No, not Rove (who cares what he thinks?) – Karl Jaspers.  20th Century German philosopher.  And it seems that some of the issues he put before the German people may be worth revisiting in terms of the brouhaha here at the pond in the last few days.

I’m not taking sides in the recent controversy here; that’s not the purpose of this diary.  What I hope to do is to bring some food for thought to the table, and provide a framework in which we might reflect on our own times and our personal role in them.

Follow me below the fold, unless I interrupted your search for a Rove indictment…
Shortly after the Nazi government fell, Jaspers (a life-long liberal), listed four categories of guilt (I’d prefer to use the term “moral culpability,” and save the word “guilt” for the emotion, but since others have already laid the definitions out, I’ll work with the terms we’re using):

–    Criminal guilt (the acts one committed)
–    Political guilt (the degree to which one politically acquiescence to the Nazi regime)
–    Moral guilt (a matter of private judgment)
–    Metaphysical guilt (a universally shared responsibility of those who chose to remain alive rather than die in protest against Nazi atrocities)

One might say a lot of the heat in our recent discussions is that we may not be differentiating between the degrees of guilt specifically.  And in order to keep the flame on a low simmer, I’ll pull other examples that the hot-buttons we’ve been pushing of late.

Consider the flooding of New Orleans.  For many years, a long series of decisions were made regarding government priorities and personal rights versus social responsibilities.  Collective decisions were made to allow development of floodplains that then were not present to the degree they were previously, and so could not buffer the hurricane’s wrath.  Even if you were not involved personally in development of the floodplain (“criminal guilt” in the framework above), you as an American citizen for the last 25 years bear some “political guilt” for the decisions made by the Department of the Interior and Army Corps of Engineers.  Those who were active in environmental groups might have little political guilt, but they still might have moral guilt and metaphysical guilt.

How much guilt belongs to an employee of the Army Corps of Engineers who did his job conscientiously but was overruled in decisions regarding levee construction and reinforcement?  Should he have quit?  If so, who would argue for more environmentally sound positions in the agency?  Should he have leaked information to the press?  Gone to his congressman?  Posted a website?

Again, I am not making moral judgments here; I am just bringing issues to the table.  Certainly the issues in the last paragraph are ones that I have had to grapple with throughout my professional life in the environmental field – and then on top of those issues one has the competing moral obligation to provide for one’s family that says “go along to get along.  Don’t stir things up.”  Probably everyone has to deal with these issues in the workplace – Is the company falling short in protecting worker safety?  Is there discrimination going on?  Is our pay structure ethical?  Does our product actually do something good for society?  Are we charging a fair price?  How do we balance the competing responsibilities to our stockholders, who provided the seed money for the business, against the workers, without whom nothing would get done?

But I go astray.  Suffice it to say that we live in a morally ambiguous world at all levels.

I originally intended to put these thoughts down as a comment in Catnip’s diary “I am not my leaders,” but the more I thought about all this the more I felt compelled to go on at greater length.  So I’m throwing another diary on the pile – hopefully bringing more light than heat to the discussion.

Here’s the crux of Catnip’s argument; I encourage you to read her diary if you haven’t:

Citizens have an obligation to speak, to write, to criticize, to become educated and to educate others about the workings of democracy and the stances of their leaders. Citizens, however, are not their leaders. Just as one can marvel at and attempt to espouse the greatness of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, such as Dr Martin Luther King Jr, one cannot accept the glory or the responsibility for his or the entire movement’s actions. One can only claim responsibility for their own actions. The same applies to the actions of leaders who lead a country into war. It is not logical to assert that every single citizen, regardless of whether they support that leader or not, is thus responsible for their agendas either.

Individuals can only be held responsible for their own actions. To assign collective responsibility to any group of individuals based on any identifying marker, whether it be race, gender, religion, sexuality or citizenship, is not only unproductive, it is prejudicial. If the left end of the political spectrum is to be true to its ideals that freedom for all ought to be a birthright, it must allow itself the freedom to allow individuals to not hold responsibility for others deeds if those individuals have expressed dissent – in any form.

I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with that, although it would surely make my life easier.  I could say “My ancestors were all serfs in Europe until circa 1910, and even after that they were in the immigrant ghettos of Philadelphia and powerless to change society, so I bear no guilt for race problems in America.”  I might, but I don’t.  I can see that the very fact that I am white (and male. and straight) has removed obstacles for me that others have to struggle against.  And since I believe that is unjust, I have a moral obligation to work to change society for the better.  As Catnip put it, I must dissent.

But not all types of dissent are equally costly to me.  Talk is cheap, and it’s a lot easier to blog on the war than to go to DC and protest, which in turn is cheaper than going to Baghdad on the eve of “Shock and Awe” to literally stand with the poor of that city.  How much protest is enough?  Must we all literally be this man?  Or this one?  Even if we have a family to support?  Any one issue – say, global warming, habitat destruction /species extinction, or bringing affordable, effective health care to the poor of the third world – or America for that matter – is enough to consume one’s life in trying to bring about positive change.  Is my guilt on issue A mitigated because I was busy on issue B?

If metaphysical guilt is only assuaged by fighting the Nazis to the death, would Anne Frank’s parents have been guilty of it if the family had never been found?

Where does it end?

Once years ago, a liberal priest and former college classmate told me that guilt is a useless emotion unless it spurs one to action.  Perhaps instead of wallowing in guilt, our own and our neighbors, parsing out the degree of blame to be meted to each, we need to be about something more productive: producing change.

I cannot change the fact that I was born a white American male.  Some people just hit the lottery.  But I am responsible for what I do with what I have been given.  I have been born into a free nation – I have a responsibility to use that freedom wisely, to guard it, and to attempt to extend those freedoms to others.  Does that include at gunpoint?  Personally, I’d say only in circumstances approved by the UN, if we want the UN to exist as a credible institution to establish peace in the world.  I’d say we must follow the UN even if we don’t always agree with it, otherwise we descend a slippery slope whose first step is the high sounding and dulcet strains of American exceptionalism.  But all of that is an issue for another diary…

I have been born into a rich nation – I have a personal responsibility (and we have a collective one) to use my/our wealth for more than personal enjoyment.  Does this mean I must wear a hair shirt and sackcloth?  I don’t know – Is that the most effective way to help my neighbor, here or abroad?  Effectiveness in establishing a stable, just social order should be the ruler for measuring acts.

I have been born into a society rich in knowledge and wisdom, hard-won over centuries of bloodshed, tears, and bonfires, for those who would learn.  I must do what I can to educate others, to gently counsel them when they stray into folly or ignorance – while not setting myself up as an absolute standard, for I am no paragon myself.  And I must dedicate myself to pursuing knowledge and wisdom, though sometimes the path is painful to walk.

The prophet Micah says “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Can we ask any more of each other?  Can we ask any less of ourselves?  What greater privilege than to share the path with you, helping each other along the way, picking each other up if we trip or wander into the briars by the roadside.  May we all be up to the tasks that face us in our world – it’s going to take all of us, together, to get the jobs done.

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