Steele’s hopeless ambivalence about America

(More material has been added to this entry since yesterday, including a free-form analysis of an earlier Steele column.)

While Shelby Steele says some things about race relations that are strikingly similar to my own ideas, a salient difference between us is that he is hopelessly divided on the issue and ultimately not on the side of America. In typical Steele fashion, his latest article at Opinion Journal is ambivalent at best, subversive at worst. For hundreds of words, he bemoans America’s deference and impotence with regard to such challenges as the illegal alien invasion and the terror war in Iraq, an impotence that he says has been brought on by whites’ sense of guilt over the historic sin of white supremacism. Yet at the same time he keeps luridly invoking that sin and saying that the guilt is richly deserved. “White supremacy,” he writes, “had organized the entire world, divided up its resources, imposed the nation-state system across the globe, and delivered the majority of the world’s population into servitude and oppression.”

Only at the very end of the article, virtually as an afterthought, does Steele say that white America should get over its guilt, because whites are no longer racist. How naïve. Having indicted in blistering terms our entire historical nation and civilization, he thinks that a nation that has internalized such an indictment can turn around and be confident again! Having declared with preening satisfaction that we whites have deservedly lost our old civilizational confidence, which he says was based on our being white, he imagines that we can have a new confidence, based on our being nothing at all except race-blind liberals. He imagines, for example, that a country of race-blind liberals can effectively defend itself from a mass invasion by race-conscious Mexicans.

Steele for all his smarts is still at square one on the problem of national suicide. As a good mainstream conservative, he rejects left-liberalism with its outright anti-Americanism. Yet he still doesn’t understand the fundamental problem of right-liberalism or neoconservatism: that a nation that has stripped itself of its historic particularity can no longer function as a real nation, but only as the incarnation of a universal ideology. And it is precisely as such an “idea-nation” that we find ourselves helpless to preserve our actual existence as a nation.

Steele’s article is entitled “White Guilt and the Western Past.” A far better article on the causes and cure of white guilt is my piece at FrontPage Magazine last October, “Guilty Whites.”

- end of initial entry -

Jeff writes from England:

I’m listening to the Michael Medved radio phone-in programme with guest Shelby Steele getting viciously attacked by a black caller and I mean viciously attacked. Very scary. Steele deserves a lot of credit for trying to deal with the subject matter of white guilt etc. and though that doesn’t mean he is beyond criticism, (yours or anyone else’s) I’m full of admiration for the general message he is trying to put forth, both in the black and white communities. He is getting some heavy flak from the black community. I wish you could hear this programme; it is repeated at 1:00A.M. your New York time on KSKY radio and 3:00A.M. your New York time on WIND radio……..check these repeats by googling if interested and I may have times wrong. Best, Jeff

LA replies:

Why are the blacks attacking him—because he says that white America is no longer racist? If that’s the case, it’s no big deal. That’s the standard mainstream conservative view today. And for this he gets big credit? Why—because he’s black? Then we’re caught up again in the psychodrama of investing our emotional support in a minority person who seems to take the side of our civilization against the minorities, when in key respects he’s not on our side.

Conservatives just don’t pick up on Steele’s real message, because they accept his liberal premise that all of America, all of Western civilization, up to the 1960s was a den of racial iniquity. Once you accept that view, you’re finished, you can never defend the historic, white West or its continuation. The only way you can become legitimate in your own eyes (and Steele’s eyes) is by embracing race-blindness and non-discrimination as your highest ideal. And we know where that goes.

You know Steele once said years ago, we have to get rid of race preferences, but if we do, then we have to make any act of racial discrimination a felony. Commit an act of discrimination, and you go to jail. I saw him say that on TV. He looked extremely tense and angry when he said it. The impression I had was, because he was standing up against his fellow blacks by opposing race preferences, he had to be all the tougher against whites and threaten to send them to jail if they fell one inch short of total non-discrimination.

The same thing can be seen in his current article. On one hand, he says whites are no longer racist, and whites like Rush Limbaugh are overjoyed: a minority is on our side! Yippee! But on the other hand, to compensate for uttering the heresy that whites are no longer racist, Steele demonizes whites’ entire historic civilization and establishes the principle that the only way whites can be good in his eyes is by being absolutely race blind, which, among other things, leaves them helpless before the Third-World invasion and minority intimidation generally.

The, at best, ambivalence toward the historic West that one finds over and over in minority conservatives is why, as I’ve said before, I’m not particularly concerned about finding minority conservatives to take the side of America and the West: I’m interested in whites taking the side of America and the West. That’s what our survival hinges on.

* * *

Here is another discussion about the Steele article that may be of interest. When I had linked the Steele article in another blog entry earlier today, but before I had written anything about it myself, Paul N. wrote:

That Shelby Steele article you linked is very powerful. I think he has enormous insights. But the article leaves open the question, what does he think of our civilization (not just its power). He wrote the answer in September, 2001.

Then, after I harshly criticized the Steele article in an e-mail (which I then turned into the blog entry above), Paul wrote back:

I don’t agree with you. In the September, 2001 article I linked he winds up saying, in effect, “Western civilization is superior. The Third World can stop complaining—either fish or cut bait.”

C. replied to Paul:

What article is that? I got annoyed when I read in this present article about how white supremacy delivered the majority of the world’s population into servitude and oppression. He doesn’t say anything positive about whites except that they no longer believe in white supremacy. I’d say he has an obligation to say what you, Paul, say he said in that September ‘01 article every time he criticizes whites the way he does here. Otherwise he almost legitimizes the white guilt. He’s done this before. Something he wrote some time ago, maybe for NR, so detailed white sins and said that these had removed all moral authority from white people so that they could no longer assert any authority in society and that’s why we had this awful black underclass and there’s nothing that can be done and so forth. He was almost making it true by writing that way, making sure whites could never again have authority to do anything but beat their breasts. Then some time later I saw something similar, but the editor seemed to have forced him to say something positive about white civilization having its great aspects too. But it seems you can’t count on him and if an editor doesn’t force it, he’ll leave it as in this article.

Paul replied:

I say Steele is describing what he thinks whites have gone through and are going through.

I don’t think he’s applauding it.

I don’t think he’s saying whites have been evil in ways that other people haven’t.

At the end of the linked article, I think he says, clear as can be, that Western civilization is great and Western civilization owes no apologies. I assume that this is what he thinks. It never occurred to me that this is something forced upon him by an editor.

C. replied:

I’m pretty sure an editor intervened somewhere. Now that I’m remembering, he gave a talk at an academic conference I attended with all the stuff about white guilt and white sins, and at the end of it, it seemed hopeless, so ingrained was this guilt and the terrible things done by whites that they could never recover their authority. Then NR published something much the same with a much more positive thing tacked on. The article you link below is much more positive, but the one today went back to the old ambiguity. It’s like the only thing whites can be proud of is that they no longer believe in white supremacy. Also, this remark below is offensive and also untrue:

White supremacy “had organized the entire world, divided up its resources, imposed the nation-state system across the globe, and delivered the majority of the world’s population into servitude and oppression.”

He didn’t do us any favors with that. But the older article is much different, much much better.

* * *

Here is an e-mail I sent to Paul N. about the Shelby Steele article from September 17, 2001 that Paul had mentioned. The e-mail is something of a riff rather than a completely reasoned argument, but I still think it’s acceptably coherent. The “run-on,” “piled-on” way I wrote it reflects what is to me the mind-bendingly contradictory quality of Steele’s article.

LA to Paul:

I just read that Steele article. I can see why you like it, with its praise of the West and its (apparent) rejection of white guilt. But I think it’s still a convoluted and confused piece of writing. He seems to be blaming white oppression for the historic backwardness of the Third-World, and then he seems to be saying that whites are not guilty today, but that is not clear. In the past, the whites were responsible for keeping the Third World “out of history” via oppression and colonialism (as though in the absence of colonialism India and Nigeria would have been “in” history). But today whites are also responsible for keeping the Third-World back by giving them favors instead of insisting that they take responsibility for themselves and participate in the Western culture. So, whites were totally guilty in the past for their white Western supremacism, but despite this, today they’re supposed to assert themselves boldly and insist that non-whites assimilate to the superior Western culture instead of languishing in welfare and group privileges. But how could such guilty people assert themselves over the very people to whom they are historically guilty? Yet whites are guilty for that failure as well, i.e., they’re guilty for not taking the lead as the leaders and representatives of a superior Western culture! They’re guilty for accepting the guilt that Steele himself says they richly deserve! But at the same time he says that Arafat and Jesse Jackson are master manipulators of guilt. Oh. So it’s not just that whites guiltily impose a false guilt on themselves and so fail to assert themselves as the leaders of nonwhites and so become even more guilty for nonwhite failure. No. It’s that whites are pushed—by the non-whites themselves—into the guilty act of surrendering to nonwhites and giving them favors. He criticizes the whites for letting themselves be made to feel guilty and be pushed around. But given the total guilt that Steele says whites are under for their entire history prior to the last 40 years, a guilt that they can ONLY be relieved from on the condition that they stop oppressing nonwhites, on what basis does Steel expect whites not to be vulnerable to the guilt-mongering of a Jackson or Arafat? .

In conclusion, while Steele has a couple of good ideas, I think they only add up to a fragment of a complete thesis. At bottom, he’s a confused, contradictory thinker. Even worse, he’s made a whole career for the last 15 years out of writing the same article, presenting the same intriguing but incomplete and flawed idea, over and over.

For a better explanation of the impossibility of whites asserting themselves as the leaders of nonwhites following their acceptance of guilt for their historic oppression of nonwhites, see my article, How the 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial group entitlements inevitable,

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 02, 2006 01:29 PM | Send

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