Douglas Murray’s “One Hundred Years of Evil” (National Review, 10/30/17) provoked a smile of déjà vu. Why indeed are the Nazis permanent figures of evil, when Communists responsible for far more unnecessary deaths are tolerated and in many cases adulated? Why do we print up T-shirts for Che and none for Reinhard Heydrich? Why does China continue to honor Mao, and Russia to revere Stalin (who topped a recent Russian list of the all-time great men of history), whereas Hitlerian celebrations are outlawed in Germany and treated with contempt elsewhere? Of course the Nazis lost the war and Hitler shot himself, whereas Stalin died in bed (helped along perhaps by some of those “Jewish doctors” he suspected), but clearly there is more to it than that, and Murray’s article masterfully explores this point, albeit without really explaining it.
As I understand it, the Left promotes the moral model while the Right defends the privilege of human difference, or firstness; liberalism tries to find the least bad compromise between the two without ever denying the fundamental principle of moral equality. Hitler too was a “socialist,” but his socialism denied the founding principle of human morality by making ontological distinctions among “races,” while the bloodiest of Leftist murderers were acting in the name of the “people.”
This said, I think Murray exaggerates the amount of “Marxism” on the left today, even as a slogan, let alone an ideological reality. How many of our Antifa goons or campus crybullies have ever heard of “the falling rate of profit” or even the “labor theory of value”? The word “socialism” is indeed bandied about by Bernie Sanders and his followers, and of course remains a current political term in Europe, although many parties of the old socialist international like the former Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière or the German SPD have not done very well lately. But serious Euro-Marxism is all but dead; the formerly mighty French PC has all but blended into Mélenchon’s France Insoumise.
What requires reflection is rather the turning of the Left away from Marxism toward a utopian “victimism,” whose ideology, beyond its moral basis, is diametrically opposed to the “scientific socialism” of Marx and Engels. Marxism supplied discipline and, let it be said, a largely successful strategy for taking power in countries without a strong liberal-democratic tradition. Today’s victimary left may have a few thugs on its side, but its real power is its ability to capture the hearts of so many of the “privileged” and to inflict on all but the most resolute of the others a sense of White Guilt and the fear of unleashing the wrath of the virtuous haters of hate.
The originary hypothesis explains the eternal tension between the egalitarian moral model and the problematic element of firstness. The moral model of reciprocal exchange is intuitively grasped because it is inherent in language itself, and in all other cultural representations that we are constituted to share. But the sharing subject is also an individual who contemplates these representations for himself and cannot be assimilated to a simple member of a mob. We all know this, of course, but the current largely uncontested domination of victimary thinking is a clear proof that we do not know it well enough.
At the end of the Supplement to last week’s Chronicle I gave a link to a fascinating review (https://www.campusreform.org/?ID=10005), by Toni Airaksinen, of a book-chapter that claims that “mathematics itself operates as Whiteness.” It was discovered on the web by Daniel Greenfield, David Horowitz’ most active associate (http://www.frontpagemag.com/point/268213/u-illinois-prof-math-racist-daniel-greenfield ). This prize piece of victimary insanity has also been noticed by Katherine Timpf on the National Review’s daily web post: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/453106/math-racist-university-illinois-professor?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NR%20 Daily%20Monday%20through%20Friday%202017-10-5&utm_term=NR5PM%20Actives It concerns a chapter entitled “Political Conocimiento for Teaching Mathematics: Why Teachers Need It and How to Develop It,” by Rochelle Gutiérrez, in a collective work on mathematics instruction entitled Building Support for Scholarly Practices in Mathematics Methods, which recently appeared at Western Michigan University Press, that is, with the imprimatur of a presumably respectable academic institution.
I advise readers to go directly to the “serious” review article on the CampusReform site so you don’t think that Greenfield and/or I are exaggerating. This is one of those pieces about which one says, “you can’t make this up.”
Yet in its very fanaticism, it offers an admirably pure version of contemporary victimary thinking, at the antipodes of Marx’s claim of an objective, scientific socialism. This item can serve as a template for the application of victimary thought to every subject in the universe. Its fundamental agreement with GA’s originary hypothesis about the centrality of the moral model, while totally misunderstanding the element of human firstness/freedom, is of great pedagogical usefulness for us, whatever use it could possibly have for teachers of mathematics.
I hope Mr. Greenfield will not mind my plagiarizing his (fairly complete) selection of passages from the Airaksinen review. Passages in quotes are taken directly from Gutiérrez’ text:
Rochelle Gutierrez, a professor at the University of Illinois, made the claim [that algebraic and geometry skills perpetuate “unearned privilege” among whites] in a new anthology for math teachers . . .
“On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White.”
Gutierrez also worries that algebra and geometry perpetuate privilege, fretting that “curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.”
Math also helps actively perpetuate white privilege too, since the way our economy places a premium on math skills gives math a form of “unearned privilege” for math professors, who are disproportionately white.
“Are we really that smart just because we do mathematics?” she asks, further wondering why math professors get more research grants than “social studies or English” professors.
. . .
“If one is not viewed as mathematical, there will always be a sense of inferiority that can be summoned,” she says, adding that there are so many minorities who “have experienced microaggressions from participating in math classrooms . . . [where people are] judged by whether they can reason abstractly.”
. . .
Gutierrez stresses that all knowledge is “relational,” asserting that “Things cannot be known objectively; they must be known subjectively.”
As we see, the most fundamental categories of human knowledge are reduced to means for assuring “white privilege”; mathematics is described as a “white” activity (although presumably usurped by the “whites” from non-white inventors), of use primarily not for solving objective problems but for affirming “Whiteness.” If we merely substitute firstness for this last term, we have an absurd but quite consistent system that offers real insight into the mindset of a large portion of today’s population.
Unlike the relatively innocent gesture of wearing a Che T-shirt, this is a serious attempt at establishing an anthropological thesis, one that takes to its limit the doctrine of disparate impact. The statement at the end, that the truths of mathematics are not truly objective but “subjective” and “relational,” is accurate in a way. Since math is a product of human representation, whether or not its verities correspond to certain structures in the world, the verities themselves are not “out there” but dependent on human minds and their membership in the human community.
This is of course a far cry from implying that these verities are arbitrary, as Greenfield suggests by citing Dostoevsky’s classic “2+2=5.” But this claim, like all else in this fascinating example, has a real anthropological foundation; indeed, it counters the authority of 2+2=4 with its own brand of victimary existentialism. Why should Sartre’s doctrine of human freedom not apply to arithmetic? No doubt this reductio is not in the text itself, but although Greenfield’s point is to emphasize the text’s mindlessness, we can also see in it an expression of an all-consuming faith in the moral model as the answer to all problems of human difference, excluding all conceivable manifestations of firstness at the cost of an utter indifference to objective reality. Or in the terms of The Origin of Language, regressing from the “metaphysical” world of the declarative proposition to the ostensive.
Why indeed should these “white” mathematics professors be granted respect not available to their most ignorant students? Well, from the standpoint of fundamental human morality, they should not. If there is a fire or an earthquake, those with PhDs have to wait in line with the others.
We should understand this form of thought as an extreme humanism, one that takes no account of the objective world and is solely concerned with the internal relations of the human community. That mathematics might help us to build a house or cure a disease is irrelevant; the important thing is that, on an exclusively inter-human level, because it imposes objective criteria, it separates us.
This is indeed the “moral philosophy” of the originary scene anterior to the sparagmos. For until that point, it matters not if the center be occupied by an edible animal or by an abstraction. The Hebrew God makes this point emphatically by refusing to give himself a name, and Christianity follows up on this intuition by replacing the sacrificial feast by the consumption of a wafer that embodies God’s love but provides little caloric benefit (the wine of course does, which is why it was eventually withheld from the congregation—cf. the ironic alcoholism of Bernanos’ curé de campagne).
The “spiritual” truth of this objectively imbecilic declaration would be touching if it were not impregnated with racial resentment. One could see a mystic, perhaps a Buddhist, reading this as an exercice spirituel meant to undermine the worldly vanity of the mathematician: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the ability to solve differential equations, and lose his own soul?
But, precisely, Buddhist monks and desert anchorites don’t teach math, let alone prepare math teachers. The insanity of this discourse is, although less bloodthirsty, even more extreme than the fanaticism of the ISIS crew who execute you for smoking—or the Khmer Rouge, if you showed you could speak French. Math teachers explaining the Pythagorean Theorem are about to suffer the fate of my poor friend forced to apologize for speaking well of Columbus (see Chronicle 538).
All joking aside, this analysis has the virtue of allowing us to understand in objective terms the religiosity of victimary thinking, and at the same time to clarify what we really mean by religiosity. Anyone who was around before 1989 or so will remember the critique of Marxism as a “religion,” or perhaps a “substitute religion.” But the resemblance between Das Kapital, or for that matter Xi Jinping’s Thought, and the Bible is admittedly rather distant. A vague similarity in the behavior of the faithful toward sacred objects is not quite a serious analogy. The next step in such discussions would be to wonder whether Michael Jackson or Madonna were the objects of “idolatry.”
But this little essay lets us clarify our minds. It is the reductio ad absurdum of a purely humanistic view of the world that takes the human scene of representation as the be-all and end-all because it is indeed the originary object of the new pour-soi’s attention. And it pushes to the maximum the wisdom contained in parables like Matthew 5:23-24, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
In this context it is important to understand the role played by “Whiteness.” Paradoxically, this unmarked quality is presented as embodying the fundamental violation of human moral equality. Whiteness is the locus of privilege, and as Greenfield does not fail to point out, it applies to anything that can be “useful,” that is, that leaves the scene of inter-human relations to confront some aspect of the real world. If Dostoevsky’s underground man thinks that 2+2=5 is rather nice, it’s precisely because he is expressing a refusal to submit to objective reality, which is from the Existentialist point of view a way of affirming his freedom. In more appropriate anthropological terms, what it affirms is the priority of this freedom of the pour-soi in assigning signs to the objects we are called upon to represent. Thus we could not assert 2+2=4 as a meaningful proposition if we were not also able to assert, however erroneously, 2+2=5. But of course the paradox is that once you set up systems of representations, of which mathematics is our name for the maximally abstract ones, the systems have rules of internal consistency that dictate the truth or falsity of propositions constructed in them. (Let’s not get into such matters as Gödel’s incompleteness proof.)
Dostoevsky’s point (or rather that of his “underground” hero) is that everyone knows and can say “2+2=4,” but to say “2+2=5” is an act of personal will. No doubt the right answer is an element of the shared reality that allows us to construct a human world around ourselves rather than merely accepting what we find in nature; but first, we must be at peace, and this peace entails each individual being “reconciled with his brother,” not feeling resentment toward the others in the group.
The originary designation of a central being involves no calculation and its centrality allows all to agree on its presence. But equations are not ostensives, but declaratives. And here the “wisdom” of our text once more demonstrates its anthropological insight. In order to agree on a declarative, we must go beyond the ostensive presence of an object to think about it; in this case, to solve an equation. Which, as Greenfield would put it, is a “useful” act. But to say this is to open the door to some people being better able to solve the equation than others, and consequently to the arousal of the latter’s resentment. In order to prevent this, we declare the solution of the equation a matter of subjective preference. In this way, as in those T-Ball games where everybody wins, the result is “correct” in your own terms, and you have no reason to resent anyone else.
And here is where the originary hypothesis can make its essential point. If we begin from a purely human configuration, such as Girard does in his scapegoating scenario (which is, however, never spoken of as an originary event), we never leave it. If the point of the originary event, whether we call it this or not, is simply to resolve the resentments of the group by turning it into a unanimous-minus-one lynch mob, then it solves its human problem, but at the expense of dealing with the rest of the world, which remains shrouded in méconnaissance.
This is a constant of Girard’s vision of desire from the beginning. The novels of Mensonge romantique, in contrast with Lukacs’ category of la maturité virile, are described as stories of the renunciation of mimetic-tainted worldly goals for the only true mediation, that of God (the Son). But although, to paraphrase Jean-Pierre Richard, on ne mange jamais dans les livres de Girard, for the original humans, it was not enough to resolve the questions of precedence and replace the pecking order by an egalitarian community: they still had to eat. Thus the importance of situating an edible animal (which might, but is unlikely to be, an unfortunate proto-human) at the center of the scene.
And so we see in our text what a radically “Girardian” reading of our culture, unredeemed by Christianity, would look like. If we have a math exercise in class, then just as with the T-ball game on the recreation field, everybody wins, and certainly not that “white” mathematics professor who microaggressively asserts that some specific answer is “correct.”
I must unironically thank Prof. Gutiérrez for her text, (which I hope to read someday in the original). No doubt its anthropological possibilities were not in her mind, but neither are the ideas inspired by a work of art in the mind of the artist. What this text reveals, in all seriousness, is a fundamental structure of the human, and to refute its delirious conclusion, rather than simply dismissing it, is to make precise the necessity that the element of firstness be included among the essential constituents of the originary scene.