Not Guilty

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Rosenbaum’s treatment of William F. Buckley Jr. deserves a little more comment, I think. To re-quote:

What I don’t understand is why there doesn’t seem to be any conservative guilt over racism. Contemporary conservatives could learn from their revered godfather William F. Buckley Jr., who, early in his career at the National Review, wrote a pro-Jim Crow lead editorial—little remembered in liberal and other encomia to the man. . . .

A valuable essay on this question by William Hogeland in the May/June issue of the Boston Review reminds us that even Buckley felt guilt—if not precisely “liberal guilt”—about this editorial, guilt that he expressed in a 2004 Time interview. “Have you taken any positions you now regret?” Time asked him. “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.” Why can’t conservative wiseguys (especially at the National Review) stop sneering at liberals long enough to learn from the admirable guilty wisdom of their sainted leader?

I read about 100 news stories about Buckley’s death, and believe that about three-quarters of them mentioned his civil-rights record. Be that as it may: What Buckley expresses here is regret, and he acknowledges personal error; he does not seem wracked with guilt. (You can argue that he should have felt guiltier, but in my experience he just didn’t.) Which gets to two deeper flaws in the essay. First, the confusion of repentance for our own misdeeds with “guilt” over other people’s misdeeds. Second, the assumption that when conservatives complain about white liberals’ racial guilt, they mean to suggest that they do not regret slavery and Jim Crow.

In complaining about liberal guilt, conservatives generally have other things in mind: the ostentatious display of liberals’ superior virtue, for example, or the cheap grace that comes from repenting for other people’s sins, or the foolish things that the feeling of guilt leads liberals to do. Rosenbaum doesn’t address the actual conservative critique of liberal guilt.

In thinking about the role that guilt should play in our politics, the most useful passage of this essay is this one: “Of course, it’s not enough just to feel guilty or to act on guilt alone. But guilt can often spur us to deal with the enduring consequences of the injustices of the past and force us not to pretend there are none.” Guilt can spur us to rectify injustice, but it can also spur us to do other things. (It may make us susceptible to certain forms of manipulation, for example.) It is noteworthy that Rosenbaum never quite gets around to explaining why voting for Obama because of his race is a good idea, which is what his subhed promises. (Admittedly, his editors may have just had a hard time summarizing his rambling essay.) Guilt is not necessary to get us to rectify injustice; a concern for justice can get us to do that.

One last small point. Rosenbaum writes:

This is what I don’t understand about the conservative attacks on “the ’60s.” They willfully ignore, in their rote denunciations of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll aspect of that decade, the great movement of moralists known as the civil rights movement. The movement that brought deserved honor and pride to America.

The typical conservative broadside against the ’60s, think of that broadside what you will, concentrates on the late 1960s (and early 1970s). The major civil-rights legislation was enacted, and (on this typical conservative account) the heaviest lifting done, before the oldest Baby Boomers had turned 18. Maybe the conservatives are wrong about all of this, but Rosenbaum is mischaracterizing what they (we) believe.

The Corner

The one and only.