I was recently invited to make some remarks at a charity dinner for a cause that I strongly support. The organizers worried that, because their cause affected only Third World nations, they would have a hard time raising money from an American audience. Localism, it seemed, in everything from farm produce to charity giving, was the new vogue. People wanted to see their dollars at work locally rather than watch them disappear into the coffers of some international organization. Could I help them make the case for international giving?
On the night of the dinner it occurred to me to make the point that America was the world’s exceptional nation — not that its people were superior, but that its wealth and power bestowed upon it a level of responsibility in the world that other nations did not have to bear. Exceptionalism as a burden, not a vanity, was my point. Through my wife I had had an involvement with a charitable organization that focused on the problem of obstetric fistula in Africa. On a visit to Africa in behalf of that group, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much we Americans were respected for our compassion and generosity, quite apart from our wealth and military power. The people I met saw something essentially good in the American people. On one blazing hot afternoon in a remote village in the nation of Niger, a local chieftain, dramatically bedecked in the head wrap and flowing robe of his desert people, told me through an interpreter that it was striking to him to meet people who would come halfway around the world to help his people — to visit, as he said in a phrase that mixed pathos with eloquence, “a country lost in the sun.”
I recounted this story at the charity dinner simply to make the point that American exceptionalism in the world had as much to do with the largesse of our character as with our great wealth and power, and that causes like the one at hand only enhanced our reputation in the world as a fundamentally decent nation — a beacon, as it were, of human possibility. I thought this would be the easiest of points to make. And things were in fact going smoothly until I uttered the words “American exceptionalism.” Instantly — almost before I could get the words out of my mouth — quiet boos erupted from one side of the banquet room. Not loud ugly boos, but polite remonstrative boos, the kind that respectfully censure you for an impropriety. I was shocked. This was a young, bright, prosperous American audience reproaching me for mentioning the exceptionalism of our nation. 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. And you could hear — in the spontaneity of their alarm, like a knee jerking at the tap of a rubber hammer — that their innocence of this evil was now a central part of their identity. It was reflex now; they didn’t have to think about it anymore.
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.
If, at the charity dinner, I had found a way to sneer a little at America, I might have elicited a few cheers from the same side of the room (obviously an in-crowd) that had booed my reference to American exceptionalism. But cheers or boos, that side of the audience only reinforced what most Americans already suspect: that in the culture war between liberalism and conservatism that followed the tumultuous 1960s, liberalism won. That is, liberalism won the moral authority, the power, to set the terms of social relations among Americans — the manners, the protocols, the ideas of decency, the rules establishing how people must interact within the most diverse society in human history. Liberalism gave America a new “correctness” that enforced these new rules with the threat of stigmatization. There are still, certainly, ferocious debates between liberals and conservatives in many realms — economic policy, education, foreign policy, immigration, the environment, and so on. And these debates will surely grind on.
But post-1960s liberalism won a certain moral hegemony over the culture by establishing dissociation as the über human value — the value that arbitrates the importance and relevance of all other values. Even those timeless, conventional values that people in earlier times never thought to challenge now come under the purview of dissociation. Could a public official, for example, discuss the weakening of personal responsibility and the work ethic (two timeless values) in some segments of the black community as even a partial cause of the academic-achievement gap between blacks and whites in American schools? Of course not. It is simply unthinkable.
The über value of dissociation declares any emphasis on personal responsibility or the work ethic — or any other such self-demanding value — to be racist when used to explain minority weakness. Insistence on values such as these seems to put victims in double jeopardy. It makes them the victims of both oppression and their own irresponsibility — implying that their own choices are as much a cause of their inferiority as the fact of their oppression. Dissociation suspends this kind of double jeopardy. Dissociation is a cultural template that tries to make America, and the greater Western world, entirely accountable for its past oppressions and all the damage done by them. Therefore the idea that the victims may be accountable in some way for their own ongoing weakness is just impermissible. It violates the assignment of guilt and innocence — who is culpable and who is entitled — that dissociation seeks to enforce.
When we look at American exceptionalism through the lens of dissociation, that exceptionalism is transformed into garden-variety white supremacy. Dissociation sees this exceptionalism as proof of America’s evil character. It ignores two or three millennia of profound cultural evolution in the West, and it attributes the exceptionalism that results from that evolution to little more than a will to dominate, oppress, and exploit people of color. So in this new and facile liberalism, American exceptionalism and white supremacy become nearly interchangeable. Shift one’s angle of vision ever so slightly to the left, and there is white supremacy; ever so slightly to the right, and there is American exceptionalism.
When you win the culture, you win the extraordinary power to say what things mean — you get to declare the angle of vision that assigns the “correct” meaning. 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.
The polite booing I elicited by mentioning American exceptionalism at the charity dinner also simply reflected — for the booers and their cohort — the meaning of things. It was a culturally conditioned response. 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.
But there is more to the story. After the polite boos from one side of the banquet room, there came a round of defiant cheers from the other side — as if the booers and the cheerers had staked out their own territories. Clearly the cheers were a challenge to the idea that American exceptionalism was somehow anathema, something to be booed. I appreciated the moral support, but I knew the cheers had very little to do with me. The tension in the room was between those embarrassed by American exceptionalism and those who took pride in it.
So there it was, within the space of mere seconds, the representatives of two very different Americas clashing over a single phrase: “American exceptionalism.” Post-1960s liberalism had won the culture. The cultural confidence that liberals felt in this explains why they were the first to show their hand by booing — they just presumed that everyone (or at least every decent American) would be happy to boo American exceptionalism. And if people were too shy to actually boo, they would be happy to hear others boo. After all, the new liberalism orbited around the idea that this exceptionalism was the fruit of American evil. This was the established meaning of things. And they were no doubt shocked to hear their boos answered with a wave of polite cheers from the other side of the room. In other words, they were shocked to see that there was another America represented in the room, one that was not so reflexively anti-American. American liberals often think of themselves as a moral vanguard, as the last word in “social justice,” yet here was a vigorous counterstroke. What to make of people who actually cheer at the mention of American exceptionalism?
Well, post-1960s liberalism had so won over the culture, and so congealed into the new moral establishment, that conservatism — as a politics and a philosophy — became a centerpiece in liberalism’s iconography of evil. It was demonized and stigmatized as an ideology born of nostalgia for America’s past evils — inequality, oppression, exploitation, warmongering, bigotry, repression, and all the rest. Liberalism had won the authority to tell us what things meant and to hold us accountable to those meanings. 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 is now the phrase “movement conservative.” When I first heard it, I thought it oxymoronic. Conservatism is establishment and tradition, not protest and reform. But “movement” suggests struggle against injustice, the overcoming of some oppression. So it is telling that many conservatives now think of themselves as part of a “movement” and refer to one another as “movement conservatives.” A great irony that slowly emerged out of the turmoil of the 1960s is that conservatism became the new counterculture — a movement that was subversive in relation to the established liberal cultural order. And, continuing this irony, liberalism became the natural home of timid conventionalists and careerists — people who find it hard to know themselves outside the orthodoxies of mainstream “correctness.” And what is political correctness if not an establishment orthodoxy?
What drives this conservative “movement”? Of course there are the classic motivations — a commitment to free-market capitalism, smaller government, higher educational standards, the reinforcement of family life, either the projection of strength abroad or, conversely, a kind of isolationism, and so on. But overriding all of this is a cultural motivation that might be called the “pinch of stigma.” The special energy of contemporary conservatism — what gives it the dynamism of a movement — comes from conservative outrage at being stigmatized in the culture as the politics in which all of America’s past evils now find a comfortable home.
This stigmatization is conservatism’s great liability in an American culture that gives dissociation preeminence, that makes it the arbiter of all other social values. Contemporary conservatism is, first of all, at war with this cultural stigmatization. Its ideas always swim upstream against the perception that they only echo the racist, sexist, and parochial America of old — as if conservatism were an ideology devoted to human regression. For conservatives, it is, in the end, a bewildering war against an undeserved bad reputation. And how do you fight a bad reputation that always precedes you?
This connection of conservatism to America’s hypocritical past is the American Left’s greatest source of authority. However trenchant conservatism may be on the issues, however time-tested and profound its principles, this liberalism always works to smother conservatism’s insights with the poetic truth that conservatism is mere cover for America’s evil. This ability to taint conservatism — its principles, policies, and personalities — with America’s past shames has been, for the Left, a seemingly endless font of power.
— Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (Basic Books).