Magazine | March 23, 2015, Issue

A Brave Tour de Force

Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, by Shelby Steele (Basic, 208 pp., $25.99)

One-word titles are a current fashion, and Shelby Steele’s latest book has such a title. The word is well chosen and striking: “Shame.” The subtitle is apt too, for America’s “past sins” have indeed “polarized our country,” as the author shows.

He is an intellectual who belongs to that bravest of bands: black conservatives. My sense is that few people can imagine what such conservatives have to put up with. I once asked Thomas Sowell, “Who has treated you worse in your life? White liberals or fellow blacks?” He shook his head, chuckled, and said, “It’s too close to call.”

When I think of black conservatives, one image stands out: George Schuyler, in the 1930s, working with a gun next to his typewriter. He had been threatened by Communists.

In his new book, Steele writes that a black conservative is “unforeseen and unsettling.” What’s more, “we seem to put the moral authority that comes from our race’s great suffering into the service of an ideology (conservatism) that many see as a source of that suffering.” Therefore, “the black conservative can only be opportunistic or, worse, self-hating and sycophantic.” This is part of the lot of the black conservative. Who but the strongest, and most independent, would dare to join up?

Steele begins his book by relating an experience he had at a conference, staged by the Aspen Institute. He was scheduled to be “the lone conservative” on a panel. (He will always be the lone conservative, outside of National Review cruises.) To open the conference at large, some participants were asked to spend a few minutes saying what they most wanted for America. Steele was one of them. He did not waste his time.

“I said that what I wanted most for America was an end to white guilt, or at least an ebbing of this guilt into insignificance.” White people, he said, were crushing blacks with paternalism in an attempt to show themselves innocent of racism. This was bad for whites, bad for blacks (obviously) — bad for America. And these words went off at Aspen like a stink bomb.

As a rule, the reviewer of a book should not write about himself — but I am not so disciplined. At a conference similar to Aspen’s, I, too, had a chance to say what I wanted for America. I used my time to say that I wanted a fading out of race-consciousness. A lessening of identity politics, a springtime for E pluribus unum. More recently, I said the same thing in a debate at Yale. My opponent responded, scornfully, that I said this because I was white. (I’m no whiter than he, incidentally.) Could be. But I suspect I would hold my views even more strongly if I were black.

Reading Steele’s book, anyone might find himself thinking about his own life, and thoughts, and observations, and saying, “Me too!” As early as page three, Steele says that he identifies with a former liberalism, the kind that launched the civil-rights movement: “that liberalism which sought freedom for the individual above all else.” Me too! I believe that we call that liberalism “conservatism” today.

Steele has written a short book — he calls it an “essay” — but it is not slight. It is packed with hard thinking about very important matters. I found myself underlining sentence after sentence. Eventually, I gave up, lest I underline the whole book. By the end of Chapter One, the reader has his money’s worth, even if he paid full price.

This book is not an autobiography, though Steele draws on his life. He does so in order to make broad societal points. He grew up “in the rigid segregation of 1950s Chicago,” where his life was “entirely circumscribed by white racism.” When a young man, he traveled abroad, which awakened an appreciation of America in him. (Me too.) He watched Ronald Reagan in the White House and came to agree with him. (Me too.) He saw William F. Buckley Jr. on television and was impressed. (Ditto.)

Steele had his season on the left, but he could not remain there. He wasn’t the type. “Loyalty to fact over ideology” drove him away, he writes. “For me, ideology does not precede truth. Rather, truth, as best we can know it, is always the test of ideology.” Yes.

“Liberalism in the twenty-first century,” writes Steele, “is, for the most part, a moral manipulation that exaggerates inequity and unfairness in American life in order to justify overreaching public policies and programs.” The liberal calls himself “progressive” and “forward-looking.” (MSNBC adopted the slogan “Lean forward.”) But he is always looking at America’s sinful past, notes Steele. The progressive’s gaze is fixed backward.

And what is conservatism? According to liberalism, it is “an ideology born of nostalgia for America’s past evils — inequality, oppression, exploitation, warmongering, bigotry, repression, and all the rest.” The ability to “taint conservatism” with “America’s past shames,” writes Steele, has been a bonanza for the Left: “a seemingly endless font of power.”

Allow me a brief relapse into self-reference. This particular tale does not involve America, but it certainly applies. Not long ago, I was writing of the oppression of the Castro dictatorship. A writer for a liberal magazine responded that people like me “pine” for the days of the Batista dictatorship (the military regime that the Castros and the Communists overthrew in 1959). In truth, people like me “pine” for freedom and democracy.

To liberalism, writes Steele, black people are “eternal victims.” Their problems “are always the result of some determinism, some unfairness or injustice that impinges on them like an ongoing rain out of permanently hostile skies.” (Can you blame me for underlining sentences such as these? Shame is loaded with them.)

And here is one of Steele’s hard truths — a Sowellian hard truth: A black American hoping to rise “will be far more likely to receive racial preferences than to suffer racial discrimination.” Whatever you think of racial preferences, you might regard this development as something to hail and rejoice over, given our terrible past. To a great many, however, it is something to fear, deny, and rage against.

One of the themes of this book is truth versus “poetic truth.” The latter kind of truth — a non-truth, or lie — “disregards the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position.” Poetic truth, says Steele, is liberalism’s “greatest source of power.” It is also liberalism’s “most fundamental corruption.”

I have often spoken of “things that ought to be true.” (More self-reference.) For instance, it may be that the Duke lacrosse team did not rape a young black woman. But shouldn’t they have? They were privileged white frat boys, playing an elite sport. They were perfect in the role of villain.

In former times, says Steele, liberals and conservatives shared a national identity. One side might have leaned toward labor unions, and the other toward business, but the two sides thought of themselves as Americans, devoted to a common project. These days, says Steele, “liberal” and “conservative” are more like nationalities — separate and at war. Each side wants to vanquish the other and emerge as the One True Identity.

I’m not sure I agree entirely with this last point. It seems to me that conservatives, many of them, are struggling merely to coexist. To have some cultural space. Take the issue of gay marriage: It seems that this new kind of marriage is here to stay. But the little old lady who belongs to the Baptist church: Can she opt out of baking a cake for a gay wedding? The answer is no, she can’t.

Though I am besotted with this book — I feel like passing it out in the street — I have my objections, of varying kinds. I will bring up the most serious: Steele apparently regards the American effort in Vietnam as misguided and ignoble. He is entitled to that view (of course). But I think he should have taken note of what happened to millions of Vietnamese, not to mention millions of Cambodians, after the American defeat.

What Steele says in his book, others have said — what is new under the sun? But Steele brings several things to the table: his intelligence, his experience, his style. His powers of distillation. This book breathes wisdom, hard won, on nearly every page.

As perpetual or unfounded grievance is bad for an individual, it is bad for a nation. I remember a news story, 20 years ago, that shook me. A black gang kidnapped, raped, and murdered a white woman. That was not the part that shook me. Unfortunately, brutal crimes take place every day. What stood out, to me, was a statement by one of the perpetrators. He told police that the crime had been in response to “400 years of oppression.” Who taught him to talk that way? Who saddled him with this mindset? The rapist-murderers were responsible for their crime, of course. No one else. But it seems to me they were “carefully taught,” to use Oscar Hammerstein’s phrase, too.

Near the end of his book — his tour de force — Steele says what he wants: not preferences or any other form of social engineering but “a ‘flat freedom,’ like a flat tax that treats everyone the same.” Again, I say, “Me too.” (I want the tax in the bargain, but that seems to be a lost economic cause.)

Steele wants black Americans to think of themselves as individuals, race quite aside, and he wants whites to think of them that way too. Furthermore, he wants whites to get over their “terror” of being thought racist.

Which leads me to a final story — very recent. At the beginning of this review, I wanted to say that Steele “belongs to that bravest of breeds: black conservatives.” But my race sensitivity — hypersensitivity — kicked in. “What if some imp says, ‘Breeds, huh? So this right-winger from National Review thinks black people are bred, like slaves, horses, and dogs?’” I changed the word to “bands” — “bravest of bands” — though I preferred “breeds” (probably for the repetition of the “br” sound). I have as little use for political correctness as anyone I know. But even I, with some regularity, twist myself into a pretzel.

This is the kind of thing that drives Shelby Steele crazy. Me too.

Like Barack Obama, Steele is an American born to a biracial couple (though 15 years before). If he had anything like Obama’s platform, influence, and reach, the world would be a dramatically different place. But at least he has the satisfaction of standing on the truth, as he has discovered it.

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