I had never read any of Shelby Steele, other than three essays and some random quotes, but a college friend recommended Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, so I got it out of the library and brought it on vacation.
I loved the Introduction, noting that Steele expresses things forcefully and with originality. That was the one vague impression I had from reading about him and the few examples of his work. I kept thinking Great point. Well put. Let me go back over that. Yeah, I'll have to keep that somewhere. Somewhere in the next few chapters I had a few places where I thought That's kind of an oversell. I think those liberals you are talking about have some bad motives, but it's not ALL bad motives. This impression kept growing, and when I hit a section where I disagreed with his conclusions it was even clearer. Now just a minute. There's a great deal that can be said that you've left out here. I reconsidered what I had been reading previously and saw a continuing pattern.
Steele writes dramatically, and he captures ideas succinctly. Unfortunately, succinctly usually means "without regard to possible qualifiers," and this is true. Shelby Steele is a black 60's liberal who held strongly to some of the better parts of that and found that progressive culture moved away from him, so that he is now considered a black conservative. As a natural consequence,he doesn't really care what other people think he's supposed to think and tells you, in highly declarative terms, what he thinks. He doesn't care what black intellectuals are supposed to think, or conservatives are supposed to think, or any category. There is significant value in that in terms of persuasion. It is probably much more effective in moving the world than my own more guarded expressions, avoiding absolutes.
Yet ultimately, it meant that I simply disregarded whole sections. It was very valuable to read his opinion that Vietnam was a tactical war for American policy being sold as an existential one by the government. That made abundant sense and caused me to wonder why we were unable to discuss it that way at the time. Some tactical wars might be defensible for the American good, given persuasive arguments about communist expansion, downstream (or Domino) effects, and even the fairly simplistic notions that we have to make a stand somewhere, and this place is the best among bad choices. Yet it really isn't the same as Pearl Harbor. It's all very worth thinking about and debating. But Steele doesn't bother with any of those complications. He simply declares it was all about power for the federal government and declares that they therefore had to lie about it.
That's just too simple, too pat.
He has similar takes on women's rights, abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, free-market economics, and a half-dozen other subjects. All are very good expressions of one side of the argument: clear, forceful, precise. Nonetheless, it doesn't work for me because too much is left out.
His most powerful idea is that there was a subtle change in the Civil Rights movement after the major victories that has swollen over the years into an irreconcilable difference. It is the responsibility of government to remove discrimination. But to invisibly move to expecting the government to remove racism is a serious change philosophically, though it doesn't look very different at first. Racism is what caused discrimination, the reasoning goes. Therefore, the only way to make further progress on equality is to eliminate racism. It's not an insane argument, but it is a limited one and it leaves a lot out. Counteracting racism may be a better solution. In fact, that seems to have been what the 1960's victories were. Stop allowing discrimination. Ignore what people think about it - that's their own affair.
Being the kind of guy he is, Shelby Steele attributes that shift in thought to the self-protective attitude of government, who saw their raison d'etre vanishing and moved to find a new excuse for preserving and then expanding power. There's something to that. The distinction is people do that automatically, without necessarily being calculating about it. Like simple organisms turning toward light or food, we do things without entirely knowing why. That doesn't make it less true. I see the new focus on animal rights, the climate, and the environment as an acknowledgement that oppression of humans in America is no longer a critical issue. (And they won't look for human causes abroad* because the data gets inconvenient there.) Crusaders needed to find something else. They may also have warm feelings towards animals, laudable motives about pollution, and good philosophical arguments for what they are doing. In fact, I'm sure they do. They're nice people. But all this came along in the time and place it did for a reason.
*I don't count human causes abroad that are just disguised forms of why we should do things differently here.