhanced by their tactical alliance with practitioners of the authoritarian model of market development in opposition to the hegemony of the most advanced economies, who practice the liberal democratic model. No doubt in the “final conflict” between traditional society centered on ritualized, Maussian exchange and modern market society, politically repressive but economically liberal nations such as China or even Venezuela belong in the second group, but the merely tactical nature of the links between these societies and Islamic radicals does not prevent them from reinforcing the latter’s threat to modern civilization.
Given this context, it is all the more important that the resentments generated by market democracy not lend tacit support to its enemies. The danger of violent disruption of the global market system must be our central priority. Hence, whatever the injustice of making George W. Bush the scapegoat for the difficult transition between the Cold War era and one in which the American “hyperpower” is the natural focus of the world’s resentment, we must welcome Obama’s election as providing the US with a more effective rallying point. It is unlikely that Obama will be able to persuade our European allies to defend Western values by force, for example, by sending to Afghanistan troops who will actually engage the enemy. But even tacit acquiescence in American operations is better than the overt hostility with which the major European powers greeted Bush’s Iraq initiative. The point is not to subject American policy to an international veto but to give this policy a wider margin of credibility.
All these speculations are corollaries of a single proposition: that Obama’s election weakens the power of victimary thinking, both in the US and abroad. It may appear paradoxical that the triumph of the victimary party can produce this result, but this is the principle implicit in the alternation of political parties. No doubt there is a danger that putting the Left in power will exacerbate the resentments of its clientele, and some aspects of the Democratic program, particularly those pushed by labor unions (card check, hostility to school vouchers and teacher accountability), risk doing so. But by all indications, the Democratic votes of youth and the professional classes, even those of minorities, expressed not so much specific demands as a desire for more effective dialogue within government and between it and civil society. “Change” and “hope” are contentless slogans, but their very vagueness is more encouraging for the prospects of social harmony than an explicit program of class resentment. Although, needless to say, we will be able to evaluate the truth of these speculations only after January 20, I think they are plausible enough to warrant a cautious optimism rather than the apocalyptic pessimism that reigns in some conservative quarters.
Without claiming to speak for all those engaged in the “new way of thinking” that is GA, I think it is important to insist that a minimal anthropology should maintain a minimal political footprint. GA tends toward the conservative in that, in the process of seeking the roots of contemporary institutions in the originary event, it is more concerned with understanding normality—in the general case, “the worst of all systems, with the exception of all the others”—than changing it. But when the political party that is founded on respect for normality loses the public’s trust, respect for the social order can better be served by granting power to the party of victimary critique, as the electorate in its wisdom has done. Whatever our stands on specific issues, I think we should accept this decision with humility and in good faith, and without suspending our critical judgment, give the incoming administration the benefit of the doubt.