In a recent piece in the National Review “Corner,” Victor Davis Hanson points out, a propos of the Ferguson incident, that the US is ceasing to obey the rule of law. Entitling his column “Living Out Critical Legal Theory,” he suggests that this theory provides the ideological basis for dismissing our entire constitutional process as a facade disguising the self-interest of privileged classes and races. Hanson considers the core value affirmed by this critique to be equality: a law that leads to results in conflict with universal equality is illegitimate regardless of its constitutional and jurisprudential credentials. Thus increasingly, in Ferguson and elsewhere, respect for the law and its formal procedures is subordinated to doing the right thing.
But the idea that I find of the greatest importance in this discussion is absent from Hanson’s writing, as from that of other conservatives who have reacted negatively to these “progressive” policies: the notion of the victimary. What drives such ideologies as critical race/legal theory or the neo-feminist ideology that might just as well be called “critical gender theory” is not simply a demand for “equality”: it is postmodern victimary ideology. The perspective I have defended in these Chronicles is that the presiding ideology of the Left today was shaped by the Holocaust and that all human interactions are assimilated to it: individuals are identified with groups that can be categorized as collective victims and that very fact makes their cause worthy of support. Hanson’s examples—Ferguson, young illegals at the border—do not support the ideal of abstract equality as the basis of political action, but that of righting the wrongs of victimization. Increasingly one need only know to what group the parties belong to know on which side justice purportedly lies; whence the increasingly common association, no questions asked, of “white” with “privilege” and “racism,” and conversely, the currency of objectively paranoid notions such as the “war on women.”
What is targeted in all these cases of “hegemony” or “domination” is not simple inequality but the quality, always difficult to assert openly in a democracy, of firstness. Since the onset of the affirmative action era after the great civil rights victories of the 1960s, no “objective” criterion for superior status is spared the victimary critique if it has “disparate impact” on victim groups. By assimilating firstness to “privilege,” the victimary critique attacks the meritocracy as a de facto aristocracy; groups that do well on tests are assimilated to hereditary nobles whose privileges depend on birth rather than personal achievement.
The difference between opposing the excessive imposition of “equality” and the insistence on the rights of firstness in the face of victimary resentment is that the latter insists on an essential and misunderstood element of positive anthropology, whereas merely criticizing the leveling effect of “opposing inequality” reflects a generally market-oriented (or “freedom”-oriented) political philosophy that does not in itself explain and justify what social value is being opposed to “equality.”
A good place to begin the formulation of theoretical positions concerning the relative weight of equality and firstness is John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, which I discussed notably in Chronicle 322 (“John Rawls’ Originary Theory of Justice”). Although Rawls has often been criticized from the conservative perspective for his “collectivist” understanding of justice, I think he should be given credit for formulating the first theory of human social organization that attempts to articulate the moral model of reciprocal exchange, as inaugurated in the originary event by the exchange of signs, with what we call firstness. This contrasts with the “utilitarian calculus” of the greatest good for the greatest number, which can be made to justify moral abominations in which a minority of “scapegoats” is made to suffer for the benefit of the majority.
The problem with Rawls is not the priority he gives to reciprocity, which is indeed the foundation of human morality. Whatever differences may be tolerated among humans, they exist upon a background of moral equality as established in the originary event; language exists only on the presumption that all speakers are equally able to participate in the conversation around the sacred object. But not only must the originary linguistic-representational act have been inaugurated by one or more individuals rather than by the group acting spontaneously as a whole—as though its unity as a community were established prior to the existence of humanity itself—firstness as thus exemplified remains the mode of all human innovation. That is, Rawls’ “original position” is in effect a theistic scheme, however “secularly” conceived, in which firstness is assigned by a force external to the group itself; whether we call this force “God” or consider it to be exercised by a “thought experiment” is immaterial.
Rawls’ point is, of course, to insist on the fundamental nature of the moral equality that is the precondition as well as the product of language/representation. But this equality once established, human difference cannot for all that be understood, even in a first approximation, as merely arbitrary; it is the historical product of millennia of human initiative. It is to be remarked that Rawls’ schema, taken at face value, makes no judgment about the nature of the inequalities it permits, merely suggesting that the individuals invited to participate in the lottery behind the “veil of ignorance” will presumably not wish to include roles such as slavery that would make human life not worth living. But such judgments are historically determined; slavery would not have been considered unacceptable in antiquity, when it was the basis of the economy and the alternative was generally annihilation.
My claim is not that “firstness” abolishes or transcends morality, but, on the contrary, that its defense cannot be given within the moral paradigm since its differentiation is not part of the moral model and is in fact (in the originary scene) abolished by it. The point is not that our gifts and privileges are in reality as arbitrarily assigned as the results of a lottery, but that the distribution of these gifts and privileges, however “deserved,” ultimately depends on their contribution to the society as a whole. Society’s inevitable imperfections proceed not from our “immoral” refusal to accept the perfect reciprocity of the moral model but from the necessity of integrating into this model the firstness of innovations and assertions of power in the absence of an a priori ethical imperative analogous to moral equality that would regulate the privileges of firstness.
All of this might seem academic, but it is directly relevant to the question of “inequality” raised by contemporary progressivism. It is one thing to defend privilege in abstract terms as necessary to improving the lot of the least fortunate, etc., and another to defend the rights of firstness. Firstness is the means whereby new ideas and inventions become available to the social order; in the form of leadership, firstness is the source of nearly all decisions that concern the interests of a given human group. To speak of firstness merely in terms of privilege and inequality is to confuse its reward with its essence, as though an economic unit, whether a corporation or a nation, could be defined merely by its distribution of wealth and power rather than by its contribution to the overall human economy.
Even if a strict meritocracy were substituted for the Rawlsian lottery, the point would be missed that what is important about human society is integrating the new rather than managing the old. Making decisions means making new decisions. Although the need for constant innovation has only become salient since the Industrial Revolution, the old hierarchies too were reflections of firstness as innovation. The domination of traditional society by ritual reflects the glorification of firstness in the few instances in which it truly transformed the social order. Religious institutions worship the eternal in the context of historical revelations, which should be understood as the most significant examples of firstness in preindustrial society.
To return to the original point of this Chronicle, it is not enough to critique the excesses of egalitarianism, which is never, when closely examined, based on a consistent notion of human equality. What we can begin to call the sickness of today’s West is less an imposition of egalitarianism than an increasingly obtrusive denial of firstness.
This understanding of the victimary was at the outset a point in its favor. A genuine attempt at leveling (as communism at least pretended to be) would require the undoing of market society. In contrast, the victimary does not disturb the reality of most hierarchical relationships, even as it rejects them in principle. It attacks rather the principle of objective evaluation by asserting the abstract principle of group equivalence. The problem is not the Rawlsian hierarchy but the unequal distribution of its privileges among ascriptive, and above all, racial groups. This allows a great deal of fuss to made about the lower levels of administrative hierarchies and various symbolic points concerning the distribution of marks of prestige, without in principle posing major obstacles to the administration and promotion of innovation in the economy at large. One might even argue that the rejection of “objective” criteria such as aptitude tests is in fact a stimulus to genuine creativity.
The argument in favor of the victimary as it has existed in different forms since WWII, and notably since the 1960s, when the focus on de jure civil rights gave way to the era of affirmative action is that, at the expense of a moderate demoralizing effect on the “privileged,” it has permitted the most important aspects of firstness to maintain themselves in postwar market society. The “progressives,” if they could restrain their moralistic insistence on “social justice,” could point out that their insistence on catering to the resentments of those groups who, with whatever justification, consider themselves aggrieved calms the most likely sources of disorder and thereby allows the rest of the economy to continue to function.
Thus a reasoned critique of the evolution of the victimary into victimocracy requires not a counter-accusation in terms of “injustice,” but a demonstration that this evolution has come to pose a danger to the functioning of liberal democracy in the US and elsewhere. This must be done on two fronts: the internal and the external.
On the domestic front, where the Obama administration claims it wishes to concentrate its forces, the economy has been sluggish, participation in the workforce remains historically low, and the regulatory apparatus of the state has encroached considerably on the everyday freedoms of the population—a trend that, to be fair, did not begin with Obama, but which his administration has both accelerated and, backed by an ideologically allied media, implemented in an increasingly arrogant manner. Similar points could be made about most other Western countries, and about the European Union.
But it increasingly appears that the most serious problem is that posed by the international situation. The current administration openly rejects the idea that the US has a national mission of international firstness analogous to that of Israel of old in the religious sphere. We no longer see ourselves as a city on a hill, a light unto the nations. This makes it impossible to conceive a coherent, self-confident foreign policy, since beyond a narrowly defined requirement of self-defense, it would be arrogant for the US to propose for itself any global role other than that defined for it by the “international community.” This “leading from behind,” based on a victimary understanding of the West and its American leadership, has now permitted the unexpected rise of the Islamic State, which may sooner than is generally thought pose a real threat to Western hegemony and even to “civilization as we know it.”
The critique of these victimary policies provides an opportunity to sketch out a political ethic derived from the originary hypothesis, one that asserts both the priority of the moral model of universal reciprocity and the needs of firstness. These two principles may be defined most succinctly as morality and ethics, and correspond, with some looseness, to Bergson’s two sources of morality and religion, his “closed” and “open” moral imperatives.
Clearly the survival of Western civilization as a whole is prerequisite to any specific adjustments within its component societies. The current challenge to this civilization from Muslim jihadism, whose potency we are only now coming to appreciate, is a phenomenon quite different from the internal challenges formerly posed by Nazism and Communism. Whole generations of young Arabs and other Muslims are willing to sacrifice their safety and even their lives for the sake of imposing the Muslim umma on the entire world. The tawdriness of the Islamist civilization being touted to replace our own exposes a degree of decadence that commentators such as Mark Steyn and “Spengler” (David P. Goldman) are right to find ominous. We are challenged by a model of civilization that excels only in a fanatical barbarism that conceives of all human beings, jihadists included, as things in the service of Allah. But the attractiveness of this ideology to large swaths of the Islamic population, and increasingly to converts among disaffected Western groups, suggests that the West’s attempts, colonial, post-colonial, and “global,” to spread the benefits of its social order to the “third world” as well as to its internal “minorities” have so far produced less than stellar results.
The contrast between Western civilization and the jihadist ideal of a universal Caliphate must be understood from the standpoint of the sacred firstness discovered/invented by the Hebrews in forming the first nation. Christian universalism, which derives directly from the Hebrew, is based on a covenant with God that embodies the subordination of national firstness to universal moral values. In contrast, the universal jihad, the struggle for the Caliphate, is tribal. These young barbarians are risking their lives for the sake of what Voegelin called a compact society. No surprise, then, that at the heart of their project is a Jew-hatred that goes beyond anything called antisemitism in the West, or that Israel is the primary target of their dreams of destruction. The one element not taken over from Western antisemitism, the “racial” component that justified the Nazis and their friends in declaring the Jews strangers to the Western civilization that in fact they founded, is echoed in the surrealistic Palestinian claims that the Jews never inhabited Jerusalem and the land of Israel.
The West will not simply collapse of itself, but its demographic deficit, particularly in Europe where Muslim immigration continues to replace the autochthonous population, is an inexorable form of suicide. One wonders how much longer the European members of NATO will contribute any useful services to the defense of Western civilization. Turkey, which Ataturk tried to make into a secular European-style country, has turned resolutely to Anatolian Islamism. Is it sufficient to blame Erdogan for this? Is his own increasing islamization not rather a sign of the waning attractiveness of the Western model? Steyn’s idea of a West defended by “America alone,” from which he recently seems to be withdrawing his hopes, could be refuted only by a wholesale renewal scarcely imaginable in most European countries. Can Israel and the United States hold out under these circumstances?
The nation-state, the modern version of the nation as first created by the Hebrews, has performed great works, but in its Christian homeland, as well as in other parts of the world such as Latin America, it seems, demographically and spiritually, to have lost its élan vital. What this begins to suggest, even more clearly than the horrors of the World Wars and the Holocaust, is that the monotheistic foundation of the nation in a covenant with a moral, universal One God may carry with it too much baggage. The Islamic Allah, whose identity with the God of the Testaments is meaningful from the Judeo-Christian, but not really from the Islamic perspective, may be the “stronger horse” because the position of Islam as the outsider looking in on the dominant world civilization—the Romans then, the Americans now—empowers him to have not merely a “chosen people” to proclaim his glory to the world but a militant army licensed to take any liberties necessary in order to establish his rule, be it lying and hypocrisy or the crassest forms of violence.
We can still hope that the current triumphs of jihadism will serve us as a wake-up call rather than the harbinger of an inconceivably disastrous new dark age. That the West, with few exceptions, is increasingly less able to affirm its own superiority and the importance of its own survival is a troublesome sign. Fundamental religious categories are not as arbitrary as our contemporary secularists would like to think. It is not “orientalist” to point out the failure of Islam thus far to adapt, despite many efforts throughout the 20th century, to the national phenomenon, and consequently to the modern world of science, technology, and the market economy. On the contrary, the lives of many thousands of Muslims today are wholly devoted, often unto death, to the destruction of modern civilization, and their passive sympathizers run into the tens of millions. Boko haram: “fake” Western learning is forbidden, says it all.
It seems obvious that when the internal politics of liberal democracy have become so divisive that the critics of firstness are tempted to form de facto alliances with the system’s jihadist enemies, it is time to take a clear-eyed look at what systems we are being asked to choose between. That Western feminists are so little concerned with combating the deliberate humiliation of women in those cultures hostile to the West is a symptom of this. The recent discovery of a Muslim-led gang culture in Rotherham, England that involved the rape and sexual abuse of over 1400 young Christian women over a period of some sixteen years is an example closer to home than the kidnappings in Nigeria. (See http://www.nationalreview.com/article/386651/feminists-failure-rotherham-ian-tuttle for details.)
In the end, if modern Western liberal-democratic market civilization is not to perish, it must not fear to affirm the demonstrated superiority of its values to those of alternative systems of governance, and by so doing, affirm the central importance of firstness in everything that the moral model permits humanity to accomplish. Multiculturalism can be a valid ideal only when it does not compromise the basic civilizational values of the including nation. The perspective that views all group differences in victimary terms eats away at the fabric of national solidarity and suggests to those observing the West from without that the rigid forms of tribal life offer the only alternative to endless conflict and demoralization.
Antisemitism has been from the beginning a flaw in the Western system, blaming the Jews for a firstness indispensable to the nation-states that constitute it. The Holocaust, rather than putting an end to antisemitism, gave it new roots in the universal-tribal Islamic culture that now, once again, rivals the great civilization of the West.
Firstness, nationhood, covenant—these are categories inseparable from the Hebrew contribution to Western civilization. To fail to recognize and affirm these values is to do no less than acquiesce in the decline and fall of this civilization.