In my previous analyses of the victimary as the defining feature of the postmodern era, I may have missed its most profound characteristic: not merely conferral on the victim of compensation for martyrdom but transfer to him of the firstness previously claimed by his persecutor. This new victimary prestige adds a new resentment to the familiar resentment of Jewish firstness that we call antisemitism, whence the world’s reluctance to let this prestige reside with the Jews themselves, the historical heirs of the victims of Auschwitz. The extreme form of this new resentment is Holocaust denial, often coupled in a characteristically paradoxical manner with admiration for Hitler and regret for his failure to “finish the job.” This denial of Jewish victimary status is generally coupled with an “anti-Zionism” that assimilates Israelis to Nazis, conferring on the Palestinians the new prestige of victimhood as precisely what is inflicted by the Jews.
All this was eminently predictable. Why should the Holocaust abolish antisemitism rather than renew or even augment it? There was a historical moment, locatable in the mid-1960s, when what immediately after the war was considered a shameful episode (“how come you people didn’t fight back? how could you let yourselves be led to the slaughter like sheep?”), became a source of victimary glory as people discovered the advantages “after Auschwitz” of identifying themselves as or with victims. Yet once shame was lifted from victimhood, the benefit the Holocaust had provided the surviving Jews began to wane. This process was sharply accelerated by Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, which put an end to Israel’s own victimary status, while its involuntary occupation of the West Bank drove the bulk of victimary opinion to the side of the Palestinians. Today this has reached the point where in Israel itself, as public opinion has lost faith in the “peace process,” large fractions of the Jewish intelligentsia have become violently anti-Zionist.
Postmodern victimary thinking attributes the status of victim not merely to martyrs on the model of Jesus but to the members of any group who, on the analogy of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, can demonstrate conditions of either de jure or (since the end of the Civil Rights era) de facto inferiority to the “majority.” No doubt in the US and throughout the world the primary model for affirmative action, which the French call less hypocritically discrimination positive, is chattel slavery and its real and presumed effect on the Black population. To attribute the success of the postwar Civil Rights Movement and subsequently the push for affirmative action to public reaction to the Holocaust does not imply that the latter served the Civil Rights leaders explicitly as a model, merely that the consciousness of Nazi victimization that emerged after WWII led to the general legitimization of the victimary paradigm as applied to what were previously seen rightly or wrongly as accepted hierarchies, as well as to “natural” differences not generally thought of, by the “majority” at least, as susceptible to claims of redress. The new postmodern figure of the victim is not simply an underdog, someone deprived of equality and who deserves equal treatment, but someone in effect deprived of firstness and who therefore merits a compensatory firstness of his own. The fact that “compensatory firstness” is a paradoxical category, since one who is compensated is by definition not first, explains the paradoxical nature of the victimary etiquette we call PC, which among other things obliges us to refer to the secondary effects of affirmative action as though they were actual effects of firstness.
All forms of human domination can be understood in terms of firstness, since our ultimate status as humans is one of reciprocal equality. No doubt the ideologies that have justified unequal social orders in the past and present tend to present these differences as ontological, and no doubt there will always be doubts concerning whether men and women’s brains operate the same way, the “objective” categories of mental illness, etc. Nonetheless, in our Rawlsian era, differences in status are judged strictly from the standpoint of firstness, with those of higher status required to justify this status as a benefit to society as a whole. There is no need to postulate that in some future time we will live in a perfectly egalitarian society, merely that our differences in status are purely instrumental, not ontological, and are thus understandable in terms of taking turns; what superiority I have now, you could in principle exercise in the future, or under different contingent circumstances, in the present.
Before the postwar era, not all differences were understood as merely the effects of firstness. Racial and sexual difference, for example, was most often seen as naturally hierarchical; one need only watch a Hollywood film from the 1930s to witness the generally good-natured but often demeaning portraits of minority characters. All this has been swept away by postwar victimary consciousness, and has often given way in the popular media to a reversal where minority figures play prestigious roles.
But the most illustrative example of this reversal is that found in the more problematic sphere of relations between the sexes, necessarily more intimate and emotion-laden than those between ethnic groups. Male firstness, in the era when it was taken for granted, was in polite society an occasion for modesty. A man holding a door for a woman was not declaring her his superior, but recognizing that his own superior strength and social power obliged him to defer to her in passing through doors–or in entering lifeboats on the Titanic. Today, women would surely not complain about getting first crack at the lifeboats, but holding doors is a bit suspect, and above all, one no longer says mankind and he but humankind and she, or maybe she or he. That is, women are no longer the beneficiaries of the first’s gallantries; they are treated as first themselves. Along similar lines, publicity materials for the University of California, an institution dominated by Whites and East Asians, and in many fields by males, rarely displays images of its dominant groups. And to hear officials’ speeches, one would think that the most important goal of the university was not creating knowledge or teaching it, but promoting diversity. One can make fun of these phenomena but to analyze them it is not enough to mock the prevalence of PC. Why is PC such a powerful force? PC is not a simple matter of extending the moral model of reciprocal equality to situations where this model may not be practical. Its force cannot be understood without reference to the Jews’ firstness that provoked the Nazis’ ultimate brutality and made their plight, once the lesson had sunk in, an object of symbolic emulation. For to be a victim was not merely to be deprived of one’s normal right to equal treatment, it was proof that one possessed a transhistorical superiority, envy of which explained the persecutor’s violence. Once the Holocaust made patent the link between victimage and firstness, the Jews’ historical credibility was no longer necessary; the simple fact of being a “victim,” even de facto, was deemed sufficient to confer this privilege.
This was, one might say, simply an extension of the innovation that created Christianity to victimhood in general. What Jesus said to Saul on the Damascus road could now be repeated to every “persecutor,” even the unconscious one who simply thought that, for example, the use of he as a generic pronoun was justified by the historical firstness of men in most public professions. But if you affirm your firstness, are you not persecuting those to whom you deny it because you secretly believe they possess it? Does not “he” connote not simply oppression, but envy of women? It is this model that is the basis of victimary thinking.
At the heart of the postmodern ethos is a phenomenon far broader than, yet strangely dependent on, antisemitism: the self-hostile stance sometimes referred to as oikophobia, hatred of one’s own “home.” With the exception of a few assimilated Jews in post-Revolution and -emancipation Europe, the old antisemitism was, perhaps a bit too emphatically, not oikophobic. For Edouard Drumont as for Hitler, the Jews were an alien force, and the very “tribal” separatism that safeguarded the Jews’ historical firstness justified this claim, or in other terms, made them ideal scapegoats. This assured otherness is no longer true of contemporary antisemitism in the United States and even in Europe, and even less in Israel, where anti-Zionism often verging on open antisemitism pervades the intellectual class to nearly the same extent as in the US, although it is much less prevalent in the liberal professions overall.
Although I find the term oikophobia, a take-off on xenophobia, a bit misleading in its apparent focus on place, there is no doubt that the phenomenon it designates is the most striking manifestation of postmodern victimary thinking, one that distinguishes it from sympathy for victims and/or rebellion in the past. This attitude involves a repression of one’s “instincts” that goes beyond obeying a moral imperative to what can only be called an unwitting misconstrual of one’s natural human emotions. No doubt the “instincts” of the human psyche are mediated by representation and cannot be examined raw. Yet introspection allows us to distinguish grosso modo between esthetic and even ethical tastes on the one hand and “visceral” reactions that we find it difficult to imagine that other human beings do not share. In the absence of clinical proof, denial seems to me at least as plausible an explanation of behavior that violates these “instincts” as the PC contention that postmodern oikophobic attitudes emerge spontaneously from the heart.
Even when practiced by those who claim to be victims themselves, victimary thought depends above all on the consent of the (former) victimizers. The term White Guilt, which stresses the latter’s “whiteness,” their “normality” or “majority” status, should not be taken to imply that it is primarily a guilty reaction to the past. White Guilt is not simply a matter of offering reparations to compensate the victims of past crimes. The victimary attitude attempts not simply to make up for the past so that all parties can start over in equality—which was, let us not forget, Martin Luther King’s vision and that of the Civil Rights Movement in general—but an attempt to invert it. Nor is this to be done according to a symmetrical “market” logic: if for n years A has victimized B, so now for n years B should victimize A.
What is at stake is rather best explained in terms of firstness. The generic she is not experienced as a time-bound act of symmetry but as a permanent change. The past hierarchical inferiority of the victim group in whatever domain is now a reason to declare this group and its creations superior. To move to a less sensitive domain, I think this phenomenon is manifested in such things as the recent popularity of plain water over soft drinks, or of broccoli over other vegetables. No doubt the dislike of broccoli that I share with the elder George Bush is not universal, but he would hardly have brought it up if he did not share my feeling that many people who claim to like broccoli and even (dare I say) “think they like it” are interpreting as “liking” what is really feeling virtuous about eating something one doesn’t like. I think the same is true for the death penalty. No doubt there are rational reasons for opposing the death penalty and perhaps it should even be abolished, but I am speaking of the “visceral” sense that someone who has killed, particularly in a cruel way with no mitigating circumstances, deserves to be executed. Older readers will recall from the 1988 presidential election debate how deeply Michael Dukakis was hurt by affirming in answer to a provocative question that he would not subject his wife’s rapist-murderer to the death penalty any more than anyone else. Instead of admitting one’s “instincts” and then offering a rational argument why we should resist them, one denies them altogether.
Along these lines, for example, heterosexuals are accused not simply of prejudice against homosexuals but of homophobia, as though heterosexual men feared homosexuals, presumably because they are bearers of the straight man’s secret homosexual urges. However much this may be the case, one thing that is absolutely certain, given the demographic composition of every known society, is that it is far more common for homosexuals to “fear” heterosexual attraction (one of the themes of the classic film The Crying Game). Yet no one accuses them of heterophobia. Just as she is meant to take over from he the historical firstness of the male sex, so homosexual desire is implicitly declared the first desire, which the 90-odd percent of the population that is heterosexual fears in the same way that Saul presumably feared the Christians he persecuted.
While it would be temerarious to extend this argument to the political sphere, arguing that our “natural” instincts are conservative and that liberalism, at least as practiced today, is essentially oikophobic, Robert Frost’s famous definition of a liberal as “a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel” certainly provides some ammunition. After all, conservatives too practice self-denial; every serious political philosophy requires citizens to restrain their selfish impulses in the interest of the polity as a whole. But the cleverness of Frost’s point is in noting that the self-contradiction within the liberal psyche is not equivalent to simple self-restraint, to feeling desire and resisting it as in the Western classical and subsequent Christian tradition, or putting it away as in the Buddhist tradition. To fail to defend one’s position in an argument implies that one cannot trust one’s instincts in judgment any more than in appetite, that one’s very system of moral representation has been corrupted, and that one’s only recourse in a dispute is to take the side least favorable to oneself.
The notion of firstness implies that one is, whether deliberately or not, a model for others, on the model of the first protohuman to convert his appropriative gesture into a sign of renunciation of the central object. The postmodern attitude toward firstness is that it is never appropriate for the self but only as passed on to the Other, who provided her victimary credentials are sufficient may claim its status for herself. But like White Guilt, postmodern firstness is attributed, or in any case affirmed, primarily by the (former) victimizers, whose active participation in the process is essential. The disdain of the Left for the Right today comes from a sense of moral superiority that is not simply, as in the prewar era, the traditional denunciation of fat cat selfishness, but the sense of having access to a whole dimension of moral thought that people on the Right lack. Those on the Right, in short, are narrow-minded enough to take their own side in a quarrel.
The crisis of firstness in the West today is revealed by the fact that the US is assimilated with Israel and Jews in general in the same hostility to firstness. It has even become respectable to write tracts denouncing the excessive influence of Jews on American foreign policy (an activity as quintessentially anti-Semitic as the writings on the “Jewish question” before WWII, whose authors at least admitted their antisemitism). This crisis does not yet threaten the global market system, but it raises fears for this system’s ability to maintain itself in the long term, and reveals as well that in a strange and unpredictable way antisemitism, the resentment against the Jewish/Hebrew “inventors” of the One God, is now more than ever at the center of Western history. Postmodern Western oikophobia is in effect the ultimate extension of antisemitism to the West itself. It reveals that the Christian West invented the old antisemitism to protect itself less against the Jews than against the potential self-hatred, the internalized resentment of the Other that firstness engendered in its population as the heirs of the Jews.
If there is one simple distinction, beyond all politics, that can be made between Christianity and Islam today, it is that Christians, the “mainline” ones at least, increasingly express their Christianity as shame and horror at their own firstness, whereas Muslims, whether radicalized or not, do not hate themselves. It is because Muslims are not oikophobic that the West has such difficulty condemning Islam, even when it engages in barbarous customs such as honor killing. This is not mere pandering. It is tacit acknowledgement of what Muslims in Europe and elsewhere are in the process of demonstrating: that however successful Christianity has been as a world religion, however well it overcame the original “family” firstness of the Jews to extend itself to the pagan peasantry of Europe and the Near East and thence to conquer the world, it has ultimately not been able to avoid the White Guilt associated with this firstness. Whence the return of antisemitism, in association with anti-Americanism and ultimately with the complex of oikophobic attitudes I have been describing.
Islam, because it does not see itself as the heir of Jewish exceptionalism, has no need for complex constructions like the Trinity. It worships the One God, but not as discovered by the Jews—as existing outside of history in the “uncreated” Koran that only after the erroneous understanding promulgated in the Judeo-Christian tradition did God finally reveal to the world. However crude we may find this construction, and certainly the civilization that it generated is far from having shown itself as humane and productive as the Judeo-Christian West, it is clearly more effective today in establishing its believers’ relationship to God and to each other without the stigma of historical guilt.
The denial of history may be the best solution to history, for it permits, ultimately, the destruction of history, like the Buddhas blown up by the Taliban. Let Iran get the bomb, and heaven help the generation that will have to live with, or die with, the Islamic conquest of history. And I wonder if all the Cassandras from Mark Steyn to the author of these little-read words can stem the tide of Western self-revulsion that reflects the horror that, in effect, we are all Jews. That is the ultimate revelation of firstness in the West.
As Girard likes to say, the Apocalypse isn’t about the violence of supernatural beings, but that of humans. But this apocalyptic violence will not be our own. If we perish, it will not be as the masters of violence, but as those who could no longer bear their mastery of violence.
Christmas eve, 2011.