Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

GA in the Public Sphere

No. 335: Saturday, May 20, 2006

As I see it, the most urgent task of our originally Western but now global civilization is to defend itself against victimary thinking, the White Guilt that tempts us to leave it undefended by making it appear morally indefensible. For this mode of thought, affirming or simply acquiescing in human reality is necessarily in bad faith; the victimary thinker adopts the Existentialist credo, if not its vocabulary, by insisting on the individual’s responsibility to maintain at each moment an independent moral stance that brings judgment on the entire world. Where there is injustice, patent or even suspected, it is this that must occupy our attention. Even if we admit that 98% of the human relations in a given society are justifiable, to openly or tacitly affirm one’s loyalty to this society is to be complicit in the evil embodied in the other 2%. For the upholder of White Guilt, there is no sin greater than this complacency.

Although the general, "non-intellectual" public has not accepted this perspective, it eats away at the legitimacy of our social order, in the first place in the political sphere; it has all but conquered the Democratic Party. Yet it is not the United States but Europe that is the original homeland of White Guilt. For several months I have been reading articles by Mark Steyn and others on Europe’s demographic decline and its parallel refusal to defend its culture against Islamic aggression. An article in the May 2006 Commentary by George Weigel ("Europe’s Two Culture Wars") is the most cogent overall statement of this problem that I have seen. On the one hand, Europe combats its own religious tradition on behalf of an aggressive secularism that refuses even the most fundamental biological differences in the name of formal equality (for example, formerly Catholic Spain’s legalization of homosexual marriage and its replacement of "father" and "mother" on birth certificates by "Progenitor A" and "Progenitor B"); Weigel calls this Culture War A. On the other hand, Europe bends over backward not to offend even--or especially--the most intolerant forms of Islam, as was made painfully obvious in the recent cartoon incident; he calls this Culture War B. Weigel’s point is that both these "wars" are parts of the same general phenomenon: a cultural death-wish whose most unambiguous manifestation, beyond all ideology, is Europe’s rapidly declining indigenous population.

I see this situation as a challenge to generative anthropology. What’s the use of what I like to call a "new way of thinking" if it can’t help us to understand the current crisis of European and "Western" civilization, and by understanding it contribute to its solution? The literature I refer to consists mostly in denunciation, however justified; it offers no real explanation. Polemics against White Guilt may be useful in galvanizing the resolve of those who would resist it, but this noble rhetorical operation leaves its theoretical basis untouched. Tout comprendre is not tout pardonner; to explain is not to justify. A more powerful anthropology should be of benefit to all the participants in the discussion, especially to those who may be unaware of the existence of an antidote for White Guilt.

The origin of victimary thinking in the postwar reaction to the Holocaust seems to be confirmed by its strength in the European countries that fought in WWII, particularly in Germany. But "the Holocaust" is not an inexplicable singularity that can serve as an explanation in itself; it has a historical meaning. Historically, the Holocaust was the endpoint of centuries of antisemitism, which is the constitutive example in the West of the resentment of firstness. The moral reciprocity that is the equilibrium state of human interaction cannot be achieved all at once; we owe to Adam Katz the insight that in the originary scene someone must go first to understand his aborted gesture of appropriation as a sign. Similarly, the discovery/invention of monotheism is a step toward universal reciprocity, but the people who achieves it will always remain the first to have done so. Christianity does not merely resent the historical priority of Judaism; it explicitly defines itself by its supersessive secondarity, as the community of the New Testament. (Islam’s more deep-seated resentment denies the Hebrews' temporal priority outright; the uncreated Koran is on a different plane from both historical Testaments, relegated to failed experiments in transmitting its eternal truth.) The Nazis’ largely successful project of annihilating the Jews may then be understood not simply as a barbaric return to the communal "compactness" of the Gemeinschaft but as an attempt to realize the fundamental project of Western/Christian resentment. Its folly lies less in this attempt than in the very fact of turning resentment into a project to be executed; this revelation of resentment-as-project is the historical inspiration for postmodern victimary thought, including on a higher plane Girard’s conception of the scapegoat. This ultimate crystallization of Western resentment in a practical task coincides with the last conceivable all-out war. That the Holocaust was carried out without deferral, with no weapon or force held in reserve, and at the same time gratuitously, even to the detriment of the German war effort, defines it as the extreme point of human violence independently of any "objective" measure of the violence that occurred before or since.

The persistent pattern of postwar White Guilt derives from the Nazi/Jew paradigm in the following manner. The Nazis sought the "final solution" to the "Jewish question" by eliminating the "chosen people" of firstness and establishing thereby the firstness of their own "Aryan" lineage. Nineteenth-century racialists such as Gobineau designated the Semites as a bastard race, a secondary product of corruption halfway between the African and the "Aryan" or Caucasian. The fact that these "Semites" were really the Jews only corroborates my point that the underlying purpose of all this pseudo-science was to deprive the Jews of their historical firstness. The combination of (overt) weakness and (hidden) strength implicit in this vision of the corrupt and corrupting "Semites" is inherent in the antisemite’s view of the Jew, particularly in its modern variant. Eduard Drumont in La France juive (1886) denounced the Jews’ ability to fool the potentially much more powerful Christians into letting them dominate France, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion would enshrine this idea at the heart of modern antisemitism. But the scandal of the Holocaust was that the systematic eradication of this "first" or "chosen" people demonstrated the Jews’ powerlessness; the easy success of the enterprise undermined its rationale.

Hence the real point of the Holocaust, the rivalry over firstness, was masked by the more obvious horror of the slaughter of the weak by the strong. What remained of this rivalry in the public mind was the programmatic nature of the slaughter rather than its specific motivation. History’s relative indifference to the body-count of Communism in its various forms reflects the fact that the individuals massacred are only "accidentally" necessary to the cause. Unlike resentment of the Jews, resentment of the "bourgeois" cannot be considered the ultimate project of the Christian West, except to the extent that, as Marx lucidly point out in his Considerations on the Jewish Question, the "bourgeois" are really just an updated version of the Jews. Just as the victims of Communist massacres were "contingent" recalcitrants rather than essential precursors, so their ubiquity was not to be confused with ideological centrality. The Communists were forced to kill by circumstances; the Nazis killed by design. Elimination of the Jews was the foundation of their political philosophy. I have already quoted in Chronicle 313 the last part of the sentence that concludes Chapter 2 of Mein Kampf, but the sentence deserves to be quoted in full, and in German: "So glaube ich heute im Sinne des allmächtigen Schöpfers zu handeln: Indem ich mich des Juden erwehre, kämpfe ich für das Werk des Herrn." [Thus I believe today that I am acting in the spirit of the all-powerful Creator: In defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the handiwork of the Lord.]

The emergence of postwar victimary thinking was a historical phenomenon independent of its specific individual, class, and national vehicles. The postwar espousal of the cause of the weak against the strong was all in all a Good Thing, but since dismissing the usurpation of the Jews’ historical firstness left only the firstness of the Nazis’ brute force, discredit was cast over firstness in general. Thus the domination of European colonial powers over their non-European territories, which had previously been defended as on balance a benevolent example of firstness--the "White man’s burden" as a means of extending the benefits of Western civilization--was suddenly denounced not merely as hypocritical but as an altogether inadmissible oppression of the weak by the strong. No doubt there had been colonial liberation movements, such as Mahatma Gandhi’s, before WWII. But the new, often virulent energy of postwar anti-colonialism, as theorized by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1963), cannot be understood independently of postmodern victimary thought as a whole. White Guilt fed the indigenous liberation movements and was largely instrumental in their success. The colonialist idea that Europe’s dominance was justified by the vast superiority of its economy, polity, and culture could no longer be entertained; a later generation would denounce such Western attitudes toward the "Other" as "Orientalism." (I have discussed elsewhere--for example, in Chronicle 267--the difficulty the discrediting of firstness posed for the Jews and for their postwar creation, Israel.)

Because it recognizes the existence of significant differences among individuals and civilizations, the category of firstness cannot be reconciled directly with the moral model of universal reciprocity. In the practical tasks of life, firstness is taken for granted: students must pass examinations, workers must be qualified for the jobs they perform, more efficient methods of production triumph over their competitors. Practical firstness is ubiquitous in White-Guilt-ridden societies; only the productive triumph it unleashes makes the luxury of White Guilt possible.

The unsavory racial philosophies of the nineteenth century, in addition to providing ammunition against the historical priority of the Jews, may be understood as attempts within the context of a secularizing early market society to establish European firstness on a "scientific" basis rather than on the dubious authority of religious texts. In a world of exchange, it is the market that is the presumed judge of value, yet the social order, even the economic order, depend on prior conditions that market competition is too inefficient to bring about. Racial theories provided a useful supplement to the problematic task of justifying the "white man’s burden" on purely economic and cultural grounds. The phenomenon of colonialism, not to speak of apartheid or racial segregation, cannot be justified solely in terms of moral reciprocity; its only conceivable justification is that of firstness, the authoritarian imposition of a superior socioeconomic system being presumed to contribute to the eventual welfare of the colonized and thereby of humanity in general. The racialist notion of firstness, however, goes beyond anthropological bounds to postulate what are for all practical purposes separate species--a new ontology that was not lost on Nazi propagandists who depicted the Jews as subhuman vermin. Conversely, once firstness comes to be excluded as a justification for de jure social differences under any circumstances, such phenomena as the colonization of Africa or the conquest of the American West at the expense of the Indians can no longer be "explained" at all, but only condemned as monstrous violations of morality. A whole generation of academics has been trained to reveal and denounce such monstrosities within the archive constituted by hegemonic colonial powers and their class, race, and gender counterparts on the domestic scene. The direct application of the moral model to history substitutes one-dimensional judgment for the conceptualization of the complex articulations of reality.

In contrast to victimary thinking, the originary hypothesis makes firstness a prerequisite of the moral model that is so often unthinkingly evoked in order to condemn it. An anthropology within which firstness can be defended theoretically rather than merely politically offers a powerful new weapon in defense of our civilization at a time when its defenders need all the help they can get.

Enjoyed this column? Yes No Don't ask


If you enjoyed this column, subscribe to the GAlist and you'll receive updates about our on-line journal Anthropoetics and get the Chronicles of Love and Resentment regularly by email.


Chronicles home page | Return to Anthropoetics home page | Chronicles Feedback

Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
Last updated: