There would have been no difficulty in realizing the “moral model” of human reciprocity on the originary human scene. The beginning of representation that is the basis of human culture can only have occurred in an event characterized by the mutual presence of a small, face to face group, presumably of hunter-scavengers coming upon a source of food. At this stage, there can be only one “language,” one “religion,” and a symmetrical reciprocity that in principle links all the members of the originary group, in contrast to the previously existing linear animal hierarchy. At this stage, the cultural identity of the members is equivalent to their humanity.
But once there is more than one human community, the “question of identity” becomes intrinsically problematic. As we know, in tribal cultures, the typical reaction to members of other groups who don’t speak one’s language is to consider them as either less or more than human. Yet that this can occur only once representation has created the human culture of the “first” group explains why the moral model always retains the promise of a virtual universal equality, even if in the real world, affirming the humanity of members of other groups is not a necessary consequence of the universality of the model.
I doubt if many humans today would simply deny the humanity of members of other “tribes” or speakers of other languages. Yet even in our “global” civilization, where all airports look alike and there are McDonalds and Starbucks (and Hermès and Armani) everywhere, no one is truly a “citizen of the world.” Everyone belongs to a number of human categories, but the central tension is between two versions of human universality: the principal identification with one’s own society—in the modern world, normally one’s nationality—and humanity as a whole.
Today in much of Western Europe, and even in some sectors of American society, although national identity may not be denied, it is no longer taken for granted as a positive value. The most visible sign of this is the extreme reluctance on the part of the European professional class to enforce national or even civilizational norms in the face of a new kind of mass immigration that no longer in principle involves the desire or even the intention to assimilate to the norms of the host culture.
In the US, virtually whose entire population has been built from immigration, this problem is less critical, yet the “progressive” segment of the professional class shares, albeit to a lesser degree, a similar resistance to “populist” nationalism. To the extent that the flavors of PC, White Guilt, or what I call the victimary differ, the American version is focused not on former colonies but on “racial” differences, to the point where a new “brown” race has been invented that, in contrast to the old categories of Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and Amerindians, includes in its stigma the non-European Caucasians along with most non-Caucasians.
If at the moment of origin, there can have been but one human community, today, the ideal of a “global” society implies another kind of cultural universality. One seldom hears any longer the term “consumer society”; we have seemingly absorbed the notion that our cultural persona is the product of our personal shopping strategy in the vast cultural megastore or grande surface. This is not the slavery of “conspicuous consumption” but the freedom of self-creation available to all but the most deprived in advanced societies, although only to elites in the poorer countries. Even religion in our age need not involve a lifelong commitment; “new age” religions and related “lifestyle choices” are indeed closer to consumer goods than to the inherited religions of the past.
But no doubt the reason that we speak less of the consumer society is that we sense that in Western democracies, this aspect of modernity is problematic only for those who engage in PC denunciations of “cultural appropriation.” The problematization of personal identity is centered today outside the framework of one’s self-image, in the primary domain of nationality. It is far less urgent in the US than in Europe, yet in a critical aspect, the problems are comparable, and their difference gives us an insight into the real core of the identity issue.
In Europe, the identity problem is posed starkly by the radical demographic shift that in many countries appears to be fulfilling the prophecy of “Eurabia”—to which we should add a more recent but ultimately more threatening one of “Eurafrica.” The youth of these countries, whose women average well below the self-perpetuating 2.1 children, is increasingly non-native, and above all Islamic; in a recent statistic, fully 45% of German children under 5 were born to immigrant parents. The long-term questions of identity thus posed can hardly be faced in the framework of a cultural supermarket.
In the US, neither national identity nor demography are in crisis. But as if to demonstrate that the identity question has a deeper basis, American “elite”-progressive society is increasingly obsessed with “identity politics,” for which a whole new stigmatizing vocabulary, from Islamophobia to transphobia to cisgenderism, has been invented to stigmatize those who fail to express the proper obeisance to the imperative of victimary or “White” guilt.
Seen in the light of the European situation, one is tempted to say that the specifics of White Guilt are less important than the fact of it: the advanced societies of the West—although not those of East Asia, where the Japanese experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki as wiping the slate clean of their sins in WWII in a way that Germany, for all the destruction of cities and life, did not—are uncomfortable with firstness. Whether the guilt is post-colonial or “racial” is less important than the discomfort of being a collectivity proud of its unique distinction from others. As opposed to either Christian humility and indifference to worldly advantages, or to Buddhist renunciation of worldly desire, this guilt is a specifically post-modern, post-war, attitude that mirrors the resentment, real or imagined, of those groups that this firstness marks by its exclusion.
Seen in this perspective, the current problematization of European identity is less a matter of governance than of fundamental social identity. Hence, in contrast to those who see the “new nationalism” of Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary or of parties such as the AfD in Germany, the FPO in Austria, or the Lega Nord in Italy as posing dangers of neo-fascism, I find this awakened patriotism encouraging.
For the “globalist” ideology that denies national identity has no real alternative to offer. There is no “global” nation, merely humanity itself, to which we all belong, but not as members of a community. One can lose touch with one’s cultural origins, but no “global” culture, nor even a “European” culture, can replace them.
In my recent discussions of victimary thinking, I have described the strictures of “PC” as seeking to assimilate the human world to a universal “polite conversation,” one that I would be tempted to call a “tea party” had this term not been preempted by a very different political phenomenon. This one, in any case, would recall not the very unrefined “Boston Tea Party,” but rather the one that Mao said that revolution was not.
But with reference to Chronicle 460, I would add a nuance to this designation. The bottom line here, as in all reflections on human inequality, remains that firstness contradicts the originary moral model and thus always arouses resentment. But victimary thinking, rather than defining human culture as an egalitarian liberation from animal hierarchy that only subsequently “falls” into hierarchy and inequality, prefers to see the origin of language as always already a mode of oppression.
This becomes clear from Derrida’s discussion of the origin of the “myth of presence,” where by assimilating language to writing (écriture) he extends Rousseau’s Platonic-“grammatological” critique of writing in contrast to speech to language in general. For Derrida, the Rousseauian parallel between the Fall and the origin of private property and inequality (Le premier qui dit, ‘Ceci est à moi!’), is denounced as a myth; there never was an Eden nor was there ever a non-oppressive language.
As I have shown, this is a contre–sens. Language is a liberation, and what Derrida calls the myth of presence is a parasitic accretion on originary linguistic presence which is, precisely, inhabited by différance. All the “errors” of contemporary victimary thought are contained in this politically motivated act of méconnaissance—as if this demonstration could have any more effect on the victimary fundamentalists than debunking race theory would have had on the German electorate in 1933.
I insist on this point because it is not just a nuance. Instead of the reflection of a “naïve” desire for equality and a return to Edenic love over “fallen” resentment, victimary thought is resentment all the way down, as past and present socialisms have always been. Grounded as it is on an anthropology that begins with oppression, for which so to speak the Nazis and their victims have been there from the beginning, it is no wonder that socialism has produced so many monstrous tyrannies.
The question of defining a nation is not one that can be resolved by theorizing about “liberalism” or “populism,” but it can be clarified by reference to the origin of the national concept, which in the West—the specificity of Asian cultures must be left aside for the moment—is tied to the recognition of the One God of the Hebrews.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 468 and elsewhere, the very idea of the nation is linked to the new relationship of “chosen-ness” or firstness established between the Hebrews and the One God, in contrast to both the early “compact” kingdoms and the “ecumenical” empires that followed them. It is notable that Christianity, whose kingdom “is not of this world,” never generated a model polity of its own. On the contrary, by maintaining a gap between religious and secular state functions—the very notion of religion as a distinct institution within the state is a Christian one—Christianity spawned the world’s most highly successful civilization. Each Christian nation is, as God told the Hebrews to be, “a light unto the nations,” first in its own way.
If Western civilization is today in crisis, this reflects the recoil from “nationalism” as well as from Christianity occasioned by the Holocaust, primarily in Germany, but also among the European Allies, and whose most profound expression is their suicidal demographic deficit.
I think that we can measure the diminished ability of the participant nations of this civilization to preserve it, politically and above all, demographically, by their refusal to accept Israel, the reestablished state of the original, Hebrew nation, as a model or even as a partner. The persistence of European anti-Zionism, which is, as one hardly needs to demonstrate, the contemporary mode of Jew-hatred, reflects more than the growing “Eurabian” population. It suggests a willingness to abandon the “Westphalian” system of nations, with its roots in the Old Testament, in favor of a de-nationalized Europe, in which by default the only strong cultural identity will be that of Islam—the ironic utopia sketched out in Houllebecq’s Soumission.
But there are signs of renewal, and not just in the Eastern bloc. It is a serious mistake to assimilate European nationalists to Nazis, when the Nazi bogey-man, having long outlived its contribution to postwar democracy and tolerance, continues to serve only as a stimulus for Western White Guilt and oikophobia. Need I elaborate on the obvious point that, to the extent that normal patriotism is shunned as a return to fascism, only fascists will dare present themselves as patriots?
It seems to me that, following the Israeli example, the world’s civilized states can survive only if they return to the Westphalian model, for which the two fundamental identities of each member of society are, on the one hand, as a member of his or her nation, and on the other, as a member of what had formerly been Christendom, but must now become, as it always was implicitly, humanity as a whole.
As for “Europe,” if it can somehow unite its component nations into a single federal one, well and good. But seventy-odd years after WWII, the “United States of Europe” seems increasingly unable to demonstrate its viability.