Wednesday, May 03, 2006

AFTER READING SHELBY STEELE'S OP-ED IN TODAY'S WALL STREET JOURNAL, and then the fawning, worshipful response to Steele by right-wing bloggers, I am more thankful than ever that I was raised with strong liberal values.

Steele's thesis in a nutshell is that, ever since World War II, the United States has been timid, faint-hearted, and overly restrained in our conduct of wars because our white supremacist legacy leaves us terribly vulnerable to charges of racism in the way we treat brown-skinned people in other countries. Americans are quite mistaken in feeling this way, Steele asserts, because racism is a thing almost entirely of the past in the U.S.:

Possibly white guilt's worst effect is that it does not permit whites--and nonwhites--to appreciate something extraordinary: the fact that whites in America, and even elsewhere in the West, have achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation. One is forbidden to speak thus, but it is simply true. There are no serious advocates of white supremacy in America today, because whites see this idea as morally repugnant. If there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities.

This is a fact that must be integrated into our public life--absorbed as new history--so that America can once again feel the moral authority to seriously tackle its most profound problems. Then, if we decide to go to war, it can be with enough ferocity to win. [Emphasis added.]

In short, America has the moral authority to behave immorally.

Mark Noonan at Blogs for Bush writes that American and European civilization is innately, inherently superior to all other civilizations:

There was, though, a certainty in the world in ages past -- a century ago, it was taken as a natural that Europeans (and their American and Australian offspring) had developed not just a high civilization, but the highest civilization -- a civilization so manifestly superior to all others in existence that it must be the result of some special ability on the part of those who built it. This was the White Supremacy that Steele talks about -- though it wasn't thought of like that back then. Suddenly translate yourself back to 1886 and claim that people are acting like racists when they don't admit black people to full equality and all you will get are puzzled stares...the word "racism" and the very concept of it didn't exist back then. It should also be kept in mind that "white" in 1886 meant a very different thing form [sic] "white" in 2006 -- it really didn't include Italians, Poles or Russians as well as a host of other non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities. It certainly didn't include my great-grandfather, the son of an illiterate Irish immigrant.

It had its good and bad points, as all human constructs do -- the most glaring bad point, of course, was the disgraceful way it treated non-white people, and even those white people who didn't measure up to an alleged Anglo-Saxon ideal. The largest good point, however, has been lost entirely -- what has been lost is a conviction that the civilization is fundamentally good. Confronted with the crimes of racism and imperialism and deformed by the monstrosities of communism and Nazism, that European -- or white, if you will -- civilization has entirely lost the ability to look at itself and see something good. This sort of attitude is more prevalent on the political left, but I think that nearly all white people feel it to some degree ... some sense that we got from point A to point C only by walking all over people at point B. Our success, as it were, is ill-gotten and thus not something we should ask anyone to emulate...better, especially in the mind of the leftwing elite, if we just leave well enough alone and, indeed, pretend that we've something fundamental to learn from other civilizations whom we once oppressed.

As Mr. Steele points out, this has led to a bit of half-heartedness on the war -- We are, in a sense, afraid to apply our full might because that would seem to be a bullying approach ... and unfair way to deal with people from other civilizations which never managed to advance themselves until they were forced into modernity over the past century.

As it is, I believe in the civilization I belong to -- I believe, indeed, that it is a dispensation granted to mankind by a benevolent Providence. Our civilization is designed, especially in its American form, to liberate and advance all of our brothers and isisters [sic] who continue to labor under oppression, ignorance and poverty. It is this belief of mine which sustains me through the difficult day to day of the War on Terrorism -- just because my civilization is excellent, it doesn;t [sic] mean that the barbarians don't have a trick or two up their slieeve[sic], but knowing that my civilizations produced civilized soldiers while their [sic] produces nothing by [sic] murderous villians [sic], I am encouraged.

First, the snark.

[snark ahead]

If you're arguing that as an American you are superior to all other non-Western cultures, it doesn't make much sense to detract from that message by posting text that is riddled with typos. Normally, I don't consider a few typos here and there to be any big deal, but it seems to me that if you belong to a superior civilization, you should know that you're supposed to proofread your writing before you publish it -- especially if you're not a good typist.

You might also want to make sure that you don't confuse big words and long, grammatically intricate sentences with eloquence. As an example, take this passage from Jeff Goldstein's laudatory post about Steele's op-ed.

As I've mentioned here on numerous occasions, the first fight we must win is internally and domestically. And it is a fight for the soul of classical liberalism, which is being undercut (in my estimation) by nearly 40 years of a concerted effort by those whose goal is power and control to relativize meaning and deconstruct, through incoherent linguistic assertions that have unfortunately been widely adopted out of self-satisfied feel-goodism (specifically, an ostensible deference to the Other that allows us to convince ourselves we are "tolerant" and "diverse," when in fact we have created the conditions to turn those ideas into something approximating their exact opposites).

Taking back the grounds for meaning -- and being willing to fight for those grounds against those who try to shame us out of reasserting them -- is the first step toward the recovery of our belief in our strong and generous national character. To that end, we should draw a lesson from the charges of Bill Bennett's "racism" cast by those who don't believe Bennett intended to say anything racist, but who insist, rather, that his words themselves were racist (an idea that grants that public perception is the locus of meaning, and that the utterer can be held accountable for the public perception). Such a dismissal of the importance of intent has led, predictably, to a rhetorical condition wherein those who protest the loudest (and can play to our emotions) will have effectively seized control of "history" as it is constructed and disseminated through language.

This is the will to power -- and it is only possible in the vaccuum left by the marginalization of a truly coherent interpretative paradigm.

The above reads, in the words of David Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

... like an undergraduate paper written by someone who really, really thinks that stringing together lots of big words produces coherent meaning, without having the benefit of actually understanding what any of those words mean. The shorter version is this: Postmodernist lefties are trying to take over classical liberalism through linguistic trickery, and the only way to stop them is to become fascists and kill plenty of brown people.


Getting back to the argument Steele and his fans are making, it seems to go something like this: "Our civilization" was created to "liberate and advance all of our brothers and sisters who continue to labor under oppression, ignorance and poverty." But these brothers and sisters of ours belong to civilizations that are inferior to ours, that are backward, and that produce "nothing but murderous villains." Furthermore, our "brothers and sisters" in other civilizations have nothing to teach us and there is nothing meaningful that we can learn from them. And that means we can use our "full might" against these other civilizations, even if the people in those civilizations are our brothers and sisters.

Jeff Goldstein puts it quite baldly:

I don't doubt Bush's belief in the rectitude of this fight. And I understand that in a world of 24/7 news cycles and the proliferation of personal home video -- where the opportunity to use images of war's inevitable carnage as a tool against war itself is often seized upon with relish by those who disagree with a given military action -- the President and his administration are in a tough position, trying to balance the war for hearts and minds with the necessity for taking care of business on the ground.

But it is clear that any military action in which the US is involved will be met with protests by those whose disagreement with the US is inveterate. So trying to please them is a losing proposition -- and not one that should cost us the life of one additional US soldier.

Similarly, the insurgents and terrorists we are now fighting aren't any less likely to engage in heinous acts of terror simply because we have shown restraint; in fact, it is possible that just the opposite obtains: specifically, that our restraint, and the terrorists' understanding of our belief in the need for restraint, actually emboldens them.

Which is why there are times when we really should turn off the "smart" bombs and show our seriousness by putting the world on notice that, when we believe the situation calls for it, we are willing to ignore the inevitable bad press and the howls of protest from human rights groups, and exhibit a show of strength and military professionalism that is politically disinterested and tactically thorough and lethal.

Of course, no one wishes to see innocent civilians die (only the unserious make the claim that those who support what they consider to be a necessary war somehow luxuriate in collateral deaths). But at the same time, from a practical standpoint, there is nothing wrong with fighting a war as if it is a war -- and sometimes the only way to disabuse the enemy of the notion that we are constrained by a moral calculus that makes little sense in urban combat situations is to refuse to show the kind of restraint they have come to anticipate and count on.

One of Jeff's readers summed it up well:

So it's down to this: we're just not killing enough people because we're weighed down with "white guilt." And the solution is to shed the guilt and kill more people.

Glenn Greenwald questions Jeff's idea that the U.S. has been "restrained" in Iraq:

Now, from what I can tell, the only military force we are refraining from using in Iraq is full-scale carpet bombings where we eradicate a few cities, or using tactical nuclear weapons. Calls for fewer restraints on how we are fighting in Iraq would almost certainly have to include one or both of those tactics.

And since Jeff does not seem to know, Glenn explains why we haven't done these things -- and, one hopes, won't:

Does it really have to be said that the reason we can't carpet bomb Iraq and "win the war" is because we are supposedly there to build Iraq, not to destroy it? Let's review a few basic, undisputed facts about our current occupation of Iraq -- undisputed because the administration itself acknowledges them. Once our original, predominant justification for our invasion disappeared -- that would be the whole bit about WMDs -- the only one we had left, the one we have since trumpeted over and over, is that we are there in order to improve that country, to enhance our reputation in the region, and to win "hearts and minds."

According to the President, we're going to win because the terrorists bring suffering and destruction to Iraq and we don't. So they will like us and hate the terrorists and will soon be our "partner for peace." Advocating that we act more the way the President says Al Qaeda is acting -- by bombing more and killing more civilians -- doesn't seem all that compatible with those goals.

We are not there to conquer territory or drive the Iraqi government into forced surrender and submission. The Iraqi government isn't our enemy. Although it may be helpful to achieve one's objectives in a traditional war, large-scale destruction would achieve the very opposite effect of what we are supposedly trying to accomplish. The only choice we have is highly precise and targeted warfare against actual terrorists and insurgents. Any attacks that are more sweeping, destructive and indiscriminate will kill large numbers of innocent Iraqis -- the very people we claim we are there to help -- and will breed even more intense and widespread hatred towards the U.S. in the region, which would be the precise opposite of the goal we say we are trying to accomplish.

Escalating the use of military force in Iraq by indiscriminately killing civilians and eradicating whole cities would contradict every single statement we have made about why we are there, what we want to achieve, and what our plan is in that region. We're not refraining from those acts because of white guilt or a fear of what European diplomats will say about us. We're refraining from them because the wholesale indiscriminate slaughter of thousands or tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis -- all because we have grown impatient and annoyed with our pet little democracy-building project and just want to bomb the whole place into submission -- would be both morally reprehensible and, from the perspective of our own interests, an indescribably stupid thing to do.

To sit and listen to people who have spent the last three years piously lecturing us on the need to stand with "the Iraqi people," who justified our invasion of that country on the ground that we want to give them a better system of government because we must make Muslims like us more, now insist that what we need to do is bomb them with greater force and less precision is really rather vile -- but highly instructive. The masks are coming off. No more poetic tributes to democracy or all that sentimental whining about "hearts and minds." It's time to shed our unwarranted white guilt, really stretch our legs and let our hair down, and just keep bombing and bombing until we kill enough of them and win. Shelby Steele deserves some sort of award for triggering that refreshingly honest outburst.

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