The West’s current cultural-political crisis, as is typical of critical situations, has no clear precedents and must be continually rethought in the light of large and small revelations. A recent revelatory moment is the following sub-head in the Nov. 2 Figaro:
Le Comité central du PCC s’engage dans un combat idéologique pour supplanter les valeurs démocratiques. (The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is engaging in an ideological combat to supplant democratic values).
According to this article, Xi Jinping has set as a goal for China to demonstrate the superiority of its system of governance over Western “liberal democracy” by 2049. One smiles to remember Khrushchev’s “we will bury you,” but this is a far more serious challenge, one that involves not merely economic dominance but a whole way of life. I won’t likely be around in 2049, but it will be upon us soon enough.
Let me recall one other revelatory moment: Robert De Niro’s cry of “F… Trump!” at the 2018 Tony award ceremony, which was greeted by a standing ovation (see Chronicle 612). I was reminded of it the other day at the Motion Picture Academy when a panelist spoke ominously, albeit much more politely, of “the current political situation” with a clearly negative reference to the current administration. Particularly in this latter form, we should be glad that we have the freedom to criticize the government, as would certainly not be possible in China, even in private conversations.
But a political ambience where “criticism” of the President goes to the point of the enthusiastic reception of an obscenity, or where Rashida Tlaib’s campaign can sell “Impeach the MF” T-shirts, cannot be called healthy. When the elected leader of a democracy can be disrespected to this point by a whole fraction of the population, including many in his own party, who although not using foul language speak of him with contempt, it becomes difficult to appreciate the value of freedom of speech not supplemented by self-control and decency—in contrast to the increasingly draconian restrictions on anything construable in any way as “hate speech.” Can a democracy that has degenerated to this point—including an “impeachment process” that, like Tlaib’s T-shirt slogan, has been with us non-stop since the 2016 election—hold out until 2049 against a reasonably well-run dictatorship? A republic, if you can keep it?
All this makes me sympathetic to Adam Katz’s young disciples, who have good reason to be skeptical of liberal democracy as currently practiced in the West. That the American economy has been healthy, that minority salaries have improved, etc., such facts are powerless to affect the mood created by the culture and those who profit economically from it. This is the Brave New World structured by the coalition that Dinesh D’Souza described not inaccurately in Death of a Nation (All Points Books, 2018) as the Democratic Party’s “plantation politics”: the rich and poor against the middle class, or more precisely, the wealthy Alphas, their professional cadre of Betas, the unskilled-worker Deltas, and the welfare-receiving Epsilons against the middle-class Gammas, whose traditional American loyalties are constantly denigrated throughout the entire gamut of public institutions, from the public schools to the universities to the corporate world.
It does no good to explain to those hostile to Trump that, paradoxically, at the time of his election, traditional respectability could be salvaged only by someone himself slightly disreputable, just as, in the entertainment world, Reality TV has served as the stigmatized and buffoonish repository of traditional values, those for example of Duck Dynasty (see Chronicle 512). These are the values of the population that the newly “progressive” Hillary Clinton denounced as deplorables—those of us who celebrate Columbus Day and put American flags on our cars (or pickup trucks). How much longer can our culture turn its back on its national traditions in the name of victimary virtue-signaling and expect to remain the developed world’s favored model of governance? I can well understand the disgust of those who did not, like those of my generation, have a chance at university careers at a time when “white male” was not yet a badge of iniquity and Western culture and his-tory were not held up to victimary shaming.
We should be thankful to Xi and the CCPCC for reminding us that neither our economic hegemony nor our exemplarity as a socio-political system is guaranteed to endure, nor even that it will remain malgré tout more agreeable to live under. The first duty of a government is to keep order. Hitler kept order better than Weimar, and we know what that led to. “F… Trump!” is surely preferable to “Heil Hitler!” but we are foolish to ignore how one may lead to the other—and not because Trump is himself a Nazi.
In my fifty years in LA, my moments of contact with Hollywood have taught me that, yes, these are the people who cheered De Niro, but they cannot simply be dismissed. Unlike most academics, they operate in a true marketplace, of the kind whose discipline is indispensable in any viable economic system. It follows from this that in order to produce even the schlockiest film, they must deploy, at every level, skills tested by reality. My limited acquaintance with the film industry has instilled in me a deep respect for the many crafts it involves. (My first wife’s father, for example, made his living designing movie posters.)
What is more, market considerations aside, I cannot deny my own susceptibility to the sheer esthetic power of a good movie, of which, among the plethora of comic-book narratives and occasional propaganda pieces, there are surprisingly many—often based on true and touching stories, such as, for example 2016’s Chuck, with Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber, and A United Kingdom, with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.
One would think that there must be hope for a world that can share such stories, investing millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours in successfully bringing esthetic satisfaction to a varied audience. I find it hard to grasp what there is to like in popular music today—a problem I never had with any of its previous incarnations—but I do not tire of cinema, and the production of films truly worth watching remains high enough so that I can view one nearly every day without too many disappointments, and with many pleasant surprises.
Watching movies gives me the idea that, despite De Niro’s standing ovation, we share a lot more values than we give ourselves credit for. Even most films I consider meretricious and false err more through slipshod plotting and indulgence in violence and vulgarity than in the service of a political agenda.
A similar hopefulness is inspired by the everyday peacefulness and cordiality of civil society. To listen to “activists” on campus and elsewhere, the whole society is at war, yet whites and blacks, men and women, even those of “trans” gender, maintain cordial relations almost all the time, and in most neighborhoods, suffer relatively little from criminality.
So why then, to quote the immortal Rodney King, can’t we all just get along? If we don’t need Hitler or Xi Jinping to tell us what movies to watch (Hollywood’s pandering to China, like that of the NBA, belongs to a different register), why do we increasingly seem to need one of them to induce in our cultural-political system a mature spirit of compromise and cooperation?
One point I have made repeatedly, but that is rarely articulated by critics of current “progressive” or “woke” politics—although Trump’s condemnation of PC was a key element in his victory—is that it is 100% victimary. The term itself, I admit, is a somewhat awkward Gallicism, but the French should be complimented simply for having a term for this tendency’s most significant element.
René Girard was very much aware of this. I quoted in Chronicle 427 the following passage about the postwar era from his 1999 Je vois Satan tomber comme un éclair:
Far from snuffing out concern for victims, [the Hitlerian enterprise] only accelerated its progress, but has left it completely demoralized. Hitlerism has avenged its failure by making the concern for victims despairing and caricatural. (p. 271, my translation)
One can only imagine what he would say today.
But I think that the deeper point of Girard’s remark, which explains its pessimistic tone, is rather that, as he always recognized, Western society is Judeo-Christian, that is, it operates through the balance, in rough terms, between a Jewish “right” and a Christian “left,” Christian transcendentalism and Jewish this-worldliness, New-Testament identification with victims and Old-Testament protection of victims. It would seem that the time has come to put the reestablishment of this equilibrium at the heart of our cultural-political efforts.
For if we cannot prevent viewing the contemporary Left’s victimary practices as “virtuous”—as, despite its irony, the term virtue-signaling admits—then, to put it bluntly, our civilization is doomed. If we cannot recognize the immorality of victimary thinking and the resentment it claims to justify, to the point where today in the US, for the first time, the label socialism, although shared by both Hitler and Stalin, has become a term of left-wing “virtue”—then we must admit that our Judeo-Christian system has failed, and let the remaining systems, “Oriental Despotism” on the one hand and Islamism on the other, fight it out, perhaps to merge one day in a future dystopia.
A November 4 op-ed in Le Figaro by Jacques Julliard, entitled “La gauche et la honte d’être soi” (“The Left and the Shame of Being Oneself” [i.e., White Guilt]), expresses, without apparent irony, the author’s perplexity that today’s French Left appears to take the inverse of traditional left-wing positions. If we examine the details of this critique, we not only arrive at the conclusion that the new Left’s victimary posture explains the totality of the mystery, but that this transition can only be responded to by reactivating the Jewish element of Western ethics. In a word, what is needed is a new kind of “Reformation,” directed no longer at the Catholic Church or at institutional Christianity in general, but at the caricaturally Christian cult of the victim.
Julliard focuses on three areas: la laïcité, the French secularism that expels religion, much more strictly than in the US, from the public square; the educational system, the traditional seat of anti-clericalism and of France’s strictly enforced meritocracy; and national pride, which the Revolution had split into Left and Right varieties, but in which the Left, even in the era of the Comintern, had remained generally steadfast, an identification reinforced by the Communists’ dominant role in the anti-Nazi résistance.
As Julliard points out, the French Left has no trouble retaining its anticlericalism toward France’s traditional Christianity. Where it lapses from laïcité is in its fear of “Islamophobia,” a term less potent here than in France, where Muslims make up some 9% of the population, including a good number of zones sensibles where police and fire fighters are commonly attacked. As for the decline of the education system, Julliard explicitly mentions the recent infection of France by American affirmative action or discrimination positive, giving extra points to test takers on the basis of what can only be described as their victimary status, although the French have so far limited this status to economic hardship and have not established racial quotas. As for national pride, “Europe” in the form of the EU has served not merely to amalgamate its varied nationalities but to diffuse and discredit the very sense of national identity, as embodied in Merkel’s 2015 admission of a million immigrants (“Wir schaffen das”), or Macron’s 2017 quip: Il n’y a pas de culture française. Il y a une culture en France. Elle est diverse (There is no French culture. There is a culture in France. It is diverse.)
The old Left was motivated by the same faith in resentment as the new, but the focus of this resentment has changed; it is no longer directed against a stigmatized privileged group (capitalists, colonials…), but against the very Western self. French self-hatred is analogous to American “White Guilt,” albeit more ethnic and “post-colonial” than strictly racial. Whereas the bourgeois-intellectual leaders of the old Left provided a world-historical rationale for identifying with the “proletariat” as the universal class to which we would all eventually belong, the ascriptivist victimism of today’s Left allows “identification with the Other” only in the case of transsexuals, who identify not with but as members of the opposite sex—a gesture that above all identifies them as members of the victimary class of transsexuals.
The point of White Guilt in its various guises is that there is no classless society to look forward to, but an endless future of repentance for those of European descent who must forever atone for their indelible whiteness and/or maleness—the marks of the firstness they share with the Jews.
The permanence of self-shame corresponds to the transfinite nature of the New Left utopia. However mythical may have been the “withering away of the state under communism,” it provided a stable blueprint for a utopian ideal. Whereas the victimary ideal, the abolition of all “inequality,” could be fulfilled only by establishing the “equality” of all ascriptive groups as defined by any criteria, including those we have not yet thought of. As opinion columnist Michael Kinsley wrote in the Los Angeles Times back on December 12, 2004 (see Chronicle 310):
. . . 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.
If the first user of the sign, at a moment when the very category of “sign” had not yet been invented/discovered, was the ur-example of firstness in the human sense, and his innovation became the origin of human language and of the human itself by drowning its user’s individual status in the mimetic reaction it engendered, White Guilt is panic at the deferral of this reaction, the time-lag between a given individual or collective innovation and its adoption by the totality of the human population, as well as at the related fact, discovered by the first “big-man” at a more advanced stage of social development, that moral equality does not imply equal competence at the tasks that benefit the community.
The idea that, as opposed to noblesse oblige—which has by no means been limited to the nobility—a sense of shame is the appropriate response to ascriptive inequality of any kind reflects a post-Revolutionary “Christian” transcendentalism run rampant, to the point of denying all validity to the worldly, “Jewish” element of Western Civilization. It is surely one of the most pernicious notions that humanity has contrived. But its very abstraction is a gift to those of us who seek the roots of its pathology.
This is why I think we should consider the never fully assured survival of the State of Israel to be exemplary of the parlous condition of Western Civilization, as it struggles to find an effective means of preserving its legacy in the digital age. The unexpectedly renewed vigor of antisemitism, which explains rather than being explained by the Left’s sympathy for the Palestinian population, is a direct consequence of Israel’s struggle for legitimacy.
How pleasant it would be to imagine that a less egocentric Eastern vision of humanity, as exemplified by Nagarjuna’s Mahayana Buddhism (see Chronicles 515–516), might offer Westerners a basis on which to understand their “privileges,” not as occasions for guilt but rather, on analogy with the Bodhisattva who puts off Nirvana in order to enlighten his fellow humans, as opportunities for contribution to their society, and to humanity in general.