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Shelby Steele Tells Us What is Wrong with Ourselves and the Middle East

Shelby SteelePart I

Who is Shelby Steele? He is one of a relatively small group of African American political conservatives. Like the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who also falls into this category, Steele has been well compensated for his anomalous right wing opinions. He is a "senior fellow" at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – The West Coast’s fortress of conservative thought.

Steele, whose degrees are in sociology and English, is apparently also an amateur, arm chair psychologist. He doesn’t like the American concept of affirmative action because those who take advantage of it are allegedly robbed of a sense of personal responsibility. How can one ever achieve a "culture of excellence and achievement" if someone gives you a boost up? Anyway, Steele is sure that the only reason the liberals enacted affirmative action was to assuage their "guilty consciences." This outlook reflects an age-old American myth that every kid can be president and a millionaire as well if he or she puts their mind to it. It is also the same outlook that kept poor relief at a starvation level in the 19th century so as not to rob the indigent of an incentive to get ahead.
 
Mr. Steele has now turned his psychological crystal ball on the Middle East. In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed published June 21, 2010, entitled "Israel and the Surrender of the West" he tells us that the worldwide opinion condemning Israel’s attack on the Gaza Aid Flotilla is just a manifestation of a "sanctimonious and meddling voice" that reminds him of a "school marm" scolding Israel for "yet another infraction of the world’s moral sensibility."
 
As "silly" as world opinion is on the issue of Israel, Steele sees a deeper pathology lying behind it. He has decided that there is a "chilling familiarity in all this. One of the world’s oldest stories is playing out before our eyes: the Jews are being scapegoated again." The most interesting part of Steele’s diagnosis comes when he tries to explain why this is happening. It turns out that liberals are going after Israel in order to deny their own Western history of moral crimes. Progressives want to show the rest of the world that the West is no longer imperialist, or racist, or xenophobic. According to Steele in his psychologist role, liberals and progressives must demonstrate this so that they can see themselves as moral people. "Today," Mr. Steel tells us, "the West lives on the defensive, the very legitimacy of our modern societies requiring constant dissociation with the sins of the Western past." And since, in the distorted liberal Western mind, Israel has come to represent "shock troopers from a largely white First World nation" it is now just "bad manners" and "political incorrect" to say anything good about the Zionist state (which he assures us is actually quite a nice place).
 
How about the other side, the Palestinians and the Muslims of the Middle East? Well, they have played the Western progressives for fools. The liberals all fail to understand that all these Arabs and Muslims are "driven to militancy and war not by legitimate complaints against Israel or the West but by an internalized sense of inferiority....and the quickest cover for inferiority is hatred." While explaining this he even insinuates that the Palestinians are after nuclear weapons! I will spare the reader several more paragraphs of Mr. Steele’s attempt to put more than one billion Muslims on the couch.
 
Part II
 
There is a strong correlation between Shelby Steele’s understanding (perhaps misunderstanding is the better word) of the plight of the African American and the plight of the Palestinian. Somehow he has gotten it into his head that both groups are obsessed with the notion of victim-hood. He thinks they both secretly like being victims because it gives them the moral high ground. And from there they start demanding compensation. The African Americans want affirmative action and the Palestinians want a state, and they both want someone else, who they claim is the victimizer, to give it to them. Then, when they don’t get what they think is their due, they become hate filled. This, he explains, is "one of the world’s great problems today."
 
This interpretation of history, and evaluation of present conditions, is right out of the American right wing world view. There is nothing new about it except Mr. Steele’s incredible attempt to use it on the Palestinians and large portions of the Muslim world. It is seriously flawed first and foremost because it is ahistorical. In the case of African Americans Shelby Steele’s analysis simply assumes that those who have suffered centuries of discrimination can get ahead as if they are operating on an even economic and social playing field. The historical truth is that there has never been an even playing field and there is none today. And its just not African Americans. Steele represents an outlook that denies any societal responsibility to the poor no matter who they are. He just has an ethnic affinity toward scolding black folk–like a school marm. One can easily imagine him yelling, "stop your whining and pick yourselves up by those proverbial bootstraps." Alas, if only it was that easy.
 
And what about his assessment of American progressives/liberals? He thinks their humanistic impulses come from a guilty conscience. Now how does he know that is so? Well he really doesn’t know, he just kind of senses it that way. There is no historical evidence for this stereotyping of progressive sentiments. There is, in fact, a long philosophical tradition that sees society as a communal place where there exist communal responsibilities. This goes beyond the concepts of communism or religious charity. It goes back to notions of extended kinship and the cultivation of empathy, sympathy and brotherhood. Concepts with distinct survival value.
 
And finally we come to Shelby Steele’s quite amazing assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once more what strikes one right away is the ahistorical nature of his assertions. What is his evidence that all the hostility directed toward the West and particularly the US and Israel, is a function of some region wide inferiority complex? He gives none. And all of Israel’s history of expansion, ethnic cleansing, de facto and de jure discrimination, supported at least since 1967 by billions of American dollars and some of the most destructive weaponry ever made, all that just doesn’t enter into Steele’s mental world. Indeed, he denies it outright. "This, of course, is not the reality of modern Israel. Israel does not oppress or occupy...."
 
My own humble, and completely amateur psychological opinion, is that Shelby Steele needs serious long term therapy. This should be combined with a mandatory four year college program as a history major with a dual concentration in American post Civil War history and the history of the modern Middle East. In the meantime no one should take him seriously, particularly the readers of the Wall Street Journal.


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