As has never been more evident than today, history, particularly political history, is always smarter than “smart people.” When the intelligentsia all start to repeat the same ideas, you can be assured, not necessarily that they are “false,” but that they have become irrelevant to the problem at hand.
This has certainly been true over the past decade or two in the academic world, which becomes ever more immersed in the victimary thinking that my readers are surely tired of hearing about.
But being myself one of the “smart people,” I recognize that denouncing their folly is no less futile. The theses of victimary ideology are certainly vulnerable to ridicule, or would be if everyone were an emeritus professor on a pension as opposed to a job-seeking PhD devoid of victimary advantages. Ridicule is as much a sign of frustration as of genuine superiority. If ridicule were, as in an aristocratic 18th century salon (cf. the film Ridicule), effectively murderous (la ridicule tue), one would not have to use it more than once. As it is, the more absurd the underlying theses of victimary thinking, the more crucial it is to explain them by reasons more profound than power-hunger and delusion. Explaining is not condoning, but neither is it simply pointing to the emperor’s new clothes.
It might seem strange to imagine my defending “liberalism” precisely at a time when it is being attacked by everyone on the right, especially the element of it that takes religion seriously (which is not the same as the “religious right” of Falwell et al.).
I am not talking about the “liberalism” of the mainstream press. In a recent MSM piece, Biden was described as the standard-bearer of the “centrist” wing of the Democratic party, and Sanders that of the “liberal” wing. If Sanders is a “liberal,” should we call Stalin an “ultra-liberal”?
The liberalism I would defend is not that of the Democrats, not even of FDR and Truman, for whom I feel a residual nostalgia. It is the nominal form of the adjective used in describing what remains the world’s most successful social order as liberal democracy. I have mentioned Francis Fukuyama’s name too many times in this context to repeat my continued agreement that ours is indeed the “worst—except for all the others” political order, unless you prefer Chinese-style state capitalism cum emperor-worship.
It is this liberalism I would defend, and I deplore the confusion involved in ascribing the problems of American democracy, which is indeed close to a crisis, to the demerits of “liberalism.” The critics of liberalism typically define it by references to Locke and Mill and tutti quanti instead of focusing on the specificity of today’s politics. Use of the word functions to absolve the critic of explaining either how our “liberal” democracy has produced such aberrances, or what would remain of it if these aberrances were corrected.
Pace Heidegger, recreating mythological etymologies using ur-Aryan roots is not really the best way to understand the “originary” sense of things. Words are rooted in fairly recent history, and even Anna Wierzbicka’s praiseworthy attempt to seek the fundamental elements of the human vocabulary across linguistic differences can take her only so far. Thus it is unfortunate but not surprising that Wierzbicka’s explanation for the origin of language repeats the ultimately absurd cliché that people started talking to each other because their brains started creating ideas that they wanted to express (see Chronicles 552 and especially 553). In Adam Katz’s praiseworthy effort to use her “natural semantic metalanguage” (see in particular his March 5, 2020 GABlog post “Toward a Generative Logic of Translation”) as a means for supplementing the originary hypothesis, he might also do well to consider using the originary scene as a basis for judging the originarity of the words in its vocabulary.
No doubt any definition of liberal democracy will be both too explicit and not explicit enough. The idea that finding the right definition somehow improves the situation is a metaphysical myth. What makes liberal democracy work is not its conformity to an algorithm, presumably discoverable in the same way that computers have “learned” to beat humans at chess and Go, but its reliance on the regularities of human communication, derived from our scene of origin through a historical process that continually tests them in practice.
Beyond this, arguing about the “meaning” of liberalism—whether it includes libertarianism, implies acceptance of the sexual revolution or homosexual marriage, etc.—is not a useful exercise, whether for one who calls himself a “liberal” or his opposite. If what I am calling liberal democracy, and in particular its current American version, is near crisis, then what need to be solved, or at least described, are the specific problems of this democracy.
In tandem with critiques of “liberalism,” we are also beginning to see an increasing number of denunciations of what I have been calling for two decades “victimary thinking,” the chief impetus of which, as is still rarely acknowledged, is not the victims’ own resentment (although this is surely a reality) but apotropaic White Guilt, to which the adjective “male” may most often be added.
To simplify the discussion, despite the oft-cited “intersectional” nature of the problem, I shall leave aside feminism, which deserves to be treated as a separate issue. Not only does what was once known as the “weaker sex” make up over half the population, but its social problems have a clear biological basis which, however little it may allay the concomitant resentment, has at least to interact with it, on peril of exacerbating still further the demographic overwhelming of advanced societies by those in which women are restricted to little more than their biological role. Sloganeering is not the answer to such a problem; nor can it be mitigated by dismissing women’s biological difference from men as “socially constructed,” let alone as a choice of “gender identity” that allows boys to win girls’ athletic contests.
That presumably responsible politicians fear to dissent from such notions, even in their own minds, is a sign of the power of victimary thinking, but calling it somehow a necessary consequence of “liberalism” begs the question of how it is linked, necessarily or contingently, to the broader category of liberal democracy, which has been around a lot longer than gay marriage and affirmative action—or female suffrage. I welcome the fact that critics are becoming aware of the centrality of the victimary concept to what they condemn in “PC” or “identity politics,” but so far “liberalism” is still the only commonly used term that links it to our social order.
Let me stipulate for our current purposes that the emergence of the victimary as a political force can be explained in the broadest sense as a reaction to the breakdown in the digital era of the primary condition of human solidarity, the sense of possessing the capacity to engage in the reciprocal exchange of meaningful signs. (I will deal with some obvious objections to this thesis below.) Then the question we must ask is whether and how this deficit might be made compatible either with liberal democracy in more or less its present form or with some variant of it that preserves its essential character.
Today, the system of implicit rules of interaction that we until recently took for granted as simple civility is close to breaking down—to the point where the Speaker of the House publicly tears up the President’s State of the Union speech and the Senate Minority Leader calls out Supreme Court Justices in gangland fashion on the courthouse steps. The ground rules of debate in Congress, particularly in the House, are no longer merely adversarial but on many issues no longer consonant with rational discussion. Even our system of elections, although still more or less functional, is increasingly in disorder. The absence in many places of any meaningful control over voter identification, on the pretext that this “discriminates against minorities” rather than checks for illegality, makes the results increasingly less certain; and the supplementing of election-day balloting with all kinds of “convenient” schemes makes a mockery of ballot security and undermines the act of voting as a civic exercise.
In the early years of the victimary revolution, I published an article called “Originary Democracy and the Critique of Pure Fairness” (The Democratic Experience and Political Violence, ed. David Rapoport and Leonard Weinberg, London: Frank Cass, 2001, 308-24; also issued as Terrorism and Political Violence 12, 3-4, Autumn/Winter 2000). In it I pointed out that the interdiction of ascriptive discrimination and the imposition of “fair” criteria that is the substance of contemporary meritocracy generates more resentment than the traditional means of allocation of privilege.
There is an essential difference between what can be called caste distinctions and meritocratic differences in competence (see, e.g., Chronicle 484). A medieval peasant was illiterate and ignorant of Latin, but he saw this as a consequence of his place in society, not of something like a lower IQ. Whence the fairy tales where a frog, beast, or pauper turns out to be a prince. But when everyone takes tests, and those with lower scores cannot find work of a comparable level of remuneration to higher ones, it is no longer possible to attribute one’s inferiority to God’s inscrutable will—or to anticipate one’s future reward where “the last shall be the first.”
In traditional liberal democracies, precisely because they were still far from fair in meritocratic terms, those less favored did not have to doubt their sense of moral equality with their “betters,” a sense reinforced by America’s dominant Protestantism, with its priestless congregations of morally equal individuals, in parallel with its political philosophy.
The decline of our traditional Sabbath demonstrations of moral reciprocity is most simply explained as resulting from the same phenomenon as the rise of victimary resentment: loss of the sense that, despite our differences of wealth and competence, we all “speak the same language.” Why does the businessman today marry a lawyer, the male doctor a female doctor, rather than, as in the past, his secretary or his nurse? Because of the stratification that is defined by symbolic exchange before it can be attributed to income level.
In the digital world, where professional status even outside the STEM fields generally involves a high level of competence in symbol manipulation, whether by lawyers or journalists or advertising executives, let alone stockbrokers and accountants, the simplest way for the less competent to preserve the principle of moral reciprocity is the refuge provided them by victimary ideology—which is not, however, primarily of their own creation.
The postwar economic boom had produced a relative leveling of salaries between “blue-collar” and “white-collar” workers—terms now nearly forgotten—more or less consonant with the Marx/Ricardo “labor theory of value,” and reinforced by the then near-universal “middle-class” culture that Charles Murray describes in Coming Apart.
Culturally even more than economically, today’s society has moved closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but with the game-changing difference that our Alphas and Epsilons are not distinct castes in principle unable to conceive their moral equality. Yet to the extent that different ethnic groups have been more or less successful in negotiating the challenges of the digital age, their frequent alignment with these categories, even in the absence of legally prohibited discrimination, gives a premium to the victimary explanation that substitutes ascriptive oppression by the “privileged” for the formerly inscrutable will of God.
This premium given to minority resentment at a time when these same minorities, particularly blacks, have not only vanquished Jim Crow but made considerable economic progress over the recent past, cannot be explained by increased frustration. Its ever-increasing prominence reflects above all the power of White Guilt among those whose “privilege,” whatever its social roots, is mostly in the quality of their minds, and whose economic power allows them to dominate the nation’s, and the world’s, chief sources of cultural influence.
In an era when the global reach of the digital economy has replaced the millionaire with the billionaire, and soon perhaps the trillionaire, it is the privileged, not their “victims,” who feel the need to denounce the very principle of privileged status, however meritocratically obtained, as a mark of cosmic injustice. The purpose, or in any case the effect, of this largely successful apotropaic gesture has been to protect themselves from resentment. Whence the surfeit of ultra-rich donors and candidates in the “socialistic” Democratic Party.
For whatever reason, but largely determined by their upbringing in often affluent but above all stable families that inculcated respect for education and self-discipline, the mostly white members of the digital elite have become particularly adept at manipulating symbols: in a word, smarter than most others. But there is no payoff in expressing guilt for being smart, let alone rich. By expressing the object of this guilt rather as the indelibly ascriptive trait of (male) white skin, the favored can recognize and do penance for it without having to feel really responsible, all the while self-righteously denouncing those deplorable working-class and rural whites as benighted racists, and ultimately denouncing the racism that, whether or not we are aware of it, flourishes in the core of white American souls to this day.
Whence the usefulness of asserting, for example, that the greater proportion of blacks in prisons is due to “racism” rather than to the fact that blacks proportionally commit a higher percentage of crimes. As Mr. Bloomberg learned recently, even to allude to this simple fact now carries a considerable stigma, with the result that Giuliani’s crime-abating “broken windows” policy is being abandoned in New York City and elsewhere—even if it is law-abiding black people who suffer the most from black crime, just as the entire black community suffers from the premium the welfare system accords to unwed mothers. There was a time when black community leaders requested more severe punishment for possession of crack than of cocaine because of its effect on crime in their neighborhoods. And, as Thomas Sowell likes to point out, there was also a time in pre-Great Society days when black families were as stable as those of the white middle class—which today in its lower income levels is suffering from similar problems of family breakdown and single motherhood.
Let us assume that you accept this explanation of the victimary surge. What strategy does this suggest? The solidarity that holds societies together, which had found its most flexible and creative form of expression in government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” is working ever less well. Victimary thinking has spread from the universities into the greater society, including all but a small fraction of its educational system. I shudder to think what kids are learning today in place of “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The archaic social order enforced extreme levels of differentiation; leaders were treated as gods and endowed with limitless power over others, in effect imposing religions of idolatry. The subsequent conquest of the West by Christianity, by separating God from Caesar, realized something like a renewal of originary universal solidarity in the religious realm. This liberation of moral equality from worldly firstness gave birth within a few centuries to bourgeois society and liberal democracy, which reduced all remaining caste stratifications to historical relics, and with universal suffrage, empowered the political equivalent of the “moral model” of reciprocal symbolic exchange: one person, one vote. Today, this system shows signs of breaking down. How then can we go forward rather than turning backward, as China has done, despite its economic liberalization, to a coercive totalitarian hierarchy?
Thus far, the growing victimocracy has remained compatible with a flourishing economy and a minimum of social disturbance. But it is hard to believe it can be sustained for more than another decade or two. The burgeoning of the national debt along with near-zero interest rates is but one indication of this. This year’s septuagenarian candidates for the presidency embody our tenuous link with postwar America as the self-confident savior of Western civilization. When all of us are gone, when even the middle-aged will have been taught from early childhood to despise the “Founding Fathers” as slave-owning sexists, this remaining anchor of civility will have disappeared.
To blame this unhappy perspective on the “liberalism” embodied in the loosening morals of the sexual revolution, with its corollary insistence on the rights of homosexuals and victims of “gender dysphoria,” is not a helpful explanation of the victimary phenomenon. However unreasonable it may be to consider a child’s unhappiness with its “gender role” as a form of oppression, it is childish indeed to see this as a product of “liberalism” rather than of the victimary movement’s feverish search for ever-new categories of victims to explain away the guilt of those who pass and the unhappiness of those who fail the tests of meritocracy.
As one who throughout his life has benefited from such tests, I am no doubt ill-suited to recommend them to those less likely to do so. But given the needs of our digital world, it would seem that the only feasible long-term solution to ever-increasing symbolic inequality is the development of means to permit human intelligence to be, not replaced, but aided by cybernetic “intelligence.”
Whether this be done by genetic manipulation, implantation, or other as yet unanticipated procedures, I see no other way to permit all of us to function adequately in the postmodern world. Victimary accusations increasingly render our society uncivil and unlivable—and above all, increasingly less able to tap those reserves of national will that we had always been able to count on in emergencies.
The silver lining of the present Coronavirus pandemic is that it should remind us of the importance of national solidarity, something easily forgotten in less critical times. Let us hope, at the very least, that in overcoming this crisis we demonstrate once more to the world that our social order has remained the worst with the exception of all the others.