I've never paid a lot of attention to Shelby Steele, so it comes as somewhat of a surprise to me that his current op-ed in The Wall Street Journal is startlingly ill-informed and utterly deranged.
A decade and a half after the high-water mark of his career, the publication of his award-winning The Content of Our Character, Steele has a new book coming out called White Guilt. And, well, you know how it is when you're a writer and you want to sell what you think is your new book's potent hook -- you apply it to everything. In this case, Steele -- ignoring huge swaths of recent history, not to mention stories you can read every day in the paper -- applies the "white guilt" hook to the war in Iraq.
First he tells us that since World War II we've fought wussy wars:
...it is now unimaginable that we would use anything approaching the full measure of our military power (the nuclear option aside) in the wars we fight.... America, in fact, ... fights so as to make a little room for an insurgency...
-- ignoring the nearly 7 million tons of bombs we dropped on Indochina or the astonishing number of deaths (at least 100,000) we inflicted on Iraq in six weeks in the 1991 Gulf War. He then says that we're simps because we hate our white selves:
Why this new minimalism in war?
It began, I believe, in a late-20th-century event that transformed the world more profoundly than the collapse of communism: the world-wide collapse of white supremacy as a source of moral authority, political legitimacy and even sovereignty.... After World War II, revolutions across the globe, from India to Algeria and from Indonesia to the American civil rights revolution, defeated the authority inherent in white supremacy, if not the idea itself. And this defeat exacted a price: the West was left stigmatized by its sins. Today, the white West--like Germany after the Nazi defeat--lives in a kind of secular penitence in which the slightest echo of past sins brings down withering condemnation. There is now a cloud over white skin where there once was unquestioned authority.
Steele, an African-American, seems rather upset at this. And again, he blithely ignores history: America fought to overthrow foreign dictators in World War II and, er, does the same thing now. American troops didn't kill all the Afghan and Iraqi firstborns and haul all the women back as concubines in this decade -- but our troops didn't do that in Japan and Germany in the '40s, either. (Hell, we didn't even force them Krauts and Nips to speak English and salute the Stars and Stripes! We were wussies then, too!)
Although Steele's reputedly a scholar, the list of people he finds responsible for the sad present state of affairs could have been faxed over by Rush Limbaugh:
If a military victory makes us look like an imperialist nation bent on occupying and raping the resources of a poor brown nation, then victory would mean less because it would have no legitimacy. Europe would scorn. Conversely, if America suffered a military loss in Iraq but in so doing dispelled the imperialist stigma, the loss would be seen as a necessary sacrifice made to restore our nation's legitimacy. Europe's halls of internationalism would suddenly open to us.
... our war effort in Iraq is shrouded in a new language of social work in which democracy is cast as an instrument of social transformation bringing new institutions, new relations between men and women, new ideas of individual autonomy, new and more open forms of education, new ways of overcoming poverty--war as the Great Society.
...Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt.... (People as seemingly disparate as President Jacques Chirac and the Rev. Al Sharpton are devoted pursuers of the moral high ground to be had in anti-Americanism.)
Chirac? Al Sharpton? LBJ? I don't know how Michael Moore and Dan Rather got left out here, but maybe they were just cut for space.
Of course, we all know why the Iraq War was fought "so as to make a little room for an insurgency": because Donald Rumsfeld didn't want the realities of this war to mess up his fantasies of "transformed" warfare with few troops; because George W. Bush didn't want to suffer the political consequences of a draft, or any other form of shared sacrifice; and because all the idiots in the administration thought this would be a "cakewalk," and couldn't ever change their approach because that would involve admitting error, which, unlike killing young Americans in the wrong war fought the wrong way, is an unpardonable sin in Bushworld.
Steele doesn't care. He has a hammer -- blaming bleeding-heart liberals -- and thus everything on the planet looks like a nail.
By the end, when he's telling us that in America "there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities," you realize he's begun to resemble an angry homeless man off his meds, who's energized by paranoia and the frequent recitation of an enemies list.
And these tendencies are clearly in the air: "cutemonkeygrrrl," one of many right-wing bloggers who admiringly link to the Steele article, has this gloss on it:
we.re too damn PC...thanks clinton
-- which is peculiar because Clinton's name (surprisingly) doesn't come up once in Steele's piece.
But it doesn't matter, does it? Remember the exchange in The Exorcist: Father Damien wants to tell Lankaster Merrin, the elderly demon-fighting priest, about the many devil-personalities he's encountered in Regan MacNeil, and Father Merrin responds: "There is only one." To Steele and his fans, there is only one Antichrist responsible for all the woes of the world, and its name is called Liberalism.