Shelby Steele Now (Part 5): Throwing fuzzy and unattainable idealisms at profound problems
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 glib inadequacy of politically correct prescriptions to profound problems. The entire first chapter is available online here.
The young man at Aspen demanded to speak so that he could corral people back into a prescribed correctness and away from a more open-minded approach to the complex problems that our racial history has left us to deal with–problems that the former victims of this history will certainly bear the greatest responsibility for overcoming. The prescriptions of political correctness offered him a glib innocence of all this. He could subscribe to “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” and “social justice” and think himself solidly on the side of the good. The problem is that these prescriptions only throw fuzzy and unattainable idealisms at profound problems–problems rooted in the long centuries of dehumanization visited on minorities and women. What is “diversity” beyond a vague apologia, an amorphous expression of goodwill that offers no objective assessment whatsoever of the actual problems that minority groups face?
The point is that those poetic truths, and the notions of correctness that force them on society, prevent America from seeing itself accurately. That is their purpose. They pull down the curtain on what is actually true. If decades of government assistance have weakened the black family with dependency and dysfunction, poetic truth argues all the more fervently that blacks are victims and that whites are privileged. Poetic truths stigmatize the actual truth with the sins of America’s past so that truth itself becomes “incorrect.”
As America has become more “correct” in relation to its past, it has also become more cut off from the reality of its present. The danger here is that the nation’s innocence–its redemption from past sins–becomes linked to a kind of know-nothingism. We can’t afford to know, for example, that America’s military might–a vulgarity in the minds of many–has stabilized vast stretches of Asia and Europe since World War II, so that nations under the umbrella of our power have become prosperous trading partners today. We can’t admit today that the lives of minorities are no longer stunted by either prejudice or “white privilege.” And we can’t afford to acknowledge that the same is true for American women. Contrition and apology are “correct”; honesty is “incorrect.”
In this way, today’s great liberal-conservative divide puts correctness at odds with the kind of forthright self-examination that societies need to do in order to understand the true nature of the problems they face. Frank self-examination puts one at risk of transgressing correctness. So issues like free markets versus redistributive economics, educational reform, immigration, and global warming become battlegrounds in which correctness and the actual truth fight it out–but with most of the moral leverage seemingly on the side of correctness, which has the power to shame and stigmatize all who oppose it. Correctness constitutes a power in itself, a power substantial enough to prevail easily, much of the time, over the actual truth.
Next post: How political correctness imposes an empty, tyrannical conformity on society
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
Part 4: The Great Divide between Liberal and Conservative America
Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.