Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Shelby Steele on How White Guilt Affects U.S. Military Policy

Shelby Steele's got an interesting piece in today's Opinion Journal, the online commentary site of the Wall Street Journal. Steele argues that since Vietnam, the ability of the American policy elites to apply the full range of U.S. military muscle is contrained by Western white guilt from the racist and imperialist past. He applies this thinking to the current deployment in Iraq. Steele writes that the white guilt phenomenon creates an "imperialist stigma," which then deligitimizes American war efforts in the less developed world, and forces policymakers to defend the use of force as a form of international social work. Here's a longer passage:

White guilt makes our Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems--even the tyrannies they live under--were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the white West. We must "understand" and pity our enemy even as we fight him. 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.) Once the stigma is in place, one need only be anti-American in order to be "good," in order to have an automatic moral legitimacy and power in relation to America. (People as seemingly disparate as President Jacques Chirac and the Rev. Al Sharpton are devoted pursuers of the moral high ground to be had in anti-Americanism.) This formula is the most dependable source of power for today's international left. Virtue and power by mere anti-Americanism. And it is all the more appealing since, unlike real virtues, it requires no sacrifice or effort--only outrage at every slight echo of the imperialist past.

This is an intriguing hypothesis. I recall the intense anti-American sentiment in 2003 during the build-up to the Iraq deployment, both domestically and around the world. Recent antiwar protests reveal not just opposition to war per se, but to neoimperialist wars, particularly in the Middle East, with the region's petroleum resources. The anti-imperial stance lends credibility to the opposition of those who are pretty pacifist in any case, and who abhor the use of force in all circumstances, much less to protect national interests.

This article draws on Steele's new book, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (HarperCollins, 2006).

Here's a link:

No comments: