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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 8, No. 6, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
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Sylvain Richard
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Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

making a quilt out of



If learned men
have sometimes less prejudices than others,
they cling more tenaciously to those they have.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Elke spoke fluent English with a slight German accent, was stereotypically blue-eyed and seriously blond, and her dog was named Shalom, which means peace in Hebrew. She could have been a poster child for the phenomenon known as collective guilt, the emotion that compels a significant number of individuals from all walks of life to perform exceptional acts of kindness towards especially ethnically, racially or religiously wronged groups. As a German, Elke experienced deep horror and shame upon learning about what happened in her homeland before she was born. Through her positive gestures (reparations) extended to Jewish people only, she was de facto assuming responsibility for Germany’s harsh treatment of the Jews during the 1930s and 40s.

In The Question of German Guilt, German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) examines metaphysical or collective guilt from the perspective of ascribing moral agency to all Germans who knew about but did nothing to prevent the holocaust. He did not specifically examine the legitimacy or authenticity of a future generation’s guilt over atrocities committed in the past.

Why was it fashionable, in especially the late 1960s and early 70s, for young Germans, born after the war, to volunteer to work for free in Israel? Why do many Whites go out of their way to help or be kind to Black people? When rudely met with the smell of micturition in one of our Metro (subway) stations, why am I ashamed that the stink I didn't leave might dispose tourists to form a negative opinion of my city?

In all three examples, the phenomenon of collective guilt is at work, bidding the productively moral individual to assume guilt for someone else’s crimes and misdemeanors. But in choosing to act on what the conscience bids, are we not conferring to guilt powers it doesn't have or deserve?

The existentialist will rationally demonstrate the absurdity of assuming guilt for actions committed on someone else’s watch. With a reductionist’s flourish, he’ll conclude: Before I was born my father robbed the bank, therefore I’m not guilty -- which answers to Descartes but shows itself wholly inadequate to the irrepressible manifestation of the guilt complex and its moral imperatives in the give and take of daily life. Since its expression and operations are so widespread and answer to so many historical situations, it’s perhaps beside the point to inquire whether or not collective guilt is legitimate or authentic. So let us concede to it a status similar to the weather which is always there, in order to better understand and manage it.

For better or worse, we are rooted in the soil; our sense of self and self-worth and reproductive prerogatives are primordially bound to the concept of territory. We willingly gainsay the sacrifice of ‘good’ blood and the bloodletting of ‘the other’ for the cause of territory. Every people’s founding myth tells the story of a potentially annihilating threat (variations on the biblical flood allegory) that is opposed by a group of exceptional individuals who prevail over the threat, thus earning the ‘unalienable’ right to invest themselves in an inviolable territory.

Without place there can be no beginning of anything other than the effort to define a space for that beginning. Without place, there would have been no flourishing of Persian or Aztec culture; their names never would have been entered into the domain of speech. When we speak of tribal, communal or national identity, we are referring to specific events and hard won values that have been forged in the crucible of place. The individual’s continuously evolving sense of self emerges as a consequence of being raised on a xenophobic diet of his culture’s founding narratives, traditions, history, and great accomplishments in the arts, science and medicine.

What German isn’t proud to be associated with Bach, Dürer and Goethe? How can Italians be asked not to sing the praises of the Renaissance and Italy’s great engineering feats (roads, aqueducts, churches)? But that is indeed what the existentialist is asking. Since Elke didn’t write Bach’s fugues, she has no right to take vicarious pride in them. By the same token, since she wasn’t born until after the holocaust, she shouldn’t wax guilty over it. But in point of fact she does, just as Whites continue to assume guilt for their historical treatment of Blacks. Which makes the issue of collective guilt one of internal consistency. If I consciously decide to refuse or disassociate myself from the ugly deeds of my country’s past, am I not obliged to refuse its accomplishments? You can’t have it both ways.

As none of us is likely to find ourselves not rooting for our national sports teams during international competition, the existentialist appeal to ‘pure reason’ – that designates collective guilt as the big feel-good lie we tell ourselves -- will have no practical impact on real life. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), who was unambiguously sympathetic to Jewish causes, could not abide by the existentialist rationale in face of France’s shameful collaboration with the Nazi’s during WW II.

Reduced to its purest expression, the pride (and shame) we all viscerally experience as it concerns our national identities is the inevitable outcome of being born and raised in a particular place at a particular time that can be no more refuted or denied than the decision to breathe.

That we are inclined to assume a quasi-proprietary relationship with our culture’s positive past accomplishments speaks to the basic assumptions that underlie human existence: that life is meaningful and purposeful, and empirically demonstrable in the great chain of cause and effect that links the events of the past to the present. The modern-day bridge that proudly holds its arches high in the sky owes its existence to the great inventions and discoveries of yore, in metallurgy, physics, chemistry and engineering. The bridge (the magnificent Jacques Cartier) that I embrace every morning at the break of day is the sum and culmination of millions of gestures, large and small, that allow it to stand and endure as a presence in which I take pride for no other reason than the common territory and ancestry I share with it. No less than pride, collective guilt (shame) operates on the presupposition that identity is the living issue of place and the purposeful conjunction of time and time-honoured events.

Whatever can be said about guilt, collective or otherwise, it is first and foremost always experienced as something we wish to be relieved of. If it fails to engender a movement away from itself in the form of a self-effacing gesture, it goes to waste. X, wishing to be relieved of his guilt concerning his people’s historic mistreatment of Blacks, discovers there can be no relief in the absence of real life, affirmative gestures. Affirmative action is a first effect of collective guilt, and while at times misplaced and punitive, the impulse is always correct in that it recognizes that humans are not only capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, but are transcendent and ennobled by that distinction.

Given the increasing interconnectivity of world culture and the erosion of traditional borders and protective barriers, it is now possible to entertain multiple identities as well as multiple guilts. Elke, from our opening paragraph, can simultaneously identify as a German, as a woman, and also citizen of the world, a fact that predicts her collective guilt feelings will not only bid her to extend kindnesses towards Jews, but to all the world’s people who have been wronged by other human beings. We speak of such a person as a humanitarian, for having assumed the burden of the race. Perhaps this is what Nietzsche meant when he wrote: “Tremendous self-examination, becoming conscious of oneself not as individuals but as mankind.” (Will to Power)



also by Robert Lewis:
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene




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