January 14, 2013

The Wages of Guilt

From Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt, pp. 259-60:

Karl Jaspers, in The Question of German Guilt, argued that people should be collectively held responsible for the way they are governed. So if their country, for example, is ruled by a criminal regime, the people are responsible for that state of affairs. Also writing after the war, the Japanese filmmaker Itami Mansaku ridiculed the notion that those who were “deceived” about what was happening were necessarily innocent. The deceived, he wrote, have to share the blame with the deceivers; “the entire people was to blame for its lack of criticism, its slavishness, its incapacity to think” (quote from Buruma). Thus he came to the same conclusion that Jaspers did, that “people must be held responsible for the society they live in.” This is an important idea, says Buruma; without it, “the institutions necessary to maintain open, liberal societies cannot survive.”

Just think of all those people, for example, who condone the current American regime on the grounds that “the Republicans would be worse,” or who voted for Obama knowing full well that every week his predator drones were murdering women and children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. When people start to get routinely locked up for dissenting opinions; when whole swaths of the population sink into starvation; when eco-catastrophe is finally upon us, full force: Who will be responsible? The American government, or the “innocent” citizens who kept it in power? Will ignorance, or even stupidity, be enough of an excuse?