One of the simplest ways to begin to explain the prevalence of White Guilt in our era is that victimary thought, however “unmanly” and even cowardly it may be from the perspective of action, depends on a reassuring model of the self’s omnipotence. To understand this, let us begin with a controversy involving an Other that is nonhuman and therefore without resentment, that of “global warming.” The scientific data are ambiguous enough for the subject to be a kind of Rorschach test. The peripheral-victimary view is not simply that global warming is occurring but that it is significantly if not exclusively due to human activity. Curtail the use of fossil fuels and global warming will stop, even reverse; keep on the way we’re going and the world as we know it will come to an end. The center-oriented view is the opposite: even if we believe that global warming is occurring, it’s essentially a natural process to which human activity contributes little, and the drastic reduction of emissions of “greenhouse gases” will ruin the economy without solving the problem.
Perhaps science will give an unambiguous answer to this controversy; what is of interest to us is what the parties want to be true. The victimary thinker would find it painful to believe that if climate change is occurring, we are not significantly to blame; the originary thinker, who respects the difference between the scene of human culture and the natural world, finds the assimilation of the natural consequences of human behavior to the scene of culture, with its victims and victimizers, a distraction from his more strictly anthropological focus–a distraction that, perhaps in this case, and certainly in others, is sometimes necessary. The victimary thinker sees all sufferers, including the environment, as our victims, and implicit in the victimary configuration is that it is within our power to rectify the situation. To take a human rather than a natural example, if Minority Xers have lower scores than Whites on some test or other, this is taken as a prima facie demonstration that the White population is directly or indirectly victimizing them, which implies that the White population can and should alleviate the problem, if only by adding an “affirmative” bonus to the scores of the Minority X examinees. To claim all responsibility is to presuppose one’s own omnipotence; to affirm one’s guilt is to take charge of causality.
But White Guilt’s dream of omnipotence is unlike any previous version of this dream. The British colonial “White Man’s Burden” also claimed responsibility, and something like omnipotence, at least in its sphere of action, but it saw its contact with the Other as in principle an opportunity for the latter to benefit from the products and ideas of a higher civilization, whereas White Guilt sees this relationship from the side of the resentful Other as inherently exploitative and humiliating. We still have the burden of giving, but no longer the authority to control the process, since giving to the Other is merely returning a necessarily inadequate part of what we still owe him, not a generous transfer from one entity to another but the insufficient righting of a balance that remains far out of line. A corollary of our guilty omnipotence is the Other’s blameless impotence. His actions, however hostile and even injurious, are not to be taken seriously and certainly not to be replied to in kind; like the acts of a child in a tantrum flailing at his parent, they are something to be smiled at rather than avenged.
From the standpoint of the originary scene, the position of human omnipotence is necessarily in disequilibrium. It is that of the center, not however in its pristine state but as usurped by the Big Man who takes control of ritual redistribution. The Big Man has won the potlatch contest; henceforth he will supply the goods for the ritual feast, and his successors are likely to give themselves means to assure this supply by extracting it from some or all of its intended beneficiaries. The Big Man’s victimary successor is aware that he has stolen the Other’s piece of the center; unable to reestablish originary reciprocity, his guilty conscience tells him to take the blame, although he knows in his heart that his symbolic gestures will never fully assuage the Other’s resentment.
Postwar White Guilt has a complex history. After WWII, national liberation movements and the American civil rights movement made demands for equal treatment before the law. Guilt in this context was finite and functional; the guilt a white man was expected to feel for having made Blacks sit in the back of the bus needed to be just sufficient to accept their sitting beside him. But after civil rights were granted and colonies were liberated, de facto equality failed to follow de jure equality. Now the “majority” were asked to be guilty about results rather than about procedures; on the contrary, the procedures had to be modified to produce better results. Since the results were never sufficient to produce equality, White Guilt became permanent, but it still had a limited effect on the lives of the guilty. Those who were deprived of jobs or college admissions fought back with some success in the political process, and foreign aid was hardly a cause of domestic privation.
The Cold War made the USSR the nominal champion of the “third world” that was the international beneficiary of White Guilt. Although the McCarthy era generated its share of victimary rhetoric (much of which was later revealed to be unwarranted), the Soviet Union itself was not our victim and had only limited success in mobilizing the victimary resentment of its third-world partners. The vast inefficiency of the “socialist” economy was not often imitated; what most of its clients took from it was hostility to the West, which allowed the “unaligned” to pick up advantages by playing politics between the two Great Powers. While this was going on, the sentiment of White Guilt had only a peripheral effect on American foreign policy.
Even the Vietnam war, despite its profound historical effect, was only apparently an exception to this rule. With all the tumult and the shouting, the revolutionaries of 1968 accomplished very little in the political sphere. The virulent after-effects of their activity, which we are only now experiencing in full force, were the result not of their success but of their failure. As they gained the allegiance of the academy, the intelligentsia, and the media, the reality of the Cold War was scarcely perturbed. The loss of South Vietnam to communism, which the New Left hoped would lead to a series of falling dominoes throughout Asia and the world, had no major impact on world history.
But it was precisely in this lack of consequences that the real damage was done. After Vietnam (and Watergate), the entire intelligentsia now defined its duty as declaring its White Guilt to the world, secure in the tacit knowledge that nothing serious would come of it. This did not prevent a good portion of this class from tacking up Che Guevara posters and sympathizing with the world Communist movement, but ironically enough, they were unaware that the weakness of the movement’s bulwark, the Soviet Union, would prevent it from making good use of its new spiritual allies in the West.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the illusion of the “end of history,” White Guilt, which since Vietnam and Watergate had secured its institutional bases in the academic-media world, could now flourish unrestrained. Since there was no other Great Power, we could be blamed for everything; because they knew that the blame would have no consequences, the blamers voiced their frustration all the more vehemently, secure in the knowledge that however much they carried on, daddy was still in charge.
All the fun and games seemed innocent enough… until 9/11. On that date in 2001, it suddenly became apparent that while we were blaming ourselves for all the evil in the world, there was a large and growing group of people who not merely agreed with this assessment, but who were poised to take advantage of it. The various factions of radical Islamists, who had been carrying out bloody small-scale strikes with near impunity throughout the 1990s, did not care to play the White Guilty’s psychological game; they saw its tacit claim of omnipotence as a sign of weakness, its presupposition of invulnerability as so much whistling in the dark. They interpreted White Guilt’s obsession with taking the blame not as a product of human fellow-feeling but as a fearful attempt to head off the Other’s anticipated resentment.
The success of Islamist terrorism is based on more than terrorizing people on a local scale. Terrorism in the international arena can only work when the mechanism of White Guilt has become so profound that, even when in imminent danger, but especially when not, we can continue to feel guilty toward the person who wants to kill us. International terrorism reveals White Guilt’s dream of omnipotence to be nothing but a promissory note en blanc to anyone who might be tempted to right the wrongs for which the White Guilty are so ready to take the blame.
The ever more self-confident swagger of the Islamic radicals is not, however, merely the product of their psychological acumen. It reflects a fundamental human reality, a biological reality that poses a problem for the West that few are willing to turn their attention from false crises such as global warming to face. The Canadian columnist Mark Steyn can be credited with bringing to public attention the basis of Islamic confidence in its growing demographic superiority. No doubt the West can demonstrate its economic and technological superiority by producing economic goods, scientific knowledge, and countless means of individual satisfaction; but Islam demonstrates its human superiority by producing people. Behind the Islamic contempt for the West that is often traced to the influence of the Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) lies the hard demographic fact that while our women are liberating themselves in all sorts of admirable ways, theirs, veiled, burkaed and all, are producing children. While the “Orient” is implementing the r-strategy (what the Québecois in pre-lib days called la politique des berceaux), the West isn’t even producing enough offspring to maintain the K-strategy. Suicide attacks under these circumstances are a rational use of manpower.
White Guilt too may be a rational strategy–for a civilization preparing for eventual defeat and absorption. In the August 8 National Review, Steyn quotes Jens Orback, Swedish “minister of democracy”: “We must be open and tolerant toward Islam and the Muslims because when we become a minority, they will be so toward us.” “Because”? Good luck! I don’t think the United States is quite ready to follow Mr. Orback down the primrose path to extinction. But if we do want to defend our civilization, we had better start realizing that White Guilt is not the way to do it.
Perhaps the Lamont ascendancy in Connecticut is a source of hope. In emulation of our Islamist adversaries, the party of White Guilt seems intent on practicing the politics of self-immolation, heedless of the incompatibility of this strategy with blue-state demography. Let us hope that, after the smoke clears, both our major political parties can agree that we are fighting a war with real enemies who will not hate us any less because we show them how much we hate ourselves.