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      Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – March 26, 2023 by Tony Wikrent   “U.S. Announces Plans To Reclassify Everyone’s Race Based On Net Worth” [The Onion, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 3-25-2023] “‘It is resolved by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that any American whose wealth exceeds $1 million shall be white,’ read the bipartisan legislatio […]
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Questions Of Guilt

There was a show on MSNBC last night entitled “Racial Healing.” I did not watch it; and it may well have been a good show, with important things to say. It was surely not a bad show. But I will admit that I am rather tired of seeing shows which to me, at least, are about the bad things done to Black people in this country by White people. Were there bad things done? Absolutely. without any question. And many of them still continue, though very few would argue that things in that regard have nor improved. at least somewhat. But there is more to be done, certainly. Except that writing only for myself, I am not inclined to want to hear about it every day on the news. Why?

That has something to do with the concept of guilt. While I know that in some sense none of us is free from some blame for various things, I wonder about the diffuse aspects of guilt. Surely someone who owned slaves was guilty of perpetuating a horrible custom, even though it was accepted throughout much of the world at that time. That doesn’t make it less bad, of course.

Someone who did not own slaves but supported slavery, was also guilty, though we would agree, to a slightly lesser extent. How about someone who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War? They were young, they were fighting for their state, or so they thought.

At the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln gave this great speech, with the words, “With Malice Toward None, With Charity for All.” In that sense, he forgave everyone who had fought on the other side in the war. But of course one could say hat this forgiveness was not for him to morally give. Is that only for God? And how would you know if it were given?

And those who fought on the Northern side? Are they still guilty of what some historians call “the original American sin of slavery”? What if they were strong abolitionists? Or what about people who did not live in America at that time?

If someone’s ancestors came to America after slavery was abolished, are they guilty of this sin? In one sense, no. If one wants to believe in the concept of “original sin,” which is part of a some Protestants’ belief, as I understand it, then they are guilty. “With Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All,” was the first line of the Puritan primer which taught the alphabet and religion to children. Adam was expelled from Eden, because he and Eve disobeyed God. And thus every human being who came after them, inherited that sin, in that belief system.

I would say that the story, and the doctrine of original sin, was written to try to explain to people why, if they know God is good, they so often lead hard and even miserable lives. “Because you are human; and humans are imperfect, and commit sins; and Adam disobeyed God, so all humans thus bear the weight of that, and must try to atone for it.” And that of course validates the role of the church in telling you what do to and not to do, and in punishing people, at least in those days, for failing to follow the dictates. The stocks, the whipping posts, the scarlet A’s, the burning or drowning, or suffocating with rocks piled upon them.

The church doesn’t do that any longer, at least in the Western world, but they do in some of the Eastern world. And then Western Civilization has developed a legal system which claims to try to practice principles of justice upon people. Also, to protect law and order, and property, and things like that. It is basically a good system, but of course it has its flaws and unfairnesses.

It is said that the four rationales for legal punishment are : 1) Retribution (by society); 2) Restraint, locking people up; 3) Rehabilitation, hoping to turn them away from crime; and 4) Deterrence,; fear of punishment keeping people from committing crimes.

Then there is the issue of guilt, which might keep people from doing wrong things, or at least trying to atone for them if they can. At one extreme, there are people with a “guilt complex,” who feel guilty about many things they did or did not do. At the other extreme, there are sociopaths, who feel no guilt about anything.

The question as to how civilized society allocates and apportions guilt, is a complex and fascinating one. And historically, the rich and the powerful have written the laws; but even so, some general morality and fairness has usually been put in.

We just heard the chilling story of how a man in New Mexico ran for office. lost by 48 points, then claimed that the results were wrong,he was cheated. Then he conspired with some other people to kill elected officials in that state, and almost did. Will he be found guilty of conspiracy to commit a violent crime? Very likely; usually all that is needed to convict is one act in furtherance of the conspiracy, which there certainly was. And all the people who participated in the conspiracy are guilty, albeit probably with lesser sentences.

Now, what about Donald Trump, and all those people who lied that they had won elections, and thereby accelerated this idea that people are being cheated in elections, and thus have the right to attack the Capitol Building put bombs there, kill other people? The legal system will not go that far, to dole out guilt and punishment to them for this conspiracy in New Mexico. Some might well think that they should, and I do, too, but of course there is the question as to how far the chain goes?. Some totalitarian countries do; and if the fascists take over, they might do it here. Some of the Republicans in the House, maybe most of them, subscribe to insane theories which would allow them to throw all sorts of people into jail, or to be executed, formally or informally, for things hat others have done.

But we do not reach that far in an a democratic society. Do we give reparations to Black people for slavery? Some certainly believe so. That money would be paid by the government, and thus by people who were not alive when slavery was extant, and many who hate the concept. But because they live here now, they would be paying for it to some extent.

If a person moves to America next year, from Finland or Peru, do they take on the American sin of slavery? If they go away, do they still carry it? If an American moves to France, does he garb himself in the sin of the Ancien Regime, which treated the lower classes with cruelty and contempt? Does he also inherit the acts of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution? Two different sides, but sins on both, does he inherit them all?

I would think that most people would say, no, they do not. But that is in a legal sense. Legal and moral guilt are two different things, though sometimes they overlap. I do not feel personal guilt for the way that minorities have been treated in this country, but it upsets me, as a human, and as an American.

I know that virtually no one is not guilty of some prejudice or unfairness, though this is in all sorts of areas besides race. My grandparents came to this country from Russia and Austria, around 1905. My parents voted for Stevenson and JFK and LBJ, and Clinton, and all the rest of the Democrats. We voted for Thomas Bradley a Black man, for mayor of Los Angeles, and for governor. I grew up in a mostly all-White suburb. I met a few minority members at university. I met more in law school. One I would consider a friend, though we did not spend a lot of time together. As an attorney, I worked in concert with attorneys who were Black, and then cordially dealt with some on the other side in cases, and with Black and Hispanic judges. All with collegiality and I don’t think a hint of prejudice on any side. Does that absolve me from having to watch all the shows on race relations? I’m not trying to be flip about it, just looking at it from a possible perspective.

I think that those who are decent people are apt to feel more of a sense of guilt about things. How the homeless and poor are treated. How massively overweight or otherwise aberrant appearing people are sometimes sneered at; how some people might benefit from the “halo effect,” where one very favorable attribute (looks, athletic skill, artistic talent) is allowed to color the whole picture of that person. For whatever it is worth, there are all sots of psychological studies which bear that out. So all of us have likely at some time or other been unfair or unkind in our perceptions and actions.

We could go to self-help groups to try to improve; we can listen to seminars; we can have others inveigh against us for the general failing in society; or we can resolve to do better. Or not, of course. Or we may think we will, but do not.

What does this all have to do with the show on Racial Healing? Nothing directly, just conceptually. I personally do not enjoy hearing more recitations of sins of people who are not me, not my family, nor my ancestors in this country, or probably any country. Not that as human beings, we do not all bear some collective responsibility; but in that sense, we are collectively responsible for all sorts of things done by people in different eras and places. I think it is important to try to learn about it and consider it, but no to be inundated with it.

As a graduate student, I was a Teaching Assistant in an open-ended psychologically oriented class. The topic came up about generally hating any group of people. And the professor, a famous philosopher, and Jewish, said that he did not hate the people of any country. I could say what I wanted to in the class, and I thought of saying that in general, I hate Germany. but I did not. And that would have been too extreme; but I cannot ever forgive that country, and the vast majority of its citizens, who knew very well what was being done to Jewish people, and who were much in favor of it. So now it is a different era, with different people, but are they really different underneath? Do they feel guilt every day? Do they pay reparations, literal and figurative? Should they?

These are all important things to think about. I do not have the answers for everyone else; and even if I thought I did, I would have no power to have them put into effect, nor to have everyone accept them. But we should at least consider such profound questions, since affixing and accepting guilt are are powerful acts.


5 Responses

  1. This is a really thoughtful post, William. I’m actually kind of surprised nobody has commented on it yet. I thought I’d do so before RD closed comments on it.

    There’s a lot to unpack here because it touches on a lot of topics.

    I understand your point of view on reparations. I might have shared it at one point, but I don’t any longer. Like you, I’m the child of an immigrant (my dad and his first wife immigrated by accident [!] in September of 1939). Unlike you, I’m also descended from British colonists: the first of my mother’s ancestors to arrive on these shores did so in the 1620s (in Virginia, no less). I had ancestors who fought in the Revolution and on both sides in the Civil War. While I don’t know for certain (the rather exhaustive genealogy of that side of the family which my uncle compiled as his retirement project doesn’t discuss it), it’s quite likely that there are slave owners among them. Even if reparations were only a matter of “guilt” for slavery, and even if one believed that this “guilt” is only shared by the descendants of those who actually owned slaves, I probably wouldn’t be able to escape it.

    The thing is that I don’t think reparations are solely a matter of guilt (and I don’t believe in the concept of blood guilt – I don’t think individuals can be held responsible for the bad acts of people they never met). I do think that a considerable portion of America’s wealth has been based on the stolen labor of enslaved people (and on the historically underpaid labor of their descendants). The White House and the Capitol were built by enslaved carpenters and masons (rented from their owners) with stone quarried by enslaved workers. Many of our great institutions were endowed by families who either made their fortunes in the slave trade or owed them to slave labor. I don’t think I need to run down the list of Founding Fathers who held slaves.

    • And my second attempt at part 2 just disappeared into the aether. Thanks, WordPress. I’m going to hope it surfaces at some point and just continue.

      I know there are otherwise well-meaning people in the US who feel that slavery is somehow ancient history and therefore irrelevant to those of us now living. All I can say is that if you observe either Independence Day or Passover (or Christmas and Easter, for that matter), you probably can’t make that argument without a tinge of hypocrisy. The very existence of holidays is an acknowledgement that past events and their consequences are still with us.

      I know there are people who think that this is all somehow a uniquely Southern issue. As someone who was raised in the South (we moved there when I was 5, four years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964), I have to acknowledge that the burden falls heavier there than elsewhere in the country. I’m old enough to remember “white” and “colored” water fountains and restrooms. But I also know that the last time I saw a segregated dining room or personally heard a white person casually throw around the “n” word was in the North (Pennsylvania to be specific, with apologies to RD). And I know that the country as a whole derived great economic benefit from the “peculiar institution”. We can’t erase slavery, Jim Crow, or lynchings from our history. We can, however, pay our economic debt. Grownups pay their debts. Maybe it’s time we grew up.

      • As for Germany, I must point out that pursuant to the Luxembourg Agreement of 1952 Germany has paid reparations both to individual Jews and to the State of Isr*el (trying to escape WordPress’s filters there).

    • i appreciate your thoughtful comments, Propertius. Reparations wasn’t meant to be the major focus of my essay, but of course I brought it up. I was wanting to focus more on psychological and moral guilt. And that is of course a matter for each person.

      Unfortunately, one cannot ignore that there are both concrete and psychological advantages for some people, in wanting others to feel guilty about things. And I am not saying that I don’t believe that there are not things for people to feel guilty about. But slavery; the displacing and killing of Native Americans; bringing in Chinese to suffer and die building the railroads: essentially forcing immigrants to work in sweatshops or mines, with little pay and no protection; those were all very shameful things in America. I do not think that one necessarily should feel personal or family guilt about them, though, unless one did them, or supported them even now.

      The descendants of those who suffered in those ways do potentially feel great anger and even hatred of those who caused it. How could a reasonable person not understand that? And yet I do not think that I am supposed to apologize for all of it, as if I benefited in some way. The Fords and Carnegies and Morgans,do, with all the riches they inherited from it. The descendants of slave owners may well feel that they should. The Republicans who essentially stole $3 trillion from the U.S. Treasury in 2017 and beyond, not only do not feel ashamed of it, they want to steal more, pillage the savings and benefits of the middle class and poor, and then blame it on them and the Democratic Party they support. You can’t make bad people feel guilty about anything, but you can make good people feel guilty about most things; and that is a never-ending problem for humanity.

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