White Guilt and Morally Lazy Revolution
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.