One of the most vomitous and hideous regressions of American culture is the eager embrace of victimhood as a means of self-identification from Americans of seemingly all ages and races. Attendance is down at professional baseball games, perhaps because America’s new pastime is the effort to understand yourself as a victim of “income inequality,” “white privilege,” or some other dubious buzzword that substitutes for its more accurate descriptor – self-pity. Academic jargon and liberal sentimentalization provide a cover story for people who find perverse enjoyment in believing and acting as if they are victims. In their drive to illustrate the defeatism of their philosophy, “to be human is to be a victim,” they reject the empowerment accessible through an acknowledgement of their agency, and their ability of overcome adversity to achieve.
Shelby Steele, the great social critic and political commentator, makes the point that the Civil Rights Movement has such resounding beauty and inspirational force because it was entirely self-generated. Its spirit of dignity and integrity lived within an independent body. Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, and the millions of activists and artists they represented received little governmental assistance. In fact, at most times, they encountered vicious government resistance. The heroes of the Civil Rights era were not people quick to identify as victims, but warriors willing to face down the most cruel and bloodthirsty enemy, and prevail. Steele, an African-American born and raised in Harvey, Illinois, is a veteran of the black freedom struggle, and now continues the work as a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Comparing the Civil Rights personification of strength with the weakness of trigger warnings, seminars on white privilege, and the whining of occupiers, makes one wonder if a large portion of America has fallen under the spell of some difficult-to-diagnose disorder of the psyche. In such confusing times, it is wise to turn to a man whose brilliance and bravery qualifies him for the task of performing a psychiatric evaluation better than most. Recently, I had the honor and thrill of speaking with Shelby Steele – author of the classics The Content of Our Character, White Guilt, and a forthcoming book on “the polarization of America” – on the phone about race, conservatism, liberalism, President Obama, and the exhilaration and terror of freedom.
Steele quickly undressed the ethos of an unending episode of “America’s Biggest Loser” that seems to define our cultural transformation by going beyond politics, and directing a flashlight directly on the darker corners of human behavior: “One has to go to human nature. There’s a part of human nature when people – particularly young people or minorities – who have very little experience in the mainstream or experience being responsible for their own advancement in the mainstream, are afraid. In other words, they wonder if they won’t be able to make it on their own. When you go through six years of an economic downturn where jobs are scarce, people are insecure. Then, the idea that ‘I’m a victim of someone else’s greed or cruelty or indifference’, is seductive.”
The seduction leads to a flirtation with self-abdication, and allows for the calming of self-doubt, but it conceives a certain brand of politics and political reform. Steele explains, “Once you say you are a victim, you can then say, ‘I’m going to get things. I’m going to get health care. I’m going to get subsidies here and there. I’m going to get’.” “It’s an incentive system and it’s effective,” Steele said with an anxious laugh, “and it makes me nervous for the conservative side, because we don’t offer those seductive, but empty promises. We say, ‘we’re for individual responsibility.’ Well, guess what? That’s not the most appealing position for a 23 year old straight out of college without a job. He wants to believe that income inequality is driving his reality, and if he believes that, he’s going to want the Democratic machinery to move him forward.”
In my conversation with David Mamet (a friend of Steele’s), the legendary playwright identified one of the tasks of a healthy society as giving young people the opportunity to pass tests, and steadily replace the “fear of matriculation” with the “memory of physical accomplishment.”
The understandable and universal fear of matriculation has morphed into a fear of meritocracy, and an emphasis on victimization, no matter how invented or convoluted, is the result. It provides an alibi for absence, and a trapdoor for escape from any system of responsibility, accountability, or judgment.
“As a black American, I saw very vividly in the 1960s when we won the Civil Rights legislation and Voting Rights – That constituted a real victory, and it gave us our first experience of freedom,” Steele explained. “We were vastly freer than we ever were before. What everybody at that time missed – I certainly did – is that freedom is the most terrifying thing in the world, because what freedom says is, ‘It’s all on you now.’ Freedom sits there in judgment of you, and makes you feel extremely inadequate if you don’t have the values and skills necessary to thrive in freedom. So, we were right away seduced by the idea that we can be spared the idea of individual responsibility with the Great Society. When we scream that we are victimized all the time, it spares us the terror of freedom.”
I once taught for several years at a predominantly black high school. The experience forced a collision between my ideology and reality, given that I was liberal and suffered from white guilt. Black students – like white students – fail or succeed according to their own merit, skill, and diligence, and the most important factor shaping their capacity for success is their familial upbringing. To continue to believe that black people are noble victims desperately in need of help in perpetuity is to relegate them to roles of infancy, and to transform white liberals, bureaucrats, and politicians into parents. The history of African Americans – from Duke Ellington to Barack Obama – is not only a history of oppression, but a history of accomplishment. Encouraging young black Americans to embrace victimhood and fear freedom is to encourage them to retreat back into the womb, but it is at the heart of the entire liberal program – a program that, in the soft language of pity and charity – calls black people “inferior.”
“It’s worse than oppression was,” Steele said referring to the peddling of victimhood, “I grew up under segregation, and no one saw us as victims. No one cared about us one way or the other, which left us free to pursue our own lives, even if we were so constricted. In the community where I grew up, everybody had a father in the home. Everybody worked. This was a very poor, black neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago. Many of the children I grew up with became doctors and professors. The kid across the alley became the head of the FBI for Western America. One started a supermarket chain in Texas. There are so many enormously successful people, and that’s because we were lucky enough to come along just before the seductive voice of white guilt started whispering to us that we were victims. My parents certainly never gave an inch for that. You got good grades in school and you worked hard. If you weren’t getting good grades, it was on you. This is very simple, but it is very profound.”
The profundity and simplicity of rugged individualism is politically no match, according to Steele, for the “poetic truth” that “drives the left.” “It is a truth”, Steele said, “that bends the truth in order to make a certain point. So, this claim that America is still a structurally and systemically racist society is a poetic truth. There’s very little actual evidence to support that claim, but it is a claim that, given American history, seems plausible on its face. The left, then, wants to embrace that plausibility, wants to build a politics out of it, wants to pursue power out of it, wants to reconstruct society, and social engineer based on a perception of America that is no longer true.”
One of the most amusing and infuriating ironies of American culture is that liberal pundits and boring politicians continually call for a “national conversation on race” in the middle of national conversations on race, whether they are provoked by George Zimmerman or Donald Sterling. There is the foul whiff of desperation surrounding the liberal transformation of isolated incidents into an indictment of America as white supremacist, a desperation that Steele submits is the result of the realization that “the left doesn’t have much else.” “Theirs is an ideology devoted to the uplift of the underdog. Well, what if there is no underdog, or if it is insignificant?” Steele asks before quickly answering his own question, “Then they are out of business. They will be unable to make a claim on power. So, as the society improves, ironically the left has to distort more and more to make us look far worse than we are. There has to be victims, because without them the left has to go away.”
Steele believes that the left feels empowered by the shifting demographics of America. “We’re becoming a much more varied, multicultural society. The left sees this as an opportunity to convince these people (immigrants, various ethnic groups) that they are victimized by the ‘one percent’ and ‘white privilege’, and if they can do that they will have political success. They are very imaginative at coming up with ways to consider people victims.”
The academic education of Shelby Steele uniquely qualifies him for scrutinizing and criticizing American culture, and it provides insight into his ability to seamlessly transgress boundaries between social and cultural topics, while it also partially accounts for his engaging essayistic voice, which combines social analysis with memoir style reflection on his own life. Steele earned a Master’s Degree in sociology from Southern Illinois University, and a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Utah. He claims to have taught his favorite book – Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – dozens of times, and his penchant for picking up on the subtleties for narrative equips him with the intellectual tools necessary for deconstructing America’s complications and contradictions, especially as they pertain to race and politics.
His 20/20 cultural vision enables him to sketch out reasons for pessimism and optimism. I asked him if he sees an endpoint to the victimization addiction. Will America eventually turn around and embrace freedom, with all of its rewards and troubles, or will the American people – black and white – continue to demand more subsidies, assistance, and protection? The latest essay from liberal literati god – Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has fashioned a literary personality resembling Jeremiah Wright, just without the sense of humor – called “The Case for Reparations” is already receiving effusive praise, and is perhaps a harbinger of the left’s downward trajectory. “It’s going to be awhile before all of this ends,” Steele explains, “especially when you have people like Coates, who is relatively young, and that’s what really saddens me is when you have young minorities figuring out new ways to play the victim, and asking for things like reparations. What are reparations going to do?” Steele asks with a tone of voice that betrays the absurdity of his rhetorical question, “Give me $25,000, so I can buy a Volkswagen? Reparations are not going to give anyone the skillset to handle freedom.”
In the seminal essay, “Superman Goes to the Supermarket,” Norman Mailer endorses John F. Kennedy for President by explaining how Presidents are as much cultural figures as they are political ones, and that they have as much influence on culture as they do on politics. Liberals of the victimhood disability, of which Mailer and Kennedy were not, are enjoying their moment right now, partially because of President Obama’s influence on American culture. “He’s pumped gas into this idea of victimization, and he’s found new groups to include,” Steele said. The President is an immensely successful man, but he’s “done nothing to get us beyond the trap,” Steele claims, “Because that’s the vote he depends upon.”
As the Obama Presidency awkwardly flutters toward the unforgiving smack of the pavement, liberalism might grow more desperate (arguing for reparations, telling white people to “check their privilege”, putting trigger warnings on Mark Twain books) to advance their narrative, and in doing so, “become more visible for the corruption that it is,” as Steele puts it, “because it is so ineffective.”
“They are cannibalistic,” Steele warns of the left, “They are weakening us.” Shelter is available for liberalism, however, and it is built by the growing absurdity of political correctness – An “application of power,” Steele calls, “naked moral intimidation.”
If political correctness collapses underneath its own oppressive weight, and the exposure Steele describes soon begins, room might open for the advancement of a “black conservative movement” Steele identifies as “growing and beginning to flourish,” despite the predictable stigmatization of “Uncle Tom” labeling and “sell out” branding. “The movement is entirely based on a rejection of victimhood, and an embrace of individual responsibility,” Steele said.
“Republicans have to stand up to minorities and say, ‘We care about you, and it is precisely because we care about you that we want you to know that you are not victims. There are opportunities for you all over this free society. Are they as lucrative as the ones in the wealthy precincts of society? Probably not, but they are valuable anyway,’ Steele said speaking in the voice he hopes Republicans soon adopt. He continued, his tone becoming more emphatic, “‘Why not organize a parents group and insist that the local school really educate your children with basic skills so that they can become competitive right away? Why not reinforce this at home? Why not do the old fashioned things that actually work instead of waiting around for fancy governmental intervention?’ Well, what Republican is going to say that? I don’t know any, because it takes tremendous courage.”
Among all the speculation over how Republicans can win support among non-white voters, Steele is seemingly alone in advocating for “frank talk” and not the “patronizing flank of victimhood.”
“There’s no way the government is going to come into your house and guarantee that your kids are studying,” Steele said while explaining that his view is merely consistent with the self-reliance and self-sufficiency engendered and embodied by the Civil Rights Movement. “You have to join yourself with an ethic that makes you proud that you are doing that. We have gotten very far from that ethic, and there’s a vast underclass now of millions of lost people, who were never there when I was a kid during segregation. America should be ashamed of itself over what its done with fifty years of patronization.”
The honesty that leads to vulnerability, despite the insecurity that accompanies it, is the only way forward for a real positive message, and a victory for legitimate and promising anti-poverty programs. “People call the Republican party the ‘stupid party.’ Maybe Republicans are stupid, but it is the party that comes closest to articulating and representing the principles I cherish,” Steele said before turning to political strategy, “Start your speech by saying, ‘Half the people here will call me racist, let’s just get that out of the way right now. You need to take control of your own lives and realize that the new Civil Rights movement is not about income equality, but dignity. I’m here because I want to make a better America, and I want you to be an important part of that America.”
“We say that things are complicated usually when we’re just afraid to do them,” Steele said before concluding, “I think black Americans are definitely ready for the message of individual responsibility.”
To believe and behave otherwise is to act according to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Jim Crow stated that black people were inferior to whites, and therefore should be expelled from white society. The modern ideology of victimhood states that blacks are inferior to whites, and therefore need perpetual assistance from white society. Same master, different robe.
As the vision and brilliance of Shelby Steele makes clear, the battle between victimology and responsibility is not so much a clash between political parties, as it is theater in the war between the strength and cowardice both elemental to human nature. The worst part of the embrace and enjoyment of victimhood is that it surrenders all control of life to the people most adept at manipulation through the promise of rescue.
As Ralph Ellison wrote in Shelby Steele’s favorite book, Invisible Man, “Life is to be lived, not controlled.”
David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is a columnist with the Indianapolis Star. He has also written for the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, and Splice Today. He is the author of All That We Learned About Living: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky) and a 33 1/3 book on Metallica (forthcoming, Bloomsbury Publishing).