For some time I’ve been having a little discussion with Adam Katz about the roots of White Guilt that I thought I would share with the reader. I have been claiming that WG is rooted in real physical fear of the Other whose resentment threatens us with violence. On the contrary, Adam insists that the bearer of WG is in the first place afraid of his own potential power over the Other and that it is this fear that explains, for example, why Europeans are so ready to give in to pressure from radical Muslims and so unwilling to engage in combat even (say, in Afghanistan) under the auspices of NATO. When I pointed out that Europeans have good reason to physically fear the Muslim populations in their midst, Adam made the following reply:
The solution to this dilemma lies in the fact that we are dealing with different historical layers of the phenomenon under discussion. From the standpoint of WG’s historical specificity, Adam is right to analyze European-style “pacifism” and all that it entails as a reaction to the horrors of WWII’s paroxysm of firstness gone wrong–gone wrong precisely because it was hallucinated as itself a reaction by the “victims” of the Jews’ betrayal in WWI (der Dolchstoss), Bolshevism-plutocracy, corruption of the “Aryan race,” etc. Fearful of what European violence once wrought, Europe has abandoned the means of violence, making it vulnerable to those who “fight with knives.”
It is only with respect to a more fundamental, less historically specific anthropological paradigm that this behavior can be thought of as motivated by the physical fear of exacerbating the Other’s resentment. In the originary event, the “first” user of the sign was driven by the fear that his gesture of appropriation might arouse a violent reaction in his fellows. Behind the postmodern fear of one’s own power over others is the more anthropologically primitive fear of the potential ability of these others to reverse the hierarchy that sustains this power. Nor is this fear permanently absent in the postmodern configuration. No doubt if the Europeans chose to fight with guns they would not have to fear those with knives. But once one ceases to affirm firstness by displaying a credible threat of violence, the resentful Other will fill the vacuum with violence of his own. The history of “liberation movements” reflects this, as well as the current jihadi struggle. Terrorism only works–is only even tried–when the dominant power begins to take the resentment of its subalterns into account.
One implication of this discussion is that we should understand victimary pacifism not simply as a desire to defer the force previously exercised in the defense of firstness, but as the expression of a romantic desire to return from the enforced difference of hierarchy, with its Auschwitzian potential, to a utopian deformation of the originary event where the equal potential force of Self and Other enforces not so much reciprocity as mutual inaction–as though the emission of the sign were a permanent state rather than a moment of deferral. WG’s favoring of the “dominated” through various forms of “affirmative action” has a deeper purpose than to produce equality of results in the present; its ultimate aim is to abolish not merely the effects of history but history itself, to return to the mythical innocence of the originary model. Since this state can never be reached, affirmative action must go on forever, not merely for the cynical reason that it demonstrates to its supporters the inferiority of those who receive it, but because the model of equality of outcome implicit in their special treatment points to the originary horizon that would otherwise risk being forgotten. Thus it is true both that the guilty wants to retain the Other’s otherness so that he can pursue his demonstration of dissociation (Shelby Steele) and that this very configuration gestures toward a hypostatized originary equality.
The aim of WG is not to abolish firstness but to delegitimize it, or to use a familiar term, to deconstruct it. As the mode of postmodern critique, deconstruction is fully “Katzian”; it attributes no power to the Other and all power to the hegemonic national/cultural Self. But to the extent that it occurs, the real deconstruction of institutions is the work not of the intelligentsia but of those whom these institutions disfavor. Postmodern politics, as made visible in the paroxysm of 1968, is in the first place anarchistic, but it acquires and indeed, generates allies of a more sinister and potentially destructive nature.
Arguments against WG from a universal anthropological standpoint always fail to convince its partisans because WG is itself conceived from such a standpoint. Thus the response to the claim that a given institution is the historical realization of an originary human potentiality is that the institution is illegitimate because it has strayed from the moral model. In this perspective the institution’s function, economic in the broadest sense of embodying a mode of social exchange, is subordinated to the originary function of all social institutions: the deferral of violence through representation, the moral end that trumps all practical ends. It is implicit in WG that the study of institutions be critical, not merely adjectivally but substantively; the sole legitimate discourse about institutions is the deconstruction of the discourses that function to hide their immorality. Despite the obscurity that characteristically attends such analyses, there is nothing inherently complex about this procedure. Indeed, the most effective implementation of deconstruction has been in the radically simplified–because overtly political–form of Edward Said’s epoch-making Orientalism, which denies the objectivity of “orientalist” discourses a priori on the basis of their provenance in the hegemonic West.
By bringing everything back to an originary moral utopia–whose utopian nature reflects the refusal to see it as an origin–postmodern victimary thought gives itself what it fancies to be an unimpeachable anthropological basis, albeit at the price of assimilating the entire course of human history to its “fulfillment” in the Holocaust. Yet it would be a mistake to characterize WG as impractical. The absolute nature of its view of historical firstness as a falling-away from a timeless moment of perfect symmetry guarantees that its negotiating position cannot be compromised by any action within the political marketplace. The sole cure for WG is to be, as they say, mugged by reality.
GA’s understanding of the functionality of religion cannot be implemented as a practical scheme. Insofar as it remains committed to the scientific credo of minimalism, theoretical anthropology cannot become a religion; there is no parsimonious myth of origin. For GA to be a substitute for religion, it would have to present the originary scene not as a minimal hypothesis but as a fact our descent from which we could celebrate as a community. What GA can affirm is that there is no epistemological justification for rejecting religious belief-systems on the basis of their non-minimalism. The cosmological claims of these systems, even when true, are not meant to establish empirical verities. As Durkheim said a century ago, the object of the affirmations of religion is not the object-world but the human world.
It is no accident that throughout the West only traditional religious morality, notably as embodied in conservative American Christianity, has been able consistently to stand up against WG. Religious morality interprets the originary deferral of violence for the benefit of a virtual human community that, because it exists in history, must take history into account as something other than a moral catastrophe. This is true for even the most “other-worldly” religions, including virtually all Christian sects. In contrast, the moral minimalism of WG is centered on affirming the subject’s purity in dissociation from the hegemonic forces of his own civilization, irrespective of the moral worth, or lack of same, of the civilization’s “victims,” as witness Western feminism’s remarkable lack of outrage at the grossly unequal status of women in traditional societies. “Subaltern” cultures have a right to their own history that the dominant West must renounce.
The victimary belief-system relies on the moral model for its critique of reality while ignoring morality’s anthropological function of preserving the human community. In contrast, the religious narratives that supplement our minimal conception of the originary event and its consequences serve to guarantee a given community’s claim to be the sole legitimate heir of the originary deferral of violence by analogy with that of the first user of the sign. When religion links a given community with humanity as the bearer of transcendence, Heidegger’s shepherd of Being, the link goes beyond the human-in-general to affirm the firstness of this community, however its limits be defined. In the West, the Jews’ status as the “chosen people” has attracted the envy of the faithful of the other “Abrahamic” religions, but every religion claims for its community the ancestry of the first human to convert his appropriative gesture into a sign.
In America Alone (Regnery, 2006), Mark Steyn makes a demographic case for religion by noting that the “post-religious” societies of Europe have birth rates well below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman and are thus condemned to disappear within a few generations. Steyn’s positive assessment of religion’s role in preserving the human community is in the spirit of Durkheim and more recently, of Rodney Stark and various evolutionary psychologists who have noted the adaptive value of religion in maintaining social cohesion. If Steyn’s analysis nevertheless merits particular attention it is because, as he puts it, “It’s the demography, stupid!”: even to state that demographic survival is a society’s most basic indicator of success is to commit a tautology. The death-spiral birth rates found all over Europe, some as low as 1.1 (France is proud of its exceptional near-replacement rate), have never before been observed in societies not traumatized by famine, plague, or war. Or perhaps we should say that these societies have been permanently traumatized by a war that ended sixty years ago.
This impending horizon of demographic suicide provides a post-Durkheimian insight into the function of the sacred. Against this horizon, the notion of the “immortality of the soul” by analogy to that of the sign, which every religion expresses in one form or another, takes on a very concrete meaning. Whatever I may conceive my personal immortality to be, it can only be realized even in imagination by my fellow humans, whether in my genetic descendants, or more broadly, in my cultural community. Contemporary European history offers a laboratory demonstration that individuals whose horizon is limited to their personal existence will not, when given the choice (via easily obtainable contraceptives and abortions), insure the survival of their society. For the esthetes of the 19th-century vie de bohême, this meant leaving works rather than children; for their descendants today, it means profiting from accumulated social wealth with no more concern for the future of their culture than of their DNA.
The ultimate lesson of this debacle is that absent identification with firstness, communities cannot survive in the most fundamental, biological sense. The critical test of the claim that a society can live without religion is not simply, as it has traditionally been understood, whether it can remain free of destructive internal conflict, but whether it can provide some goal beyond individual life that motivates its members to reproduce themselves. This question has been occulted in the past–by no means “arbitrarily”–by the subordination of women who bear and rear the children to men whose free exercise of their faculties has traditionally been little hindered by the existence of offspring. Contrary to the standard narrative of secularization, the evidence suggests that as childrearing in modern societies comes to depend on a positive decision by both parents, the explicit affirmation of spiritual transcendence that religion provides becomes not less but more necessary.
This is not conclusive proof that this expression need take a traditionally religious form. Nonetheless, it strongly corroborates the hypothesis that the archaic “oral” form of the historical narratives and other discourses of traditional religions provides moderns with a necessary link to the traditional, “Maussian” mode of social exchange that has not been abolished so much as submerged by the modern market system. We may not need religion to tell us to respect each other’s desires, but without a circumstantial narrative that allows us to trace our heritage back to a model of originary exchange, we may no longer be able to insert these desires, whose biological satisfaction no longer insures reproduction, into the social context of the exchange of gifts between generations.
There is no basis in reason for condemning traditional religion as an irrational need from which Enlightenment will one day free us. On the contrary, if our conception of anthropology is correct, the highest truth is that of the survival of the human community, and it is the duty and destiny of the reason of the philosophers to reformulate itself around this truth. Whether we learn it “maximally” from religion or minimally from GA, genuine wisdom requires us to accept, in the face of metaphysics that too many take as a synonym for science, that language and its associated logics exist in the service of the human and not the other way around.