Shame: A Review & Response
I always seem late to the game when it comes to reading books: I can never read fast enough nor research hard enough to stay on top of the latest publications, essays, research, etc. Such is the case with Shame by Shelbey Steele. It’s old enough for its point to be somewhat passe (or maybe not depending on who you talk to), but not quite old enough to be irrelevant. I guess on this point and this point alone I am like the great essayist Max Beerbohm: “somehow I never manage to read [certain books] till they are just going out of fashion.”
I tend to lean liberal—perhaps because I lean more so toward sympathetic understanding than I do toward undying conviction and principled stands in the face of overwhelming amounts of gray areas that usually require nuanced thinking. Not to mention the sheer amount of pain and suffering that one confronts in the world. This is neither a condemnation nor parading of either of these attributes, and it is neither to say that either side has a monopoly on these attitudes. In fact, both sides are becoming ever more principled and unyielding in their respective beliefs. It’s because I believe principles and values conflict in the political sphere that—contrary to what seems to be the goal of most political projects these days—I think it is a misguided endeavor to attempt to reconcile them: concepts like fairness, justice, and equality are, to some degree, related and antithetical to individual freedom and liberty. We should, I think, try to be more honest with ourselves about how these former concepts might lead to a decrease in the latter and vice versa (in specific cases of course). In any case, my point is to illustrate that my secularized politics of Christian brotherhood and compassion are always at odds with Right-wing, wholesale-contempt-for-Leftists, books like Shelby Steele’s Shame—which is why I read them in the first place.
Ignoring the repetitiveness of the small book—it could have been an even smaller polemic I think—one can understand Steele’s point soon enough: that the liberalism born out of the 1960s was a misstep and continues to do harm today. He thinks that the political project of the 1960s was largely a matter of trying to atone for America’s past sins, hence the subtitle of the book ‘How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.’ In this desperate grasp for innocence, Steele claims, “post-1960s liberalism fell into a pattern in which anti-Americanism—the impulse to ‘blame America first’—guaranteed one’s innocence of the American past.” Steele goes on to say that this post-1960s liberalism finds as it’s foundation the idea that America is “characterologically evil,” and that whatever we said or did back then can and should be dissociated from.
Indeed, the liberal project goes as follows: from “relativism to dissociation to power,” and “this formula… enables liberalism to present itself to the American people not as an ideology or even as a politics, but as nothing less than a moral and cultural imperative.” Taking each of the steps of this ‘liberal project’ in stride, Steele says that relativism enabled people to condemn concepts enumerated in our founding documents because they were, in fact, “applied relative to race, gender, class, and even religion, rather than universally.” Put another way, since words like “equality” didn’t actually mean equality for African-Americans or women, the entire concept should be seen as an oppressive hypocrisy and thus tossed to the side. So it is through this relativisation and association that allowed this liberalism to dissociate itself from America’s past.
Since the runway this liberalism departs from is one that believes America is—as a concept—fundamentally evil and hypocritical, we see, then, the need to be rescued from this evil and hypocritical past. In comes dissociation. The quickest road back to “legitimacy,” as Steele sees it, was dissociation from America’s past in toto. After the successful relativisation of certain concepts, liberalism of this brand seeks to “decouple America from its evil past.” Throughout the book, the example of affirmative action rears its head again and again. In regard to dissociation, Steele claims that if one takes on faith that “The Good” is dissociation from America’s past, then “you are cheating” when you implement a program such as affirmative action
“Dissociation is the proverbial devil atop the shoulder whispering into the ears of the powers that be at Yale: you can win dispensation for the ugly past and legitimize your institution if you will simply rustle up some black and brown faces for your campus. And while you’re at it, this devil continues, you might want to ban all military recruiters from campus to dissociate the university from America’s military adventurism… create black, Hispanic, Asian, and women’s studies programs to dissociate from the Eurocentric and patriarchal arrogance of Western civilization… you certainly want to ‘diversify’ the look of the faculty.”
While Steele gets the diversifying of academic programs more or less wrong, he does get most of this right: these are largely superficial and cosmetics tactics—the “manipulation of appearances”—“which…stand in for real reform.” He refers to this as the “cult of diversity.” In a damning phrase, Steele goes on to say that “diversity is about dissociation and legitimacy for American institutions, not the development of former victims.” The last step of the process—power—is the ability to usurp, or perhaps end, the conversation on where we go from here.
I am not persuaded by Steele’s short book: it’s typical of the rhetoric coming from this side of the divide, and most of it has been paraded ad nauseum as the more intellectual foundation for the Right (as opposed to, I assume, books from people like Palin or Coulter). But it is books such as this one that I sometimes hope to glean some type of insight to the “other” side on certain matters—even if it’s a line here and there every few pages. Apparently my Left-leaning education hasn’t allowed me to dismiss typically Right-wing literature as merely corporatist and patriarchal propaganda quite yet.
However, in an almost uncharacteristic move toward the end, Steele stakes out a sort of middle ground throughout all this contempt he has for liberalism and odd ideological attachments he has to the Right (as one such example of the latter, he lumps in climate change and sustainability as similar concepts in this Leftist project to claim the moral high ground). He claims that “only human initiative is transformative, and it is an eternal arrogance of the Left to assume that government can somehow engineer or inspire or manipulate transformation.” Even at first glance we realize that this isn’t true on a wholesale account (hence the need for nuanced thinking), but below the surface lies a kernel of truth: we—on an individual and collective level—have the power to change for the better. We have the ability to recreate our future without that future needing to conform or atone for past sins. Whether or not this was Steele’s intention—I am guessing it wasn’t—he does seem to put a focus on the individual and social enterprise over the governmental and authoritative. On this view I am somewhat sympathetic; for it is easy to get lost in grandiose visions of an insurmountable or unrealizable goal such that we think our only avenue is broad scale institutional change. We need to be reminded that social movements do work, and that they need not necessarily lead to some sort of policy or institutional change. Furthermore, we should not view the individual efforts of, say, people or organizations helping less fortunate individuals get to college as simply a brief interlude of hope in a forever off-key song—it will truly be fighting a losing battle when we help ourselves to, as Richard Rorty says, a “self-loathing” that neither “individuals nor nations can afford.”
Perhaps a middle ground is not what is needed, but rather a paradox. The idea that “there are many things that should temper [national] pride,” but something a nation “has done should not make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect.” In my mind—a white, lower class male—the Left has been driving with its eyes fixated on the rear-view mirror. Thus, any semblance of national pride is lost on the Left. For what do they have to be prideful about? is the question that at once serves its sarcasm and demands an answer. But pride is necessarily conceived, as is implied by retorts such as these, backward looking; retrospectively. The question isn’t, then, ‘what does this country, minorities, women, homosexuals have to be prideful about in our past?’ but rather ‘what do they have to be prideful about in looking forward? The answer, I might offer, would lie in premising their politics on hope rather than a backward looking hopelessness—a hopelessness that will never be redeemed by the passing glances of a few affirmative action related policies. The question is not how do we, since the larger part of humanity has been oppressed since the beginning of time, atone for humanity? Rather it is how do we move forward? How do we create a more tolerant, diverse, and expressive society? To me, this question has nothing whatsoever to do with the past—perhaps Steele is right on this issue and this issue alone. Then again, we are always caught between the very human emotions that we are owed something and beliefs that something needs to be done now. Perhaps the only thing this book offered was an indictment of both the Left and the Right in constantly over-valuing the role of the past in constructing the blueprint for our future.
I am somewhat ambivalent about multiculturalism as an explicit concept that should inform policy (how about that for fence sitting?). I have always struggled with the question of whether multiculturalism (and thus policies like affirmative action), when it is brought to the forefront, loses some—or all—of its meaning and worth. In other words and flipping it around, I believe when diversity becomes ‘second nature,’ when it fades from consciousness, we will have achieved a worthy goal. That is, when we happen to be seeking our diverse viewpoints because of the genuine necessity and willingness to do so, rather than due to a “superficial cosmetic manipulation.” The question becomes, then, is forcing diversity as policy necessary to get to this point of ‘second nature’ or is it, in the long run, harmful? I don’t think it is a question that can be answered at this point by either the Left or the Right—contrary to the definitive attempts to put the proverbial nail in the coffin on the issue.