Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Noble savagery and white guilt

PRE-POSTSCRIPT: Not that Rousseau didn't write some pretty dumb things, e.g., in The Social Contract - see here.
Some time between the fall of Napoleon and the First World War arose a mentality - in some cases, a full-blown ideology - rightly called "white supremacy." In Europe, it was a never-completely-respectable by-product of the immense lead in knowledge, technology, and social organization that opened up between the West and the rest of the world in the 19th century. While a side effect of the fact of progress, it also sat uneasily with the West's belief in progress and a better future. In the Americas, the mentality was a by-product of the white colonists' earlier destruction of native ways of life and the colonial institution of slavery. While the abolition of slavery marked a first large step away from white supremacy, as a social attitude, abolition in some ways heightened the sense of a gap between white Europeans and others.

Then came the First World War and, even more emphatically, the Second. Some time between the end of the earlier conflict and the end of the latter, "white supremacy" collapsed. It had never been congruent with the West's more "official" thought-systems (Christianity and liberal Enlightenment) anyway. Great 19th century dissidents, like Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Mark Twain, had questioned the confusion of moral and political with economic and technical progress.* The physical and, even more, the moral destruction wrought by the major 20th century conflicts badly damaged the sense of automatic progress that the West had come to believe before 1914. While civilization had made possible life in numbers and quality unimaginable a few hundred years ago, the most advanced forms of progress before 1945 were still available to only a minority of citizens. And technical and organizational progress had, almost without anyone noticing, created means of destruction also unimaginable a few centuries ago.

Suddenly, progress and civilization no longer seemed all that. Perhaps, it seemed to some, just "skin-color privilege" anyway. Thus was born white guilt. Strangely, the origins of white guilt had little to do directly with the legacy of slavery or racism, or the decimation of non-European peoples by European colonialism and diseases. It started as an internal crisis of confidence, haunted by the sense that modern history had ended badly.

Most of the resulting agonizing hasn't done white people much good. It has also not done much good for non-white peoples once at the margins of white society but, since 1945, increasingly integrated into modern life. Black author Shelby Steele has written a short but magnificent book on how white guilt has twisted the promise of civil rights, weighing it down with undeserved and often unacknowledged baggage that prevents everyone - whites for their reasons, black for theirs - from understanding the society they live in and how it might be improved. You can find brief summaries of his argument here and here.

Steele explains how racial oppression works and why "black rage" didn't start until after the civil rights movement was nearly finished. The oppressed usually don't feel rage until and unless they're almost free. When the parameters of society change in such a big way, then it becomes okay for the about-to-be-freed to be angry. The strange result is that, in Steele's view, whites had moral authority on questions of race when they were acting as oppressors; only when they stopped did they lose it. From a rational point of view, this makes no sense. It can only be explained if you accept some additional assumptions stolen into the discussion some time between the mid-60s and the 80s, that period when modern liberalism came unglued: all white people are racist, and only white people can be racist. Neither is true, but such assumptions explain why the promise of racial integration, palpable in the 1950s and early 60s, went sour and why later progress, while real, has also been harder than it should have been. What got in the way was identity politics.

While identity is not irrational, identity politics is. It asks politics and politicians to do what they cannot. In the case of groups emerging from oppression, it is an understandable but blind and self-defeating response to a negative past. What it produces is demagogues and racists (like the white supremacists of the defeated South, a Farrakhan, or Hitler, the pseudo-messiah of the humiliated post-1918 Germans) and white liberal pandering, like political correctness.

But the larger irrationality and injustice of identity politics is living in a self-imposed mental slum, hemmed in by knee-jerk, defensive attitudes. For parasitic "identity" demagogues, the point is divide and rule. The way you divide and rule is to chop up voters as a whole into rigidly defined groups and brainwash them into feeling that they're helpless victims. Then they'll keep voting for you. They'll also fail to make connections with people outside their group and thus reinforce their isolation. Does this sound familiar? It also supports stunningly low political standards. Black voters, for example, simply hold black leaders to a low bar. Guaranteed Congressional seats just make it worse: it means some second- or third-rate black politicians will definitely hold office for as long as they want. But it also guarantees they will go no further. Black leaders with biracial appeal find their options very limited.** Obama is exciting, in part, because he doesn't fit this pattern. He had to run state-wide to become an Illinois senator and get white, as well as black, votes. Barack Obama successfully escaped America's "race reservation" system and electrified the nation in the process. Somehow, he slipped through the cracks.

The justice of the civil rights movement was and is beyond question. But the concept of white guilt makes no sense. It strikes me as a shamefaced cousin of white supremacy, exchanging superiority-by-virtue-of-skin-color for unearned-guilt-by-virtue-of-skin-color. Also lurking around this subject is the toxic concept of the "noble savage."† (The Left is incomprehensible without reference to "noble savagery," unearned guilt, and self-hatred - secularizations of familiar Christian concepts.) Civilization is defined, not by race, but by values and institutions - rules, essentially - and civilization is definitely better than non-civilization. The concept of "race," a nineteenth-century pseudoscientific idea of questionable pedigree, needs a hard look. Older definitions of civilization were based on religion or, to put it in more neutral terms, institutions and rules. These definitions are historically much sounder than the race concept.

Underlying "noble savagery" is a feeling that certain people are more pristine, closer to the Earth, or have groovy rhythm - or something. Such thinking is ridiculously patronizing, but it or something like it is widespread among self-loathing white liberals. In their view, civilization itself is a crime, which makes problematic their use of "progressive" as a self-description. Of course, much - maybe most - of this self-loathing has non-political roots. It just seeks political expression and justification in its advanced stages.

Primitive peoples in the state of nature are what they are: in more ways than one, humanity in the buff, showing the full range of what primordial humanity can be. In civilization, people have strong disincentives to violence and strong incentives to be constructive, very different from the lawlessness of a tribal world. Tribes are free as collective units, but not as individuals - they're bound by powerful tribal custom. Only modern civilizations have reconciled individual freedom with civilization, by replacing the alienation of power and sacrifice of personal freedom required in traditional civilizations with civilization based on rational self-interest and common consent - the social contract, in essence, embodied in the rule of law. A free society is necessarily a lawful society, not an anarchy.

In truth, "noble savages" don't exist and have never existed. But the noble savage doctrine in the hands of civilized people imagining themselves to be or desperately searching for those noble savages has been, with no competitor, the most fatal and destructive delusion in history. It's at the core of the lethal radicalisms of the last century, and it's responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in its genocides and dictatorships, and in the Second World War. The noble savage notion, played with by civilized men and women, is an invisible poison.

POSTSCRIPT: Here's an interesting review of Steele's book.
* Seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers, like the American founders, were much less confused about this than their successors. They were hopeful about progress, but also knew it wasn't magic. And they had few illusions about human nature.

** This pattern is in no way unique to blacks, but part of a larger phenomenon of powerful special interest groups that organize around government-bestowed special status. Once granted, it's rarely taken away, because no politician is powerful enough. The larger public good is lost because of the aggressively reactionary stance of these narrow interest groups and their leaders.

† Actually, Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage" was not so wildly off, and he did recognize the basic problem of pre-state societies, which is their inability to control violence. In this, his view is not so different from Hobbes. His concept of "savage" was "noble," but not the romantic, quasi-pacifist, tree-hugging silliness often implicit in late 20th century concepts. It was apparently Diderot, one of the key figures of the French Enlightenment and editor of the influential and widely-read Encyclopédie (1751-80), who put the notion into its Romantic form.

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