The Corner

The Uses and Abuses of Guilt

I pretty much agree with everything Ross Douthat has to say about conservatives and guilt in response to unpersuasive musings from Ron Rosenbaum and Ezra Klein. But there’s at least one point I’d add. Rosenbaum asks: “What I don’t understand is why there doesn’t seem to be any conservative guilt over racism….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?”

Again, I think Ross’s answer to this absolutely hackneyed and tired question (at least from my own personal experience) is entirely valid, even if I’d express it slightly differently. But there remains the question of guilt and the left and the role it plays. Rosenbaum writes:

Or could it be that conservatives disdain liberal guilt about race because they have historically more guilt to bear for the perpetuation of racism and segregation?

I’m not talking about Republicans per se. The fact that the GOP was the party of Lincoln and most strongly supported anti-lynching and anti-Jim Crow legislation in the first half of the 20th century is to its eternal credit, just as the “Southern strategy” was much to its discredit in the second half of the century. And, needless to say, liberal Democrats collaborated with a stone-cold racist wing of their party when they needed electoral votes for most of the century.

No, it’s not a Democrat or Republican issue; it’s a liberal and conservative issue. And there are those on the conservative side who understand that the first step to justice is an acknowledgment of guilt. Just not many and not very vocal.

Me: Just for the record, I have no problem admitting that the right was wrong about the civil rights issue in the 1960s, particularly in the early 1960s. It’s not as cut-and-dried as many liberals would have it. There were real constitutional issues at stake after all. But at the end of the day, the moral equities were overwhelmingly on the side of liberals when it came to the imperative of ending Jim Crow. I don’t know if that’s vocal enough for Rosenbaum, but my conscience (at least my conscience as a conservative as opposed to, say, as an American) is pretty clear.

But I think Rosenbaum stumbles on what may be the biggest problem with the whole liberal guilt business. I’m not sure we’re really talking about guilt, at least not as we commonly understand it. Note how Rosenbaum basically puts all the blame on people other than him, i.e. not liberals.

If you read Shelby Steele’s wonderful book White Guilt, one of the themes that emerges is how so many white liberals actually use the idea of “guilt” as a way to empower their social engineering schemes and glom credit for beating the bad guys. White liberals wore the white hats and they want the glory for it. Maureen Dowd sneers at Clarence Thomas’ “great historic ingratitude” to the liberal establishment for not dancing to their tune. In other words, blacks should be grateful to white liberals and not question their moral authority. George Clooney boasts: “Yes, I’m a liberal and I’m sick of it being a bad word. I don’t know at what time in history liberals have stood on the wrong side of social issues.”

There’s a lot going on here emotionally, but I don’t think “guilt” comes close to capturing the most interesting parts of it. I believe liberal or white guilt is often used as a pose, a political strategy, to proclaim that non-liberal whites should agree with liberals, particularly on racial issues. The motivating passion behind this nonsense isn’t “I feel bad” so much as you people should feel bad.” And, you — you mean, bad, retrograde conservatives — should translate that enlightened self-hatred and guilt into doing what we morally numinous liberals say you should do. In short, if you really felt guilty, you’d be a liberal. And if you don’t feel guilty, you aren’t one.

I can be wracked with guilt about some of the positions Bill Buckley and Frank Meyer took on the civil rights question, but unless I prove it by supporting liberal means for ameliorating those mistakes, I don’t really feel guilty in the way Rosenbaum means. Political guilt becomes first and foremost a conversion mechanism for others, not a motivation for self. This isn’t always the case, to be sure. There is something real to liberal guilt, but it’s more complex and more other-directed than many — particularly conservatives — often claim.

Oh, and I should add, that on the areas where liberals, qua liberals, should feel deep guilt they instead insist they have no culpability whatsoever. Eugenics is the best example, but the internment of the Japanese, the excesses of World War One (and even to an extent World War II), never mind the explosion of crime and out of wedlock births from the 1960s to 1980s, all qualify as perfect examples of things liberals should feel guilty about because liberals did them. But, instead they still take great pride in some of these things (the Great Society, for example) because their “hearts were in the right place.” And in other areas, as I argue in my book, liberals respond to explicitly liberal sins by either denying they are sins at all or to insist there was nothing liberal about them, blaming “America’s sins” instead and thereby re-confirming the liberal mandate to “fix” America.

Liberalism is never wrong, because liberalism is the organized pursuit of the politically virtuous. At least according to liberals.

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