The soul's pain

>> Saturday, May 24, 2008

Over on Slate, Ron Rosenbaum has a rather good piece on "liberal guilt" that's worth a read. Rosenbaum is a writer I have some ambivalence about--he writes well but is frequently a bit off substance-wise, sometimes getting a little loony or failing to back up his conclusions with his premises--but this piece is a reminder of why I still go back and read his columns.

The gist of it is sort of summed up in these two paragraphs:

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. (I've run out of metaphors, but you get the picture.)

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.

He's right, of course. The reason we liberals feel guilty is something like the famous quote--I believe it was Mark Twain, but I'm too lazy to look it up right now--that man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to; liberals feel guilty because Americans actually have some things to feel guilty about, not as an end to itself but as a starting point towards atonement.

Because that's the function of guilt. That's what guilt is all about. The point of guilt is not so you can walk around wallowing in shame. And I suppose that's half the answer to Rosenbaum's rhetorical question right there: one reason so many conservatives have an issue with "liberal guilt" and the critique of American history that it entails may go back to that hideous Protestant tradition that says sin is something we're born in and there's not much you can do about it except let Jesus' unconditional love and forgiveness absolve you of it in Heaven. If sin just is, then there's not much you can do about it--notice how the similarity between this form of apathetic fatalism and the attitude you sometimes hear conservatives express about things like affirmative action: "all that bad stuff happened a long time ago and things are different; maybe people used to be racists, but I'm not a racist so why is this my problem?" Man is born in sin and dies in sin; Americans are born in a post-slaveowning culture and will die in one. What is past is past, and there's nothing you can do to rectify what began at Jamestown any more than you can throw up what was consumed in Eden.

The other half of it, and this seems self-evident to me but maybe it's not--is that all things "liberal" are tarnished in post-Reagan America. Part of the great Republican strategy after Nixon's disgrace was to exact a revenge on liberalism that would make the very word an anathema and exile the left in a way unseen in America since the McCarthy era. I don't think there's any debating that the right has succeeded in this: "liberal" has become such a dirty word in our political discourse that even leftists tend to seek refuge in their thesauruses (thesauri?). It's such a dirty word I've even had conservative friends correct me when I openly identified myself as a liberal--"No you're not!" in a tone of voice they'd used if I said I was stupid or ugly or unlovable. They clearly think highly enough of me that they hate hearing me disparage myself with that horrible epithet.

And then there's this, which I wish I'd written myself:

The question of liberal guilt and guilty liberals often comes up in discussions of reactions to "black anger," unfortunately expressed most loudly and bitterly in this campaign by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But it's all too easy to dismiss the legitimacy of black anger merely on the basis of the Rev. Wright's sadly twisted version of it.

Do the people who dismiss black anger think there's nothing to be angry about? 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. Where you end up is, alas, often a different matter.

But it seems to me that some people use the Rev. Wright's ugly expression of anger as a fig leaf to discredit Obama, who has clearly ended up at a different place from the Rev. Wright (largely due, one imagines, to the civil rights movement). Yes, Obama may well have an understanding of the Rev. Wright's anger, but if you can't see the difference between the two men historically, culturally, generationally, and temperamentally, then I'd say you just don't want to....

Months later, I still find myself a bit shocked and mystified that there are still people expressing anger about Reverend Wright's "god damn America" comments--as if one man saying it is enough to bring down an undeserved curse on our heads from on high. As if a man who watched the leaders of the civil rights movement gunned down in cold blood isn't justified in being, shall we say, a little irate at the sometimes slow pace and falling down we've had along the path to a more just society. As if it's not possible for a former marine and contemporary preacher of an often-oppressed community to have conflicting feelings about a country that he risked his neck for that has sometimes turned its collective back on members of his parish.

But Rosenbaum's best comment may be his last word in the piece:

What's so great about being "great" if it depends on historical ignorance or denial? Again, to love America truly, one has to love the America that is and was, not a fantasy America free from flaws.

To be a truly "great American," one doesn't have to be a guilty liberal, but one has to know guilt.

I don't want to say that we lefties have a monopoly on conscience--I don't really believe that, although there are admittedly a lot of conservatives in the public square trying to prove me wrong. (When you say Ann Coulter's name, horses whinny in panic.) To feel guilt is to feel the prickling of your conscience, to know that you bear responsibility. It follows, I think, that not feeling some sense of guilt is to be irresponsible, and how could that ever be a good thing? And, of course, guilt demands something of us--atonement, rectification; guilt requires something from us, and that, more than anything, might be why certain irresponsible Americans feel and express such obvious resentment over the subject. Liberals (and enlightened conservatives who may not publicly admit what their conscience forces them to) don't enjoy feeling bad, as is commonly and ludicrously alleged. Nobody enjoys feeling guilty, that's the whole damn point of the sentiment. To feel guilty is to know that something must be done, that there is a wrong to be corrected as best it can be and not to be repeated again. Guilt is the soul's pain: as the one informs the body it is in trouble, the other so informs the soul.

What's wrong with liberal guilt?

I agree with Rosenbaum. Not a damn thing. No wait: there is one thing wrong with it.

It should be more widespread.


Janiece Murphy Saturday, May 24, 2008 at 1:14:00 PM EDT  

As a fellow liberal who is unashamed of that moniker, thanks for your insights on this matter.

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