Blogs > Cliopatria > Unhinging Steele

May 3, 2006 7:45 pm


Unhinging Steele



Several people around the history blogosphere, including Hiram Hover and Manan Ahmed, have linked to yesterday's Wall Street Journalcolumn by Shelby Steele. Steele argues, to oversimplify only slightly, that the United States has been unable to win the war in Iraq because we are paralyzed by"white guilt."

Manan Ahmed confesses to being"flabbergasted" by Steele's piece, and can only"hope that it is a missive from some other alternative reality." I confess I was also flabbergasted when I read the piece yesterday, but I think it's worth spelling out what I find troubling about the article, if only because I'm not as confident that Steele's views are all out of the ordinary. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has a round-up of positive reactions to Steele's column in parts of the conservative blogsophere, some of which seem to welcome the appearance of another spokesperson for the belief that Americans should just"move on" and stop flagellating themselves for the sins of the fathers. This idea that America's biggest problem is something like a lack of confidence, a crisis of self-esteem brought on by the cataclysmic"isms" of the 1960s, is an idea frequently floated by a certain class of national pundits, particularly by the Journal's op-ed mainstay, Peggy Noonan. And the fact that Steele has a new book on"white guilt," with blurbs by George Will and novelist Charles Johnson, means the idea will likely be getting more play among the chattering classes in coming weeks.

But this idea, at least as articulated by Steele in his column, swings on some rather faulty hinges.

I agree, first of all, with Alan Allport that Steele's entire argument rests on a flawed premise: that the only thing keeping the United States from defeating insurgents in Iraq is a lack of"will" to use the requisite force. The rest of Steele's column takes that assumption for granted, and then proceeds to argue that it is"white guilt" that keeps military planners from taking off their kid gloves. But the assumption is flawed, not only because, as Alan says, recent military history shows that"failure is rarely caused simply by lack of will, even with a grossly asymmetric balance of power between the two sides," but also because it leaves unsaid the more immediate causes for the problems in Iraq -- like the lack of prewar planning for the reconstruction of the country or the deep-rooted tensions between various political and religious groups within the country. These are the kinds of problems that cannot be solved simply by the application of more"force," and in fact are the kinds of problems that, at this stage, would be exacerbated by such a policy. If Iraqi government officials seemed peeved by last week's unannounced visits by Rice and Rumsfeld, one can only imagine how the deployment of more American troops or a greater recourse to what Steele calls"ferocity" would upset the fragile political structures taking shape in Iraq.

Steele doesn't make an argument for the premise that his column depends on, but even if one were to grant him that premise, the logic that follows is muddy at best. It founders, most of all, on the fallacy of using collective psychology to explain individual actions -- of attributing the decisions made by actors on the ground to a nebulous climate of opinion or cloud of emotion. Consider this confusing line near the beginning of the column:

I call this white guilt not because it is a guilt of conscience but because people stigmatized with moral crimes--here racism and imperialism--lack moral authority and so act guiltily whether they feel guilt or not.

To my mind, that definition of"white guilt" undercuts whatever causal force Steele might want to give it, because it's hard to see how one who does not"feel guilt" can"act guiltily." In the next line, Steele says that"white guilt" motivates people to"dissociate" themselves from the crimes of white supremacists past, but if those people do not, in fact, feel complicit in those crimes, then their motives for dissociation cannot reasonably be described as"guilt." Feeling a moral obligation not to act immorally is not the same as feeling an obligation to atone for the guilt of past sins. We can grant, in other words, that the moral stigmatization of racism now constrains many modern Americans from acting in racist ways, without conceding that their constraint is due to feelings of guilt.

Let me elaborate with a little speculative exercise of my own. Suppose one agreed with Steele that"the world-wide collapse of white supremacy as a source of moral authority, political legitimacy and even sovereignty" has something to do with the"new minimalism in war" displayed by Western nations. If there is a causal relationship between these two historical phenomena, there are other possible ways to explain that relationship than the one Steele gives. For instance, one could argue that the Civil Rights Movement and the collapse of white supremacist regimes have successfully debunked the racist myth that people of color are somehow subhuman. That myth made it possible, one might argue, for previous wars to be cloaked in rhetoric that portrayed the"extermination" of an enemy"race" as a morally unobjectionable or even inevitable outcome of military conflict. Perhaps today's soldiers and military leaders, convinced and appropriately socialized to believe that this racist myth was a lie, are more impressed than previous soldiers and military leaders were by the humanity of their enemies, an impression that stays their hands from unleashing truly destructive military power. It is not"guilt" and"dissociation," in other words, that motivates"minimalism," but simply a mature rejection of hateful and dehumanizing ideologies of racial difference.

I am not arguing that my alternative explanation of the rise of the"new minimalism in war" is the correct one. I'm inclined to think it is not, not only because (as I'll say below) I'm not sure ideologies of racial difference are as dead as Steele makes them out to be, but also because my theory also has a flawed assumption: that racism always pointed in the direction of"maximalism" in war. In fact, one could argue that the rhetoric of"white supremacy" was sometimes mobilized by Western imperialists in defense of more restraint in war, rather than less, because of a desire on the part of colonial officials to appear benevolent and paternal towards their uncivilized" charges." Not least among Steele's simplistic renderings of history is his unstated assumption that the unquestioned moral authority of"white supremacy" in an earlier age had only one implication. The truth is that racist arguments were used to support a variety of policies in war other than simply the use of overweening force;"white supremacy," for instance, often animated the arguments of American anti-imperialists at the turn of the century as well as the arguments of imperialists.

But the point is that my alternative explanation of the"new minimalism" is no less plausible, as an exercise in speculative sociology, than Steele's, and at least mine offers a possible causal chain that would get us from Point A (the stigmatization of white supremacy) to Point B (the actions of individual soldiers and planners on the ground). To prove which (if either) of these explanations is actually correct, Steele and I would have to marshal actual evidence for the formation of certain thought processes and intentions in the minds of particular people. Yet Steele not only does not offer such evidence; he also seems to say that it would be irrelevant. He's not talking about what people on the ground are actually thinking and feeling, he says. We are simply asked to believe that"white guilt" causes people to act in certain ways even when said people do not feel guilty at all.

I'm reminded, in some ways, of the historian Thomas Haskell's famous debate with David Brion Davis's about the causes of abolitionism, which is anthologized in this book. According to Haskell, Davis's account of why Quakers became abolitionists argued they were unintentionally influenced by the growing cultural power of capitalist ideology, from whose triumph Quaker entrepreneurs stood to gain. As Haskell put it, though,"to say that a person is moved by class interest is to say that he intends to further the interests of his class, or it is to say nothing at all." Likewise, to say that a person is moved by"white guilt" is to say that he intends to assuage his guilty feelings, or else it has little explanative value at all.

What purchase, then, does Steele get from the concept of"white guilt," when he says up front that people acting under its sway do not necessarily feel guilty, and when we do not need the concept of"white guilt" to offer a parsimonious explanation of the relationship between the fall of white supremacy and the rise of military"minimalism"? Only this: blaming"white guilt" enables Steele to scapegoat the critics of American policies in Iraq for the failure of those policies. The real bogeyman in Steele's column is not"white guilt" but an equally amorphous concept that he calls"the international left."

What keeps Americans from doing what needs to be done, Steele says, are leftist scolds who are always telling America that it needs to sit in the corner a little while longer and think about what it's done."White guilt," it becomes clear by the end of the column, is not so much the cause of minimalism in war, but instead is the cause for the power of"anti-Americanism."

Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt. It stigmatizes America with all the imperialistic and racist ugliness of the white Western past so that America becomes a kind of straw man, a construct of Western sin. (The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons were the focus of such stigmatization campaigns.) Once the stigma is in place, one need only be anti-American in order to be"good," in order to have an automatic moral legitimacy and power in relation to America. (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.) This formula is the most dependable source of power for today's international left. Virtue and power by mere anti-Americanism. And it is all the more appealing since, unlike real virtues, it requires no sacrifice or effort--only outrage at every slight echo of the imperialist past.

I'm tempted to say, in the first place, that to identify the"most dependable source of power for today's international left" is a bit like saying that coffee is the"most dependable source of wealth" for today's impoverished Colombian farmers. Actually, to make the parallel exact, Steele's argument would be like going on to say that these Colombian farmers, with their"dependable" source of wealth, are the reason why Starbucks can't corner the market on coffee. Steele's column begins by presenting itself as a provocative new explanation of American foreign policy trends, but it ends up being nothing more than a run-of-the-mill attack on"the international left," whose"dependable source of power" -- its anti-American rhetoric -- keeps America from being able to use its power. This kind of scare-mongering about liberals is no more convincing in Steele's hands than in anyone else's, because Steele thinks he can wink and nod you into agreeing with what is patently false -- that the anti-American"left" has huuuuuuge tracts of power in the United States. And by deflecting all blame onto this shadowy"left," Steele manages not to confront the many ways in which the Bush administration has shot itself in the foot. If our policies have little legitimacy in the eyes of Europe, for instance, that has less to do with the incantations of sign-holding leftists on the street and more to do with the administration's intelligence failures, its brazen assertions that it is not bound by international laws and treaties, its apparent willingness to push the envelope on international conventions against torture and indefinite imprisonment, its strident defense of the right to make war preemptively, and its condescending claims that there is"a single sustainable model for national success" -- namely, our own. These policies alone are enough to provoke anti-Americanism around the world and weaken our international legitimacy, with or without an"international left" that is supposedly responsible for forcing our leaders to don hair shirts and go to time-out.

If Steele vastly overestimates the power of"the international left" to shape American foreign and military policy, he also willfully distorts the arguments of that"left" by reducing them to an attempt to foster"white guilt." When critics of American policy point out the still debilitating effects of racism on our national life, they are not simply asking Americans to wallow in the past. Asking how far we have progressed away from the sins of the past is a legitimate question, and one that should not simply be dismissed by exhortations to"move on." Steele misunderstands leftist critiques of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort or right-wing immigration proposals if he supposes that"race" is brought up in these critiques solely for rhetorical reasons, as part of an attempt to rub the nation's nose in its past and make conservatives feel guilty.

The point of these critiques is not to induce guilt for the past, but to forge resolution to do better in the present and the future. The point is not to discount the major steps and"moral transformations" that have already been made, but merely to insist that we do not stop until that transformation is complete. Steele reveals, towards the end of his column, that he understands this, because he attempts to argue, finally, that racism is mainly a thing of the past. That's a point worth arguing about, and unlike Steele's smoke-and-mirror accusations of"white guilt-mongering," it gets straight to the heart of the matter. Is race no longer a"big deal" in this country, as President Bush's new press secretary said in 2003? Is racism just an"ugly memory"? I'm inclined to think the ugliness remains, that some evils last long after they are widely identified as"morally repugnant." Steele writes that"if there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities." The fundamental disagreement between Steele and the kinds of people he would lump together as"the international left" is over we should simply be satisfied with this state of affairs -- an odd white bigot here and there, an odd prison guard willing to dehumanize and torture, an odd soldier who reduces any dark-skinned person he sees into a"Haji", an odd college student throwing poisonous epithets around, so many"odd" bigots that their"oddness" starts to become questionable."Millions of whites who only feel goodwill" towards people of color do not somehow balance out the fact there are still so many who do not.


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Jonathan Dresner - 5/4/2006

Fair enough: Steele's article reads like the summation of lots of scholarship on white guilt, scholarship that doesn't actually exist.

Now, of course, we can look forward to years of papers, conference presentations and masters theses on "'White Guilt' in US Foreign Relations: June-July 1977" etc., ad nauseaum


Caleb McDaniel - 5/4/2006

Jonathan, the truth is I have more cognitive dissonance about Haskell's argument than I let on. I agree it would be setting the bar too high to require that actors be aware of and intentional about the influence of larger cultural patterns on their actions. But on the other hand, it's setting the bar much too low if we allow speculative diagnoses of some social psychological malaise to be applied, without specific evidence, to the inner states of individual actors.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2006

By and large I agree with this critique of Steele, but I have a bit of concern about the rather stark rejection of the idea of vague cultural influences as motivations for individuals. First and foremost, it seems to demand a standard of evidence with regard to personal or policy goals and motivations that is frankly unattainable in all but the most extreme circumstances, an epistemological standard more suited to courtrooms than seminars.

More to the point, though, I think that when we talk about "class interests" and "vague notions" we forget that these are not really external things, but ideas which we internalize. We internalize them along with lots of other ideas, and we don't always consciously acknowledge (or publicly admit) to the complexities of our thinking which draws on these notions. It seems to me somewhat excessive to insist on a "chain of custody" for ideas or influences in the past when we don't really have access to that sort of information in the present.

Damn. Now I'm in the position of defending Steele.

Let me say, as an aside, that I used the term "Nietzschean" in discussion with Ralph yesterday, and the more I think about it, the more it seems to fit. The analysis of culture as a restraint on the exercise of vital functions, of that culture as flawed and deliberately limiting in the service of others rather than the self (though in this case he's making a rather un-Nietzschean argument of effective altruistic action), the need to find a single cause behind the panoply of issues..... yes, I think I got that part right.

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