My objections to René Girard’s scapegoat model of the originary human scene should not be taken to imply that the sacred and human violence are not intimately related. But violence is sacred only in the sense that the sacred is taboo; the primary, although unfortunately not the sole, cultural function of the discharge of violence is rather, as we have all experienced, cutting up the meat for dinner.
What the debacle in Afghanistan teaches us, as if we needed a reminder, is that the failure to master violence is not a sign either of sanctity or of repentance for past crimes, but of loss of nerve, in a word, cowardice, and that to the extent that we understand divine judgment, neither kneeling before BLM nor relinquishing power to the Taliban are expressions of saintly humility, but of cowardly abjection.
The West’s decadence has no clearer demonstration than its increasing fear of exercising violence, even to the extent of obliging children to accept that they have lost at T-ball. Trump’s idea of withdrawal from Afghanistan was definitely a mistake, and it is surely unfortunate that he left Biden with this pretext for indulging his party’s instincts for abjectness, but we can be sure that Trump would have threatened and if necessary carried out a strong military response to the Taliban’s provocations, let alone quitting the US’s main air base in advance, supposedly to be defended by the Afghan army, which had no advance notice of the withdrawal of US support and intelligence, all leading to Thursday’s appalling massacre of Afghan civilians and American soldiers on top of the altogether unnecessary abandonment of millions of dollars of advanced military equipment.
Violence is deliberate human destruction, aggression consciously determined. The sacred is the name we have given to the transcendental “will” that protects us from violence, whether conceived as that of God or as the intuited collective will of the human community as communicated through a unanimously shared sign.
But the peaceful conclusion of our hypothetical originary scene, repeated in the communal feasts of every human culture, does not abolish the problem of human violence. The sacred does violence to human violence by interdicting it, but when interdiction fails, it must permit humans themselves to do violence to human violence by defeating it.
Genesis tells us that the One God’s first response to human violence was an admission that his original creation-experiment was a failure; he destroyed the entire world of living things (land animals, at any rate) leaving only one family to restart the human as well as all other species. But he promised Noah not to repeat this destruction; he had “learned” to let humans make their own mistakes—a step that Girard understands as a movement in the direction of the Christian withdrawal from worldly violence. This can be further understood as teaching humans to take God’s providential will into themselves, in effect to reduce the apparent gulf between the will of all-powerful God and the separate human individuals and collectives that must intuit and implement it.
Hence over the generations, God’s remedies for human violence became less violent; humans could no longer rely on him to pull their irons out of the fire. The sacred will that was revealed to us through our originary deferral of violence would henceforth serve us as a model, a “mediator” through whose inspiration we must resolve the problems caused by our own violence.
The notion of the One God was both originary as an unthematized intuition and a major historical achievement when thematically asserted and developed through the fraternal-tribal culture that led to the Hebrew Torah. Similarly, GA’s “new way of thinking” is the beginning of a new level of human self-consciousness, a step in the direction of the “one world” that the different branches of humanity are still in appearance far from constituting, but perhaps (assuming it does not self-destruct in the process) closer than we think to realizing.
Christianity, a Jewish sect that accepted the abandonment of the Jews’ tribal attachment to their homeland following the destruction of the second Temple as a means for bringing the One God to the rest of the world’s population, realized that only by God’s giving himself up to human violence in human form, forcing on our consciousness the equation of intrahuman violence with violence to the sacred itself, could God promise redemption through faith from this violence.
The Christian pari is that if God is truly transcendental, to teach humanity the danger of violence, rather than destroying the human world, he must let this violence destroy God himself (as Son), for, given the transcendental nature of his being (as Father), his will remains (as Spirit) to serve humanity as example. Yet, on a concrete level, Jesus’ “pacifist” prescriptions in the Sermon on the Mount to love one’s enemy and turn the other cheek must be understood in their original Jewish context, as behavior within and in proximity to the “tribe,” not toward external enemies who cannot be made to share a sense of common humanity.
Thus as the system of Christian nations began to emerge toward the end of the first millennium, in the battle against Islam and particularly in the Crusades, the Christian ethic was far from demanding mere passivity in the face of violence. The good must be defended whenever possible, and with violence when truly necessary. What must be destroyed is the human capacity for violence, and if that means killing an enemy, it never means desiring his suffering and death, merely preventing him and discouraging others from perpetrating violent acts. Whence the doctrine of “just war.”
Judaism had sought to define the limitations of the nation under the One God and the means to sustain it. Following their expulsion from their homeland, the state of permanent exile imposed on the Jews a “tribal” ethic deliberately alien to the surrounding Christian and Islamic communities into which they always risked being absorbed. Although Judaism accepts converts, it has never conceived itself as a universal religion destined to absorb all of humanity, but as “a light unto the nations” setting its worship of the One God as an example for others—one that has in fact succeeded, albeit under less than utopian circumstances, in pervading virtually the entire human population, from the jihadists of Boko Haram to the East Asian disciples of Marx and Engels. As for antisemitism, there is no better proof of the Jews’ universal paternity.
In contrast to the Jewish “tribe,” Christianity and Islam see their destiny in a universal human community. The first has given rise to an ensemble of separate nations which, although they include divergent forms of Christianity, can even in the East still be considered within the orbit of “Western” or Judeo-Christian culture. Whereas Islam seeks to extend the multi-tribal family configuration of Biblical Judaism to the entire world, any division into nations being subordinate to common membership in the Moslem Ummah.
The Westphalian system of Europe’s competing Christian nation-states, divided among Catholicism and various Protestant sects, reached its reductio ad absurdum in WWI. The development of weaponry had rendered the limited wars of previous centuries impossible, and given the contrast between the relative triviality of the war’s ostensible object and the extent of its devastation, made apparent mockery of the just war doctrine that had implicitly kept war within “civilized” limits. At the same time, this unexpected level of destruction led to the diabolization of the losing German side, and to Germany’s subsequent radical rejection of the Westphalian pattern, in parallel with the equally post-Christian Soviet regime, both of which took on in very different ways the universalist character of Islam, with or without a “master race.” This brought about a second, at least marginally just—and maximally devastating—world war that reduced war as the chief instrument of decision among states to marginal conflicts and unrealizable threats.
That the damage thus inflicted to the West’s sense of its historical mission was only partially restored by the Cold War has now been made all too clear. The seemingly triumphal victory-by-default over European Communism in 1989-91 has been followed over the twenty years since 9/11 by the increasingly humiliating demonstration of the West’s inability to deal with its superficially far weaker Islamic rival.
How, despite the liberal-democratic West’s (and East’s) enormous preponderance in economics in technology on the fall of the USSR, which had seemed to justify Fukuyama’s triumphant declaration of the “end of history” as a dialectic of political systems, have we reached this nadir a mere thirty years later?
It would be putting things backward to attribute this failure to the West’s latter-day internal opposition under the flags of anti-colonialism and anti-racism. The similar opposition to the much more serious and deadly Vietnam war was far more potent—nor were the protesters altogether wrong-headed in viewing Ho Chi Minh’s forces as a true national-liberation movement, as witness Vietnam’s subsequent virtual alliance with the US against China and North Korea. In contrast, all the talk of “Islamophobia” following 9/11 has had a narrowly ideological focus, as though an anticipatory concern for American Muslims outweighed in importance the deaths of 3000 Americans.
It is all too clear that the failure in combating Islamism that has seemingly reached its climax in the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan is a direct consequence of the West’s loss of confidence in what I have been calling its “firstness,” its sense of cultural superiority, not as a means of conquest but of liberation, in the wake of the failure of the naively optimistic neo-conservative attempt, centered on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to impose liberal democracy on the Middle East.
The “post-colonial” resentment the West has aroused, as much within its own territories as on an international scale, like the analogous victimary resentment in American race relations, was a reaction not to oppression, but to the disappointment that the end of oppression often produces, the long-awaited utopia failing to provide the anticipated satisfactions. But the resentments of the formerly oppressed have been of far less significance than their echo among “white” Westerners themselves in the ever-proliferating mode of White Guilt, which our woke era applies to an ever-expanding set of ascriptive victim-categories.
The West has so to speak misread Churchill’s quip about democracy as “the worst system except for all the others” as a demonstration that any benefits the West may have conferred on the rest of the world or on its internal minorities were nothing but signs of “racial” oppression. This auto-condemnation is a tacit avowal not, as it fancies itself, of the superiority of an imaginary multi-cultural egalitarianism, but rather of the apparent necessity, hence superiority over our “worst system except…”, of totalitarianism, or what Eric Voegelin had called, in reference to the archaic empires, compactness. For it is the totalitarian ideology of submission that is shared by both political Islam and “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” two spin-offs of Judeo-Christian civilization that have renounced its troublesome dialectic between God and Caesar.
In the more obvious case, by admitting China into the WTO and broadly accepting its form of market “capitalism” as a foretoken of its eventual adherence to Western principles, we were blinded by our economic relationship, advantageous in the short term, to the fundamental opposition between the West’s Millian principles and those of a monolithic state whose sole principle is its own self-interest, which it uncompromisingly imposes on the totality of its population and on all who would do business with it.
And yet it is ironically apt that what may well be the end of the “American century” was inaugurated on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 by the “defeat” of “the world’s most powerful military,” not by an increasingly wealthy and militarily powerful China, but by the Taliban, an atavistic incarnation of Islam—now gifted with a panoply of up-to-date weaponry courtesy of the American taxpayer, by way of demonstrating that the West can indeed share the violent business end of its technology even with the most backward social groups—“colonialism” without its usual humiliating implications.
That Biden’s actions seemed almost deliberately intended to turn our departure from Afghanistan into a rout symmetric with our initial routing of the Taliban in 2001 is but an unconscious homage to the superiority of totalitarianism, which is, after all, the most direct way of affirming the superior status of the community over the individual.
Nothing in our society of woke Newspeak can possibly possess the sacral aura of submission to the will of Allah—or even to Xi Jinping. The final result of our Afghan adventure—like the persistence of jihadic resistance to Israel, also in the teeth of vast military superiority—is an apparent demonstration to the Islamists that their very long term strategy, stalled for a century by the newly industrialized West’s willingness to use force, is destined for ultimate success, because founded on a genuine faith in God’s will such as the Judeo-Christian world, and even Israel itself, can no longer command.
When I claim that the Judeo-Christian religious configuration cannot solve this problem without assimilating the insights of the originary hypothesis, I am motivated not by vainglory but by the evidence. Nor is it a matter of replacing these religions by new and improved versions. What Generative Anthropology offers to the world, both the West and the “rest,” is a new way of understanding the fundamental anthropological problems that religion has always dealt with, and will presumably continue to do so, but within a new framework that allows us to demonstrate the inherent separation between the empirical sciences of nature and the paradoxical self-understanding of self-thinking creatures.
Human science is not “hard” science; the masters of representation cannot simply, as can the rest of the universe, be defined by representation. What we call paradox is another word for the transcendental freedom embodied in language itself—and the denial of this freedom through abolishing firstness in the name of “equity” can do no more than help restore humanity to its mute, prehuman state.