Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"Moral Self-Doubt"

A review by Geoffrey Kurtz of Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists, which includes this:

As Berman portrays them, the New Left militants were "a young people's movement motivated by fear." They feared Europe's fascist past and the West's imperial and one-dimensional present, but they feared something else as well, something more personal, more interior. . . . The fear behind the politics of 1968, as Berman tells the story, was at bottom a moral self-doubt. The '68ers were, Berman writes, "resistants who had nothing to resist," beset by what he called in A Tale of Two Utopias an "illegitimacy complex," forever bound to the moral standard set by the Resistance, but never able to know what they would have done during the occupation.

Fear -- not so much of fascism as of being insufficiently committed to resisting fascism -- inspired the '68er fascination with violence . . .

I certainly don't want to equate liberals like Cynthia Carr with violent Sixties radicals like Joschka Fischer, but I'm intrigued by their parallel motivations. Could it not be said of modern-day white liberals that, at least when it comes to racism, they are motivated by the same kind of fear as New Left militants? Like the militants, they are haunted by the past: not having experienced slavery, segregation, or even the type of racism that existed outside the South well into the twentieth century, they were not confronted by the choices their parents, grandparents, and liberal forerunners had to make. On the one hand is the example of the civil rights activists who decided to make a stand for equality, and on the other are ancestors -- Carr's, for example, or Edward Ball's -- who chose poorly. Therefore, these modern liberals wonder (and doubt) what they would have done in similar circumstances and simultaneously feel the need to atone for the sins of their fathers. They fear being held to the standard of the civil rights activists, and they fear being viewed in the dark light of racist ancestors. Hence the self-important, self-congratulatory, sometimes self-loathing nature of many liberal pronouncements on race and racism. Being seen as resisting racism becomes more important than opposing actual racism. It's no surprise, then, that in Carr's book the actual lynching of two black men seems secondary to her personal story about outing her grandfather as potentially complicit in the incident.

To paraphrase Kurtz, on the subject of race, modern white liberals are motivated by fear -- not so much fear of racism as of being insufficiently committed to resisting racism.

(Kurtz review via Arts & Letters Daily.)


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