Guest post: By pushing an almost totalitarian narrative of white guilt

Originally a comment by veil_of_ignorance on A new way to weasel.

Two things:

(1) It was indeed absurd and cynical how Western governments (and their MENA allies including the KSA) have exploited the CH massacre for empty lip service to free speech. However, this is a common phenomenon which is not limited to CH. We see it anytime when the political agenda allows it: from Raif over Pussy Riot to Liu Xiaobo. This does not mean that those people do not deserve to be honored or are some kind of neoliberal US-imperialist fifth column. Or to inverse the argument: the fact that Edward Snowden is now best friends with Putin – not due to the latter’s universal commitment to free speech but for obvious political reasons – doesn’t mean that Snowden should be accused of enabling Russian, neo-Stalinist nationalism and conservatism.

(2) “By choosing to honor Charlie Hebdo, the victim of Islamic radicals, rather than any of the many worthy dissidents they could have chosen, people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, truly courageous people whose actions and words have placed them at odds with the powerful western nations of the world”. Since Furst likes to speak about narratives, I will provide a counter-narrative: What happened to CH doesn’t really involve American white liberals; however, it involves many progressive people in Muslim majority countries and the Muslim diaspora who are increasingly silenced, marginalized and endangered by the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. This is the reason why – while the white liberal American press tried to play white guilt Olympics – there generally was a lot of solidarity from the left-wing and liberal press in the MENA region, which realized that what happened to CH is also currently happening to them (Zineb El Rhazoui wrote interesting things about this topic and the fact that CH allowed francophone MENA authors to publish things which they could not publish in their home countries). By bringing in Assange and Snowden in contrast, the American liberal tries to make everything about them and their struggles again.

I might go out on a limb, but I think that what we see in the whole CH debate is almost hegemonic white guilt: the American white liberal press holds a lot of power when it comes to influencing the international sociopolitical discourse. And by pushing an almost totalitarian narrative of white guilt – a narrative which vastly overstates the West’s power in today’s geopolitical constellation, which denies the agency of non-Western actors, which essentializes universal social problems (e.g. the role of women in society) to the West and romanticizes non-Western cultures (= a variety of orientalism which tends to be ignored) – it basically suffocates social dissent from the Global South.


  1. Eric MacDonald says

    A relevant text here is Pascal Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, which should be much more widely known.

  2. iknklast says

    In a way, it’s just another form of American exceptionalism. Instead of being exceptionally good, we are exceptionally bad. Either way, it’s all about us.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … what we see in the whole CH debate is almost hegemonic white guilt…

    Almost-guilty hegemonic whites already tired of those messy situations from Fruitvale to Baltimore.

    … a narrative which vastly overstates the West US’s power in today’s geopolitical constellation…

    It’s all about ethics in anticensorship activism.

  4. Eric MacDonald says

    iknklast, why would you make this a matter of American exceptionalism? Bruckner’s book (which I mention above), which reflects precisely the concerns raised in this post, speaks generally about the West, but more particularly about Europe, for it was European nations (especially Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Spain), after all, which built large colonial empires (Belgium more or less as an afterthought), and have most cause to feel themselves guilty for the patronising way they treated other peoples and their cultures. By comparison, the United States tried very hard, at least in the first hundred and fifty years of independence, to isolate itself from world affairs, and held colonialism in some contempt (though the American treatment of the native tribes borrowed all of the worst features of European colonialism).

  5. veil_of_ignorance says

    The particular form of white guilt, which we see in action here, is certainly American.

    There is a European variety as well. However, I think that the history of colonialism and subsequent postcolonial struggle has made European leftists – especially in France – less susceptible to the particular variety of white guilt that is at play here. Europe and the MENA region share a significant, bilateral political and intellectual history. France and its former colonies in particular share for instance a common literary tradition (which includes satire) and also a common history of social and political resistance. Left wing parties and organizations in France and its colonies have in the past united in social struggles against both colonialism and racism. As a consequence, lefties in France are able to see “the Muslims” as heterogeneous political actors instead of some mysterious, monolithic group, which must be orientalized into either noble or ignoble savages. This circumstance makes them more sensible for the dangers of Islamism for several reasons: (1) there are still many political alliances between left wing parties/organisations/individuals in France and in the MENA region. And it is of course the left-wingers in the Global South, who are the prime targets of Islamists. (2) Due to the long history of interaction between France and the MENA region, lefties in France are able to historicize Islamism – to see it as merely historically and politically contingent. This stands in sharp contrast to the current pet ideology of the identitarian left in the US, who favors a conception of identity, which is so rigid, and essentialist that is almost idiotic.

    Beyond all the phantom racism in CH, I think what many American liberals cannot accept is how unapologetically CH allies with some portions of the “Muslim” political spectrum (the liberal Left) against other portions of the “Muslim” political spectrum (the identitarian, Islamist right). CH sees the political struggles in the MENA region and it takes sides, it makes allies, it builds alliances based on shared political ideas. This behavior is in direct contrast to the typical American narrative of Whites vs. Non-Whites (which is already stupidly simplistic in the US and becomes even more so in the rest of the world).

    So what defines and characterizes American white guilt? On the hand, I do think that the idea of American exceptionalism and the circumstance that internationalism and international solidarity played only a minor role in the American left is a factor when it comes to the obligatory Western essentialism and cultural relativism of the guilty White. Beyond that (and I echo Todd Gitlin here), I also think that the political impotency of the American Left when it comes to class based politics since essentially the 1960s and the subsequent retreat of Leftist though to the sterile echo chamber of academia, where identity and speech was policed and tons over tons of PoMo bullshit was composed, plays a role.
    Apart from that, the interesting thing is that white guilt is almost never characterized by humility. It is expressive, histrionic and (as others have pointed out) masochistic – it is public self-punishment, which selfishly blocks the space of political discourse and which snatches away the instruments of social critique from everybody else. Ironically, the guilty White refuses to play a role as an equal political actor or to just shut the fuck up and instead tries to moderate the whole discourse. Likewise, the guilty White oftentimes tries to manage or actively promote cultural difference, just so that he can feel more tolerant or decolonized or whatever than his guilty White peers. The bullshit, which results from that ideology, is nicely illustrated here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *