Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics. - Carl Jung
. . . it is the hallmark of integrity, both personally and professionally, to own one's projections, and to be open in principle to owning all of them. This makes a person whole…. -Sharon Shir
If anything has characterized the Obama Presidency, it has been the appropriation of liberal ideas and language in the service of uninterrupted neo-conservative governance: mentioning climate change in the SOTU while opening new areas to drilling, channeling liberal desire for universal health care into a boon for the insurance industry which lies at the heart of the problem, saying forcefully that no civilians will be killed by drones before doubling down on the drone policy of the previous administration, promising the most open administration in history before prosecuting whistleblowers in historic numbers. There are many things to say about this claim and much to argue. My intention here is to examine a tactic that has served well for marginalizing long-time liberal politicos, a tactic that includes cooptation of liberal views, then perverting them in order to demonize the very people who would champion the cause. I speak of the idea of white privilege as popularized by Tim Wise.
I assume that a central tenet of what may be called liberal or progressive or leftist worldviews is a focus on the welfare of the many; a focus on a level playing field in politics; on commitment to government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Democracy itself is a liberal idea. In their purest forms, left views are broad, inclusive, and open. The left must achieve its goals through solidarity among the many rather than the exercise of power by a few, such as through ownership of a chain of propaganda outlets or million dollar political “contributions” or pressuring of employees to vote in the best interest of the company rather than in their own self-interest. This reality was acknowledged in two famous and since aggressively suppressed Citigroup Plutonomy Memos, which, among many other shamelessly pro-plutocracy analyses, described an important obstacle to rule by the 1%, as the poor having "equal voting power with the rich.“
Why has the Obama administration worked so hard to protect government secrecy? Why was so much money and effort spent in suppressing the Plutonomy Memos? Why is Julian Assange treated as such a threat? There is more subtlety to the goals of wikileaks than is obvious on the surface; Julian Assange contends that one way to combat rule by the plutocracy is to disrupt their ability to maintain an internal reality tht is coherent but different from the reality created for the public. On the other hand, it should be clear that the 1% understand very well that an effective counter to their one person/one vote problem is to prevent formation of a coherent consensus among the left. I believe that one of the most effective tools for marginalizing long-time proponents of inclusion and the needs of the many has been to deploy a perversion of the notion of white privilege as a weapon.
Among liberals who care about social justice, white privilege has proved an impressively reliable wedge between normally like-minded politicos, creating countless bitter web polarityfests and often causing lasting ruptures down the seams of leftist blogs. My hope is to point out the aspect of Wise’s approach that ensures that it will create division rather than healing, to explicate the ways in which adhering to Wise’s vision as gospel has worked to cause some liberals to harshly condemn others by shouting down attempts to offer correctives (specifically, these disagreements have often served to marginalize critics of President Obama). I will briefly touch on how a healthy approach to the issue of white privilege might look.
I assume throughout this discussion that the aim of the constructive participant is to create healing rather than for assigning blame or for selfish gain of any type, including political advantage. I assume that both clear vision and hope of success from the left include embracing inclusiveness and metanoia rather than division and paranoia.
I was first exposed to Tim Wise, interestingly enough, in July 2008, just as the Obama gang were destroying civil discourse in the liberal blogosphere, deploying relentless harassment and coarse invective to hound Hillary Clinton supporters off such websites as DailyKos. My reaction to Wise was sympathetic but with a specific criticism. Little did I know that the viciousness and lack of integrity that greeted my critique would define the response to those attempting to argue for the historic liberal vision of inclusiveness and solidarity empowered by healthy open dialog. Little did I know that my critique of Wise as scapegoating would prove to be a foreshadowing of widespread scapegoating of my fellow liberals.
In essence, white privilege is an example of complicity.
For Esquith, being responsible means holding ourselves accountable as a people for the institutions we have built or tolerated and the choices we have made individually and collectively within these institutional constraints. It is thus more than just acknowledgment; it involves settling accounts as well as recognizing our own complicity even as bystanders.
Here are some current examples of complicity: if you paid taxes to the United States government at any time over the last eight years, you are culpable for acts of torture, invasion of sovereign nations under false premises, drone strikes that necessarily kill non-combatants, and other crimes against humanity. If you live in the country that consumes well over its fair share of the earth’s resources, then you are complicit in the deaths of thousands of people by starvation. If you burn more fossil fuel than you need to burn, then you are complicit in climate change. These are examples of complicity, but we find very little discussion of them; instead, we find virtually all efforts of well-meaning people going towards identifying the culprits and finding ways to either change their behavior or limit their influence. Most normal humans pursuing blame-based strategies will react poorly to being challenged as part of the problem of climate change or war crimes. If they are aggressively accused of being terrible people for such complicit behavior, few people are likely either to examine their complicity more closely or to make efforts to change their behavior. This is normal human behavior. In short, complicity is a complex and delicate subject. Restoration of wholeness to a complicit society is impossible without empathy, respect, and a firm commitment to healing from all participants.
I will touch briefly on how a mature, constructive discussion of complicity looks, but first let’s have a look at how Wise comes at the issue of white privilege:
Indignation doesn't work for most whites, because having remained sanguine about, silent during, indeed often supportive of so much injustice over the years in this country--the theft of native land and genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans being only two of the best examples--we are just a bit late to get into the game of moral rectitude. And once we enter it, our efforts at righteousness tend to fail the test of sincerity.
Whites refuse to remember (or perhaps have never learned) that which black folks cannot afford to forget...Most white people desire, or perhaps even require the propagation of lies when it comes to our history. Surely we prefer the lies to anything resembling, even remotely, the truth. Our version of history, of our national past, simply cannot allow for the intrusion of fact into a worldview so thoroughly identified with fiction. But that white version of America is not only extraordinarily incomplete, in that it so favors the white experience to the exclusion of others; it is more than that; it is actually a slap in the face to people of color, a re-injury, a reminder that they are essentially irrelevant, their concerns trivial, their lives unworthy of being taken seriously. In that sense, and what few if any white Americans appear capable of grasping at present, is that "Leave it Beaver" and "Father Knows Best," portray an America so divorced from the reality of the times in which they were produced, as to raise serious questions about the sanity of those who found them so moving, so accurate, so real. These iconographic representations of life in the U.S. are worse than selective, worse than false, they are assaults to the humanity and memory of black people, who were being savagely oppressed even as June Cleaver did housework in heels and laughed about the hilarious hijinks of Beaver and Larry Mondello.
To thinking people, there is truth in these words. No, silly television sitcoms did not acknowledge the horrendous aspects of society. And yes, all whites who benefitted from the second class status of African Americans are complicit. Failure to be aware of the injustice in their society is an example of human failure. Upon first reading these words, I felt no resistance to acknowledging these truths, but I was also disturbed by the sloppy reference to “most white folks”, to the blanket denial of “most white folks” the fundamental human prerogative of expressing indignation worthy of respect, for the insulting physical description culminating in the word “idiot,” for the ridiculous claim that “most whites” neither deserve to assume moral rectitude nor even are sincere when attempting it. Further on, we find the claim that being moved by “Leave it to Beaver” is tantamount to a “slap in the face” to people of color. These are dehumanizing descriptions. This approach is a paranoid one--one of blame, insult, and scapegoating.
Attempting to improve conditions for one group at the expense of another is the hallmark of conservative ideology—it is a mortal enemy of liberal goals. Are people of color in any way lifted up as a result of indiscriminate shaming of all whites? Splitting humanity into groups defined by general characteristics is a cornerstone of demagoguery and the essential characteristic of the racism Wise proposes to combat. Wise’s use of scorn, belittling, indiscriminate stereotyping of broad categories of people, and confusion of collective responsibility with individual culpability all virtually ensure that relying on his vision will create division. Wise’s view is essentially a paranoid one employing thinly disguised scapegoating. Working toward what Sam Keen has called metanoia requires an internal attitude and personal commitment to the work that is in several ways at direct odds with Wise’s approach.
This does not mean that I believe white privilege does not exist, nor does it mean I believe nothing can be done about it. Before looking more closely at the ways in which Wise’s paranoid vision translates into conflict and division, let’s briefly visit a constructive approach to the problem of complicity. The following descriptions spring from a truly liberal spirit, embodying in their sensitivity and care the aim of furthering awareness of a common humanity, promoting healing of old wounds, and decreasing the likelihood of future violence caused by past behavior.
As an aside, I'll mention that irony and paradox abound in the current national dialogue. This is confusing and makes attempts at definition slippery--at the same time a common thread of cooptation and perversion, of paradox and irony, runs through many topics on both the micro and macro level. The point of view described here is highly generalizable and also brings clarity to detail. As an example, I began studying complicity when Barack Obama won the White House on a tide of progressive support; I fully expected a period of painful national self-examination of our complicity in crimes against humanity. It was not long after inauguration that it became clear that there would be no such self-examination, that those who pushed for prosecution of war crimes would be treated to the wrath of the Obama team, with charges of racism being a favorite method of marginalization. Now I find myself tapping the research I did in order to defend liberals against charges of racism rather than in order to further healing of the war crimes which the Obama administration has ignored. As I said, irony abounds, and the slippery national dialogue has done an excellent job of turning truth on its head.
The following discussions spring from study of experiences in Germany after the Holocaust, South Africa after apartheid, and other cases. One method that has helped to bring people to terms with their complicity in horrendous crimes has been re-enactment.
Re-enactment is a particular kind of democratic political education that can make better use of the notions of complicity in an age of escalating violence and deepening poverty across national borders. To be effective as democratic political education, re-enactments must prompt democratic deliberation, not substitute catharsis and polemic for it.
Note that both venting of emotions and debate are seen as blocks to healing. There is a place for all of this, but for healing to occur there must be clarity of purpose for each activity: are we creating a safe space for venting by victims or perpetrators or are we discussing in order to reach practical decisions or are we hoping to increase personal awareness of collective responsibility? Each different goal requires a different approach. Confusing the goals is certain to lead to the kind of bitter invective and confusion we have seen.
The report [of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission] criticized the Commission itself for focusing on exceptional perpetrators while ignoring the “little perpetrator” in each of us: “ . . . it is only by recognizing the potential for evil in each one of us that we can take full responsibility for ensuring that such evil will never be repeated.”
There is a need for the concept of complicity as a type of political responsibility not reducible to individual moral guilt or legal liability. Complicity in this sense is a symptom of compromised democratic citizenship, that is, alienation from the democratic political process. In this sense, victims, perpetrators, and bystanders share an important characteristic: for complex and different reasons they all find themselves outside the democratic political process. This kind of damage to the body politic can only be repaired through democratic political education.
Each person is encouraged to recognize the potential evil in himself, a potential shared by all humans, and as a society we are encouraged to come to terms with collective guilt. Note, however, that this is not the same as reducing responsibility to individual moral guilt, which only encourages projection as discussed below. As an example of liberal inclusiveness and common humanity, notice the understanding that each group, in different ways, faces the same problem--alienation from the democratic political process. Finally, a central idea in seeking to heal collective guilt is democratic deliberation.
As stated at the outset, functional democracy depends on respecting each voice, on making decisions that serve a heterogeneous population rather than attempting to force everyone to see things in the same way, which is an authoritarian approach. In the mature discussion, all parties are granted humanity and full respect. The goal is to create conditions under which individuals might best come to terms with their own complicity, in their own time and in their own manner. There is no pre-assignment of blame followed by an attempt to grant safe haven to those participants who have passed the test by fully accepting their complicity while condemning those who failed to rise to the challenge. Metanoia rather than paranoia is the context.
Projection, the Bane of Collective Responsibility
Now this doesn't have to be guilt-inducing. It's more in the spirit of, I'll join the human race, I'll acknowledge that I have faults just like the rest of you. I apologize for acting like I was above the human condition.
Constructive engagement with complicity, toward the end of strengthening a culture’s equal commitment to the welfare of all, necessarily involves introspection, an individual willingness to recognize the common humanity among victim, perpetrator and bystander. Attempting to assign blame and to shame culprits is the opposite of this approach. One of the more galling aspects of the deployment of white privilege as weapon of division has been the indulgence of blame in the name of bringing unity. Blame springs from the human trait of projection, the most stubborn challenge to individual and collective responsibility.
Here is Ken Wilber’s description of projection. It encapsulates the most important ideas in this essay:
[Ken] Wilber cites the witch hunt as one of the clearest instances of projection: "The witch hunt begins when a person loses track of some trait or tendency in himself which he deems evil, satanic, demonic, or at least unworthy." Wilber calls a person's dark side a little black heart, something we all possess. Believing that he has no little black heart, the witch hunter assumes an air of righteousness. Because he finds it very uncomfortable, he resists his little black heart: "The more he resists it, the more strength it acquires and the more it demands his awareness. Finally, because he can deny it no longer, he does start to see it. But he sees it in the only way he can - as residing in other people. He knows somebody has a little black heart, but since it just can't be him, it must be someone else." All that remains is to find someone onto whom he can project his shadow. He then despises this someone with the same passion he feels against his own dark side. It is also interesting to note that those who most vehemently seek to root out the devil become most like him in their actions. A pre-occupation with rooting out heresy shows the power of projected doubt.
When people read this description, there is the ironic tendency to focus on how other people need to learn this. Understanding how projection works does not automatically confer awareness of one's own projections; disciplined introspection is necessary. It is no coincidence that many of the attempts to force certain Obama critics from websites and to paint certain bloggers with the brush of racism have been called witch hunts. Through the process of projection, it is a simple matter to pervert liberal desire to confront complicity by encouraging projection of all one’s own negative qualities onto someone else. Wise’s language explicitly encourages such projections. There is double irony in the fact that the process of becoming aware of one’s own complicity is at heart a process of dropping projection rather than indulging it. With his blaming tone, Wise actually decreases the chances of making an unconscious person aware of his own complicity. He can only hope to preach to the choir, and in doing so, he is encouraging the choir to see the blame as resting primarily in others, thus feeding the cycle of paranoia and group hatred. To accuse others of projecting is necessarily self-parody. This is not to say that the topic cannot be broached productively; rather, it is that intention and tone are paramount.
. . . Only when a person becomes aware of the things they have been hiding from themselves can they realistically be asked to take responsibility for what they are doing. Until then, they will experience the effects of their disowned activities, but remain in an irresponsible attitude towards them. In my experience, only a non-judgmental attitude on my part enables another person, if they so choose, to drop their defenses in my presence and acknowledge that they, indeed, do know what they are about. I think we human beings are often very afraid of being judged as bad by others, and I think this fear is one of the primary operating factors that hold self-hiding and dishonesty and human discord in place.
If the goal is to help a person stop projecting onto others in order to become aware of her own complicity, then judging that person as bad is the exact opposite of what should be done and creating fear would be a good way to almost ensure no progress is made, yet we find such behavior nearly universally present in contentious discussions of white privilege. In such discussions, I find that my attempts to point out the fatal assumptions and attitudes produce ever more virulent condemnation, bringing claims that my "resistance" to buying into the entire theory, lock stock and barrel is proof that I am unconsciously complicit. Even if these bogus accusations had merit, hurling them solidifies the divide. For some actors, this divide is the goal, as explained at the outset.
Salvation from this kind of thing comes only when someone can see they are projecting, and begin to take responsibility for their projected qualities. This takes encouragement, some intellectual understanding of the nature of projection, a non-judgmental stance on the part of the helper, and the insight that withdrawing the projection will actually restore some sense of dignity, power, and freedom to the person doing the projecting. The key "motive" (only half-conscious) for projection is that it allows the projector to shed responsibility for the negative quality. It's not me that is hostile, it's that other guy, so I don't have to do the work of dealing with my anger, I can just sit back and accuse the other of being so gosh-darned hostile. When a projector (any of us) takes responsibility, and says, "Well, I guess it's true in some way that I am hostile (or whatever)," everybody around him can breathe a sigh of relief. Unconsciousness has now been replaced by a modicum of consciousness, and therefore, hopefully, responsibility…. Now this doesn't have to be guilt-inducing. It's more in the spirit of, I'll join the human race, I'll acknowledge that I have faults just like the rest of you. I apologize for acting like I was above the human condition.
Wise’s Approach to White Privilege Uses Projection to Create Division
In preparing this essay, I revisited the discussion from when I first responded to Wise in July 2008. At the time, I could not have imagined that the resistance to entertaining even the slightest critique to Wise’s problematic words would result in the kind of ganging up and berating that would become the hallmark of efforts to sideline and discredit critics of President Obama. My initial remark spawned two days of a site-wide bitter battle between one small group and anyone who dared challenge them. The discussion was marked by twisting of meanings, personal attacks, refusal to acknowledge the meaning of straightforward language, general condemnation and scorn--all behavior which became hallmarks of bullying Obama apologists from the 2008 primary season and on through his first term to this day. I was so naïve; look at my rosy outlook and good-natured entry into what I expected would be discussion: “Good essay, NL, those words are indeed powerful. And I resonate with most of what he says. But I have a problem with one aspect of them. I bring this problem here, where presumably most people are thoroughly imbued with self-criticism of the country and are distinctly not racist. I wouldn't muddy the water in some other venues.” Who would have guessed that 2008 would ever look like a haven of innocence? Here is more of my response:
There is a problem in human nature. The problem is not exclusive to the Europeans. It's just that they won the fight. I embrace a lot of what Wise says--it's brilliant in places--but I reject his self-satisfied and righteous critique of an entire culture. First, it has little chance of swaying people to his point of view given how defensive they would feel, but worse, it encourages an attitude which blames others, or a certain group, for the problems of human nature.
These days I'm feeling a desperate urgency around the need for people to get off their high horses and take a look at their own behavior and attitudes. To grapple with the things in them that prevent them from taking an expansive view of the world which wants what is best for every single being in it. Take the demonization out, and I love Wise's essay.
The telling point is that, in all the heat and passion, there was never discussion of the points I hoped to raise. Here is a summary of how non-responsiveness looked in my first ever attempt to discuss these questions:
C: Wise's quote seems excessive in places.
R: Wrong. It's not excessive.
C: It is excessive in criticizing watching Leave it to Beaver.
R: Wrong. I don't see where it criticizes watching Leave it to Beaver.
C: It claims that being moved by Leave it to Beaver amounts to a slap in the face to people of color and calling their concerns unworthy.
R: Wrong. It just says that Leave it to Beaver was inaccurate.
C: Here is precisely what it says word for word.
R: I think Leave it to Beaver was a cute show.
C: You may think it is cute, but the author does not.
R: Wrong. He was just saying it wasn't accurate.
C: He said it was inaccurate and also said finding it moving was a slap in the face to people of color.
R: We've been debating this a long time with no movement on either side. It's time to quit.
The debate has been refined over the intervening years, so that now, it can be carried on automatically, with a word or two conveying a world of meaning. A challenge to the simplistic view of 50's whites as evil is instantly met with a charge that, "Aha. You disagree. This proves that you are avoiding coming to terms with your own complicity." Such self-parodying approaches to complicity and projection have become accepted wisdom among many well-meaning and committed liberals: anyone who questions negative images of white culture during the 50’s and 60’s must automatically be avoiding his own complicity. The paradox and reverse thinking in this state of affairs has caused me to scream more than once.
Trying my best to put a point on it
We find a double irony in this slippery state of affairs; they are slippery with the grease of human delusion. To begin, there is the paradox of deploying a notion of collective responsibility for racism in order to indulge projection and create scapegoats. Then there is the paradox that those most committed to the liberal vision of universality and common humanity are likely to react to this paradox with criticism and thus find themselves branded (projection comes so easily to us humans) as some of the most intransigent in accepting their own guilt. There is evidence for these claims. More than once I have seen people respond to the personal attacks and ad hominem first with the objection that the attacks are unfair on their face, refusing to justify who they are or to discuss any detail of their personal life. This is a logical, fair stance--blaming the messenger is a distraction. But when these same people have been pushed so hard that they decide to reveal a bit of their personal stories, time and again they turn out to have extensive first-hand experience in mixed race situations, pursuing racial equality in the real world, and even in mixed race marriages. These are the liberals whom Obama and his 1% constituency fear. These are the liberals most likely to be marginalized by those pushing an idea that is a perversion of liberal thinking. It is convenient indeed, for the Obama agenda, that the same people whose broad compassionate vision causes them to reject facile discussions of white privilege are the people most likely to feel strongly about the horror of drone attacks, torture, the maldistribution of wealth, and the other offenses against liberal views.
Thus do well-intentioned liberals become convinced that those with the most profound understanding and commitment to the liberal ideal are the most intransigent in blocking progress. The result is a fatal division in which those with the surest understanding of leftist ideals become marginalized by their own allies who are pursuing liberal goals through fatally flawed means, but whose flawed vision nearly guarantees an inability to hear a critique of these flaws. It might even be said that the heart is ripped out of liberalism, with the "purists" who explicate the liberal idea most insistently being seen not as touchstones but as enemies. Liberal ideals are coopted in the pursuit of superficially liberal but ultimately paranoid policies. Thus are the 1%, the conservatives who pursue concentration of wealth and power, inoculated against the only viable threat to plutocracy: solidarity.
I hope I have managed to elucidate the pattern as I see it.I can only hope that the current essay will be received as more than an extended apology for racism or a petty attempt to defend my ego. Hope does spring eternal.
Kentridge: “To say that one needs art, or politics, that incorporate ambiguity and contradiction is not to say that one then stops recognizing and condemning things as evil. However, it might stop one being so utterly convinced of the certainty of one’s own solutions. There needs to be a strong understanding of fallibility and how the very act of certainty or authoritativeness can bring disasters.