How Liberalism Divides America: A Review of Shelby Steele’s Shame

Shelby Steele, Shame, How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, Basic Books, 2015

Don’t be misled by this small book’s subtitle, or even the title for that matter. Neither reflects Shelby Steele’s thesis that post 1960s Liberalism is built on a house of lies that has relegated many blacks and other minorities to positions “of inferiors and dependents.” (179)

Shame reveals among other things why eight years after the election of the first African-American president, issues around race still divide our country. Steele also explains why Liberalism seems to be more about absolving whites and government from America’s past than helping minorities overcome that past and why conservative commentators are not taken at face value.

To understand Steele’s thesis one needs to start with slavery because slavery was not just an evil in and of itself, it was a black mark against the foundational principle of American exceptionalism––the core principle embodied in the Declaration and the Constitution that freedom of the individual is the ideal foundation of a just society. Although some did oppose slavery from the start, it took half a century before it was abolished. Unfortunately, slavery was replaced by another pernicious social institution––Jim Crow, which was based on theories of African-American inferiority. Segregation and its rational survived until the 1960s when the struggle for equality became the central issue of the day and the necessity of extending the promise of freedom to all brought about a massive social upheaval.

Shelby Steele’s contribution to what happened next reflects his experience growing up in an era where America sought to show the world it had broken with its past by instituting a variety of programs designed to remedy that past, including the War on Poverty, affirmative action, racial preferences in hiring, lowered welfare standards, et al. The short-term impact of these programs was to give blacks an opportunity to join the mainstream of American society, but there was an unintended longer-term consequence that both handcuffed blacks and gave rise to the distorted political culture we call Liberalism.

Steele illustrates how blacks have been hampered by these post-Civil Rights policies by citing the case of Clarence Thomas who found getting into Yale Law School undermined people’s willingness to give him credit for his accomplishments. People assumed Thomas only got into Yale because he was black and that his high grades at Yale were not deserved. This “catch 22” still hampers blacks today. One wonders if Barack Obama feared he was only elected president because of his race, and not his qualifications or platform? Does that explain the aloof manner by which he conducted himself as president?

The flip side of the post 1960s liberal equation is that many whites feel they must continually prove they are not racists by asserting that America is a racist society despite the fact blacks today are “far more likely to receive racial preferences than to suffer racial discrimination.” (17)

The 1960s gave rise to the notion that America was inherently evil as evidenced by its treatment of women, blacks and other minorities, by its disregard for the environment and by its willingness to interfere in third world liberation struggles––the war in Vietnam being the primary example. The remedy was affirmative action on all those issues and in the process discrediting of the notion that a commitment to the freedom of the individual was sufficient. In Steele’s terms, America embarked on a new mission “to establish ‘The Good’ . . . on par with freedom.” The Good requires equal results be guaranteed not just equal opportunity. The purpose of The Good, he writes, “became absolution for the American people and the government, and not actual reform for minorities.” (128)

The Good was a relativistic solution––a commitment to results over process and it required people to dissociate themselves from America’s past. Liberal public policies and programs were promoted as evidence of rejection of America’s evil past and refusal to endorse such programs was seen as lingering affiliation with that past. Belief in America as a city on a hill, as a beacon of freedom for the oppressed peoples of the world, as an exceptional nation was rejected. “American exceptionalism and white supremacy [became] virtually interchangeable.” (164)

Liberalism underscored its commitment to The Good attacking traditional American culture and invading the political arena. To post 1960 liberals the drive for political power was seen as “nothing less than a moral and cultural imperative.” (156)

In order to maintain their political and cultural dominance, liberals have become committed to what Steele calls the ‘poetic truth’ of American society, a false vision that is necessary to support their ideological position. The chickens of that falsity, embodied in academia, big government and groups such as black lives matter, came home to roost in November, 2016 when sixty plus million people rejected the liberal candidate.

Criticism of liberal programs by whites can be dismissed as evidence of a person’s association with pre-1960s America, but it’s harder to make that label stick when the critics are black. Labeling people like Clarence Thomas, Michelle Malkin, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Dr. Ben Carson, and Shelby Steele ‘uncle toms’ only demonstrates how unglued liberals become when confronted with facts that fly in the face of their make believe world.

Sadly books like Shame rarely get the visibility they deserve. I found no reviews in the New York Times or the Washington Post, despite the fact that Steele is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution and author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book The Content of Our Character (1990).
Shame has only 49 reviews on Amazon and a 4.3 rating while Ta-Hehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me has 3,157 reviews and a 4.6 rating. Coates has received numerous awards for his writing, including a MacArthur “genius grant,” but Coates’ thesis that racism survives because whites are attached to the benefits of being white is a perfect example of what Steele unclothes––a false narrative that is accepted because it re-inforces the story that America is as tainted today as it was in the time of slavery. Coates views “whiteness” as inevitable and permanent but fails to recognize that the price of conflating slavery and segregation, discrimination and unintended bias is that blacks will never be free! That’s where Steele parts company with Coates.

Steele gives us a window into his evolution from a sixties radical to a twenty-first century conservative. The turning point came in 1970 when he and his wife spent several weeks in Africa where he discovered that the revolution the Black Panthers and others were championing was a false and bankrupt dream. His experience reminds me of the degeneration of the civil rights movement in Albany, New York around the same time. I had been involved in the optimistic years before King’s assassination, which understandably caused many to become bitter and the rhetoric of revolution to gain currency. When the Black Panthers came to Albany, however, they sent a heroin dealer as their representative. Apparently at that point anyone willing to spout their revolutionary rhetoric was acceptable.

While post 1960s liberalism has been losing currency at the polls, it still dominates our culture, the entertainment industry, and the news media. Conservatives who reject the relativism of Liberalism, who stand behind the founders’ original insights, have an opportunity to turn the tide. Steele urges conservatives to be sensitive to the “psychological and cultural damage done to minorities by American hypocrisy,” by showing how the original dream of equality for all and a commitment to freedom, is still America’s essential truth. The time to win that war is now.

Debate Lesson: Challenge the Assumptions

How an argument is framed often puts opponents on the defensive. When Barack Obama, for example, says the only alternative to his agreement with Iran is war, his goal is to back his opponents into a corner. Anyone who accepts war as the only alternative to his deal is stuck since no one wants war. A similar tactic is used by those who say you are a racist if you support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. Let’s examine that argument more closely.

The racist argument assumes as fact the notion that Israel is “white” and that the Palestinians are a “people of color.” That concept is simply false. There are Jews in Israel who came from Africa, which should give Israel greater claim to being a “people of color” than the Arab Palestinians, but the underlying difference separating Israel and the Palestinians is religion, not race.

If those who say Israel’s existence is racist want to claim Arabs as a “people of color,” the proper response is to challenge the definition of that concept. Is it based on skin color? If so, that by itself is a racist notion. Isn’t the goal of civil rights movements to deny skin color as determining one’s destiny?

The other underlying assumption in the racist argument is the notion that it is Israel that is blocking the Palestinians from having their own state. Israel has as great if not a greater claim on the so-called occupied territories as the Palestinians. The Palestinians’ argument only makes sense if one is unwilling to go further back in time than 1967. That was the year Israel pushed Jordan out of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Judea (the so-called West Bank). Jordan had captured those territories in 1948 after the United Nations affirmed the right of the Jewish people to form their own state. Prior to 1948 those territories were part of the British Mandate which was set up after World War I to prevent chaos after the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the entire region for more than 400 years, was defeated by the Allied Powers.

Of course, it all comes down to boundaries. Where would the Palestinians place their state? From the statements and writings of the PLO (Fatah) and Hamas, the answer to that question is they want the whole thing––not just the West Bank territories, but all of present day Israel as well. Does that sound like a two-state solution?

What therefore is the proper response when someone says you’re a racist if you support Israel? Attack the statement on both assumptions. First, explain that race has nothing to do with it. Remind them that Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages that came from the same region. Then explain that neither Fatah nor Hamas want a two-state solution. If anyone’s a racist, wouldn’t it be the Palestinian leaders?

Eventually someone will ask, “What is your alternative?” If the United Nations wants to create a Palestinian state, they should do so, but not where Israel presently exists, nor in Jerusalem, to which the Palestinian’s claim is fraudulent, nor in Samaria or Judea, where Israel’s claim is stronger based on the League of Nations Mandate. They ought to create it in Jordan, which was originally part of Palestine and where many of the Arab people who call themselves Palestinians resided before 1948. Also, if Egypt is willing, Gaza, which already is a fully Palestinian territory, could be enlarged to include part of the Sinai desert.

A corollary to that solution would be for Israel to offer to those Palestinians who want to remain in the West Bank or Jerusalem the same deal non-Jews who live in Israel proper receive––i.e., full citizenship in the state of Israel. It is likely that a large number of Palestinian Arabs would accept that solution since Israeli citizenship would raise their living condition above what they are today under the corrupt Palestinian Authority. Those wanting to move would be allowed to do so, going to Gaza or the new Palestinian state in Jordan.

But the key lesson I hope people take away from this essay is not to be pushed into a corner when discussing world events by allowing your opponent to frame the issue in a way that you have no choice but to accept their position. Challenge the assumptions hidden in the way the argument is presented. When Barack Obama or the boycott Israel advocates present an either/or proposition it often means the facts are against them and the only way they can win the argument is by preventing a fact-based discussion, which is why the choice they want to give their opponents is no choice at all.

The Fear and Loathing of the Jewish-American Left

The Jewish-American Left is apoplectic about Likud’s electoral victory, which they attribute to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s last minute appeal to his constituency by announcing no Palestinian state will be created during his watch and warning his voters that foreign money was financing left-wing NGO’s busing of Arab voters to the polls. The latter comment may have been injudicious, but it was not racist as is claimed.

Racism is the Left’s favorite (and last ditch) card to use against anyone who is beating them in a contest of any type. That’s because the term has become so overused that it no longer has any real meaning while it remains effective in labeling the target as someone it’s okay to dismiss.

The concept of race was invented around the turn of the nineteenth century by those who wanted to justify policies that treated certain groups differently than others. At one time or another it has been used against Europeans, including Poles and Italians, against religious groups, including Jews, against Native Americans, Asians, and against those of African descent.

It had no basis in fact then and it has none today. Racists are people who believe that a group of people––however defined––are members of a unique race and that individual members of that group possess certain qualities or attributes in common. For example, anyone who says all Jews love money are making a racist statement. Someone who says a certain Jewish individual loves money is not.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning to his constituents that NGOs were busing Arabs to the polls is not a racist statement because he doesn’t attribute any negative characteristics to Arab people other than he assumes most of them will vote against him. That’s simply a statement of fact. Were he talking about any other voting block, such as residents of kibbutzim or Jews living in a certain neighborhood, it would not have caught anyone’s attention.
But wasn’t Netanyahu appealing to the baser instincts of his constituents? Leftists love to believe those they disagree with are racists. They forget that the union movement in America for decades refused to admit African-American workers and the Democratic Party established Jim Crow in the American South, refusing to give it up until well into the 1960s. The racist canard only works on Netanyahu if one believes Lukid’s voters are racist bigots. In this case who are the real bigots?

I believe Netanyahu had to have drawn certain logical conclusions to make the statements about the two-state solution and Arab voters.

He has concluded that the leaders of the Palestinian Arabs living in Gaza and the so-called occupied territories have no desire for a two-state solution as evidenced by their actions and their words. He has seen that whenever Israel has given in to their demands it has made matters worse. Vide: Gaza. Hence, unless those leaders change their behavior and their views or are replaced by leaders who do not call for Israel’s destruction, no sane Israeli would give them the means to attack Israel more effectively than they have done in the past.

Netanyahu also knows that the three Arab political parties that made up the Arab list are proponents of policies that would harm Israel and make it more vulnerable than it is today. Hence, his hope that his supporters make their voices heard. Thank goodness, his wishes were fulfilled.

The question is to what extent will the Jewish-American Left abandon Israel and those Israelis who returned Netanyahu to prime minister? If they believe he won using illegitimate tactics, they may support the Obama administration’s desire to shove a two-state solution down Israel’s throat. That such would even be conceivable tells us to what extent leftist (i.e., anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-imperalist) ideology has replaced Judaism as the religion these people follow.