Whatever the details, the central lesson René Girard teaches us is that the sacred is humanity’s way of controlling its own potential violence, and in the process, becoming human.
In the everyday life of the “West,” which in its better moments includes virtually the totality of human activity, in Nairobi or Bamako or Mumbai or Shanghai as in New York or Paris, the world of work and commerce (and generational ambition and the cycle of life) functions peacefully according to apparently reasonable rules, and violence is not something we have to think about outside “the media” that showcase symbolic instances of it. There are parts of the world that witness violence every day, but if the West is anything, it is the absence of expected daily violence, the more or less successful functioning of more or less democratic market society. This is a society whose history I will not trace here save to point out that its civilizational basis is Judeo-Christian, and that the tension between, very quickly, Jewish firstness and Christian anti-firstness has been the source of its unique political and economic organizational strength.
But the West’s insulation from violence weakens its understanding of the sacred. The instances of violence that frequently dominate the media are irruptions of the sacred into daily life, and our reaction to them often seeks to sweep them aside as merely pathological rather than religious phenomena, as though the presence of the former made it indecent or “superstitious” to include the latter.
1. Let’s begin with a semi-comic example: “Sony Pictures Cancels Holiday Release of ‘The Interview’ After Threats.” It ensued that after Obama’s chastisement of Sony, there was a limited opening of the film, and given all the supplementary publicity, most of us are likely to see a paid or free copy of it within the next few months.
Nonetheless, the one country in the world that would seem to be the richest target for satire was placed temporarily off limits because of its ability to retaliate, just as the famous Muhammad cartoons were not reproduced in the Yale volume on the subject. Hitler was a pretty nasty guy, but he didn’t prevent Chaplin from making The Little Dictator, and mockeries of the Soviet world were not uncommon during the cold war and even before; Ninotchka was a gentle satire of Stalinism but a satire nonetheless. But the interconnected world of the Internet is a world of universal liability and potentially universal terror.
It is also, and not coincidentally, a victimary world where the West, and its “hegemonic” figures: straight white males, the institutions they dominate, police forces, Christianity, European nationalism, fossil fuel energy generation, and of course Israel and the Jews, are singled out by their enemies as objects of unrelenting hostility, precisely because, as agents of Western Civilization, they can be relied upon not to react with the kind of thuggish violence to be expected from the forces arrayed against it. Ironic that on the same day that Sony pulled its NK satire, Obama decided to open full diplomatic relations with Cuba, one of the uglier tyrannies of our age. Try showing a Castro satire in Havana.
I’m not sure that this is precisely what Girard meant in Things hidden… by the return of the sacred upon us, but it certainly functions like it. What else is the sacred than our means of controlling human violence? But to take it seriously, it must be enforced by human violence. If I want to “persuade” you that Allah is the One God and that Muhammad is his Prophet, or that Kim Jong Il shot eleven holes-in-one the first time he played golf, the simplest way is to threaten to kill you if you disagree. (NK can’t exactly kill us, but it can certainly mess up our web sites.)
2. The semi-farcical NK-Interview saga nearly coincides with the lamentations over the “revelation” of the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques or “tortures” inflicted on prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere. What most strikes me in these discussions is not the moral posturing, as though it would be a morally unambiguous decision not to waterboard (let alone really torture) someone whose information might save a few thousand, or indeed, billion lives (because even to save the entire planet from destruction, torture can never be justified). It’s the utterly nonsensical line that’s constantly repeated, no doubt by people who never met a Mexican drug lord, a Gestapo interrogator, or a member of the good old Mafia, that physical torture doesn’t generate useful information. Why then do criminal and police-state operatives without exception make use of torture to obtain information? I guess they just aren’t sophisticated enough to realize that the best method is to gain the confidence of their potential informants through friendly conversation over a cup of tea.
What really amazes me is not only that this obvious point is not simply taken for granted, but that it is never even mentioned. Never have I seen this analogy brought up in the media, no doubt because we don’t want to be identified with Nazis and criminals. And given that torture is never effective, one wonders why any other exercise of force should be any more so. For from a truly sophisticated perspective, violence is never really productive, war is never the answer.
Except when North Koreas or jihadists are powerful enough to scare people into obeying their desires. Outing emails and financial records shows the North Koreans and their cyber-allies could perhaps do even worse; chopping off heads and massacring school children shows the Islamists are utterly ruthless. Such considerations have been good enough for Sony, for Yale Press, and for many other institutions in the West.
If this all sounds terribly simplistic, it’s because it is; that’s what the sacred is really about. Kim Jong Un is potentially as sacred as Muhammad; neither can be attacked with impunity. No doubt these are not summits of religious subtlety; and it is no accident that the modern world, with its cyberspace and nanotechnology, is the product of the rather more subtle Judeo-Christian approach to the sacred, which has not always eschewed physical coercion but does not put it at the center of its religious practice. But as a result, we in the West—not to speak of the Christians in the Middle East—are increasingly less in a position to enforce even a modicum of respect for what we have traditionally held sacred.
3. The Sony-hacking exploit by NK and friends was a refreshing change from the unending stream of Islamist violence, which the “mainstream media” still persists in refusing to connect to Islam. Thus the New York Times and other mainstream news media long failed to indicate that the recent killer of two NY policemen was a Muslim who (as one could learn from “alternate” media) posted a page of the Koran on his Facebook page.
No doubt this kind of low-key violence in the West, coupled with massacres in non-Western countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Yemen, is not about to bring down Western Civilization. Isolated incidents get more publicity than they “deserve,” and inspire new incidents. Yet an increasing number of these incidents, however otherwise “overdetermined,” combine two major ingredients: victimary resentment and Islam. If the papers downplay the second, their justification, feeble as it is, is that the resentment is the active element, and Islam provides ideological support but rarely if ever the primary motivation—in Brinsley’s case, desire to “avenge” Brown and Garner. Even if the “caliph” tells his followers to kill Christians, Jews, etc., those outside the Middle East who obey his command must harbor deep personal resentments, knowing that they will almost certainly be killed or jailed for long periods—or commit suicide, as did Brinsley. Nonetheless, it is the combination that is essential because, in contrast with individual malcontents and mental cases, those who could be said to make Herostratus their model (see Chronicle 177) by seeking fame in the destruction of what others hold sacred, the Islamist “lone wolf” acts as part of a worldwide movement that he has at least some reason to hope will be ultimately successful. Where Herostratus could merely deface the sacred he rejected, the Muslim terrorist affirms a sacred of his own.
In response to this latter point, some are tempted to see Islamism as a mimetic doubling of Western modes, whether of the romantic “nihilist” or, in another vein, Guy Debord’s société du spectacle, pointing to ISIS’ brilliant exploitation of Western publicity techniques in its skillful creation of highly sophisticated videos of beheadings as well as of recruitment materials and protocols. No doubt it is not useful to understand the current challenge posed by Islam to the West in terms of Samuel Huntington’s Spenglerian notion of the “clash of civilizations.” Islam’s opposition to the West is not, and never was, that of an “external” civilization. Islam began in the seventh century not as a “civilization” but as a marginal excrescence on the (Judeo-Christian) “West.” A glance at the Koran will tell you that most of its religious material is derived at a few removes from the Judeo-Christian Bible. But so what? Instead of claiming to “supersede” the Old and New Testaments, Moslems just say that the others were inauthentic copies and the Koran the “uncreated” original. No textual analysis can infirm such a claim. However crude we may find the trumping of history by the ahistorical, it is effective in its way, for the sacred is in the first place a matter of faith. Islam is mimetic of Judeo-Christianity, yes, but not uncreatively; it is mimetic by a bald-faced denial of the mimetic that is proof against any psychanalyse existentielle.
In the contemporary world, a young man of the Herostratian variety is indeed a “romantic,” with all the negative connotations of such a thing in the Girardian universe of the mensonge romantique. But if this “romantic” can quote a page of the Koran while killing a couple of policemen then, whatever his personal drama, he has contributed to the glory of Islam as the one true solution to such Western “romantic” anxieties. We can note the “romantic” traits of a Brinsley, or a Nidal Hasan for that matter, but what is important is that they are integrated into a movement that is not romantic at all; one that, as we see in the territories controlled by ISIS, is not imitating the West but following its own, brutal laws. Of course the Islamic offensive takes place within an economy and culture defined by the “West.” But just as in the seventh century, that makes it more, not less powerful.
Islam is not a truly exotic import such as Buddhism or Yoga. It is the vehicle, as it was on its creation, of the resentful outsiders of Western civilization, a vehicle that, after becoming wildly successful, could for a time put away its resentfulness and become a source of legendary plenty and generosity, as in those thousand-and-one “orientalist” tales that we are now told to feel guilty about. But with the creation of Israel in particular we are seeing reemerge the resentful impulse that created Islam in the first place. Its singular aim is conquest, entailing destruction or utter subordination of what was there before. It will exploit Western military and communications technology, and every other aspect of modernity it finds useful, but we should beware of thinking that it is in any way “mimetically” beholden to these technologies.
In a recent discussion, Matthew Taylor (to whom I apologize in advance if I am misconstruing his point) suggested a sharper comparison between the Islamist opposition to Western market society and that of the nineteenth-century Romantics. In the latter’s hostility to the market we can observe a “transcendental” attempt to in fact dominate the market; with the Romantic Soul, as with the outrageously overpriced courtesans of the same period, the priceless always costs a little more. But the Romantics were indeed part of market society, the genius of which is precisely that it can indeed encompass the “cultural” transcendence they sought—and even, with great violence, that of Romanticsm’s twentieth-century political heirs, Fascism and Communism. But whether or not this be the case for individual Islamists, it is emphatically not the case for Islamism as a whole.
As Girard in his final work describes Islam, that of the seventh century as that of today,
Certes, il y a du ressentiment dans son attitude à l’égard du judéo-christianisme et de l’Occident. Mais il s’agit aussi d’une religion nouvelle, on ne peut le nier. [No doubt there is resentment in its attitude toward Judeo-Christianity and the West.But it is also a new religion, one cannot deny this. (My emphasis.)] (Achever Clausewitz 360)
I share with Daniel Pipes, who knows far more about these matters than I, a guarded optimism that Islam is not ultimately incompatible with a humanistic, ecumenical compromise with its fellow “Abrahamic” religions. But this is not going to be accomplished by putting together “interfaith” conferences. It can only happen with the defeat of Islamist fanaticism, and for this to happen, the West is going to have to assert its own values with real conviction. We are going to have to recall, in practice as well as in theory, that the Judeo-Christian tradition embodies not a forgetting of the originary relationship between religion and violence, but a superior understanding of this relationship.
To give Girard the last word:
Il faut donc réveiller les consciences endormies. Vouloir rassurer, c’est toujours contribuer au pire. [Hence we must awaken the sleeping consciences. To act reassuring always makes things worse.] (364)