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Jewish World Review April 26, 1999 /10 Iyar 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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Guilt and cop-outs

(JWR) ---- (
RECENTLY, AS I SUBSCRIBED to a sports magazine, twinges of guilt came back from more than 40 years ago.

As a young man, I had a summer job as messenger in the Pentagon, where General George C. Marshall subscribed to that same magazine. But General Marshall never received his copy until after I had read through the issue.

Among the many bad things that we all do, this may not rank very high. But it was enough to generate guilt that survived for nearly half a century -- as it should. Every time I have read about General Marshall's role in World War II or his later career as Secretary of State and author of "the Marshall Plan," I have thought about that magazine.

It was not my magazine, even to delay for a few hours. None of the fashionable cop-outs of today were acceptable back then -- thank heavens. I was just plain wrong and knew it.

Guilt is a bad feeling for the individual, but vitally important for society. Those who cannot think beyond "me" and "now" just want to get rid of guilt, and there are shrinks and non-judgmental education to help them do that. But remembering guilt has kept many of us from succumbing to temptations to do far worse things than some of the trivialities we felt guilty about.

If hanging on to a magazine that I should have delivered promptly caused me this much hassle, why let myself in for more of the same by doing some of the other things I could have done in later years, when I was in higher positions, with more opportunities to do wrong things with worse consequences?

Guilt, like physical pain, serves a purpose. There are rare individuals who feel no pain from things that would have the rest of us in agony. It might seem that being pain-free would be a great blessing, but it turns out to be a curse to these people.

Those who do not feel pain must have medical check-ups far more often than the rest of us. Some have been rushed from their doctor's office to the hospital with appendicitis or other life-threatening conditions that they did not realize they had.

Even for normal people, conditions like high blood pressure are especially dangerous because we feel no symptoms right up to the moment of a fatal stroke.

Guilt is the pain that saves us -- and society -- from many dangers. In particular times with particular people, it can be overdone, as everything human can be. But the attempt to banish it completely is recklessly shallow and short-sighted.

What happens when we don't have guilt? Horrifying stories of children who shoot their classmates at school -- like the current tragedy in Colorado -- are often blamed on guns, on "society" or on other scapegoats. Seldom, if ever, does anyone consider the possibility that the guilt-free, non-judgmental attitudes taught in the school itself may have contributed to such tragedies.

Guilt is an inescapable consequence of personal responsibility. Like other aspects of personal responsibility, it is deplored by those who set the standards of political correctness today. The only kind of guilt that is acceptable to them is collective guilt -- guilt as part of "society," guilt for what long-dead ancestors did, guilt for everything except what you yourself did.

Like many of the other glib and shallow ideas of our times, collective guilt first came into its own back in the 1960s. Somehow we were all responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was considered Deep Stuff to say things like that, however little sense it made.

Collective guilt is politically useful for extracting money from the government or special favors or exemptions from others. So what if it won't stand up under logical scrutiny? Its purpose is not truth but power.

Before it was banished by the intelligentsia, guilt did yeoman service for society. Some people who had literally gotten away with murder, and were not even suspected by anyone, nevertheless came forth to confess or sometimes took their own lives, leaving a note behind admitting their guilt.

No society can monitor all its members all the time. Guilt forces them to monitor themselves. It is far more effective than police and courts, which have all they can do to cope with those in whom all morality has been extinguished.

There is nothing I can do today about General Marshall's magazine. But the memory of it keeps me in bounds better than any distant policeman or judge.


04/21/99: Choosing a college
04/16/99: When success fails
04/13/99: A photo-op foreign policy
04/09/99: Russia and the Serbs
04/06/99: Random thoughts
03/31/99: Irresponsible "experts"
03/29/99: Another Doleful prospect?
03/23/99: Random thoughts
03/22/99: Loving enemies
03/19/99: Naming names
03/15/99: Undermining the military
03/10/99: Joe DiMaggio -- icon of an era
03/02/99: Facts versus dogma on guns
03/01/99: Losing the cultural wars
02/22/99: "Saving" social security
02/18/99: Too many Ph.Ds?
02/8/99: A national disaster
02/8/99: Economic fallacies in the media: Part II
02/5/99: Why economists visit dentists so often
02/2/99: Warning: Good news
01/29/99: What is at stake?
01/26/99:Moral bankruptcy in the schools
01/22/99: Who is going to convict Santa Claus?
01/19/99: Seeing through the spin
01/13/99: A trial is a trial is a trial
01/11/99:Trials and tribulations
01/08/99: Rays of hope
01/04/99: Random thoughts
12/31/98: The President versus the presidency
12/29/98: The time is now!
12/23/98: World-class hypocrisy
12/21/98: The spreading corruption
12/17/98: Politically "contrite"
12/16/98: Polls and partisanship
12/14/98: The "non-profit" halo
12/11/98: Corruption and confusion
12/03/98: The health care "crisis"
11/30/98: Knowing what you are talking about
11/23/98: The impeachment legacy
11/23/98: Random thoughts
11/19/98: Tales out of bureaucracies
11/16/98: Scholarships based on scholarship
11/12/98: Forward march
11/09/98: Moral outrage
11/05/98: Will the Republicans ever learn?
11/02/98: A voter's duty
10/30/98: The poverty pimp's poem
10/29/98: Random thoughts on the election
10/27/98: "Partisan" and "unfair"
10/23/98: Ed-u-kai-tchun
10/21/98: McGwire, Maris and the Babe
10/16/98: Lightweight Boxer
10/14/98: A strange word
10/09/98: Impeachment standards
10/08/98: Alternatives to seriousness
10/07/98: Heredity, environment and talk
10/02/98: A much-needed guide
10/01/98: Starr's real crime
9/24/98: Costs and power
9/18/98: Are we sheep?
9/16/98: Judicial review
9/15/98: Hillary Rodham Crook?
9/14/98: Taking stock
9/11/98: Moment of truth
9/04/98: Random thoughts
8/31/98: The twilight of special prosecutors?
8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
8/19/98: Played for fools
8/17/98: A childish letter
8/11/98: Hiding behind a woman
8/07/98: A flying walrus in Washington?
8/03/98: "Affordability" strikes again
7/31/98: Random thoughts
7/27/98: Faith and mountains
7/24/98: Clinton in Wonderland
7/20/98: Where is black 'leadership' leading?
7/16/98: Do 'minorities' really have it that bad?
7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
7/10/98: Honest history
7/09/98: Dumb is dangerous
7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
parental responsibility
6/30/98: When more is less
6/29/98: Are educators above the law?
6/26/98: Random Thoughts
6/24/98: An angry letter
6/22/98: Sixties sentimentalism
6/19/98:Dumbing down anti-trust
6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
6/11/98: Presidential privileges
6/8/98: Fast computers and slow antitrust
6/3/98: Can stalling backfire?
5/29/98: The insulation of the Left
5/25/98: Missing the point in the media
5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1999, Creators Syndicate