December 27, 2009

White Guilt and Morally Lazy Revolution

Justin Katz

Annalee Newitz finds a cultural thread in the plot of Avatar:

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

For his part, Mark Shea, through whom I found the above, notes a scriptural archetype:

... I can't help but notice that a similar dynamic occurs within Scripture as well, only without the dynamic of self congratulation. Moses, for instance, is precisely the guilty SWPL [stuff white people like] type in his universe. Fetched out of the Nile and raised by Pharaoh's daughter, he apparently knows, but doesn't do much about the fact that he is a Hebrew. This goes on for forty years. The guy lives in the lap of luxury while his tribe is sweating as slaves. Then, one day, in a fit of social consciousness, the dilettante rich kid who wants to feel like he has a purpose murders an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave and ditches the body. Next day, this preppy from the Ivory Tower comes upon a couple of Hebrews quarrelling and deigns to swoop in and break it up. The slaves basically tell him to buzz off ("oh, and everybody knows what *you* did"). Turns out the whole "Brothers! Join me!" schtick doesn't play real well in Peoria and people resent SWPL types working out their Hero's Journey fantasies at their expense. So Moses the Savior Preppy gets scared and hotfoots it to the desert when he realizes his little Weatherman moment of Killing for the Revolution is likely to cost him something.

St. Paul came more readily to my mind than Moses, as the persecutor of Christians who became among their foundational voices. As Shea notes, Moses was a Hebrew displaced among Egyptian royalty; in contrast, Paul was a hardline Jew who sought to extend Christianity even to gentiles after Jesus called him. In either case, however, the biblical figures whom we hear echoing in modern white-guilt sci-fi bring to the fore an important area of emphasis that neither Newitz nor Shea mentions.

The standard of the white-guilt genre isn't merely that the privileged protagonist gets to play revolutionary, nor even merely that the fantasy allows him to dominate the coloreds in a good, liberating way rather than a negative, oppressive way. The more fundamental quality is that the proud "race traitor" never has to grapple with the history or legitimate claims of the people against whom he turns. He takes the minority's position and fights his native majority without the complications of having to explain to the minority where its own perspective is erroneous.

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, sure, but he hardly freed them to return to some idyllic state. St. Paul took up the Christian cause, but the message that he promoted was quite distinct from "as you were." Indeed, the form of salvation that Jesus promised, as Messiah, was not freedom from domination by some other worldly tribe, but the freedom of domination by the highest divine power. In Matthew 10:36, Jesus explains it to be His mission to make "one's enemies... those of his household," but it isn't a physical battle on behalf of an oppressed neighbor. It's a charge through our shared humanity toward its fulfillment.

In the modern liberal gospel, one gains salvation by acknowledging the superior claims and moral virtue of the Other. The call isn't to advance one's community toward a more perfect expression of its own virtues — which have, in fact, done immeasurable good in the history of mankind — but to abandon one's community as hopelessly corrupt and in need of correction by a more innocent people. The former is the hard work of cultural evolution; the latter is the simple balm of revolution.

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This state abounds with white guilt phonies.Start with the "good" Reverend Donald Anderson,Pat Crowley,Sheldon Whitehouse,Steven Brown,Charles Bakst,"Rabbi"Flam,Shana Kurland,and Matt Jerzyk(full of white guilt,but not really a phony on the issue)-and there are commenters here who fit the bill too.
Guilty about what?Sheldon Whitehouse and Lincoln Chafee are probably descended from slaveholders,so maybe some of their family fortune is from the labor of the oppressed,I wouldn't know-but for those of us whose families arrived after the Civil War,there is no sane reason to feel guilty about anything.
Truth be told,the landlord who tried to evict my family because he wanted to jack up the rent on our rent-controlled apartment was a Black man named Gladstone DeMott.Am I bitter at Black people because of him?No.He was an a%%hole,but that was on him alone-no one else.
The previous cheapskate landlord was a Jew-it'd be pretty silly for me to be anti-Semitic.
What's my point?Simply that guilt is individual,not inherited.End of story.If you didn't do "it",don't apologize for"it",whatever "it" might be.

Posted by: joe bernstein at December 27, 2009 8:46 PM

Matt Jerzyk isn't a phony, although he does like playing Lorax of "the African American community" collectively, and has made some particularly outrageous claims, such as in one of his posts when he charged that if one does not support changing the name of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, then one does not care about African Americans. Why any given African American person needs Matt Jerzyk or anyone else to speak for him is beyond me, as is how it is not insulting and demeaning for him to consider it necessary or proper for him to do so. If somebody tried to speak on my behalf without my permission based on my sex or race or religion, I would be outraged at the audacity of it. I deserve to be treated as an individual on my merits, as does every other human being.

Joe, you're forgetting the most convenient and sweeping lie in the progressive arsenal, that white people of today (yes, all of them, progressives sure do like to generalize about people by race, don't they?) continue to benefit in the form of institutionalized racism and stereotypes. Nevermind the many extremely lucrative federal and state claims that exist to prevent precisely that, such as Title VII and 1981 which have built-in attorney's fees and a relaxed Plaintiff-friendly burden shifting analysis in which the employer has to actually prove their defense, unlike most tort actions. Oh, and nevermind institutionalized affirmative action which can get a "person of color" (well, certain colors anyway, not if you're Asian or Indian!) who otherwise would have had to attend a 3rd or 4th tier law or med school into Harvard or another first tier school on full scholarship. We, "the whites," lose our previously merit-based spots in the name of racial statistical balance, and have no claim whatsoever when this occurs. And who are the discriminated against ones again? I've never discriminated against anyone in my life, I sure never had jack squat handed to me because of my race, and I've sure had a lot stacked against me because of it.

Scalia said it best in Johnson v. Transportation Agency - "It is unlikely that today's result will be displeasing to politically elected officials, to whom it provides the means of quickly accommodating the demands of organized groups to achieve concrete, numerical improvement in the economic status of particular constituencies. Nor will it displease the world of corporate and governmental employers (many of whom have filed briefs as amici in the present case, all on the side of Santa Clara) for whom the cost of hiring less qualified workers is often substantially less - and infinitely more predictable - than the cost of litigating Title VII cases and of seeking to convince federal agencies by nonnumerical means that no discrimination exists. In fact, the only losers in the process are the Johnsons of the country..." (Johnson was a white man who lost his job in the affirmative action process, a decision which the majority upheld)

No, I think I'd rather just treat people as individuals regardless of their race, not classify and generalize about them based upon immutable characteristics, and not apologize for things done long before I was born and had no relation to my family, rather than perpetuating the cycle of hatred and resentment, thank you very much.

Posted by: Dan at December 27, 2009 9:52 PM

This whole quest to ascribe political motives to big-budget SFX extravaganzas like "Avatar" or children's cartoons like "The Princess and the Frog" reminds me of a couple of college classmates I once watched "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with. These guys were going on about Hermie the Elf represented the ordinary worker revolting against the Communist factory system (these two guys, BTW, were major stoners).
What's next...George Bailey is a dangerous socialist sabotaging Old Man Potter, Frank Capra's stand-in for Uncle Sam?

Posted by: rhody at December 28, 2009 11:58 AM

Rhody, have you seen Avatar? The movie is a blatant allegory.

Posted by: Dan at December 28, 2009 2:17 PM

Haven't made it to the multiplex in a while, and I'm not a big sci-fi, SFX orgy kind of guy. Maybe Wednesday, if "Up in the Air" and "It's Complicated" both sell out.

Posted by: rhody at December 29, 2009 1:20 AM

Both the idea of the "noble savage" and "inevitable progress" have the denial of original sin as their core beliefs. They also deny revelation.

Now the issue of an alien race adds another hiccup to the whole thing - does original sin apply to alien races? The C.S Lewis space trilogy seemed to say "no". I would agree, but the rupture in the universe due to our own sin would surely affect them in some way. Moreso when they interact with fallen humans.

So maybe they are noble after all - but as such can't be a metaphor for indigenous "human" peoples as the director intended.

Posted by: Tzard at December 29, 2009 6:23 PM
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