Monday, May 26, 2008

Liberal Guilt (Possibly part I)

Ron Rosenbaum has written a deep meditation on liberal guilt at slate.com. Consider his starting point for the discussion:
When did "liberal guilt" get such a bad reputation? You hear it all the time now from people who sneeringly dismiss whites who support Obama's candidacy as "guilty liberals." There are, of course, many reasons why whites might support Obama that have nothing to do with race. But what if redeeming our shameful racial past is one factor for some? Why delegitimize sincere excitement that his nomination and potential election would represent a historic civil rights landmark: making an abstract right a reality at last. Instead, their feeling must be disparaged as merely the result of a somehow shameful "liberal guilt."
Here Mr. Rosenbaum hurts his case by conflating the two distinct emotions of guilt and sincere excitement into one. Sincere excitement that an African-American man has won a United States Presidential election is, in my view, entirely natural and justified. I think that both conservatives and liberals can agree on this point. However, this emotion is also the exact opposite of guilt.

We thus come to a line that runs through every human heart. Is excitement over a single electoral victory enough to dispel guilt over the failures of the past? We might as well ask if doing happy things can keep us from feeling sad or if succeeding at work can keep us from feeling inadequate. The best answer to the question that I have, on the face of things, is "maybe". Here Mr. Rosenbaum inadvertantly suggests that "maybe" is much to optimistic an answer:
Since when is shame shameful when it's shame about a four-centuries-long historical crime? Not one of us is a slave owner today, segregation is no longer enshrined in law, and there are fewer overt racists than before, but if we want to praise America's virtues, we have to concede—and feel guilty about—America's sins, else we praise a false god, a golden calf, a whited sepulcher, a Potemkin village of virtue. (I've run out of metaphors, but you get the picture.)
There are two ways of interpreting this passage that lead us to the same conclusion. It might be suggesting that it is correct for the individual American to ascribe to himself culpability and thus guilt and shame for acts of other individual Americans that could have no possible association with himself. Another way of interpreting the passage is to see it as suggessting that it might be correct for the individual member of the American demos to ascribe to himself culpability and thus guilt and shame for acts of the American demos as a whole that could have no possible association to himself.

You can grapple with those interpretations as you wish, but if you accept either of them, then you are going to have some serious problems with achieving redemption. The reason should be clear: if you accept personal blame for the actions of others, then there is no possible way that your personal actions can achieve redemption for yourself. Voting for Barack Obama might make you feel better, for a while, but it won't rewrite history for you and it won't change your memories.

At this point, Mr. Rosenbaum's article jumps the rails:
Guilt is good, people! The only people who don't suffer guilt are sociopaths and serial killers. Guilt means you have a conscience. You have self-awareness, you have—in the case of America's history of racism—historical awareness. Just because things have gotten better in the present doesn't mean we can erase racism from our past or ignore its enduring legacy.
Here Mr. Rosenbaum compounds a rather drastic error that he alluded to in the previous excerpt. In reality, guilt is most definitely not good. The emotion we should be correctly be experiencing through historical awareness is not guilt but empathy. Our ancestors committed some titanic crimes, but some of them also achieved some precious knowledge about the human condition despite the horrendous cost.

Of course, by treating the problem of historical guilt as an individual emotion, I've managed to exclude a big chunk of liberal opinion upon the subject, namely, that none of our current problems would be in existence if it wasn't for those damn conservatives. I'll leave this aspect of the article aside for a future part II.

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