For Adam Katz
“Who loses, wins.” This little paradox was the theme of L’idiot de la famille, Sartre’s three-volume work on Gustave Flaubert, father of the modern novel. Girard might have called it a “romantic” slogan, appropriate to the heroes of Flaubert’s youthful tales—the subject of my doctoral dissertation, which sought to show that this series of stories taught young Gustave the superficiality of the mensonge romantique, as Emma Bovary would later discover to her misfortune.
What slogan could be a more appropriate description of the present state of decadence into which Western civilization has been falling since its apparent triumph in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact? The Left is no longer driven by the Marxist dream of a “new man” liberated from the chains of capitalism. Indeed, the Left no longer has a positive dream; it is wholly dominated by the phenomenon I call victimary, a translation of the French victimaire. I know some readers of these Chronicles find this subject tiresome, but next to the victimary, no other reality occupies a comparable portion of today’s political/cultural scene. The Left is wholly taken with it, and conservatives, aside from the few attracted by a “far right” version of victimary paranoia, have little else as a program than attempting to defend the traditional values of justice, meritocracy, parental and what the French call régalien authority, which is to say, the fundamental structures of civil society, against the Left’s self-righteous victimary assaults.
It is no doubt tiresome to repeat this complaint about our era without providing a suggestion for its resolution other than an anthropological hypothesis ignored by the vast majority of academic anthropologists. Yet it is not coincidental that the recent vote of the American Anthropological Association to boycott Israeli universities not only tells us all we need to know about this “vast majority,” but provides a key insight into the nature of the victimary. For antisemitism, the “socialism of fools,” is the ancestor of the victimary impulse of the Western world. That Pope John Paul II called the Jews “our elder brothers” is a wonderful thing, but sadly it was only after the Holocaust that Christianity was able to rid itself of resentment of its precursor.
The category of the victimary includes virtually every nuance of progressive political thinking, which in turn is that of virtually the entire sphere of the public media, the Democratic Party, and the great majority of the educated class, particularly in the university and the cyberworld. It would be difficult to find a single political position enunciated by the current Administration on any subject that is without victimary content. When President Biden praises the LGBT community—as opposed to firefighters, or soldiers, or (perish the thought) police officers—as “some of the bravest and most inspiring people I know” he is simply doing what has become natural in today’s society, and different nuances of the same victimary phenomenon explain the policies of shutting down pipelines, restricting mining and oil drilling, seeking to ban gas stoves and gasoline motors… Whether the “victims” are racial/sexual/ethnic/physically disadvantaged human groups or elements of nature that Western technology has modified for human benefit, the mindset is the same: my indignation and its consequences are not expressions of selfish resentment, but of the virtuous defense of victims, be they human, animal, vegetable, or mineral—and whether or not these victimized groups themselves are capable of defending their own interests, the burden of guilt falls on the non-victimary majority that fails to protect them.
The parables and incidents of the New Testament that display the Christian conception of love for one’s fellow man all assume a well-defined social ethic. Jesus discourages the elders from stoning the adulteress, but he leaves her with “go and sin no more.” Christianity softens the Jewish Law but does not abolish it. Once the very notion of sin is denied, human community is no more. As we clearly see today, when crimes such as “petty” theft that no legal code ever thought to exonerate are simply not prosecuted. And when such behavior is affirmed, however carelessly, by voters in elections for District Attorney or Mayor, the very notion of a political community becomes problematic.
Why then is victimary morality considered incontestable among wide swaths of the population, for whom it is an altruistic gift to the members of victim categories that condemns those members of the non-victimary majority who fail to participate in it as complicit in racism and/or various “phobias”?
The current return in strength of antisemitism under the guise of anticolonial hostility to Israel, affirming Palestinian terrorism as a revolt against Israeli “apartheid,” is a precious indication of the resentment that underlies this self-styled virtuous sentiment. For antisemitism, the resentment of Jewish firstness, must be seen as the original sin of Western Civilization. The Left’s increasing hostility to Israel all the while proclaiming its “anti-fascist” stance is an a priori demonstration of the resentful basis of its victimary virtue. Nor is it surprising that the partisans of victimary thinking largely disavow any connection to traditional Christianity—whose attitudes toward moral questions are generally rejected on the left as associated with “prejudice” against victimary groups such as homosexuals. For now that Christianity has essentially transcended antisemitism, the latter has formed a partnership with those for whom Christianity too must be rejected as a “colonial” or “white” religion.
At first glance, treating anti-colonialism as analogous to antisemitism might seem blasphemous. After the Holocaust demonstrated antisemitism to be history’s most evil doctrine, the idea that Edward Said’s Orientalism, which denounces the West’s attitude toward Near-Eastern cultures as itself akin to antisemitism, actually has more in common with antisemitism itself than the denunciation of it might seem a mere perversity. Yet as Adam Katz and I attempted to show in our The First Shall Be the Last: Rethinking Antisemitism (Leiden: Brill, 2015), the key to antisemitism is not the assertion of Jewish inferiority but rather the resentment of Jewish firstness. That antisemitism—which is never included in the intersectional lineup of discriminatory practices—has very little in common with everyday racism is demonstrated by its frequent inclusion as an ingredient in Black radicalism: today that of Louis Farrakhan, or in the past, that of Marcus Garvey or, as pointed out in our book, of W. E. B. Dubois, who in his The Souls of Black Folk singles out “Russian Jews” for particular opprobrium as exploiters of blacks.
Resentment of firstness as the foundation of antisemitism, which was barely acknowledged by the organization that published our book, let alone by the various Jewish organizations, many of which are unwilling even to affirm Israel’s originary status in its ancient homeland, should be considered the “original sin” of Western or Judeo-Christian civilization, a sin that only now, after the Holocaust, we can begin to face directly. The identification of the Jews with the “canary in the coal mine” is demeaning rather than insightful. The Nazis may have exterminated Gypsies and homosexuals, but they were not the point of the Final Solution. That Israel remains the pariah of the UN, and increasingly, of the Democratic Party that something like 75% of American Jews still vote for, is not just “regrettable,” but follows directly from our book’s basic thesis, which is that antisemitism is the model, if not of the epistemology of resentment per se, then of its historical manifestation in Western Civilization.
The example of Marx himself is worthy of mention, and not only because of his nasty little book on the Judenfrage. His idyllic picture of communist society (“hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon”) is surely facetious, but the joyful naturalness that it exudes is at least sub-consciously conceived as the antithesis of the Judaic anti-nature of dietary restrictions and distancing from the life of the soil, and above all of his claim that the focus of the Jewish sacred is der Schacher (huckstering), that is, unproductive market manipulation, in contrast with the exploitation of nature for human benefit. Ilhan Omar’s well-known association of Jews with “the Benjamins” is but an updated version of this familiar trope.
What is in question here is less resentment itself than its justification. Although the tiers état’s justification of the sans-culottes’ resentment allowed the Revolution to proceed, it cannot be said to have initiated it, and the caste system of the Old Regime clearly conferred privileges that were no longer justified by the nobles’ contribution to the social order—a qualification that Hannah Arendt likewise attributes to the “court Jews” in the declining period of the Old Regime. Such was not the case in such simple terms, for example, for the general run of European colonization; the Congo “heart of darkness” was the exception rather than the rule. While we can easily understand the resentment of the former colonials, it is a Rousseauian illusion to deny the positive contributions of the European powers to the large majority of their colonies. France’s recent failures in the Sahel, culminating in their loss of influence in Niger, reflect this understandable but most often unproductive residual resentment against the former colonial power.
It is only in the postwar era, with the emergence of Israel as a power in the Middle East, that the parallel between post-colonial resentment and antisemitism has become clear, and with it, the never-deracinated status of antisemitism itself. The horror of the Holocaust reflects its diabolical “heroism”—as reflected in Himmler’s famous exhortation to the SS—in attempting to eliminate the “first” people altogether in order to install the Volk in its place—a position that Heidegger, for one, refused to denounce. That the ghost of Neo-Nazism continues to attract fringe groups throughout the West reflects the same kind of millenarian hope that animates the troops of jihadism, whose persecutions of Christians and Hindus are, today at least, clearly secondary to the passionate desire to destroy Israel and the Jews.
How does drawing this parallel between victimary Wokism and antisemitism help clarify the West’s current cultural malaise? Wokism can well be called the reductio ad absurdum of the rejection of firstness that is at the root of both phenomena. That teachers are instructed not to be critical of students who get the wrong answer to math problems, misspell words, or fail to learn historical facts is a direct albeit imbecilic extension of the principle enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount that “the first shall be the last.”
When Dostoevsky’s Underground Man suggested that 2+2=5 was an attractive idea, he didn’t mean to imply that it depended on being unaware that 2+2=4. The overall loss of public authority reflects the same phenomenon; refusing to prosecute shoplifters is not motivated by Christ-like pity for Jean Valjean’s need for a loaf of bread, but by a savage denial of the first order of civil society—the hypocrisy of which on the part of judges and prosecutors personally untouched by this tolerance of theft is too obvious to mention. We can consider in the same light the tolerance of unconscionable conditions in our cities, of which San Francisco and Portland are egregious examples. The society’s refusal to “punish” drug addicts and mentally ill homeless by taking them off the streets and putting them in institutions (rather than commandeered apartments or hotel suites which they inevitably trash) must be understood as a victimary attack on the firstness of civic order itself, regardless of the original intentions of the deinstitutionalization movement.
So long as the wealthy can afford to distance themselves from the garbage and the feces they can feel themselves forgiven for the “privilege” that sets them above these fallen humans by their refusal to judge them. No doubt the 1980s closing of the mental hospitals stimulated by the Supreme Court’s striking down of vagrancy laws (initiated with Papachristou v. Jacksonville: 405 U.S. 156; 1972) can be viewed today as key preliminary steps in this direction.
No doubt these behaviors are not directly associated with antisemitism. But they are very much products of the antinomian perspective of “the first shall be the last.” The trivial powers that rules about “preferred pronouns” place in the hands of teachers and in some cases employers are, like every aspect of the victimary, ultimately attacks on the Burkean world that was “there first” and that has become for that very reason suspect.
Need I point out that the originary contrast between Jews and Christians was in the latter’s liberation from the infinitely detailed “law” of the Old Testament—which the Haredim still seek to obey in all its particulars? But I very much doubt that Jesus would have looked with favor on those of today who so distort his efforts to transcend resentment through love.