Monday, June 05, 2006

Whack Like Me: On Victims and Their Ennoblers

I’m reading Shelby Steele’s new book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. Initially I hadn’t planned to, because I avoid books that I know ahead of time are simply going to reinforce what I already know. But when I read Steele’s astute comment in Taranto’s column about the relationship between reactionary baby boomer liberalism and the the oedipal triumph of “ousting a president” and “ending Vietnam,” I knew I had to read the whole book.

I haven’t been disappointed. I’m actually only about halfway through, but the book is full of brilliant and original insights about race, politics, and culture. The book is written in a deceptively low-key way, but I'm sure this kind of truth is absolutely toxic to hysterical liberals. I don’t even want to read the vile things they write about this brilliant, perceptive, and thoroughly decent man, and this time I mean it. It would be too disturbing. Ironically, the kind of abuse that a Steele or Thomas Sowell have to deal with must feel similar to the racism both men endured while growing up. I can't even imagine what the left would do if a white person had written this book.

Steele chronicles some of the indignities and disappointments he experienced as a result of racism during his childhood and adolescence. However, he utterly dismantles the liberal cliché that experiences with racism are the cause of low self esteem or “black anger.” When widespread racism really existed in America, Steele notes that it felt much more existential than personal. It just was. It was something immutable, like the weather, or the laws of physics. Certainly it caused a degree of disenchantment with the world, because it made the world seem not just unfair, but absurd. But Steele says it didn’t affect his self esteem. If anything, he says it increased his self esteem, because it made him “a little above the world and gave my judgments a new authority.” Even as a boy, he knew that the was a better person than the white racists he encountered.

Remember, Steele is writing about a time when America actually was still a racist country 50 years ago. And yet, black leaders were not as angry then as today's liberal white-appointed "leaders." The civil rights movement was led by men of dignity and moral authority. There were no Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons or Cynthia McKinneys. If the movement had been comprised of such low and disreputable hustlers and opportunists, it would never have succeeded so rapidly. It was led by men and women who could shame America precisely because of their dignity and because of the nobility and moral authority of their cause.

Steele’s book is in part the story of how, in a span of just 40 years, America could go from being a place where the murderers of Emmett Till could go free because they were white, to a place where O.J. Simpson could go free because he’s black. And it all revolves around how the civil rights movement, at the very moment it succeeded in achieving its goals, cynically betrayed its own ideals and became just another industry, an industry revolving around the exploitation of white guilt.

White guilt is the key, because in Steele’s formulation dysfunctional “black anger” varies directly with the guilt-ridden white liberal establishment that indulges it. In a truly oppressed people, this kind of anger would be unthinkable. There were no displays of “Russian anger” in the USSR, nor is there “Muslim anger” directed at the totalitarian states that oppress them. Just like black anger, Muslim anger is directed at a target that will indulge it: America or Israel. If Palestinians were truly an oppressed people we wouldn’t even know about it, because Israel would have driven them out and eliminated them long ago. The Palestinians' angry and dysfunctional existence revolves around the world’s indulgence of it.

Steele notes that the exploitation of white guilt leads to a perversion of character, wherein the victim can elevate himself above the guilty oppressor, thus creating “an empowering feeling of license.” He writes from the personal experience of having been a militant radical in the 1960’s, “the feeling that being black released me from the usual obligation to common decency and decorum.... I was licensed to live in a spirit of disregard toward my own country.”

Suddenly, with the perception of white guilt, Steele realized “I could use America’s fully acknowledged history of racism just as whites had always used their race--as a racial authority and privilege that excused me from certain responsibilities, moral constraints, and even the law.” It was “an abusive power very similar to the abusive power that had been wielded against me--a power of privilege deriving solely from the color of my skin,” capable of muscling “concessions from the larger society on the basis of past victimization...” Every black problem could be magically explained away “because it was an injustice to make victims responsible for their own problems.”

But point any of this out, and you are dead politically. Not once, writes Steele has there been “a single articulation by an American president of how blacks might so much as even share responsibility for their own advancement.” This is not out of respect, but either because of implicit racism and condescension, cynicism and political calculation, or fear of reprisal from people with real power to destroy a reputation, such as the liberal media.

The kind of anger Steele describes “is acted out by the oppressed only when real weakness is perceived in the oppressor. Anger is never automatic or even inevitable for the oppressed; it is chosen when weakness in the oppressor means it will be effective in winning freedom or justice or spoils of some kind. Anger is a response to perceived opportunity, not to injustice. And expressions of anger escalate not with more injustice but with less injustice.”

My dear bobbleheads, let’s pause here for a moment, for Steele has described a more generalized phenomenon that is central to the angry attacks on President Bush. All of those lunatics and moonbats who believe President Bush is a fascist, that we are in the midst of a theocratic takeover, that our freedoms are being eliminated--all of that kooky-talk varies inversely with the threat of these hysterical fears having any basis in reality.

Oh, how I wish President Bush were much more like the leftist fantasies of him. I wish he would act like President Reagan did with the air traffic controllers: “Oh, I’m so sorry. You’re angry? Well YOU’RE FIRED! Now get out, before I stuff a mattress with you.” I wish Bush would go after the New York Times with hammer and tongs for leaking government secrets and threatening our civil liberties. I wish he would call traitors traitors and terrorists Muslims. I wish he would give as good as he got. But he doesn’t, so it creates a perception of weakness and license for more angry attacks--for more speaking lies to perceived powerlessness.

President Bush’s failure to respond to the hysteria creates a vacuum of moral authority where the amoral leap in. The same thing occurs, according to Steele, in race relations. The missing authority then transfers to the “victims,” a role they will milk for all its worth. Victimhood becomes a literal currency or capital that is convertible to real capital. It creates real wealth and status, such as in the case of Jesse Jackson and so many other individuals and institutions, all of it made possible by white guilt. As Steele puts it, “White guilt had inadvertently opened up racism as the single greatest opportunity available to blacks from the mid-sixties on...”

Johnnie Chochran did not, for example, gamble on the racism of the Amercan legal system. Rather, he wagered everything “on the court’s being obsessed with showing its utter freedom from racial bias, its determination to let even a hint of racism disqualify sound evidence.” Cochran knew that the court was much less interested in the truth than in proving it was not biased against Simpson.

To a certain extent these types of problems are inevitable, because human beings have a deep need for illusion and falsehood. But truth is the highest societal value. A society that not only organizes itself around the Lie, but attacks any truth that undermines the Lie, is in trouble.



As the unintentional ironist Stephen Colbert said to the graduates in his speech last week, "I don't know if they've told you what's been happening in the world while you've been matriculating. The world is waiting for you people with a club....They are playing for KEEPS out there, folks."

Yes, it's awful. If you humiliate the President to his face, they go after you with a club--a very exclusive one. They force you to be the guest of honor at a college commencement.


will said...

Yes, the early civil rights mvt seemed to stress inclusion into mainstream America. It was saying "We are just as human as you are, we want to be included."

Now the stress often seems to be "We are not like you, a place must be created to accommodate our differences." One example among many - the utterly specious concept of "eubonics", the originators of which actually said they based around the idea of "genetic differences". Behind all this, there lurks the widespread belief, often directly stated, that whites are innately evil. Of course, as you point out, Bob, this bias can be indulged in for the simple reason that whites are obviously not innately evil - if they were, blacks would not exist. Overall, it's a dreadful backsliding into tribalism.

Re Bush and his disturbing quiescence: He takes after his dad in this respect. I suspect George Jr. wanted to be, is constitutionally, an Eisenhower at a time when we need a Churchill, a war president.

Giuliani in '08. We should pray for his health and his willingness.

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes! I can picure Giuliani responding to critics with the famous "teamwork" speech delivered by Robert DeNiro in Capone, the one with the baseball bat.

Hoarhey said...

Bush went to Washington with a vow to "change the tone" of politics. Well his passive, turn the other cheek philosophy doesn't work with leftists bent on regaining power at any cost. As a result the invective continues to worsen.
He seems to think that by engaging in the debate he will be seen as stooping to their level.
The sad part is that as a result of his unwillingness to engage in a noble way and explain and define the arguement, he is the one being labeled as meansprited and underhanded.

dilys said...

Guilt is a big issue for societies, and for religious/spiritual practice. Past errors and "harm done" because of the Arrow of Time and the irreversibility create big conundrums. I know how Christianity handles the question, but maybe from your wide reading you could do a cross-survey. What does Vedanta do with guilt? Zen? Tantra? Hinduism? Sufiism? Redefinitions into "no harm done"? 12-step "making amends"? nothing? It seems psychologically key. I'm wondering if a Ghandian Seizure of the High Ground over the "oppressors" doesn't create big social problems down the line. Does a "bad man" who is confronted but can save face turn out better than a shamed "bad man"?

Politics. I briefly met Giuliani -- long receiving line -- in February. He seems to have a wonderful combination of connection, confidence, and self-amusement. He's my first political crush!

If anybody can carry off the next act, the smart money's on him. It might be good if he lies low during some of the early primary hoo-hah, like a thoroughbred who collects energy for the home stretch. I got the impression he's willing, and unintimidable. Let's hope.

ben usn (ret) said...

The white guilt is perpetuated by lefties who, among other deceptions, claim that white people are inherently racist.
That is an absurd claim, but it helps keep the guilt alive and hurts so good.
I recall a lefty who challenged me to prove I wasn't a racist.
I had to laugh at the compounded stupidity of such a question.
Moronese is the universal language of the johnny come guilty crowd.
I would love to see Dr. Rice run for President.

Sal said...

Interesting question, Dilys. My criteria for evaluating religions are: how do they handle the problem of evil and how do they handle individual sins.

White guilt is impeding clear thinking on illegal immigration, as well and makes it very difficult for people to separate the problem of illegals and border closings due to terrorism concerns
where they are two issues.

There's no talking sense to people who're viewing things through a misty Ellis Island veil of "We are all immigrants".

I noticed at Border's that WEI is doins a Wilber issue, if anyone's interested.

Michael Brazier said...

"I can't even imagine what the left would do if a white person had written this book."

But it's obvious -- they'd call him a racist and be believed. Against white people the simple charge of racism is always sufficient. Shelby Steele is a target for special vilification _because_ he's black, yet refuses the role of victim in the leftist psychodrama.