If you Google victimary you will find that virtually every use of the term can be traced to the Anthropoetics website, mostly to these Chronicles. (Victimocracy has a somewhat wider range.) But it is not just a matter of the viral quality of a neologism. The fact is that it is the notion of the victimary, not just its name, that is absent from contemporary political discourse.
I have devoted many of these Chronicles to the victimary and to the White Guilt that drives it, and I don’t want to rehash this material here. It is obvious why the victimary Left, which under Obama more than ever deserves the name of victimocracy, cannot accept the legitimacy of a category that denies its raison d’être. But the lack of more than anecdotal reflection on the victimary by conservatives, despite their sensitivity to the difference between combating discrimination and denouncing “victimization,” deserves comment and correction. Conservatives reject arguments of the “disparate impact” variety, but they fail to remark that seeing every group disparity a priori as a form of victimage is not a tactic but the essence of the contemporary Left, its unique moral argument, which since the fall of the Soviet Union has replaced the Marxist postulate of the historical inevitability of communism.
Blaming the victim is the key polemic accusation of victimary thinking. It participates in that tautological rhetoric that Barthes defined back in 1953 as écriture or “writing” in Le degré zéro de l’écriture, when the important thing was to point out the self-confirming (and thus fundamentally unscientific) nature of scientific socialism as preached by the Communist Party, then and for quite a while afterward the largest party in France and Italy. Écriture referred to a mode of discourse that presupposes what it pretends to assert empirically. This can be done in ways more or less crude, but always fallacious. Blaming the victim is a step up from off the pigs! or haters gotta hate because its presuppositional element doesn’t simply denigrate its opponent; it presupposes rather a two-place structure that would otherwise be problematic. No doubt to call my opponent a “hater” implies a (presumably innocent) object of hatred; even calling him a “pig” implies that his porcine acts have an undeserving object—in a word, a victim. But blaming the victim has the advantage of foregrounding the word victim itself as the necessary element in the binary; and the stigma placed on blaming also makes clear the victimary system’s requirement that we assess an interaction not between two subjects (who would prima facie share responsibility for the outcome) but between an agent and a patient, an oppressor and a victim, only the second of whom can be named explicitly. It is notable, for example, that in the recent denunciations of “sexual assault” in the military and on campus, the “epidemic” nature of which reflects the generosity of the criteria used to determine its prevalence, the perpetrators remain almost entirely implicit. Not only is the idea of due process, innocent until proven guilty, set aside, but what one might expect from those incensed by the prevalence of sexual assault, the desire to punish the guilty, is brought up only in the most general terms, as if the least personification of a perpetrator would be to risk allowing him to bask in the victimary glow that surrounds, for example, the murderers on Death Row. All attention is focused on the victim, the object of outraged sympathy.
Hostility to blaming the victim is morally tautological: if one is a victim devoid of agency then one shouldn’t be blamed. When one is accused of blaming the victim, one is in fact objecting to this unproblematically univocal attribution of victimary status, modeled on the opposition between the Nazis and their (archetypically Jewish) concentration camp prisoners. The idea of blaming the Jews in the gas chamber for their fate arouses the indignation that is the source of the power of “blaming the victim”—and arouses as well the indignation the accusation provokes in those who see through it.
The right resists the victimary, but is reluctant to understand it as such. One continually reads in its critiques that PC operates on the principle that “one must not offend anyone.” Yet this definition is more than half false; one can in fact offend almost anyone so long as that person is not a member of an established victim group. One can insult Christians but not Muslims—all the more when Muslims are slaughtering Christians all over Africa and the Middle East. Those Christians, victims in the normal sense of the term, are not victims in the victimary sense, since they belong to the West’s hegemonic religion. Similarly, one can offend with impunity whites (but not “minorities”), men (but not women), “straights” (but not more exotic sexualities), Jews/Israelis (but not Arabs/Palestinians), and of course, Republicans (but not Democrats). No doubt some observers of PC are more considerate than others of members of the “hegemonic” side of the binary. But there is nothing particularly political about merely being considerate of others; it only begins to be called PC when it is indeed victimary. And what makes it victimary is the unspoken assumption that a given disparity of a victimary group (in income, in representation in a prestigious role, in life expectancy…) is to be blamed on their victimary status, that is, on their oppressors and not on themselves.
One would think that the right could understand the left; know your enemy. But conservative thinkers tend to perceive the left essentially as do-gooder totalitarians. Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008) emphasized the parallel between the current left and not communism but fascism, which was after all a self-declared form of socialism, opposed to the traditional European monarchist-landowning right. The Left is seen as the party of governmental authority, which it would bend to the end of “social justice” by restricting the freedoms of “capitalists,” the 1%, etc. The Left’s style of government involves increasing taxes, creating greater dependency through welfare benefits, decreasing the role of the military, increasing regulation of the economic sector, and today, drastically reducing the role of American power on the world stage, while increasing its power base by letting in more potentially Democratic Latin American immigrants, providing free contraceptives to young women, etc. But the single rule of thumb of progressive ideology that in principle determines all these policies is that when groups are unequal on some point of comparison and the inferior one has historically been less privileged, then the inferior one collectively and its members taken individually are the victims of the superior. The contrast with Marxism, whose political discrediting should not be taken as a refutation of all its insights (as residual European post-Marxists recognize better than Americans), means that whereas even today one defines the European left in ideological terms, the American Left is just seen as “progressive,” as indeed it sees itself.
“Progressive” policy, one might reply, whether it resembles fascism, socialism-communism, or both, is victim-focused by definition; the Left is the party of the less fortunate, tending to look with more sympathy than conservatives on those who claim to need help—or in GA terms, emphasizing the reciprocal moral model over firstness. But to understand the process of victimary thinking is to become sensitive to its radicalization, which began with the New Left in the 1960s and reached its critical mass after the end of the Cold War. What was in the days of Roosevelt and Truman a tendency within the liberal-democratic political polity that implicitly realized that it would be checked by opposing forces and therefore could not avoid compromising its ideological purity, has gradually become a dogma—one that strangely complements the very different dogma espoused by radical Islam in considering those who disagree with it as not merely mistaken, but as Charles Krauthammer puts it, “evil.”
To call the political motivation of the Left victimary is to recognize, not that the Left has a coherent ideology on the model of Marxism, but that it has something yet more powerful, a single dogmatic criterion for resolving all issues of human interaction, a single-valued ethic. Of course as a real-world institution in what is still a democracy, the Democrats cannot act entirely on the basis of this single criterion. But it informs their world-view as a whole and their actions wherever possible. To view the world in victimary terms, with the West and especially the US (and Israel) as the oppressors of the rest, poses a danger to the survival of not only what is left of the post-WWII Pax Americana but the very fabric of Western liberal democracy—modern Western Civilization itself.
IS is merely the most aggressive of a number of radical Islamic movements seeking to impose on the entire world the rule of the one true religion. The beginning of what appears to be a long-term global struggle between Islam(ism) and the West offers an occasion to reflect on the dangers of victimary thinking for us as participants in this contest.
Victimary thinking is for all but victim groups themselves a product of White Guilt, and for those afflicted by this guilt, strict Salafi Islam offers a refuge from it. The secret of the attractiveness of radical Islam even for those with no desire to saw off heads is that it is the one social form that is totally free of victimary thinking. Someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali is persona non grata in the halls of our universities because she presents herself, however nobly and courageously, as a victim of Islam. Islam has many victims, but it does not admit their seeing themselves as such. The West’s victimary Left respects this. Those whose heads or hands are chopped off, those who are stoned, let alone girls married off before puberty and made to wear niqabs and burkas, are not victims; their punishment or confinement is according to God’s law. And for members of the West’s (non-sexual) victimary groups themselves, the attraction of Islam is even greater; fighting for Islamic world domination is a fitting response for a victim of Western oppression.
Western victimary dogmatism considers criticism of any aspect of Islam as an act of cultural oppression. While it refuses to recognize the nastiness of Islamic radicalism as very much a part of Islam that many otherwise peaceful Muslims are attracted to, it unquestioningly accepts the Palestinians’ victimary status regardless of their violence and refusal to accept Israel.
In contrast with that of the past, today’s renewed European antisemitism is a form of victimary hostility to the West itself. Whereas the Nazis thought to purify Western culture by purging it of Jews, today’s antisemites want to purge the world of Jews because, at a time when Western nationhood is eaten away by White Guilt, they are the last bastion of the national values of Western culture. The current demographic decline of Europe had clear parallels in the “decadence” of the late Roman Empire: many Western nations are not so gradually committing suicide. In contrast, as I pointed out in my previous Chronicle, an Islamic State will have no problem in keeping up the birth rate.
As readers of these Chronicles will recall, the Hebrews as the discoverers/inventors of monotheism are the archetype of firstness in the West. Christianity liberated monotheism from the historical link with the Hebrew nation by relocating firstness in God himself as Jesus, at the cost of making human firstness always problematic.
Today’s Western world seems increasingly to impose a binary moral choice. Victimary thinking is a radical caricature of Christianity that suspects every instance of firstness of being an act of oppression. Islam, in contrast, rejects the very notion of firstness; it presents itself as the timelessly true religion, not a better or more perfected one. More than ever these two symmetrical moralities agree that the Jews, Western culture’s exemplars of firstness in the naked form of historical priority, are the world’s chief source of discord.
Victimary thinking was born in the Holocaust, and now appears to be leading inexorably back to it. Let us not forget that for the Nazis, the Jews were not innocent victims, but the major source of evil in the world—they were the “Nazis.” And now, faced with the innocent followers of Hamas, the Jews in Israel have become the Nazis once again.
But let us not accuse antisemites of blaming the victim. In human interactions between those beyond the age of reason, there are only agents, whose guilt or innocence, wisdom or stupidity, status of victim or oppressor can be determined only after the fact. A word to the wise should suffice.