Sandlines: Mea culpa – Can It Liberate?

Edward B. Rackley

Abughraib_2And your silence is all to no avail; today the blinding sun of torture is at its zenith; it lights up the whole country. Under that merciless glare, there is not a laugh that does not ring false, not a face that is not painted to hide fear or anger, not a single action that does not betray our disgust, and our complicity.

— Sartre, Preface to Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth

As the election year approaches, I find myself fantasizing about a very different political consciousness in this country. A state of mind where the majority of voters are appalled, outraged and shamed by our military practices and outcomes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Ashamed and outraged enough to mobilize in direct opposition to a geopolitical strategy that is digging our national grave by the day. To mobilize not just by voting for change next year, but acting now with concrete gestures of rejection and refusal powerful enough to bring the calculus driving this mad debacle to a shuddering, definitive halt.

I once enjoyed grim satisfaction at the prospect of a German war crimes indictment against Donald Rumsfeld, but—heavy sigh—it was not to be. Ozymandias, King of Kings… As public outlets to vent our outrage are dumbed-down and limited to bumper stickers and talk-show call-ins, Americans had insufficient occasion to behold the glory of a possible Rumsfeld indictment by an allied country. But is this due to fewer public for a to express outrage, or is our capacity to do so diminished, in retreat? I fear the latter. Why else do we not recoil in disgust at an administration gone too far?

In my recurring fantasy, Americans awake in toxic shock at an administration so far beyond the pale that each of us, asphyxiated and sputtering with rage, simultaneously grasps our complicity, our guilt by association. If nothing else appalls and shames us into action, passivity as complicity just might. In that Rorschach moment where silence and complicity meet, responsibility for national wrongs becomes ours, just as the parents of bullying, violent children know they too are to blame. Once the floodgates of popular rage are open, our leaders will remember to whom they are accountable.

Could this be more than a fantasy? Can a public narrative of outrage and shame born of complicity alter the course of a felonious state? We have done it before. Anti-slavery campaigns once used the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother’ to cast the victim as stranger, kin and racial equal, on the grounds of a shared humanity. Mass opposition to a more recent state-sanctioned abomination—segregation—saw it successfully overturned, but only after much public anguish, accusation and murder. The civil rights movement was ultimately successful for its unflinching solidarity and courage to confront injustice. For sympathetic whites, a sense of collective guilt also played a role.

101 Uses of Metaphysical Guilt

Following the Holocaust, the concept of solidarity emerged as an important theme in German social philosophy. Prior to Hannah Arendt’s 1963 analysis of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Karl Jaspers addressed the relation of silence, inaction and complicity in Die Schuldfrage in 1946 (trans. The Question of German Guilt). Identifying passivity before human tragedy as complicity, Jaspers coined the phrase ‘metaphysical guilt’: as fellow humans, we are obligated to intervene on behalf of others whatever the risk. Not doing so makes me an accomplice; further, it is a betrayal human solidarity.

But is solidarity alone a sufficient course of action to avert human tragedy on the scale of slavery, of the Shoah? True to academic form, Jaspers offer no specific instruction, arguing only that we must in such instances “affirm our solidarity with the human being as such.”

Arendt accepted Jaspers’ concept of metaphysical guilt but dismissed solidarity—“comprehending a multitude”—as her thinking on the origins of totalitarianism began to crystallize. “But this solidarity, though it may be aroused by suffering, is not guided by it,” she wrote. “It comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the weak and the poor.” Solidarity with an incorporeal whole like ‘humanity’ or the ‘international proletariat’ was dehumanizing; a mode of ‘massification’ Arendt likened to the totalitarian vision.

In France, Jean-Paul Sartre applied metaphysical guilt as a social justice strategy. The subjugations of colonial occupation were a perversion of Europe’s humanist tradition parading as la mission civilatrice, or ‘white man’s burden’. Sartre likened European complicity with colonialism to Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust, and he berated his readers with guilt by association. Sartre expanded Jasper’s metaphysical guilt to include the legal sense of responsibility for crimes committed, and the emotional sense of remorse and burden of psychological anguish. Properly leveraged, Sartre believed this would catalyze international action to overthrow colonialism and rectify Europe’s ‘racist humanism’. Combined with guilt, public outrage could be infectious and possibly catalytic.

Part of a wider leftist bloc known as ‘Third Worldism’, Sartre hoped that colonized peoples would emerge as partners in overthrowing colonialism, debunking European humanism and forging a more inclusive, less Euroecentric version in the process. “It is enough that they show us what we have made of them,” he wrote, “for us to realize what we have made of ourselves.”

Overcoming a ‘racist humanism’

In order to sensitize Europeans to the hypocrisies and moral failures of its ‘civilizing mission’ in the colonies, Sartre hurled guilt and shame at his readers. In his Preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he browbeat his compatriots: “You who are so liberal and so humane, who have such an exaggerated adoration of culture that it verges on affectation, you forget that you own colonies and that in them men are massacred in your name.” Popular ignorance of the sins of colonialism was tantamount to direct collaboration and culpability. The era of misinformation about the realities of colonial rule was over, Sartre proclaimed; he gave no quarter to moral bystanders: “Even to allow your mind to be diverted, however slightly, is as good as being an accomplice in the crime of colonialism.”


In Sartre’s dialectical reading of history, anti-colonial violence in the colonies presented European morality with the perfect adversary if Europe were to transcend the bankrupt humanism of its Enlightenment tradition. Predictably, for Sartre, Europe was “at death’s door.” Still, Sartre persisted, even measuring colonial subjects with a Eurocentric yardstick: “We were men at his expense, he makes himself man at ours: a different man; of higher quality.” But dialectical materialism is a western philosophical fiction; there are no ‘dialectical’ laws of nature, only interpretations.

In Sartre’s Third Worldism, the sense of co-responsibility for the injustices of colonialism digressed into a need to redeem northern sins, to exorcise collective guilt. Such an all-inclusive mea culpa, perhaps bold in its humanist ambitions, eclipsed the self-determination of colonized peoples by presuming that because Europeans were responsible colonialism, they necessarily controlled the means of its undoing … and their own redemption.

The Self-Love of Self-Loathing

The anti-colonial movement in Europe, led by Sartre, used metaphysical guilt to claim a collective interest for colonized peoples: liberation from racial oppression and northern economic exploitation. Still, for all its latent Eurocentrism, Sartre and the Third Worldist movement were a major agitating factor against French colonial policies at home and in Africa.

Sartre never reckoned that a thundering chorus of northern self-indictment would only drown out non-European voices in the causal arena of colonial politics. That a guilt-fueled, victim-centered humanism would not undo the consequences of colonialism, but was merely a warmed-over Eurocentrism du jour, did not occur to him.

The narcissism of Third Worldist solidarity with colonized peoples echoes a contemporary criticism of international charity, another mode of solidarity driven by metaphysical guilt and the appeal to ‘common humanity’: “Non-poor people who give aid to poor people have a marked tendency to see their aid as central to the poor people’s lives” (Alex de Waal, Famine that Kills).

So what does this mean for the prospect of guilt, outrage and change in the context of American foreign policy today? Solidarity and humanity may be comforting and cosmopolitan ideals, but they are anemic and anachronistic today. Although unfashionable among liberals, I find Carl Schmitt’s sardonic rebuttal of ‘humanity’ prescient and refreshing: “‘Humanity’ as such cannot fight a war because it has no enemies, at least none on this planet.” Schmitt means that any theatre of political action is defined by victims and perpetrators; nothing more, nothing less. ‘Terrorist’ is an ideological epithet, ‘defenders of freedom’ equally manipulative.

‘Humanity’ remains a comforting thought, particularly in my business–overseas disaster relief—where the needs of strangers matter to our program descriptions and fundraising drives. But I find the concept useless; it distracts from matters of individual culpability, which must be addressed if a country is to recover from conflict.

Rumsfeld, Rove, Cheney and crew (Bush is exempt—too few neurons firing to qualify as sentient or conscious)… these names alone suffice to provoke paroxysms of rage and, one assumes, action. Yet these men continue to skip, sing and frolic in our midst. Warlords gallivanting in a failed state like Somalia, I can understand. But wearing suits, appearing on television and exercising their expense accounts in our own airspace—it’s criminal. So where’s the outrage?