Ideology and Shame

October 20, 2014
October 20, 2014 John Drabinski

Ideology and Shame

In recounting his falling out with Stokely Carmichael in Revolutionary Suicide, Huey Newton touches on a couple of key points, most of which are well-known to those familiar with Black Power/Black Panther history, But bear they repeating and reexamination because the conflict and division they identify raise enormously complex, enormously urgent questions. In this case, I want to revisit them in order to ask the question both Carmichael and Newton ask: in terms of racial justice, what does it mean to consider white people as participants in, and so not just bystanders to or targets of, a revolutionary project?

One thing that stands out for me and for my students – I’m rereading all this stuff for my current (F’14) course Panther Theory: Reading Black Power – is how the revolutionary moment seems just so unimaginable. The question of solidarity across race, which for Newton also becomes about solidarity across gender and sexuality, is in some ways only possible in the revolutionary moment, that moment in which one sees the possibility of the world being turned upside down.  If revolutionary sentiment, consciousness, and action is everywhere, then it is a real question: who are allies, friends, comrades? How do we draw these borders? And what sorts of critical terms help us negotiate those difficult boundaries?

The question of political friendship, something Newton comes back to repeatedly in To Die for the People, moves the conversation outside cultural nationalism, or at least builds an important appendix to that nationalism. The dynamics of moving that conversation outside and building an alternative story, if firstly an adjunct one, show the complicated interaction of ideology and affect.

As is well-known, Newton is dismissive of the cultural politics of the Black Power movement. Though he has folks like Maulana Karenga in mind, he is also surely thinking of someone like Carmichael, for whom evoking a strong pan-African sensibility is, from his early speeches and essays, absolutely crucial. The figure of “African,” whether an existential state or an atavistic appeal, helps Carmichael negotiate the critical difference between what he calls “the Negro” (a dominated state, subjected to whiteness) and “the black man” (liberated from white domination). In evoking that difference, he will repeat the call “every Negro is a potential black man” that in many ways functions as a definition of Black power itself. “African” is the key figure here. Carmichael writes in “A New World to Build” (1968):

We must be black. If we are black, then we can trace our ancestry back to Africa, and we can begin to learn about the warriors in Africa who killed white folk. And I mean kill – a whole lot, like Cetswayo, Hannibal, Moshesh, Memelik, Lobenguela and all those cats.

There are some who say, “Well, we’re the black Americans.” Junk. You wain’t nothing but an African, and you ain’t had nothing to say about where you were born; the white man decided where you would be born, when you would be born, and how you would be born. For us to keep talking this junk about “we’re Americans first” – that’s junk. We’re Africans. We happened to be born in America because the white man needed us there, and that’s the only reason why. That does not make you an American, incidentally. It makes you a tool of America.

This is not quite cultural nationalism in the sense that Newton criticizes, and that is an important qualification to note. The power in Black power is what’s most important, though the means to acquisition of that power means at least something, perhaps a lot. Newton sees the physicality of struggle as crucial (as I noted in this post on primal scenes), as well as study, but that is in many ways no different that Carmichael’s equivocating “love for Black people” with the willingness to not only die, but to kill. And Carmichael’s claim that “if one is truly a revolutionary, one must understand that one must take time out to study” resonates perfectly with Newton’s other primal scene, that of reading.

But this does not mean that Carmichael’s thought is compatible with the conception of revolutionary nationalism Newton develops in the essays and interviews collected in To Die for the People: “We believe that culture alone will not liberate us. We’re going to need some stronger stuff.” Carmichael’s nationalism is a racial nationalism – one that becomes borderless, if not quite in Newton’s intercommunal sense, in the later development of pan-African politics and consciousness – that evokes the cultural element in order to deepen or cement racial identity in the Negro-becoming-black-man. (Newton will say in To Die for the People that “Pan-Africanism is the highest expression of cultural nationalism,” but I think he overstates in this case.)

For Newton, that position lacks ideological seriousness. It lacks ideological seriousness in that it doesn’t identify in rigorous terms what underpins oppression and exploitation. To be sure, Carmichael’s essays from the mid- and late-1960s repeat what always bears repeating: when put in conversation with Black liberation struggles, white “allies” invariably put their concerns at the center of the discussion, thereby diverting attention from what needs to be addressed. In that sense, Carmichael’s racial nationalism has legitimate grounds (who can argue with his observation, right?) in terms of strategy and, for lack of a better way of putting it, time-management. His complaints about white allies are as much about the time-suck of making space for white co-actors as they are about the recurrence of white supremacy in efforts toward solidarity work. But is this ideological enough?

In Revolutionary Suicide, Newton makes a pointed remark about the split with Carmichael, one that makes it clear what’s at issue ideologically in this falling out. Newton writes:

[Carmichael] accuses us of misleading people by our coalitions with whites, but I say he confuses people when he goes to Washington and tries to prevent a Black policeman from being kicked off the force – a policeman who takes orders to kill his own people and who protects the Establishment. Stokely told me he would support anyone – he did not care who – if the person were Black. We consider this viewpoint both racist and suicidal. If you support a Black man with a gun who belongs to the military arm of your oppressor, then you are assisting in your own destruction.

So, for Newton, the problem is not with the racial make-up of the police, but the fact of the police themselves. That is, the problem is ideological: in an imperial and capitalist nation, the police are concerned with those two things – exercising absolute power over the masses and the protection of private property (which, even were it to be Black owned businesses, would still be protecting the vast white network of banks, producers, and landlords). The police function as the paramilitary arm of capital and occupation, so the fact of a racially diverse police force – or, in Carmichael’s case, defending a Black police officer on racial solidarity grounds – is no intervention whatsoever against the fundamental forces of violence and exploitation.

This leads Newton to theorize solidarity on largely ideological terms, which includes whites who’ve been radicalized in the struggle against imperialism and capitalism. Radicalized – this is the key notion here, for solidarity is only won through political consciousness. That doesn’t mean that the specificity of Black liberation struggle is secondary for Newton, but only that any liberation struggle that proceeds from a diagnosis of a common enemy – something he comes to call intercommunalism – is strategically advantaged by collaboration. Newton ventures this perhaps unexpected diagnosis in 1970:

At one time I thought that only Blacks were colonized. But I think we have to change our rhetoric to an extent because the whole American people have been colonized, if you view exploitation as a colonized effect. Seventy-six companies have exploited everyone. American people are a colonized people even more so than the people in developing countries where the military operates.

It is important to be careful here, too. Newton does not make the Black liberation struggle the same as anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle, even as he and the Party leadership famously propose sending Party members to fight with the North Vietnamese. Rather, radicalization is a condition of friendship. Newton will come back to this again and again in To Die for the People, the notion that it is important to know who friends are and who is not a friend. Not friend or enemy, but friend, enemy, and just not a friend. Friendship, and this is crucial for maintaining the singularity of Black liberation struggle, is not sameness or equivocation; there is plenty of distance and difference, even in the moment of connection and collaboration. Friendship means you share common terms, a sense of connection and similar – though never all-encompassing – purpose.

Carmichael would have none of this, for reasons sketched above. But what strikes me as interesting and worth asking about is this: is ideological commitment enough? Is friendship possible on those terms alone?

Newton’s politics of friendship derives from ideological analysis, and Carmichael’s refusal of friendship proceeds largely from questions of affect. White people, in Carmichael’s account, alter the feeling and mood of liberation struggle to the point of threatening real damage and inhibiting Black people from doing what needs to be done: acting in the interest of Black people alone, not assuaging white fears, guilt, and anxiety.

Newton sees this as an accurate first-glance take on white people, no doubt, but lacking the depth-analysis needed to undermine and uproot the sorts of structures that bear on Black lives and communities.

I wonder if Carmichael isn’t partly right here, though, and how Newton’s type of objection to the limits of solidarity leans too heavily on ideology as conviction, and so does not theorize adequately the psychological and, for lack of a better word, spiritual upheaval necessary for a productive politics of friendship. The close of “Power and Racism” (1966) puts it plainly. Carmichael writes:

As for white America, perhaps it can stop crying out against ‘black supremacy,’ ‘black nationalism,’ ‘racism in reverse,’ and begin facing reality. The reality is that this nation is racist; that racism is not primarily a problem of ‘human relations’ but of an exploitation maintained – either actively or through silence – by the society as a whole. Can whites, particularly liberal whites, condemn themselves? Can they stop blaming us, and blame their own system? Are they capable of the shame which might become a revolutionary emotion? (my emphasis)

Carmichael’s response in the next sentence is resigned and simple: probably not. But the questions, especially the last question, formulate the terms of transformation at the level of affect. Are they capable of shame? This is a stunning question, really. And if placed alongside Newton’s trust in ideology, the belief that ideological re-orientation is decisive and final (enough), we can start to see the complex negotiation of race and solidarity in a revolutionary Black nationalist context.

Shame, for me, is such an interesting moment in this. There is a lot to be said about shame, it’s history, how such an affect is tied to certain religious and cultural forms, and so on, but maybe a few words of my own. I’m struck firstly by the difference between shame and guilt, both of which can be responses to something I find morally objectionable, utterly distasteful, or politically unjust. Guilt comes from how the other person makes me feel. I’ve committed or been implicated in a wrong, and when I see the other person, the harmed, I’m struck with guilt. I see you suffer, I feel terrible, now I feel guilty.

Because guilt comes from the other, it is inherent in the guilt-relation that I seek absolution from that other person. This is the perverse logic of forgiveness, in many ways. Not only is the other person harmed, but now the pressure is on the harmed person to dissolve guilt, to forgive. Perhaps this has redeeming and transformative moments, as when my guilt prompts me to reform myself, to become a better person, or even to become an altogether different kind of person. But, in the end, I’m always negotiating with the aggrieved for the lifting of my guilt. Please forgive me, you’re making me feel so bad about myself. I think you can see this in Carmichael’s various portraits of white liberals. And we all know how quickly guilt turns into contempt. That’s a story Nietzsche told particularly well.

I think shame is a very different feeling. Shame is prompted by the same sense of recognizing injustice, indifference, cruelty, or whatever harm is caused, but I look to a different place in that moment. In the moment of shame, my gaze and moral relation is turned back upon myself. My engagement with the world – witnessing what is shameful and my place in it – does not put the terms of moral reckoning in the other’s introduction of guilt into me. Shame returns me to myself and the disgust that accompanies the feeling comes from my own encounter with what is shameful. In that sense, I do not ask the other to assuage or alleviate my guilt. Rather, I am settled into the fact of myself as a morally problematic existence, generated from my presence to the world, to others, and as part of (or party to) the production of mass suffering.

Carmichael’s evocation of shame is brief, but suggestive. I’d put it this way: shame reveals the world as unlivable, both as a site of anti-black racism and (which is key here) white privilege. Shame arises at that moment in which I understand the world to be the condition of my violence, simply by existing. And that to live otherwise requires the abolition of the very terms of my existence. That privilege is violence. A decent person cannot live that privilege. Again, this does not come from the other, but from myself, though of course the orientation of shame, what it diagnoses and what it wants, is toward the other, but as a commitment to radical transformation. Carmichael puts it this way in critiquing white allies:

The well-intended say: ‘We’re all human, everybody is really decent, we must forget color.’ But color cannot be ‘forgotten’ until its weight is recognized and dealt with. White America will not acknowledge that the ways in which this country sees itself are contradicted by being black – and always have been.

This is a really striking bit from Carmichael. He also raises a deep methodological question here, as we can see Carmichael questioning the adequacy of dialectical thinking for dealing with this level of contradiction. Perhaps this is a moment of negative dialectics: locating the remainder, the unassimilable, at the heart of the meaning and significance of the world. Written, here, through the racialized dynamics of death and suffering.

I’m not sure ideology accomplishes all of this. It might facilitate that sorts of reflection that leads to shame and abolition-consciousness (maybe the only consciousness that can respond to this negative dialectics), but of course part of what is so powerful about ideology critique is also what is so good at minimizing affect: focus on institutions. That said, ideology, like all theory, is clarifying in important ways, ways that make it hard to see the world in any other fashion or with any other architecture. When ideology is inflected with the epidermal schema of race and racism, the inescapable implications are made plain; as Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks tells over and over, racial liberation is not a question of consciousness or cultivation of self. The economy of racism is simultaneously less than that (overdetermination from the outside is what it is, from the outside) and more that that, sinister for its ability to implicate you without possibility of escape.

That sort of ideological snapshot gets us a good way down the road toward what Carmichael names shame and revolutionary consciousness. But that is at the level of conviction, which for Newton is enough. Namely, for him, enough for us to see how capitalism and imperialism victimizes “all but seventy-six” corporations. Shame, however, has to come from a more personal place, and, to say it again, what is so interesting about that element of affective life is that it places the ethical rage of the other inside the self – not out of self-interest, but out of a felt connection to the unlivability of the world. Not shared interest as such, not a common cause against the imperialism and coloniality of everyday life, but a sense that the world as we know it, as a racial-moral system and economy, must be abolished. That to live in it as a white person, to live privilege and pleasure from the unlivable, repeats what is most grotesque about our past: a country that contradicts Black being. Ideology, I think, gets us a commitment to transformation. Revolutionary transformation, perhaps. But shame gets us a commitment to destruction through a shared sense of disgust at the possibility and actuality of whiteness in the world as we know it.

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Comments (2)

  1. Jack Marsh

    Thanks for this. Apologies for yet another long comment! Weighed down as I am in the minutiae of phenomenology (while dissertating), your blog has become my teacher on issues I much prefer devoting time too. Accept my comment as the contribution of an admiring student, finding his way in a new field.

    Not sure your distinction between shame and guilt holds in the way you present. You’re right about their location and directionality, but the context Newton is addressing – systemic racial oppression – by necessity involves *victims.* The experience of shame cannot be sequestered from guilt. Agreed that shame can motivate one to actively resist systemic racism without addressing or seeking forgiveness from victims, but their victimization – and the question of guilt that necessarily attends assessing one’s own complicity – is a prior and assumed background condition to the experience of shame in this context. This is especially relevant in a context where individuals are held to represent their ‘race,’ and are forced to consider what this unchosen dimension of their apparent identity ethically obligates of them in a context of racist oppression. If they are held responsible for the injustices of biologically genetic and cultural ancestors, and for a system they did not invent, and if assigning responsibility in this way is ultimately warranted, then seeking forgiveness in both personal and mediated (ie symbolic) forms seems as ethically necessary as enacting structural and policy transformation to alter and redress systemic racism. As you know, such forgiveness doesn’t absolve crimes as crimes, nor does it absolve ideologies of white-power as racist ideologies, nor does it magically erase the still extant *fact* of white privilege. What it does do is acknowledge – and even ontologically create! – the possibility of a ‘whiteness’ no longer necessarily chained to historic and systemic crimes. I admit: I’m highly skeptical of the usefulness of ‘whiteness’ as a constructive category for community formation. But forgiveness creates the possibility of unhinging ‘whiteness’ from something like necessary karmic guilt for historic and systemic crimes, liberating those who happen to be white from complicity by definition, assuming they actively take up genuinely anti-racist struggle against white-power and privilege.

    Granted, forgiveness does burden victims by placing them in the serious and difficult position of forgiving what, strictly speaking, is unforgivable, but it’s a burden forced by the meaning internal to ‘victimization’ and liberation itself, and not necessarily externally imposed by aggressors eager to simply absolve themselves, and that’s all. It’s also a burden that calls forth creative and ennobled agency: invoking and creating for the absolved the possibility of participating in the joint project of revolutionary transformation of the present. I get Newton’s challenge, and blacks cannot and ought not wait on whites to get their shit together to defend, protect, and prosper themselves. This nevertheless defers the question of forgiveness rather than settles it.

    This is why I like Carmichael more than Newton: shame and guilt are not enough. The project of merely *destroying* white power and privilege is not enough. Everything swings on the ‘ideology’ you refer to. The destruction of our unlivable world seems guided by a sense of a humanity to come: creative, forgiving, openness to a future no longer structured by race such as it is in the reality of the world we’ve inherited. It seems to me that it’s the possibility of such a future that issues the burdens of white shame and guilt, and the burden of black forgiveness, and in both cases calls forth a creative agency that is shared in the collaborative project of constituting a world, with Carmichael, where the “weight” of race is “recognized and dealt with,” and as such ‘let go’ in favor of a creative, life affirming, multi-racial theater of aesthetic and moral excellence.

    If whites today refuse to assume the burden of responsibility for a history and a system they didn’t create (yet repeat and benefit from), and if blacks refuse the burden of forgiving the unforgivable, and of becoming exemplars for a new and creative humanity, are we simply doomed to a perpetual present of racist oppression?

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