Over the years I have devoted a good number of these Chronicles to the victimary strain of modern Western Leftism, whose increasingly solipsistic turn has suggested to me that it may truly be the ultimate stage of the way of thinking founded on “the epistemology of resentment.” Resentment is not used here in the invidious sense in which today’s Leftists attribute it to their “deplorable” opponents; this epistemology consists in defining moral truth via the quasi-instinctual application of our sense of moral equality to any situation that violates it. This procedure’s explicitness under the Woke regime is close to transparent: the “victim’s” resentment is judged to demonstrate the violation of his moral equality.
The radicalization of this procedure describes the victimary trend whose most recent name is Wokeness, evoking what is indeed its appeal to our most fundamental “moral instincts.” But (assuming I am not in a victim class) Wokeness’ emphasis is not on my own resentment, but on my adoption of what I conceive to be the appropriate resentment of my (white) race’s victims. This conception receives legitimacy from chosen representatives of presumably oppressed minorities glad to be of service to their ascriptive group and indirectly, to the society as a whole, while enriching themselves considerably in the process.
Since over the years the terms of this victimary discourse have changed, I felt that I needed a little historical perspective. The significant historical difference between today and 1991 is that the earlier date coincided with the “Fukuyama moment” of imagining ourselves at the “end of history,” whereas today, what is most striking is not so much the vastly increased economic and military power of China as the decadent state of the American social fabric. American culture is dominated by what can only be called an infantile self-hatred, an identification with “post-colonial” forces hostile to the hegemony of the West and of the USA in particular. These attitudes are comparable to the reactions of a spoiled but discontented child to what he deplores as the culturally hegemonic world of his parents on whose protection he still unthinkingly relies in the moment that he reviles it.
It seemed to me that returning to a book published in 1991 on the effect of victimary thinking in the universities, where it chiefly began and still remains concentrated, would provide some perspective on how things had changed over these 30-odd years, during which the West’s and America’s self-image has gone from one of effortless triumph to an increasing sense of impotence—incapable of defending its borders or keeping order on its streets, or of respecting its historical monuments and achievements, while “daring” to put into question human biological realities that all other cultures had always unthinkingly respected. That book is Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, published by the Free Press division of MacMillan.
Although I was teaching at UCLA throughout the period D’Souza depicts, and was certainly aware of the victimary thrust of the developments he describes, I would not have recalled them as so powerful in that pre-Woke era as D’Souza shows them to have been. The pressures in favor of minority/black affirmative action were more visible then because they had not yet been fully implemented, but otherwise, their ideological rationale was little different from today’s, even to the point of including the radical perspective from which the very notion of excellence, whether in the student’s work or in the works he is asked to study, is questioned or dismissed as a “white” or “white male” means of insuring that group’s dominance.
What is truly different today is that these perspectives are no longer confined to the university but have become commonplaces pervading the educational system and popular attitudes—a further step in Rudi Dutschke’s “Long March…” But already by 1989 the university administrations that had instinctively resisted the New Left in the 1960s were almost without exception ready from the outset to concede to demands for “affirmative action” in minority hiring and admissions.
What is truly curious is why these ideas, already current and put into practice thirty years ago, are still being affirmed so insistently today against little resistance. (The current Supreme Court’s consideration of Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina may soon drastically change this situation!) Why after all this time is it only in the past decade that Deans of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and their staffs have been created and are continuing to multiply—including in the UC system that presumably outlawed racial preferences in 1996? The obvious answer is that the essential flaw in the victimary system—the false assertion that inferior minority performance is due to racism—requires that it continually be radicalized in order to justify it. The insistence on “systemic racism” and on promoting the works of Kendi, Coates, et al. must be seen as a response to the failure of affirmative action to efface or at least reduce the differences in achievement between whites and blacks.
(As a counterexample, having lived and taught through the 1996 passage of Proposition 209, which forbade discrimination in public education, I can attest that at UCLA, which is the hardest UC to gain admission to, the quality of minority students noticeably improved from one year to the next. Interestingly, despite California’s presence on the “left coast,” in 2020 voters rejected by 57-43 Proposition 16 that would have repealed 209.)
The term that has most changed its status since 1991 is “diversity.” Although far from absent from D’Souza’s book, the word does not yet bear the weight that it does today, where aside from its institutional presence, it is the primary rhetorical characterization of the contemporary university. (The UCLA Chancellor includes it whenever possible in his messages to the university community.) Thus the purpose of race-conscious admissions is no longer explained primarily as righting an injustice toward victimary groups, but as making the university more “diverse” and therefore more universal, providing its community a sociological experience that need no longer be justified as compensatory. An expected major change is that thirty years ago, when there were still more male than female students and considerably more professors, feminism was far more militant. In today’s university, women outnumber men in the student body, have parity with men on the faculty, and occupy a comparable number of leadership roles.
In the domain of “critical theory,” D’Souza reacts to what were then the later stages of the “French Theory” invasion begun in 1966, often discussed in these Chronicles. Today even the memory of Foucault and Derrida is fading, and such as Agamben or Zizek are in no way of comparable importance. D’Souza is dismissive of what he calls this au courant criticism; this is fully understandable given that the era’s self-important flamboyance largely hid the true theoretical significance of its questioning of literary norms, a significance to be found in Girard but also in the unremarked anthropological depth of Derrida’s key notion of différance, and more broadly, in the search of all these thinkers to escape the straitjacket of Western metaphysics. The best of what remains of this today are explorations of the esthetic productions of sexual and similar minorities often marginalized in past eras.
Perhaps the most striking attitudinal difference between D’Souza’s book and the current situation is reflected in the final chapter’s three suggestions for improvement, made at a time when the victimary problem was largely confined to the university. These suggestions were:
- Base affirmative action entirely on socioeconomic, not racial status;
- Do not allow student groups based on race, i.e., not The Black Students Society but The Du Bois Society;
- Insist on the importance of the classics, including those of other traditions.
It’s easy enough to see that attempts to implement suggestion 2 would bring about vast demonstrations and probably be struck down in the courts. The rationality of 3 is not in doubt, but I think a survey of course offerings today would make clear that outside of a few deliberately traditional institutions such as Hillsdale College or Thomas Aquinas College, majors have tended to emphasize the trendy and “diverse” over a strong foundation in “the great authors,” and a strong background in the Classics, let alone a knowledge of classical languages, is rarely required or found. In 2021, Princeton University dropped the requirement for its Classics majors to know either Greek or Latin!
As for suggestion 1, no doubt crude racial quotas are never put forth as admissions criteria, but recruitment at all levels from freshmen to Deans and Chancellors very much takes race and gender into account, and indeed, the matter of selection itself is less problematic today than its enabling ideology of “systemic racism” and the White Guilt behind it. This ideology is no longer something students discover in college; it pervades public schools at all levels, and with the current wave of transsexualism has led to such perversities as “girls” with penises using girls’ bathrooms and competing in their athletic contests. This has clearly reached its limit and will probably recede, but we should not forget that the clear objective of the shift, in attention if not in reality, from racism to heterosexism, is to discredit not merely our social but our biological norms as “oppressive” to the extent that they appear to infringe on the moral equality of even those least respecting of social normality.
Thus if, on the one hand, “nothing has changed” since 1991, on the other, “everything has changed.” The epistemology of resentment has attained what would seem to be its broadest possible application to the world of social interaction, to the point where its conflict with what was once called “common sense” has attained Orwellian proportions—although not sufficiently to provoke most Republican candidates in the 2022 election into a straightforward denunciation of it.
Let me recall here a point I made about the 2016 election: one can say what one likes about Trump’s erratic pronouncements on Twitter and elsewhere, but in 2016 he won the nomination and the election most simply because he was the only serious candidate to directly denounce what was already an early stage of Wokeness. As I pointed out at the time, he and Ben Carson alone took aim at the victimary tendency that Obama’s administration had fostered and that Romney had done nothing to counter in 2012. Unlike the National Review, I have always considered Trump’s rejection of the victimary, which is to say, of the contemporary Left, as an act of historic political significance. Today, when we witness De Santis’ performance as governor, we are witnessing the acts of a politician who is clearly Trump’s heir, and who has turned an attitude that benefited from Trump’s narcissism but also from his visceral rejection of leftist virtue-signaling into a well-honed political praxis that has splendidly demonstrated its viability in one of our largest and most “diverse” states.
If there is one thing we have learned since the “end of history” in 1991, it is the extreme tenacity of the epistemology of resentment, in both its standard (“Left”) version, and even in its aberrant so-called “extreme Right-wing” version that targets the Jews as the evil distillers of the poison of modernity. Today, even the difference in respectability between the two, as evidenced in the continued unstigmatized adulation of such cruel mass killers as Castro and Mao, is put in doubt by the return of Hitler cults under the influence of Islamism. That regimes founded on these principles have always led to catastrophe, given that unleashing resentment with the dream of a permanent Saturnalia damages the bases of human interaction beyond repair, cannot prevent others from trying.
As Adam Smith said, “There is a lot of ruin in a nation,” and the US is still very far from having become a hollow shell like Venezuela. But in a dangerous world, our democracy will not long survive undamaged the triumph of resentment as embodied in the addled mediocrity of Joe Biden.