Is “Liberal Guilt” a Myth?

Conservatives and libertarians often refer to liberals, especially those of the modern “progressive” variety, as being motivated by guilt. This view has a long pedigree: Robert Frost once defined a liberal as someone so high-minded that he won’t take his own side in a quarrel.

At least as far as our current “progressives” go, I think this explanation of motivation is highly questionable. An essay by C S Lewis, written a little over 60 years ago, sheds some light on this matter.

During the late 1930s and up through the time when Lewis wrote (March 1940), there was evidently a movement among Christian youth to “repent” England’s sins (which evidently were thought to include the treaty of Versailles) and to “forgive” England’s enemies.

Young Christians especially..are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England…Most of these young men were children…when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?

If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happen) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society…The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a foreign secretary or a cabinet minister is certainly a neighbor…A group of such young penitents will say, “Let us repent our national sins”; what they mean is, “Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.”

Lewis points out that when a man who was raised to be patriotic tries to repent the sins of England, he is attempting something that will be difficult for him.

But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasms of his less-educated fellow countrymen.

It’s hard to believe that this was written more than 50 years ago–it’s such a bulls-eye description of a broad swath of our current “progressives.” (The only difference being that many of them today are a lot older than “in their twenties.”)

But now Lewis comes to the real meat of his argument.

All Christians know that they must forgive their enemies. But “my enemy” primarily means the man whom I am really tempted to hate…If you listen to young Christian intellectuals talking, you will soon find out who their real enemy is. He seems to have two names–Colonel Blimp and “the businessman.” I suspect that the latter usually means the speaker’s father, but that is speculation. What is certain is that in asking such people to forgive the Germans and Russians, and to open their eyes to the sins of England, you are asking them, not to mortify, but to indulge, their ruling passion. (emphasis added.)

And here comes the two-by-four, right between the eyes.

The communal sins of which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class–its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment.

Exactly. Many “progressives”–and not just the religious ones–have uncritically and without reflection adopted the ideas and values of “their own age and class”–and, while doing so, they have congratulated themselves on their courage and independence of thought. Thus, they can enjoy a great feeling of righteousness without running the risk of condemnation by those whose opinions really matter to them. Who cares if the conservative authority figures–such as the Bush administration back when it was in power–would disapprove of your statements (if they ever heard of them, which they likely won’t), when there are so many nods of agreement in the faculty lounge or among the other associates at the law firm? Those are the people you see ever day, after all, and the ones who really matter for your career…

There are some “progressives,” particularly among the Trustafarians, who are indeed driven by a personal sense of guilt, but I think this motivation is pretty clearly the rare exception rather than the rule. For the most part, “progressives” feel no personal guilt at all…they think the rest us, those outside their circle of assumed moral superiority, should be the ones feeling guilty. And regarding Frost’s formulation, if you observe these people pursuing their careers and their social status goals, it’s pretty clear that the typical “progressive” has no problem at all “taking his own side.” What they do have a problem with is taking the side of the larger society, whose history and the majority of whose members they hold in contempt.

The Lewis essay is titled “Dangers of National Repentance,” and appears in the collection The Grand Miracle.

13 thoughts on “Is “Liberal Guilt” a Myth?”

  1. Here are a couple of my favorite C.S. Lewis aphorisms:

    Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be
    satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

    —C. S. Lewis, 1953

    Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.

    — C. S. Lewis

  2. George Orwell modeled his 1984 state on the BBC when he worked there. The tyranny of the virtuous. Anthony Daniels has taken it even further in his wonderful essay on the “Uses of Corruption.

    The Italian public administration has traditionally had one saving grace by comparison with its British counterpart, however: its corruption.

    Admittedly, corruption is a strange kind of virtue: but so is honesty in pursuit of useless or harmful ends. Corruption is generally held to be a vice, and viewed in the abstract, it is. But bad behavior can sometimes have good effects, and good behavior bad effects.

    Where administration is light and bureaucracy small, bureaucratic honesty is an incomparable virtue; but where these are heavy and large, as in all modern European states, Britain and Italy not least among them, they burden and obstruct the inventive and energetic. Where bureaucrats are honest, no one can cut through their Laocoönian coils: their procedures, no matter how onerous, antiquated, or bloody-minded, must be endured patiently. Such bureaucrats can

    neither be hurried in their deliberations nor made to see common sense. Indeed, the very absurdity or pedantry of these deliberations is for them the guarantee of their own fair-mindedness, impartiality, and disinterest. To treat all people with equal contempt and indifference is the bureaucrat’s idea of equity.

    This addresses the British problem, a stupid but incorruptible bureaucracy. The US problem is different. Alex Comfort once commented that the British bureaucracy considered government work a sacred calling whereas, the American civil service was a “rogue form of private enterprise.” Here, we begin to get into the government unions, still a “cloud no bigger than a man’s hand” at the time he lived in the US.

    I wonder what he would have thought of what we face now, being that he was a pacifist and anarchist. It seems he got the idea of what was happening with US government workers.

  3. This RWCG post: Modern Leftism as a Wealth-Display Strategy (which I’ve linked here before) does a good job explaining the status motivations behind much leftist belief and activity. Entirely consistent with the Lewis essay.

    Important to recognize that not *all* on the Left..maybe not even the majority..are motivated by status and the enjoyment of a feeling of moral superiority: there are of course many who are honestly trying to do the right thing…but very often, live in an environment where virtually all the information sources to which they are exposed reinforce a leftist belief system.

  4. Jose Angel de Monterrey..”In the US there are strong conservative and libertarian movements which help ward off liberal attempts to legalize drugs, abortion, gay-marriage, prostitution, etc”

    As the term “libertarian” is typically used in the U.S., many libertarians would *favor* drug legalization (at least as far as marijuana goes), also legalization of abortion (at least early-stage) and gay marriage…some libertarians would also favor legalization of prostitution. I’m pretty sure that very few libertarians, though, would favor the kind of perverted “education” described in the Spiegel article.

  5. David,

    Yes.. I think I really meant to say only conservatives, I think I had the begining of your comentary “Conservatives and libertarians often refer to liberals,” very much in my mind as I began writing my comment.

  6. Liberals really don’t feel guilty. They want you to feel guilty. The sins they apologize for are yours, not theirs.

  7. I agree with Robert, but want to add an anecdote.

    The thrill of condescending groups you feel inferior is matched by the thrill of insulting others you feel inferior (and suspect in both cases you might not be). It’s like the most insecure of high school bullies. Lately, my daughter was commenting on a classmate not long out of high school who had committed suicide. He was, she said, a terrible bully, but only when one of his friends started it. She could literally see him become mean as a way of asserting his solidarity with others. That didn’t end well. I have my doubts that someone who fantasizes Rush Limbaugh’s death or is capable of attacking Tony Snow toward the end of his life is very happy. This outward & nasty focus may help them assert a certain solidarity but it reveals an immense emptiness within.

    Of course, if people really cared about the poor and not their own “fine” feelings, they might notice in what systems the poor were better off, who was likely to benefit from a free marketplace, a system that encouraged rather than discouraged celibacy, celebrated the nuclear family, provided choices that led to lives more tailored to the individual’s own choices. Wanting a country that resembles Venzuelea or Zimbabwe is not the way to go – those farmers in Kansas know that Stalin’s Ukraine was not paradise. Being codescended to is not likely to make them believe that 2 + 2 = 3. If you get mad at the for persistently saying “four,” then you are likely to want to punish them, to prove that it is four. But, you know, it just isn’t going to work out that way.

  8. Sometimes the problem is that people adopt an argument as a pose and are taken aback when other people, who take the issue seriously, call them on it. In this situation many people who adopt arguments as poses will dig in rather than back down or change their minds.

    If you’re a principled classical-liberal type and you argue with leftist/progressive types, most of the people you argue with will be posers or confused rather than committed ideologues.

    Maybe there’s no solution to this problem as long as people value fashion over principle. Maybe it’s human nature — no one likes to back down. Maybe it’s a failure of education.

  9. Its not guilt, but a deep, visceral hatred—both of self, and family, which includes all the familiar elements of one’s society and culture which a family transmits.

    The symptoms may manifest as guilt over one’s seemingly undeserved good fortune, or anger that not everyone shares in that fortune equally, or contempt for anyone who concerns themselves with the mundane matters of earning a living and providing for themselves instead of a “higher calling” of telling others how to live so everyone is as moral as they should be.

    Those of us who do not share the collectivist mindset often look at the abysmal damage that the theorists of the masses over the individual have caused, and are causing, everywhere they gain power, and wonder how such terrible consequences could come from such seemingly noble motives and good intentions.

    Until it is thoroughly and completely understood that the motives are ignoble, and the intentions consist solely of the acquisition of power and control over others’ lives, then those who are prone to fall under the sway of whatever smooth talking statist that comes along promising to solve all our problems may finally wake up to the realization that the promises are phony, the smiles are phony, and all the supposed good intentions in the universe cannot transform an ideology so utterly opposed to the happiness and fulfillment of individual human beings into the formula for utopia.

    Poison is poison. Putting it in a medicine bottle can’t make it an elixer for better health.

  10. I think there are two basic types of “liberals:” the sadistic kind, who want to wield the Mailed Fist, and the masochistic kind, who want the Mailed Fist up the rectum. (Speaking figuratively, of course. I’m using “sadistic” and “masochistic” not in the leather-bar sense but as Eirch Fromm used it in THE ART OF LOVE: that is, as the desire to dominate, or the desire to be dominated.) In NYC we used to call the masochistic kind “West Side Liberals.” They were middle- or upper-middle-class collectivists who seemed very guilty about their own prosperity. “I’ve been a bad boy–I made a a lot of money. Tax me, Obama–tax me hard!”

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