Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

White Guilt II

No. 311: Saturday, January 8, 2005

[As defined in Chronicle 310, white guilt refers not to skin color but to unmarkedness; it is the guilt of the unmarked toward the marked.]

It would be a mistake to characterize white guilt as a binary relationship between the guilty individual and the center that he has emptied of its victimary referent. Like every scenic interaction, white guilt is ternary; it is both shared with the other participants and mediated by them, like a tax owed to the center that other taxpayers make sure one pays. Even when one faces a direct victimary claim, it is the condemnation of one's fellow guilt-bearers that one principally fears, psychologically and above all institutionally. In the United States, but increasingly in other Western countries, compensation of "victims," as the ominous term "political correctness" implies, is enforced through the judicial process and/or bureaucratic grievance mechanisms. The hyperbole that often infects victimary discourse functions to remind the larger community of this. It is a common, if tacit, understanding that victimary rhetoric need not meet normal standards of truth--witness the prestige of Al Sharpton after the Tawana Brawley hoax--since its function is less to point to a specific injustice than to remind the "white" majority of its guilty status. White guilt in its narrow historical sense is distinct from the more general phenomenon of originary guilt as it appears in Freud's or Girard's model, or in Nietzsche's analysis of ressentiment. Freud and Girard speak of guilt only in reference to the specific victim, father or "emissary"; this model of guilt, because it is not mediated by the being/signified of the originary sign, is assimilated to guilt for murder in constituted human society, which can only be extended to other instances of face-to-face victimization. The classical victim of injustice is an individual even when he is a member of a stigmatized group. The Dreyfus case may have provoked cries of "mort aux Juifs!" and given birth to Zionism, but it was entirely focused on the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus (and secondarily on other individuals in the army, the Jewish community, the liberal and reactionary press, etc.).

In contrast, the specific character of postmodern white guilt is the collective nature of the victimary figure. The Tailhook scandal and the Rodney King beating, to cite a couple of examples from the 90s, were not about King or Paula Coughlin but about women and blacks, even minorities in general (most of the looting during the King riots was done by Latinos). Neither King nor even Coughlin was either innocent or guilty; they were victims. The acquittal of O. J. Simpson despite his obvious guilt reflected a similar assimilation of the individual to his racial group. The mostly black jurors who voted for acquittal and their supporters in the black community (where an estimated 70% affirmed Simpson's innocence) were not judging Simpson so much as "sending a message" to the white majority. In this case, the application of victimary rhetoric to a privileged individual failed to persuade the general/white public, but this rhetoric was learned and reinforced by people who were used to using it successfully.

What makes collective white guilt possible is that although the participants in the originary scene kill only a single victim, their guilt--and here we part company with Freud and Girard--is directed not at that individual but at the divinity, the signified of the sacred sign that they have denuded of its referent. One can regret a loss, but one can only feel guilty toward a subsisting being. Short-circuiting this process by conflating the victim and the divinity, as in the Christian doctrine of the eternity of the incarnate logos, makes it impossible to understand a mode of thinking in which the individual is significant only as a representative of a collective being. Victimary rhetoric is an extension of Nietzsche's Sklavenmoral by which the weak dominate the strong, but it adds a collective component that Nietzsche never anticipated. Nietzsche's ressentiment subordinates the "strong" to the Judeo-Christian priests on the basis of an abstract Moral condemning the exercise of worldly power rather than out of guilt toward those over whom the power is exercised. The Christian slaves' weapon against their masters is their faith in Christ's promise to them as individuals, not an accusation of slavophobia. The Martin Luther King phase of the civil rights movement explicitly took its example from this vision of Christianity; the general reverence felt toward King reflects his enunciation of an egalitarian, color-blind vision. It is not fortuitous that, today, those most strongly identified as Christians are those who are arrayed against white guilt. White guilt may depend on the Christian association of the sacred with the victim, but it rejects the Christian's fundamental mediation through God. Postmodern victimary thinking is fundamentally atheistic; it sees human interaction as a zero-sum game played on a scene with no central mediator, which is why it is so vulnerable to paradoxes of cooperation on the Prisoners' Dilemma model.

Historically, the collective focus of white guilt derives from the Holocaust. That a society appalled by Auschwitz would liberate its colonies and end racial segregation reflects a moral defect in de jure classifications that has its roots in the originary scene. Because postmodern white guilt is a reaction to Nazi race ideology, it is important to examine the moral underpinnings of this ideology, a version so extreme of reigning ethical values that it forced a paradigm shift that drew a new, smaller circumference around acceptable behavior. Nazi racism begins with antisemitism, which provided the central theme of Hitler's philosophy of life as expounded in Mein Kampf, and after 1933, the central means for affirming through exclusion the solidarity of the "Aryan" community. Stigmatization of the Jews was the exemplary model for the Nazis' other racial laws; if one could justify the expulsion, spoliation, and eventual extermination of the Jews with the claim that their existence was incompatible with the health of "Aryan" Germany, then other groups (Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally ill…) could be condemned under the same criteria.

The Jews are not the simple "Others" of Western society imagined by Sartre in his notorious Réflexions sur la question juive (1946); they are those who refuse Christ in the name of the Torah, the "Old Testament" guarantee of their firstness as the elected and electors of the One God. (For a recent discussion of Jewish firstness and antisemitism, see Chronicles 301 and 302.) The Nazi persecution of the Jews was not carried out as a sadistic domination of the weak--although the opening to this sentiment was indulged in by many of "Hitler's willing executioners"--but as the defensive reaction of a subject that feels itself excluded from sacred Being by those with a prior claim. Because the forces of the market system are globalizing by nature, their association with the "nomadic," "tribal" Jews whose fabled power over money, beyond its historical exemplifications, ultimately derives from their priority in sacred exchange, allows the antisemite to promote elimination of the Jews as the means to eradicate modern anomie and restore communal solidarity.

Postmodernity ignores the Hebrew priority in monotheism that reflects the paradoxical structure of firstness-in-equality, which is, as Adam Katz points out, a necessary element of the minimal originary scene (see Just as one participant must have first to discover/invent the sign in the originary scene, so one people must have been first to discover/invent the One God. In the originary configuration, the "Jew" is the first member of the group to transform his appropriative gesture into a sign designating the object whose appropriation is (temporarily) renounced; to persecute the Jew is to reject this originary gesture and with it, humanity itself. The rejector fails to see that the firstness of the "Jew" is that of renunciation rather than appropriation. The Hebrews forgo the opportunity to invoke the sacred center directly; in Exodus, God gives his name to Moses as a declarative sentence (see Science & Faith, 1991). The "antisemitic" deviation, under the effect of originary resentment, of the aggression that was originally directed at the central object onto the first emitter of the sign must remain only a latent possibility in the originary scene, for had this deviation taken place the sign of human representation would not have been communicated.

Antisemitism, itself a victimary claim, is the paradigm for what is condemned by the victimary thought that comes to dominate the postmodern era. But although antisemitism is very different from garden-variety racism--that, for example, of the segregated South--postwar victimary rhetoric refuses to distinguish between the denunciation of the Jews' sacred priority and the subordination of groups judged inferior. Murdering the mentally ill, Gypsies, Russians, political opponents, and homosexuals being "just as evil" as killing the Jews--and many non-Jews, suffering from Holocaust fatigue, insist on this equivalence to the point of reproach--the horrors of Nazism (and of the less discussed but almost equally vicious Japanese racism) provoked a reaction against de jure distinctions even toward groups who aroused no envy of firstness in their dominators beyond a Rousseauian nostalgia for the "natural." The colonial powers didn't envy--or resent--their foreign subjects; they simply considered them to be at a lower stage of human development, whether (unjustifiably) in terms of their humanity itself, or (justifiably) in terms of their social organization. What was seen in either case is a dominant group oppressing a less powerful one, irrespective of the ideology that justifies the oppression.

Yet the adoption of the antisemitic model is not without its consequences. Because the persecution of the Jews is founded on resentment of attributed superiority, their relegation to an inferior de jure status is not justified by a claim of lesser competence. And since the Nazi-Jew distinction is the paradigmatic model of differential status, it is implicitly taken to invalidate any claim of superiority over others along the lines of the "white man's burden."

Yet the achievement of de jure equality for ethnic and racial groups is not, as postwar meritocrats assumed, the "end of history" in the civil sphere. If we find it curious that the battle to receive equal service at lunch counters was followed so quickly by demands for compensatory arrangements, we should return to the historical model that provided the moral guarantee for postwar liberation movements. The envy that is an essential component of antisemitism is reproduced ex post facto by the granting of preferences to victim groups; compensatory replaces historical firstness. The Jews have the curious experience of going in the space of a single generation from Untermenschen to "Whitey," from being discriminated against because of who they are to being discriminated against--admittedly in a far more benign fashion--for who they are not.

The third Chronicle in this series will look at some examples of the victimary rhetoric designed to arouse white guilt. One day (assuming that our planet survives for another generation or two) the fact that the intelligentsia of the postmodern era gave credence and even exemplary status to some particularly crude examples of this rhetoric will make it a historical laughing-stock--or a heroic example for future generations of the virtues of uncompromising nihilism.

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