What’s wrong with the world?
And where do we place guilt?
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Any G.K. Chesterton fan remembers his reply to a query from the Times of London. Supposedly a Times editor wrote to several early 20th-century authors, asking, “In your opinion, what is wrong with the world today?” The great essayist replied, “Dear sir: I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
Perhaps too delicious to be true, and it may not be. The Chesterton Society has found no documentary evidence for it, so even if the letter was sent, it likely wasn’t published. Still, the story has a very Chestertonian flair. He published a book of essays, What’s Wrong With the World, in 1910, and perhaps that title didn’t come out of the blue.
Origins aside, everyone, at every time, knows that something is wrong. Throughout recorded history, every culture has sensed that the world is not as it should be, and all have a story to explain why. From Pandora opening her boiling box of worldly ills to man-made climate change irritating Mother Earth, blame always finds a place to rest.
Broken down to basics, though, there are only three possible answers to the question the Times posed.
What’s wrong with the world? They are. This is the default answer, a primitive impulse going back to childhood when we fingered little Jimmy or big sister Sue or the bully next door for making our lives miserable. As our world widens, that malevolent teacher or disciplinarian dad morphs into the System or the Man. To Nazi Germany it was the Jews and other “inferior” races. To a Marxist it’s the capitalist system. To a capitalist it’s creeping socialism. To a woke progressive it’s the whole matrix of oppression pushed (intentionally or not) by Western civilization. Which raises another possible answer to the question:
We are. This sums up wokeness in two words. It began legitimately with the civil rights movement of the 1960s exposing rank injustice at all levels of society, legal and personal. The elimination of separate drinking fountains and public facilities happened quickly, but residual racism lingered, along with residual guilt. Guilt not only lingered, it bulked up and became an ideology taking over the university and most of the media. We are the problem is a much more complicated formula than They are or You are, because it’s partly true. Whatever the problem, and whatever group consists of “we,” there’s usually some guilt to share.
But “we” don’t always know where to draw the line. Shortly before the pandemic shutdowns, wealthy white ladies were paying $2,500 apiece for “Race to Dinner” events, where two women of color harangued them about how racist they were. As race2dinner.com not-so-subtly suggested, “White women: you need to sit in your discomfort.” Why women? And why bother with food, since lamb chops with a side of discomfort would go down like cardboard? Why not just pay the inquisitors $300 to expose white fragility by the hour?
We are the problem can thus become a circular, convoluted route back to You are. That makes collective guilt a form of self-justification—for those who are willing to acknowledge it and move over to the side of the angels.
That brings us back to Chesterton’s answer: I am. A nation can and should acknowledge wrongs and make amends. But only individuals can experience guilt, labor under guilt, and access effective remedies for guilt. Human nature is collective: “in Adam all die.” Human responsibility is individual.
I remember mouthing off to my dad once as a teenager. It was out of character: Usually I just ignored his rants about hippies and rock music. His angry reply was something along the lines of “You think you’re so smart,” but somehow it struck a guilty nerve. I remember clearly thinking, He’s right. Though random in his salvos against my generation, he was right about me. I later apologized, with mutual tears, and will always be grateful for that moment.
I am may not fully answer the question, but it’s the right place to start.
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