Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Academic Left and White Guilt

Todd Gitlin wrote an autopsy on the Academic Left, but David French makes an important point:
[Gitlin's] opening [paragraph] is a temper-tantrum version of a common argument against the conservative academic freedom movement. “If, after 40 years of leftist campus activism, there is a Republican president, Republican congress, and a conservative Supreme Court, how could you possibly argue that the academy matters?”

In fact, this argument is sometimes even used by conservatives to dismiss the relative importance of campus radicals. Yet it ignores an essential truth: The academy is not—and has never been—particularly effect[ive] at partisan politics (i.e., winning elections or individual legislative battles). Its strength lies in its ability to influence long-term cultural trends.
Could an example of this influence be found in their attempt to "Vietnamize" every war by playing on what Shelby Steele calls "white guilt"?
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.

The collapse of white supremacy--and the resulting white guilt--introduced a new mechanism of power into the world: stigmatization with the evil of the Western past. And this stigmatization is power because it affects the terms of legitimacy for Western nations and for their actions in the world...

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 desperate 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.
UPDATE: Caleb McDaniel takes Steele to task for flawed logic.

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