Conservatives and "Liberal Guilt"

This Ron Rosenbaum column praising liberal guilt (and suggesting that conservatives ought to feel some too) inspires Ezra Klein to write:

People don't like to feel guilt, particularly over actions they didn't directly commit. But rather than simply deny culpability, conservatives have managed to recast feeling guilt as a character flaw, as political weakness, as soft-headed emotionalism. This serves a lot of people's purposes, of course, particularly folks who come from a political movement that opposed desegregation as recently as 45 years ago, but it doesn't actually make any sense.

I think Reihan makes one important rejoinder to this point, noting that part of the conservative critique of "liberal guilt" has to do with the (arguably) perverse effects of a politics based on remorse over what your ancestors did - whether it's left-wing Westerners making excuses for Third World tyrants or left-wing Americans accusing anyone who wanted to talk about crime and social pathology in minority communities of "blaming the victim."

But the deeper question remains: Its political consequences aside, is guilt an appropriate response to the sins of your ancestors (whether biological or ideological)? Or is it a character flaw - a form of self-congratulatory scrupulosity? I'm not sure what my answer would be, but I don't think it's fair to say that the latter argument "doesn't actually make any sense."

Consider this passage from Rosenbaum:

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?

But Buckley felt guilty because his writing made him directly complicit in the perpetuation of Jim Crow. And yes, there are many conservatives of his generation, and to a lesser extent the generation after, who should feel guilty because of things that they themselves said and did. But what's at issue in the debate over "liberal guilt" isn't whether Buckley should feel guilty about what Buckley did; it's whether I, as a twentysomething conservative, should feel guilty about what he did - and, more broadly, whether I, as a twentysomething white American, should feel guilty about what white Americans used to do to black Americans. (Or to further confuse things, whether someone like Ramesh Ponnuru, as a thirtysomething Asian-American conservative, should feel guilty about what white conservatives said and did in the past.)

One provisional answer would be to say no to guilt, and yes to shame: I think they're different emotions, and that shame's connection to "dishonor" rather than "culpability" makes it a more appropriate response to sins that you yourself are only complicit in indirectly, through the ties of blood or citizenship or ideological fellow-travelership. But shame, in turn, only makes sense in relation to communities that you wish to associate yourself with, or that you can't disassociate yourself from even if you tried. So where race and racism are concerned, I feel much more ashamed as an American than I do as a twenty-first century conservative, because I feel a stronger loyalty to the America of the 1950s (or the 1850s) than I do to the conservative movement of the 1950s. I'm sure I would have subscribed to the early National Review and felt philosophical affinities with many of its writers, but I'm also pretty sure - allowing for the faint absurdity of any such hypothetical - that I wouldn't have self-identified a Buckleyite right-winger during the Civil Rights Era, and I don't think it makes sense to feel shame over the decades-old conduct of people you wouldn't have agreed with at the time just because the shifting currents of American politics eventually landed you in the same political camp.

Certainly, it would be absurd to insist that figures like Charlton Heston or Richard John Neuhaus, who were courageous civil-rights activists long before they became associated with the conservative point of view on gun control or abortion, should feel guilty over things their future ideological allies did and said, but that they themselves opposed. Obviously, the situation is less clear cut for those born to late to choose a side. But the conservatism that I would associate myself with wasn't born until the neoconservative turn in the 1970s, and to the extent that I feel ashamed of the conservative record on race, it's the post-1970s record - which obviously contains its share of sins - that I keep uppermost in mind.