by Chris Bodenner
The inimitable Shelby Steele had a great op-ed in the WSJ this week. In a sort of political eulogy for Jesse Jackson, Steele goes beyond the "Jesse is jealous" argument and delves into the profound generational gap between Jackson and Obama:
Mr. Jackson was always a challenger. He confronted American institutions (especially wealthy corporations) with the shame of America's racist past and demanded redress. He could have taken up the mantle of the early Martin Luther King [and] argued for equality out of a faith in the imagination and drive of his own people. Instead -- and tragically -- he and the entire civil rights establishment pursued equality through the manipulation of white guilt. Their faith was in the easy moral leverage over white America that the civil rights victories of the 1960s had suddenly bestowed on them. ... They ushered in an extortionist era of civil rights, in which they said to American institutions: Your shame must now become our advantage. To argue differently -- that black development, for example, might be a more enduring road to black equality -- took whites "off the hook" and was therefore an unpardonable heresy. ... And now comes Mr. Obama, who became the first viable black presidential candidate precisely by giving up his moral leverage over whites.
I think the answer is that Mr. Obama potentially offers [blacks] something far more profound than mere moral leverage. If only symbolically, he offers nothing less than an end to black inferiority. This has been an insidious spiritual torment for blacks because reality itself keeps mockingly proving the original lie. Barack Obama in the Oval Office -- a black man governing a largely white nation -- would offer blacks an undreamed-of spiritual solace far more meaningful than the petty self-importance to be gained from moral leverage. But white Americans have also been tormented by their stigmatization as moral inferiors, as racists. An Obama presidency would give them considerable moral leverage against this stigma. ... He promises to reconfigure our exhausted cultural arrangement.
As bold and brilliant as Steele can be on racial politics, however, I find him pretty tone deaf when it comes to campaign politics (not to mention foreign policy). For instance, his last book was called "Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama And Why He Can't Win." (He recently backpedaled on that shaky prediction.) Despite that skepticism, he clearly admires Obama in the book. But it's equally clear that Steele lets his entrenched cynicism toward left-liberals get in the way of seeing the potential Obama has for moving liberalism forward (especially on issues such as affirmative action, school vouchers, and the rhetoric of personal responsibility). And he has a pretty bleak take on Obama's political posturing:
Already [Obama] has flip-flopped on campaign financing, wire-tapping, gun control, faith-based initiatives, and the terms of withdrawal from Iraq. Those enamored of his cultural potential may say these reversals are an indication of thoughtfulness, or even open-mindedness. But could it be that this is a man who trusted so much in his cultural appeal that the struggles of principle and conscience never seemed quite real to him? His flip-flops belie an almost existential callowness toward principle, as if the very idea of permanent truth is passé, a form of bad taste.
John McCain is simply a man of considerable character, poor guy. He is utterly bereft of cultural cachet. Against an animating message of cultural "change," he is retrogression itself. Worse, Mr. Obama's trick is to take politics off the table by moving so politically close to his opponent that only culture is left to separate them.
Considerable character? Before this election, I kinda thought so. But from Obama is the candidate of Hamas to Obama would lose a war to win an election, those hopes have been dashed. McCain hasn't completely squandered his character, but he certainly hasn't run the kind of elevated campaign he promised back in January (particularly compared to Obama, who maintained class and composure even in the face of Clinton's onslaught.) Utterly bereft of cultural cachet? A quintessential war hero and legislative "maverick" has tons of cultural cachet. Also, it's pretty clear by now that McCain has "flip-flopped" just as much as Obama, from Bush's tax cuts to evangelical endorsements to opposing his own immigration plan.
Anyway, Steele is always thought-provoking, for better and for worse. I just wish his provocative views on race weren't so immediately dismissed by many liberals.