Do I read the critical letters to the editor and the web postings about my columns, a friend asked recently? Yes, I told him, and I generally laugh them off, because they are so badly written and so uninformed that I cannot take them seriously.
But we both agreed that the web comment from "Lowcountrypinay" was different. It was not angry so much as confused. While highly critical of my May 21 column on racism and southern fatalism, she nevertheless showed a level of sensitivity and sophistication which is alien to most of my critics. Here is my response:
Lowcountrypinay says that she is a 30-something Asian American married to a white guy. "I don't understand white liberal guilt, not being white myself," she writes.
"The people of my generation are not interested in the old institutions and old ways," Lowcountrypinay continues. "They are part of a global culture, and they are going to school with, dating, and marrying people of color."
There is no reason why she should understand white guilt, though I would not deem it "liberal" any more than I would deem her ignorance of the matter "conservative."
I do not know how long Lowcountrypinay's family has been in the South — no longer than a couple of generations, I would guess. In that case, she is little more than a tourist here. Though she is a minority, her ancestors were never held in bondage. They were not lynched with impunity, segregated in all public accommodations, denied decent education or jobs. Hundreds of thousands of people were not killed in a monstrous war to keep her ancestors in chains.
For real southerners, this is more than just something in a history book. It is personal and immediate, and if you don't believe me, read the letters and postings of the redneck yahoos who respond to this column. I suspect there are many more of them than there are of you and your friends, Ms. Lowcountrypinay.
Guilt is to a healthy conscience what pain is to a healthy body. It is an alarm. It is a warning that something has gone wrong, that the psyche is injured or sick. A person who feels no guilt is just as pathological as a body which feels no pain.
Collective guilt is something that few people have the courage to own up to. Yes, flag wavers love to declare their collective pride in the ancient triumphs of their ancestors, and they will carry collective grudges for ancient crimes against their people. But when it comes to acknowledging the crimes their ancestors committed against others, memory becomes short and hazy. As generals and politicians have known from the dawn of history, you cannot whip a mob into a frenzy with guilt.
But guilt, like pain, is real. It must be dealt with. To deny it is to let a wound go untreated.
In any healthy personality or body politic, there should be a balance of pride and guilt, for pride without the capacity for guilt is the beginning of arrogance. Look what it did to George W. Bush.
Personally, I take pride that one of my ancestors, William Few of Georgia, fought the British in the Revolutionary War and signed the U.S. Constitution. Yet, I feel guilt in the fact that he owned slaves. There is nothing contradictory in those two statements. Pride and guilt live side by side in all who have healthy psyches.
Lowcountrypinay sounds rather pleased with herself as a "part of the global culture" who mixes easily with all races and ethnic groups. Good for you, Ms. Lowcountrypinay. But for those of us who live and work in the Charleston culture — and the southern culture generally — race is still very much a fact of life. Despite decades of anti-discrimination laws, race continues to dictate patterns of housing, income, poverty, the way we socialize, even the people we go to church with on Sunday.
Your complaint reminds me of the grumble of white people a half century ago: "We don't need no civil rights troublemakers 'round here. Everybody gets along just fine." And they meant it. Their friends and families were happy with things just as they were.
I think Lowcountrypinay could use a reality check. The urbane and rarefied atmosphere in which she lives is not the air that most of us breathe. Yet, I do see some hope in her and her peers. Demographic research suggests that the under-30 crowd in general is more tolerant when it comes to matters of race and sexual orientation. People of good will can only be cheered by this. Lowcountrypinay's generation will make itself felt in time. In fact, it has already had an important role in nominating Barack Obama for the White House.