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The first chapter of Shelby Steele’s book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country is a powerful, personalized critique of the reigning liberal paradigm and a valuable perspective our society confronts the seemingly hopeless polarization and challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Today’s excerpt is about how liberalism absolves one from America’s past sins. The entire first chapter is available online here.
Why would people allow themselves to be manipulated into disregarding self-evident truth in favor of some sweeping and largely unsupportable claim of truth? Because, I think, the great trick of modern liberalism is to link its poetic truths (false as they may be) with innocence from all the great sins of America’s past–racism, sexism, imperialism, capitalist greed, and so on–and, similarly, to stain the actual truth with those selfsame sins. So, if you want to be politically correct, if you want to be seen as someone who is cleansed of America’s past ugliness, you will go along with the poetic truth that racism is still a great barrier for blacks. Conversely, embracing the literal truth–that racism is no longer a serious barrier–will make you politically incorrect and will stigmatize you with that ugliness.
But poetic truth is not about truth; it’s about power. It is a formula for power. Historically, freedom was always the great imperative of liberalism; poetic truth enabled liberals after the 1960s to shift that imperative from freedom to morality. A distinction must be made. During and immediately after the 1960s, racism and sexism were still more literal truth than poetic truth. As we moved through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, America morally evolved so that these old American evils became more “poetic” than literal. Yet redeeming America from these evils has become liberalism’s rationale for demanding real power in the real world–the political and cultural power to create social programs, to socially engineer on a national scale, to expand welfare, to entrench group preferences in American institutions, and so on. But what happens to liberal power when America actually earns considerable redemption–when there are more women than men in the nation’s medical schools, when a black can serve as the president, when public accommodations are open to anyone with the price of the ticket?
What actually happened was that liberalism turned to poetic truth when America’s past sins were no longer literally true enough to support liberal policies and the liberal claim on power. The poetic truth of black victimization seeks to compensate for America’s moral evolution. It tries to keep alive the justification for liberal power even as that justification has been greatly nullified by America’s moral development. The poetic idea that America will always be a racist, sexist, imperialistic, and greed-driven society has rescued post-1960s liberalism from the great diminishment that should have been its fate, given the literal truth of America’s remarkable (if incomplete) moral growth.
Next post: The Great Divide between Liberal and Conservative America
Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.