What's Wrong with Liberal Guilt?

I was very pleased to see this Ron Rosenbaum column, as I’ve made a pretty similar argument with friends — I mean, would you rather people be incredibly stoked about the massacre of American Indians, or America’s history of enslavement and official racism? As Rosenbaum puts it,

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.

Yet I think Rosenbaum misunderstands why conservatives have a problem with some forms of liberal guilt.

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.

Rosenbaum goes on to wonder whether some lingering trace of Freudianism is behind conservatives’ anti-guilt posture. I think it has more to do with Pascal Bruckner’s The Tears of the White Man argument. Compassion can too easily turn into contempt. Guilt is appropriate — but how does guilt determine the lens through which we view our fellow citizens and fellow human beings? Are we more inclined to forgive certain abuses?

Remember when Hillary Clinton mentioned Zimbabwe when talking about her decision to remain the the nomination fight? This was obviously insane. Clearly she wasn’t trying to subliminally connect Barack Obama to, uh, Robert Mugabe. Even the Clintons aren’t that low or crazy.

But as it turns out, I know a strangely large number of Zimbabweans, most of them well-intentioned white anti-Zionist Third Worldist left-wingers, and I was reminded of the fact that Mugabe was once one of the most progressive, celebrated leaders in Africa. Believe it or not, Zimbabwe was once a model of racial reconciliation and good government in the region. At the same time, the press in Zimbabwe was very wary of criticizing Mugabe’s creeping authoritarianism, even before the clampdown on press freedoms. This wariness was inspired in no small part by a species of liberal guilt. There are those who believe that there is a similar danger in South Africa, which is why I am rooting for South Africa’s populist left — I want the trade unions to break with the ANC so the country can finally develop a truly competitive multiparty democracy.

The thing is, liberal guilt is in some sense admirable for an individual. Insofar as it warps and undermines our ability to evaluate political leaders as responsible agents, and our ability to evaluate members of historically disadvantaged communities as equals who deserve respect and equal treatment, it becomes self-defeating.