Ilhan Omar’s controversial remarks about Israel call to mind Christopher Hitchens’ commentary on vicarious redemption. The idea that one can be cleansed of sin by making others suffer.
Depending on who you ask, freshman representative Ilhan Omar has been toeing some very close lines to anti-Semitic tropes to make legitimate (or cheap?) criticisms about the United States’ relationship with the state of Israel. Specifically, her arguably flippant response when questioned about the influence of Israel’s major lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was to simply do the Twitter equivalent of your ignorant uncle at Thanksgiving muttering something about “Jewish money” under his breath after he’s had a few too many gimlets.
At least that was how one side saw it.
The other side — and maybe rightfully so — saw this as a big mountain being made of a tiny molehill. After all, the right had gone after her for an old tweet in which she claimed Israel had “hypnotized the world”, which is a pretty unsubtle use of the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish mystical powers. And that was almost seven years ago, and railroading someone for past comments made on Twitter was apparently now completely unacceptable in the eyes of the cultural internet left. Sarcasm aside, Omar’s comments about AIPAC’s financial influence are hardly indicative of a trope as toxic as Jewish hypnotic powers. And it was just a Twitter exchange, after all. People don’t tend to be their best selves when confined to 280 characters and strong incentive to make zings rather than provide insight. In addition, later and most recently, she’s made comments that have lead critics to suggest that she was employing the dual loyalty trope in which she lamented an effort toward pushing allegiance to a foreign country, meaning, in this case, Israel. Again, it’s not quite clear if this is a mountain or a molehill.
But there is and was a certain…odor about the comments she’s made. Perhaps it was the apparent flippancy with which she invoked money when talking about an organization run by and ostensibly for Jews, their homeland, and their homeland’s relationship with the United States. Or perhaps it was Omar’s own financial and political ties to a problematic lobbying group in Washington, namely the Hamas-, Hezbollah-, and Muslim Brotherhood-linked organization, the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that’s been labeled a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates and an organization that has gone out of its way to try and discredit (and even place in harm’s way) Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to name a few, sometimes by even using satellite PR firms to get them put on cynical Southern Poverty Law Center-penned hit lists. The financial ties between Omar and CAIR are certainly paltry compared to the amount of money flowing into Congress through AIPAC, but CAIR’s fundraising done for Omar’s campaign in 2018 reached its legal maximum and, as Omar herself has suggested, “It’s all about the benjamins, baby.” None of these criticisms are even touching the more problematic policy-relevant decisions she has made at the local level in her (and, as it happens, my) home state of Minnesota, such as the time that Omar, a self-described intersectional feminist, voted against a bill designed to protect young girls and women from the horrors of female genital mutilation, a practice that has been shown to have a continued underground presence in a number of Somali communities in the Midwest.
It’s asking a lot of partisan supporters of Omar (especially in the notoriously purple state of Minnesota in which the Twin Cities are a bright blue bubble surrounded by a sea of deep blood red) to know or acknowledge all of these subtle details that make blindly supporting her for her ostensibly progressive positions a problematic proposition. And yet I can’t help but suspect that even with these details in their back pockets, her usually white supporters (given Minnesota’s racial and political demographics) would continue to offer her unflinching support, if only because it allows them to both stick it to the white conservative American monster they have, at this point, given a Cthulhuian reputation, as well as show their own tribe — white and non-white alike — how righteous they and their cause are in the face of the Trumpian nightmare in which we all ostensibly live. In other words, it doesn’t matter if Omar — a representative speaking for her constituents in the halls of Washington — has some noxious or even borderline-noxious political and social views. As her pious supporters might put it, her existence as a black Muslim woman in those halls does all the work we need her to do; it shows the world that we are not like them, by virtue of the fact that we elected someone who looks and talks like her, especially about things that trigger them. Game, set, match.
In 2007, the late great journalist, gadfly, and all around phenomenal wordsmith Christopher Hitchens published his masterwork, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Within this book (apart from a few factual hiccups and psychological blindspots, particularly in his chapter dealing with what he calls “the Eastern solution”), Hitchens made brilliantly-worded point after brilliantly-worded point about the pitfalls of religious doctrine, belief, and scripture. However, perhaps the book’s most towering achievement comes not from his scorched earth approach toward the Old Testament or his subtle destruction of the Islamic metanarrative, but rather from his argument against the sacrifice supposedly given by Jesus Christ to provide the rest of humanity with eternal salvation, for which we must be eternally grateful. It was quite possibly the only compelling moral argument for why the core of Christian belief has its problems.
We often hear from many atheists, agnostics, or simple theological critics variations on the same argument: that the New Testament of the Bible has many problems, that the Catholic Church has become a force for evil over the centuries, and that fundamentalist Christians are the real problem facing American society, but the teachings of Jesus Christ are impossible to rationally reject. “Love thy neighbor” is frequently invoked as an example, as if Jesus Christ was the first person to come up with the idea of the Golden Rule and somehow didn’t arrive on Earth after the Mahābhārata existed in ancient India or the spread of Taoism hadn’t begun in ancient China. But the sacrifice Christ made — that he would die so humanity could be saved — is often given at the very least a respectful nod, if not outright admiration for its audacity to claim that all men and women were worth saving.
The contention made by Hitchens was simple: that this — Jesus’ sacrifice — was an act of vicarious redemption and was thus an immoral action. Never before had this fundamentally interesting argument against the supposed moral good created by the self-sacrifice of Christ made the rounds, especially spread by someone with as much cultural influence as Hitchens did. In Hitchens’ words in God Is Not Great:
“We cannot, like fear-ridden peasants of antiquity, hope to load all our crimes onto a goat and then drive the hapless animal into the desert. Our everyday idiom is quite sound in regarding ‘scapegoating’ with contempt. And religion is scapegoating writ large. I can pay your debt, my love, if you have been imprudent, and if I were a hero like Sidney Carton in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ I could even serve your term in prison or take your place on the scaffold. Greater love hath no man. But I cannot absolve you of your responsibilities. It would be immoral of me to offer, and immoral of you to accept.”
Hitchens would repeat this point in several of his many talks and debates during that glorious time between 2007 and 2010 that have made their way onto YouTube, both conflating the ideas of vicarious redemption and scapegoating, as well as the inherent “masochism”, as he would have called it, of living under what he described as a “totalitarian system”, which was how he described living under the moral tutelage of a Christ who would claim our only reason for redemption was because of his own sacrifice. As he put it during one of his debates, vicarious redemption was:
“The idea that by watching another person suffer, an innocent person suffer, that you could be freed not just from your debts or your sins, but your responsibilities; you could cast your sins on a scapegoat.”
Expanding on this idea further, Hitchens would quote from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in which it was written:
“And do you think that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
God gave the Secret, and denied it me? —
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that too.”
Following this, he rephrased the simple and yet brilliant notion shared by Khayyam by addressing the befuddled Christian pastor he was debating at the time and asked:
“What is your authority for you saying you know something that I don’t?”
This is the core to the question of vicarious redemption. In the texts and teachings, Christ was a man; of this there is no doubt. The doubt comes — as any observant Jew will tell you — as to whether or not Christ was of divine spirit. Since that cannot be agreed upon unanimously, the question must be asked when Christ or his followers tell you that he has sacrificed himself for the sins you have committed, whether you accept his divinity or not: who is he to judge me? I don’t recognize his divinity, so what is his authority to say that he knows something — something about me or anyone else, mind you — that I don’t know?
This is the nature of vicarious redemption. The debate can be had as to whether or not Jesus Christ meant for his sacrifice to be taken this way, and even whether or not this type of redemption was actually good or bad. Nevertheless, that this idea of vicarious redemption be called into question adds a healthy new philosophical and moral dimension to what we have come to take for granted in our references to the New Testament’s protagonist. And not only that, it can provide an enlightening window into the very soul of white progressive allyship in the 21st century.
It was watching these knee-jerk defenses of Ilhan Omar by her white ally base got me thinking about all the performative allyship that has seemingly become so en vogue, especially with the aging millennial generation, during the last seven or eight years. Like many critics of the cultural left that seems to be ascendant, I have always found “allyship”, in the form that we usually see it play out in both traditional and social media coverage, to be toxic, condescending, and even profoundly racist in and of itself, just in its own peculiar inverted way. This may seem like a new phenomenon to many — a product of post-Civil Rights Act overcompensation, say — but in reality, it’s a product of good old-fashioned provincial racialist views of non-whites that stretch back over 150 years, if not longer.
Indeed, there is a saying that you’ve probably all heard: that how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
During the American Civil War, many instances of sexual assault committed by Union soldiers upon southern women occurred, likely far more than what are on the record. One thing that happened frequently was a group of Union soldiers would gang rape the black slave women — sometimes even to death — in front of their white mistresses and leave the white mistresses untouched. And yet these white mistresses had been part of the rape as well. They had had a message drilled into them: “we could have done this to you traitorous bitches, but we didn’t.”
However, things went a step further: black regiments would often take part in the gang rape of white women. This isn’t some fever dream of a KKK wizard; this happened. But not because of the reasons you (or the said KKK wizard) might think. These black soldiers would often be incentivized and coaxed, if not outright coerced, by their white counterparts and superiors in the Union Army to do the deed; to punish these traitorous women (and by extension their husbands) that would have gladly had these freed black men back in chains if they had their say-so. While the gang rapes of white Confederate women by black Union soldiers was occurring, the white Union soldiers would typically stand back, watch, and laugh. These men not only got a kick out of watching their traitorous enemy be humiliated, but these men who stood back, watched, laughed, and felt righteous about it, would face no consequences (if they were ever even caught) because the black men were the ones who did the raping, and the black men were the ones who would always get a more severe punishment even if a white man took part.
According to an article written in the Arkansas True Democrat, the following incident took place in 1863 at the home of a Mr. Anthony:
“The Union soldiers permitted a number negro teamsters to seize the daughters and ravish those unprotected females. Their mother besought the protection of the officers, but these brutal men cursed her as a damned rebel, saying that they understood that the husbands of her daughters were in the Confederate service, and they were being served properly thus to be outraged by a race they had enslaved.”
The message being sent by the white Union soldiers to these white southern women (and again, their husbands) was clear: this was revenge, revenge that they had arranged on “behalf” of the men they were “allowing” to do the raping. These white men could watch these white women suffer, and now feel liberated from the moral debts and sins that they had incurred by these fellow whites; these fellow whites who had created and benefited from the black slave class that was now getting its retribution. These members of the former slave class getting their revenge would be the only ones who saw punishment for their white brethren’s search for redemption; their white brethren had found what Christopher Hitchens would have called their scapegoat.
Because true allyship is a simple state of mind, we are given a nice keyhole view into what it means to be an “ally” to many of these people who somehow believe that when it comes to racism — the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races — that actions speak louder than words. If you believe action (as opposed to belief) is what designates a racist or a non-racist, it logically follows that allyship will naturally result in a simple performance, rather than a change in a state of mind. True allyship comes from within; if it is honest, the allying actions will follow. And instead of just seeing representatives of an entire demographic, a true ally will not only be able to see the individual virtues of someone who doesn’t look or act like them, but more importantly, they will be able to see the nasty details, unpleasant idiosyncrasies, and internal monstrosities that we all possess. It can be ugly. But it’s real; not an imaginary performance to be broadcast through the usual channels of shares and retweets and Instagram stories, or what can charitably be called the Avenues of the White Ally.
In the end, white allies today could be said are doing exactly what white allies have always been doing since the Civil War by letting non-whites feel the brunt of the consequences of divisive, unthoughtful, pseudo-social justice rhetoric that only succeeds in working people up, all in the name of raising awareness, which is, as everyone knows, “the first step to change.” Funny how we always seem to get stuck on that first step. Every time a self-described ally displays or performs their allyship and drives the right wingers, centrists, and pretty much everyone who isn’t a hard-liner intersectional leftist, completely nuts for varying reasons, they are effectively placing every non-white, non-LGBT, non-majority’s neck in the proverbial noose. And while they’re dangling from the proverbial tree, the white ally can continue to not only feel righteous about being on “the right side of history”, but can also continue to perform it and reap the benefits of virtue forever without consequence.
The white allies — both the 19th century and the 21st — have officially given Jesus Christ a run for his money in the vicarious redemption game.