As I hope my faithful readers notice, although my writings on the victimary are somewhat repetitive, each time I try to work through some new idea. The last time, it was the notion that as society becomes more technologically advanced, although this does not mean, as Marx thought, that capital would come to outweigh labor and bring down the rate of profit, it does mean that the intellectual component of capital, which is to say, the conceptual labor involved not only in designing machines but in elaborating the material, human, and financial connections of a technologized economy, would become increasingly complex and demanding, and as a consequence, less and less reflective of the human interactional elements of desire, resentment, “scapegoating” and the like. Whereas, so to speak in compensation, the “culture” as the broadly shared component of sociality, of “living together,” would increasingly become detached from serious matters and float along on top of the society.
This does not exactly demonstrate that this “culture” would become victimary, but I don’t think it is very far from it. “Culture” is ultimately the means for deferring resentment. The simpler the culture, the more crudely this is done. Calling people “racists” or “white supremacists” need only be demonstrated by the disparate impact of our income distribution; it is unconcerned with the roles these people play in the socio-economic order. Whence the spectacle of Harvard students—recently declared the most privileged college students of all by the WSJ—preparing for lucrative careers in the economy by holding up signs denouncing White Supremacy while Betsy DeVos was speaking in support of charter schools in poor neighborhoods.
Which is why I insist on the Gallicism victimary to describe the current program of the Left. The Left has always been victimary in the most general sense, since it sees the less fortunate as victims of firstness, but it has jettisoned the Marxist doctrine of the class struggle based on a structural theory of the “capitalist” economy for the binary Nazi-Jew model of difference-as-oppression. The details of the system of production are unimportant. Victims by definition have no agency; once the label has been affixed, their sufferings, defined simply by disparate impact, are “our” fault, the fault of white privilege.
Religions (and responsible political philosophies) have never accepted this kind of reasoning. The “Calvinism” noted in the previous Chronicle, if it were a truly religious doctrine, would apply to all, not just to “whites.” The ironic phrase, “soft racism of low expectations” describes the real racism that classifies victimary groups as ontologically inferior to the “privileged,” as so to speak too damaged to have a soul. And this “theological” error is once more a caricature of Nazi race relations. Given that the Jews at Auschwitz (not to speak of Treblinka) were deprived of “agency,” how then can we “blame the victim” for earning less or going to jail more often? But if God truly loves us all, we should not live in his world as though it were Hell.
To put the binary cultural hypothesis very simply, the more bytes required to organize the material economy, including the entertainment (thank you, Frankfurt School) that painlessly discharges our resentments and satisfies our appetites with fast food and eventually with self-driving cars and AI-enhanced sex robots (in the business section of the September 27 Los Angeles Times: “Silicone sex dolls get an AI makeover. These ‘girls’ will ‘have sensual conversations and tell naughty jokes’”), the fewer bytes needed to maintain cultural solidarity. The Internet is maintained with terabytes of know-how in order to allow people to Tweet the crudest obscenities.
Local versions of this dichotomy are everywhere. At the university, in the embarrassing contrast between highly sophisticated and theory-driven scientific research and near-universal ideological idiocy. Not to speak of GA’s difficulty in obtaining a hearing. For its complexity is based in ideas rather than algorithms, and it thereby falls between the cultural and technical stools. In a world run on big-data-based algorithms, when it comes to exercising the imagination enough to conceive an “originary hypothesis,” the response is one of intellectual panic: how can you speculate without data, on the basis of what you fancy to be our shared intuition? No one really “understands” particle physics or string theory, but these are not things to understand, merely equations to work out. “Cognitive theory” has equations; GA has only imagination, and there is no longer enough of a common symbolic world to allow sharing imaginary constructs as a mode of truth-seeking.
Once we have all become positivist creators and “trainers” of algorithms, we can no longer allow the kind of “gentlemen’s” criteria for success that still existed in my youth, which permitted the less favored both to resent the “caste system” yet be reassured by its authority. Today, all that counts is either knowing the right people, which is not the same as being part of a loosely aristocratic old-boy system, or getting a high score on an exam. For those who don’t know the right people, getting the score is all, whence the reign of disparate impact.
What new leverage does this analysis provide us with for mitigating victimary fanaticism? By its very nature, mere explanation cannot persuade believers to abandon their belief system. Yet even if Trump must remain for the moment our chief bulwark against the victimary, and we should therefore learn, however regrettably, and perhaps not so regrettably as all that, to accept his eccentricities as the only practical way to deal with the victimary forces, we should nonetheless do our best to promulgate our arguably superior analysis of the reduction of our cultural bandwidth.
For one thing, we must learn to appreciate Trump’s strategy even if it is based more on “instinct” than on theory; so is effective street-fighting. One cannot meet the one-bit victimary argument head-on, since it is founded on a “fact” of its own choosing, ascriptive identity, and dismisses other potential causal factors as arbitrary, if not deliberately misleading. But to the extent that Trump’s strategy has succeeded, it is because by simply reaffirming in strident tones the legitimacy of the old distinctions that the victimary would abolish, he reminds a majority of the population that the new ideology is not self-evident, as its partisans would believe, but (cf. Burke’s reflections on the French Revolution) an arbitrary imposition upon a system of values that has largely stood the test of time.
The Jewish example: firstness and the victimary
It is no accident, either that the word scapegoat comes from the Old Testament or, more pertinently, that the Jews hold the undisputed historical victimization championship, precisely because they are never perceived as inherently “victims.” It is not merely “poetic justice,” but a prime example of the paradoxical nature of culture that, just as it was the extreme persecution of the Jews by the Nazis that gave birth to the victimary era in which we still live, it was the inevitable result of the survival of some of those Jews that antisemitism would be the one exception to the victimary mania. For in the oppressor-victim dichotomy, it was inevitable that the Jews would one day find themselves on the site of White Guilt rather than victimary suffering. The Holocaust happened a long time ago, and even those who do not “deny” it can easily become fed up with being reminded of it—a reaction that the “true” victims of our day experience only from “white supremacists.”
The Jews are scapegoats because they embody firstness; this is a point I have made many times, and that Adam Katz and I expounded in a book on the subject. Other “minorities,” even successful ones, do not. Thus although Asians do better than whites on average, even if they sometimes hop on the victimary bandwagon (how dare they say, “you’re Chinese so you must be good in math”!)—although their real complaint is that they are discriminated against in favor of less successful minorities—there is no anti-Asian “racism” to speak of.
Whereas criticism of other minorities is denounced as “blaming the victim,” not so of the Jews. But then the Jews had the misfortune to create a new state in the Middle East that has proved to be in different league from the largely dysfunctional Arab states that surround it. Making a positive contribution to the world economy and being rewarded for it, that is the unforgivable sin.
Like the Holocaust, firstness cannot be “denied.” Some people, some groups, whether or not we call them “races,” tend at a given historical moment to do better than others at some or most of humanity’s essential tasks. There is nothing here that violates the moral model. We all have equal moral worth and are all equally deserving of being saved in an emergency, an eventuality that “moral philosophers” ponder ad infinitum in such things as “trolley problems.” And when emergencies do occur, we observe that neither meritocracy nor affirmative action is generally necessary to encourage people to “do the right thing”—as recently in Las Vegas, for example, where, by and large, the men forgot about “gender equality” and tried to protect the women.
But the control of resentment is another matter, and this is where the Girardian concept of scapegoating has its relevance. To listen to the victimary ideologues, the “scapegoats” are those victimized by the white majority. Yet the role of the Jews, as often, is that of the canary in the mine. The growing presence on American campuses of virulently anti-Israel and sometimes transparently anti-Jewish movements is no small matter. Calling the Jews the “new Nazis” is just a way of returning to the same mode of Jew-hatred that the Nazis themselves practiced. For the latter, it was the Jews who were the “Nazis,” in the sense of an evil and inhuman minority ruthlessly seeking supremacy, one that could not be reasoned with but only destroyed.
The parallel is obvious, but just as people have “suppressed” the Holocaust, so today’s Jew-haters suppress such parallels, on the basis that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.” Of course it isn’t, but only because Jew-hatred remains the same while its alibi changes. Anti-Semitism, as we love to forget, was invented as a “positive” doctrine. One was proud of standing up for racial purity against mixed-race mongrels, and the fact that Arabs too were Semites was an irrelevancy to the inventors of the term.
Taking contemporary antisemitism as the model for the victimary in general, we note that it experiences the superiority of Israel over the other states in its region as the scandalous proof of its illegitimacy. If the Jews do better in the marketplace than the Arabs, it is somehow the result of their usurpation of “Palestinian” land. That “Palestinians” never existed before 1948, that there have always been Jews in the territory that is now Israel, that the land that made up Israel before 1948 was purchased from its prior owners rather than “conquered,” and that the 1948 partition and its collapse only became a Nakba for the Arabs because the armies of several Arab countries tried to destroy the Jews, as they had every expectation of doing—these facts are irrelevant, because Jews are simply not supposed to possess territory. The “wandering Jew” is not merely a Christian myth; it is essential in a way that even Yuri Slezkine’s crucial Apollonian/Mercurian distinction (The Jewish Century, Princeton UP, 2011) cannot fully capture. No doubt the Jews lost their kingdom in 135 AD after the Bar Kochba revolt as they had lost it before to the Babylonians, but clearly there is more here than a historical reference.
What is the underlying anthropological substance of the “mind-matter” distinction that Slezkine draws between what Barrès called la terre et les morts and the world of the intellect? This opens the wound of “antisemitism studies,” on which Katz’s and my book has had zero impact because we dared to explain Jew-hatred by the envy of firstness rather than calling it a “disease” or some other metaphoric redescription of what was supposed to be explained.
Israel is a scandal in itself because, as in the originary event, the archetype of pure firstness has no right to exploit the scarcity of the physical world. The God who gives his name in Exodus as a declarative sentence at the same time designates a land for his people, but the two relationships, as God was presumably aware, are not on the same level. On the one hand, the eternal, paradoxical relationship between the nameless One God and “his” people; on the other, the promise of an earthly location that history would demonstrate to be unnecessary to the survival of that people, and certainly to its exemplarity. The scene of representation opposes the sign that can be shared by all to its “real” referent that can at best be divided up, and hence opposes from the beginning the moral model of reciprocity to the principle of scarcity. But at the same time, it exemplifies the necessity of firstness in the domain of the sign itself, the need for the individual use of the différance of the scene to discover new revelations about God and man.
Antisemitism as resentment of the “Mercurians” reflects the insight expressed in Katz’s point that the originary emission of the sign must already have exemplified firstness. That is, the very initiation of “egalitarianism,” of universal reciprocity, was the product of individual initiative, just as the revelation/discovery of the One God was the result of one people’s, if not one individual’s, initiative. Unlike the material world, where scarcity is a physical reality and therefore a so to speak justifiable source of inequality, the sign-world generates inequality through the individual freedom made possible by the deferral of the appetitive on the scene of representation. Even Rousseau described the “origin of inequality” as Le premier qui dit: ceci est à moi…. That is, acquisition not by brute force, but through the concept of ownership.
The collapse of the cultural into a primitive binary system of good victims and evil oppressors modeled on the world of Auschwitz is what leads to such things as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” based on the fiction that since the Europeans failed to treat the Indians and other “indigenous peoples” as equals, the triumph of Western civilization is not merely flawed but simply evil. Whence the brainless sloganeering that greets expressions of respect for Western Civilization on today’s campuses, and the denunciations of “cultural appropriation” along with outlandish attributions of Western creations to other cultures. So long as Western technology continues to dominate the world, as it does in North Korea and China and Syria as much in the West—and where it does not, the local populations must depend on others for assistance—it matters little that Western culture be dominated by White Guilt. Until, of course, such a time as it will matter, if the suicidal demography of Europe and its broad acceptance of Islam as its instrument of penance cannot be stopped.
As Girard clearly recognized, victimary thinking is not only a caricature but a betrayal of Christianity. When Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world,” he recognized the distinction between our fundamental moral equality and the worldly need for firstness and differentiation, if not the causal connection between the reciprocity of the scene of representation and its capacity for generating human difference. Those who perpetuate the culture of victimary dualism have simply eliminated the latter from the model for the benefit of the former, with the essential but “unintended” result of permitting the complex of modern technology and the web of human relations that supports and improves it to maintain its operations, on condition of making a few relatively inexpensive apotropaic gestures. If the Girardians would like to see the operation of “primitive” sacrifice in the contemporary world, this is the place to look.
The point must be made ever more clearly that human difference is a product of the human scene of representation as much as human moral equality. A West whose children play games where “everybody wins,” where we read on the front page of the October 7 Wall Street Journal, “You’re All No. 1! High Schools Say ‘Vale’ to the Valedictorian,” and where, not coincidentally, the number of children is well below the replacement level, had better hope that it can transmit its technological know-how before it’s too late to the Africans and Middle-Easterners who will replace them.
A final reflection: No one can dispute that making women wear veils or worse in public, let alone “honor-killing” them for speaking to strange men, does not rank very high on the scale of moral equality. But the White Guilt that tolerates it is not solely motivated by fear of “Islamophobia.” It reflects a guilty distortion of the healthy idea that women’s destiny, whatever else they elect to do, is to bear children; that, in other words, female biology, at least at the present stage of human technology, is still “in service” to the society as a whole. Women are not solely to blame for the West’s low birth rate, but in a world where women are not subordinate to men, ways must be found to encourage couples to reach a replacement level of population as we live ever longer as individuals, unless of course we would prefer to disappear.
However crude and barbaric these archaic customs may be, they are not simply “irrational.” Not everything that one dislikes can be understood as a variant of Nazism. The idea that the subordination of women, or slavery, or even human sacrifice, is simply “evil” does nothing to explain why it has existed, let alone why it has been abolished in societies that can afford to do so. And calling it “scapegoating” is just one more one-bit explanation.
Following in the footsteps of old Thomas Paine, I decided to call this Chronicle “Common Sense,” there being so little of it left in public discourse today. Ours is far from the best of all possible worlds, but Dr. Pangloss was a lot closer to the truth than our one-bit ideologues. And what allows me to affirm these truisms with such confidence is simply that I am using a better anthropology than those who allow themselves to forget them. Generative Anthropology, based on a minimal hypothesis, is a minimal culture for a society that needs to spend most of its intellectual efforts on modifying the physical world. But, above all when it is minimal, you have to get it right.