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Shelby Steele Now: His Important Message for Our Polarized Society (Part 1)

While attending a recent event at the University of Minnesota lecture on race I was surprised to see an influential professor carrying a book he was reading by black conservative Shelby Steele: Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.  American Experiment had hosted Steele in the past but I hadn’t read anything by him for many years so I ordered the book.  What I received (in just the first chapter!) was a powerful, personalized critique of the reigning liberal paradigm and a perspective our society needs to hear as we confront the seemingly hopeless polarization crystallized by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reading the first chapter of Shame I had the same experience I had reading Steele’s The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America 20 years ago.  Nearly every sentence was so thoughtful, refreshing, courageous, and inspiring, that it demanded to be underlined, just as I had made his Content the most underlined book I ever read.  Therefore, through multiple posts, I plan to share with you many of Steele’s important excerpts from chapter one of his recent book, though I commend to you the entire chapter which is available online here.

Well, when we let nationalism shape the form of our liberal or conservative identities–when we practice our ideological leaning as if it were a divine right, an atavism to be defended at all cost–then we put ourselves on a warlike footing. We feel an impunity toward our opposition, and we grant ourselves a scorched-earth license to fight back. They are not the other side of the same coin; they are a different coin altogether, a fundamentally illegitimate and alien force. And we are forgiven our bitterness and contempt for them.  . . .

It was exactly this loyalty to fact over ideology that had driven me away from liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s into an appreciation of conservatism’s commitment to individual freedom. In other words, for me, ideology does not precede truth. Rather, truth, as best as we can know it, is always the test of ideology.

Steele introduces a concept he calls “poetic truth” that he says liberals have used since the 1960s to reduce the world to victims and victimizers:

Poetic truth disregards the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position. It makes the actual truth seem secondary or irrelevant. Poetic truths defend the sovereignty of one’s ideological identity by taking license with reality and fact. They work by moral intimidation rather than by reason, so that even to question them is heresy.

Next post: More from Shelby Steele on racism and victimhood.

Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.

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