Tuesday, August 06, 2019

The curse of group guilt

Recently I wrote a comment in response to a NYTimes online article. I write a lot of these. Often one or more a morning, before dawn usually, just like these posts. It’s one of the benefits of the curse of not sleeping. Sometimes, I get 1-5 “recommends” on my comments (sometimes none), which is laughable as some get hundreds or even thousands, and whoever bashes me in reply often gets far more. I often hope I have time to reply when I get bashed – as after a while they turn the reply functions off – because sometimes I feel the commenter, in bashing me, has proved my point. Of course, on my blog, where no one comments because it no longer allows them to be anonymous for some reason or other, I am a king with no subjects, and no one sasses me. Actually, that’s a shame because in the past I rather enjoyed the comments, and I’m pretty sure the few readers I had enjoyed them more than my post. 

In any event, with respect to the article I'm writing about, within a few minutes of posting my comment on The Times, I got 40 some-odd recommends, which interested me, not because - oh, boy, I’m popular – but because it lets me know that even in a fairly ideologically fixed group - and I don’t think anyone doubts that the “typical” NY Times reader is on the liberal side – a larger than usual group of people seemed to agree. And, I guess that’s just rare. 

The article I commented on was about nuns, who belonged to an order that had decided to atone for the deeds of those in the same order long before them, indeed, who lived before any of them were even born. The misdeeds were slavery. My comment was (correcting only two spelling errors because I write them before dawn, but forget to edit before I post):

This insistence that people today (even if they themselves buy it), are somehow responsible for slavery b/c they have the same profession, institution or were descended from those responsible, makes no sense. We don't do this with anything else. We don't, e.g., expect atonement by the descendants or members of the same club, of a murderer 200 years ago. Members of all branches of government in the past had slaves and helped perpetuate slavery. Should, say, Elijah Cummings, George Bush and John Roberts therefore atone for it?

This idea of guilt or responsibility carried through genes or membership in institutions, is no different in its core than the idea that groups of people were natural slaves because of their skin color or religion, etc. That was something people believed when slavery was the norm for peoples all over the world for most of human history.

Obviously, I am not justifying slavery or arguing that it cannot have lasting effects. I'm saying that it is not rational in the slightest for women who decided to dedicate their lives to a peaceful ideology to think they have anything to atone for b/c of what people who joined that group did 150 or more years ago, and that, generally, the idea of guilt or responsibility flowing across generations in the genes or through membership in an institution is not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense - and at the very core of the idea of slavery itself.”

This idea of atonement for the deeds or even beliefs of others who are not us because of a sharing of some superficial quality that has nothing to do with the actual offense, is, as I wrote, dangerous. It is based on the falsest of ideas, that we are not morally individual, but share guilt or responsibility with those who have some highly intangible quality in common to us.

The New York Times itself is a company that has, in the past, engaged in blatant and unapologetic racism. Last year, it published an article which recognized, with respect to Jack Johnson, the first black recognized heavyweight champion, its own racist coverage. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/24/sports/jack-johnson-racism.html. The article actually went rather easy on the Times, which had a long history of being much more racist than I have space to write about here. The author did not atone or apologize in the article. And, they should not have because neither the author nor the employees at The Times today, have the same beliefs. But, the non-apology surprised me, as The Times and its employees sometimes make rather lame apologies for what is not racism, but what appears to mimic it by coincidence. For example, its crossword puzzle editor recently apologized for using a word “beaner,” even though the “beaner” it meant had nothing to do with any racism nor did the editor realize that it could be used as a slur against Hispanics. I think he was giving a clue or answer to a puzzle about coffee. Whatever it was, it wasn’t racist. Also recently, the Times apologized for a cartoon featuring Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu which it “admitted” had anti-Semitic tropes. What were these tropes? Apparently, it included Netanyahu wearing a dog collar with the Star of David. Obviously, they meant that Israel’s leader was Trump’s lapdog, which has been a common way of disparaging different leaders for a long time, and certainly not just Jewish ones. Tony Blair, Britain’s former PM, was taunted for being Bush’s lapdog. The Star of David actually is Israel’s symbol and its use doesn’t imply prejudice any more than a hammer and sickle used to portray a Soviet would have been in the past. I saw the cartoon. It never occurred to me that it might be anti-Semitic, but, for many it did. I seriously doubt the drawer of the cartoon meant it that way.

Right now, the issue of reparations is on the forefront again, brought back when the Ds took over the House of Representatives in the last election. They mean it to atone for racism, if you give it its best face (and not that they are trying to drum up support among their base). I believe it perpetuates racism. I’m not delving into the impossibility of actuality fairly implementing reparations (who’s black, who’s white, who is responsible – did your family have to live here during slavery to participate in atonement, etc.?), as those arguments are well known and I do not think can be successfully rebutted. Even some leaders of the movement for reparations acknowledge you can’t do it fairly.

But there is another false premise supporting reparations I’d like to address. That is the notion that it is not guilt or culpability that is being assigned in order to have reparations, but the recognition that there have been some economic benefits which some institutions and families have carried forward to this day which were, as they say, built on the backs of slavery. I have no doubt that it is true to some extent that slaves were forced to build things that we still benefit from today. It is still a false notion. We cannot leap from this belief in economic advantage for some Americans who had nothing to do with slavery, even if they are descended from George Washington or a slave trader, to the belief that they and others superficially like them, should pay reparations to other Americans who did not suffer slavery – even if some descendants do have advantages. Forget that we cannot accurately parse where the present-day advantages came from (it might have little or nothing to do with slavery). There is no reason that some Americans who were disadvantaged because of the economic shadow of slavery, should receive present-day advantages, but not someone who is disadvantaged because his parents(s) was wrongly convicted, or suffered the consequences of anti-Semitism, anti-Asian sentiment, etc. Nor reason that those who do suffer from those non-slavery related disadvantages (perhaps everyone), should have to pay towards reparations for others. We shouldn’t give in to this torture of reason that tries to rectify past injustices by blaming innocent people for them now, even if it makes others feel good.

Nor can I accept the argument that slavery is different than everything else in American history and should be treated specially. American Indians, for one group, could easily differ. Nor could it explain away the fact that for a while, blacks had a higher rate of marriage and actually a greater labor participation than whites – and that has been, at one time, since slavery.
Last, but not least, consider the powerful testimony of Coleman Hughes, a journalist, who was a witness before a congressional hearing on reparations in congress, should not be quickly forgotten: “Reparations by definition are only given to victims, so the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent. Not just that, you’ve made 1/3 of black Americans who poll against reparations into victims without their consent, and black Americans have fought too long for the right to define themselves to be spoken for in such a condescending manner.”
Yes, he can insist he is an individual with his own opinion (even if he sees himself as a member of an oppressed group), however much someone might want to label him in order to support their political opinion. He doesn’t want to be a victim, whatever his supposed saviors think. But, it is not just him. Reparations rips the individuality away from everyone who participates on either side – the givers or the receivers.
There is an unspoken sentiment held not just by some American blacks, perhaps a majority, but by many whites and others who buy into it too, that it’s just fine if white people, even innocent ones, are stripped of their individuality and treated as a group, because non-white men were oppressed for so long (and many still feel oppressed despite the change in laws and public sentiment). They base their conclusion on the same unfair practices of judging people as a group, not as individuals. So, if whites are now – evil – and “white men” now considered dangerous, because there are some crazed white nationals in our country, that’s okay with them. If a white officer or sometimes ordinary person gets presumed guilty of murder because a black person was killed, even if it isn’t true, we should pretend it’s true. The more ridiculous the label of murder is, the better, because that highlights their point - group identity is what really matters. George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson (Ferguson – the shooting of Michael Brown) come quickly to mind.  
You can say my opinion is that of a privileged white man (trust me, the privileges did not include a lot of money), but it is the opinion of many people, some of whom, like Coleman Hughes, would benefit from this carnage of justice where once again in our country, skin color again becomes the primary qualification and qualities like character and merit, ability and decency, and so on, are no longer the lessons that matter. Maybe that has already occurred.

I couldn’t be more against guilt by association, for the sake of everyone’s individuality. Group guilt is a curse, and it should be abandoned.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .