Friday, February 20, 2015

A veil of innocence

The current National Review includes an excerpt from Shelby Steele's Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country. Steele tells of a time when he was invited to give a speech encouraging American generosity to the Third World. He writes "On the night of the dinner it occurred to me to make the point that America was the world’s exceptional nation — not that its people were superior, but that its wealth and power bestowed upon it a level of responsibility in the world that other nations did not have to bear. Exceptionalism as a burden, not a vanity, was my point." The mere use of "American exceptionalism." elicited boos from one side of the room immediately followed by applause from the other. From "Conservatism as Counterculture":
.... In booing, these audience members were acting out an irony: They were good Americans precisely because they were skeptical of American greatness. Their skepticism was a badge of innocence because it dissociated them from America’s history of evil. To unreservedly buy into American exceptionalism was, for them, to turn a blind eye on this evil, and they wanted to make the point that they were far too evolved for that. ....

In its hunger for innocence, post-1960s liberalism fell into a pattern in which anti-Americanism — the impulse, as the cliché puts it, to “blame America first” — guaranteed one’s innocence of the American past. .... Anti-Americanism is essentially a relativism — a false equivalency — that says America, despite her greatness, is no better an example to the world than many other countries. And in this self-effacement there is a perfect dissociation from the American past, and thus a new moral legitimacy — and so, finally, an entitlement to power. ....

When you win the culture, you win the extraordinary power to say what things mean — you get to declare the angle of vision that assigns the “correct” meaning. When I was a boy growing up under segregation, racism was not seen as evil by most whites. It was simply recognition of a natural law: that some races were inferior to others and that people needed and wanted to be with “their own kind.” .... And so most whites could claim they held no animus toward blacks. Their prejudice, if it was prejudice at all, was perfectly impersonal. It left them free to feel compassion and sometimes even deep affection for those inferiors who cleaned their houses, or served them at table, or suckled their babies. And this was the meaning of things.

The polite booing I elicited by mentioning American exceptionalism at the charity dinner also simply reflected — for the booers and their cohort — the meaning of things. It was a culturally conditioned response. American exceptionalism was a scandal that one booed in the name of humility and decency. Dissociation from it was the road to the Good. And this was so sealed a matter that booing me was only an expression of one’s moral self-esteem — the goodness in oneself bursting forth to censure a heretic. ....

...[P]ost-1960s liberalism had so won over the culture, and so congealed into the new moral establishment, that conservatism — as a politics and a philosophy — became a centerpiece in liberalism’s iconography of evil. It was demonized and stigmatized as an ideology born of nostalgia for America’s past evils — inequality, oppression, exploitation, warmongering, bigotry, repression, and all the rest. Liberalism had won the authority to tell us what things meant and to hold us accountable to those meanings. Conservatism — liberals believed — facilitated America’s moral hypocrisy. Its high-flown constitutional principles only covered up the low motivations that actually drove the country: the self-absorbed pursuit of wealth, the insatiable quest for hegemony in the world, the unacknowledged longing for hierarchy, the repression of women, the exploitation of minorities, and so on.

Conservatism took the hit for all the hypocrisies that came to light in the 1960s. And it remains today an ideology branded with America’s shames. Liberalism, on the other hand, won for its followers a veil of innocence. And this is the gift that recommends it despite its legacy of failed, even destructive, public policies. .... [more]