The current situation in American universities has gone beyond the point where righteous indignation, ironic mockery, or any other comparable rhetorical reactions are worth expressing. I am beginning to understand what it must have been like to experience the early stages of movements such as fascism: self-righteous mob rule that no one has the moral strength to oppose. One would like to offer the example of Jesus with the woman taken in adultery (John 8), even if the lone individual standing up to a mob doesn’t always fare well. But whereas in Jesus’ situation it was clear where power lay, and therefore where it could be persuaded not to exercise itself, the victimary world becomes a victimocracy (a term first used in our context by Adam Katz, but no doubt too obvious for anyone to claim first use) at precisely the point where power has reached the ambiguous status of remaining nominally in the hands of the “authorities” while being actually in those of the “victims.” For the former to assert their power to punish the latter would then be to “blame the victims,” which would be likely to get them in big trouble—with boards of trustees, the ACLU, and above all, the Obama administration’s Department of Education. The helpless woman whose stoning Jesus prevented is now a mob of students whose “grievances” are symbolic but who can exact real human sacrifices, not to speak of expenditures on diversity officers, sensitivity training programs, safe spaces, still easier “studies” courses, and affirmative action allocations.
But this account of events, however reasonable, can be dismissed as just so much rhetoric, and those of us who understand that language is BS before it is logic realize that any argument is useless against the kind of ultimately religious convictions that the victimocracy is grounded in. Indeed, the current situation encourages us to take a step back and reflect about what “religion” means in contexts where it is not predetermined by ecclesiastical affiliation. In recent years we have increasingly been in the presence of a set of strongly held victimary beliefs that are not merely personal but have clear social implications; some of these (e.g., “climate change”) are presented as “scientific” when clearly, whatever their scientific basis, they partake of religious passion.
As a student of René Girard, I am all too familiar with the “mimetic” argument that does away with all nuance and simply explains A’s actions/ideas/desires by his “mediation” by B. And however crudely Girardians often express this point, it is the fundamental one, because at the root of the rationalities of human language and its ability to differentiate is the centrality of the sacred and its unanimous recognition. In situations like today’s, as the level of violence, first intellectual and then physical, continues to rise, differentiations indeed fall by the wayside and adversaries grow symmetrical. Thus our lesson in religion includes the observation that at a certain point even scientists spending millions of dollars in grant money can’t disambiguate natural reality from political mimesis. It’s certainly a first-level truth that we should be suspicious of those whose convictions about global warming go to the point of despising and conspiring to defame, expel, or even indict their adversaries—but then we realize that although this may be evidence that their case is far from definitive, it isn’t scientific proof that they are wrong, either.
To claim as I have that the present victimocracy, and victimary thinking as a whole, is a reaction to the Holocaust and to Hiroshima, the twin revelations at the end of WWII of the ultimate perversion of human firstness on the one hand and the (potentially) unlimited violence of human conflict on the other, should not be taken as a “demystification.” This ongoing reaction is an auto-criticism of Western civilization that the West cannot ignore, and our current travails suggest that the responses it has come up with so far are still being tested and found wanting.
Until the end of the Cold War, all opposition to Western power came from within, and this was true even of the colonial revolts that both borrowed their ideologies from the West (Marxism, socialism, etc.) and defined themselves in opposition to it. It is worthy of interest that the great Asian civilizations of China and India, along with their variants in Japan, Thailand, etc., have never challenged the West in this way. North Korea’s national-racial cult is little known and is grafted on the Western ideology of Marxism, much like Stalin’s “socialism in one country.” Japan, China, and now India have competed with the West on its own terms, which since WWII have been mostly peaceful ones, the exceptions (Korea, Vietnam) fitting once more into the framework of the Cold War.
The victimary is a category internal to the West, which treats all externality to it in the context of its “colonial” domination of its Other. Or in other terms, in the victimary context, only the West has agency. Whereas the West’s internal dichotomies of men against women, “straights” against “gays,” “white” against “colored,” provide opportunities for “dialectical” rethinking that transcend the strictly victimary context, the “post-colonial” Other is defined merely as such; it supplies no new parameters, and however much resentment it expresses at its “othering,” offers no new modes of understanding. Said’s Orientalism was the crystallization of this truth. For all his denigration of the naïve self-centeredness of Western attempts to understand the “Orient,” Said never offers an “Oriental” view in opposition, nor even implies that such a view is conceivable. Said’s “Orient” is never other than the Other of the West, a fact that explains the disdain of professional Western orientalists for a work that displays no real concern with the cultures its author is purportedly defending. The implicitly suggested appropriate Western reaction to Said’s diatribe would be not to speak of the “Orient” at all—but then of course the West would be accused of disguising its colonialist past.
Today, things are different. With its recent aggressions, an Islamic faction is now demonstrating to the West the existence of a real opposition, something other than an “Other.” Resurgent radical Islam embodies a true oppositional ideology, and when we look back at Islam’s seventh-century origins, we see it playing basically the same role in both eras. No doubt, as Girard liked to point out, Islam tends to mirror the West, but he knew that the validity of the argument that differences are merely cosmetic and the opponents are really doubles depends on a transcendent revelation, not on “the evidence,” since precisely “the evidence” of difference is what is being dismissed as irrelevant to an “essential” identity. Islam defines itself as our contrary rather than our mirror image, and “defining itself” is not a matter of ratiocination but of people being willing to blow themselves up.
As they say nowadays, the Islamists attempt to impose on history a different “narrative,” except that even the adage that it is the victors who write history does not do justice to the phenomenon. One can apply this dictum to Stalin’s removal of Trotsky from the Soviet Encyclopedia, but not to the annihilation of an entire tribe by Genghis Khan. The Islamists have no intention of leaving the West the opportunity for alternative “narratives”: they would obliterate its culture and reduce its surviving members to dhimmis within their revived Caliphate.
It is surely not coincidental that this first real challenge to Western hegemony since the seventeenth century, one that no longer seeks liberation but conquest, is exactly contemporary with the most abject manifestations of the victimocracy. In case we are not intellectually sophisticated enough to grasp the absurdity of the self-deconstructing notion of “micro-aggression,” its proponents are happy to openly demonstrate it in public, as iconically illustrated in the YouTube scene of a “communications” professor trying to get a student journalist “muscled” out of the protesters’ “safe space”—which we may define as one where no empirical facts are allowed to intrude on their resentment.
But calling for us in the West to rally to our own defense suggests an overcoming of this resentment that cannot be the result of mere exhortation. The current “defense of the West” still relies on the victimocratic conviction that it is indeed the only game in town, the only source of agency, and that the nasty stuff done on the other side is merely a despairing reaction. Whence the widespread sympathy for Palestinians stabbing Jews young and old in the streets of Jerusalem. Or this, from Marc Weitzmann’s Tablet article of November 25, appropriately entitled “The Failure of Intelligent Explanations”: “Louis, 26, survivor of the Bataclan, interviewed by Radio France-Info: ‘I will never blame a poor Palestinian kid, who has suffered since he was born, for blowing himself up and taking me with him.'”
The advantage of the Palestinian connection, with its transfiguration of antisemitism into the language of Western oikophobia, is to provide a religio-magical justification for the Other’s murderous resentment. Like the life-long micro-aggressions that purport to explain their victim’s objective failings, so do the life-long sufferings of the Palestinian explain his murderous act. But in fact, it is the act that retroactively “explains” the sufferings, and that also justifies the practice of terrorism. One thing we learn from terrorism, both on the grand scale of Paris and on the petty but still substantial scale of Columbia, MO, is that the so-called “Stockholm syndrome” is not an exception due to prolonged exposure to the terrorists’ lifestyle; it is the very point of the terrorist act. Reciprocal violence takes some effort and courage, which in our advanced societies is devolved on police forces, the French being among the most capable; they were on the scene in a few hours, in contrast with the ineptitude of the Indian response to the Mumbai attacks in 2011. But in the absence of violent symmetry, the only other mimetic response is violent empathy, and the story of Islamic terrorism has been constantly marked by such expressions of “understanding.” If these people are willing to lay down their lives just to kill me, then I, to occasion their hatred, must be complicit in something really horrible—Israel, for example.
The IS terrorists have nonetheless given the West a learning opportunity of great potential. Since 9/11, but far more slowly than I had anticipated—for the resentments internal to the West have had much time to accumulate and gain legitimacy, and our propitiatory election in 2008 of an unrepentant exponent of Western oikophobia has done much to encourage them—we have been learning that, no, this is not simply the otherness that reflects our own hegemony, these are not emulators of Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre. The agents of IS are not victim-doubles but real doubles, competitors of the West, whose model is the euphoric conquering march of the Islamic armies that were finally stopped at Poitiers in 732. (Is it coincidental that the greatest of medieval epics, the Chanson de Roland, presents the Saracens as the rival doubles of the Franks as the Trojans were to the Greeks?) The result of an IS victory would not be the conversion of revolutionaries into mirror-image authority figures, as in Genet’s Le balcon. When IS takes over, you are guaranteed to notice the change, provided you survive it.
Yet mere terrorism may not suffice to persuade the West that its civilization is truly in danger. Terrorism is indeed a tactic of the “other,” one that seeks to persuade the hegemons to White Guilt and the lowering of their defenses. But the terrorism of IS is not in the service of a colonial revolt; the overall strategy is one of conquest, and such attacks as recently took place in Paris are merely opening skirmishes to disquiet the “privileged” population. I fear that something far more serious than Paris or even 9/11 may well be required to unite the West against IS, to reestablish American (and NATO) leadership, to impose on Western Muslims not “Islamophobia” but a reasonable restriction on incitement to sedition that has until now proceeded under cover of religious freedom (for example, in prisons), and above all to send a real army to the Middle East to clean up the mess that our withdrawal from Iraq and our mindless welcoming of the “Arab spring” have spawned.
Will this have a counter-effect on the current campus follies? What force, one wonders, can put victimary resentment in its place? Conservative publications are happy to denounce it, but one hears little or no opposition from the Republican, let alone the Democratic candidates for the presidency. Are we expected to take Black Lives Matter as a legitimate spokesman for the black community? Will Al Sharpton be a guest at the White House in perpetuity?
No doubt the only way to secure a long-term reduction in victimary resentment is to find a remedy for the drift of our society toward a Brave New World that allows smart people to become billionaires but has increasingly less to offer the ordinary ones. Domestic unrest has emerged as a black revolt because the black population is not only among the most vulnerable but can rely on reserves of historically justifiable resentment, as well as tactics inherited from the Civil Rights movement. But Charles Murray’s Coming Apart shows that the white population contains a far larger number of disaffected individuals, who in the absence of a symbolic cause like police brutality turn their resentment against themselves in alcohol and drugs and withdrawal from the labor force.
The attractiveness of the Islamic model for those excluded from productive activity in high-tech society is that, although in no way would they “live better” under the Caliphate, the Caliphate would give them a social respectability they cannot obtain in current Western society—and would force them at swordpoint to remain worthy of it. (Judeo-)Christianity is grounded not on Islamic “submission,” but on active reciprocity in free exchange, which is, in the first place, the free exchange of what Peirce called “symbolic” signs. How to make this fundamental basis of democracy compatible with a world of increasingly complex technology is the most significant challenge for the human future. If we can solve this, the problems of “climate change,” whatever they may be, will surely become child’s play for the augmented powers of human ingenuity.