The Atlantic Monthly, January/ February 2009


Garrett Epps declares the creation of the presidency to have been “The Founders’ Great Mistake.”  You’d think the history of the last 85 years would have made that clear to everyone, but evidently it has not.  Epps does not propose abolishing the presidency.  Instead, he outlines a plan that would keep the office in existence, but make the president dependent on the support of a majority in Congress.  In effect, Epps would replicate a parliamentary system.  That would be, if anything, worse than what we have now.  At least now the president and Congress can fight each other to a standstill.  Under Epps’ system, there would never be an opposing force to block the worst ideas that came out of the leadership of the ruling party. 

Mark Ambinder’s piece on the way the Obama campaign handled race as an issue contains an interesting line:

Even during the 2008 primaries, a discomfiting pattern had emerged: Barack Obama did his best overall in the states with the largest or the smallest percentages of African American voters—think of South Carolina, where blacks made up 55 percent of the Democratic-primary vote, and Vermont, where they made up less than 2 percent. Obama won in states where black Democrats had already attained a measure of political power, or where whites had never competed with blacks.

Ambinder seems close here to an idea that has been rattling around on the far right for some time.  Some writers, such as Steve Sailer, have claimed that “white guilt” is in fact a sign of disengagement from African Americans.  Whites who support policies that might put other whites at a disadvantage to African Americans do so in order to show their superiority over other whites.  On this view, “white guilt” is not a sign of belief in the equality of African Americans.  Quite the contrary, it rests on a belief that African Americans will never be able to compete at the highest levels of achievement.  Those who declare themselves racked by white guilt do so in order to show that they themselves are able to do so, and look down on those whites who have to worry about African American competitors.  I don’t know if I believe that idea, but I do think it deserves wider discussion than it has received.  Certainly it shouldn’t be relegated to Sailer’s blog and similarly confined venues.  

Mark Bowden profiles Bob Fishman, who directs CBS’ television broadcasts of NFL games.  The sheer number of decisions Fishman must make in the course of a minute of airtime staggers the mind.  Cognitive psychologists should study the guy.


  1. cymast

     /  February 12, 2009

    Interesting definition of “white guilt.” I had thought it meant the mistaken perpetual assumption a non-consenting white person has in thinking they own a non-consenting black person.

  2. acilius

     /  February 12, 2009

    You know, that definition might work.

    Critics like Sailer claim that displaying “white guilt” is a strategy for white-on-white status contests, and that it rests on the idea that nonwhites are not players in those contests. Under your definition, something similar is personalized, reduced to the individual level. One white takes it for granted that one nonwhite is owned and that he or she is the owner of that nonwhite person. Being owned, the nonwhite is disqualified from the contest to establish status in society. Being an owner, the white starts the contest with a certain status.

    Since the abolition of slavery, it’s become a bit trickier for a white to establish ownership over a nonwhite. But it can be done, for the purposes of the white guilt game. All a white person has to do is establish a claim on a nonwhite person that no other white can match. It’s good enough to cite “my friend so-and-so, who happens to be black,” or “my college roommate- he was from Senegal.” In the absence of any live nonwhite people, it will suffice if a white shows knowledge that the other whites in the room do not share about some nonwhite person they all find interesting. “Oh, i’ve always loved that picture of Malik al-Shabazz- that’s why I have the poster- no, I don’t think you should call him Malcolm X.” A white gains nothing in this contest by establishing claims to more than one nonwhite. If anything, having a large and growing collection of owned nonwhites will cost the player points.

    The category of “nonconsenting” adds another level to the contest. Once the contestant has established himself or herself as the owner of a nonwhite person, the next requirement is to play the role of the unwilling participant, to play it so well as to convince even himself or herself.

    “Perpetual” is good, too. The contest never ends. As long as you live in society, you want status in society. As long as it’s possible to gain status by playing the “white guilt” game, therefore, it will go on being played, no matter what the realities might be in race relations.

  3. cymast

     /  February 12, 2009

    I find the “white guilt” game played more in relation to “whites” and “blacks,” but for the sake of arguement, I will say “whites” and “non-whites.” So by calling attention to the fact that you, a white, know something exclusive about a non-white, you are claiming ownership of said non-white to your fellow whites? That’s what I get from your second paragraph.

  4. acilius

     /  February 12, 2009

    Ownership for the purpose of the game, yes. A black or other nonwhite person is not allowed to play White Guilt. Instead, nonwhites figure as game pieces. Each white player claims a nonwhite person to represent him or her in the game. The way I always claim the hat in Monopoly, some whites always claim W E B DuBois in White Guilt.

  5. cymast

     /  February 12, 2009

    So if I as a white happen to mention an obscure fact about W E B DuBois to other whites, am I, according to you, playing the “white guilt” game, and claiming ownership of W E B DuBois?

  6. acilius

     /  February 13, 2009

    No, it’s the other way around. A white doesn’t have to be playing a game of White Guilt to mention nonwhites, but a white does have to mention nonwhites to play White Guilt.

    So, if the rules of White Guilt require “the mistaken perpetual assumption a non-consenting white person has in thinking they own a non-consenting black person,” then a player must claim ownership of a nonwhite person to use as a playing piece. So, if you get the other players to agree that you, because of your superior knowledge, are the only one allowed to say anything about W E B DuBois (for example,) then he becomes your playing piece.

  7. cymast

     /  February 13, 2009

    What if you don’t know whether your potential playing piece is a white or a non-white and you really want to play the game? Can you still play?

    And can non-whites ever play the “non-white guilt” game?

  8. acilius

     /  February 13, 2009

    Isn’t that one of the advantages of your definition of the game, “the mistaken perpetual assumption a non-consenting white person has in thinking they own a non-consenting black person”?

    If the game of White Guilt were based on a relationship between a white player and more than one nonwhite non-player, the number of personal complications would multiply and become unmanageable. No one could ever lay claim to a prohibitive superiority of knowledge. Basing the game on a relationship between two people puts some boundaries to the potential complexity of the subject. At the same time, a person is more complicated than an abstraction, so a potential player can always find some angle to try to stake a claim.

    Other ethnic groups seem to play other guilt games, usually built around the fear that one is not ethnocentric enough. For all I know White Guilt the only case of a widely played guilt game built around the fear that one is too ethnocentric.

  9. cymast

     /  February 13, 2009

    Yes, but I like to play the “what if” game.

    What irks me is when someone tells me I’m playing a game when I’m not.

  10. acilius

     /  February 13, 2009

    I didn’t get the impression that White Guilt was your thing.

  11. cymast

     /  February 13, 2009

    It’s not my thing. All forms of it I find repugnant.

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