It is curious that in a world increasingly dominated by identity politics, no one appears to reflect on the near-exclusively ascriptive form (i.e., referring to a predetermined and virtually unchangeable identity) taken by victimary identities in the post-postmodern age.
The Left as always champions moral reciprocity in contrast with the conservative respect for firstness and the structures that preserve it. Now if one thinks about one’s daily experience of hierarchical asymmetry, it is clearly concentrated in the economic arena. One takes and gives orders in an institutional framework that in formal terms not only ignores in fact but, with the exception of compensatory “affirmative action,” is obliged by ever more stringent legal restrictions to ignore every kind of ascriptive difference among its participants.
In the days when the terms socialism, communism, Marxism described the Left’s ideology, the critique of market society aka capitalism was directed at the hierarchical organization of the production-process, with the wealthy capitalist hiring well-to-do managers to oversee the labor of the poor working population that alone, dixit Marx, created “value.” This exploitative arrangement was for Marx a necessary preliminary to socialism; it embodied a dialectical opposition between capital and labor that would be resolved one day by the expropriation of the expropriators. Whether political activism was required or whether the system would collapse of itself in universal pauperization is unclear and ultimately unimportant; what we retain from the “old Left” is the critique of an economic hierarchy that, a necessary evil for a time, would eventually be defeated by socialism’s greater efficiency. This conviction lent an air of healthy competition to the Cold War, particularly after the death of Stalin; there was something cheerful about Khrushchev’s pacific if deluded “We will bury you!”
We still hear echoes of class resentment in the half-forgotten Occupy! condemnation of the “1%”—although the representative “class” of that movement was not the industrial proletariat but unemployed BAs with student-loan debt. And the Democratic Party continues to support labor unions and raising the minimum wage. But class-based politics is far from the victimary cutting-edge and often comes into conflict with the more authentically “progressive” environmentalist agenda, e.g., re the Keystone pipeline. And the same can be said for the throwaway criticisms of the “excessive” salaries of CEOs or other beneficiaries (entrepreneurs, entertainers, sports figures…) of the “winner-take-all” age of integrated economies and communications—many of whom contribute heavily to “progressive” causes.
Yet despite the obligatory lamentations by both parties concerning the stagnation of middle-class wages and the dissolution of the working-class family, the emphasis of the ever-intensifying victimary critique of Western society is almost entirely on ascriptive categories. Increasingly, the “capitalist” economic hierarchy is condemned less as unjust in itself than as “discriminatory” by gender, race, etc. Gender is an endless fount of such critiques, given the biological and traditional cultural differences between the sexes. But under the current administration, especially since the Ferguson protests began just a year ago, the media have focused above all on the traditional American sore spot of race. This is not the place to explore the merits of the grievances involved, but merely to note that race, because unlike gender it is literally, or very nearly, “skin-deep,” is the quintessential ascriptive victimary quality.
A recent poll sadly but unsurprisingly showed that although just after Obama’s election most people thought racial relations were improving, now most blacks and whites think they are getting worse. My personal interpretation of this is that it reflects media coverage more than personal experience; perhaps the one positive effect of Obama’s presidency, in this or any other domain, is that it has made it easier for blacks and whites to get along in everyday life. But this, if true, only makes my point all the more strongly: victimary thinking in our post-postmodern age is symbolic rather than reality-based, and concerned above all with seeking evidence for situating ascriptive categories in the familiar Nazi-Jew (or master-slave) relationship. Statistics to the contrary about blacks killing blacks or blacks getting along with whites are beside the point.
The current focus on ascriptive injustice is so intense that it is difficult for persons born after 1960 or so, and virtually impossible for “Millennials,” to conceive that it is an entirely new phenomenon, a product of the postwar era with only the faintest traces in past history, beginning in the Enlightenment. Years ago I discovered a primordial example of White Guilt in Chateaubriand’s Essai sur les révolutions (1797) where, recounting his American travels, he remarks a propos of a sullen young Indian, “how grateful was I to him for not liking me!” (comme je lui savais gré de ne pas m’aimer !) The famously egocentric Chateaubriand wants to demonstrate here the revolt of his uniquely sensitive temperament, less against the settlers’ cruelty or injustice to the Indians than simply their unwelcome intrusion into these “pristine” lands. A less precise primitivism may be found in Rousseau’s vision of a “state of nature” that has been corrupted by les sciences et les arts. But this proto-White Guilt is on an altogether different scale from what we find in the postwar era.
In furnishing the original Nazi-Jew model for victimary politics, the Holocaust made the Jews the first victimary “minority.” It is difficult to imagine what kind of postwar victimary thinking might have emerged from the critique of apartheid or Jim Crow or sexual oppression. The cruelest slave-drivers and lynch mobs could not have conceived a project to exterminate every black or Indian—nor were Africans or Native Americans known to Western civilization as “the chosen people.” The various postwar civil rights and anti-colonial struggles were willy-nilly shaped or reshaped by the enormity of the Holocaust, which for its part had no relation to any of them.
These relations of intergroup domination, mild or tyrannical, were in any case “organic,” functional relationships that lay within the mainstream of social interaction, just as did European antisemitism before the advent of Nazism. But the Nazi-Jew relationship was deliberately placed outside normal social relations, nor was it intended as a permanent institution. The point of putting Jews in concentration camps, when they were not immediately taken out in the woods and shot or sent to Vernichtungslagern and gassed, was to extract a bit of labor from them before they died. Only in random local situations were the Jews treated as slaves in the normal sense. Making the Nazi-Jew relationship the model for all unequal social relationships based on ascriptive categories delegitimized all forms of de jure superordination.
This new model hastened the end of segregation, apartheid, and colonialism. But what was unexpected by those who sought to do away with such ascriptive hierarchies was that as a result of this process, non-race-based hierarchical relationships would themselves become increasingly racialized. When it began, “affirmative action” seemed a justifiable way of repairing the damage wrought by long-term past inequality. But this meant that henceforth the ascriptive category of race became a factor in all institutional relationships.
In an enlightened reaction to nineteenth-century racialism, anthropologists had told us for several generations that “races” were artificial categories based on superficial characteristics. Today, one of the things that the University of California doesn’t want people to say is that “race doesn’t matter.” Certainly the old “racist” one-drop rule is alive and well. It is rather whites today who seek the victimary prestige of “blackness,” or as in some well-known cases, of “Native American” ancestry. If uttered today, M. L. King’s wish for “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” would be stigmatized as racist. As no doubt it would effectively be, if “racism” be the imposition of any criteria that in fact favor “whites.” But the only meta-criterion that can prevent this is an explicit or implicit quota system that assigns favorable results by race.
Since the beginnings of affirmative action, in the interest of laying the groundwork for a race-neutral professional landscape, countless aptitude examinations, intelligence tests, and other “meritocratic” criteria have been eliminated because of their “disparate impact” on members of specific races. But in the latest round of victimary thinking, we are told that barring de facto discriminatory practices was just scratching the surface. Today, all kinds of social and professional interactions are examined for evidence of “micro-aggressions” that are said to assert the implicit hegemony of the “aggressor” over his victim. It is in the context of a lifetime’s accumulation of micro-aggressions that ostensibly “objective” criteria have a “disparate impact” on both the privileged and their victims. People have been fired from positions of power for making jokes or offhand remarks, even in private, that can be said to hint at such hegemony. And more recently, the trigger phenomenon offers white students a chance at attaining victimary status by allowing them to claim that their sensibilities have been violated by, for example, having to study a description of rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
What ultimately justifies all this is the categorical imperative that, despite all evidence to the contrary, all groups are not merely morally equal but have ultimately equal abilities, so that all differences of outcome are the result of accumulated privilege and domination. No doubt this imperative cannot be explicitly articulated, but it is tacitly accepted as an article of faith quia absurdum. Although any system that requires less of one group than another is demeaning on its face, we are required not to look at this face, and must beware of speaking of it in public.
Since the distributions of abilities among ascriptive groups, whatever their “root causes,” are not likely to change substantially in one or several generations, differences of group outcomes provide an indefinite source of grievances in which the society as a whole, or rather its dominant element, possessors of the “white privilege” of the European founders of the USA, is blamed for the inferior outcomes of victimary groups, even when these outcomes reflect indisputably deviant behavior. The advantage that accrues to the successful group is counterbalanced by the critique of its “privilege.” And in areas such as university appointments and admissions, the “privilege” of whiteness, or that of Asian-ness, is often dearly bought. Affirmative action, victimary resentment, and “White Guilt” are part of a no doubt necessary homage that worldly firstness is obliged to pay to the moral model of reciprocal equality.
But recently, the most significant ascriptive developments are in the sexual domain. Now that same-sex marriage is sweeping the Western world, we are forced to realize that the affirmation of homosexuality as an ascriptive difference is far more radical, and far more important, than the seemingly revolutionary slogan of the preceding generation: that gender was socially constructed. Homosexuality too, like all sexualities, is in part socially constructed, but it is the opposite affirmation that is consonant with contemporary victimary thinking, even if it undermines the old social-construction argument against conventional sexuality. The radical transformation of the age-old institution of marriage is reinterpreted as its broadening to include all “forms of love” between people, “straight” and “gay,” all of whose sexual interest is considered equally natural.
This is not the place for me to speculate on the ultimate effect of this change on Western society, but merely to note that the legitimization of homosexuality not simply as a “lifestyle” but as an ascriptive mode of love, understood as monogamous sexual desire, is the real point of same-sex marriage. This ascriptive focus is in sharp contrast to the traditionally rebellious connotation of “gayness” as a stigmatized group’s rejection of traditional social norms, above all that of marriage. The former configuration of marriage-as-normality to which the homosexual opposed his or her sexuality as a choice, relatively unconcerned with the degree to which it was inscribed in his/her DNA, is now rejected precisely because it weakens the claim on ascriptivity. By adopting marriage precisely in its most conventional form, “with all the trappings” (whence the outrage when bakers and flower arrangers refuse to cooperate), the homosexual affirms his/her membership in an ascriptive class, a “race” as objectively real as those determined by skin color.
But now homosexual identity too has become yesterday’s ascriptive cause célèbre. It has been replaced in the public mind by the current obsession with transgenderism. Whatever the latter’s biological foundation, certain boys/girls demonstrably have a strong sense that they are really girls/boys. Such people, particularly if they have not had surgery to accord their bodies with their sexual identity, doubtless pose a problem to the social order. But to determine whether, for example, traditional women’s colleges, or even ladies’ bathrooms, should be obliged to admit physical males who declare their sexual identity as female, even setting aside the possibility of fraud (which is surely not to be simply dismissed), is not my burden here.
What I find of interest is rather the degree to which this problem has attracted attention. I think it goes beyond providing one more rope on which to hang the insufficiently progressive, whose sins now include being transphobic and mired in cis-genderism. Here ascriptivism takes a step beyond the “third sex” of homosexuality, one figured whimsically by Facebook’s panoply of 51 gender options. We should take seriously the implication of this proliferation: in principle, every one of these “genders” is both ascriptive, inscribed in “nature,” and at the same time, chosen. Chosen, as are all natural characteristics under the new ascriptivism, but more markedly so—in the same way that the Jews were chosen, and yet chose themselves, as the first people of the One God.
Here one is tempted to say that postmodern ascriptivism has transcended, or at any rate seeks to transcend, the victimary. Perhaps we may even interpret “Black lives matter,” with its outpouring of righteous resentment at police killings (even when, as in Baltimore, they take place at the hands of largely nonwhite officers, not to speak of the fact that the vast majority of young blacks are killed by other young blacks), as a rear-guard action by America’s most genuinely long-suffering victimary group to wrest public attention from these trendy (and generally white and affluent) upstarts who can affirm their identity with such publicity-savvy flair.
The transgender phenomenon is exemplary because it offers a model of unique individuality that is wholly ascriptive, involuntary, an effect of “nature,” yet at the same time wholly voluntary, requiring to be assumed by the individual. If I, born a man, not merely feel but know that I am really a woman, then unlike ordinary cis-gendered individuals, I am faced with the fateful decision to assume and reveal my identity. This in turn obliges me to make a whole series of subsidiary decisions concerning surgical operations, changes of name and dress… No doubt such cases are rare. But the model of an ascriptive selfhood that must be courageously assumed rather than merely accepted can be applied more broadly to a general conception of the unique human self whose uniqueness too must be assumed.
The missing piece of the explanation is the Judeo-Christian notion of election, which for Christians inheres in each immortal soul chosen by Christ. In the new Ascriptive Age, the agony of Christ on the Cross has been iconically transfigured in the image of Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, whose sublimely ridiculous effort to look like a young woman instead of an old man has surely involved great pain and enduring discomfort. Those who identify with this image are summoned to practice a kind of imitatio Christi in reflecting on the pain necessarily attendant on assuming one’s “true” identity—one that in this case not only affirms an authentic sexuality but attempts to recapture its “timeless” youthful embodiment.
No doubt this self-affirmation might uncharitably be seen as fetishizing the Self’s being rather than its doing—becoming a woman is not winning the decathlon. But it is precisely the unique degree to which in Judeo-Christianity the individual’s relation to God’s sacred centrality is personalized, at first through membership in an exemplary “chosen” people, and then, following this intuition to its endpoint, as personally redeemed by the sacrifice of a unique divine victim, that has liberated the Western Self—the Western soul—to discover the laws of nature and create the modern world. At this parlous stage of Western and world history, I think we should welcome whatever symbols of unresentful self-assertion we can muster.