It is easier to understand the domestic American situation than to conceive what might be the future evolution of “global” civilization. Clearly we are not yet ready for world government, and the United Nations, which may do good in some of its auxiliary functions, seems increasingly less worthy of respect. Trump’s UN appointees’ expressions of impatience with its barely disguised antisemitism are long overdue, but it is difficult to imagine them turning the body around. The Jews remain, for their glory and suffering, the “chosen people” of the West, and the UN’s chief merit has been to make clear how little this has changed over the centuries.
If Israel is particularly hated because the very idea of a “Jewish state” appears as a contradiction in terms, this has at least the merit of clarifying the crux of the current conflict: the self-affirmation of the nation apart from humanity as a whole. The persistent hostility of our European allies to Israel’s national self-affirmation—the US hypocritically abstained on Resolution 2334, but France and England voted for it—coincides par contraste with Brexit and other signs of a recrudescence of national identity. There are still-inchoate rumblings of reaction against the West’s persistent victimocracy, in many ways far worse in Europe than in the US, and even less helpful in the long run to the far larger unassimilated population whose interests it purports to advance.
Israel has recently become more nationalistic in response to the intransigence of those who continually demand concessions of it and offer nothing in return. The European countries face no such existential threats, but the influx of Muslim immigration has made them increasingly aware of the problems caused by weakly assimilated populations in a culture that has become reluctant to affirm any kind of national or even civilizational identity.
Just as the Jews as the “first nation” are the natural targets of anti-nationalist reaction, so the Muslims, the faithful of a religion that denies the legitimacy of nationality, are the poster children for this new fear, even as they profit from the post-Hitlerian victimary reaction to any hint of collective firstness.
The strange symbiosis between Islam and the post-nationalist West is not hard to explain. Islam was the first real global ideology, and however retrograde the tribalism that is the local organizing principle in virtually all “Islamic” states, its hostility to Western and above all to Jewish nationalism makes it a secret ally, and, with Africa exemplifying the recipient of “post-colonialist” charity, the ideal victimary entity to oppose to Western “imperialism.” The more the jihadists give us excellent reasons for “Islamophobia,” the more the latter can be moralistically denounced.
It suffices to stand back a little, not easy in the midst of screaming mobs, to become aware of how simple these configurations really are. It is fascinating how, despite the irrationalities that surround these issues, their crucial dimensions follow a kind of prophetic logic. What else is there after all in the West’s current malaise that cannot be summed up in its relationship with the two “Semitic” peoples? Antisemitism has returned as a serious problem in Europe despite the paucity of Jews, its virulent Near-Eastern Islamic strain provoked by the scandal of Israel’s existence and vastly multiplied by the fact that it is so much more successful and productive than its neighbors. Not to speak of the fact that the UN never spent a dime on its “refugees”—let alone after 70 years—while lavishing funds on its corrupt and inefficient Palestinian counterpart. What could illustrate better than the obscene comparisons between the IDF and the SS and the talk of Palestinian “genocide” the accuracy of Girard’s aphorism that “Hitlerism avenges its defeat by making the concern for victims [le souci des victimes] despairing, caricatural” (Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair [Grasset, 1999]: 271; my translation).
The notion of firstness, which entered GA as a result of Adam Katz’s clarification concerning the necessarily non-unanimous onset of the conversion of the originary aborted gesture of appropriation into a unanimous sign, has remained, in my usage at least, deliberately vague, in contrast to the elegant symmetry of the “moral model” that the reciprocal exchange of signs would ultimately embody. This passage from firstness to equality is, if not the inherent telos of historical evolution, at any rate its natural gradient. The moral model is our only real point of equilibrium. All hierarchies and dissymmetries in human relations are meant to exist only to eventually dissolve themselves for the benefit of all, whether the Last Judgment be, as wisdom once had it, divine, or that of the “final conflict” of the Internationale, or simply the ultimate result of “progress.” This is an insight that the Judeo-Christian world, and in its often perverse way the Muslim world as well, have set at the heart of their religious traditions. The question of who should be counted in the “all” in the short term, however, is not thereby resolved.
In contrast to our “moral instinct,” the resentment that drives enforcement of the moral model, conservatism’s basis in Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution has only “tradition” and “common sense” on its side. The difficulty is that unless guaranteed by a universally shared faith, these values, ethical rather than moral, can operate only so long as they remain unthematized. As the left has not forgotten since 1789, as soon as you begin to assert the “naturalness” of a social norm—opposing homosexual marriage, for example—you have already refuted your claim by plunging it into the cultural stream in which it cannot help but be swept along. Burkean conservatism is always a rear-guard action, a rational appeal to the irrational.
The essential political quality of Donald Trump, as Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out with his usual astuteness, is as a Burkean conservative, a non-ideological believer in our “traditional” and “common-sense” values. Many so-called conservatives have been repelled by Trump’s demotic crudeness. Why could we not find someone more refined and articulate than Trump to oppose the victimary? But one cannot operate in the real world with “counterfactual history.” Like many initially repulsed by him, I have learned to admire what can only be called his political genius.
Trump’s triumph only goes to show that there was no opportunity for someone who could actually articulate an anti-victimary position rather than signal one with tweets and occasional enormities. Rather than take this out on the one whose insight saved us from another four or more years of ever more noxious victimocracy (though perhaps less hostile to Israel), we should focus on the problem itself.
There are plenty of intellectuals on the right, not all of whom were caught up in the fatuous never-Trump crusade. But none of these would have been capable of embodying the anti-victimary position, even with all the caveats attached to Trump’s embodiment of it. Whether or not he is a “true conservative” according to the latest post-Burkean definition, he was the only viable candidate to reject the kind of White Guilt-saturated victimary thinking that has become second nature to most “right-thinking” people. The instinctive reaction of such people after every jihadist massacre—which mainstream US (though no longer European) newspapers, e.g., the LA Times’ first report of the recent Westminster Bridge incident, still avoid until absolutely unavoidable associating in any way with Islam—is to express fear for the ever-menacing backlash against innocent Muslims. As I have said, if such people had been around on December 7, 1941, they would have warned us against Nipponophobia.
What this suggests is less lack of courage than of an ethical vocabulary that can defend firstness without recourse to the traditional religious bulwark of ethical values. The real point of victimary thinking, as I have said repeatedly, is to impose ascriptive discrimination as the model for all inequalities of outcome, and thereby to explain away all humiliating differentials of success by “disparate impact.” In a developed world that still lives by but can no longer defend the idea of national difference, that grieves for every unsuccessful boatload of economic migrants crossing the Mediterranean but whose very existence depends on it not being so easy to cross, there is virtually no form of social order that cannot be condemned for “disparate impact” at its most extreme. Hence as “Godwin’s Law” makes clear, comparisons with Hitler are not about to go out of style. Although it is easy for me to say this, it is not possible for any politician, even Donald Trump, to clearly articulate it. Indeed, as the whole history of GA and even to some extent of “mimetic theory” has shown, the only way to get to the bottom of these anthropological problems today is to stay out of the “public sphere.”
But to say one cannot say something is nevertheless already to say it, and this reminds us that Trump’s inarticulateness is after all only relative. No doubt he will fall into many of the victimary clichés that have become our second nature; he is not, indeed, a consistent ideologically-driven affirmer of firstness like the Alt-Right that the left loves to assimilate him to, as though he were ready to send his beloved Ivanka to the gas chamber. Nor need we fear that Trump’s enormities, like complaining when a hostile judge is “Mexican,” will by his example become respectable. But we can have some assurance that the more extreme forms of the victimary already openly mocked on the right, such as “safe spaces” and “micro-aggressions,” will become less so.
Firstness cannot and should not be treated as a moral principle on the same level as moral equality. The attempt to ground any such attempt on a firm ontology produces something like the Nazi ideology of the Master Race—for which btw the now-sainted Nietzsche, not to speak of Heidegger, provided much of the ammunition.
As John Rawls demonstrated in his own quasi-originary way, difference must always be justified by its contribution to reciprocity. The difficulty of the current stage of the modern economy is that as it grows more productive and more creative, it puts an increasing premium on the manipulation of symbols as opposed to things. This was humanity’s originary distinction from the animals, but until recently its development beyond the universally accessible level of ordinary conversation remained a minority activity. It is only with modern robotics and digital technology that the direct manipulation of things, for which we are all more or less gifted, has increasingly given way to highly technical forms of symbol-manipulation, putting our essential humanity into question as never before.
For indeed the fundamental guarantee of our moral equality is our common ability to exchange words, and as Seth Saunders brings out in his The Invention of Hebrew (Illinois 2009), the great advance in religious insight that enabled the West’s ultimate modernization has its origin in the Hebrews’ democratization of writing. But if we can all read the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran, not too many of us can decipher Gödel’s proof or Einstein’s paper on General Relativity.
It is always paradoxical to offer reasons to recommend the revival of religious faith. But inasmuch as the victimary functions in fact less as a principle of secular morality than as a sad caricature of Christianity, it has the potential to stimulate a revival of the real thing. Real Christians—and not only Christians—along with loving their enemies, which comes all too easily to those who idolate the resentment of their “victims,” are able to recognize evil. Love the sinner, hate the sin is not possible when one finds every excuse for not “judging” the victimary Other. All religions, Islam included, understand that all human beings belong to a single race.
These remarks are not meant as mere exhortations, but to express a certain optimism that the false virtue of victimary morality can be overcome. Along with Brexit and other European stirrings, Trump’s election is only a beginning, and it is regrettable but inevitable that many people will tend to focus on the imperfect messenger without grasping the importance of his message. But the clichés of one generation will more easily appear ridiculous to the next, and to the extent that the weakening of the victimocracy can actually produce some positive results in the schools, the economy, and the international scene by deculpabilizing the West’s capacity for the healthy promotion of firstness, it still remains possible for Western civilization to put itself back on its feet. Only then can it continue to pursue, necessarily in fits and starts, its apparent destiny to lift the rest of the world to its current level of human welfare and beyond.