As Western civilization’s hold on the world becomes more uncertain, victimary thinking, the propensity to consider every human interaction as a confrontation between an oppressor and a victim, increasingly dominates the Western intellectual class with the unexamined fervor of religious dogma. Driven by White Guilt, the victimary is essentially oikophobic, an expression of hostility to one’s own national and civilizational traditions, and a mode of repentance for them.
The worst sin the victimary commit is against their own kind. Their White Guilt can be assuaged only by denouncing their own “privilege” and above all, punishing the slightest deviation from the norm of victimary abjectness in other members of the “majority.” Such behavior differs little in spirit from the Wahhabi imposition of Sharia. If caricaturing “The Prophet” makes one worthy of death, making even the most ambiguously “racist” allusion, for example, to the African origin of HIV, can lose you your job.
The recent misfortunes of Justine Sacco, as cruel as those of the heroine of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu, were described in detail by Jon Ronson in “Feeding Frenzy,” in the February 15 New York Times Magazine. Before leaving on a trip to Africa, Ms. Sacco tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Her point, which she explained to Ronson, and which should be obvious to anyone, was not to affirm, but to mock, the idea that her “white privilege” would protect her from disease. Nevertheless, although only 170 followers initially received her tweet, one or more of them was so offended that they retweeted it to others; the retweets snowballed, and by the time she got off the plane 11 hours later, she had lost her job and acquired the status, which she has apparently retained, of a “racist” Internet pariah.
It is no doubt a small source of hope that the case of Ms. Sacco was seen as sobering enough to merit a sympathetic account in the classic liberal “journal of record.” Yet Ronson could only explain her mass “shaming” as the result of a “desire for approval” among the mutually congratulating shamers. His elision of the specific source of this desire in victimary theology, the White Guilt that her original tweet, alas too obliquely, sought to assuage, uncannily resembles the Administration’s refusal to recognize the comparably theological motivation of the more physical violence carried out by the organization it persists in calling “ISIL.”
For years I have been following with alarm the increasing virulence of the victimary phenomenon that originated in the postwar reaction to the Holocaust. Slavery was an age-old institution, today still part of the social order in the Middle East, and massacres too were nothing new, but this systematic eradication of a population was qualitatively different, and the difference reflected the fact that its victims were the Jews, the unique subjects of historical hatred for their firstness. The Jews had suffered for centuries under Christianity for their role as God’s chosen people, a privilege presumably forfeited in punishment for their “hard-necked” refusal of Jesus’ divinity. But now Hitler decided that Jewish suffering served no useful purpose; rather than bear before Christians the stigma of the “wandering Jew,” the Jews should simply be exterminated. This new, absolute mode of oppression was the source of a new, absolute concept of the victim that, among other things, inspired René Girard to seek in the original inspiration of Christianity the source of a new anthropology.
The victimary has increasingly taken on the attributes of a new theology by espousing an ontology that separates humans into distinct groups that only a supernatural force can bring together: an inverted chosen people of ontologically innocent victims and a sinful “majority” who can at best resist the “privilege” that carries in itself the guilt of oppression. Thus the sin of racism is less discovered than posited as ever-present within the “white” soul. The increasingly popular notion of micro-aggression makes clear that what is important is not the effect of these “aggressions” on their “victims” (although this is by no means the tone of the analyses produced by the proponents of this terminology) but their revelation of traces of racist sinfulness in the souls of the perpetrators. This ineradicable “privilege” characteristic of whites is in principle absent from the souls of other races; blacks, as one still hears a half-century after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, cannot by definition be guilty of racism—just as Palestinian “freedom fighters,” whatever atrocities they commit, cannot be guilty of crimes against Jews.
But the crime of “white privilege,” the local reflection of the overarching and ultimately determining crime of “the West,” has nothing essentially racial about it. It is the crime of firstness. Racial concepts arose in the nineteenth century to explain the vastly different state of civilization on the different continents—one that no amount of honest sympathy for pre-modern cultures can deny. For the environmental causality of Montesquieu’s “climates” they substituted a differential anthropological explanation by the gross characteristics of the different “races.” This was, as we know, science in name only, but the falseness of its biological essentialism in no way reduced the qualitative differences between European civilization and those of most of what became the “colonial” world.
As the fate of The Bell Curve illustrates, any attempt at scientific analysis of differences between human groups, even when it avoids any suggestion that these differences confer a differential moral status, runs up against insuperable moral difficulties. All human beings are part of the human species created by the first sign, founded on the moral equality of all participants, early or late, in language. Some societies, and some groups and individuals within them, display the differential superiority that following Adam Katz I have been calling firstness, the implicit promise of which is that what the first discover or invent will eventually be spread, as was language and culture generally, over the entire population. But total fulfillment of this promise is inevitably deferred. And for the space of this deferral to be preserved requires the members of the “West” or the “majority” to repress any affirmation of their civilizational firstness, such affirmations being seen in our post-Holocaust era as denials of moral reciprocity and thereby of the implicit compact that makes us all human. Yet there is a fine line between respecting the moral equality of all and denying that of one’s own “privileged” group in deference to their “victims.”
Sinners as we all are, a philosophy that purports to find sin only among those whose civilization has proved itself superior in every measurable sense is monstrous. In the guise of maintaining the moral equality of all humans, it denies the value of the firstness that endows human mimesis with the unique creativity that permitted humanity to survive in the first place.
And in particular, it denies the national project of the “first nation,” the Jews. The ostensibly paradoxical complicity between a victimary philosophy that excoriates those who hesitate to wholeheartedly affirm “marriage equality” or to accept that human beings with penises can declare themselves female and use what were formerly women’s toilets, and a social movement that observes the sexual mores of the 7th century Arabian desert, is most simply explicable as an alliance against the Hebrew roots of Western civilization. This is not, I would insist, a wholly negative opposition. Islam is not simply the antithesis of Judeo-Christian Western civilization; it is in its own way, even in its most radical forms, an attempt to preserve its practical achievements by eliminating from it all trace of historical firstness. Thus Islam presents itself not as the “fulfillment” of these earlier religions but as their original, authentic form; dhimmis are “really” misguided Muslims who, unlike the “pagans” of other religions, have adopted distorted versions of the true religion that is Islam.
The Islamic denial of historical firstness offers a religious guarantee to the White Guilt that obsesses the victimary West. More than any other firstness, it is that of the Jews that it denies. Antisemitism in its virulent form had been Christian, not Muslim, for the latter religion, unlike the former, is not obsessed by historical anteriority. But this truth of the past has been superseded in the era of the Jewish State. It may be true that Muslim antisemitism has borrowed its iconography from Europe, that Hitler influenced the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini during his reign—although there is evidence for the claim that the chief influence was in the other direction, and that Hitler’s decision to kill the Jews rather than merely expel them was the result of the Mufti’s hostility to the Zionist implantation in Palestine. (See, for example, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/7056#.VO6y6i4sBAM) In any event, what we now call Islamic “antisemitism” is something quite other than the antisemitism that arose in the 19th century when Christian anti-Judaism morphed into secular hatred for the “international Jewish conspiracy.” What Muslims hate today in Jews is not the historical firstness of their religion, but their firstness as the only truly modern society in today’s Middle East, a phenomenon the Muslims can only explain as a form of Western “colonialism.” Through an irony of history, today Jewish-Hebrew firstness impresses itself with a vengeance on the Islamic world that originally drew strength from its ability to escape its religious embodiment.
Once Israel came into existence, Jews were no longer tolerated anywhere in the Muslim Middle East (Morocco is a partial exception, Persian Iran, curiously, another). Their membership in the Jewish nation made them Israelis by default, members of a rival Caliphate to that which the Islamic State now aspires to become. The vicarious participation of Europeans in Islam’s hostility toward Israel is an expression of their own White Guilt that “incidentally” allows them to rid themselves of the guilt for the Holocaust that led to victimary thinking in the first place—whence their fondness for outlandish comparisons of Israelis to Nazis, comparisons for which the Arabs have at least the excuse of (very loosely) analogous humiliations.
Generative anthropology offers its hypothesis as an intellectual justification for both the moral model of reciprocity that is at the core of our ethical sense and for the necessity of accepting and learning from firstness—an essential yet oft-neglected element of what Girard’s disciples call “mimetic theory.” As they know, human mimesis is more dangerous than its animal version, but because of the human invention of deferral, representation, language, it is also infinitely more inventive. Human progress is built on the certainty that some “disciples” at least, unlike those depicted by the novelists studied in Girard’s Mensonge romantique, will not be content with merely aping their masters’ desires.
Even had the Crusaders 800 years ago been as crudely barbaric as ISIS, that would still provide an argument in favor of a society in advance of its enemy by eight centuries. Recognizing our common propensity for sin is one thing, refusing to recognize that some societies are preferable to others is another. Colonialism was marred by many abuses, but it was neither a wholly cynical nor a wholly maleficent enterprise. The resentment of post-colonial “subalterns,” however much it compels our sympathy, should not be the sole criterion by which to audit the balance-sheet of European colonization. Firstness should be asserted with humility and caution, but it must be asserted; some ideas are better than others, and some social systems are better than others—even if their methods cannot always be applied directly in other places. (And one can make an argument that if George W. Bush had acted with more civilizational self-confidence in Iraq and imposed military order on the civilian population as soon as he had defeated Saddam’s army, the country might well have been stabilized far more effectively, and with far less bloodshed—an accomplishment that could not easily have been undone, as his was, by his successor.)
Victimary thinking, like all dogmas, is a way of maintaining a social order—in particular, of working to mitigate its inevitable tension with the fundamental reciprocity of the moral model. Asserting the universal validity of this model in a world of vast differences of wealth and access to modern technology means finding a way to justify the social order without destroying it, and the victimary seems in the West as good a way as any: just feel guilty and indignantly suppress any suggestion that Western society is an example to the world rather than seething with racial and sexual injustice, and things can go on as they are.
But there are real resentments out there, much deeper than those within American society, and the pacifying virtues of victimary theology will not suffice to defend our civilization against those who, from envy of its advantages, are willing to give their lives to destroy it. There are times when we have to get on our high horse and fight for the benefits that the freedom of innovation of Western liberal democracy, “capitalism” in a word, has allowed us to achieve.
Even with its victimary hysteria, the West, and the United States within the West, are still far better places to be than those ruled by the resentment they arouse, and the West’s victimary critics know this as well as anyone. But it is a mistake to think that our comfortable world can maintain its superiority forever by affecting to treat itself with moral contempt. At some point along this path, a critical mass of people, Muslims and (ex-)Christians and Jews, will come to find the barbarous sincerity of Salafism preferable to the West’s victimary hypocrisy. If this does come to pass, I only hope I shall no longer be alive at that moment.