A recent column (“The Democrat Patient”, National Review 1/31/17) by Victor Davis Hanson, perhaps the wisest of our current pundits, deplores the self-destructive anti-Trump passion that seems to be leading to the marginalization of the Democratic Party, as though following the disastrous example of the UK’s Labour. From Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn, from Bill Clinton to Keith Ellison and Thomas Perez, the direction is eerily the same.
But the political situation in the US or elsewhere cannot be understood by focusing wholly on its pathologies. These polities remain for the moment political marketplaces that evolve as wholes; this is not North Korea, where one wonders what Marx would have made of the fusion of socialism with oriental despotism.
If Donald Trump’s personal style is part of the reason for the hysteria, I must return to my point about the felix culpa: no mainstream politician of either party was capable of naming the principal enemy, which is not the Islamic radicalism that the Democrats refused to name either, but victimary thinking, more commonly known as Political Correctness. Trump is no kind of “white supremacist,” let alone an antisemite, but the important thing is that he is not cowed by accusations of being either. That some Jews compared last November 8 to Kristallnacht is certainly “deplorable,” but what is needed is not deploring but analysis.
As someone old enough to remember how happy everyone was at the victory in WWII, even at the cost of Dresden and Hiroshima, I have retained my “Fukuyaman” faith in liberal democracy as the system that best controls the paradox of human desire by channeling resentment into productive activity. If, as some of my friends seem to believe, democracy is truly in the process of breaking down, means to deal with this are hardly within the purview of an old academic like me. If such is indeed to be our future, I’ll let the survivalists fight it out among themselves.
Assuming that democracy is not lost, the question then becomes: how do we interpret the pathologies of our moment in history so as most effectively to return to democracy’s “normal” unstable equilibrium? As a premise of such analysis, we must stipulate from the outset that the recoil from the victimary that has produced Brexit, Trump, and various nationalist movements in Europe, even including a return to something like Russian Czarism, is not (with some exceptions) the sign of a new fascism, but on the contrary a generally healthy development. Its excesses, although they should not be overlooked, are a necessary evil compared to the horrors currently visited on the world by the West’s victimary fever.
The worst symptom of victimary excess must be the nightmare of its “cure” via submission to Islamic supremacism, soumission being the translation of the word Islam as well as the title of Michel Houellebecq’s recent hopefully-not-prophetic novel. I would not go so far as René Girard, who saw Islamism as a wholly “Western” phenomenon, generated by the hatred resulting from failed mediation, but there is little doubt that the supremacism that inspires suicide bombing and worse derives its negative energy from the vacuum of the West’s own lack of self-confidence and resolve. Perhaps, however successfully it seemed to be concluded before Obama removed all our troops, W. Bush’s war in Iraq was bound to lead to chaos, but had the victors in the battle against Saddam had the confidence of being on the “right side of history” that animated the occupying forces after WWII, there might well have been a reasonable chance that Iraq would have developed into a viable democracy.
An illustrative example of the West’s bad conscience was given recently when, speaking in Algeria, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron called colonialism a “crime against humanity.” This deeply offended the pieds noirs, former non-elite French colonials in Algeria who were forced to leave when the colony became independent. In the same vein, a friend told me recently that when he attempted to give a presentation about Christopher Columbus to a Spanish class in a private LA high school, a student complained to the administration that Columbus was an “Indian killer” and that it had “distressed” her to hear him favorably portrayed.
It is clear that our schools almost unanimously cultivate such moral preening. The younger generation has grown up with attitudes very different from the simple patriotism I absorbed from my teachers in the 1940s. The notion that uncompromising moral indignation toward “one’s own side” is the only permissible mindset for the beneficiaries of historical “privilege” is virtually uncontested among the apostles of victimary morality who feel at best a condescending pity for the “deplorables.” Hillary’s use of this term was no doubt a political blunder, but unlike much of her rhetoric, it appeared to reflect a sincerely held belief shared with a good part of her constituency.
The victimary mindset is characterized by an exclusively negative view of human difference. The model of moral reciprocity is interpreted as the sole ethical principle, so that the sufferings of the least successful member of the society become, as for Sartre, and more subtly for John Rawls, the measure of the moral value of the society. This is not merely a theoretical stance. The “liberal” West’s preference for the Palestinians over the Israelis, which cultivates their resentment in preference to their welfare, requires a blank refusal to consider either the relative value of the two societies’ contribution to world progress or the moral worth of their collective behavior. Palestinian schools teaching children to despise the Jews and to believe their historical claim to the land a mere myth; naming streets and squares after terrorists; the corruption and inefficiency of the West Bank economy; the exclusive orientation of that of Gaza toward preparations for the destruction of Israel; in contrast, Israel’s extraordinary scientific and technological productivity: none of this prevents the constant UN condemnations of Israel, which after several decades Trump’s appointee Nikki Haley has finally denounced for what they are. Similarly, the European colonial conquests of the previous centuries are condemned en bloc with no credit given to the long-term advantages they brought in health, quality of life, prosperity, and longevity for the world as a whole and for the (former) colonials themselves, even if imposed in many cases by force of arms and involving a good deal of arbitrary cruelty—as though the powers they replaced were exemplars of gentleness and tolerance.
There is no question of returning to the de jure status differences that the Holocaust rendered henceforth intolerable, but this should not prevent us from understanding the past in its own terms, including realizing that the moral evolution leading to the condemnation of past practices was itself the long-term product of these practices; slavery was abolished not in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, but in the West.
But if balanced historical judgments bear no guarantee they will be accepted, it is because there is no moral absolute except the “moral model” of universal reciprocity that is a corollary of GA’s originary hypothesis. Unlike this model, the allowances that every ethic beyond the most primitive must make for firstness alongside reciprocity are not absorbed into our moral DNA.
GA encourages us to look at the “big picture” and avoid the pettiness that has taken over much of our moral thinking. The dilemmas of evaluating mixed moral balance sheets such as that of colonialism vindicate GA’s pragmatic vision of the moral as well as the economic world as a marketplace. If people had had to negotiate the issues in the recent presidential election, they would never have come to an agreement. The electoral system, more or less universally accepted, adjudicates such disputes not through any kind of centralized arbitration but on the basis of an extension of the moral model itself, one person, one vote. Although purportedly logical arguments are employed by both sides based on principles we all presumably hold in common, the only common value absolutely required is respect for the system itself, which despite minor exceptions has held firm over the years throughout the world’s democracies.
It should be no surprise that, rather than permitting a rational conclusion as in a scientific debate, such matters must be adjudged politically. This should at the very least serve as one more demonstration that the primary function of culture, and of language and the other representational systems that embody it, is not to draw logical conclusions but to defer conflict by moving it to a higher level.
The big difference between postmodern victimary thinking and the Left’s insistence on equality over firstness that began with the French Revolution is the absence after 1989 of any credible alternative to liberal “capitalist” society. Left-wing hysteria over such things as “cultural appropriation” and “micro-aggression” (a term that already sounds dated) reflect a constant need to find new forms of sinfulness in the social order in order to confirm its analogy to the Nazi model that started it all. Thus the originary model of the ubiquitous American term “white privilege” is Southern slave-ownership filtered through the more radical cruelties of Nazism.
It is easy to become obsessed with the “spiritual” focus of these critiques, which remind one less of the Nazi camps than of Chinese (or Cambodian) “re-education.” But seen as a program, they are means of providing an endless demonstration that our society’s disparities of wealth and power are products of ascriptive “racism” of one kind or another. The “disparate-impact” quotas promoted under the Obama administration (notably by the new leader of the DNC) were rooted in earlier decisions, for example, to compare mortgage rates in black and white neighborhoods. The idea that a larger percentage of black than white pupils might be subject to suspension, or that a larger percentage of young black men are in jail, is taken as prima facie proof of racial discrimination, confirming the “narrative” in which social stratification in general is attributed to “white privilege.” The political value of this procedure, in which elected officials benefit from minority resentment that they have consequently no incentive to diminish, has been immense. We shall see if Trump’s more honest approach to improving life in the “inner cities” will end this vicious circle.
The strength and weakness of victimary politics is that it has no endpoint and no criterion of success. But its drive to interpret every form of firstness in ascriptive terms as a form of discrimination should not be seen as merely the result of an obstinate fidelity to the originary moral model despite all the failures of “socialism.”
From the collapse of the USSR to the misery of Cuba and Venezuela to the decline of the kibbutzim of early Israel, it has been made as clear as historical lessons ever get that “human nature” makes it impossible outside of extraordinary circumstances to enforce collective reciprocity in any functioning society. As a consequence of these failures, the persistent existence of Marxist and post-Marxist opponents of “capitalism” today is marginal. But this means that the only moral critique of the liberal democratic system with any chance of attracting adherents is the pseudo-internal one that it fails to fulfill its own ideals of equality. Here the example is less the Holocaust than American slavery; we are reminded that the “peculiar institution” persisted for fourscore and seven years after the Declaration of Independence had declared that “all men are created equal.” To analyze every form of social differentiation, including what used to be called “meritocracy,” as a form, often unconscious (“micro-aggression”) or unthinking (“cultural appropriation”) of ascriptive victimage, the oppression of victimary groups by the “privileged” white majority, is to make every social difference a demonstration of the hypocrisy of the liberal democratic order, which purports to offer everyone an equal chance but is thereby shown to be infested with racism and its recent avatars, such as “transphobia.”
Why indeed, seventy years after the Holocaust, has the victimary not only persisted but grown increasingly powerful—the recrudescence of antisemitism being one obvious measure of this transformation? From the perspective of Sirius, as Voltaire might have put it, the victimary attitude toward the liberal democratic system is a toddler’s revolt against a benevolent and all-powerful parent. To the extent that it can be defended, it is a means of conserving the purity of the moral model untainted by the contingencies of the social order that make it unrealizable, but that we may hope to make someday “wither away.”
I have spoken in earlier Chronicles (see in particular Chronicle 484) about the Marxist (actually Ricardan) labor theory of value’s loss of credibility in the digital age. Although I am skeptical that within a few years all the cars and trucks on the road will be self-propelled and all industrial production will be carried out by robots, clearly the trend is toward increasingly intelligent automation, with a concomitant diminished need for labor as Marx defined it. The decline of the white working class that sparked Trump’s election is one product of this development, but the white population is merely the canary in the mine. Whether this presages genuine long-term economic decline is unclear, since productivity increases benefit everyone, including those living on welfare or disability payments. But to the extent that the system provides incentives to its more productive members, increasingly meaning those most gifted at sign-manipulation, it makes the reciprocity of the moral model ever less attainable.
I don’t think that the recent increase in inequality is in itself a sign of social decline. The wealthiest get wealthier because the ability to generate wealth is increasingly concentrated. Microsoft and Apple and Oracle and PayPal and Facebook and Amazon could be created only once. It is precisely because the West has virtually done away with real poverty that the need to share the wealth has diminished; one has a claim on relief from starvation, but not from obesity. Hence as the society becomes wealthier, it appears increasingly unjust, and the “privileged” are increasingly harassed unless they are truly privileged enough to avoid it. Luxury goods, such as first-class airline tickets that once cost 50% more than coach and now are five and more times more expensive, become signs of status that make life difficult for the “upper middle class.” But this is the sort of problem that Mensonge romantique was written to allay.
Social trends like this must be understood, like language and culture itself, as fundamentally means of reducing conflict. By redefining the “injustice” of liberal democratic society in ascriptive terms, the “Social Justice Warrior” does more than just flatter his own ego. He performs a social service in distracting public attention from the increasing gravity of the “coming apart” described by Charles Murray. If Black Lives Matter and the Trumpian movement of the “deplorables” have one thing in common, they are both means for channeling the resentments generated by market society’s frustrations into political action.
Trump’s surprising victory is an opportunity for a new and, despite appearances, less resentful approach to mitigating these problems. As Barack Obama said after his first meeting with his successor, we should all hope Trump succeeds. Given the state of malaise that reigns after several decades of increasing indulgence of our society’s victimary tendencies, I cannot imagine that the new administration will not be an improvement.
In a future Chronicle I shall attempt to address the “transnational” question, so instrumental to Trump’s victory, that has been raised in the recent discussions on the GAlist.