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Phantom Guilt, Revisited

While advocating voting based on skin pigment, Ron Rosenbaum champions the phenomenon of 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…

Goodness, a moral crescendo is upon us. Someone fetch a towel. It’s heartening to know that there are among us some whose moral insights are so keen they entitle those so endowed to dictate how the rest of us should – must – feel.

Guilt is good, people!

Well, that rather depends on what a person is feeling guilty about, or pretending to feel guilty about.

The only people who don’t suffer guilt are sociopaths and serial killers.

Actually, while individuals described as sociopaths are generally unrestrained by empathy, some have been known to be moved by quite improbable, often ludicrous, things. Simulating feelings purely for effect is another common marker of sociopathy, and it’s possibly worth noting that such people also tend to be grandiose, narcissistic and insufferably self-righteous. 

Guilt means you have a conscience. You have self-awareness, you have - in the case of America’s history of racism - historical awareness… Critics of Obama supporters who use the phrase “guilty liberal” or “liberal guilt” in a condescending, above-it-all manner suggest there’s something weak about feeling guilt.

There is a non sequitur here, one that’s repeated several times. An awareness of history - say, regarding slavery – doesn’t in itself necessitate feelings of any particular kind. It isn’t clear, to me, why a person should feel profoundly responsible for the actions of complete strangers who lived centuries earlier. Unless, of course, one subscribes to notions of some collective, genealogical guilt, with its infinite regress and connotations of collective punishment.

This particular critic of liberal guilt would argue that such claims and protestations aren’t “weak” as such, insofar as they require a great deal of effort to maintain. (For instance, saying “we have to… feel guilty about America’s sins” - followed by the words “a false god, a golden calf, a whited sepulcher, a Potemkin village of virtue” - isn’t an easy thing to do while keeping a straight face. Though the effort isn’t necessarily deserving of applause.) What irks isn’t feebleness, but incoherence and dishonesty. To publicly rend one’s garments over some vicarious, borrowed sin is not to affirm conscience or poignant human feeling, but to parody those things and to indulge in emotional pantomime and moral masturbation. Rather like this:

But was slavery not immoral? Was not the century of institutionalised racism and segregation that followed the end of slavery a perpetuation of “flawed values” that the nation should feel an enduring guilt over? Should we abolish the history and memory of slavery and racism just because they're no longer legally institutionalised?

Again, note the car crash of non sequitur. I’ll paraphrase for clarity:

Slavery was immoral. It was abolished. Therefore we must still feel guilt, or pretend to – all of us, indefinitely and forever. And those who don’t pretend to feel this way are abolishing history.

Assertions of this kind are, very often, for the benefit of a sympathetic audience and thus, ultimately, for the benefit of the performer. As I’ve argued before, saying, very loudly, “it’s all my fault” is only a notch and a half away from saying “it’s all about me.” Rosenbaum goes on to claim,

People who lack guilt also lack humility.

Well, people who affect guilt and presume to tell others that they too should pretend such things are, in my experience, the really arrogant sons-of-bitches. That’s my objection to the nasty little vanity called “liberal guilt”.

Avoid feeling guilty; make a donation.