The Politics of Guilt

It is a well-known fact that politics arose from the fact that a man cannot scratch his own back.  The configuration of his limbs prevents dexterous scratching with his back leg, in the manner of a dog or cat, and the dignity of his person prevents rolling on the ground like a horse, or rubbing against a fencepost like a cow.  And thus it was that one of our shaggy ancestors proposed to another, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

This was the first combination for mutual advantage, and this amiable agreement was the birth of human politics.

Combinations for mutual advantage continue to this day, but, man being man, much of politics soon became the art of combination for disproportionate or unilateral advantage.  In these cases, the combination proposed reduces to:

“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch my armpit,”

Or, better yet,

“You scratch my back and I’ll stab yours.”

Obviously these proposals had to be pitched with a dexterity that puts the scratching hind leg of a dog or cat to shame–and implication was at the heart of this dexterity.

There are two senses to the word implicate, both of which are relevant to the politics of guilt.  A man is said to be implicated in an action when he can be shown to bear some responsibility for that action, and the word is most often used when the action for which he can be shown to bear some responsibility is a crime. Implicate also means to convey an implicit or unspoken meaning.  So, when I say that the politics of guilt involves a dexterous implication, I mean that the man proposing that you give him a free back-scratch implies that you are implicated in some crime or injustice for which his free back-scratch would be partial (very partial) restitution.

Here is how it worked when our shaggy ancestors were just emerging from what political philosophers call the State of Nature.  Our shaggy ancestors had begun to combine for mutual advantage on the you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours principle, when one crafty fellow hit upon a scheme to obtain free back-scratches.  It so happened that the lore of his shaggy tribe included a legend in which one of its even shaggier ancestors had slain another of its even shaggier ancestors with a deft blow of a mastodon’s tibia.

It was the custom in this tribe to beguile wide-eyed children with the tale of this deft blow, partly because it kept them quiet, and partly in the hope that it would instill in those children a desire to emulate the man who delivered the deft blow and excel in the art of war.  Now the crafty fellow saw in this story the makings of a lifetime of free back-scratches, and so craftily worked his way into the role of tribal storyteller.

As tribal story-teller, he exercised certain rights of what later ages would call poetic license, and gave to the old story of the deft blow a moral depth it had never before had.  He explained to the puzzled parents of the wide-eyed children that this moral depth was what storytellers call nuance.

(He did not explain that the word nuance is derived from the Latin nubes, which means cloud, and nuer, which means shade, and that nuance therefore means to cloud or shade the truth.)

This storyteller’s clouding or shading of the truth at first implied that the wide-eyed children (and their puzzled parents) should shed a tear for the man who was slain by that mastodon’s tibia, and that those children (and parents) were indeed, somehow, implicated in the delivery of that deft blow.  When he had accustomed his audience to this nuance, the storyteller  further implied that the deft blow of legend had been, in fact, an unjust act, indeed a sort of crime.  And what is more, he was, himself, (in a very mysterious way) the suffering heir of the man who was flattened with that deft blow.

The eyes of the wide-eyed children brimmed with tears of shame.  Some of their parents grumbled that this was not the true story of the deft blow, but they were very puzzled and in any case unwilling to be though deaf to nuance.  Other parents beat their breasts and howled with penitent cries.  And it was then that the crafty storyteller smiled and proposed this partial (very partial) restitution:

“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch my armpit,”

Or, better yet,

“You scratch my back and I’ll stab yours.”

And because the wide-eyed children and their parents though this swindle sounded like a bargain, the the politics of guilt was born.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of Guilt

  1. Pingback: The Politics of Guilt | Reaction Times

  2. I can feel the politics of guilt making me stupider. Public life has become a scramble for moral status; it’s become hard to keep interest in other things even in private. I can feel my interest in things that used to fascinate me deadening. When everyone else is calling your people monsters, it’s hard to care about anything else.


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