The preceding Chronicles on white guilt raise fundamental anthropological questions that should be dealt with before proceeding with the examination of specific victimary discourses, a subject of more polemical than theoretical interest. It might be fun to spend a few pages refuting Edward Said, but the real task is to build a better mousetrap.
Although like all modes of human interaction, white guilt has roots in the originary scene, it should not be considered an originary phenomenon. Similarly, the minimal core of the human cannot contain such attitudes as xenophobia, since the originary community is, at the moment of its establishment, the whole of humanity. The originary guilt that succeeds the sparagmos does not divide the community against itself. A relationship between peripheral humans and the sacred center can become mediated by other humans only once the latter have become able (thanks to the accumulation of an economic surplus) to usurp the central mediating function of ritual redistribution.
The task of originary analysis in such cases it to determine what moment of the originary scene carries the potential for these dissymmetries. With respect to “white guilt,” this analysis will permit us to clarify the historical relationship between the genocidal xenophobia of the Axis powers in WWII (“Auschwitz”) and the victimary resentment-guilt complex that dominated the postwar era and still remains a powerful force in the liberal-democratic world today.
In the originary scene, the formation of the community drives out all internal conflicts; but as Adam Katz has brought out, this process is not instantaneous. That the emission of the sign occurs spontaneously to all the members of the group is a stronger, less parsimonious assumption than that a “first” member of the group, by aborting his appropriative gesture toward the central object, provides a model of behavior for the others to imitate. This priority, once we include it in our model, contains the latent potentiality not merely for differentiation but for hierarchy, and for the resentments that hierarchy arouses in both those on top and those below.
The overall category of xenophobia is anticipated by the latent possibility of resentment toward (and discrimination against) either the early or late users of the sign, either one of whom is viewed as closer to the center than the “unmarked” self; the first, because he discovered its sacrality, the last, because they have persisted in their claim on its reality. The relation between the two resentments is asymmetrical. The crucial historical reenactment of the “firstness” of the originary scene in a world of plural societies is the Hebrews’ invention/discovery of monotheism, the redefinition of the scene as an explicitly global phenomenon with the One God as its unique center. (See Chronicles 301 and 302.) Although the monotheistic God is claimed to stand equally above everyone, the fact that the Hebrews were the first to make this claim for “their” god gives rise to the persistent phenomenon of antisemitism. Similarly, the originary roots of ordinary xenophobia (racism, ethnocentrism) lie in the symmetrical possibility of the “early” users of the sign discriminating against the “late.”
White guilt is much farther than xenophobia from its originary model; in the strong form in which we know it today, it scarcely predates the fall of the Berlin wall, and guilt for the exclusion of the collective Other, an extension of the pre-romantic nostalgia for the “primitive,” probably does not antedate the French Revolution. A footnote of Chateaubriand’s Essai sur les revolutions (1797) describing the author’s purported encounter near Niagara Falls with one of a group of American Indians, contains the extraordinary sentence, “How thankful was I to him for disliking me!” (Comme je lui savais gré de ne pas m’aimer!) This early expression of white guilt is nonetheless far from today’s terrorized expressions of PC, if only because at the time, its idiosyncratic pose of self-hatred would have appeared–was meant to appear–paradoxical. Like all mimetic phenomena, white guilt is not the same whether expressed by a “unique” romantic ego or an entire class ashamed of its pretensions to universality, whose enlightened members hold up those who maintain these pretensions as foils to their own virtue.
White guilt internalizes within the unmarked group the real or potential accusation of the marked that they have been excluded from its conception of universal humanity–as occurs, for example, when “he” is used as a generic pronoun, but not when, according to the new orthodoxy, “she” is used vengefully or ironically in its place. White guilt is the obverse ofunconscious racism; with the end of de jure differences in group status, an open-ended anxiety of the sort that inspired Michael Kinsley’s article quoted in Chronicle 310 (“Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel and wrong.”) takes the place of guilt for legally guaranteed privileges.
Rejecting firstness inspires no guilt; it is “lastness” that is synonymous with victimage. Thus only during the immediate postwar years, before Israel gave evidence of having the most powerful army in the Middle East, did the Jews, viewed as simple victims, benefit substantially from white guilt. There is no anti-antisemitic white guilt as distinct from the anti-racist variety; although the antisemite’s ideology and behavior are different from those of the typical racist, he does not himself affirm his envy of Jewish “firstness,” and so, even if repentant, does not thematize this distinction in guilt. Thus half the lesson of the Holocaust remains unlearned: on the one hand, de jure privileges must be abolished to include all humans in an emerging global humanity, but on the other–and this tends to be forgotten–historical priorities must be preserved from guilty attempts to deny their validity, lest all be swallowed up in murderous resentment. Hitler had contempt for all “non-Aryan” races, but he fancied his mission on earth to protect it from the Jews (“In standing guard against the Jew I am defending the handiwork of the Lord.” Mein Kampf, Ch. 2). Refusal of the firstness without which the human is inconceivable is tantamount to nihilism, the hatred of Being. Precisely because humans are the most mimetic creatures, they advance by imitating each other rather than by each discovering each truth independently; human historicity depends on someone going first.
Before 9/11 one could imagine that the nihilism of white guilt was working itself out by analogy with the PC/anti-PC dialogue playing out in the universities. The early to mid-90s saw many books devoted to the PC question–Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1992); Jung Min Choi and John W. Murphy, Politics and Philosophy of Political Correctness (1992); Ward Parks, Political Correctness and the Assault on Individuality (1993); Edith Kurzweil and William Phillips, eds., Our Country, Our Culture: The Politics of Political Correctness (1994); Sarah Dunant, ed. War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate (1994); Marilyn Friedman and Jan Narveson, Political Correctness: For and Against(1995); and so on. Conservatives provide PC horror stories; liberals deny the seriousness of these and point to the persistence of sexism and racism; moderates condemn the excesses of both sides and remind us that the university–and the society as a whole–is functioning pretty well. There are many flavors of PC, but the movement that has driven it most forcefully in Western society is feminism, dominated by upper-middle-class professional women whose aims are incremental rather than nihilistic. Whatever the fantasies of extremists who equate sex with rape and the “patriarchy” with tyranny, men and women in “first-world” societies are continuing to find ways to get along while adapting to the increasing, but never total convergence of their life trajectories.
Post 9/11, however, we are reminded that we do not have the luxury of working out cultural integration among “ourselves”; that there are people willing to kill and die to destroy the liberal-democratic system, or in any case to disrupt it as much as possible. It is increasingly evident that radical Islam, which conflates antisemitism with anti-Americanism in its opposition to both historical and synchronic firstness, puts into question the victimary ethic that demands the expiation rather than the affirmation of this firstness.
The necessity of choosing between a postmodern and a post-millennial position with regard to the victimary paradigm, between accepting and refusing white guilt on a global scale, has produced a clear divergence between the two American political parties, in sharp contrast with the laxness of the pre-9/11 foreign policy debate. A key example: Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic, whose muscular liberalism is influenced by his loyalty to Israel, enthusiastically supported Gore in 2000; in 2004, he called Kerry “clueless” and all but endorsed Bush, despite the opposing view of his editorial board. Meanwhile, the mainstream of the Democratic Party identified itself with Michael Moore’s “pacifism”:
The film received a standing ovation. In Manhattan, Democratic National Committee Treasurer Maureen White hosted a showing of the film for local big contributors. Seldom have leaders of a political party promoted a commercial film so shamelessly. (Chicago Sun-Times, July 6, 2004)
The recent elections in Iraq illustrate the pertinence of Bush’s doctrine. That political democracy is the solution to white guilt is more than a piece of “neocon” propaganda. White guilt depends on an indelibly victimary model of human relations according to which, whatever their legal protections, marked groups will always retain a trace of exclusion from the norm that privileges the unmarked. Rather than accepting the necessity of firstness as the basis of all human progress, this model condemns it as an alibi for the victimization of the Other. White guilt effects a sacrificial generation of meaning analogous to the Rousseauian gestures of the Romantics. Although the latter were less shy than the postmoderns about proclaiming themselves unique victims and less constrained by the competing guilt of their peers, they already saw themselves as defending the sainted victims of the unfeeling bourgeois. (See Flaubert’s Sentimental Education for details.)
Electoral democracy provides a formal cure for white guilt. Symmetrically with resentment, white guilt depends on the marked-unmarked persecutor-victim distinction, which it simultaneously condemns and perpetuates. In the democratic process, in contrast, political differences circulate, none more “marked” than another. In the voting booth, all are equal. Democracy does not abolish differences in wealth and status; what it refutes is the victimary model. People who elect their own government need not be treated as victims; they participate in a mode of political exchange that realizes the freedom inherent in the originary scene. As opposed to Rousseau’s “general will” that precedes the political process, whose function is to discover it, the democratic process, from elections to representative government, generates new and unanticipated information that permits conflicts in democratic societies to remain in the realm of dialogue; battles over political correctness are not fought with suicide bombers.
The present moment that sees a sliver of hope in the Middle East is a propitious time to put away our victimary guilt and embrace firstness, be it that of the Jews in monotheism, the “Judeo-Christian” West in the emergence of the free market, or the Arabs on their ancestral lands, as the generator of new degrees of freedom ultimately beneficial to all.