Michael Mathias links (approvingly!) to this extraordinarily silly piece by Ron Rosenbaum on the virtue of guilt. Rosenbaum is critical of conservatives for recognizing the value of guilt with respect to historical mistreatment of blacks in America. If we recognize that guilt can be a useful corrective to human sinfulness, why isn't "white" or "liberal" guilt a good thing?
Rosenbaum goes off the rails when he suggests that conservatives should be "more" guilty than liberals. That's anachronistic thinking. The divisions on racial issues between those who call themselves conservatives and those who call themselves liberals in 2008 is quite different than the division in 1958. If I have some special obligation to apologize for an op-ed written by Bill Buckley the year after I was born, then Rosenbaum has some heavy lifting to do to make up for liberal segregationists like J. William Fulbright. As Jonah Goldberg notes, progressives ought to be guilty over their support for eugenics and for the explosion of crime and out-of-wedlock births from the 60's to the 80's.
It is certainly true that many conservatives were wrong on civil rights. Although, for many, the opposition was rooted in constitutional and institutional concerns, they were still wrong. But there are no serious differences over those issues today. One could argue, in fact, that in opposing racial preferences, it is conservatives who remain true to the moral imperative that underlie the civil rights movement.
The larger issue, of course, is this curious notion of feeling guilt over what someone else did. I can regret what others have done. I can recognize that it has lead to some current circumstance that requires attention. But can I - should I - feel guilty about it?
On the Corner, Ramesh Ponneru puts the real conservative critique of liberal guilt:
In complaining about liberal guilt, conservatives generally have other things in mind: the ostentatious display of liberals' superior virtue, for example, or the cheap grace that comes from repenting for other people's sins, or the foolish things that the feeling of guilt leads liberals to do. Rosenbaum doesn't address the actual conservative critique of liberal guilt.
Rosenbaum (or his editors at Slate) unwittingly illustrate this with the subtitle of the piece, "Why it's not wrong to favor Obama because of race."