To “suffer” from liberal guilt means that you are somewhat uneasy about all sorts of awkward things that it is tempting to harden your heart against, like global injustice, global warming, racism. It means that you are troubled by the stubborn persistence of our class system, though you personally have done fine by it. It means you sometimes worry that you might be prejudiced against all sorts of people. It means that your vague patriotism is laced with uncertainty about whether our ancient constitution is able to be truly inclusive. It means, for goodness sake, that you fail to be completely fatly smugly relaxed about this problematic world we inhabit. Is that really so shameful and wet, so laughably mentally effeminate?
I don’t worry about all of these things all of the time, that’s true. I have at least thought through all of them at one time or another and some of them I still worry about and others I don’t.
Those that I do worry about are the ones where I’ve tried to sort through the various possible solutions. If, for example, “global injustice” is taken to mean that we’re rich and they’re poor (a not uncommon version of that perceived problem) then indeed I worry about it and I’ve even reached the same conclusion as most of the economists on the planet. Property rights, globalisation, freeish markets, try not to let the idiots take over the government, that sort of thing.
About the only thing that stops me being recognsied as a liberal by other sufferers from “liberal” guilt is that having actually looked at the causes of those problems I do worry about I seem to have very different ideas about how to solve those problems.
There is really no excuse for failing to feel liberal guilt about global warming. No excuse. It is a fact that our affluent lifestyles are endangering the planet, to some maddeningly unknown degree. What is wrong with someone who is not made uneasy by this? What is wrong with someone who affects (or, worse, genuinely feels) indifference to this fact, and sneers at the muddled, hesitant, hypocritical responses of the conscience-pricked rest of us? Of course we don’t know if cutting down on meat will really help things, and make future flooding of distant lands less likely. But those farting cows are a problem, and maybe one should sponsor slightly fewer of them. To be a bit anxious about this is just to acknowledge the strange moral universe we seemingly inhabit.
The worry is fine: but don’t you think that having worried you’ve got a certain burden placed upon yourself to go and find out what will in fact cure the problem? Globalisation, freeish markets and a carbon tax would do nicely, as the IPCC themselves tell us.
After all, liberal guilt is all very well but to delve into my Catholic childhood, what matters after guilt is not the confession, it’s what you do to remedy the effects of your actions which have led to the guilt.
A couple of Hail Marys or passing on the steak in favour of lentils doesn’t do it you know.