War of the Worlds
The West must stop apologizing for the greatness of our civilization.
BY SHELBY STEELE
Monday, September 17, 2001 12:01 a.m. EDT
A week ago today, I set out to write a piece for this page on the recent United Nations conference against racism and intolerance in Durban, South Africa. My point was to be that the conference was an absurd and theatrical confrontation of First World guilt and Third World anger born of ineffectuality. Then, after last Tuesday morning, I put all that aside. Against the horrors of that day, the conference seemed remarkably trivial.
But now I believe there is a relationship between that bizarre little conference and Tuesday's horrors. After all, Tuesday's events were also a collision of the First and Third worlds, and I believe their subtext was also one of Western guilt and Third World ineffectuality.
In looking at difficulties in the black American community over the years, it has always astounded me how much white Americans take for granted the rich and utterly decisive heritage of Western culture. There is no space here to reiterate the vast and invisible web of ideas, principles, values and understandings that have evolved over the millennia to undergird the American civilization.
To mention only the fewest highlights, there was the magnificence of Greek thought, the Roman development of law, a renaissance of reason, the concept of a social contract, the idea of the individual as a self-contained and free political unit with rights and responsibilities, free markets, the scientific method, separation of church and state--all this and so much more converging to make the American and Western way of life successful in so many ways. It is not too much to say, as Francis uyama did a few years back, that the West now represents--all things considered--the Hegelian "end of history." If the Second and Third worlds now "Americanize," it is more out of Darwinism than a love of blue jeans and Big Macs.
The evil of slavery and colonialism was that these oppressions kept their victims out of history, disconnected them from the evolutionary struggle. The great white advantage has been living inside history, adapting to its constant demands, nurturing the values and the habits of life that allow one to keep pace. This is the cultural capital that whites too often take for granted and rarely think of insisting on in the former victims of exclusion. It is so easy to look at minority weakness and think of sweeping programmatic solutions when a simple insistence on responsibility for one's own development might serve far better. (After all, this is how Israel came to thrive after the Holocaust.) Oppression made such attitudes irrelevant, so that even when freedom came there was an incomplete knowledge of how to seize it.
And this is where a new kind of trouble began. Where slavery and colonialism once imposed inferiority, new freedom has too often only added the fresh embarrassment of inferiority without the excuse of oppression. I think the Durban conference was inspired by this embarrassment. Its founders realized they would never get reparations of any significance. The wiser among them know that reparations are no answer anyway. I believe this conference--with its almost religious embrace of victimization--wanted to keep racism alive as a face-saving excuse, to let it temper the shame of so much ineffectuality in the face of freedom, so much correlation between independence and decline.
Today the First World is dealing with an embarrassed Third World that is driven to save face against the anguish of an inferiority that is less and less blamable on others. The deep appeal of a Jesse Jackson or a Yasser Arafat, one reason they hang on as leaders despite every kind of public and private failing, is their ability to hide inferiority behind blame, to be the parent who sees no wrong in the child.
But blame is only the most common defense against this embarrassment. Terrorism is another. The shame of languishing in the midst of freedom generates a touchy, narcissistic sensibility and an abiding faith that, but for the evil of others, one's superiority would be self-evident. The terrorist act is a self-referential event, a self-congratulation that smothers the feeling of inferiority in one glorious blaze of spite. Here, finally, is the effectiveness that is so absent elsewhere. Even if you cannot build the World Trade Center's towers--emblems of demonstrable Western superiority--you can come along of a Tuesday morning and, like God himself, strike them down.
But there is another actor in this drama--white guilt; one of the most powerful yet under estimated forces in modern societies. At least 50 whites have told me in the same conversation both that they feel no racial guilt and that on some occasion they have not said something they truly believed for fear of being marked a racist. But white guilt is precisely the latter, not a belief in one's guilt but a vulnerability to being stigmatized as a racist because of one's skin color alone. And this is the larger terror that hangs over the Western world.
White guilt is what causes minority and Third World "inferiority" to stand as a negative moral judgment on the Western way of life. It presumes that Western success is the result not of three millennia of cultural evolution (much of it enhanced by contributions from what today we call the Third World) but of the ill-gotten gains of slavery and colonialism. Western success is presumed to have come at the price of Third World inferiority.
This doesn't just mean that Western moral authority is hostage to helping the Third World overcome inferiority. More importantly it means that Western culture is inherently sinful, that its superiority is a measure of its sinfulness. Thus, the World Trade Center towers become monuments not of a great civilization but of a great evil.
White guilt pushes the West into a place where it can redeem its moral authority only by making a virtue of moral equivalency. This means that weakness, backwardness, even sinfulness in minorities and the Third World are unmentionable. Yasser Arafat visited the Clinton White House more than any other world leader. American civil rights organizations almost entirely live off white corporate and foundation money despite their total ineffectiveness in solving black problems. Western money has gone to blatantly corrupt Third World leaders for decades.
White guilt morally and culturally disarms the West. It makes the First World apologetic. And this, of course, only inflames the narcissism of the ineffectual. In the vacuum of power created by guilt, a world-wide class of guilt hustlers has emerged. America and the West must cease this three-decade-long indulgence in guilt, moral equivalency, and apologia. None of this redeems the West or uplifts the Third World.
In the place of this there should be only a profound commitment to fairness. Here, something like fanaticism is not out of place. After this, America and the West should unapologetically pursue their self-interest, let others take the lead in their own development, and allow the greatness of Western civilization to speak for itself.
Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of "A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America" (HaperCollins, 1998). http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=95001154