Posted on May 28, 2008

In Praise of Liberal Guilt

Ron Rosenbaum, Slate Magazine, May 22, 2008

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.”


Since when has guilt become shameful? 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.)

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.


Actually, I think it requires a kind of strength, not weakness, to face the ugly truths of history and to react to them in an honest way. “Liberal guilt” isn’t a reason one must automatically support a black candidate, but that doesn’t mean that liberal guilt—better defined as an awareness of the need to contend with, and overcome, a racist past—shouldn’t be a factor in politics.

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.

It’s especially surprising to hear “guilt” being disparaged by conservatives, since they present themselves as moralists; they are quick to decry liberals for seeking to abolish guilt over various practices conservatives deem immoral. But was slavery not immoral? For those conservatives who make a fetish of “values”: Was not the century of institutionalized racism and segregation that followed the end of slavery a perpetuation of “flawed values” that the nation should feel an enduring guilt over? For those conservatives who are forever speaking of the way they value history and memory more than liberals: Should we abolish the history and memory of slavery and racism just because they’re no longer legally institutionalized?


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—titled “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he argued that segregation should persist even by illegal means because “the White community . . . for the time being . . . is the advanced race.”

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?

Shouldn’t conservatives feel guilty about slavery and racism and the consequences thereof, or must they disdain such feelings, however moral, because they are associated with liberals? Do they choose their moral priorities because of their popularity among others? That doesn’t seem like a conservative way of thinking about moral values. It sounds like a form of relativism. It’s the kind of thinking that treats values as a brand identity. Guilt over racism is not part of the conservative brand identity. The more shame if that be the case.


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?


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 movement that may well have been motivated (among whites participating) by liberal guilt. But so what! The guilt was justified. The truly guilty were the ones who didn’t feel guilt. Such as the conservative movement of the day that largely stood on the sidelines making carping arguments about states’ rights that were a shamelessly transparent defense of institutionalized racism. Where’s the conservative guilt about that? No wonder they ignore the civil rights movement, one of the great epochs in American history, when they demonize “the ’60s.”


Do the people who dismiss black anger think there’s nothing to be angry about? As a Jew, I think I have a right to be angry, still, about the Holocaust, even though it happened before I was born. It would be hard for me to understand an African-American not being angry about 400 years of murder, rape, and enslavement on the basis of race. Anger, like guilt, shouldn’t be the endpoint, but anger at injustice is not illegitimate and can be a starting point, a spur to moral action. Where you end up is, alas, often a different matter.

But it seems to me that some people use the Rev. Wright’s ugly expression of anger as a fig leaf to discredit Obama, who has clearly ended up at a different place from the Rev. Wright (largely due, one imagines, to the civil rights movement). Yes, Obama may well have an understanding of the Rev. Wright’s anger, but if you can’t see the difference between the two men historically, culturally, generationally, and temperamentally, then I’d say you just don’t want to: It’s a kind of willful blindness that seeks to find ways of discrediting Obama and his “guilty liberal” supporters by holding up the Rev. Wright as the true face of black anger. I think intelligent people are able to make these distinctions.


People who lack guilt also lack humility, which is another one of those virtues conservatives are always flogging (although not with a lot of humility).


To be a truly “great American,” one doesn’t have to be a guilty liberal, but one has to know guilt.

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