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The new national pastime of decrying the sins of our predecessors brought these remarks by Dr. Robert George of Princeton to mind:
Undergraduates say the darnedest things. When discussing the history of racial injustice, I frequently ask them what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly in the cause of freeing those enslaved. Isn’t that special? Bless their hearts.
Of course, it is complete nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them—and us—would simply have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and, if it was in their interest, participated in it as buyers and owners or sellers of slaves.
So I respond to the students’ assurances that they would have been vocal opponents of slavery by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show me evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have embraced causes that are unpopular among their peers and stood up for the rights of victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing (1) that it would make THEM unpopular with their peers, (2) that they would be loathed and ridiculed by wealthy, powerful, and influential individuals and institutions in our society; (3) that it would cost them friendships and cause them to be abandoned and even denounced by many of their friends, (4) that they would be called nasty names, and (5) that they would possibly even be denied valuable educational and professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness.
In short, my challenge to them is to show me where they have at significant risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.
Theodore Dalrymple has observed that there are few feelings more congenial than a sense of moral superiority. It’s both easy and pleasing to feel superior to people from the past. It’s especially easy, in part, because the dead can’t defend themselves. The old admonition not to speak ill of the dead came about for a reason.
All of this came to mind recently on the heels of David French’s johnny-come-lately embrace of hereditary racial moral culpability. In short: he has decided that the majority of Americans are complicit in the racial sins of the past primarily on the basis of sharing the same skin color as some of the perpetrators from days gone by. If that rationale comes across to you as flimsy and outrageously unjust, well, you would not be David French.
I’m not writing here to rehash the actual arguments of French and his ilk. I’m primarily writing to observe that I have yet to witness French or anyone else in the hairshirt brigade take any concrete action that might suggest that they themselves are guilty of the inherited racism they accuse the rest of us of. They may say “we must atone” but apparently, any actual atoning will start somewhere else. For all of the mau-mauing about inherited racial guilt being done by white writers and white leaders of corporations, I have not observed a rush for the exits by any of them. It seems that the louder the assertion of collective guilt, the more unlikely the accuser is to actually lead by example in personal sacrifice. David French may say that we are systemically guilty, but his fingers are pointing outward, and he himself remains comfortably ensconced in his privileged sinecure.
The result of all of this is that French and others come across to me as primarily engaging in an adolescent conceit. French is like the 16-year-old boy who looks down on his father for working too much but who nevertheless expects to maintain his own comfortable living arrangements, and to borrow the car keys on Saturday night. French eagerly accuses his country and his neighbors, but without any expectation that his own comfortable circumstance should change.
I suspect that in reality, when the David Frenches of the world allege that America is systemically racist and marred by the unremovable stain of a racist past, they intend to direct the accusation at the rest of us but not really at themselves. It is a pose, or maybe as poker players would say — “a tell.” It primarily reveals that they view themselves as set apart — as the moral betters of the hairy unwashed around them. They apparently don’t intend to make any actual sacrifices themselves. They only intend to accuse. They expect the consequences for the collective guilt they imagine to fall entirely on someone else.
Perhaps rather than letting his feverish moral condescension get the better of him, French would do well to remember there are moral failures more heinous than the figments he imagines. If he can bring himself to take a break from his moral preening and grandstanding, he might recall that on the larger list of things God hates are two practices that French’s own writing unhappily brings to mind:
There are six things that the Lord hates,
Seven that are an abomination to Him:
A false witness who declares lies,
And one who spreads strife among brothers.
— Proverbs 6:16-19