• July 24, 2024

The seduction of collective guilt

 The seduction of collective guilt

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Do nations or other groups have collective liabilities? These days, the issue usually arises in racial terms. Do white people owe some kind of inherited debt to black people? But the same question might be put in other ways. Were West Germany’s democratic leaders obliged to compensate victims of the Nazi abominations? Were the Allies entitled to bomb German civilians? Does Israel have the right to bulldoze houses belonging to the extended families of terrorist bombers?

There was an explosion of rage last month when Never Trumper David French suggested that there was a continuing obligation to correct the injustices of Jim Crow. Conservative writers rounded furiously on their onetime ally, accusing him of embracing critical race theory and freighting white people with ancestral guilt.

I’m pretty sure French was doing no such thing. His argument was a subtler one — namely that, if people today were living with the consequences of past racism, there might be an obligation to remedy the injustice. For example, if black people were concentrated in poor areas with failing schools because their forebears had been confined to those areas through redlining and residential segregation, that injustice can be remedied now even if the discrimination that caused it is long past. What, asked French, if a company had been polluting the groundwater, its board was sacked, and a new CEO was brought in? Would the new directors be guilty by association? No, but the company would still be under an obligation to clean up its mess.

What infuriated French’s critics the most was his citation of some Old Testament passages that endorsed the concept of inherited liability (the peg for his story being the alleged wokeness of a pastor, David Platt). French quoted what is, to our eyes, a deeply unsettling passage from the Second Book of Samuel. During the reign of King David, the Israelites were afflicted by famine, a punishment for the “bloodguilt” incurred by an earlier king, Saul, who had broken a treaty to attack the Gibeonites. King David asked the Gibeonites what they wanted by way of restitution. They demanded that seven of Saul’s descendants be handed over for execution. David complied, and the famine ended.

The story offends our modern sensibilities. Yet, for most of history, bloodguilt and vendetta formed the basis of human relations. “My tribe good. Your tribe bad” was the essence of hunter-gatherer morality and was carried into early civilizations, including those where the books of Samuel were composed (Israel in the 8th century B.C. and Babylon a couple of centuries later).

As Joe Henrich, the brilliant Harvard evolutionary biologist has shown, the modern West is the outlier. A series of happy accidents led to the unique elevation of the individual over the collective.

My problem with the French thesis is not that it is absurd but, on the contrary, that it is dangerously seductive. Tribalism is in our DNA. We need constantly to inculcate the notion of personal autonomy, precisely because it doesn’t come naturally. In such a situation as French identifies — bad housing because of earlier discrimination — our response should be to help people as individuals, not as descendants of someone else.

The more we make ancestry the determinant, the more we tie ourselves in knots. It is of course true that people begin with differing life chances. Five hundred years after the colonization of Peru, the descendants of conquistadores are much wealthier than the descendants of Incas. A thousand years after the Battle of Hastings, Britons with Norman surnames are 10% better off than those with Saxon surnames. A chance decision by some Paleolithic hunter to pursue the game one way and not another might have determined whether his descendants today are Swedes or Somalis.

But ancestry takes us only so far. A black American is statistically likelier to be descended from plantation owners than, say, a Ukrainian American. Emphasizing physiognomy instead is even more illogical, and, indeed, harder to apply. Rising global mobility has led to a commensurate increase in the number of mixed-race people. Should we classify two siblings differently because of how they look?

To answer my own opening question, it seems to me that there is a case for restitution to living victims, as when post-war Germany compensated camp survivors, or when Sherman offered freed slaves 40 acres and a mule. But the more remote we are from the original wrong, the harder it becomes to identify anything that we might reasonably call justice.

Personal responsibility, the idea that we are all free and are not defined by birth or caste, has served to create the richest and happiest societies known to our species. It is not perfect. Nothing in this sublunary world is perfect. But it is still better than any rival notion.

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