Why did Bernie Sanders acquiesce in the commandeering of his recent speech in Seattle by a few Black Lives Matter brats? The BLM actions were clearly unpopular with the crowd, and from the commentary I’ve read since, with otherwise sympathetic leftists reflecting on the event. And yet Sanders surrendered completely and unconditionally, while incorporating BLM rhetoric and personnel into his campaign. It’s hard to see what kind of hard-headed electoral or fundraising calculations could have gone into these decisions; we’re dealing more with the spontaneous obedience to the voice of the sacred.
Why has no conservative politician commented on the utterly disgraceful fact that George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson will obviously never be allowed to return to normal life? It is shameful that two innocent individuals, who did nothing more than defend themselves successfully against criminal assailants, having been vindicated by lengthy and highly publicized judicial processes, are nevertheless treated like internal exiles, condemned to a virtual Siberia. This indicates a deep corruption of political life—a preference for lies over truth. Isn’t it clear that a “rogue” conservative exposing the systematic and specific lies on display in the Zimmerman and Wilson cases would generate the same thrill among tens of millions of Americans as Donald Trump’s unadorned references to the illegal alien crime wave? Yet not a single Republican will expose the racially targeted incitement to riot and attack police officers from the White House on down, and throughout the entire media.
Public opinion and electoral advantage clearly cede to victimary imperatives. But there is still the relation between the two. The Leftist agrees with the goals of BLM but still believes that if you go to see a speaker you should be allowed to see the speaker (he rejects some of the “means” of BLM); the conservative politician knows very well the fraud attempted in the Zimmerman and Wilson cases and knows that there is near unanimity on the right to defend oneself, but on some level feels he doesn’t want to “touch” this. It looks like cognitive dissonance, but that’s only if we translate what is an imperative into a declarative: very few people actually believe that black bodies are maimed from birth to death, in all of their worldly relations, by white supremacy, or that being disappointed in your child’s same sex attractions makes you the moral equivalent of a member of a KKK lynch mob, and yet on a level deeper than “opinions” a substantial majority of Americans act as if they do believe such things.
As originary thinkers, we shouldn’t have any difficulty understanding this. Those who repeat the originary event through ritual don’t know and can’t say why they do so, but eventually they arrive at explanatory myths and other discourses. But the explanations don’t affect the ritual—they just reconcile two domains within the mind. And we have our hypothesis regarding what the originary event in this case is: the Holocaust. All victimary actions are ritual re-enactments of—what, exactly? The answer to this question is very difficult, because all kinds of declaratives suggest themselves, but must be wrong by virtue of being declaratives; only performatives, with a declarative component but also a promissory one, can provide adequate answers. There are so many different features of the Holocaust that might have made it the signal event it became; and there might be all kinds of other events that constellate around or are triggered by the Holocaust, thereby explaining its centrality. We have no grounds for assuming that a uniquely terrible event will have commensurate moral consequences.
My view is that we must see the effects of the Holocaust in its revelation, not in its intrinsic character (although, of course, much of its intrinsic character likely comes through in its revelation; even more, much of its intrinsic character may lie in its “revealability”). An act that we have nothing to do with does not transform us morally—a brutal murder by a psychopath confirms our moral assumptions, it does not cause us to reflect upon them. Unless something about the act renders us complicit—if that psychopath lived among us, for example, giving off signs of his psychopathy that we ignored because he was respectable and pleasant company in other respects. In that case, the discovery of the true life he led can become revelatory.
The Holocaust made its “spectators” complicit on several levels. Those who didn’t know could have and should have—the Nazis hid their crimes, but crimes so massive can only be hid from those who don’t really want to see them. Those who knew and could have helped didn’t, and for reasons that “verified” the Nazi’s own war logic: the governments of America and other countries in a position to rescue Jews or interfere with the extermination process didn’t want it to look like they were fighting a war for the Jews, thereby accepting (or assuming their populations accepted) to a great extent the Nazi’s claim that this was a Jewish-inspired war. It follows that we didn’t help the Jews because we were different from the Nazis in degree, not kind. Finally, and I think most importantly, the mobilization of the entire industrial economy in the slaughter revealed a moral bankruptcy at the heart of modernity: nothing in being a conscientious doctor, engineer, bureaucrat, worker, professor, good middle class citizen, etc., would enable one to resist recruitment into atrocities.
The victimary, then, is a pre-emptive resistance to such complicity. It is a refusal of “spectatorship,” thereby re-enacting the rare refusals to participate scattered throughout the Holocaust, embodied first of all in the always tenuous and never believed in time testimony to the ongoing event. But victimary thinking enacts this resistance and refusal as a resentment of firstness: Nazism’s extremities are just the extension of the striving for pre-eminence among nations, among firms in the economy, among ideological and religious claims, and so on. (This is the mythic, discursive, dimension of victimary thinking.) This is why victimary thinking ultimately comes full circle to antisemitism. There is a moral bankruptcy constitutive of modernity, and it is on display in the Holocaust, but this moral bankruptcy involves an abandonment of the work of differentiation in favor of the faith in generating endless equivalences. Differentiation is the work of spinning off distinctions from the fundamental sacred/profane distinction: distinctions between good and bad, noble and base, worthy and unworthy, beautiful and ugly, and so on. But just inheriting and reproducing these distinctions is itself a sign of moral exhaustion. The distinctions themselves can only be the result of new modes of deferral and discipline that generate new spaces and objects of attention. But the victimary version of events represented the democratic path of least resistance: one can always imagine resolving a conflict by making people equal in some new way.
In the short term, the only genuine resistance to the victimary is exposure of its Big Lies. In the long term, that resistance must entail restoring a civilization of differentiation through dialogue and performativity. The short term is part of the long term insofar as the most direct and intuitive way of exposing the Big Lies is through constant, unflappable questioning. I suggested in a recent post a line of questioning regarding the abolition of differentiations in the field of sexuality. More pertinent here is the question, what is “race”? This is surely an even less comfortable question than the ones regarding gender and sexuality; it is the ur-question of the victimary; or rather, the ur-forbidden question. But all the talk of racism and white supremacy can’t avoid attributing all kinds of characteristics to whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, etc., even if those characteristics are deemed to be “constructed.” The main tenet of victimary thinking on race is that the only characteristics to be attributed to whites qua whites are undesirable ones but, of course, in any attribution of the undesirable we can read the resentment towards something desired and envied. We don’t need to get into discussions of IQ scores and the relative achievements of different civilizations (although far be it from me to recommend holding back on such topics—why, indeed, must one be bothered if there do turn out to be all kinds of group differences in capabilities? What is assumed about our capacity for self-discipline here?): the differences posited within the victimary itself already give us plenty to work with. If, for example, for Ta-Nehisi Coates blackness is real, grounded in the aesthetics of the body and the ethics of solidarity, while whiteness is fake, imaginary, constructed, parasitical on blackness (I am working with Christopher Caldwell’s reading of Coates in the Weekly Standard), well, ok—but, far from this fabricated racial identity being a kind of “blood-sucking subhumanity,” isn’t the inventive transcendence of the immediate and empirical dimensions of group belonging the prime marker of an unparalleled civilization predicated upon the never certain, never completed, ever adventurous differentiation of the human from the natural? Deconstruction might be quite conservative now that it is the victimary that is most insistent upon unquestioned closure.
Anyone, even in the riskiest situations, can do at least a little of this. All that is necessary is a deferral of the Big Lie, a refusal, which can be gentle, subtle, apparently befuddled, to sign onto it. Sure, a man can really be a woman (I’ve heard about those brain scans that make the science settled), one might say, but, in that case, what does it mean to “really be a woman”? What does that man who wants it imagine it to be? Can you run down for me the different ways American blacks, Haitian blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Pakistani- Americans, Koreans, Lebanese, Palestinians, Chinese, and the Hmong are all constructed racially in America (in the South, in the Northwest…), how those constructions change, and what role the groups in question have regarding their own and each other’s construction? Let them talk about it all—all kinds of things are bound to slip outside of victimary categories. One might see this as a return to the Socratic roots of Western civilization: what do you mean by…
One final point. I have become convinced that, despite all the complications and difficulties it entails, the only anti-victimary response to same sex marriage is, indeed, the privatization of marriage. Here, of all the victimary fronts, without the givens of the state, the victimary argument collapses. For the supporter of SSM, marriage literally becomes nothing without the state. But the same holds to varying degrees across the board. Victimary thinkers are fundamentally incapable of imagining how the oppressions and, to use a term of Gans’s, “discriminatory ontologies,” they see at work would be remedied or even properly identified without assuming the state as omnipotent arbiter (this is what makes it the quintessential anti-imperial imperial mode of thought). But they must be made to imagine it. There is no more productive line of questioning at this point than to ask, let’s say everything you say about race in America is true—now, if we left these groups to their own devices, without the deux ex machine of the civil rights establishment, how would it all play out? The question—if you could get any victimocrats to play along (but, anyway, in public spaces you are never really doing any of this for the victimocrats themselves)—will utterly confound them. Would they still exist as groups? In what senses? What would sources of conflicts be, and what rules of engagement would be created? What would be sources of strength and weakness in the different groups? How would different forms of belonging criss-cross each other? How would reciprocal constructions proceed without some legally defined (and still to be redefined) concept of “equality” in the background? Victimary thinking will not be able to sustain the discussion—we would find ourselves in another place. We would weaken, even a little, the hold of one of the Big Lies. It is this persistent questioning, committed to the civilizational work of extending and deepening differentiations, that can bring an end to the victimary. Sometimes, say in confronting a twitter mob, you’ll only get one question in—best to make sure it’s a good, perplexing one. As with all things, it’s a question of practice. And, when possible, this approach can get ratcheted up into much more confrontational postures.