The other day I had a conversation with K, an old friend I have known since I came to UCLA in 1969. Although she reads my Chronicles on occasion, she is by no means a practitioner of GA, and this made it all the more interesting that our conversation centered around a subject of common perplexity: how to explain the extraordinary proportions taken by what I call the victimary since Trump’s taking office. We discussed such things as the violent contempt for someone who was after all elected president, the extraordinary vulgarity of the expressions of this contempt, absurd talk of impeachment and accusations of “white supremacy” and even antisemitism—all the while defending the well-documented antisemitism of our Muslim congresswomen—, the Kavanagh fiasco…
And, as an emblematic illustration of the power of the victimary, the Harvard administration’s recent decision to relieve law professor Ronald Sullivan and his wife, whose blackness only adds to the irony, of their positions as “Deans” of Winthrop House because he is representing Harvey Weinstein in court. One can conceive students staging a protest against this, throwing a tantrum as children will do as a way of testing their power. But that the administration of our most august academic institution would endorse their “grievance” reveals an extraordinary degree of moral rot. Prof. Sullivan’s “crime” is providing Mr. Weinstein with due process, and whether or not students find this “trauma-inducing” should be the least of our concerns.
Before arriving at a decision, Harvard College Dean Khurana took a “climate survey,” a procedure that consists of trolling for complaints, in effect hoping for complaints, whether any would be produced spontaneously or not. This is the kind of survey one expects from a marketing operation; but as I know from UCLA, it has become common on campuses to assess the kind of “trauma” evidenced here. And as a result, the Dean ordered the Sullivans’ dismissal.
That all evidence suggests that our political system can survive such excesses of vileness is almost more unsettling, if less catastrophic, than if we could use such incidents to confidently predict its downfall. Hitler and Stalin may have been evil, but nothing in Nazism and Communism compares in abjection to the Harvard decision. I can understand, even without forgiveness, how people betrayed their friends to the Nazis. It is easy to feel contempt for these people from the safety of a world that has never seen SS men patrolling the streets.
Concealing a Jew under Hitler, or an “enemy of the state” under Stalin, was at the very least a life-endangering situation. Dean Khurana ran no risk of ending up in Auschwitz. Few public actions are more contemptible than that of someone hired to set an example of “academic freedom” to the campus and the world at large who lets himself be cowed by students claiming to feel traumatized by proximity to the legal defender of one accused of a crime. Yet this has now become the expected reaction to similar threats, as we have seen at Yale, the University of Missouri, Evergreen College…
In seeking the root of such disgraceful incidents, my first point of reference is the French Revolution and what I believe was the world’s first, tacit if not explicit, affirmation of resentment as the source of moral authority—le ressentiment in its modern, Nietzschean sense, as opposed to the noble ressentiment of the man who challenges another to a duel for staining his honor. Resentment, our sense of injustice whether “objectively” justified or not, has always been with us; its violent potential presides, as the originary hypothesis would have it, over the birth of the sign and of the human itself. The deferral of violence, if it is to be a genuine deferral and not the peace of exhaustion, must dispel resentment, whether by offering sacrifice (and food!), or, in less desperate times, the mimetically satisfying example of its presumably justified discharge in popular culture alongside the high-cultural display of our eternal connection to the terror of the moment of origin. Sacred awe separates these two cultural levels, but only as a matter of emphasis.
Thus the Jacobins took the resentment of the Third Estate as their moral yardstick in declaring the illegitimacy of the privileges of the other two. We need no Aristotle or Montesquieu to analyze the various forms of sovereignty; our resentment of the Old Regime demonstrates its injustice—while at the same time making clear the need for an avant-garde to raise the consciousness of those stalled in Burkean complacency. The privileges of the anointed royal hierarchy are therefore abolished; we are now all “citizens,” including citoyen Capet.
This historically new development gave birth to the fundamental dichotomy of modern politics with the division of the 1789 Assemblée constituante into Left and Right, the Left being defined from the outset by its rejection of the King’s supreme power, thus embodying in principle the rejection of all “privileged” authority. This was what Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point.
This moral license granted to the clients of the Left had only a limited field of application through the 19th century, although it flared up in France more often than elsewhere. But although the epistemology of resentment led to a sense of justified rage among groups excluded from power, it was never shared by more than a scattered few among their privileged superiors.
Marxism in principle gave socialism a raison d’être independent of resentment, and in fact, of any form of revolutionary politics; capitalism’s “falling rate of profit” would supposedly by itself “sound the knell” of private property. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threadbare myth of “scientific socialism” gave way to the Left’s current reliance on the increasingly naked resentment of a network of “intersectional” victimary groups. A minor but troubling side-effect of this incitement has been a rise in mass shootings by loners whose sense of grievance could not be channeled into more socially acceptable paths.
The greatest innovation of our victimary era has been the extraordinary power of cooptation we witness in the Sullivan incident. The virtual entirety of the social elite, the academic more than any other, now stands fully on the side of the “victims.” Rather than accepting, as in traditional social orders, the Burkean a priori that, the order having stood the test of time, any injustice within it is an exception, today’s elite gives the complainer the benefit of the doubt, obliging the complainee at best to defend himself—and often, as here, considering any such effort as irrelevant: how can I defend myself against your pain?
The working assumption of these elites, whether or not they consider themselves active supporters of the Left (I’d bet quite a bit of money that neither Khurana nor any of the protestors voted for Trump), is that, among society’s conglomeration of practices, far too many are complicit with—“racist,” “transphobic”…—evil, and that we must be ever vigilant in unearthing injustices we may have been blindly taking for granted.
The following text by Michael Kinsley, quoted in Chronicle 310 from the December 12, 2004 issue of the Los Angeles Times, is strikingly apposite, both in its application to these events, and as an indication of how much things have changed in fifteen years:
[The acceleration of the process of recognizing injustice] means that all of us who consider ourselves good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans–but don’t claim to be great visionaries–are probably staring right now at an injustice that will soon seem obvious, and we just don’t see it. Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel and wrong.
The major difference, of course, between Kinsley’s perspective and mine is that he sees this state of affairs, however uncomfortable, as a genuine sign of moral progress. His black lesbian, who benefits today from victimary thinking, must learn that she too may have “privileges” that victimize others.
One could claim that this is the lesson being taught to the poor Sullivans, but I somehow doubt that an old-fashioned liberal like Kinsley would have found this an example of progress. For one thing, no one is punished or humiliated in Kinsley’s example. And the implication that we must not only give the most dubious feelings of resentment the benefit of the doubt, but solicit their expression through “climate surveys,” is not exactly the behavior of “good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans.” Indeed, those whose grievances were solicited and honored are probably not in a hurry to consider themselves Americans at all, heirs to Indian massacres and slavery. Contingently residents of the United States, they are citizens of the world. And as the term crybullies makes clear, they are well aware that it is they, not Harvard’s deans or its illustrious faculty, who have the upper hand. Yet so long as the latter play their roles in the academic morality farce, they have little to complain about.
The “hatred” of Trump is an artifact of this anti-Burkeanism. Trump is an old-fashioned guy, over 70 and happy to express himself as people did in the years when he was growing up. No doubt sometimes his remarks are out of sync with mores that have evolved in a positive direction; calling an unfriendly judge a “Mexican” was truly in bad taste. Yet I for one would take this more seriously if, as the Left works so hard to convince us, prejudice against victimary minorities were genuinely a powerful force today. On the contrary, the shoe is on the other foot, and it is perfectly all right for political leaders, let alone minority spokespersons, to display the most egregious prejudices against (non-elite) whites, beginning with Obama’s “clingers” and Hillary’s “deplorables,” or against Christians who have reservations about abortion or homosexual marriage. White racism certainly merits no defense, but denouncing it takes about as much courage as yelling “F… Trump!” at a Hollywood awards ceremony. And that the promotion of outrageous expressions of minority resentment has done precious little for their communities is something a not insignificant number of minority voters have been noticing.
Trump’s foibles are not the real source of the hatred, nor, I am quite positive in saying, are they the reason he was elected. Trump is reacting to the excesses of the Left’s attack on the legitimacy of his election and of American system of government itself. Already when Obama came to power, his promise of “hope and change” was a bit more than the usual claim to make things better; things were supposed to change fundamentally, as if we were already in a pre-revolutionary state. Needless to say, such rhetoric can be discounted as political hyperbole, and as we are seeing, most of Obama’s “revolutionary” measures could be undone. But what has been on the contrary redoubled by the failure of Obama’s successor to gain the White House is the extent of the Left’s reality-denying passions: from removing Trump via Amendment 25 to impeaching him for “collusion” to sabotaging the “white-supremacist” Electoral College and packing the Supreme Court. Nothing is more outrageous to them than Trump’s MAGA slogan, the response to which is not that America has always been great but, on the contrary, that it was never great in the first place.
The genius of the epistemology of resentment is that it is a self-fulfilling ideology. If the “victim” receives satisfaction, he need not be grateful; he is only getting his due, and he suffers from far too many remaining injustices for him to feel a sense of gratitude. If he fails, his resentment only grows, and its justification is made manifest.
The only possible response would be to reject, not individual grievances, which may or may not be valid, but the whole victimary mindset. But how, in the absence of coercive force or spiritual authority, persuade people to renounce the immense satisfaction of socially approved resentment, with the virtue-signaling support of those who cannot claim victimhood for themselves?
To ask the question is to answer it. Nor need we wonder if it is even remotely conceivable that, despite the shakiness of its Constitutional status, we might put an end to the cornerstone of the victimary system, the policy of “affirmative action,” now often relabeled as “diversity.” The original idea of AA was to bring insufficiently prepared individuals up to a competitive level, in compensation for inferior schooling and/or eco-cultural background. From what I hear, this is indeed the way AA works in the Armed Forces; you may get extra prep, but in the end, you have to pass the same exam.
But elsewhere, the policy very soon morphed, under the stimulus of avoiding disparate impact, into direct compensation for racial or other ascriptive victimary status, with no requirement of equal results. As such, it has become a mainstay of the ever-burgeoning victimary-diversity industry on campuses and elsewhere, by means of which the real achievements of entire benefited minorities are tainted, as if to justify the racism the policy is supposed to be fighting. The hostility of the Democratic-Teachers Union machinery to charter schools that work to instill in minority students the Booker T. ideal of self-improvement is a foregone conclusion.
Yet the lessons of history are never entirely negative. The insights that produced the modern world—and led to GA—would have been inconceivable without the revolutionary unleashing of resentment. However unpleasant its public manifestations, resentment is indeed the mechanism by which the moral model of universal equality is “enforced” within our individual psyches. No doubt society functions more smoothly when people respect the systems of authority that have evolved over time as reflections of a higher wisdom, human and/or divine. But much as we may admire the dignity and communal unity of past times, we cannot pretend that social hierarchies are inscribed in human or divine nature when our deepest intuition affirms the truth of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Our resentments may need to be educated and controlled, but they cannot simply be suppressed.
Given these considerations, moral values aside, the solution that has emerged from the combination of the digitalization-globalization of the economy and the need to recycle the resentments of a new “millennial” generation not at all sure of surpassing or even equaling the economic level of their parents must be considered remarkably ingenious. In the abstract, the modern “progressive” denounces the “1%” and wants to impose punitive taxes on the “rich.” But in practice, the ultra-wealthy, particularly in the digital fields, are overwhelmingly on the progressive side; they vote Democratic and many of them fund more or less openly such left-wing operations as Antifa. Progressives complain about differences of wealth, but in practice all their resentful energy is invested in defending intersectional victim groups against “white privilege” and its Trumpian manifestations. The only salary differentials that excite their anger are those that disadvantage victimary groups. More outrage is aroused by a remark they can describe as “racist” or “Islamophobic” than by the accumulation of tens of billions of dollars by tech executives.
In short, the victimary theater is maintained outside the precincts of the real economy, and the economic woes of the millennials themselves are left largely untended. In the run-up to the 2020 campaign, the Democrats have no real economic program, but expend their energies on promoting “socialist” initiatives such as the “Green New Deal” and Medicare for all, which in the back of their minds they must realize are completely unrealistic.
Thus in a sense the results of the epistemology of resentment have come full circle: today we are witnessing the near-complete displacement of self-righteous resentment from lived reality to ludicrous symbolic triumphs like the humbling of Harvard’s administration in the Sullivan incident.
But what better advertisement could there be for the superiority of the liberal-democratic system than to be able to write this on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre? If that is all it takes…
Consequently, the question that remains in my mind is whether modern industrial society has not arrived at a stable state in which the elite, in partnership with victimary groups, controls the political system. Trump’s victory may have been the last Burkean hurrah. Given the benefits of victimocracy to the leaders of industry as well as the elite of the media and entertainment worlds, the possibility of reconverting today’s “socialist” Democratic electorate, not, God forbid, to conservatism, but merely to its traditional liberal role in the standard Right-Left configuration, becomes difficult to conceive.
Whence my fear that, when the last traces of the egalitarian postwar democracy founded on the well-paid factory job will have vanished, the Brave New World of victimocracy will become the default. Absent nuclear apocalypse, the Alphas and the Betas, in alliance with the Deltas and Epsilons, will rule forever over the “global” economy, holding up to much-tweeted scorn the deplorable, clinging, flyover Gammas of what was once the proud American middle class.