There are a number of clichés about learning from history, notably that if you don’t you’re condemned to repeat it, but the more profound sense of the expression is that human history is our only source of knowledge about human possibility.
I have for many years claimed that victimary thinking as it has been practiced since the 1960s originated in the reaction to the Holocaust, an idea that I have been gratified to see repeated with increasing frequency. But the nature of victimary thinking has evolved considerably since the 60s; the historical explanation of the origin of a phenomenon never ceases to be modified by the historical experience of its realization. Who could have predicted that over 50 years after the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the cultivation of victimary resentment in the US would be more intense than ever? Yet now that we see it, it seems quite understandable, even “inevitable”: what indeed would be the dynamic that would diminish it?
The most fundamental idea of GA, which is the foundation of Girard’s anthropology as well, is that the origin of the human as a cultural (sacred and sign-using) being must be explained by the function of these new elements to defer the increased potential of violence inherent in the species’ increased intelligence and consequent greater propensity for mimesis and its corollary, rivalrous mimetic desire. The foundation of the human is not in the first place cognitive but ethical; more precisely, cognitive improvement leads to “ethical” difficulties in social organization whose resolution requires a consciousness capable of making moral decisions, and which (as per the originary hypothesis) makes all members of human society aware of the “moral model” of reciprocal exchange.
But this beginning of humanity is hardly the end of ethical evolution. That this is the proper understanding of the source of our ethical ideas as well as of our ethical dilemmas is continually clarified through our historical experience. The originary moral model does not simply “apply” to all human interactions. If in the original group, even aside from the problem raised by Adam Katz concerning the relative levels of adherence of its members (the least enthusiastic participating reluctantly), the “moral model” as thus defined can still be interpreted in two polar ways. On the one hand, this group defines “humanity” and as such virtually includes all future humans, but on the other, the group is just that group, and by redefining itself through the sign as “human,” it implicitly excludes all other similar groups as “not really human.”
Nothing very new here; yet the tension between these two “readings” of the moral model is the simplest candidate for the “motor of history”: how does the whole human race organize itself? Until now, societies have always been partial; even empires never covered the entire world, despite the ambitions of some (recall AEIOU: Alles Erdreich ist Oesterreich untertan). Starting in the twentieth century, humans began conceiving of “world government” as a reality, and the tension between individual societies and humanity as a whole began to play out on a world scale.
With the UN, the first truly global organization of nation-states, which came into existence along with victimary thinking—and Israel—in response to the Holocaust, that is, to “nationalism” or more precisely, to national-ethnic imperialism, the two readings of the moral model are for the first time institutionally implemented, albeit the universalist one in a barely viable form. The European Union, although only regional, is a much more serious attempt at multi-national government, one that has solved many problems of integration, yet so far has been more successful in undermining religious and civic coherence within its component states than in creating a new European identity. No doubt we are still far from the last chapter in this evolution, always assuming that it is not headed off by nuclear or other catastrophe. But recent experience suggests that the blithe assumption of transnational, let alone “global” identity, no doubt convenient for a certain “Davos” set, cannot rally a nation’s population behind it. Brexit is one indication of this; I need not name the others.
To agree that the victimary era began as a reaction to the Holocaust and more broadly to Nazism does not oblige us to accept the common characterization of the latter as simply a manifestation of German nationalism. As Yoram Hazony points out in the online journal Mosaic, while making a number of other points of great interest about the contemporary tension between “globalism” and “nationalism,” Hitler was not really a nationalist. His notion of Lebensraum was essentially a revival of the old pan-German imperial ideal dating from the Holy Roman Empire, which as we recall was inaugurated by the Frankish-speaking Charlemagne in 800. Like the terms indogermanisch / indoaryanisch that Germans have used to describe Indo-European language and culture, their very lack of national consolidation until 1870 made Germans fancy themselves the exemplars of “European” identity, and their language the successor of Greek and Latin.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Cannot Chancellor Merkel’s apparently anomalous excessive generosity to “refugees,” many or most of whom are simply economic migrants seeking prosperity in Europe, be traced to this same tendency? Hitler assimilated his imperial ambitions to the “manifest destiny” of what he stressed as a specific (“Aryan”) ethnic group. We all know how that ended up. Yet a look at today’s Europe, notably in the recent anti-Grexit maneuvers, demonstrates that seventy years after its defeat, Germany once again dominates Europe financially and economically. France is a nation; even Great Britain, around its English core, is a mini-confederation of nations. But Germany has never fit comfortably into a national framework. Murderousness aside, is not the essential difference between Merkel and Hitler that whereas Hitler (over-)emphasized the ethnic unity at the core of the imperial idea, Merkel, in reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, wholly rejects it? No doubt an ethnic core has been present in all previous empires (Chinese, Assyrian, Egyptian, Roman, Mogul, British, French…), yet it was always capable of being “internationalized” up to a point. By admitting unlimited numbers of immigrants and thereby rejecting any suspicion of nationalism as the residual force behind imperialism, Merkel nevertheless retains the imperial concept en filigrane. The fact that Germans reproduce themselves less than anyone else merely shows that the whole country has tacitly gone along with her idea (although not with the disorganization brought about by large numbers of insufficiently socialized immigrants from less advanced economies): Germania without, or with an increasingly diminished presence of, Germans.
And it’s not just Merkel; the European Union as a whole has semi-consciously taken up the “German” project of a transnational Europe (including its depressed demography). The fact that it is the chastened Germans who remain in charge is ironic only by historical contrast: in actuality, it is perfectly reasonable that the national group most obliged to reject any nationalistic ambitions should be the bellwether of Europe today.
We should note that this new, purified version of the old imperial project hostile to the cultivation of national identity is of recent, post-Cold-War vintage. As Walter Russell Mead points out in the October 1 Wall Street Journal, the postwar creators of European unity, very much including the leaders of West Germany from Adenauer to Brandt and Kohl, were unlike their recent successors far from renouncing the national idea as the basis for international cooperation. That is, the perception of danger from a hostile alliance kept the Western alliance together as separate nations. It is only in the (apparent) absence of such danger that the international has devolved into the post-national.
In the past, the question of denationalization never presented itself because empires emerged naturally from the expansion of states, which, if they were not “nations” in the modern sense (modeled, as Hazony is right to point out, on the Hebrew self-concept of a people under a lawgiving God), were nonetheless unified by linguistic and ritual practice. The very unsustainable nature of Merkel’s immigration policy reflects an abstract ideal, no doubt never explicitly formulated, of absorbing an indefinitely extended population. Rather than Hitler’s German-Aryan Europe conquering the world, it is post-national Europe admitting into itself in principle all of Africa and the Middle East as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But the resurgence of militant Islam reflects these “outsiders”’ contrary sense that, rather than being absorbed into the new Europe’s denationalized ethos of individuals, endowed with “human rights” and standing in a purely contractual relationship to the wider society—a relationship specifically not including an obligation to reproduce themselves—it is their civilization that is taking over the new Europe.
I do not believe that it need be assumed that the West’s insufficient rate of reproduction must lead to a permanent depletion of its culture. Even if its original European stock diminishes in number, it is the strength of Western institutions, and specifically, of its several national institutions, that is critically important. But the strength to assimilate a large Muslim population has certainly not been a recent feature of these institutions. The successful blend of “ethnic” mores and Western norms that one finds, for example, among Japanese, Chinese, and Indian populations in the West has been coming apart for the younger generation of Muslims, with often violent consequences. The current wave of jihadism can be explained at least as much by the West’s fecklessness as by the crisis of governance in the Middle East catalyzed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Pierre Manent’s Situation de la France (Desclée de Brouwer, 2015) (recently translated as Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge at St. Augustine’s Press) seeks to outline a means of creating a French “national” Islam, starting from the recognition that France and the West must emphasize their Judeo-Christian foundations and not exclusively the secular distillation of these in Enlightenment humanism. The book’s popularity reflects the salience of this problem; and it is no coincidence that such a book appeared in France, which not only has the continent’s largest Muslim population but above all still remains Europe’s exemplary nation-state. But as I wrote in my review of Manent’s book on the French Girardian website, I believe that before such a national/transnational solution can be sought, it is necessary to crush the Islamic State and destroy for good the illusion of Islamism as an even dreamable “solution” to the West’s problems of identity.
Once this is done, the demographic and cultural problems of Europe need not be thought insoluble, any more than those posed by the current victimocratic US administration. All these ethical difficulties can no doubt still be accommodated within the limits of the “pendulum” of countervailing resentments that characterizes liberal democracy.
But the West’s obsession with anti-nationalist White Guilt cannot allow it to let down its guard. Real sources of instability such as Islamic jihadism or unpunished aggression by Russia and China cannot be allowed to fester. The strength of the West, as (as Hazony implies) we should begin to recognize from Israel’s example, comes from the essential, enduring presence of (Jewish) national identity within its (Christian) vision of moral universality.