Last week I spent a good deal of time working on a Chronicle about the victimary “Zeitgeist” that has taken over much of our culture. Yet I ultimately found that expressing once more my opposition to the victimary, along with a few analytical remarks I had already made more than once, was not useful. No doubt there are times when one must dare to protest, but an online essay by a retired professor with a few dozen readers is not a world-historical act, particularly when he has already made the same points previously. What seems to be needed is a morality, or more precisely, an ethic, and at least the outline of a political program, to counter the insidious moralism that allowed Obama to greet Raul Castro before a monument to Che Guevara, while in the US, “progressive” institutions, after demolishing statues of Robert E. Lee, are painting over murals dedicated to George Washington.
I have no sympathy with the fundamental victimary premise that Western culture is fundamentally flawed by its adherence to “white” supremacy and its practice of various forms of (often unconscious) discrimination against “intersectional” victimary groups. But I do have sympathy for those in GA circles who are impatient at my writings on the subject. For I must admit that, whatever the value of my analyses alleging the digital revolution and the increased emphasis on symbolic as opposed to physical manipulations as what the Marxists would call its “infrastructural” sources, they have not led to a plan of action, or produced political arguments that have any promise of effectiveness.
In what we might call the “Burkean” past, the society maintained itself through the wisdom of inertia. Religious institutions, which understood that the real world necessarily depends on inequalities that always risk being interpreted as injustices, played the principal role in reconciling people with the objects of their resentment.
Burke made his points in a strictly secular context in reaction to the French Revolution, where (see Chronicle 621) resentment was set at the center of moral epistemology, a place from which it has never since been driven. Faced with the problems of the catastrophic tyrannies of the left and so-called “right”—the latter of which are in fact evil twins of the left, as Hitler’s “socialism” was of Stalin’s—liberal democracy has remained since the British and above all the American Revolutions the solution of choice. I have not yet lost my Fukuyaman belief in the ultimate superiority of this system—always, as Churchill put it, as the worst with the exception of all the others. But I must admit that my confidence has been shaken as I watch victimary folly spread nearly unchecked through the culture.
The power of “PC” comes from our reluctance to “blame the victim,” not simply for undeserved persecution, but for “disparate impact,” measured as a correlation between ascriptive categories and outcomes. UCLA and everywhere else wouldn’t be hiring deans of “diversity and inclusion” in every division and school for any other reason.
The originary hypothesis, and the universal human faith in the “moral model” born in the originary reciprocal exchange of signs, form the basis of any conceivable universal ethic. What makes all such ethics problematic, and will presumably always do so, is that the freedom that deferral provides to human consciousness is also the source of a vastly enhanced potential of firstness, in ability but above all in achievement. Chimpanzees, like humans, make tools, but I need not point out which species has done more with them.
Let us recall Adam Katz’s point that the sign, being the first product of a truly human initiative, could not have been the “spontaneous” discovery of the entire originary group, but must first have been grasped by one or a few of the members as potentially something other than a mere indexical consequence of the ”aborted gesture,” and thereupon transmitted to and adopted by the others. Given this originary model of firstness, it is most significant that we must suppose that this “leadership” conferred no special status on the sign’s originator(s).
But well before the invention of sedentary agriculture in the Neolithic, the opening up of human consciousness by the deferral inherent in language would have permitted many small triumphs of firstness, which is only to say, of human initiative. Indeed, the high level of violence in most remaining hunter-gatherer societies would seem to be a testimony to the disequilibrium brought about by a strict distributional egalitarianism. Someone can always be thought to be taking more than his share, and some certainly do; feuds and murders tend to abound. The usurpation of the center by the big-man was not the violation of an Edenic “state of nature,” but a concession to firstness at the point when it could begin to serve a universal social function.
Ever since, humanity has faced the question of balancing firstness with moral equality. That this requires concessions to the less gifted to compensate their lesser earning power is a common feature of today’s liberal-democratic “welfare states.” What is new today is that victimary politics is far less interested in trying to raise the potential of those left behind in the digital era than in explaining their condition as a fundamental injustice rooted in racial and related discrimination.
A theory of origin is not a magic formula; its virtue is to provide a universal model of humanity’s fundamental traits, one of which is certainly not the color of our skin. Here, then is a brief statement of a GA-inspired ethic and, in a way, a suggested political program.
By separating people into ascriptive groups, victimocracy makes political dialogue and compromise impossible. “Math is white” may be ridiculous on its face, but it makes a real point, which is that in politics, power does not come from the logical strength of one’s reasoning. The young people who have made a hell of the Providence school district (see https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-education-horror-show-11562532467), as well as of so many others, need not formulate the idea in such bald terms, but the tragedy is that they enact it in the classroom. And teachers who fear suspending students “disproportionately” are incapable of putting an end to this situation, which benefits the students least of all. A society that establishes racial quotas for everything from delinquency to college admissions is on the wrong track.
We are all one “race.” Skin color has become an absurd fetish. Natives of India/Pakistan, who years ago were simply called “Caucasians,” are today classed as “POC” or “brown” people. The US has accommodated better than just about any other society a variety of immigrants from all over the world, and has done its best to abolish the traces of slavery. It is shameful to witness the constant attempts to destroy our citizens’ identification as Americans to the profit of an “intersectional” mixture of resentments, including that of the application of immigration laws to illegal migrants.
As I have tried to show (see Chronicle 597), the Western-style nation-state, with its monotheistic roots, offers its citizens the most direct connection to the originary unity that made humanity possible. But affirmation of national unity in turn implies a race- and ethnicity-blind legal system.
The United States should stop dividing its citizenry by ascriptive categories. Attention must be paid to economic conditions, and laws against discrimination must be strictly enforced. But racial quotas, whether or not wearing the fig leaf of “diversity,” are alien to the spirit of our Constitution and should be abolished.
“Affirmative action” should be maintained where needed. But it should be practiced as it was originally intended, not as a demeaning gift of points on an SAT score, but as an added opportunity for remedial work for those whose talents may have been overshadowed by inadequate preparation. Whatever advantages might be conferred by supplementary help are unimportant if in the end we all take the same test. For we are all one people, and should be expected to meet the same criteria, be they manual or digital.
As Chief Justice Roberts put it in 2007, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Let us hope that the Supreme Court can rise to the occasion and produce a humane but effective plan to do just this.