The Scourge of Self-Flagellating Politics

When politics becomes about tallying sins, it ceases to accomplish meaningful change…

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From the gospel according to Luke, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” If we are to take Luke at his word, then there must be plenty of heavenly exaltation in store for Jeopardy contestant turned social justice columnist caricature Arthur Chu who once tweeted: “As a dude who cares about feminism sometimes I want to join all men arm-in-arm & then run off a cliff and drag the whole gender into the sea.” Or for those who, on the morning following the election of Donald Trump, took to social media to publicly humble themselves to their followers, expressing their intense inward-turned shame and self-hatred. Typical of the style, New Statesman editor Laurie Penny wrote: “I’ve had white liberal guilt before. Today is the first time I’ve actually been truly horrified and ashamed to be white.” Others expressed their self-disgust at being straight white males and assured followers that while they of course did not vote for Trump, merely looking like those who did required some readily self-inflicted penance.

Every time a liberal conducts one of these performances of self-hatred, a predictable reaction cycle is set off. A ragtag army of nasty nihilistic right-wingers (a mixture of quasi-ironic anime-loving Nazis, celibate male separatists, and those who make it their duty to observe and report creeping Cultural Marxism) react with a flurry of anonymous retaliations. To the alt-right, this ritual confession of guilt is further proof of Western civilizational suicide. The self-flagellator is then met with a deluge of racist and/or misogynist abuse, which leaves them even more assured that their own dismal view of the West as white supremacist, misogynist, and essentially evil was correct all along. Online, stuck in an endless loop and unmoored from the cultural mainstream, niche online subcultures from right and left both reinforce their opposed but similarly depressing views of society.

All of which would be a mere curiosity, if it kept itself confined to the darker recesses of the Internet’s fetid bowel. However, since the mainstream media is always struggling to keep up with whatever the kids are into, the discourse of white self-criticism has gone somewhat more mainstream. It is now fairly typical to see ritualized confessions of white guilt. As Fredrik deBoer describes it:

“[There is] an entire cottage industry devoted to it. Similar arguments calling for white people to own their privilege have been published in places like the Huffington Post and Salon. Popular sites like YouTube and Tumblr play host to hundreds of earnest white people, eagerly disclaiming white privilege and their complicity in white supremacy. White rapper Macklemore recently released his second track concerning his own white privilege.”

Even Donald Sutherland recently felt compelled to describe his feeling “ashamed” for being a “white male.” Sutherland apparently had a moment of breakthrough when Helen Mirren, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, informed him “You are the most privileged person on Earth… You are a white male.” Damning men for their crimes and defending purest womankind, Michael Moore, author of titles such as Stupid White Men, recently tweeted, “No women ever invented an atomic bomb, built a smoke stack, initiated a Holocaust, melted the polar ice caps or organized a school shooting.’ (This is false. The Manhattan Project had its unsung female heroes, there are plenty of female oil and gas executives, and female school shooter Brenda Ann Spencer inspired the 1979 Boomtown Rats hit “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Ironically, Moore erases women’s history by neglecting its greatest villains.)

With its obvious channeling of original sin, this style also has parallels in more traditional forms of radical politics than those one might associate with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren. One of the stranger incarnations has been the German tendency known as Anti-Deutsch, which has built an entire politics around self-criticism and national collective guilt about the Holocaust. In 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, which killed up to an estimated 25,000 people, anti-Germans demonstrated in praise of the bombings on the grounds that it killed people who supported Nazism and was therefore a victory. One year, to mark the event in Dresden, the demonstrators held a sign reading “Bomber Harris, do it again!” in reference to RAF Bomber Command Chief  Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who, asked if he felt any guilt at the enormous loss of life, said that he would have destroyed Dresden again. Interestingly, despite its strongest roots being in radical ultra-left politics, the movement’s anti-German thinking has led them to support the Israeli state and by extension the United States, especially after 9/11.

In what felt like significant timing, right before Donald Trump’s election, the film adaption of Philip Roth’s masterpiece American Pastoral was released in cinemas. In it, the daughter of the central family who is consumed by hatred for the white America that her ideal bourgeois family exemplifies, bombs the local post office before disappearing into a fictionalized version of the Weather Underground. On her bedroom wall hangs a fictionalized Weatherman motto:

We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mothers’ nightmares.”

The Weathermen used a style of “criticism-self-criticism” sessions, also called “Weatherfries,” which were described by the author of Bringing the War Home as “the most harrowing aspect of life within the collective.” Based on Maoist struggle sessions, these were used to root out subconscious racism and sexism within their own psyches. Individuals were reportedly hazed for up to twelve hours without a break until the white radicals confessed their deep white supremacism, homophobia and misogyny to their fellow white radicals thus achieving catharsis through their own admission of guilt.

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The most famous case of white self-hatred leading to full-scale self-delusion was probably that of Rachel Dolezal, the Africana studies instructor and president of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who turned out to be a natural blonde white woman in pretty convincing disguise. Dolezal had so successfully persuaded herself that she was black that she seemed unable to understand what she had done, as she struggled to answer interview questions about her motivation. In sympathy with Dolezal, a white female college professor writing for the Huffington Post, Ali Michael, later admitted:

“I couldn’t have biological children because I didn’t want to propagate my privilege biologically.” She went on to say: “…like Dolezal, I wanted to take on Africanness. Living in South Africa during my junior year abroad, I lived with a Black family, wore my hair in head wraps, shaved my head… I didn’t want to be White, but if I had to be, I wanted to be White in a way that was different from other White people I knew… But the lesson for me is remembering how deep the pain is, the pain of realizing I’m White… The pain of facing that honestly is blinding.”

Watching the suicidal levels of secularized self-flagellation in the aftermath of Trump made me recall the famous scene in the movie Malcolm X, in which a young white woman momentarily blocks Malcolm X’s path and asks what she, as a white person, can do to help his cause. He answers with one coldly served word – “Nothing.” The scene was based on a real encounter he had with a “little blonde co-ed” after which he wrote, “I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke to before more affected than this little white girl… Her clothes, her carriage, her accent all showed Deep South breeding and money.”

“Nothing” could certainly be a succinct one-word summation of what exactly anyone seems to be benefiting from much of the contemporary online performance of self-criticism. But then, Malcolm X went on to regret being contemptuous of the white girl depicted in the scene. Years later, it affected him quite profoundly, and he said:

“Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument… I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.”

Malcolm came to feel that the strict racial nationalism preached by the Nation of Islam had been fundamentally mistaken. By the end of his life, his political thought was becoming more sophisticated and nuanced, as he thought through the question of how to fight racism without reproducing a crude nationalism.

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Could there be a more sympathetic analysis also of today’s political self-criticism? The Weathermen were, after all, motivated by the extent to which they despised the racist Vietnam War, and their own culture for enabling it. Spend a little time in Berlin going from grim Holocaust memorial to grim Holocaust museum and you’ll soon get a sense of why a tendency like Anti-Deutsch exists, however wacky it may be. In its easily parodied but relatively benign form today, you could interpret the current wave of online self-criticism as youthful emotion and hyperbole with wholly good intentions. In the age of Trump, who is already making boastful threats of unconstitutional punishments for flag burning, perhaps this kind of self-criticism could be an antidote to the excesses of aggressive and unchecked nationalism and the dark forces it has historically whipped up.

Yet, the Weathermen’s deeply degenerate and cult-like internal politics didn’t do anyone any good. In fact, they seemed far more a product of neurosis and narcissism than of revolutionary strategy–they couldn’t stand to be seen as part of the white bourgeois society they came from and so they found entirely negative ways to purge themselves in the presence of other white radicals.

The relatively harmless tweeting of today certainly leaves fewer human casualties behind. But it is still based on a common impulse – the expression of total contempt for one’s own society expressed through progressive language. In this internal psychodrama the oppressed appear as purely symbolic, rather than as real people for whom one is trying to generate real material gains. It is difficult to think of any positive political movement past or present that has changed the lives of human beings for the better based on misanthropy and radical performances of self-hatred.

Even the cruelest alt-right critics tend to regard extreme forms of liberal social media self-hatred as simply pathetic, a sign of a lack of self-respect. But in my own more ungenerous moments I wonder if it is something worse. Rather than merely being of benefit to no one, it could be of quite a significant benefit to just one person – the self-flagellator themselves. Publicly declaring your sins makes you appear a better person than those who have not declared them. It is not really a put-down of oneself, but a put-down of others, who are less morally worthy for having been less forthcoming in their confessions.

Online, many liberal commentators and internet personalities have built fame and careers purely through trading in the currency of virtue. As more seek to mimic this, they rely upon the value of this precious currency, even as it is constantly devalued by its own abundance. So the rituals escalate in absurdity. Suddenly denouncing Trump is not enough, he must be “literally Hitler.” Soon denouncing all of society as literally Hitler is not enough; one has to turn inward and denounce oneself with the same ferocity. Others climbing the greasy pole of liberal virtue to careers in academia or ideological listicle-writing must seek to outpace and dethrone those taking up their spot in the limited room available at the top.

But beneath the performance of humility and self-criticism may lie something thoroughly self-interested and entirely without real virtue. I’m reminded of the very un-virtuous Nietzsche’s scathing inversion of the Christian formulation in Luke’s gospel, instead suggesting, “He who humbleth himself wishes to be exalted.”