The source of liberal guilt

A fascinating article by Jack Wheeler on the source of liberal guilt. His answer is … no, I’ll let you find out when you read it. But I’ll say this much. It explains why there is such a perfect complementarity between anti-Western third-worlders and minorities on one hand, and suicidal Western whites on the other. Going beyond my own explanations of liberal guilt (i.e., that it is produced by the belief in equality, combined with the existence of actual inequality), Wheeler’s article shows that liberal guilt springs from deeply irrational, atavistic thought-processes, which, moreover, are shared by the “oppressed” groups toward whom the liberals feel guilty.

Wheeler seems a most unusual man, being both a career explorer and adventurer and an articulate conservative.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 13, 2003 03:58 PM | Send


If you like Wheeler here’s a link to more stuff.

I hope that’s clickable.

Posted by: jimbo on November 14, 2003 1:13 PM

It’s an interesting theory, but if the psychology of envy is so universal why is liberal guilt so prominent only in the West and only over the last few hundred years?

Why for instance would the priveleged Japanese samurai not have feared the envy of the outcast groups of their own society? And why would feminism appear only in the West in the 1780s or thereabouts and only be widely accepted from the 1850s?

I think the theory of an atavism can only work as a part explanation; an explanation of one of the psychological roots of liberalism.

More important is the political explanation: that Western intellectuals adopted a political philosophy some hundreds of years ago which has gradually unfolded and by the logic of which freedom means freedom from attachments to nation, race, sex etc.

Therefore, you are literally a “politically correct” liberal if you show a “treason” to your own sex, race and nation.

Posted by: Mark Richardson on November 14, 2003 6:53 PM

I tend to agree with Mr. Richardson. The atavistic-envy theory, if it’s true, would seem to be a psychological dimension that can kick in in certain situations and spark or exacerbate liberal guilt, but I doubt that it would pan out as an overall explanation of liberal guilt.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 14, 2003 7:07 PM

I always feel extremely restless when I read about the supposed self-loathing of the type of the “enlightened progressive”, because such a “liberal” always seems anything but self-loathing; self-infatuated would be more like it. His disdain for his own kind and civilization seems to spring not from a sense of his own guilt or deficiencies but rather from a bloated narcissism which resents any familial or communal claims upon him, a narcissism which is always on the look-out for reasons to feel superior. That he is always seeking abstract or pseudo-communities (world government and that sort of junk) I think merely confirms this - these are communities which demand no responsibility or reciprocity (except log-rolling book reviews perhaps). It is only the white people who are not as intellectually developed and as morally sensitive as he is who need to feel guilt; if he feels guilt, it is but a momentary luxury, a bon-bon of shame as he contemplates the sins of those who look like him but are in fact spiritually beneath him; indeed it enhances his pleasure by presenting to him so starkly the difference between their benightedness and his enlightenment.

Posted by: Shrewsbury on November 14, 2003 9:18 PM

A short article can only pursue one aspect of a huge phenomenon such as liberalism. An attempt to elucidate that one aspect does not mean that other aspects are being ignored.

I agree completely with Shrewsbury on the inordinate self-esteem of liberals. How, then, do the narcissism and the guilt fit together? The first answer is that there may be different types of liberals, in some of whom narcissism predominates, in others guilt. Hillary Clinton, Peter Jennings, Judy Woodruff, and Barbra Streisand are of the narcissistic type. But then there are the more sincere types, who seem to carry a burden on their shoulders of all the inequality in the world. An example that comes to mind is David Shipler, author “A Country of Strangers: Black and White in America,” who in the following passage seems to combine a Jewish-style liberal guilt with a Puritanical self-examination for sins: “This is the ideal: to search your attitudes, identify your stereotypes, and correct for them as you go about your daily duties.”

More typical, I suspect, is a combination of the two, in which the liberal establishes his moral superiority and fulfills his self-esteem _through_ his conspicuous expression of guilt. Clinton in his world-trotting apologies for America’s sins is the classic example. Shelby Steele has written a great deal about this phenomenon. In his most recent article in the November 13, he talks about how whites, in exchange for repeated, ritualized, symbolic obeisances toward blacks, legitimize their own ruling position in society.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 14, 2003 9:59 PM

Shrewsbury wrote:

“… these are communities which demand no responsibility or reciprocity (except log-rolling book reviews perhaps).”

Great line.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 14, 2003 10:25 PM

It seems liberals are not thinking of freedom from sexual stereotypes when they decide women’s sports must receive the same amount of funding as men’s sports. They are just thinking it would be fair because most women like sports.

They could be driven though by a subconscious fear of the Evil Eye of friends and of feminists and other power-hungry groups. They could at the same time be driven by the near subconscious feeling they are morally superior to the traditionalists. This second emotion could be the end result of the long history of liberal thinking, which has set up a belief in freedom from stereotypes as superior thinking, as something to be proud of; so perhaps Mr. Richardson is at least partly right after all.

Posted by: P Murgos on November 15, 2003 8:37 AM

If Wheeler’s thesis that liberalism is motivated in part by envy avoidance were correct, then presumably most of our fellow citizens would be liberals. Something more is needed: liberals are people who are particularly given to envy avoidance. Now that might be explained by liberals just happening to be people who were in stations that excited envy. This would be hard to prove. My thesis: envy - avoiding liberals are people who feel intense levels of envy themselves, and thus a strong need to defend themselves against what they assume others are feeling. We should also be clear on our definition of envy. It is not wishing that we also enjoyed the good fortune of another. It is the malevolent desire to spoil that good fortune or hurt that person in order to relieve one’s own psychological distress arising from the sight of another’s good fortune. As such, it is completely negative, and one of the worst of human sins. It is worse than greed, the desire to accumulate more than one needs, for at least greed may motivate one to produce or earn for oneself, rather than set out to spoil what is another’s. Envy, being so discreditable, must be given some ideological cover: in the case of liberals, it is the ostentatious benevolence of presuming to help some at the expense of others. It is the latter part, harming others, that is the real motivation. Note that liberals don’t want to give up punitively high tax rates, even though it would give the government greater revenues.

Posted by: thucydides on November 17, 2003 7:54 PM

Defining envy as “the malevolent desire to spoil that good fortune or hurt that person in order to relieve one’s own psychological distress arising from the sight of another’s good fortune,” Thucydides says that “envy-avoiding liberals are people who feel intense levels of envy themselves, and thus a strong need to defend themselves against what they assume others are feeling.”

To sum up his idea, liberals resent someone better off than themselves, and so assume that the people worse off than themselves envy them, the liberals, and so they engage in envy-avoidance procedures. But many liberals are fortunate, well-to-do, extremely self-esteeming people. Whom does Peter Jennings or Barbra Streisand or Molly Ivins or Bishop Spong or James Carroll or Michael Moore or Alec Baldwin or George Soros envy?

Thucydides’ thesis doesn’t make sense unless we can find some party that the liberals envy. I’m just thinking aloud here, but could it be that they envy—God?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 17, 2003 11:04 PM

Thucydides wrote: “If Wheeler’s thesis that liberalism is motivated in part by envy avoidance were correct, then presumably most of our fellow citizens would be liberals.”

Actually, I think most of out fellow citizens ARE liberals - at least as the term is ususually employed on this site. Yes, there are right-liberals (neocons) as well as the hard core leftist kind, but the underlying assumptions about the perfectability of man, moral relativism, and the denial or transcendent realities are things they share in common. The differences arise in the number and type of unprincipled exceptions used. This underlying liberalism - taught from the earliest age by popular culture and public schools - is one of the reasons appeals to class envy has been so very sucessful for the Democratic party. It may well also explain the great paralysis regarding the flood of incompatible immigrants that is being unleashed upon the nation. The denial mechanism is still at work - even in the face of the ugly reality.

Posted by: Carl on November 17, 2003 11:51 PM

Re-reading Jim Kalb’s superb article from last year on the Pope’s call for the “overcoming of racism, xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism,” one notes that the Pope is as liberal as anyone else. He demands, in the name of compassion toward immigrants, virtually open borders and the abolition of all cultures. Does this mean the Pope is implicated in the mechanisms of envy avoidance, as Thucydides’ theory would lead us to believe? If so, whom does the Pope himself envy, that he seeks to avoid the envy of others?

Clearly, envy-avoidance as projection of one’s own envy can only take us so far as an explanation of liberalism. I still think that at bottom liberalism consists in a religious belief in equality and sameness, which makes any manifestations of inequality and difference intolerable to one’s conscience.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 18, 2003 3:09 AM

I believe de Tocqueville held that under conditions of social equality, envy would be increased. No matter how well off one is, one can still feel envy, as it proceeds more from poor feelings about oneself than anything external. Envy does not fully explain liberalism, but it is a pervasive and highly destructive feature of modern democratic politics. The modern democratic state seems erected on a recognition of envy and of a need to extensively placate it (an impossible undertaking). The book to read is Helmut Schoeck’s “Envy: A Comprehensive Theory of Social Behavior.”

Posted by: thucydides on November 18, 2003 11:38 AM

The Oedipus complex involves the child’s envy of the father’s relationship with the child’s mother. Although the Complex is not as important to psychology as it once was, many psychologists think we are drastically affected by various intense subconscious conflicts that we learn very early and even though the original thoughts are irrational. The conflict between envy and the shame from envious feelings could be potent parts of the lives of most everyone. Liberals might be overcompensating for their envy by punishing themselves with self-destructive practices and self-loathing ideas. Again, the conflicts and the very early feelings are often irrational and are often not the parents’ fault especially when there is a genetic component, which many believe plays a big role in all of us.

Posted by: P Murgos on November 18, 2003 2:31 PM

The liberal (or any person) is not aware of the conflict but he still acts out the pathetic ritual of punishing himself without being aware of it. Awareness is buried beneath aches, anxiety, depression, overeating, too much alcohol, too much work, excessive attention seeking, promiscuity, etc.

Posted by: P Murgos on November 18, 2003 2:39 PM
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