The September 25 issue of the Weekly Standard featured “The Joy of Destruction,” a Girardian analysis by Joseph Bottum of the recent statue-destroying epidemic. Bottum sees this as uniting the community around “scapegoating selected examples of those we can get away with naming our foes.”
Bottum alludes to a point that Girard makes in Je vois Satan tomber comme un éclair and elsewhere, that the demeaning postwar competition for victim status made Hitler the ultimate victor of WWII. But this historical insight is not specifically applied to the current iconoclasm, which is simply described as a set of events that fit the scapegoating model, along with mimetic competition for the victim role.
My point here is not to criticize Bottum, one of the few political commentators capable of appreciating Girard’s importance. But since for Girard scapegoating is associated with “mimetic crisis,” its historical occasion must be given special attention. Indeed, Bottum’s comparative examples of iconoclasm occurred during revolutions and periods of social turmoil. He is certainly justified in comparing the current rash of statue-mutilations with the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but he does not pursue the religious analogy with the “Leftism” that Daniel Prager has called “the most dynamic religion in the world of the last 100 years.”
What then is my explanation for the unrelenting march of the victimary through our cultural and civic institutions? No doubt it becomes an object of mimetic rivalry, but so do patriotism and racial purity and whatever other values are prized by a given social group.
The human community is held together by the reciprocal symmetry of symbolic exchange, what GA calls the “moral model,” which in the simplest human communities is correlated with an egalitarian system of material exchange. Yet any ethnologist will tell you that these “Rousseauian” communities are more prone to violence and murder than more advanced, hierarchical societies, since any deviation from equal distribution can be taken as a personal offense necessitating revenge. Indefinitely prolonged series of revenge killings are one of Girard’s favorite topics. Which is to say that the direct application of the moral model to human social organization, however philosophically satisfying, is not much better than Hobbes’ state of universal war; life in such societies, although not “solitary,” is nonetheless “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Firstness cannot be dismissed, as it presumably was in the originary event; it must be given a major role in human society, even if, as all the higher religions affirm in their way, the moral model remains the ultimate basis of human sociality.
It is no accident that in reaction to humanity’s final full-scale war, with its escalation of scapegoating into industrial extermination, the less radical forms of de jure discrimination, including American racial segregation, were brought to an end. This abolition began a secular social upheaval whose consequences are still playing out, and which supplied the original impetus to the victimary radicalism Bottum describes.
The celebration of the end of de jure discrimination, when people would finally be judged by the content of their character, lasted about 10 minutes. Then people started complaining about de facto discrimination. But this is an open-ended category, since “discrimination” ultimately just means reaction to difference, and need not involve anything more immoral than preferring those who score highest on a test. The elimination of de jure institutional firstness leads by analogy to the designation of all disparities in the distribution of benefits among ascriptive groups as instances of discrimination. Whence such groups—more precisely, certain privileged members of them—come to benefit greatly from being accorded victim status. Making the victimary label into an object of mimetic desire, the very embodiment of the Sklavenmoral, is what Girard was referring to when he deplored Hitler’s ultimate triumph.
The current epidemic of iconoclasm and deconsecration is just a new application of the post-Hitlerian pattern. Would we put up a statue of Hitler? Name a university building after him? Hence to the extent that Jefferson, or Columbus, or Benjamin Franklin, can be said to have shared with Hitler a notion of racial superiority, we are justified in disrespecting their image. Even Bottum, while deploring the “mimetic” and “scapegoating” nature of the new iconoclasm, cannot bring himself altogether to reject this line of reasoning: “perhaps those who take to the streets in protest are right in their choices.”
Perhaps indeed they are. A former student of mine, himself a Latin-American, after giving a presentation about Columbus in a Spanish class, was obliged to apologize to a Hispanic student who claimed to be “distressed” by the explorer’s purported mistreatment of the Indians. The “offense,” as we see, was not in the deeds themselves, but in the non-stigmatized presentation of their alleged perpetrator. Now that October 12 has become, in Los Angeles as in Canada, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, can “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” be long for this world? My old alma mater (whose school song shares the tune of Deutschland über alles) may soon become “Native American University.”
Resentment is a human universal. What we must be sensitive to is the affirmation given to it in the public sphere. When individuals are validated in their claims to be “distressed” or “offended” by what they perceive as symbols of discrimination, there is no limit to what can be alleged as a source.
It used to be accepted that we were all sinners, and in the Christian world, at least, beloved of God despite our sins. But now “sins” are no longer the purview of God, the judge of all mankind. They are acts of oppression, less individual than generic, that implicitly or explicitly affirm ontological distinctions among human groups (classes, races, sexes…) and consequently violate the moral model that we all share. We can no longer punish those of the past, but we must always be vigilant in detecting and condemning them.
As Trevor Merrill points out, the victimary attitude has much in common with Calvinist predestinarianism, that most paradoxical of religious doctrines. The condemnations leveled at the great men of the past are not really in reaction to their sinful acts, but to their irredeemably sinful natures. The point is less that Washington or Madison or Jefferson owned slaves or was enriched in the slave trade than that their souls were permanently stained by occupying privileged positions in a world of victimary injustice.
By taking these figures as exemplary, by raising or even maintaining statues to them, we are implicitly absolving them, and by extension, ourselves, of White Guilt. Yet as sinners hoping against hope for a sign of God’s grace, we can never claim to have sufficiently repented for our White Guilt, but must express it on every possible occasion. If, as a result of some neglect in this regard, a member of a victimary group, or a white person who seeks penance by identifying with the sufferings of such a group, is offended by a statement/image/epithet/name/institution/statue/song lyric that we have allowed to enter or remain in the cultural stream, then our guilt has been once more confirmed, and our most abject apologies are in order.
As Trevor points out, “virtue signaling” is not merely a mode of mimetic rivalry. By giving proof of one’s vigilance against the racist tendencies deep in our soul, it provides the signaler with a satisfaction like that of Weber’s capitalist finding intimations of predestined salvation in business success. While the Antifa signal their virtue by righteously bashing the racist oppressors, the more peaceful victimary faithful feel a glimmer of hope in providing evidence that they have been given the grace to denounce their own white privilege.
I have traced the victimary attitude to our reaction to WWII. More recently, we have witnessed the “coming apart” (to quote Charles Murray’s title), stimulated by the digital revolution, of college-educated manipulators of symbols and working class speakers of “ordinary language,” whose formerly lucrative physical skills are of decreasing value in the labor market. From the perspective of GA, this strikes at the reciprocal exchange of signs that is the very source of the moral model, hence at the unity of our species itself.
On the simplest level, victimary thinking is the promotion of the moral model of universal reciprocity as excluding all forms of firstness. The moral model is what makes (acceptably) peaceful human society possible. But the peaceful scene of representation on which we situate the objects of our contemplation offers each of us the freedom, Sartre’s liberté, to construe things independently of others, and as a result, to construct projects, ideas and blueprints for action. The two things go together. Girard was right to emphasize what he calls the interdividual or mimetic aspects of human desire, but the very word implies anything but the monolithic zero-sum symmetry of mimetic rivalry to which some of his disciples reduce it. We constantly seek new means for obtaining analogous goals. As did Girard himself who, although he enjoyed calling himself très mimétique, was anything but a slave to intellectual fashion.
Hence we can understand why allowing firstness to assert itself is more stable than denying its existence. Firstness is the moral model’s necessary accompaniment, and whether it be facilitated by a despotic caste system or a double-blind meritocracy, it is in tension with moral reciprocity. As I attempted to show shortly before 9/11 (“Originary Democracy and the Critique of Pure Fairness,” in The Democratic Experience and Political Violence, ed. David Rapoport and Leonard Weinberg, London: Frank Cass, 2001, 308-24), the “fairest” system is in fact likely to arouse the most resentment, since the superior outcomes of some over others are experienced as “unfair” in themselves.
But that essay did not anticipate the central importance that would increasingly be given to ascriptive, that is, visible and inalterable group identity in the quest for victimary status. After all, Hitler’s crime was not privileging high-scoring individuals over others; it was according different degrees of humanity to different ascriptive groups. And, lo and behold, on objective, impersonally administered tests, some such groups do systematically better than others. Which is to say that members of the lesser-performing groups are being systematically “discriminated against”: disparate impact, we call it. Whence the redefinition of affirmative action from “affirmatively” helping members of less successful groups to achieve higher scores to simply compensating them with extra points.
As we have seen, firstness is the evil twin of moral equality, and justifying its necessity is the fundamental task of religions and the secular world-systems that purport to replace them. In the very broadest sense, all such justifications are “Rawlsian”: they affirm directly or indirectly (e.g., by appeal to God’s providence) that the inequalities of the world order are necessary, in that the world would be made worse by abolishing them. What is unique to the current victimary epidemic is the rise of an attitude of intolerance toward any inequality of outcome associated with a victim group. No one complains that women make up over 60% of college admissions, but it is unimaginable that the opposite imbalance would not be denounced in the same breath as the low percentage of women executives at Google.
Victimary thinking is limited only by the imagination of its initiators and the spinelessness of its followers. Last year no one thought of tearing down statues of Columbus. Yet way back in 1945, we tore down the statues of Hitler. The comparison has been available ever since; the only question was when it would be asserted.
And here, it seems to me, is an easily forgotten key point. The acts of contemporary iconoclasm do not prevent the intricate machinery of the social order from functioning. The victimary as a symptom of the weakening of the social fabric resides in the margins of the overall system of social and economic exchange, in what we call its culture.
What the current intensification of victimary activity in fact demonstrates is the increased marginality of the cultural-symbolic domain in which it operates. The economy is not severely handicapped by being obliged to increase expenditures for “diversity,” so long as few real incompetents are appointed to sensitive positions. I sympathize with Ryszard Legutko’s ironic surprise (The Demon in Democracy; Encounter, 2016) that in leaving the Warsaw Pact for the “freedoms” of the West, the Eastern European nations found themselves in a European Union hardly less repressive of dissenting ideas. But the difference between the systems is clear enough in economic terms. Although arguably equally stultifying, unlike “socialism,” the victimary “human rights” dogma of Western Europe has until now done only minor damage to Europe’s relatively healthy liberal economy.
This volatility of our belief-systems is a relatively new phenomenon, one that deserves attention in itself. Resentment will always be with us, and it discharges itself where it can. Although cultural values have traditionally been integrated with the material economy, Marx was prescient in seeing the capital-driven economy as increasingly the locus of the controlling constraints of advanced modern societies. The cultural values once enforced by authoritative religions were not always, but have increasingly become, a “superstructure.”
The economic machinery has to function in increasingly complex ways, whereas in an age of crowd-sourced thinking, desire follows the path of least resistance. The “coming apart” of cultural solidarity in the digital era focuses resentment on ascriptive discrimination because it is directly assimilable to the model furnished by slavery and colonialism, whose “irredeemable” nature was demonstrated in the Holocaust. The more I can attribute either my failures or my modest successes to “white privilege,” the less I need feel personally inadequate. Where this is not possible, among the white/native working classes whose marginal postwar ethnic and national advantages have eroded, drink, drugs, and disability benefits provide the only relief.
It is because of its so far relatively mild effect on the overall social order that the victimary ideology endures and continues to infect new areas of the culture. It progresses less because it gains in intensity than because each successive outrage is shown to have nugatory effects. As a few new scapegoats are stigmatized, the “diversity” industry continues to flourish in the margins of the universities and corporations that supply the economy with personnel and capital. Those who depend on these institutions, whether they profit from white or victimary privilege, need only learn to avoid pressing the wrong buttons while doing so.
But Trump’s victory is not without its effects. Some of the symbolic victories of the Obama era are being rescinded. Betsy DeVos has revoked the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter that made accusation of sexual misdeeds tantamount to conviction. Various draconian environmental regulations have been lifted. The economy as a whole is more optimistic.
Donald Trump remains infuriating, but that is his genius. His reality-TV trolling of the victimary forces in the media and elsewhere will remain the only available remedy until, as we can still hope, we become able to hold a reasonably rational political debate on how to face the challenges of the digital age.
Addendum: The Trump-NFL controversy
I have seen no evidence of Trump’s “racism,” but many demonstrations of his effectiveness at provoking responses from victimary activists that reveal the White-Guilty’s abjectness to the world at large. At the 1968 Olympics, one might have had some sympathy for the two black athletes who raised their fists to the Star Spangled Banner. But the multimillionaire gladiators of the NFL?
Men are being fired for opposing gay marriage or daring to suggest that the two sexes may not have identical ambitions, but to recommend doing something similar for disrespecting our national flag on national TV is decried as an act of fascism. For my money, Trump can only benefit at the polls from his tweet-crimes. And as a wise pundit put it, whatever the players and owners think, the NFL fan base thinks like Trump.