Readers of these Chronicles know that I have often spoken about the victimary nature of the postmodern era. No doubt victimary tendencies were present from the outset. The birth of the human, according to GA’s originary hypothesis, was marked by a denial of the absolute nature of pecking-order hierarchy and the institution of fundamental reciprocal equality under a communal sacred authority. It is inherent in the human condition that any hint of another’s advantage arouses resentment, which is nothing other than the feeling of being a victim. That since WWII these resentful tendencies have become the dominant ones is nonetheless a radical historical change. From providing a correction to the self-enhancing nature of firstness they come to deny its legitimacy altogether.
It is not easy to explain to those of younger generations that in the pre-Holocaust era the victim’s role was typically stigmatized. Indeed, when the term “Holocaust” came into common usage in the 1970s, thirty years after the events, it marked the beginning of a new era in which victimhood acquired a privileged, not to say sacred status. Quite a contrast from the contemptuous description of the Jewish victims in the immediate postwar years as “going to their death without a fight like sheep led to slaughter,” etc.
Since that time, the persecutor-victim relation, always an essential element of Christianity and already of Judaism (remember the prophets’ tirades about the “widow and orphan”), has become the dominant paradigm in social relations, steadily winning each of its battles against the “normal,” at first, against open injustice and prejudice (Civil Rights), then against the presumed residues of past injustice and in favor of groups who for whatever reason do less well than others (Affirmative Action), then for marginal stigmatized groups even in the face of age-old and apparently biologically based custom (gay liberation and marriage). I used the term victimary thinking to refer to this trend. But a few months ago I was struck by the stronger term coined by Adam Katz: victimocracy. The 2008 election of our first—literally—African-American president (who had to be a Democrat—Colin Powell would not have produced this effect), also not coincidentally the most “academic” president since Woodrow Wilson, had been touted as ushering in a new post-racial era. Might this not signal the “millennial” overcoming of the victimary that I had erroneously seen as arriving in the wake of 9/11? But it now seems that this proof that the American public is less racially prejudiced than in the past must be seen less as a sign of the end of racism, than, ironically enough, a signal to the victimary world to step up its campaigns, not merely out of cynical calculation but with the intuition that this election was not a demonstration that American society no longer has victims but that now the victims are in charge.
Of course, if you will pardon the obvious pun, such matters are too complex to be understood in simple terms of black and white. But Adam’s blog makes a point worth pondering. The Obama administration would seem to mark an at least tentative tipping point where victimary tendencies whose more radical expressions had been confined to universities, journalism, and the media have become mainstream and have pushed the “old normal” into a defensive posture. The victims are no longer trying to “win a place at the table”; they have done away with the table. The erstwhile “majority” term “white male” has begun to bear a certain stigma, an extension of the one attached to “dead white males” in the university setting. The decline of Europe and the withdrawal of the US from a self-confidently dominant position in world affairs are both cause and effect of this development, one that Obama’s foreign policy very much reflects, but they are only corollaries of the key event of the last half of the 20th century.
Crucial is the failure of a great historical experiment: the fall of the Soviet Union gave the civilized world convincing proof that we can no longer look forward to “socialism” in any form to resolve the “contradictions” of “capitalism” and restore in utopian terms our originary equality. But to acknowledge that we are not working toward a final egalitarian paradise, that we have come to the end of eschatology (which is really the point of Francis Fukuyama’s oft-misunderstood thesis), is to accept that victims will always be with us. This allows historical victimology to evolve into post-historical, anthropological victimocracy.
The basis of post-Holocaust victimary thought had first appeared to be that domination on the Nazi-Jew model must be abolished as the mark of the oppressor, leaving only a “Rawlsian” residue of authority that is beneficial to the society as a whole. But if domination can never be abolished, then it must be controlled, morally, culturally, and to the maximum extent politically (if not fully economically) by the victims themselves and their agents. In victimocracy, domination by and/or for victims will always remain necessary. This is no longer simple reversal, using coercion punctually to right some wrong—as Affirmative Action was supposed to do. Now the coercion is exercised on a quasi-permanent basis by those whose power comes from their ability to designate themselves and/or their allies as victims, and whose status depends on being able to condemn and punish, but never of course to end, victimage.
As day to day relationships between “minorities” and the majority population have generally improved (and Obama’s election has certainly contributed to this), the political class and victimary ideologues continue to complain of racism and oppression. The society’s institutions are increasingly focused on the victimary as the dominant moral priority. Objective criteria that respect the principle of firstness (meritocracy, competence, the work ethic) are rejected as biased if their application shows “disparate impact” on identifiable victim groups. Whole areas of scholarship such as “critical race theory” have grown up to track “micro-aggressions” and other non-obvious traces of victimization that must be demonstrated to permit continuation of the moral and material privileges of victimary status. In a world where we no longer expect moral reciprocity to be ever achieved, the victim’s role is that of a non-agent whom the agent’s firstness necessarily exploits and injures unless his actions are uniquely geared to promoting the victim’s interests.
The term “minority” has become a code word for the favorable moral status accorded to those recognized as victims and by extension, those whose efforts are devoted to them. There is no incentive to join the “majority” or “mainstream” when this involves not merely loss of affirmative action-like privileges (which may be considerable) but of the immense prestige of moral innocence. If human firstness is fundamentally evil, then there is a considerable premium on being able to describe oneself as its passive victim; such persons are alone of moral value, and are encouraged to consider themselves entitled to whatever compensation can be given them.
Inequality will always be with us, hence it will always have to be denounced, and its “Rawlsian” justification as making everyone better off, although implicit in the “social contract,” becomes less salient than the denunciation that perpetuates, sincerely or hypocritically, its bad conscience. That this denunciation goes hand in hand with an outrageous culture of bling, of billionaires buying up real estate, even governing major cities (Bloomberg) and countries (Berlusconi), merely adds a demonstration, so far from everyday life as to generate less rather than more resentment, of the eternal necessity of inequality and hence of the victimary. Victimocracy as a worldly religion has taken over from Hegel’s old idea of religion as the “inverted world” in which worldly injustices are resolved. In the absence of an apocalyptic ideology such as Marxism (or Islamism, for that matter, which may perhaps best be understood as the only militant eschatology remaining as a rival to more sophisticated, “civilized” victimocracy), maintaining the salience and legitimacy of victimary resentment can begin to be understood as the reflection of a permanent human condition.
To give an example close to home of a benign but real form of victimocracy: a few years ago the UCLA French department hired a prominent scholar of French literature outside of France (Francophonie) to both chair the department and develop a specialty that had been neglected and unstaffed for several years. She brought in a second specialist, the field expanded, and now we have 4.5 specialists in Francophone literature out of 12 faculty (there are no more than 2 in any other specialty). More significantly, 75% or more of our entering graduate students choose Francophone literature as their specialty; postcolonial studies have a cachet (and a presumed advantage in the job market) that is rivaled only by other victim-oriented studies such as that of gender. Rare is the student who, as was universal up to fifteen or twenty years ago, enters the department because she (occasionally, he) is interested in a particular “century” of French literature. It is striking, and I think exemplary in an increasingly victimocratic world, how quickly la Francophonie, which is objectively a modest component of a millennium-old transnational literature, went from being respected as a field worthy of interest in itself to a hegemonic domain that has largely reduced the others to ancillary status. Similar (although generally less radical) developments have transformed other formerly “Eurocentric” departments—and those that cannot do so (such as our local Germanic department) risk being decimated.
Another Chronicle would be required to do justice to the extension of victimocracy to the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Many environmentalists dogmatically oppose the use of fossil fuels and any form of “development.” The logic behind such beliefs, leaving aside the undecided question of “global warming” (now referred to euphemistically as “climate change”), is that we must not make irreversible changes in the environment however far off their effects might be. The planet and “Nature” as a whole present a permanent victimary obstacle to human activity. In principle human inequalities had been justified by the principle of firstness: that hierarchical superiority leads to an ultimate sharing of the advantages it procures, the model of reciprocal exchange being always the ultimate basis of human morality. The human model is one of indefinite advance, although not necessarily of visible “progress.” The victimary model, in contrast, sees all action as ultimately zero-sum: exploitation and domination. In this perspective, for which the only moral actions are those that undo previous actions, the exploitation of nature, as exemplified by the extraction of energy from the earth, is the very model of evil, since however much of the natural resource there remains, what has been extracted can never be returned. If the 1970s were haunted by the Club of Rome’s apocalyptic—and wildly inaccurate—predictions of early resource exhaustion, today it is the principle that matters. It sometimes even seems that the humanity-nature paradigm, where agency is unproblematically on one side only and the “victim” is wholly passive and innocent, has replaced the Nazi-Jew paradigm of the earlier phase of the postmodern. The Jews were agents deprived of agency; victims today tend to be assimilated to nature, or to small children, as though they lack (mature) agency altogether.
Today the extraction of the energy needed to run the economy is increasingly stigmatized and restricted in the “blue” parts of the country, leaving “red” states such as North Dakota to profit from the great energy boom recently made available to the US by fracking. This gives partial confirmation to what I understand to be Adam’s thinking on the matter: that the victimary cannot be overcome on its own terrain, which is now increasingly that of all “official” discourse, and that only withdrawal into local, more or less autonomous (if not autarkic) communities can permit the continued flourishing of the economic and technical activities that maintain modern prosperity. North Dakota would be in this perspective a living example; presumably those engaged in mining are not overly concerned with victimary niceties.
Yet such largely male communities are not complete social orders either. Can the emergence of “pockets of resistance” to victimary values be a significant source of renewal? Victimocracy still “works,” after all, otherwise we could not continue implementing it. Can anything less than a catastrophe force the US and the “West” to defend the superiority of its values—or demonstrate to its detriment that this superiority is no longer real?
A powerful argument in favor of affirmative action is that most jobs can be done more or less satisfactorily by people far from the most competent or highly qualified. The question is how much relative inefficiency a society can tolerate for the sake of maintaining its victimary focus. Is the decline of whole areas of the humanities a permanent damage to civilization? or does it just signify an ironically indirect return to the old standard, where a small educated elite have a deep knowledge of the “classics,” however defined, and the mass, who used to be frankly illiterate but who now attend on the average “some college,” acquire a smattering of “classical” and somewhat more victimary knowledge about literature and the arts. Only History, in deciding among our various social experiments, can provide, not always at the pace we would like, practical answers to such questions.
My final point may seem in partial contradiction to what proceeds, but the central ethical principle of GA as a “scenic” anthropology (as distinct from its theory of morality) is that in theoretical reflection we should have more confidence in the collective human scene than in our personal version of it. Morality is one, but if everyone’s morality derives from the same source, there can be no self-justifying moral positions. Victimocracy involves a great deal of nonsense, but as Voltaireans are happy to tell us, all religions and comparable belief systems contain similar irrationalities, which reflect the contrast between the urgency of establishing collective standards and the impossibility of determining to general satisfaction the “best” standard (a phenomenon well known to users of keyboards and Microsoft Word).
The victimary denies the virtues of human firstness, in its extreme forms denies even the moral value of the existence of humanity, the scourge of Gaia. And yet we still have Art, in an undiminished variety of forms. Our attempt to persuade others of what our esthetic sense tells us is beautiful drives creativity in all the arts, from the most vulgar to the most sublime. Popular culture thrives on victimary works, a still-popular archetype for which is the 19th century melodrama where the invincible hero defends widow, orphan, and (pretty) maiden from the depredations of the mustachioed villain (who today usually works for a “corporation”). But, outside of the airy and already strangely archaic pronouncements of “French theory” about such things as the “scriptable” text, is there truly a victimary esthetic?
Art cannot exist without the affirmation of its firstness, its unique local superiority to other claims on our attention. The humblest YouTube video and Instagram photograph pay homage to the principle of firstness, which is inherent in art because it is inherent in the scenic nature of human shared attention and the culture that emerged from it. Once we remind ourselves of the constancy of the human throughout its various avatars, we can allow ourselves the faith that victimocracy is not a simple denial of human creativity but ultimately a means, however apparently perverse, of stimulating it. We can only hope that its excesses do not provoke one of those catastrophes that have so often ended the great cultural enterprises of the past.