Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Weak horse, White horse

Amid intense competition, the strangest op-ed piece on the Iraq war yet appears in the Wall Street Journal today, by Shelby Steele. It requires a full read to do it, er, justice, but the essence of the argument is this: The US is not winning in Iraq because it's afraid to wage all-out war, because it's afflicted by "white guilt." Really. Whites used to rule the world and did some bad stuff, but now they are so abjectly seeking forgiveness and stricken by guilt that they cannot act boldly now in a way that really would make the world better.

This line of thinking has some truly unfortunate historical echoes -- the idea that weakness is only a matter of lack of will due to self-abnegation induced by a militaristic past. He also doesn't explain why this white guilt is something that Europe is able to lord over the Americans (which is a key part of his argument) given that the examples of "white supremacy" that he cites nearly always originated in Europe. But enough sanity. The rest of this post is selected quotes:

White Guilt and the Western Past
Why is America so delicate with the enemy?


There is something rather odd in the way America has come to fight its wars since World War II.

For one thing, it is now unimaginable that we would use anything approaching the full measure of our military power (the nuclear option aside) in the wars we fight ... Why this new minimalism in war?
It began, I believe, in a late-20th-century event that transformed the world more profoundly than the collapse of communism: the world-wide collapse of white supremacy as a source of moral authority, political legitimacy and even sovereignty. This idea had organized the entire world, divided up its resources, imposed the nation-state system across the globe, and delivered the majority of the world's population into servitude and oppression ... There is now a cloud over white skin where there once was unquestioned authority.

I call this white guilt not because it is a guilt of conscience but because people stigmatized with moral crimes--here racism and imperialism--lack moral authority and so act guiltily whether they feel guilt or not.

They struggle, above all else, to dissociate themselves from the past sins they are stigmatized with. When they behave in ways that invoke the memory of those sins, they must labor to prove that they have not relapsed into their group's former sinfulness. So when America--the greatest embodiment of Western power--goes to war in Third World Iraq, it must also labor to dissociate that action from the great Western sin of imperialism. Thus, in Iraq we are in two wars, one against an insurgency and another against the past--two fronts, two victories to win, one military, the other a victory of dissociation ... And, though Islamic extremism is one of the most pernicious forms of evil opportunism that has ever existed, we have felt compelled to fight it with an almost managerial minimalism that shows us to be beyond the passions of war--and thus well dissociated from the avariciousness of the white supremacist past.

Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt. It stigmatizes America with all the imperialistic and racist ugliness of the white Western past so that America becomes a kind of straw man, a construct of Western sin. (The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons were the focus of such stigmatization campaigns.) ... Today words like "power" and "victory" are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, "might" can never be right ...Whether the problem is race relations, education, immigration or war, white guilt imposes so much minimalism and restraint that our worst problems tend to linger and deepen ...

To maintain their legitimacy, they practice the minimalism that makes problems linger. What but minimalism is left when you are running from stigmatization as a "unilateralist cowboy"? And where is the will to truly regulate the southern border when those who ask for this are slimed as bigots? This is how white guilt defines what is possible in America. You go at a problem until you meet stigmatization, then you retreat into minimalism.

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 ...

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.

UPDATE: We had expected Steele's article to get more reaction in the 'sphere than it has. Reaction from National Review's The Corner and via Pajamas Media. Sanity now from Glenn Greenwald.

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