Hoover Institute Fellow Shelby Steele's attempts to maximize conservative white innocence got a sprinkle of John Yoo in his op-ed yesterday for The Wall Street Journal. Steele says America "suffered" in the 1960s from a loss of moral legitimacy due to its confrontation with its racist past and present. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the laws that finally extended equal protection to black folks -- in Steele's eyes, these are signs of America's weakness, the results of an "activist liberalism" that Steele summarily dismisses as urban riots and "school busing." Steele is attempting to discredit the achievements of liberal integrationists, but his argument could just as well be applied to the enablers of torture: It is as though moral authority is lost in the confession, rather than the acts that precede it.
But Steele has little need for history. "Conservatism has no way to show itself redeemed of America's bigoted past, no way like the Great Society to engineer a grand display of its innocence, and no way to show deference to minorities for the oppression they endured. Thus it seems to be in league with that oppression," he writes, as though William F. Buckley never wrote that "the South must prevail" in the fight against integration, as though Strom Thurmond never became a Republican and Trent Lott never wished Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign had succeeded. Finally -- and this is Steele's role in the Republican Party -- he assures conservatives that nothing need change, that there is no past to be ashamed of, and thus no past misdeeds to account for:
Until my encounter with conservatism I had only known the racial determinism of segregation on the one hand and of white liberalism on the other -- two varieties of white supremacy in which I could only be dependent and inferior.
The appeal of conservatism is the mutuality it asserts between individual and political freedom, its beautiful idea of a free man in a free society. And it offers minorities the one thing they can never get from liberalism: human rather than racial dignity. I always secretly loved Malcolm X more than Martin Luther King Jr. because Malcolm wanted a fuller human dignity for blacks -- one independent of white moral wrestling. In a liberalism that wants to redeem the nation of its past, minorities can only be ciphers in white struggles of conscience.
The question that comes to mind is why Steele "secretly" loved Malcolm more than Martin. When I was growing up, this was not a controversial sentiment. Accepting that Steele does love Malcolm, (and he leaves noticeably absent the fact that Malcolm felt Islam was the path to that racial dignity--that is too real for the WSJ) it must remain secret only because a conservatism that has denigrated and excluded black intellectual and artistic achievement has never been able to accept Malcolm as anything other than a demagogue. For such things Steele has no answer, only a deceptive rewriting of history in which conservatives did not oppose civil rights and equal protection for blacks. "In fact it took both activism and principle, civil war and social movement, to end this oppression," Steele writes. Well, which part were conservatives involved in? Minorities are dominated by a "culture of grievance" not shared by conservatives, according to Steele. But it's hard to imagine a more aggrieved culture than the one that now dominates the right, marked by its petty "tea parties," incessant whining about the press not actively flacking for conservative ideas, complaints about the decline of the "white male power structure," or the idea that liberals want everyone to "bend over" for Obama "because his father was black."
But perhaps the saddest notion of all is the idea that Steele is not a cipher in a "white struggles of conscience." For Steele, who is hired to say things such as, "white Americans have made more moral progress in the last 40 years than any people in the history of the human conditions," there can be little doubt of his role, which is to assuage conservatives struggling with their conscience that the minorities they alienate are pathetic creatures easily flattered by "redemptive liberalism." Steele is correct that too often liberals have sought policies that might alleviate guilt rather than achieve progress, but his persistent myth is that conservatives do not feel such guilt, and therefore they are free to respect people as "individuals." If that were true, they wouldn't need Steele to convince them that there was nothing to feel guilty about. Steele is not free from "white struggles of conscience." As the sole black voice telling conservatives they have no racial past to be ashamed of, he is inexorably tied to them. And what's really sad is he clearly has no idea.