Part I – 2008 and the American Scene
An unrepentant Democrat recently shared with me for the first time the thought that PC was a disgrace to our politics. At the same time, he preferred to dismiss it as a “symbolic” matter—and took the occasion to remind me that the 2008 meltdown had occurred under a Republican administration.
I too consider PC “symbolic”—“cultural” rather than “natural”—in that it permits the economic system to function by diverting our attention from structural to largely imaginary injustices, creating social cohesion by focusing “outrage” on the differential success of various ascriptive groups rather than seeking common ground from which to defend and improve the system itself—or, what is more likely, disrupting the system by focusing on truly substantial disparities.
I had begun to draft this Chronicle when by chance I watched the 2015 film The Big Short, a masterfully made production that provides a reasonably convincing documentary-like experience of the lead-up to the financial disaster, mercifully uncontaminated by the usual romances and/or sex scenes.
The presentation is highly informative as regards the financial manipulations involved. Yet it altogether avoids the likely point of departure of the crisis in the government’s insistence (notably via the increased enforcement under Clinton and George W. Bush of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act) that banks end “discrimination” in housing loans to inhabitants of minority neighborhoods. As in all affirmative action programs, what this really meant was that the normal qualifications for loans in these neighborhoods were to be lowered, and once speculation and house-flipping resulted in the large-scale non-payment of the underlying mortgages, the higher sub-prime interest rates and the multiplication of Ponzi-like layers of mortgage-backed securities could not make up for the increased risk. However greatly the bankers’ greed entered into the equation, it began with the well-intentioned effort to improve the lives of minority families, in effect, by encouraging them to buy houses they could not afford.
The configuration of the 2008 crisis suggests a “unified field theory” of the victimary civilizational crisis of the West. Watching The Big Short may have been a coincidence, but the lawsuit of Asian students against Harvard, the first serious act (because not initiated by “whites”) of opposition to racial affirmative action, was a co-inspiration for this Chronicle.
It shouldn’t be necessary, but in the current atmosphere I cannot avoid making the point that I am not “blaming the victim” for the crisis. On the contrary, as is most evident in the case of the black Americans whose problems are semi-deliberately perpetuated by politicians who depend on their perpetuity to be reelected, I am claiming that victimary “identity politics” is an obstacle to the color-blind society that all right-thinking people hope to be progressing toward.
Given that history tends to advance “two steps forward, one step back,” I think we may consider the two terms of Barack Obama, with all the damage they did to racial relations and international politics, a near-necessary moment of the process. It is more difficult to view the current anti-Trump hysteria in the same light.
The Big Short emphasizes the distaste of the bearish shorters for the deceptions and self-deceptions of the bullish bubblers. The shorters are of course interested in money, but from the film’s perspective, their role is primarily moral. Michael Burry walks around barefoot and lives ascetically, while Paul Baum, who eventually cashes in his share of the swaps for $200m, is altogether disgusted by the whole business, as is the authorial voice of the film itself. The declared moral of the story is that at the end of the day, everyone will blame the whole thing on “the poor and the immigrants.” But one need not collectively blame the recipients of unsecured loans for their inability to pay them back in order to criticize, not just the policy, but the mindset that makes such things possible.
Seen as an archetype, this film reveals the contradictions of American business and politics that justify Catholic critiques of “liberalism” a la Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed, Yale 2018; see Chronicle 582), as well as those of the conservatives, who are really anti-victimary liberals, of David Horowitz’s Frontpage Magazine.
The paradox to unravel is that the Left, which would tear down “capitalism” and promote “socialism,” willfully forgetting its failures and massacres, is in effect promoting the values of the unfettered global marketplace, reconciling resentment with market circulation. It is fascinating to witness the alliance between some of the wealthiest people on the planet and a bunch of semi-privileged college students raving about “socialism” in a party electorally sustained by America’s poorer minorities, if no longer by its working-class whites.
Whence the adoption of victimary policies by all the major American corporations, and the particularly aggressive promotion of such policies by those firms who have pushed marketing to the point where their “customers” no longer even need know they are in the market: the cyber-based GAFA, the more symbolic members of which make their profits from selling the information we reveal about ourselves by using their free services. If the owner of a brick and mortar store, or the executive of a “non-sustainable” coal-mining or oil-drilling company, is susceptible to being tempted by traditional values and even, in the secret of the voting booth, to vote for an occasional Republican, such is rarely the case for those who labor in Silicon Valley and connect to the world over the Internet.
The disciple of Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington was encouraged not to resent the “white” world, but to improve himself. But the marketplace is geared rather to those who prefer to express their resentments through consumption. Ever since the days of arch-consumer Emma Bovary, whose suicide is caused not by heartbreak but bankruptcy, victimary liberalism has been less about liberating the victims of discrimination than liberating their desiring Id from the consumption-unfriendly Superego. Which helps explain the inflated “symbolic” role of non-binary sexual identities in the “intersectional” victimary mix.
The universal tea-party model with which I have described (e.g., Chronicle 594) the artificial utopia of PC, where one cannot acknowledge inferiority in any ascriptive group other than the “hegemonic” white males, corresponds, on the one hand, to the expansion of the reciprocity of the originary human community to the entire world, stigmatizing private conversations that exclude others whether by prejudice or coincidence, but on the other, it is the human community conceived as a universal fellowship of consumers. PC adds to this the important wrinkle that this configuration is not the pristine equality of a timeless utopia; its realization depends on the acceptance of guilt by those most favored by the market.
If this causality suggests an explanation for the fabled progressivism of Silicon Valley and even of big business in general, how then does it explain that most of the “progressives” who insist on stigmatizing insufficiently white-guilty neighbors are neither real or potential billionaires, nor deeply invested in the consumer market? They are more likely to be professionals, often professors, whose income is independent of market considerations, although subject to the tyranny of their own “marketplace of ideas.”
This apparent discontinuity is the mystery of victimary thinking, which must remain a mystery in order to exercise its principal function of unifying in a common ideology “democratic socialism” and the Internet-GAFA globalist version of the capitalist value system.
The fact that, for all but Democratic politicians and the subsidized thugs of Antifa, the politics of Silicon Valley are secondary to its cyber-functions, in contrast to the dedicated leftism of the old Bolsheviks or the Long Marchers of Mao “Zedong,” explains the self-blindness of our “socialist” left. Whether George Soros et al profit directly from this ideology is irrelevant. It is that of the frontierless marketplace, where each is entitled to his unique consumption pattern, and where comparative value-judgments are stigmatized as examples of “racism.”
But this stigmatization, the legitimization of resentment, is anything but a secondary factor. The “liberalism” that rejects traditional value-judgments about sexual practices and would now legalize marijuana is nonetheless far from a doctrine of mere license. Christian conservatives such as Deneen who oppose this liberalism fail to remark on what strikes less dogmatic thinkers as the puritanism of the victimary generation, not only with respect to relations among sexes and races, but with the natural environment. There is no contradiction between the transformation of the human community into a fellowship of consumers and its subjection to all kinds of restrictions on what to consume, which only makes them focus yet more on their consumption, say of gluten-free bread—even if the most fervent respecters of these restrictions occasionally drop out of the market in the not altogether forgotten hippie tradition.
For the “liberal” or “libertarian” element behind GAFA-driven consumption depends on very much the same kind of “liberation” as that unleashed by the French Revolution. The ethic behind victimary thinking in all its forms consists in disinhibiting resentment. In revolutions and among the French casseurs or our Antifa activists, this may lead to violence, but one cannot explain the victimary phenomenon merely as the discharge of aggression. Whereas in pre-modern society, resentment was considered sinful, and far more often than today both led to violence and was followed by atonement, in the modern peacetime world, resentment is generally limited to verbal expressions or channeled into “progressive” political activity.
The principle behind the victimary, from Robespierre forward, is that resentment, whether it give rise to direct action, to political organization, or simply to dreams of revenge, is the individual’s fundamental source of moral truth—and for this reason, it must never be called resentment, only the sense of (in)justice. But these are two labels for the same emotion; only an external authority can evaluate the “justice” of a given resentment. This evaluation will in turn affect the emotion itself in its future manifestations: that is what we (used to) call moral education.
A key emphasis of our victimary era is that legitimizing the resentment of the victims offers their oppressors the chance, not to express their own resentment—such expression by the deplorables is the only emotion actually labeled “resentment” by the media—but to espouse the resentment of the oppressed—including Nature, the victim of our unsustainable demands—against those members of their own class/race/gender who fail to accept their burden of guilt. Whence the practice of virtue-signaling, as in the days of Tartuffe, to express one’s moral superiority to those with the arrogance, unlike Robert Frost’s classic liberal, to take their own side in an argument.
The familiar practice of students expressing “distress” at micro-aggressions or “insensitive” remarks, like the young lady who complained to her high school administration that her teacher had spoken positively of Columbus, who had been “cruel to the Indians,” is unhelpful for the purpose of cultivating students’ minds, but not at all for that of cultivating their resentment. The point of resentment training (or what the 1960s called “consciousness raising”) is to make all people, the “privileged” in particular, sensitive to offenses to victimary groups, particularly by those in authority, and ready to avenge them without mercy or remorse.
A professor was recently punished by Shawnee State College, Ohio (see https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/crime/crime-and-courts/2018/11/07/ohio-professor-sues-doesnt-want-use-transgender-students-pronouns/1894084002/ ) for addressing a male-identifying-as-female student as “Sir” rather than by “her” chosen pronoun. As the conversation with the teacher was reported, the student called him a “c***,” one of the more offensive words in our vocabulary. But in victimary terms, he/she/? was justifiably expressing their righteous indignation at not being paid appropriate respect.
The whole “gotcha” aspect of Twitter-shaming and the related tactics of puritan progressivism are part of the same package, which should remind us of the brainwashing procedures of 20th-century revolutionaries like Stalin and Mao. One must be trained to put one’s faith in resentment properly focused by one’s ideological masters, and to put aside traditional ideas of human decency in the process. This is the real sense of the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt attributed to Eichmann, for which her tone of German-intellectual snobbery has led her to be unfairly reproached with being dismissive of the evil’s radicality. In a less solemn register, the proliferation of four-letter insults (the French word for “swear” is sacrer) is a particularly revelatory illustration of this process: witness the Shawnee student’s response to “Sir.”
To be continued…
*Title courtesy of Adam Katz