Like most people who have had the good fortune to live in times of peace, through most of my existence I assumed that the conditions of my own life were normal and required no particular set of historical circumstances to be indefinitely prolonged. But over the last couple of decades I have felt increasingly less at ease with this position, and have come to reflect on the unusually privileged life-conditions of my generation.
Perhaps the simplest way of understanding the difference between “Mimetic Theory” and GA is that it reflects the contrast between someone who lived through war and occupation, and someone whose first and only experience of a major war was the celebration of V-E Day in Times Square with his parents at the age of 3½. My so-called “silent” generation, thankfully spared a name like “Boomers,” not only escaped the war, but had the added privilege of having seen just enough of it to be thankful for our victory. It is therefore not surprising that I have tended to emphasize the positive elements of human culture, marveling at the success of humanity in having been able, despite its propensity for violence, to defer this violence sufficiently to progress to its current state.
In more recent generations, a sense of disquietude has progressed so rapidly that I can almost describe my childhood in the Bronx as idyllic compared to the way children are brought up today. When I reached the age of 10 or so, my parents would send me out to buy “Danish” at the local bakery, pick up items at the local supermarket, or have me take the family washing to the Launderette (no washing machines in our apartment building). When was the last time a city dweller saw a 10-year-old, even a 14-year-old, by himself in a store? Or just walking alone in the street?
In any case, my upbringing provided me with a basis for appreciating the mechanisms by which humans have been able to maintain and gradually increase the benefits of this kind of equilibrium. Yet I am not unaware that such times of peace have not been frequent throughout history, nor that the most recent previous era of relative peace, the “long” 19th century, after having given rise to illusions, similar to those of 1945 or of 1989, of an end to major wars and the indefinite expansion of “global” commerce, was the prelude to the most destructive and inhuman wars ever fought. Can we assume that things are now different?
Human representational culture had been from the first a means of deferring violence that had always enabled greater violence. With the advent of nuclear weapons, we attained for the first time the ability to destroy all human life, and a good deal of the rest. Yet however revolutionary their potential effects, even the A-Bomb and H-Bomb are just more powerful versions of traditional weapons.
Recently we have been reading about the danger of a so-called Electro-Magnetic Pulse attack, in which one or more nuclear bombs detonated in the atmosphere would disable all electronic equipment, along with the electric power grid itself. I have seen in several places the estimate that as a consequence of a successful such attack, 90% of our population would die of starvation, illness, etc. This is no doubt more than a trifle exaggerated. But merely entertaining the idea of such a level of destruction is a new development. And yet even the EMP remains bound to a single or small number of physical acts.
But what about war machines equipped with AI, “drones” and their descendants, cyberattacks on our systems of communication: power grids, GPS satellites, etc.? We already have the ability to deploy such weaponry, and we must assume that the potential scope of such operations will increase exponentially in the next decades. Instead of one or ten nuclear explosions, what of thousands, triggered automatically, lasers exploding our cellphones, radiation wiping out our food supply…
Not to speak of the obvious fact that the disorder caused by our reaction to a relatively mild virus suggests that, whether or not Covid-19 was a by-product of bioweaponry research, such research should be extremely productive. Imagine if Covid-20 were 10 times as deadly and/or contagious, that virologists could manufacture an indefinite series of such viruses, each one requiring a separate cure (available only to the attackers) …
Given the digital age’s infancy—a mere thirty-odd years into the Internet—and its rate of progress, such possibilities are hardly futuristic. How then can the human race expect to survive indefinitely? Has not its progress in science and technology continuously demonstrated that destruction is an ever-increasingly more efficient process than construction? The more complex our systems, the greater their vulnerability to perturbation, the more complex the task of defending them and the easier that of disabling them. Entropy is a deferrable but undefeatable enemy.
We have not yet fully absorbed the fact that WWII was the principal watershed of human history, the last survivable act of unrestricted competition among human societies. The many films that take for their theme the survival of a human remnant after a fictional WWIII are less images of the future than dramatic exaggerations of our own era: we are already the survivors of the great war. And as even a minor crisis like the present one reveals, these cinematic portrayals of a descent into barbarism may be understood as warnings to the “free nations” not to forget the need for self-preservation, which had seemed to become a thing of the past, at first with the defeat of the Axis and even more so with the end of the Cold War.
If Jean Renoir’s 1937 La grande illusion was the emblematic film about WWI, the last traditional European war between at least minimally respectful enemies, that of WWII is Duras-Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima mon amour, which goes beyond Renoir’s optimistic emphasis on the humanity of both sides to focus exclusively on the human vulnerability embodied in the former aggressors—now that they had become the losers. The nameless heroine’s two lovers, a young German soldier killed by French partisans and a Japanese veteran who lost his family at Hiroshima, are the Axis armies’ sole representatives. There is no place in this film for Auschwitz and the Sonderabteilungen, Pearl Harbor and the Nanking massacre. We dropped the bomb; they lost; it is they who have become the victims. And as the parallel shots of Hiroshima and the symbolically named French city Nevers make clear, whereas the first has come back to life, the second remains lifeless.
This choice was by no means an expression of sympathy for the Axis. As far as Auschwitz is concerned, we should remember that before making Hiroshima in 1959, Alain Resnais had pioneered with his 1956 Nuit et brouillard in showing footage of the camps. Nor can we accuse Duras of lack of sympathy for the Résistance, in which she and her husband were directly involved. Electing Hiroshima over Auschwitz as the primary symbol of the war is a victor’s generous gesture, one that at the same time accepts the technological foundation of the “war to end all wars.” Moral horror is what it is; but it is fear of death that deters violence, and this from the first scene of human language. It is fear of The Bomb, not horror of the Holocaust, that has prevented WWIII. If there is no more winning, there will be no more losing.
Duras-Resnais’ choice was an early example of an attitude that has truly come into its own only since 1989, a mindset that I will call (hyper-)Frostian, going a step beyond the old poet’s definition of a liberal as a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.
This self-opposing attitude can be traced back to the Romantic era. No doubt it was prefigured by the autocritiques of Western Civilization that go back at least as far as Montaigne and the cannibales. But mocking our civilization from the standpoint of Sirius or Persia is not quite the same as taking the other side in a quarrel. The first sign of this new tendency, to my knowledge, is found in a text of Chateaubriand, L’essai sur les révolutions (1797), quoted more fully in Chronicle 40. The author, traveling in the region of Niagara Falls, encounters a Native American family; he converses in sign language with all but one young “warrior”:
The young man alone maintained an obstinate silence; he kept his eyes constantly fixed on me. Despite the black, red, blue stripes, the cut ears, the pearl hanging from his nose that disfigured him, it was easy to distinguish the nobility and the sensitivity that animated his face. How grateful was I to him for not liking me! [Comme je lui savais gré de ne pas m’aimer!] I seemed to read in his heart the history of all the ills with which the Europeans have burdened his fatherland.
This desire to be disliked by someone whose liking would be assimilated to servility is emblematic of the onset of the victimary era. I would be surprised to discover anything similar anterior to the French Revolution.
But Chateaubriand’s romantic Frostianism was quite limited in scope. It owed much to the Rousseauian ideal of the “noble savage,” an ideal that very few would have applied to African slaves or to the French lower classes, let alone to defeated enemy powers. It was only after WWII that the Frostian attitude was extended to losers of every description, and that victimary status became an unimpeachable mark of moral superiority.
Since WWII, the US as the leader of the “free world” has fought—with decreasing ferocity and success—in a series of conflicts where its greater power has been unable to achieve a real victory, first in Korea, then in Vietnam, more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. The increasingly “asymmetric” conditions of these wars have made it increasingly impossible to impose victory by force. As we see ad nauseam in the emblematic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the stronger “Western” side is, in a manner far more blatant than in Resnais’ film, condemned simply for being stronger.
The causal link is admittedly unclear, but however parochial the American turn to “identity politics” may appear, global post-war Frostianism should be considered the primary causal factor. That American college students, and by now elementary school pupils as well, are trained to be obsessed by fears of subconscious racism or “transphobia” is certainly not the reason why after nearly twenty years the United States has not achieved satisfactory results in the Middle East. However absurd its manifestations, Frostianism must be understood primarily as an attempt by the West to salvage its moral authority in a world where, 75 years after WWII, its persistent socio-economic superiority is less contested than resented.
Even after decades of hostility and acts of terrorism from Islamists, the rush to condemn “Islamophobia” after 9/11 reflected less compassion for “victims of prejudice” than fear of arousing further resentment—as though recognizing avant la lettre the futility of the forthcoming Iraq campaign. Virtue-signaling in the US may be most visibly a form of status-seeking among white professionals, but its “material basis,” as the Marxists would put it, is the fear of provoking resentment, less that of American minorities than of the non-Western world, the Islamic element of which, until quite recently, seemed to pose the greatest danger. What the “woke” are awake to is less the difficulties of America’s racial and sexual minority populations than the resentment aroused by Western firstness, a resentment that the end of the Cold War only accentuated.
Which leads me to suggest a possible silver lining in the current crisis. However well or poorly we manage Covid-19, its service as a wake-up call may prove of sufficient value to “Western Civilization” to compensate for the economic difficulties and additional deaths it causes.
In the first place, it makes us suddenly prefer the messiness and ugliness of Western politics to totalitarianism, above all as a source of truth. Can it really be a coincidence that the virus started in the city with China’s most advanced viral research laboratory? Indeed, one wonders how much we know about anything that goes on in China—which has expelled Western journalists. What trust can we place in the statistics it produces at such a crucial moment? With all our cynicism about fake news and “narratives,” can anyone in the West really claim to prefer a society where “truth” is dictated by a single central authority?
Since the onset of the pandemic, China’s status as a potential successor to the US as the world’s great power—European newspapers have for a while been describing China as “the world’s largest economy”—has been greatly damaged, less even by its own actions than by the enhanced power of the reality principle in times of crisis. The US had been financing China’s rise to power to a point where it has lost control of many essential markets, nearly including the 5G communications system. And do we still remember the abjectness of last October’s Daryl Morey NBA tweet incident?
A featured article in the May 4, 2020 National Review by Mark Helprin (“American Foreign and Defense Policy: Between Scylla and Charybdis”) makes in worrisome detail a number of points about our neglect of geostrategic principles over the past thirty years and our need to reestablish our frayed military superiority. Similar points, along with pleas for a Manhattan-level project to reestablish our technological leadership for the 5G era, had been raised by David P. “Spengler” Goldman and others over the past decade or so. What is new today is that public sentiment in the wake of Covid-19 is far more receptive to such thinking. The pandemic will be accounted a felix culpa if indeed it inspires us in time to mobilize our nation, and our allies, to fight for the preservation of the Western model of civilization and its vision of humanity.
Whether or not the human race indeed originated in a single event of the sort the originary hypothesis describes, it remains undeniable that the principle of “the deferral of violence through representation” is shared by all human beings. This suggests that the ideal of universal brotherhood, the “global village” and the like, is not so much false as premature. The national principle—originated by the Hebrews, as our Protestant forebears well knew—is more than just an abstraction, nor is it a mere artifact of “mimetic rivalry,” any more than our individual soul is defined by such rivalry. Resentment is always present, but love transcends resentment, and the nation is an “imagined community” motivated by this transcendence. It is the denial of this truth, not its affirmation, that is naïve.
If one day, humanity as a whole can indeed unite in a single polity, it will only be as a super-nation, an overarching “imagined community” deemed worthy of our loyalty, not against other such communities, but simply in itself. It is not to deny either feuds or wars to insist that we do not love our own family primarily in opposition to other families, nor our nation primarily in opposition to other nations. Love, as opposed to resentment, transcends rivalry. If someday we are able to feel such an attachment to a world-wide political-economic organization, well and good. But we are a long way from this possibility, and the lessons of the League of Nations, the United Nations, and even the European Union, should serve to caution us against minimizing the distance we still have to travel.
Hence we need not imagine that it is to return to the bad old days of bloody national rivalries to reject Emmanuel Macron’s Il n’y a pas de culture française, an unfortunate boutade designed to demonstrate France’s openness to other cultures, as false not only in fact but in principle. If there were no culture française, there would be no France to be open to the world. It is too early to declare the EU a failure, but its difficulties demonstrate that such blithe dismissal of national identity is altogether misguided. The national principle can be expanded but not eliminated. We may all have become far more “multicultural” than in the past, but a few post-national “citizens of the world” do not provide a model for any nation’s citizens to follow.
Indeed, the strange respect given to Islamism by “progressive” groups whose principles are ostensibly incompatible with its treatment of women, homosexuals, etc., reflects the fact that the Islamic ideal has been since its inception the only enduring rival of the Western national principle: the Umma as a single world community under Allah. The obvious incompatibility of this principle with the conditions of modern life, which inspired the false hope that our military response to 9/11 would lead to its abandonment in favor of Western-style liberal democracy, has made the Middle East a source of world instability.
The West should take heart from the fact that in the long term, only liberal democracies, polities that can depend on sufficient national unity to allow for political debate whose results are periodically tested by elections, have shown themselves compatible with modernity and its scientific-technological productivity. It remains in our power to demonstrate the persistent truth of this proposition before it is overwhelmed by China’s rapidly evolving cyber-dystopia.
With the Hong Kong crisis as prologue, the Covid-19 pandemic is the first clear demonstration since China’s rise as an economic—and military—power that the West has been far too hasty in welcoming it unconditionally into “the family of nations.” Let us hope that we will give full credence to this word to the wise; the next one may come too late.