Thursday, March 9, 2017

Shelby Steele On The Exhaustion Of American Liberalism

One of the better writers on the subject of race, Shelby Steele, earned a great deal of notoriety with his The Content Of Our Character (1998). He returns with an essay appearing in the Wall Street Journal on that same subject, "The Exhaustion of American Liberalism". Key passage (emboldening mine):
White guilt is not actual guilt. Surely most whites are not assailed in the night by feelings of responsibility for America’s historical mistreatment of minorities. Moreover, all the actual guilt in the world would never be enough to support the hegemonic power that the mere pretense of guilt has exercised in American life for the last half-century.

White guilt is not angst over injustices suffered by others; it is the terror of being stigmatized with America’s old bigotries—racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. To be stigmatized as a fellow traveler with any of these bigotries is to be utterly stripped of moral authority and made into a pariah. The terror of this, of having “no name in the street” as the Bible puts it, pressures whites to act guiltily even when they feel no actual guilt. White guilt is a mock guilt, a pretense of real guilt, a shallow etiquette of empathy, pity and regret.

It is also the heart and soul of contemporary liberalism. This liberalism is the politics given to us by white guilt, and it shares white guilt’s central corruption. It is not real liberalism, in the classic sense. It is a mock liberalism. Freedom is not its raison d’ĂȘtre; moral authority is.
"Mock guilt" is what drives the "check your privilege" nonsense, words mouthed to evade actual accountability for the things real world encounters with politics inflict on people. Here, I am thinking of David Simon's inexplicable, apparently branding-driven endorsement of the execrable Martin O'Malley, or the belief of Hillary voters in her moral superiority on matters of race. Privilege (despite the absurd and obvious problems with its explanatory power) in this reading is merely a catalyst for public displays of guilt  — but one need never actually do anything about whatever it is that makes one guilty.

Steele's essay is not without its flaws, and it has some gaping ones, particularly his insistence that "we all... know that [Donald Trump] isn’t [racist]". Trump's handling of his father's apartment complexes is enough to excite the charge, at least, and the Nixon-era DOJ was hardly radical. But overall, some excellent points.

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