When we discover that subjects such as white guilt** do not lend themselves to rational discussion, we habitually call our differences “political,” implying that it is the self-interest of the disputants that poses an obstacle to disinterested debate. A better description of these difficulties is that they are religious. It is not facetious to point out the sacred component of postmodern white guilt; although this attribution does not suffice to explain the phenomenon, it makes clear what kind of resistance to change it sets up. Victimary rhetoric’s constant reference to the Nazi-Jew model is in the first place a denunciation of the false sacred that affirms the ontological truth of human difference. What the Auschwitz demonstration founds is not simply a new stage of moral history, although this aspect is not to be ignored; it is a new paradigm of sacrality, or in other terms, a new mode of explicit confrontation of the empirical with the transcendent. Throughout the history of the great prisoners’ dilemma that is human society, it is sacred representation in its various forms that holds in check the temptation of defection by preserving the memory of violence averted and redirected.

**For those who may not have been following this series, the white in white guilt is defined not by skin color but byunmarkedness: white guilt is the guilt of the unmarked toward the marked, the mark as at the origin designating the victim.

But to take Auschwitz as demonstrating that all asymmetry is evil is to reject out of hand the problematic necessity offirstness, and thereby to fall into the very discriminatory mode against which the postmodern defines itself. The characteristic postmodern hostility to Israel–“anti-Zionism”–expresses indignation that the Jews, whose status as ideal, absolute victims was the point of departure for postmodernism, have returned to their old ways of self-assertion. As claimed, this attitude is not identical to classical anti-Semitism. But what is painfully naïve about those who make this claim is their ignorance that this anti-Zionist indignation repeats trait for trait the old antisemitism; calling the Israeli Jews “Nazis” is really just a way of calling them… Jews.


As I recall the events of thirty-odd years ago, the notion of affirmative action was originally limited to outreach activities such as Head Start that gave encouragement to persons who had suffered from discrimination and/or who had had reason to anticipate it. The out-and-out racial preferences that emerged in the seventies came as a surprise; Martin Luther King’s dream that touched the nation had been about integration, not special treatment. Whatever the morality or the long-term value of these programs, the impotent shock they originally occasioned reflects the major shift in attitude that inaugurated a new, endemic stage of white guilt. Instead of creating a de jure “level playing field” by the finite action of eliminating discriminatory practices, the new task was the potentially unending one of compensating for a residual victimary status whose disappearance could only be attested by equality of outcome. Conversely, inequality of outcome came to be considered ipso facto proof of victimage; as the lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur. In other terms, all firstness had to be eliminated. This paradigm was soon extended to asymmetries whose moral status was far less obvious than racial discrimination.

Religion characteristically extrapolates from the power of the sacred to regulate human society in attributing the violence of nature to “acts of God,” that is, of our God, whose severity and benevolence alike are responses to our actions or at any rate means of provoking us to virtue. Eliminating the divinity merely short-circuits the causal chain by eliminating all wills but our own. Thus, whereas considered from the standpoint of its cult objects, white guilt is a kind of pantheism, its focus is not on these objects but on the guilty subject, who is less interested in celebrating the glory of the not-self than in preempting the accusation that he is victimizing it. That the white guilt paradigm is less about helping the victims than about denouncing the victimizing Other in ourselves–and in those less morally sensitive than we–is clear from its vast expansion in the post-Vietnam era, beyond non-ethnic human categories to animals, plants, and the planet in general. The environmentalism of the past decade–acid rain, ozone layer, global warming–ignores well-attested natural cycles of temperature and hurricanes in its desire to blame climate change on “unnatural” human activity. A whole new set of Pharisees has arisen whose lives are focused on denouncing, and sometimes violently aggressing, what they judge to be the inadmissably non-reciprocal treatment of humans, animals, and things.

Traditional wisdom warned of the dangers of hubris, but this is no mere humility. It demonstrates that in the absence of a commonly recognized God, guilt alone becomes the mark of the sacred. White guilt is the ultimate secular religion. God reveals himself to Saul on the road to Damascus as the person whom he persecutes. In the post-Christian version of this revelation, God is revealed through the guilt that accompanies the self-affirmation of one’s being as firstness, as (temporary) non-reciprocity. The sacred guarantees of firstness, which Christianity had traditionally sidestepped rather than challenged (“Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”), have disappeared; the bearer of privilege is ipso facto a victimizer.


A generation later, the faith of white guilt remains secure, although its works have not been impervious to the lessons of history. On the domestic front, the Clinton-era welfare reform, highly successful as these things go, is a sign of a new flexibility. Similarly, it is no longer unthinkable to express resistance to affirmative action programs. Today, especially since 9/11, the real passion of white guilt is played out on the international stage, focused on two families of victims, passive and active. The first family is what can still be called the “third world”: poor, highly stratified societies with a negligible impact on the global economy. (It is too soon to know how much of this passion the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina will refocus on our own “third world.”) We have no clear guidelines for dealing with such enormous differences in wealth and economic opportunity once they come into play in the global context. Since the end of the colonial era, during which the great powers, with varying mixes of hypocrisy, rapacity, and genuine concern, took their cultural-economic superiority as an explicit justification for political dominance, many third-world countries are governed by kleptocracies to which the first world provides aid with little guarantee that it will be well employed–a formula for economic and political stagnation demonstrably inferior to all but the worst forms of colonialism. Our contact and commerce with these populations is minimal; we know them only abstractly as “victims.”

Far different is the case of the second family, the Islamic Middle East. Unlike the rest of the once-colonized world, Islam retains old memories of political dominance over the West; its post-colonial resentment has increasingly taken the form of Islamist terrorism, in a mythical return to the era of Muslim conquest that ended in the fifteenth century. Both families of victims are indispensable components of the white-guilt universe. White guilt is primarily a posture of compassion, not fear, yet as our relative indifference to Africa demonstrates, without the fear, there is little stimulus to implement the compassion. If the third world’s unthreatening despair provides Western white guilt’s moral guarantee, fear of the Islamic threat supplies its urgency. What explains the extraordinary indulgence afforded the Palestinians is that they combine both factors, arrayed as they are against the West’s perennial exemplars–and scapegoats–of scandalous firstness.

In the United States, white guilt increasingly comports with intense hostility toward the half of the population who reject it as a motivation. The American Left has reached a level of disaffection not seen since the 1960s, but whereas the all too concrete fear of being sent to Vietnam motivated an often violent student radicalism, today’s fear, more diffuse, has permeated the mainstream of the Democratic Party. When people whose parents voted for Roosevelt and Truman lionize “pacifists” such as Michael Moore and now, Cindy Sheehan, this is the sign of the breakdown of a set of political norms. The stridency of political rhetoric becomes a substitute for action on the world stage, somewhat in the same way as the virulent anti-Americanism and antisemitism of the Arab countries substitutes for local politics. As the incoherence of the Democratic stance during the last presidential campaign shows, white guilt cannot provide a constructive basis for foreign policy; its energy is not directed against our enemies but at “ourselves.”


To trace the genealogy of white guilt is not to put an end to the dilemma it reflects. Human morality demands reciprocity; postmodern white guilt is a reaction to history’s most atrocious failure of reciprocity–Auschwitz–which coincided with the discovery of the most extreme technical means of imposing non-reciprocity–Hiroshima. Today’s globalizing world is built on these foundations. The traditional Christianity that justified the acceptance of the world’s inequities by contrasting its limited possibilities to the transcendent kingdom of God could not survive the Holocaust. Antisemitism has always been the ultimate test of Christianity, and the ultimate triumph of antisemitism in Europe put an end to the role of European Christianity as an important social force. Even the papacy, its most vigorous institution, maintains its influence through the celebrity-sacred of the papal “event” rather than the liturgy and rituals of the Church. In the United States, where the shrinking “mainline” Protestant churches are dominated by white guilt even to the extent of inspiring divestment-from-Israel campaigns, the principal religious response to the challenge of Auschwitz has been an evangelical Christianity that emphasizes both the individual’s relationship to Jesus (rather than to the Other) and the exceptional role of the United States as an example to the world.

The 2004 presidential election opposed not only two political parties but two religions, evangelical Christianity and “secular” white guilt. The professional and educational status of the intellectual elite would seem to make it the natural audience for the minimal theology of originary thinking. Yet it is only apparently paradoxical that red-state evangelicals are closer than bicoastal secular intellectuals not merely to the politics implicit in GA but to its intellectual values. The secular denial of the sacred and its relevance to moral issues is less, not more parsimonious than religious belief; even the popular “belief” in celebrity is a more frank avowal of the basis of humanity in sacred representation. Conversely, the compatibility of GA with religious belief demonstrates its own minimality as a belief system. Parsimony reflects the becoming-arbitrary of the (linguistic) sign whose substance must be reaffirmed by religion and art.

No one disagrees on the basic principle of morality: reciprocity is implicit in the human use of representation. Yet, unlike a mathematical function–or a market transaction–reciprocity does not operate instantaneously; it cannot function without firstness. Someone must initiate the exchange, even when saying hello. The genius of Marcel Mauss’ little book Essai sur le don (The Gift) is that it describes what we all do every day in our personal lives without realizing that we are participating in a “primitive” rather than a bourgeois economy. When we give gifts, we don’t expect payment, or even an immediate gift in return; when we invite someone to dinner, we don’t expect him to pay, or to invite us tomorrow. Our guest may bring a bottle of wine as a sign of reciprocity, but not–unless he is unambiguously of superior status–a gift worth as much as the dinner itself. The delay in returning the gift exists for its own sake, as an element

of the deferred exchange that maintains the social order. It is this mode of exchange that explains the otherwise inexplicable inclusion of the promise among Austin’s performatives. I can’t dub, marry, or induct, or even in most circumstances declare, but I can always promise, because this is one ceremony that must be performable by every speaker of human language in order to affirm his allegiance to humankind.

It is this necessity of firstness and deferral that white guilt rejects for fear of the non-reciprocity to which it always threatens to lead. It is a fallacy to think that when we dispense with the anthropomorphic representation of the sacred center (“God is dead”), we have done away with the necessity of a sacred guarantee of difference. White guilt is the pessimistic version of this fallacy. In God’s absence the guilty subject makes himself the guarantee of the ultimate reciprocity into which difference must dissolve, suffering within the temporal limitations of human life the tension between real and ideal that had hitherto been the responsibility of immortals. This is far from the optimism of Enlightenment and even Nietzschean liberation from the tyranny of the theistic; the Nazi evil to which white guilt is a reaction is not unjustly perceived as a perversion of Nietzschean optimism. The ontological affirmation of human non-reciprocity is evil and must be denounced, but to denounce non-reciprocity not merely transcendentally but empirically is to define the human condition by resentment rather than by its transcendence.

The Enlightenment saw the sacred as superstitious, a residue of the past (the sense of the Latin word) that the intellectual elite, at least, could cast aside. Originary thinking, although non-theistic, makes no such claim. The originary hypothesis is a “minimal sacred” that provides a point of comparison for other supposedly minimal models of morality that hide their sacred roots rather than displaying them. The state of world politics makes increasingly clear that judging the success of societies by the secular utopia of white guilt is a recipe for social suicide, and as we have seen, an incitement to the return of the sacred in its most crudely sacrificial forms. When one inhabits a moral environment where only losers are considered virtuous, one had better reevaluate one’s criteria of virtue before being forced to face the consequences of their realization.