White Guilt and the Western Past

Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Why are we having such a hard time fighting a rather trivial war? Why is every single erstwhile ally unwilling to help and eager to despise? Why is half the country actively seeking our demise? Why are we completely unable to muster support for removing one of the most viscious tyrannies on the planet? This essay explains it better than anything I can remember reading since the War on Terror started.

White guilt makes our Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems—even the tyrannies they live under—were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the white West. We must "understand" and pity our enemy even as we fight him. And, though Islamic extremism is one of the most pernicious forms of evil opportunism that has ever existed, we have felt compelled to fight it with an almost managerial minimalism that shows us to be beyond the passions of war—and thus well dissociated from the avariciousness of the white supremacist past.

Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt. It stigmatizes America with all the imperialistic and racist ugliness of the white Western past so that America becomes a kind of straw man, a construct of Western sin. (The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons were the focus of such stigmatization campaigns.) Once the stigma is in place, one need only be anti-American in order to be "good," in order to have an automatic moral legitimacy and power in relation to America. (People as seemingly disparate as President Jacques Chirac and the Rev. Al Sharpton are devoted pursuers of the moral high ground to be had in anti-Americanism.) This formula is the most dependable source of power for today's international left. Virtue and power by mere anti-Americanism. And it is all the more appealing since, unlike real virtues, it requires no sacrifice or effort—only outrage at every slight echo of the imperialist past.

Today words like "power" and "victory" are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, "might" can never be right. And victory, when won by the West against a Third World enemy, is always oppression. But, in reality, military victory is also the victory of one idea and the defeat of another. Only American victory in Iraq defeats the idea of Islamic extremism. But in today's atmosphere of Western contrition, it is impolitic to say so.

Read it all and weep for our coming defeat.


David Thomson said...

I have been saying essentially the same thing for the last five years. My bluntness has irritated more than a few people. And yes, I’ve been called a racist a number of times. Many of our fellow citizens would respond quite differently to the Islamic nihilists if they were blue eyed and blond haired. It is their usual dark skin that throws a wrench into the works.

terrye said...

It is not that simple. There are plenty of conservatives out there who have so desire to fight this war and who are more pissed off right now aboujt the idea of amnesty for some nanny than they are our losing a war.

Yes, European colonialism and the Cold War left us whit guilt. But I think that if conservatives or for that matter people who really think there is a war to fight, need to deal with the fact that there are people in their own ranks who could care less.

In fact a prominent conservative blogger said Bush could eff himself because of the immigration issue. He can not be bothered with the war on Terror. It is yesterday's war. If destroying Bush means that theDemocrats win and we abandon this endeavor then fine with them.

So opposite of the white western anglo guilt for every problem the world has suffered there is the provincial self serving mindset of the westerner who really does not care about anything but himself and his immediate family and his own little pet peeve issue.

And David it is not all about race. There are Italians of the same race as the jihadis. It is their historical enemy that matters...Europe. And by Europe us. My brother told me the other day that Rome lives, we are Rome.

Skookumchuk said...


Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt.

A great essay - and very true.

But. Here at home anyway, the effects of elite guilt can evaporate and pretty quickly, too. It happens only very seldom, but it can. What makes things change is the perception of an immediate threat, one in which it is not the elites who respond to the threat but rather others who don't share elitist values. And it is those others who at least temporarily take charge. Whether these values can overcome the guilt of the elites in the long term is a good question, but it can happen.

Right after 9/11 here in Seattle, the home of the mocha frappucino, where every other car is an 87 Subaru covered with leftist bumper stickers, an Aegis cruiser took up station in Elliott Bay and all the fossil hippies were happy to be soaked in radiation from its phased array radars that could probably track a tennis ball orbiting the moon. And the fighters from Whidbey Island flew overhead. Nobody mentioned the radars or minded the noise.

If today the Iranians were to block the Straits of Hormuz and oil go up to $400/bbl, all the guys in the coal mines of Wyoming would become heroes tomorrow, as would the armed forces and lots of other simple rednecks regarded as untermenschen by the editors of Vanity Fair.

CF said...

After yesterday's sentencing of Sami al-Arian by Judge James Moody, Robert Spencer looks back in anger: "Justice for a traitor." Spencer notes that among the friends of al-Arian speaking up on his behalf yesterday were Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole. Sickening.

Cole is the legal affairs correspondent for the Nation and author of several books on civil liberties and national security; he is a prime example of the phenomenon elucidated by David Horowitz in Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left. Horowitz devotes pages 181-184 of the book to Professor Cole, quoting Cole's denunciation of "the criminalization of what the government calls material support for terrorist organizations...." And so, unfortuntely, on. http://powerlineblog.com/archives/013960.php Clarice

terrye said...


Most people do not care about or even know who Cole is.

I think Skook is right here, the navel gazers and essayists and professors do not fight wars anyway.

The people you need to keep on your side are the red necks.

Skookumchuk said...


The people you need to keep on your side are the red necks.

And somewhere, deep, deep down, all the politicans know it, too.

That is the way it is today, anyway.

Rick Ballard said...

Steele may have erred slightly in his focus upon race. Race is simply an easy marker in the tired old oppressed/oppressor game. He does acknowledge the rhetorical device in his last paragraph but it isn't "white guilt" that's doing the damage, it's the continued inculcation of children with the platitudes of a dead political philosophy.

Clarice's mention of Cole is evidence that historicism still animates the dangerous simpletons who follow it. The Gramscian War is more debilitating than the WoT and will take longer to win. It will be won though. Thankfully there are still more rough and red necks than there are dystopic nihilists.

That's definitely not true in dying Europe.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


I agree with your brother vis-a-vis Rome. I was struck by this one day a few years ago when I was driving along and noticed a movie marquee playing "Hannibal". I realized that subconsciously, after all these myriad years, the word "Hannibal" remains synonymous with "monster" for us somewhere deep down. We're still Roman at the core, and we expect our soldiers to fight for the Senate and the People (SPQR). Like the Romans, but unlike, say, the Germans or French, we expect people of all races and ethnicities to step up and lead when necessary. The Romans had Emperors and Senators from all over the place. Julius Caesar himself placed blue-haired Gauls in the Senate. We would do well to remain true to this tradition.

Eric Blair said...

Well, yes. The thing to keep your eyes on are the doers, not the sayers.

I don't really buy the premise of the article though, because Steele doesn't seem to me to understand what the US is trying to do in Iraq.

But it feeds handily into the book he's promoting, so there you go.

truepeers said...

I agree that white guilt is absolutely central to the quesitons of our times. HOwever, white guilt is not just literally the guilt of whites. It is the guilt of the privileged, or unmarked, towards those who carry one or another mark of victimhood. For example, a while ago I caught some of a PBS series where that horrible snob of an African-American studies professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., was chasing down the genealogies, through various means, of famous African-Americans, in order to show "from whence we come".

While Gates was disconsolate to discover he is not a pure African, in terms of ancestry, he was proud to discover one free black ancestor, in the 18thC. Carolinas if i recall correctly. After orating on the trials and tribulations of the free blacks at a time when captivity back into slavery was a constant fear, the interesting datum pops up that his ancestor was a revolutionary soldier! For a moment Gates is even prouder. Then he learns that said relative fought in one or another Indian war. And then it's a big "oh boy", "oops" and admonitions directed at said ancestor, about how he screwed up in not getting to know fully who the good and bad guys are.

Gates, the anti-white racialist thus displayed white guilt before the "genocide" of the native Americans. Similarly, it is a little too simple to say that if only the Jihadists were blond and blue eyed, they'd be crushed. If they were such and still from third world misery, and historical victims of the west, and practicing Islam, then white guilt would still apply to them, even if America and the west were no longer majority white. Persians are basically white people; if we go to war with them, white guilt will still be cried.

Guilt is an inherently delusional phenomenon - you can feel it even when you have no personal responsibilty towards the victim about whom you feel guilty. If we can learn this lesson, and understand the historical basis of white guilt in the response to WWII, we can free ourselves of white guilt and we need not give up civilization to the Jihadists.

Skookumchuk said...



truepeers said...

For the sake of debate, perhaps some would like to see how an avowed racialist tackles this question. Here is another p.o.v. on this article:

While Shelby Steele says some things about race relations that are strikingly similar to my own ideas, a salient difference between us is that he is hopelessly divided on the issue and ultimately not on the side of America. In typical Steele fashion, his latest article at Opinion Journal is ambivalent at best, subversive at worst. For hundreds of words, he bemoans America’s deference and impotence with regard to such challenges as the illegal alien invasion and the terror war in Iraq, an impotence that he says has been brought on by whites’ sense of guilt over the historic sin of white supremacism. Yet at the same time he keeps luridly invoking that sin and saying that the guilt is richly deserved. “White supremacy,” he writes, “had organized the entire world, divided up its resources, imposed the nation-state system across the globe, and delivered the majority of the world’s population into servitude and oppression.”

Only at the very end of the article, virtually as an afterthought, does Steele say that white America should get over its guilt, because whites are no longer racist. How naïve. Having indicted in blistering terms our entire historical nation and civilization, he thinks that a nation that has internalized such an indictment can turn around and be confident again! Having declared with preening satisfaction that we whites have deservedly lost our old civilizational confidence, which he says was based on our being white, he imagines that we can have a new confidence, based on our being nothing at all except race-blind liberals. He imagines, for example, that a country of race-blind liberals can effectively defend itself from a mass invasion by race-conscious Mexicans.

Steele for all his smarts is still at square one on the problem of national suicide. As a good mainstream conservative, he rejects left-liberalism with its outright anti-Americanism. Yet he still doesn’t understand the fundamental problem of right-liberalism or neoconservatism: that a nation that has stripped itself of its historic particularity can no longer function as a real nation, but only as the incarnation of a universal ideology. And it is precisely as such an “idea-nation” that we find ourselves helpless to preserve our actual existence as a nation.


MeaninglessHotAir said...


Two points. First, Mexicans are not in my experience particularly "race-conscious"--at least not the ones in my family. They, particularly the newer arrivals, are "culture conscious", but truth be told there's a lot less difference between rural Mexico and the rural Southwest than a lot of folks would like to admit. I for one grew up eating Mexican food and it feels more natural to me than "steak and potatoes". Where do you think cowboy hats came from?

Second, we have always been an "idea-nation". We've never ever been a "race nation", despite numerous attempts of the communists and their allies to brush us with that tar. "We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal...."

MeaninglessHotAir said...

If we can learn this lesson, and understand the historical basis of white guilt in the response to WWII, we can free ourselves of white guilt and we need not give up civilization to the Jihadists.

Big big if.

But I totally agree with you that this is the path we must take. However, as I've said repeatedly, what we're talking about here is religious conversion, which is extraordinarily difficult in the best of times.

truepeers said...

MHA, Mexicans are race conscious just as is everyone to some degree. I don't mean one has to believe in biological theories of essential differences, but simply in historical realities where culture is not endlessly exchangeable. Some ideas are readily traded, yes, but some cultural phenomena are not and they get associated with a color or racial marker. Mexico, the country, is organized as a racial hierarchy, and this has various implications that families carry with them.

My own view is that Auster's either/or is not quite right. A nation has to know its historical particularity. It must embrace to some extent even the racial particularity of its past, because its ideas and habits of being come from somewhere. But going forward, it has to remain open-ended, an act of faith ultimately founded on the common origin of all humanity in the act of faith by which language and religion first came into being. Yet it is folly to think that which is truly universal - e.g. the necessity of faith - is sufficient to bind a people as a nation. It is always a quesion of how one particular people expresses the universal in its own idiom. American particularism must be both defended, and redefined as American and not simply white.

terrye said...


Needless to say my brother did not consider the comparison between America and Rome to be a compliment.

But I kind of agree as well, for different reasons. Remember the Eagle, symbolism does matter.

And I agree with you as well about the Mexicans being culture concience. I remember the first time I ate what passed for chili in the midwest and was scandalized. These people put macaroni in chili. Unbelievable.

To this day I feel more comfortable in places like Oklahoma and Texas and New Mexico than I do in places like Ohio and Illinois, even Indiana seems drab compared to the color and life of that culture down there. That will always be home to me.

And that is why I do not feel that all is lost. Whatever the politicians and pundits say those rednecks and cowboys ain't going belly up for a bunch of jihadis.

It will be like the Mongols are after them all over again.

loner said...

With all due respect, in my opinion it's not guilt and thus far, long term, the United States of America has not lost.

I'll have to set the scene as Gore Vidal imagines it early in his 1987 historical novel, Empire.

The time: August 1898. The United States has just won the Spanish-American War.

The place: A road in County Kent, England.

The participants: Three historical personages (the novelist, Henry James, the historian, Henry Adams, and the son of the Ambassador to the Court of St. James's (John Hay), Del) and the fictional heroine are traveling by carriage from Surrenden Dering to Rye.

Note: The Brooks referred to is the younger brother of Henry Adams.

"Are there really laws to history?" asked Del, suddenly curious.

If there were not, I wouldn't have spent my life trying to be an historian." Adams was tart; then he sighed again. "The only thing is—I can't work them out properly. But Brooks can—to a point."

Well, what are they?" Yes, Del was genuinely curious, thought Caroline, and she was pleased because she was enough of a French woman to take pleasure, no matter how cursorily, in the elegant generality made flesh by the specific.

"Brooks's law is as follows." Adams stared off into the middle distance where, invisible for the moment, stood Hever Castle, which he had already shown Caroline and a raft of nieces. She thought of Anne Boleyn, who had lived there, and wondered if, when Henry VIII cut off her head, he was obeying a law of history which said, Energy requires that you now start the Reformation: or did he, simply, want a new wife, and a son?

"All civilization is centralization. That is the first unarguable law. All centralization is economy. That is the second—resources must be adequate to sustain the civilization; and give it it's energy. Therefore all civilization is the survival of the most economical system..."

"What," asked Del, "does most economical mean?"

"The cheapest," said Adams curtly. "Brooks thinks there is now a race between America and Europe to control the vast coal mines of China, because whichever power has the most and cheapest energy will dominate the world."

"But we have so much coal and oil at home." Del was puzzled. "So much more than we know what to do with. Why go to China?"

"To keep others from going. But your instinct is right. If Brooks's law holds, we shall have got—and won—everything."

"Is this—dare one ask?—a good thing?" James was tenative.

"A law of nature is neither good nor ill; it simply is. If not us, Russia? Superstitious, barbaric Russia? No. If not us, Germany? A race given to frenzy—and poetry? No."

"What then are we given to that is so immeasurably superior?" James was staring, Caroline noticed, directly into Adams's face—something he, with his endless tact, seldom did. He appeared to be reading Adams's face, like a book.

"We are given to Anglo-Saxon freedom and the common law and..." Adams paused.

"And we are—extraordinarily and absolutely...we." James smiled, without, Caroline thought, much pleasure.

"Surely in your love for England," Adams delicately pricked his expatriate friend, "you must have found qualities here that you think superior to those of every other country—and you could have chosen to live anywhere, including our own turbulent republic. Well, then think of the United States as an extension of this country, which you do love and trust. So think of us as simply taking up the Anglo-Saxon radical task, shouldering it for these islands as they begin to lose their—economy.

James spread his hands placatingly. "You speak of laws and history, and I am no lawyer. But I confess to misgivings. How can we, who cannot honestly govern ourselves, take up the task of governing others? Are we to govern the Philippines from Tammany Hall? Will we insist that our Oriental colonies be run by bosses? Will we insist that our Spanish possessions be administered by the caucus which has made our politics so vile that every good American—and bad, too, let me hasten to add—cringes when he hears our present system mentioned?"

Adams frowned, not pleased. "We are in a bad way, it is true. But the England of Walpole was far more corrupt and narrow and provincial..."

"True. But the acquisition of an empire civilized the English. That may not be a law but it is a fact." Henry James looked at Adams very hard. "But what civilized them might well demoralize us even further."

Not much further along in the novel, Rudyard Kipling's The White Man's Burden is discussed while Secretary of State John Hay and Senators Henry Cabot Lodge Sr., William Jennings Bryan and Mark Hanna occupy themselves while waiting for the Senate vote on ratification of the Treaty of Paris. The poem was first published the day before the vote.

The fault, dear Shelby, is not in ourselves,
But in our politics, that we aren't overlords.

Rick Ballard said...

"But in our politics, that we aren't overlords."

Nor even particularly good utilitarians.

An enjoyable comment.

I agree that we have not lost nor do I believe the issue to be in doubt. It would be nice if a new philosophy were to arise as we await the denouement.

terrye said...


People say Anglos want glory, but I think they crave order. The greatest threat is chaos.

The other day someone was talking to me about Indians and what we did to them. First of all I said I did nothing to them, secondly do we give it all back? On one hand we accuse our ancestors of the greatest crimes and then we continue to benefit from them, or so it seems. Guilt compels us to denounce them. But they had courage.

I think that is why we don't have westerns on TV anymore, nobody knows what to do about the Indians.

I said to this man, Can you imagine a world today where the Plains Indians would be chasing the Buffalo? Where the likes of Quanah Parker and Geronimo and Crazy Horse and Tecumseh would not be seen as terrifying enemies?

But what to do with the guilt?

I have both bloodlines, mostly white..but that does not absolve me.

Skookumchuk said...

A thought. If the Gramscian left saw that even 30 percent of the Hispanics coming over the border were as rabidly pro-American and free market as the Hispanics and half-Hispanics writing on this forum, would they still be in favor of open borders?

truepeers said...

But Loner, isn't the intent of a writer like Gore Vidal to make Americans feel guilty for what they are? What to make of his Adams?

"All civilization is centralization. That is the first unarguable law. All centralization is economy. That is the second—resources must be adequate to sustain the civilization; and give it it's energy. Therefore all civilization is the survival of the most economical system..."

-isn't the reduction of history, with all of its moral and ethical imperatives, to a question of mere economics (along with a misreading of history as centralization, when in fact the motive force in history takes us further away from any uniform center of cultural, tribal or national sacrality towards a culture and economy of many disparate centers, within certain constitutional limits) an essential marker of both the imperialist's arrogance and the white guilter's charge against him? White guilt seems to accept as true that humans are essentially motivated by a will to power, only to then accuse them for just this, justifying its own will to power in the name of its defense of victims by the new transnational political movement fundamentally premised on anti-Americanism and antisemitism. This leaves unanswered, and indeed forbidden, the question of from where, originally, comes the moral or ethical force to defend victims against the base drives of victimizers.

Long story short, to properly identify that moral force would, i think, require one give up the scapegoating myths by which white guilt targets the supposedly evil oppressors whose will to power they can criticize because they believe their own wills mediated by the right kind of inclusive politics, with the right kind of authorities at the center dictating the terms of justice.

chuck said...

Geez, loner,

Is that how Vidal writes? It's really dull stuff, deadly rather than deathless prose. Henry Adams, on the other hand, was a fluent writer with a touch of ironic humor that Vidal seems to have missed completely. And a far more interesting thinker than portrayed. But thanks for the warning, I'll never again have to wonder if I've missed something by not reading Vidal's books. Gaah.

Fresh Air said...


Tom Wolfe has a masterful tripartite takedown of Vidal, Mailer and Irving in Hooking Up.

loner said...


I don't much think it's in doubt either and, yes, it would be nice.


Be contrite.


No. You reduce history to some very debatable (not that I want to) anthropological constructs. Are history and civilization synonimous?


That's how he writes. What I've read has ranged from rather good to awful. I especially like Julian, Burr and Lincoln.

As to ironic humor, Vidal has his heroine associate the beheading of Anne Boleyn with causes of the Reformation in England. Or do you think that was ignorance?

chuck said...

Vidal has his heroine associate the beheading of Anne Boleyn with causes of the Reformation in England.

That is ironic humor? Come now, it is hardly subtle nor even outrageous. Rather, a waste of time I think, like reading short stories by aspiring college students of the intellectual sort. At least one can plead friendship in extenuation of the latter. I suggest a reading of Adam's autobiography as an antidote. The difference between irony and farce is seriousness.

Skookumchuk said...

Vidal. I saw an interview with him a few years back. Almost Teddy Kennedyesque in his Jabba The Hutt-ness.

loner said...



I read it when I was in high school. My memory is that I liked him and it and I'm sure I failed to notice all sorts of interesting touches...seriously failed to notice all sorts of interesting touches.

By the way, Henry has a bit part, as Adams, in The Magnificent Yankee. Owen Wister is the narrator. Like The Virginian?

truepeers said...

Are history and civilization synonymous?

-no, i wouldn't say so. history is not simply a series of events but also the means by which we represent those events. Our representations are in some sense the ends of events, and in some sense they are prefigured or anticipated in the course events take, as historical actors anticipate and fight against/for their legacy. But i don't think we can say event and representation are synonymous, for a number of reasons, such as the role of nonhuman factors like plagues and natural disasters, and all that is part of an event that is (to date) beyond human self-understanding and hence representation. Representation is but one, very important part, of an event. And the means by which a specific representation emerges to transcend an eventful experience is in part mysterious, not fully comprehended by any intellectual system.

A civilization is the product of events, and it is understood in terms of the representations that stem from these events - "civilization" may be synonymous with "traditions of representation" - but civilization and history are not synonymous if representation and event are not, howevermuch the two are intwined.

Syl said...


Yes, and our friends have usurped our own history by turning it upside down, see Indians. Oops Native American victims.

Which in and of itself is not a bad thing at all. Where I see a problem is that they have not only shown us things in our past we shouldn't be proud of, they have claimed this is all we should know. Further they have decided what the consequences of this knowledge should be.

Thus the historian became the arbiter of social change which affects any future actions of the culture/society.

It is all cherry picking of events and reactions to events. As was the depiction of history before these new historians came along. And there is value in the new insights learned.

But they are not the only insights on which to base our future actions.

Syl said...

I guess all I'm saying is:

Perspective and context matter.

loner said...


Thanks for distinguishing.

Can you explain or direct me to an explanation of Macbeth as the sacrifice? I remembered last night that I'd meant to go back and read something I came across while looking for pictures to go with the Macbeth movie review, but I couldn't find it.


truepeers said...

Syl, I'd say that the problem with today's crop of historians isn't so much that they cherry pick events to focus on, but that they try to reduce any and all events to the same paradigm of victimization (of xyz by the white patriarchy). In other words, events are seen, not as signs of human freedom and creativity, but as mere traces of a nasty will to power that is deemed history's real motive force. It is a way of seeing that denies our creativity and the historical specificity that makes each event different, and not just a twist on the same old will to power.


Nothing comes immediately to mind. I would recommend Rene Girard's book on Shakespeare - A Theatre of Envry - but I don't think it touches much on Macbeth.

I found this paper, adapting Girard's ideas about sacrifice to Macbeth, but i don't know if it's any good: http://www.cla.purdue.edu/academic/engl/conferences/covar/Program/cooper.pdf

I did a search on the bibliography maintained by the Girardians and got this for Macbeth:
1) Baldridge, Wilson: The Ghost of Macbeth: Apparition, Violence, and
Mallarméan Criticism. In: Stanford French Review 9,3 (1985) 365-381.

(2) Berger, Harry, Jr.: Text against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example
of Macbeth. In: Genre 15,2-3 (1982) 49-79.

(3) Bushnell, R.W.: Oracular Silence in 'Oedipus the Kind' and 'Macbeth'. In:
Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 2,4 (1982) 195-204.

(4) Hunter, D.: Doubling, Mythic Difference, and the Scapegoating of Female
Power in Macbeth. In: Psychoanalytic Review 75,1 (1988) 129-152.

(5) Laroque, F.: Magic in 'Macbeth'. In: Cahiers Elisabethains,35 (1989) 59.

(6) Levin, Richard: The New Refutation of Shakespeare. In: Modern Philology:
A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature 83,2 (1985)

(7) Willbern, D.: Phantasmagoric 'Macbeth'. In: English Literary Renaissance
16,3 (1986) 520-549.

Eric Blair said...

...Where I see a problem is that they have not only shown us things in our past we shouldn't be proud of, they have claimed this is all we should know. Further they have decided what the consequences of this knowledge should be.

That is a very concise and sharp observation. I'm going to borrow that. Thank you.