The Collective Guilt Myth
JANUARY 01, 1969 by WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLAIN
Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and reporter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. In addition to writing a number of books, he has lectured widely and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and numerous magazines.
The United States in the present decade experienced three assassinations of prominent public figures: President John F. Kennedy, his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the Negro leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. Each of these tragedies brought forth a chant of the alleged collective guilt of the entire American people for the crime of an isolated individual. Those who succumb to this emotional reaction should recall the wise words of Edmund Burke: "I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people."
There are more than 200 million Americans, people of the most diverse backgrounds, interests, levels of education and knowledge, political and economic sympathies. To hold all 200 million responsible for the isolated acts of more or less deranged individuals verges on national masochism and is downright absurd, as may be recognized if one recalls the circumstances of these killings.
President Kennedy was the victim of a mentally unstable person whose sympathies, so far as can be judged from his record, were confusedly Leftist. The man accused of shooting Dr. King in Memphis is awaiting trial, so the facts are not all available. What is not in doubt is that the overwhelming majority of Americans deplored the crime and bore no direct or indirect responsibility for it. Again, subject to further revelations at the trial of his assailant, Robert Kennedy seems to have been an innocent bystander, shot because of the implacable feud between Jews and Arabs in the Near East.
Other Lands Plagued
Deplorable as are such acts of violence, they scarcely form a reasonable basis for indicting the whole American people. Political assassination is as old as recorded history and has taken place in almost all nations under various circumstances. There are examples in the Old Testament, in the annals of Greece and Rome. In an age more familiar with classical languages and history, a parallel might have been drawn between the Kennedy brothers and Rome’s Gracchi, who tried to shift the balance in the cumbersome Roman constitution away from the patricians toward the plebeians, although they were of high birth themselves.
The Middle Ages afford many examples of hated, weak, or unlucky rulers who were done to death in one way or another. And the history of the Russian Empire has been wittily and not inaccurately described as despotism tempered by assassination. Some Czars perished as a result of palace coups, with the complicity of their guards. Alexander II was assassinated in his capital, St. Petersburg, after several unsuccessful attempts, by a small determined band of revolutionaries who called themselves Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). This same group took pains to dissociate itself from the killing of President Garfield (the nonpolitical act of a disappointed office seeker), putting out a statement to the effect that the assassination of high officials was a legitimate form of struggle in Russia, with its denial of liberty, but impermissible in a free republic.
Ironically enough, Alexander II was the most progressive of modern Czars, having emancipated the serfs and introduced other reforms. The last Czar, Nicholas II, was shot down with his Czarina and all their children in a blood-drenched cellar, following the sentence of a self-constituted Bolshevik court during the Russian civil war in 1918.
Nor have other European countries been free from murder for political causes, some of them committed by anarchists and other revolutionaries who believed in "propaganda by the deed." Among the more distinguished victims were King Humberto of Italy in 1900 (he died murmuring some words about "the dangerous trade of kings"), President Sadi Carnot of France, who was stabbed during a visit to Lyons, Prime Minister Canovas of Spain, and the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Her killing, by an Italian anarchist as a symbol of hated royalty, was especially ironical because Elizabeth had rebelled against the excessive formality of Vienna court life, separated from her husband, and was leading a life of private retirement in Switzerland.
So America has no monopoly of assassinations of prominent public figures, for political and nonpolitical reasons. Yet no one has ever suggested that the Russian, Italian, French, or any other people should be regarded as involved, en masse, in these crimes.
Steps to Curb Crime
The alleged sickness of American society is a favorite theme of those who would implicate all Americans when a John F. Kennedy, a Robert F. Kennedy, a Martin Luther King is murdered by a specific individual. Now contemporary American society unmistakably has its faults. But these do not constitute some vague sickness. They are the consequence of the failure of definite individuals and groups to measure up to their duties and responsibilities.
The United States crime rate, especially in violent forms of crime, is a national disgrace because the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government have failed in their obvious obligation to do something about it. The rate of murder, assault, armed robbery, and similar crimes has grown in precise proportion as the handling of brutal criminals has become softer, more permissive, more ineffectual. State after state has been abolishing the death penalty, even for the most atrocious cases of murder without extenuating circumstances, for purposes of robbery, for instance.
From the Supreme Court down, the trend of judicial decisions has been not toward protecting the peaceful citizen in his home or on the streets, but toward hampering the police in their work and protecting the criminal against proper punishment for his misdeeds. There are also outrageous delays in bringing the most notorious criminals, about whose guilt there is no reasonable doubt, to answer for their crimes before the courts, which are often clogged with cases involving trivial and minor offenses.
Crime is like sin; every candidate is publicly against it. But there has been no progress, rather retrogression, in taking practical concrete steps to reduce a higher incidence of crime and insecurity in the streets, in public parks, even in private homes, than one finds in foreign countries on a comparable level of education and civilization.
Ordinary crime, as well as political assassination, is not something for which the whole American people may reasonably be held responsible. In its present outrageous dimensions it is the natural and inevitable result of neglect and failure in the framing of laws, and the laxness and delay in administering these laws. What is needed to promote a downward turn in the violent crime statistics is not to "cure" a "sick" society, but a number of specific practical measures designed to reverse the modern trend to coddle the criminal at the expense of his victims.
This national guilt myth is responsible for other faulty judgments and analyses. A very serious example of mass violence, accompanied by murder, assault, wholesale arson and looting has been the rioting in predominantly Negro sections of a number of United States cities and towns in recent years. Another such example, on a minor scale, was the action of some students at Columbia University in taking physical possession of the President’s office and other buildings, holding some college administrators prisoners for a time, defiling the buildings which they occupied, shouting obscenities over the campus, and forcibly disrupting for a time the normal functioning of a great institution of learning.
A presidential commission published a report on the causes of the riots in the cities; an academic commission, headed by Professor Archibald Cox of Harvard, published a report on the disturbances at Columbia. Although different persons were involved, there was a curious similarity in the method of reasoning in these two reports. The direct perpetrators of violence were left uncensured or, at most, praised with faint damns, while criticism was concentrated on alleged secondary causes: on that familiar scapegoat, "society," in the case of the rioters; on the college administration, in the case of the student disturbances.
Almost half a century ago the Governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, later President, won national acclaim with his declaration on the occasion of the strike of Boston policemen: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time." (What a pity no one could repeat these words with authority in New York at the time when it was paralyzed by strikes, slowdowns, and threats of strikes by such essential groups of public servants as teachers, policemen, firemen, and sanitary workers!)
Both of the reports under discussion might well have started with the same words, applied to rioting in a free country where there are plenty of opportunities for expressing grievances and seeking to redress them in a peaceful and orderly way. Instead, the presidential commission placed the principal blame for the riots on racism in white society. Insofar as racism implies deliberate prejudice and discrimination against others because of race, color, and creed, it is a vicious and dishonorable thing; yet, the law has not yet been devised that would make every individual love or esteem all his neighbors or fellow-citizens.
Signs of Progress
Few Americans today would avow themselves as racists, and external signs of discrimination on grounds of race and color have been swept away by one legal enactment after another, some by the Federal government, some by the states. Deliberate segregation by color in schools has been illegal for fifteen years. Even so, it might spare some friction and bitterness if some zealous Federal bureaucrats and state education administrators would remember that, while the law forbids segregation, it does not enjoin integration up to the point of destroying the neighborhood school and compelling the busing of children away from their homes into unfamiliar and sometimes unsafe neighborhoods.
Discrimination on trains, in buses and public accommodations has been legally outlawed. Doors of opportunity are opening more widely. There are more black faces on college campuses and in white-collar jobs. Negro representation in national and state legislatures is increasing.
Under these circumstances, what rational goal is served by squalid outbreaks of race hatred and other destructive instincts, such as the maniacal impulse to burn on a large scale—and mainly houses and stores that serve the Negro community? The net effect of these outbreaks has certainly been to retard, not to advance Negro progress, to discourage the forces of goodwill, and strengthen the bigots and racists, white and black.
Destruction on Campus
The student outbreaks at Columbia, the University of California, and elsewhere are also mindless in the extreme, except for a nihilistic minority who wish to bring higher education to a halt. This is not to say that there are no legitimate student grievances, overcrowded facilities, poor food, and a skimping by some big-name professors of their basic function as teachers in favor of writing books and performing odd jobs for government agencies and foundations. Such grievances, when presented in a sensible and civilized way, will certainly win sympathy and redress, except insofar as they are rooted in one cause about which little can be done: the storming of admission doors by more students than universities and colleges can comfortably accommodate.
But the "causes" which prompted the radical minority of the Columbia students to break up the normal functioning of the university were almost incredibly trivial. There were two: the decision of the University to build on its own property a gymnasium which would have benefited both the students and the adjacent Harlem community; and the participation of a few professors in projects sponsored by an institute of defense analysis.
Neither of these issues was a proper matter of student concern; neither justified such obviously illegal doings as the sacking of the President’s office, the seizure of university property, the provoked clash with the police, the shouted obscenities across the campus. Indeed, this last conspicuous feature of the Columbia and other travesties of revolution might well warrant an inquiry by admissions officers as to the kind of homes from which the students were selected.
Outbreaks of Disorder Call for Stern Measures
Blaming everyone for wanton outbreaks of disorder except those actually responsible for these acts is not good morals, good logic, or good policy. Nor is it much use to attack that familiar scapegoat, "society." The proper course for the future is for the civil authorities to put down future riots, should these occur, with all necessary force.
As for university and college students, their right to hold meetings, to parade with placards, to picket peacefully for some cause should not be abridged, although it is hard to see how the pursuit of knowledge is advanced by trying to prevent the sale of California grapes or to interfere with fellow-students who wish to be interviewed for employment with a chemical company. A sharp line, however, should be drawn between peaceful demonstrations and those which involve trespassing on college property, restraint on the free movement of individuals, and denial of the right of other students to attend classes. Young collegians who fancy themselves in the role of Trotskys, Mao Tsetungs, and Che Guevaras should be given a plain warning to cease and desist, or to transfer their juvenile playing of revolutionary games elsewhere.
It is time to examine critically a number of assumptions that are bred of the myth of the American national collective guilt complex. For instance, it is sometimes taken for granted that racial friction is unique in America. This disregards the numerous ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world, including the genocidal savagery of tribal feuds in such newly emancipated African lands as the Congo and Nigeria.
The war in Vietnam is denounced as an example of "American imperialism." Vietnam is certainly a sorry story and may havebeen a serious blunder. But there has never been the slightest American desire to exercise imperialist domination over that country or to derive profit from that faraway land even remotely comparable with the sacrifice of blood and treasure in its jungles and rice paddies. Right or wrong, wise or unwise (and it may be a long time before a fair historical judgment is possible), the American military intervention has been for the purpose of warding off the establishment of communist dictatorship in South Vietnam and leaving the people of that tormented country freedom to choose their own government and way of life.
The extreme forms which the American national guilt complex sometimes takes are as foolish and unwarranted as the old-fashioned spread-eagle oratory of United States chauvinism. It is useful to remember that guilt is always individual, never collective.
Someone to Blame
So long as the attitude in society is that people are responsible for themselves, but that nature inevitably will limit what we can have, there is a chance that the discontent people feel will be directed at nature. But when we take the attitude that government is all-powerful, that it’s only because somebody didn’t pass the right law that we’re in a bad way, then discontent will be directed at people.
MILTON FRIEDMAN, What’s Past Is Prologue