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Can White Liberalism Save America?

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Why a Savior Complex Isn’t a Substitute For a Democracy

There’s a certain question which keep occurring to me these days. Can white liberalism save America?

Now, by “white liberals”, I probably don’t mean you, and I certainly don’t mean “the average reasonable person who happens to be white”. Sorry — I don’t mean to trick you. I just want to speak plainly. By “white liberals” I mean, to begin with, the ones with power. Who think of themselves as the good guys.

It’s a certain kind of very American in-group. They have podcasts, columns, whole publications, affiliations, titles. They only ever talk about, and to, each other. They have Ivy League mannerisms, faux genteel understatement, grating sarcasm. The thing they fear most is “alarmism” — even while the house burns down. They appear not to have spent any time whatsoever reading anything but American history, so if you asked them who Truffaut or de Beauvoir was, or Habermas or Sen is, or even who Trent Reznor is or Jello Biafra was, they’d look at you blankly. They call themselves all kinds of things, from “liberaltarian” to “centrist” to “liberalish” to “anti-Trump GOP!” — yet they’re all more or less effectively technocratic neoliberals who think human suffering can be reduced to a chart, stuffed into an equation, and solved by The Perfect Algorithm. Phew — do you know the kind of person I’m talking about? Perhaps, perhaps.

Now this kind of person — the white American liberal — has a very specific, funny, and weird kind of mentality. A savior complex. They’ve been brought up to believe they’re the smartest and best people of all, and now, they’re dying to save the republic. But for that reason, they suppose, at least so far as I can see, that the only people who can save the republic are…them. Not you, not me, not women, not gays, not minorities, not blacks, not Arab-Americans, not anyone else whatsoever in any way but…white liberals. Hence, they only talk to, and about, each other. Savior complex: not “I’ll help you, as something like an equal”, but “I’m your knight in shining armour! You’ll never do better than me!” They see themselves, in other words, as heroic rescuers.

Ah, you see? Who else was notorious for saying “I alone can save you”? We’ll come back to that point shortly. First, you can see where I’m going, probably. If America’s just a thing which is there to be saved by a tiny band of dashing white liberals — which means they retain all the power, glory, opportunities, and fortune, too — then how can it ever really be a country for anyone else in the first place?

So. Are we damsels in distress? Should we want to be rescued by saviours? Doesn’t every kind of salvation have a price — and isn’t democracy something more than that? If we think about America, isn’t the idea of a noble band of knights in shining armor trying to save everyone else on terms which retain their comfort, privilege, and ideology not really a solution…but a very big part of the problem? Let’s think about it.

The first problem, which is the obvious one, is that the ideas of white liberals are fatally, absolutely, lethally insufficient. “The economy’s booming!!” My dude, 80% of Americans live on the edge of perpetual monthly catastrophe. “The economy’s at full employment!! Wheee!!” My dude! People are working three jobs just to pay for healthcare that costs as much a down payment on a house. Why don’t they see it? Because white liberals aren’t in the 80%. Their families aren’t in the 80%. They’re not even in the 99%. They wouldn’t know poverty, anxiety, or worry if it hit them over the head like an anvil made of fear. Hence, being insulated from reality, the set of ideas — capitalism on ‘roid rage, basically — they preach hasn’t worked for decades now.

So why, funnily, absurdly at this point, don’t white liberals seem capable of learning a thing, ever? Why are they still reciting economics lessons from 1982? Learning, from, say, history — the 1930s. From the world — Europe, Scandinavia, Canada. From anyone and everyone even in American history who’s not a white elite — MLK, Baldwin, and so on.

If white liberals suppose themselves so superior to everyone else, then what happens, even if they save the republic? Well, not much. The same old power structures are recreated, aren’t they? Publications, parties, organizations, institutions, all run by and for…the same tiny club of “elite” whites. But the republic is in crisis precisely because those power structures weren’t able to resist, predict, or defy authoritarianism — fast, hard, or strong enough.

Why not? Because when all you have is a tiny in-group of self-professed “elite” whites— all of whom believe exactly the same thing — at the top of everything, then reason, sanity, and foresight all go out the window. Something like impregnable groupthink crossed with cognitive dissonance laced with rigid intellectual conformity occurs. Here’s an example. Everyone that warned from 2016 onwards of an impending authoritarian collapse was either a woman, a minority, an immigrant, or all three. But if you’re a herd of elite men with self-reinforcing beliefs, who suppose themselves inherently superior, then who has ears to hear anything challenging, new, unanticipated, different? And yet that is precisely what needs to be heard, if a democracy is to survive, at a time of peril. Power prevailed over truth in America — and the price might just have been a democracy.

A democracy. It isn’t a tiny in-group of elites, recreating old power structures of salvation from above and sin from below forever. It’s something much bigger, truer, wider, and deeper. And so the savior complex of white liberals is, I think, something profoundly and fundamentally anti-democratic. The idea isn’t that “this democracy can save itself.” It’s something more like: “if you listen to us, we’ll save you!! Just obey us! Don’t question us. Just repeat what we think and say. Believe it. We’re your saviours.”

So the edifice of white liberals single-handedly, heroically saving democracy rests, as so much has before it in American history, on unquestioning obedience from everyone else. In that way, it’s a very American phenomenon — no different, really, in its substance, than so much salvationism that’s come before it. Elite Americans have always been gripped by moral panics — and gone on crusades, thinking themselves saviours. But the price has always been a society that has never really grown as a democracy, because the price of salvation is obedience and conformity to one’s savior — stratification, supremacy, inequity, inopportunity. The power dynamics of America have changed not one bit for centuries in this way.

But this time is different. If these old power dynamics of white liberals versus everyone else don’t change, I think, American democracy really is done. It might survive as a kind of hollow, sham democracy — in Soviet America, Putin win 99% of vote!! But it probably won’t survive as the real thing. Too many Americans have felt alienated for too long from the institutions, norms, and values of their very own society, for democracy to keep functioning as if by magic and wishes. This is the moment that American democracy must genuinely become more inclusive, or risk imploding for generations.

Yet instead of giving a voice to minorities, immigrants, the vulnerable, the poor, the scapegoated, instead of raising people’s awareness of the genuine ethical issues America faces, instead of really grappling with America’s long and dark history of supremacy, of which Trumpism is just a particularly sordid chapter — the idea white liberals seem to have is simply that they should be the saviours. But what does that make everyone else? The flock. “I alone can save you!”, remember?

The problem is that they don’t appear to understand any of this. That the ethics, systems and dynamics of power hidden inside their savior complex are a precise mirror image of all they decry. Do you know who else wants to save America from the bad guys? Trump. Bannon. The whole coterie of comedy fascists. To need to be a savior — versus say, a nurturer — is a sure sign of narcissism, and narcissism also requires adulation, reverence, constant nourishment of a weak and fragile ego. Do you want to be that person? The one whose job it is to forever tell white liberals how awesome and wonderful and special they are? Even when they’re wrong? Because that’s where the savior complex gets us. That doesn’t feel much like democracy to me. It feels a little more like history, repeating itself.

A democracy doesn’t make progress through saviors who need adulation leading mute, obedient flocks to the promise land. It makes progress when people begin to see one another as human beings, brimming over with unrealized possibility. The job of a democracy is really just to elevate and expand that possibility. Yet if white liberals have a savior complex — we’re the only ones who can save the republic!! You dirty, dumb underlings can’t do it! No, not you, Latinos, nope, not you black people, not you either, Asians, sorry, gays and Muslims, you’re not up to it either — then there’s a price to be paid, too. And that price is that democracy never really matures or grows.

What white liberals don’t see is that their way, America goes on being a wretched, incomplete thing, which, because it can only be saved by the powerful, also means it only belongs to the powerful, and so it is never really a country for anyone else at all in the first place. Hence, the funniest thing of all to me about the tiny in-group of elite liberals and their savior complex is that, just like the right wing extremists they decry, it’s all too obvious that they see fans, followers, like, dollar signs, votes, downloads, when it comes to immigrants, women, minorities, all the kinds of hurt and wounded and abandoned and hunted which they’ve never for a moment been. But what they don’t see is human beings.

August 2018

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