Shelby Steele Now (Part 4): The Great Divide between Liberal and Conservative America

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 the great divide between Liberal and Conservative America.  The entire first chapter is available online here.

But why is the “great divide” between this young man and myself–and, far more importantly, between liberal and conservative America–such an urgent problem for America today? One reason may be that a divide like this suggests that America has in fact become two Americas, two political cultures forever locked in a “cold war” within a single society. This implies a spiritual schism within America itself, and, following from that, the prospect of perpetual and hopeless debate–the kind of ego-driven debate in which both sides want the other side to “think like us.” There is a little of what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small difference” in all this. Neighboring nations often have a far greater animus toward each other than they do toward distant nations that are more starkly opposed to their interests and values. Today, liberal and conservative Americans are often contemptuous of each other with a passion that would more logically be reserved for foreign enemies.

But the urgency of this “great divide” also has a less obvious explanation. Our national debate over foreign and domestic issues has come to be framed as much by poetic truths as by dispassionate assessments of the realities we face. Again, the poetic truth that blacks are still held back from full equality by ongoing “structural” racism carries more authority than the objective truth: that today racism is not remotely the barrier to black advancement in American life that it once was. In foreign affairs, the poetic truth that we Americans are essentially imperialistic cowboys bent on exploiting the world has more credibility than the obvious truth, which is that our wealth and power (accumulated over centuries of unprecedented innovation in a context of freedom) has often drawn us into the unwanted role of policing a turbulent world-and, it must be added, to the world’s immense benefit.

The great problem with poetic truths is that they are never self-evident in the way, for example, that racial victimization was self-evident in the era of segregation. Today the actual facts fail to support the notion that racial victimization is a prevailing truth of American life. So today, a poetic truth, like “black victimization,” or the ongoing “repression of women,” or the systematic “abuse of the environment,” must be imposed on society not by fact and reason but by some regime of political correctness–some notion of propriety and decency that coerces people into treating such claims as actual fact. If you don’t presume that America’s racism, sexism, warmongering, and environmental disregard are incontrovertible qualities of the American character, then you are obviously “incorrect” and guilty of fellow traveling with precisely those qualities.

Political correctness is the enforcement arm of poetic truth. It coerces people into suspending their own judgment on matters of racial equality, women’s rights, war, and the environment in deference to some prescribed “correct” view on these matters that will distance them from the stigma of America’s sinful past. The very point of poetic truths is to supplant the actual reality of American life with the view of America as a nation still surreptitiously devoted to its past sins. It has no other purpose than to project these sins as the essential, if not the eternal, truth of the American way of life. Then political correctness tries to bully and shame Americans-on pain of their human decency-into conformity with this ugly view of their society.

Next post: Throwing fuzzy and unattainable idealisms at profound problems

Part 1: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country

Part 2: Liberalism’s Greatest Source of Power

Part 3: How Liberalism Offers Absolution from America’s Past Sins

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