Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution has a fine piece at National Review on the different ways conservatives and liberals see their country and how liberals see conservatism.

He begins by describing the reaction of a few members of an audience at a charity banquet where he was giving a speech when he made mention, in the context of work being done in Africa by American charitable organizations, of "American exceptionalism." The comment was met by polite boos from one segment of the audience, and Steele uses this incident as a springboard for explaining the left's attitude toward America in general and conservatives in particular. I'd like to be able to excerpt the entire essay, but I'll focus on just a few of Steele's points and urge you to read the whole thing.

Referring to his experience with the boo-birds at the banquet, he writes:
It was as if they were saying, “Don’t you understand that even the phrase ‘American exceptionalism’ is a hubris that evokes the evils of white supremacy? It is an indecency that we won’t be associated with.” In booing, these audience members were acting out an irony: They were good Americans precisely because they were skeptical of American greatness. Their skepticism was a badge of innocence because it dissociated them from America’s history of evil. To unreservedly buy into American exceptionalism was, for them, to turn a blind eye on this evil, and they wanted to make the point that they were far too evolved for that. They would never be like those head-in-the-sand Americans who didn’t understand that American greatness was tainted by evil.
Steele believes that this desire to dissociate themselves from the evils of the past drives much of liberal thinking today.
In its hunger for innocence, post-1960s liberalism fell into a pattern in which anti-Americanism — the impulse, as the cliché puts it, to “blame America first” — guaranteed one’s innocence of the American past. Here in anti-Americanism was the Left’s all-defining formula: relativism-dissociation-legitimacy-power. Anti-Americanism is essentially a relativism — a false equivalency — that says America, despite her greatness, is no better an example to the world than many other countries. And in this self-effacement there is a perfect dissociation from the American past, and thus a new moral legitimacy — and so, finally, an entitlement to power .... American exceptionalism was a scandal that one booed in the name of humility and decency. Dissociation from it was the road to the Good. And this was so sealed a matter that booing me was only an expression of one’s moral self-esteem — the goodness in oneself bursting forth to censure a heretic.
Steele's essay is a reminder that different people can look at the same set of facts and interpret them completely differently. Just as some looking at the picture below see an old woman and some see a young girl, liberals looking at America see its historical flaws and conservatives see its historical uniqueness. It's flaws are troublesome, but every nation has them. Its uniqueness, however, has made America great not only in terms of military and economic power, but also in terms of the freedoms, opportunities, and assistance it offers not only to its own citizens but also to those of much of the rest of the world. The fact that so many people wish to emigrate to the U.S. or at least live under its protective umbrella is an implicit confirmation that they think so, too.

Steele's portrait of the racism he experienced growing up (Steele is African American) will perhaps come as a surprise to younger readers conditioned to think of the brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma or the unleashing of dogs and firehoses on peaceful protestors in Alabama as typical of how whites looked at and treated blacks in the 20th century. It wasn't:
When I was a boy growing up under segregation, racism was not seen as evil by most whites. It was simply recognition of a natural law: that some races were inferior to others and that people needed and wanted to be with “their own kind.” Most whites were quite polite about this — blacks were in their place and it was not proper to humiliate them for their lowly position. Racism was not meant to be menacing; it was only a kind of fatalism, an acceptance of God’s will. And so most whites could claim they held no animus toward blacks. Their prejudice, if it was prejudice at all, was perfectly impersonal. It left them free to feel compassion and sometimes even deep affection for those inferiors who cleaned their houses, or served them at table, or suckled their babies. And this was the meaning of things.
Of course, the fact that so many people had benign, even compassionate feelings to those they deemed inferior, doesn't justify the attitude that it was in the nature of things that blacks should always be second-class citizens. The attitude was obviously wrong, but as it manifested itself in many people of the time it was not evil. Unfortunately, it requires a mind able to handle nuance to understand the way things were back then, and nuance is one of the first casualties when the epithet of "racism" takes wing. To illustrate the attitude Steele is describing think of the movie Driving Miss Daisy.

The last part of his essay is given to a description of the liberal perception of conservatives and the irony of that perception given the repeated, and sometimes disastrous, failures of liberal social policy:
Conservatism — liberals believed — facilitated America’s moral hypocrisy. Its high-flown constitutional principles only covered up the low motivations that actually drove the country: the self-absorbed pursuit of wealth, the insatiable quest for hegemony in the world, the unacknowledged longing for hierarchy, the repression of women, the exploitation of minorities, and so on. Conservatism took the hit for all the hypocrisies that came to light in the 1960s. And it remains today an ideology branded with America’s shames. Liberalism, on the other hand, won for its followers a veil of innocence. And this is the gift that recommends it despite its legacy of failed, even destructive, public policies. We can chalk up the black underclass, the near disintegration of the black family, and the general decline of public education — among many other things — to liberal social policies.

Welfare policies beginning in the 1970s incentivized black women not to marry when they became pregnant, thereby undermining the black family and generating a black underclass. The public schools in many inner cities became more and more dysfunctional as various laws and court cases hampered the ability of school officials and classroom teachers to enforce discipline. Meanwhile, the schools fell under the sway of multiculturalism as well as powerful teachers’ unions that often oppose reforms that would make their members more accountable. Students in these schools, after the welfare-inspired breakdown of the black family, were less and less prepared to learn.

Affirmative action presumed black inferiority to be a given, so that racial preferences locked blacks into low self-esteem and hence low standards of academic achievement. “Yes, we are weak and non-competitive and look to be preferred for this; our weakness is our talent.”

School busing to achieve integration led only to a more extensive tracking system (classes that are assigned by academic performance) within the integrated schools, so that blacks were effectively segregated all over again in the lower academic tracks. And so on. Post-1960s liberalism — on the hunt for white American innocence — has done little more than toy with blacks. Yet it is conservatives who now feel evicted from their culture, who are made to feel like outsiders even as they are accused of being traditionalists. And contemporary conservatism is now animated by a sense of grievance, by the feeling that the great principles it celebrates are now dismissed as mere hypocrisies.
There's much more wisdom and insight at the link. If you want to understand the culture conflicts of our day, particularly as it relates to race, Steele's work, including his several books (The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, and White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.) are good places to start.