It’s not every day that I open the Philadelphia Inquirer to an editorial page debate between Andrew Sullivan and a leftie activist. And when on top of that the topic involves collective responsibility, it’s the sort of thing I cannot not write a blog post about.
Sullivan and Clarence B. Jones (“former draft speechwriter for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and currently a scholar in residence/visiting professor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University”) are on opposite sides on the merits of Jeremiah Wright’s denunciations of white America.
Sullivan’s Op-Ed consists of excerpts from his blog posts, including some of what I quoted the other day (that Wright’s performance was “a calculated, ugly, repulsive, vile display of arrogance, egotism and self-regard”) as well as more:

Wright himself, it seems to me, has become part of what Obama is fighting against: the boomer obsessions with red/blue, white/black, pro-/anti-Americanism. Those need not dominate this election, and Wright’s racially divisive and, yes, bitter provocation requires a proportionate response.
This is no longer about cynics trying to associate one man’s politics with another’s. It is now about Wright attempting to associate himself and some of his noxious views with the likely Democratic nominee. He has given Obama no choice – but he has given him an opportunity. Yesterday, Obama went a long way toward seizing it. But making that repudiation stick will take more work.

Long before the Wright-Obama flap, guilt by association has been a topic of great ongoing interest to me, not only because I abhor holding A responsible for the conduct (and statements) of B, but because similar logic leads people to make massive communitarian judgments — not of individuals, but of entire groups. This is of course even more unfair than holding A responsible for the conduct of B on the basis of some association, and I think that even if there is such a thing as guilt by association, collective guilt carries things way too far.
Like the Jeremiah Wright he defends, Clarence B. Jones would disagree with me, as he thinks that “white America” (meaning all white people living in America, down to the most recent arrivals from Eastern Europe) is collectively responsible for the bad things which other white people have done. Jones begins by citing with approval a quote from James Baldwin:

A vast amount of energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time, a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.

Baldwin wrote that in 1962, when the forces of Jim Crow were defending the segregationist system while many Americans looked on in abject horror. (If I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure that there was a profound desire on the part of some white people not to be judged even by those who were white, but never mind. It’s “white America” we’re talking about.)
Next comes Cornel West:

Cornel West writes that in this essay, Baldwin “spoke the deep truth that democratic individuality demands that white Americans give up their deliberate ignorance and willful blindness about the weight of white supremacy in America. Only then can a genuine democratic community emerge in America.”

OK, wait.
What does “democratic individuality” mean? It sounds like the type of indefinable code language used by people who want to win arguments without really having to say what they think. Like the left-wing communitarian term “social justice,” which, although indefinable, clearly implies that the legal system should be involved in things like property redistribution and “human rights commissions.”
I don’t like it when people juxtapose unrelated concepts together and then repeat them until they sound like truisms. (“Structural violence.” “Poverty is violence.” “Pornography is violence.” And of course “Jobs Not Guns!“)
And if there is such a thing as “democratic individuality,” then what stands in opposition to it? “Undemocratic individuality”? Does that mean the undemocratic individual should not be allowed to vote? (Or is it just code language for Republicans?)
Anyway, whatever “democratic individuality” is, I find it a bit insulting to read that “it” demands that “white Americans” (including, I guess, my white-ass self)give up “their” (meaning my) “deliberate ignorance” and “willful blindness” about the “weight” of “white supremacy in America.”
How many mouthfuls (or mouthsful) of this do I need in one morning? Do I have to spend all day? If I am to be scolded for being ignorant, don’t I get to hear what I’m ignorant about? I’ve studied American history in detail, and I think I’m at least as aware of slavery, racism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Klan, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement as most college graduates — maybe more. I continue to read and I try to keep an open mind about these and other things. So what am I ignorant and willfully blind about? The weight of white supremacy? How can he be so sure that I’m ignorant and blind about that because I am white?
Or am I only ignorant and blind if I disagree over how the “weight”? Whose scale is to be used in its measurement, and who decides?
Jones argues that the reactions to Wright result from the “24/7 persistence of white racism“:

Everyone seems quick to blame or condemn Wright for the possible impact or “political” consequences of his remarks on Obama’s candidacy. My view is that whatever those consequences may be, they are fundamentally a result of the pernicious 24/7 persistence of white racism. Most white people (and, perhaps, some African Americans) are uncomfortable with a public discourse about or a reminder of this reality.

OK, I publicly disagreed with Wright’s assessments, and frankly, I found his personality extremely unpleasant. But doesn’t the fact that I (and countless other bloggers, pundits, and members of the general public) discussed him indicate something other than being “uncomfortable” with “public discourse”? I’d say it indicates quite the opposite. Or might Jones believe that disagreement with Jeremiah Wright indicates an aversion to discourse?
At the risk of sounding like a hopelessly ignorant cracker, let me just venture that people who disagree are not the ones with an aversion to discourse. Those who are uncomfortable with discourse are the ones who simply do not engage in discourse. As to why these silent hordes might be uncomfortable, I don’t know. I can’t speak for them. Maybe some of them just hate politics and political arguments. It seems like a major stretch to claim that they are all driven by 24/7 racism, but then, Jones is not so much attributing racism to the silent; he’s attributing it to those who disagree with Wright.
To Jones, Wright is not the real issue. It’s race:

Democratic primary voters have to decide whether Obama can address their concerns with high gas prices, rising foreclosures, absence of affordable health insurance, and the Iraq war. But the underlying issue, uncomfortably presented by Wright, is the reality of race relations in America.
That issue is the 800-pound gorilla in our national living room, which most politicians have been unwilling or too afraid to acknowledge or discuss.
The reactions of the media and political pundits to Wright’s remarks are unambiguous reminders that white America remains seriously afflicted with amnesia with respect to its treatment of African Americans throughout most of our history.

There’s another mouthful. “The media and political pundits” are “white America” and they suffer from amnesia.
Jones’ argument is more illogical than guilt by association. It’s collective guilt.
Guilt by birth. Guilt by skin color. Guilt imputed over generations. White America is collectively guilty, which means every white person is guilty. I am not merely responsible for the crimes of my ancestors; I am responsible for the crimes of other people’s ancestors. (Unless, of course, I could show that I had been born with a black father, mother or other black ancestor; if so then the hereditary guilt of my white mother or father would be erased.)
This goes beyond guilt by DNA (although it may cross over to an emerging new area called “cultural DNA.”)
It is deeply illogical, but to disagree with it is to be against dialogue, and to be in denial. More specifically, to be a state of “deliberate ignorance,” “willful blindness” and collective amnesia. And, of course, to be motivated by a “profound desire not to be judged.”
I don’t want to dimiss Jones’s argument out of hand, though. The reason I wrote this post is that I think that maybe the country could use some dialogue on the notion of collective guilt.
For what it’s worth, I disagree profoundly with the idea of collective guilt, and I have condemned it in forgotten post after forgotten post after forgotten post. (No, it’s not necessarily about race, nor is the idea limited to the left.)
Bear in mind that those forgotten blog posts do not represent any attempt at discourse or dialogue. Rather, they reflect the deliberate ignorance and willful blindness of my amnesia, and spring from my stubbornly profound desire not to be judged.
Which is a long way of saying that they simply reflect my whiteness.
UPDATE: My profound thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking this post, and a warm welcome to all.
I appreciate the comments.