What's guilt got to do with it?

[Conor Friedersdorf]

Imagine a Vietnamese American, 18 years old, born to second generation immigrants in Southern California. He is talking about his excitement at voting in a presidential election for the first time this November. "I like John McCain for a lot of reasons," he says, "but part of why I'm voting for him is to alleviate my guilt for the way he was tortured in that Hanoi prison cell so many years ago."

That would be odd, wouldn't it? An 18 year-old Vietnamese American hasn't any reason to feel guilty for Vietnam War era crimes. Now let's say that this youth's grandfather and great uncle personally tortured prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton. It would be easier to understand the guilt felt by the youth, but as easy to assure him that he shouldn't feel personal guilt for the crimes of his ancestors -- and that he shouldn't let any guilt he wrongly feels sway his vote for the most powerful electoral office in the world.

My hypothetical doesn't exactly map onto the racial guilt some white Americans feel for slavery and Jim Crow. It's worth keeping in mind, however, as we consider Ron Rosenbaum's weird argument about "liberal guilt" and voting for Barack Obama because he is black. He begins by wondering why it is that liberal guilt is a term of derision:

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."

Already his argument is confused. It is one thing to feel sincere excitement at the prospect of a black president, or to believe that his blackness will itself benefit the United States. It is quite another thing for those feelings to be rooted in guilt.

"Not one of us is a slave owner today, segregation is no longer enshrined in law, and there are fewer overt racists than before," Rosenbaum writes, "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..."

Actually, its perfectly rational to acknowledge America's historical sins, even to the point of supporting government action to remedy them, whereas it is irrational to feel guilt for events that occurred before one's birth.

That irrationality explains disdain for "liberal guilt." So it's striking when Rosenbaum writes the following:

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?

Do we abolish its memories and its effects? Do we abolish the very consciousness of the past and pretend we have a clear conscience?

For heaven's sake, does this man see no distinction between guilt for an act one actually committed and guilt for another's action that one couldn't have possibly prevented? Critics of liberal guilt (it isn't just conservatives) don't disagree that slavery was immoral, or that America ought to remember as much! We disagree about whether people should buy into collective guilt, if such a thing even exists, not due to complicity in an evil act, but because dead people who shared one's race, ethnicity or nationality committed some evil act.

In that way lies madness!

Later in the piece we're given a perfect illustration of where this mindset might take us:

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.

Surely it is legitimate to be angry about the murder of millions of Jews, or the enslavement of millions of African Americans, whether or not one is a Jew or an African American. I am a Caucasian gentile. Does Mr. Rosenbaum imagine I have less reason to be outraged by those horrors?

I'll leave it to others to highlight the other egregious slurs against conservatives found in the piece. And to those who think that collective guilt over past misdeeds should help determine one's vote for president, suffice it to say that the debate over whether blacks or women are worse off is going to get even more complicated if the relevant data points extend back throughout all of human history.

UPDATE: see also Reihan and Sonny Bunch.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Also see Matt, and my rejoinder to him.