There are few slogans more tiresome than Adorno’s famous line that writing poetry after Auschwitz is “barbaric.” But I think these words, far from being an exaggeration, are truer than their author knew or could have known. The phrase suggests that one wants to write poetry but shouldn’t because it’s “barbaric.” But what is happening is rather that since Auschwitz, Western civilization has steadily been losing its will to write poetry, or to do anything else. Western civilization after Auschwitz is becoming impossible.
The most striking proof of this is the pervasiveness of PC, which is a euphemism for victimary correctness. The victimary pervades our intellectual life to such an extent that to retain a sane posture in face of it one must in effect repress one’s intelligence. Can it be a coincidence that two candidates of the less victimary, i.e., Republican party have recently been subject to unprecedented major lapses in public in which they were unable to express simple thoughts? More seriously, the persistent disparagement of resistance to victimary thinking among members of the academy and those who share its universe of discourse has provoked in reaction a disturbing anti-intellectualism on the right. National Review recently published an article praising governor Perry’s “cost-accounting” approach to the University of Texas (“Faculty Lounge,” October 31, 2011) that is so profoundly and stupidly hostile to the university that I am almost tempted to return to the Democratic Party. This piece blithely accepts measuring teaching productivity by numbers of students, as though professors simply choose how many students they want to teach in a given year, low numbers signifying membership in what the Texas survey called the “Dodgers.” No distinction is made between freshman surveys and doctoral seminars, presumably because the author of the article really doesn’t know the difference. I wonder how William Buckley, whose contempt for the academic left was not based on crass ignorance, would have reacted to see such an article in his periodical.
The thesis that the Holocaust is the point of departure for the victimary thinking that has dominated the postmodern West is not so much controversial as ignored. Victimary thinkers find it repugnant to trace what they would like to see as self-evident facts to an origin in a historical event (just as they find even more repugnant to think that humanity itself had its origin in an event). And no doubt to attempt to demonstrate this assertion even in the most superficial fashion would require immense research.
Is this thesis an essential component of GA? Surely the Holocaust is not implicit in the originary hypothesis, but conversely it was the Holocaust as the precipitating cause of postmodern victimary thought that gave rise not only to the vulgar variety with which we are all too familiar but to the more refined and productive brand of René Girard and eventually to GA. And that the roots of GA, which I claim is beyond victimary thinking, include, in addition to Girard, the anthropological intuitions of the often enthusiastically victimary Jacques Derrida shows how unavoidable our confrontation with the victimary must be.
The victimary phenomenon is so vast that at first glance we may wonder whether it is useful to attribute it to a single cause. Certainly the Civil Rights movement in the US or the various decolonization movements cannot be reduced to echoes of the Holocaust. The moral model of human reciprocity is an originary feature of the human; phenomena such as Jim Crow and colonialism provoke movements of revolt whenever their control is not total. But it is no coincidence that it was only after WWII that these movements—whose revolutionary action was in virtually every case reinforced by and often subordinate to its victimary effect of generating White Guilt among the “oppressors”—became unstoppable. The point here is not to detect a direct filiation but to determine the source of the argument, more precisely of the persuasiveness of the argument, used to justify these movements. The fact is that the Nazi-Jew argument wins every battle in the postmodern era; as soon as it becomes possible to define one side as the “Nazis,” the discussion is over. This trivial-seeming schema can be applied to virtually every human interaction where some form of collective identity can be alleged.
Given that the moral model demands and has demanded reciprocity between humans ever since the reciprocal exchange of signs in the originary event, why then did it take WWII and the Holocaust to enforce this model across the board? All of human history had built various forms of social hierarchy on the basis of this originary equality. What is unique about the Holocaust is to have cast doubt on the legitimacy of social hierarchy as such, subjecting it to the suspicion of what Nathalie Sarraute called l’ère du soupçon.
One might speculate that in the Western context defined by Judeo-Christianity, of all religious traditions the most suspicious of social hierarchy and the most respectful of the moral model, the historical “dialectic” would inevitably lead via negation and resentment to the Nazis’ insistence on the nullity of universal morality and the primacy of one group over all others. But that does not suffice to define the specifics of the Holocaust, where hierarchy becomes not mere domination and oppression but dehumanization and extermination. The lesson of the Holocaust for the anthropologist is that of the slippery slope: any mode of hierarchy between groups opens the door to treating other humans like vermin and thereby puts in jeopardy the pact that keeps humanity together. (Girard presents what appears to be the same problem in terms of Hiroshima rather than Auschwitz: if we don’t stop resenting each other we’ll end by blowing each other up. But this is an external fear, not an internal motivation; in Proustian terms, it corresponds to voluntary as opposed to involuntary memory. I have to remind myself to love my neighbor when I feel like killing him. Victimary thinking is just the opposite; we have to make a special effort not to bend over backward to avoid “victimizing” someone, that is, to avoid acting with victimary condescension even when the presuppositions of such condescension—the “racism of low expectations”—are mandated by law.)
Whereas in the past even the most tolerant societies unhesitatingly put their own community and its members above others, sometimes insisting that they were the only true humans, now it becomes impossible even to point out that, for example, since only the most highly functional societies can produce crucial such things as vaccines for the less functional societies, the first group of societies is therefore justified in existing. A simple Rawlsian analysis would confirm such a claim, which is of course implicit in economic and political reality, but victimary thinking automatically denounces the “unequal” proportion of resources controlled by the US and other first-world countries as res ipsa loquitur injustice, denying implicitly the obvious connection between greater use of resources and the production of vaccines that save lives in Africa.
Incoherent as this typical example of victimary thinking may be, I have heard highly intelligent, educated, and professionally able persons claim it to be self-evident. Victimary thinking begins from the uncontroversial point that equality is generally preferable to inequality because it satisfies our originary moral model of reciprocity, and proceeds to plaster it onto modern social reality as though every exception to collective equality is ipso facto an occasion for scandal.
I find the recent “occupy” movement less disturbing as a caricature of political protest than for the instant tolerance and sympathy it attracts from a wide section of the intellectual class. I sympathize with the frustrations of graduates who can’t pay off their student loans, and am happy to tolerate their peaceful protests, although I fail to see what gives them the right to occupy public property and make noise all night; what disturbs me, although it in no way surprises me, has been to see mayors and legislators display sympathy—thankfully now on the wane—for these paragons of resentment against the wealthy, the banks, finance, and so on. Hasn’t “expropriate the expropriators” already been tried? The absence of a program among the protesters is well recognized, but it never seems to lead their supporters to the conclusion, not that they are badly organized and lack leadership, but that to assuage their generalized resentment against the market system no program is conceivable.
Humans instinctively resent any deviation from originary reciprocity. But in the past, right up to WWII, even the freest society took for granted that such deviations were not only necessary but ethically justified. The US, with the familiar egregious exceptions, had maintained from the outset the outlook that everyone has a right to try to “get ahead” as best he can, and that the successful are entitled to the fruit of their efforts. This is still largely the case in practical reality, even in that of the intelligentsia, who virtually never renounce their own privileges, notably tenure, even when they denounce them. But le ver est dans le fruit—the ethic that justified inequality has been rejected by virtually the entire intellectual class. The natural bent of the intelligentsia is to follow victimary logic wherever it leads, and one must be thankful for rare exceptions, such as Obama’s assassination program. But the exception only proves the rule. Only the victimary diehards oppose these assassinations, but the logic of the diehards reigns everywhere else. Thus the assassinations have become a discovery procedure for the last “instincts” not eroded by the victimary, instincts such as might be aroused, for example, in an everyday liberal when he is truly and not merely metaphorically “mugged by reality.”
The death penalty is an excellent example of the postwar triumph of elites over the “ordinary” people such as myself who think that murderers, at least the most egregious subset of these, should die for their crimes. It has always seemed to me that a society that is too squeamish to carry out the death penalty will prove in the long term incapable of defending itself. Once more, and hardly by coincidence, it is the anti-intellectual Rick Perry who stands out as an unapologetic defender of the death penalty. Just expressing my full agreement with Perry that one who commits an aggravated murder deserves to be executed will surely shock many of my readers. The opposition of victimary thinking to the death penalty is simple; once arrested, the criminal becomes a victim at the hand of the state, as for example in the book/film In Cold Blood. Thus it is no surprise that “life sentences” too are becoming a rarity in many European countries. One might wonder by this logic what gives us the right to punish criminals at all; but we should be thankful for the remnants of pre-victimary “instinct” that keep criminals off the streets.
Nor am I suggesting that these “remnants” are about to disappear. The world order still functions pretty well. What is ominous, and what fuels the Cassandra-like meditations of a Mark Steyn, to cite the wittiest example, is the sense that this order requires more in its self-defense than being ready to defend it when the chips are down; by that time, the bet will already have been lost. It suffices that a few too many decisions be given over to victimary thinking to stifle domestic growth and international self-confidence. I have no need here to argue specific cases; I simply note that for members of the intellectual class, whose influence on national policy has never been greater, the default position today is not to follow one’s interest but to stop and ask what victims following one’s interest might possibly make.
Why blame it all on the Nazis? On purely pragmatic grounds, this specific historical attribution—as opposed, for example, to an “organic” Spenglerian model of the inevitable decline and death of civilizations—permits a certain degree of optimism. Such optimism is expressed, for example, in my colleague Raoul Eshelman’s esthetic of performatism. The ineffably silly Inglourious Basterds by the often brilliantly silly Quentin Tarantino is perhaps the most hopeful filmic reference in this context, one that may be said to serve as a counterweight to the beautiful 1959 Resnais-Duras film Hiroshima mon amour, to which these Chronicles have often referred. Resnais’ film teaches us a lesson of love rather than victimage, exalting the heroine’s love for a Nazi soldier not out of perversity but because now that we have won the war it is the losers we must learn to love. The fact that the evils perpetrated by these losers are nowhere mentioned in the film should not be taken to imply that these evils are being denied or even neglected, merely that as a consequence of our victory we should consider that the losers have been purged of their sins and that it is now time to start over.
The position of this film in Resnais’ oeuvre after Nuit et brouillard, which brought footage of the Nazi camps to the general attention of European audiences for the first time, suggests his dissatisfaction with the limits of the victimary paradigm. Nuit et brouillard is a straightforward documentary, couched in terms of “man’s inhumanity to man,” that never mentions the word “Jew”—already a sign of the ambivalence of the benefits that the Jews would reap from their ordeal in the postwar world. Resnais at first considered and then renounced making a similar film about the destruction of the Japanese cities, pointing out that it had already been done. Thus Hiroshima, written by Marguerite Duras, arguably France’s greatest postwar writer, exploits the possibility of embodying and enacting reconciliation in a fictional narrative. Because the violence the film commemorates was, whether or not justified—and the film never offers a judgment on Truman’s decision—perpetrated against the losers of the war, our natural compassion for the victims, evoked in great detail in the film’s opening “documentary” section, is not conflicted.
But compassion for losers is a short step away from indignation that “losers” exist under any circumstances and from the passion to compensate them for their “loss,” however remotely it can be blamed on the “winners.” Hiroshima mon amour, like Girard’s work in another context, is one of the high points of postmodernism, but it is indeed postmodern, and qui dit postmoderne dit victimaire. We love Hiroshima because it is a place of martyrdom, which unlike Auschwitz, a place of massacre that cannot be “loved” in any sense, converts originally aggressive enemies to martyrs and thereby cleanses them of their sins in starting the war, while emphasizing to us, if not our guilt, at least our complicity in the violence, however necessary, that ended it. One may even find in the cleansing by association that the heroine’s relationship with the Japanese man (whose family was killed by the bomb) provides to her dalliance with the German soldier a metaphor for the Franco-German amity that would become the core of “Europe”—a theme that, not coincidentally, is central to Girard’s last important book, Achever Clausewitz.
In contrast, I don’t think it is necessary to analyze in detail Inglourious Basterds, whose title’s very aggression toward correct spelling corresponds nicely to Eshelman’s figure of the deliberately self-centralizing performatist author, less a throwback to the classical author-subject than an antithesis to the self-denying author of postmodernism. In this film, the Jews destroy the Nazis, so there’s no more need to stop writing poetry and living and “oppressing” after Auschwitz. But the very clownishness of this, as of most performatist works, makes it difficult to perceive it as a veritable challenge to the victimary, let alone, as Raoul likes to predict, its heir apparent. It is certainly at least as probable that the esthetic productions of post-postmodern performatism are less harbingers of a new dawn than compensatory starbursts in an enduring victimary night. The fact that performatism is primarily a European mode may reflect a genuine revolt against a level of victimary thought more stifling than in the US, but one may just as easily see it as a form of gallows humor. It will probably take History a while to sort this out.
There is nothing terribly difficult to understand in the postwar triumph of the victimary. The moral model has always been with us and our resentment has always been triggered by its violation. What is new is that resentment, which Nietzsche associated with the Jews, given their political powerlessness or “secondarity,” but which he would have done better to attribute to the anti-Semites’ envy of the Jews’ indelible cultural firstness, has come to be accepted as prima facie evidence of injustice, provided it be collective and not individual, that is, provided it reflect a social condition that can be called one of discriminatory inferiority. Once a claim to victimage has been substantiated, the Nazi-Jew paradigm is activated. The traditional ethical presumption that all other things being equal, the status quo is justified gives way to the opposite presupposition that any form of “domination” is in principle illegitimate, and that evidence for “domination” may be provided by collective resentment of the victims themselves or those who arrogate to themselves the role of their spokesmen. In the case of the environment, for example, “Nature” itself is deemed “our” victim. Nature as a whole or in part is the ideal victim; lacking a voice of its own, its victimary qualities are available to the vicarious resentment of all.
What argument can prove that one’s own existence and even one’s “privilege” is worthy of defense? How does one argue with someone who is convinced that his life and that of the entire human race is a blight on our planet and on nature as a whole?
The original precondition for the victimary virus was the predominant position of its carriers. Only the most powerful society could invent the ultimate weapon or the most monstrous policy of inhumanity. The Rwanda massacres killed more persons per diem than the gas chambers, but bloodlust and machetes do not mark a new phase in history and scarcely even constitute an indictment of hierarchy: change a few parameters, and the Tutsis would be slaughtering the Hutus. “Eliminatory” antisemitism and the Nazi death apparatus that implemented it are horrors that can attend only the highest civilization.
The West’s military and economic predominance under the aegis of what was once called Pax Americana has given it the breathing room to cultivate its victimary visions. But no law of nature guarantees that this luxury will last forever. We are not the only humans on the planet. There are forces in the world increasingly unafraid to take on Western Civilization in its victimary phase, societies that unapologetically find violent domination normal behavior and see White Guilt as a problem for “whites” alone. That today the natural instinct of the West, so obsessed with rooting out the least trace of discrimination in its own bailiwick, is to make excuses for these societies and show tolerance to their often murderous traditions is perhaps the most ominous trend of all.