Published December 14, 2023
When is a crime victimless? When its perpetrators enjoy the status of victims, at least according to the nihilistic tastes of the West in our day. That is the lesson of reactions to various events in recent years, from the looting that accompanied many of the “mostly peaceful” BLM protests of 2020 to the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 this year. The response to the violence in Gaza was especially chilling. While there is always room for debating whether a response is proportionate to the act of aggression, the jubilation and exhilaration expressed by American academics, students, and some politicians over the Hamas attacks started before the Israeli counter-attack.
The contradictions at the heart of the modern morality of victimhood have now been exposed to all with eyes to see, even to many who have been pressing it in the political sphere. When members of the LGBTQ lobby express support for Hamas, it is another reminder that many progressives have lost any sense of a moral compass. But this was predictable. When oppressor and oppressed, victimizer and victim are the decisive categories by which to understand the world with no broader moral framework for defining those terms, political morality defaults to that of ressentiment, a reactive stance that simply opposes on principle whatever is. It is the spirit of negation.
Lacking any real framework for ethical discussion beyond this spirit of negation, the moral register is flattened and the language of moral outrage inflated. For example, the word “genocidal,” once reserved for real ethnic slaughter, is now used (apparently with a straight face) to describe legislation that seeks to protect children from bogus “science” placed in the service of progressive transgender ideology. Not only does the West now lack a sophisticated moral register, it lacks any vocabulary in which such could be expressed.
Much has been made this week of the resignation of Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania. Congress had called her to a hearing on Capitol Hill to investigate her handling of recent anti-Semitic incidents on the Penn campus. During this testimony, she refused to definitively answer whether it would be against college policy to call for the genocide of Jews. In the wake of this testimony, many donors criticized her and she has now resigned under pressure. But how much change does this signify? Those incapable of calling out incitement to real physical violence are certainly incompetent to lead educational institutions—but they are a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Penn’s president was a technocrat. Her job was to keep the administrative wheels turning and the financial donations flowing. She was destroyed by a donor rebellion, not by any action of the board. This is not a bad thing in itself—why should those donating vast sums of money not have a say in university policy? Perhaps those academics now worried about donor influence are naive about how money works. That seems unlikely, given how many of them support divestment initiatives relative to Israel. It is more likely that they are concerned about the particular influence of the specific donors involved.
The real issue is not the technocrats at the top. It is the culture that sees leadership in higher education not as a moral calling, but as a technocratic one. That type of leadership suits a broader academic culture that lacks positive moral content, that revels in the spirit of negation, and that cultivates a moral imagination infused with ressentiment among its students. Such leadership cares little for what happens in the classroom unless it affects the bottom line. And until that cultural issue is addressed, changes at the top will likely be accurately described in terms of “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss,” to quote The Who.
Watching the displays of anti-Semitism and pro-Hamas support on the streets of Western democracies over the last few months, I was reminded of two books. One is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. In that work—the foundational text for critical theory—they argue that the Nazis needed the Jews because they required an inferior race to dominate in order to establish and justify their own superiority. Today, that necessity for demonizing Jews seems to be felt most acutely by the left. And that connects to the second book: Philip Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks. Near the end he recalls that his grandfather did not want to be buried in America, where he lived, but in Israel, where he had grown up. His reason was that “he thought Hitler had won in some way” in the West, and he did not want his grave there. It is a haunting comment. Rieff explains it by arguing that the West is susceptible to “decreation,” a Nazi-like cultural impulse to throw off all external authority and plunge civilization into an orgy of self-destruction. I had always thought it overstatement, but watching the decreation in which the pro-Hamas left have indulged over these many weeks, it is hard not to agree. Perhaps Hitler has won, though on the left—the opposite end of the political spectrum to that we might have expected. And it will take more than symbolic gestures by chief executive officers at Ivy League institutions to overturn that victory.
Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.