WASPs

The Politics of Guilt

August 27, 2009

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The Politics of Guilt

Recently while talking to a “moderate” conservative and faithful NR reader, I was struck by this person’s profoundly negative view of the past, including the recent past. When I mentioned research by Thomas Sowell in the late 1970s proving that American blacks had made greater economic strides in the 1930s and 1940s than in the 1960s or 1970s, my acquaintance responded by saying that no economic gain is as important as the fact that blacks can now vote in large numbers. When I then proceeded to cite a study that suggested that women were happier in the 1950s than they seem to be now, the retort was that women in the 1950s had no right to be happy. They were forced to be homemakers and were still restricted in their career opportunities. This reminded me of a column of George Will’s that appeared in Newsweek during the presidential primaries in 1992. It was an attack on Pat Buchanan for having said that he was happy to have grown up during the Eisenhower era. Such a statement, according to Will, indicated gross insensitivity to blacks, who were then being segregated and kept from voting in many parts of America.

There are two observations that I would like to make about what is now the established view of the past, including the age in which Buchanan, Will, and I all grew up.

One, talking about politics and history is rarely “scientific” and less so in our frenetically progressive and anti-traditional age than in the older bourgeois age that preceded it. It was once possible for the devoutly Lutheran German historian Leopold von Ranke to write about the Renaissance Papacy with detachment and even sympathy, because historians in 19th-century Europe were expected to write that way. (Of course in practice not all historians met such a demanding standard, but at least they knew what the standard was.) In our age, by contrast, any failure to dwell on sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia in one’s account of the past will likely result in the kind of career that I and other academic mavericks of my acquaintance have had to endure.

Curiously, as cultural Marxist fixations have taken over universities and commercial presses, the word “scientific” continues to be attached to all things good and sensitive. For 20 years I have taught in a “political science” department, in which “science” is rarely taught. Most of my colleagues are intent on pointing out how far we have progressed, thanks to a benevolent government, from the poisonous prejudices of a less enlightened past. They also stress how much more still must be done before we can truly practice “fairness.” Other “political scientists” try to counter this argument by getting their students to vote Republican. These “scientific” classes have often nothing to do with the kind of exercise that one might have to pursue in a study about how rapid oxidation results in fire.

But there is no need to single out political scientists for blame, and especially since one of my female colleagues, who teaches statistics, works hard to hide from her students her strong libertarian views. Unlike 99 percent of her colleagues, this young lady is not an ideological missionary. In any case my experience with Poli Sci teachers has never been as bad as what I’ve endured from my colleagues in the humanities. This is a field that at our college and elsewhere now includes such attractions for the cognitively challenged as “women’s studies” and “diversity” minors. And for those who teach in these areas, being “scientific” and “objective” means being unswervingly PC.

Two, it is a puzzle to me, which can only be explained by the hegemonic PC ideology, that a multiplicity of views about the value of historical change is no longer permitted. There was a time when the “conservative” response to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was “This could radicalize American politics!” and when conservatives responded to the argument that Castro had increased literacy in Cuba with statements about “how this means that the masses will be reading the government’s communist propaganda.” In a similar vein, an earlier conservative movement, and even many people then on the left, attacked the feminists in the 1960s for wishing to displace domestic life as the primary sphere of activities for women. If one, for example, cared deeply about the perpetuation of a Euro-American population with at least average Western intelligence, why would one be in favor of pushing women into the job market and away from a maternal role as the preferred way of life for them? Moreover, simply saying women can have it all, while belittling those who stay at home, will likely have no other effect than the one it is now having, namely, contributing to a sub-replacement reproduction level for indigenous Western populations and the transformation of heterosexual marriages, together with children, into multiple “family arrangements,” including group marriages in Holland.

Given how things have turned out, a traditionalist may well sympathize with the advocacy by Eleanor Roosevelt (who was hardly a conservative in her age) of a “single-family wage,” one that would allow working men to support his family, without having to send their wives out to work. In this arrangement, with restricted job possibilities for women, wives would stay home (like my eldest daughter) and look after the rising generation. Note that I’m not glorifying the world I grew up in. I am simply pointing out that it was reasonably constructed, given what it valued.

It should also be possible to view other recent historical changes without ritualized fits of guilt or transports of joy about overcoming the past. The civil rights movement was, at least for me, a profoundly problematic development. Although I personally find little moral justification for denying access to educational institutions to worthy candidates of all races, the civil rights movement was about a lot more. Out of this cataclysm came certain changes of a kind that William F. Buckley in the 1960s suggested would undermine surviving constitutional restraints on the American managerial state. It is dishonest to separate things like the politics of guilt among American whites generated by the media, churches, and public education, black misrule in American cities, the radical course that both the American republic and American culture have taken since the 1960s, from the “civil rights revolution,” the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other spin-offs of the drive for black “equality.”

When Charles Krauthammer attacked Trent Lott in 2005 for praising the states-rightist and onetime segregationist Strom Thurmond on his 100th birthday as someone who is “deaf” to the greatest American triumph in Krauthammer’s life, this neocon guru was not giving us the entire story. For the sake of honesty, Krauthammer should also have acknowledged the social degeneration of black America, the gruesome quality of black urban politics, and the leftward swing of our politics as all being related to what he wishes us to worship.

To draw an apt comparison: One might admire the French Revolution for abolishing the remnants of serfdom in France. But full disclosure requires that historians call attention to the Jacobin terror and the Vendee massacres as well as to those sides of the Revolution they might happen to like. It is also necessary to ask in the case of our most recent revolution whether a greater good might have been accomplished if certain changes had occurred in a more piecemeal fashion, that is, without having the government mobilize black voters, whose weight would be felt entirely on the left or without having courts micromanage social change in race relations and eventually in everything else in American life. Have we really benefited as a constitutional republic with a onetime limited government because blacks who were once discouraged from voting now do so in large enough numbers to tip our two parties and politicians in a radically statist direction?

One need not be a Klansman to notice this effect. And it is quite possible to see it as inescapable result of the U.S. becoming a more egalitarian society in the post-World War Two years. But why should we all be required to celebrate this fact? As the English classical liberal Fitzjames Stephen said about the inevitability of universal suffrage in the late nineteenth century: there is a difference between observing a rising tide “and singing ‘hosanna’ to the river god.” As a critical historian, I think that it may be a good idea to discuss revolutionary developments from all sides, without shutting up those who point to the hole in the donut. Needless to say, the aforesaid hole is not only about the injustices once inflicted on a growing list of designated minorities. An open historical discussion about race and gender relations would also address such currently forbidden topics as the high rates of violence in almost all black societies, the critical role of black Africans in the slave trade, the accumulating evidence about socially significant gender differences, and, above all, the professional sanctions leveled against those who engage politically incorrect questions.

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The final related point I would make is that there is nothing admirable or even reasonable about such former elites as American WASPs reveling in their disappearance as a ruling culture. There is now a debate over on the unauthorized right between zealous critics of Jewish influence in Western countries and those who, like myself, believe that WASPdom has destroyed itself. To put my cards on the table: I’ve never heard American Jews or American blacks pour as much contempt on white Protestant America as I hear coming from white Protestant intellectuals and clergypersons. Like the Germans, repentant WASPs delight in Shamstolz, being morally arrogant while lamenting the bigotry of their ancestors.

When a younger colleague of mine recently published a book on the Progressive historians at the University of Wisconsin, he dutifully devoted several pages to the “nativist” and “sexist” mindset of his WASP subjects. And he cited with apparent approval a New York Jewish Marxist, who had quarreled with Merle Curti and then attacked this Wisconsin Progressive historian as a prejudiced white Protestant. The evidence given by my friend, who is himself a Midwestern WASP, for Curti’s lapse into atavistic gentile behavior was less than convincing. All he seemed to show was that his generally leftist subjects did not always conform to the most updated edition of the PC catechism.

My friend also brought up the putative dark side of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who, when he encountered a recently arrived Russian Jew, in side-locks and a black caftan, in Boston in 1909, observed that it would take a long time to assimilate such people. I wonder whether my friend has any idea about how a non-WASP society, except for the one that this stranger had come from, would have reacted to the same sight. Most Israeli Jews of my acquaintance would have been even less tolerant than Turner of that exotic person whom the Wisconsin-born historian once chanced upon. It was a mark of Turner’s tolerance that he hoped to absorb this stranger into his own culture, in the fullness of time.

One of my most vivid graduate school memories was listening to a speech given by Yale President Kingman Brewster expressing unqualified support for the Black Panthers. I recall being shocked to hear this direct linear descendant of two founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony behave like such a jerk. But Brewster was certainly not a more extreme anti-racist than his fellow-patrician and Yale chaplain, William Sloan Coffin. This Congregationalist chaplain had trouble even finishing a sentence without deploring the slave trade in which his ancestors had once been implicated. And if I think back hard enough, most of the WASP patricians whom I met at Yale as a graduate student were almost as whacky as Brewster and Coffin.  Their pompous self-debasement had progressed so far then that they didn’t need Alan Dershowitz or Cornell West to come scourge them.

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The tirades against WASP nativism and close-mindedness, often produced by their tribe, have caused me to wonder by what ethereal standard these critics are judging their past. What other group in world history has been more “tolerant” or less hostile to outsiders than were white Protestants? Although some of their progenitors had engaged in the slave trade, so had the rest of the human race, and particularly blacks for a far longer time. And only WASPs feel guilty about social institutions that most other groups have taken for granted. Needless to say, these other groups are all too happy to browbeat masochistic Westerners about doing what everyone else has done. And for all I know, this browbeating may be serving psychological needs on both sides.

I once listened to an Ashanti cab driver in Washington boasting about how his tribe had sold the black slaves who would be used to construct the U.S. capital. Whether it was true or not, I found this boast to be refreshing. The African cab driver did not suffer from the choking sense of guilt I encounter in American WASPs. Enemies of their own putative prejudices, they have come to remind me of the elderly Irish spinster, who would drive the village priest batty by confessing to trivial and often imaginary sins. There is something unseemly and even profoundly pathological about such a perpetually overburdened conscience. The question that occurs to me as I observe such politics of guilt is “What would Nietzsche say?”

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