The Guardian’s Natalie Hanman - who edits Comment Is Free, where the party never stops - urges us to cultivate some pretentious guilt. Boldly, she asks:
Should Benedict Cumberbatch say sorry for the slave owners in his family?
Not current family members, you understand. So far as I’m aware, Mr Cumberbatch doesn’t have some weird cousin with strangers chained up in the cellar. No, we have to project our agonising backwards in time, past parents and grandparents, and great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents – past centuries of people who are themselves strangers:
A newly appointed city commissioner in New York, Stacey Cumberbatch, told the New York Times last week that she believed British actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s fifth great-grandfather owned her ancestors on an 18th-century sugar plantation in Barbados. They “are related,” the newspaper noted, “if not by blood, then by geography and the complicated history of the slave trade.”
Which is to say, actually, not related at all.
The Cumberbatch case involves two high-profile individuals and so has had media attention, but these questions concern us all.
I suspect opinions on that point may differ.
For as long as structural inequalities persist, we cannot overlook how far the tentacles of history might reach into the present. The real challenge is to recognise, and address, how much the privileges of the past continue to benefit some, and wrong others, today.
We “cannot overlook” these things, you see; we must “address” them and weigh our privilege. Some more than others, it seems. So says the woman who gets paid to invent esoteric problems and then fret at length in print. But those “tentacles of history,” through which our “collective responsibility” is supposedly transmitted – and with it, lots of lovely, lovely guilt - reach an awfully long way, across continents, cultures and all manner of events. From the theft of sheep and chickens, and subsequent hangings, to all kinds of nepotism, tribal slaughter, imperial invasions and counter-invasions, the extinction of fluffy creatures and high seas piracy. It therefore isn’t entirely clear why an accountant’s line should be drawn so confidently at any given point, as opposed to any other given point. If the objective here is to search out some vicarious moral contamination, surely we should be thorough? If the game is genealogical guilt, why stick to mere centuries? We’ve all of history to play with. And what if a single family line includes both slaves and owners, lords and labourers, inventors of vaccines and kickers of kittens? What kind of retrospective moral arithmetic will untangle those knots?
As we’re apparently obliged to fret about one of Mr Cumberbatch’s fifth great-grandparents, what about the other 127 fifth great-grandparents? Or the 2,048 ninth great-grandparents? There’s bound to be some dirt there. And as a concerned and “reflexive” person – one apparently troubled by “privilege,” “structural injustice” and the “tentacles of history” – shouldn’t Ms Hanman first check whether her own distant ancestors committed any sins, whether deemed grievous at the time or as fathomed by modern standards? If “undoing past wrongs” is the imperative, along with “collective accounting,” as Ms Hanman appears to believe, why not venture further into history and supposition? If we go back to Ms Hanman’s own 18th great-grandparents, we could merrily agonise over the deeds and rumoured deeds of a million or so people, about whom we could be even more tendentious and unrealistic. If we poke long enough and deep enough, and squint where necessary, we may find hustlers, rustlers, colonisers and cannibals. Imagine the fun.
It’s easy to laugh of course, and we should, at least until such people have any kind of power. But the attempt to cultivate unrealism, dishonesty and pretentious guilt is a Guardian staple and gives the left’s national organ its distinctive tone. That tinny, unconvincing high-pitched whine. Affecting woe, especially improbable woe, is how many leftwing columnists signal their position in their own moral hierarchy, relative to you. Crudely summarised, it goes something like this: “I am better than you because I pretend to feel worse.” See, for example, the tearful Theo Hobson, who tells us, emphatically, “There is no excuse for failing to feel liberal guilt about race and class.” Keen to self-emasculate, Mr Hobson also believes that James Bond films do “real harm to the male psyche” while making him feel “embarrassed” and “depressed.” Apparently, the hyperbolical adventures and physical daring of our fictional super-spy are “a big factor in the sexual malfunction of our times; the difficulty we have finding life-long partners, and the normalisation of pornography.”
Or there’s Decca Aitkenhead, who famously insisted that the “vilification of Jamaican homophobia implies… a failure to accept post-colonial politics,” because, and I quote, “Their homophobia is our fault.” And regular readers will be familiar with the endless sorrows of George Monbiot, a man troubled by the “isolating” effects of disposable income, double glazing and TV remote controls, and who believes we should imitate the peasants of southern Ethiopia, where homes are made of packing cases, remote controls are rare, and “the fields crackle with laughter.” These anhedonic middle-class lefties, our self-imagined heroes of human progress, tell us that our wealth is “unearned” and very bad for “us,” by which they mean bad for you. Needless to say, none of these moon howlers is giving away their wealth to those whose salaries are a fraction of their own.
Purge that guilt by tickling my tip jar.