Jimmy Carter's Sanctimonious Guilt

The recent exploitation of racism by former President Jimmy Carter reminds me of something I detected long ago in a lot of Americans from his generation.  After I could conjure a description for it, I found that it helped me understand many members of the so-called Greatest Generation.  It is best described as sanctimonious guilt.

Of course, I am referring to Mr. Carter's presumptuous statement that opposition to President Obama's extravagant policies in the midst of a deep recession is rooted in racism among whites who believe "that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

Obviously, it would be grossly unfair to label a whole generation in this way, especially one to whom the rest of us are indebted for their service to our nation.  While they were forced to grow up fast in the midst of a world war, they benefited greatly from America's ascendance afterward.  Undoubtedly, that experience contributed to their feelings as a group.  It must have been wonderful to be the first in your family to attend college and land a job with a visible path to the top ranks.  Alas, this experience was reserved for a select group of Americans, namely white and male, and therein lies the cause of the affliction of Mr. Carter and others.

Regarding sanctimonious guilt, it is easier to explain the second word first.  To understand it, one only needs to have had good fortune while others continue in difficult circumstances.  For white men of Mr. Carter's generation in the South, this was especially true.  Seeing black citizens struggle simply to be recognized as equal to other Americans, many naturally felt sympathy, guilt, or even self-loathing for being so fortunate in comparison.

The first word, sanctimonious, describes a less obvious, yet common, effect of good fortune on the brightest and most successful men of Mr. Carter's age.  To borrow the cliché; the world was their oyster, and they felt entitled to it.  After all, they had won a war and worked hard to achieve their success.  With their college degrees and wartime experiences, they confidently took their places of leadership in their communities.

Living in the South, I know many of Mr. Carter's contemporaries.  The most enlightened were among the first whites to sympathize with the plight of black Americans around them.  Ordinary workaday citizens, they had a sense that they were helping the great moral cause of the day.  It did not matter that most did not risk their status or lives for the cause of civil rights.  A passive and muted identification with the struggle was enough to make them feel superior to those who resisted it.

Mr. Carter's career makes him a great example of sanctimonious guilt.  As a successful farmer-businessman in his small hometown, he entered politics at the most turbulent moment of the civil rights era. 

In Georgia in 1970, it was a virtual certainty that a Democrat like Mr. Carter would become governor.  In his bid for the office, he navigated the sensitive waters of racial politics by giving lip service to segregationists and covering his own sympathies for blacks.  Appearing less liberal than former governor Carl Sanders, he won.  Apparently, the experience did not teach him enough about those who would exploit race for their own advantage.

Ten months after a majority of Americans elected an African-American to the presidency, Carter's charge of racism against well-meaning citizens is patently ridiculous.  Sadly, people have come to expect this sort of cheap shot from him.  Poor judgment and divisive comments have marked his career since before his single term in the Oval Office.  In typical fashion, he sanctimoniously refuses to acknowledge that there would be reasons other than racism to explain disagreement with President Obama.  Of course, it's also possible he was projecting lingering feelings of guilt for exploiting racism long ago.

Steve Hines is an economist in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The recent exploitation of racism by former President Jimmy Carter reminds me of something I detected long ago in a lot of Americans from his generation.  After I could conjure a description for it, I found that it helped me understand many members of the so-called Greatest Generation.  It is best described as sanctimonious guilt.

Of course, I am referring to Mr. Carter's presumptuous statement that opposition to President Obama's extravagant policies in the midst of a deep recession is rooted in racism among whites who believe "that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

Obviously, it would be grossly unfair to label a whole generation in this way, especially one to whom the rest of us are indebted for their service to our nation.  While they were forced to grow up fast in the midst of a world war, they benefited greatly from America's ascendance afterward.  Undoubtedly, that experience contributed to their feelings as a group.  It must have been wonderful to be the first in your family to attend college and land a job with a visible path to the top ranks.  Alas, this experience was reserved for a select group of Americans, namely white and male, and therein lies the cause of the affliction of Mr. Carter and others.

Regarding sanctimonious guilt, it is easier to explain the second word first.  To understand it, one only needs to have had good fortune while others continue in difficult circumstances.  For white men of Mr. Carter's generation in the South, this was especially true.  Seeing black citizens struggle simply to be recognized as equal to other Americans, many naturally felt sympathy, guilt, or even self-loathing for being so fortunate in comparison.

The first word, sanctimonious, describes a less obvious, yet common, effect of good fortune on the brightest and most successful men of Mr. Carter's age.  To borrow the cliché; the world was their oyster, and they felt entitled to it.  After all, they had won a war and worked hard to achieve their success.  With their college degrees and wartime experiences, they confidently took their places of leadership in their communities.

Living in the South, I know many of Mr. Carter's contemporaries.  The most enlightened were among the first whites to sympathize with the plight of black Americans around them.  Ordinary workaday citizens, they had a sense that they were helping the great moral cause of the day.  It did not matter that most did not risk their status or lives for the cause of civil rights.  A passive and muted identification with the struggle was enough to make them feel superior to those who resisted it.

Mr. Carter's career makes him a great example of sanctimonious guilt.  As a successful farmer-businessman in his small hometown, he entered politics at the most turbulent moment of the civil rights era. 

In Georgia in 1970, it was a virtual certainty that a Democrat like Mr. Carter would become governor.  In his bid for the office, he navigated the sensitive waters of racial politics by giving lip service to segregationists and covering his own sympathies for blacks.  Appearing less liberal than former governor Carl Sanders, he won.  Apparently, the experience did not teach him enough about those who would exploit race for their own advantage.

Ten months after a majority of Americans elected an African-American to the presidency, Carter's charge of racism against well-meaning citizens is patently ridiculous.  Sadly, people have come to expect this sort of cheap shot from him.  Poor judgment and divisive comments have marked his career since before his single term in the Oval Office.  In typical fashion, he sanctimoniously refuses to acknowledge that there would be reasons other than racism to explain disagreement with President Obama.  Of course, it's also possible he was projecting lingering feelings of guilt for exploiting racism long ago.

Steve Hines is an economist in Chattanooga, Tennessee.