“White Guilt,” National Self-Confidence and the War

Shelby Steele is insightful about national self-confidence and about how the lack of such confidence seriously weakens a society like ours that is fighting a confident and determined enemy. (See also this post.) However, he paints with a broad brush and I think that his analysis may be improved if we pay more attention to the political dynamics of the various groups within our society.

For example, I’m not sure that “white guilt” is the best way to frame the issue. There are plenty of Jacksonians, white and nonwhite, who have no guilt at all about using overwhelming force to crush our enemies. There are also many Americans who are ambivalent about America and ambivalent or hostile towards the war. Between these two extremes there are many people who are on the fence.

My guess is that Americans are about evenly distributed between these groups. This means that our official policy, which is planned and implemented by realistic people who would like to use overwhelming force against our enemies — so that we can win as quickly as possible and get out — is constrained by the political difficulty, perhaps even impossibility, of doing so at the moment. It also means that the main impediment to our giving Iran and other enemies the same treatment as we gave Japan towards the end of WW2 is the opinions of the uncommitted third of our population.

Lately the war news has been uninspiring if not discouraging, the uncommitteds have become more negative about our involvement and, consequently, the Bush administration has become more hesitant in its prosecution of the war. However, the entire political dynamic of this country would flip in a strongly pro-war direction if something happened to shift uncommitted opinion in the direction of favoring greater aggressiveness towards our enemies. I assume that another major terror attack here could have that effect, but so I think could other events, including events that we can’t easily foresee.

The problem, then, is not ultimately guilt so much as it is the significant political divisions in our society, which for the moment exist in a weak equilibrium. It’s the same political dynamic that has made the last two presidential elections so close. I think that this equilibrium will eventually shift as the country moves decisively in one political direction or the other, but I don’t think we are there yet.

I hope that this shift, when it does happen, will be the result of thoughtful reflection on the part of many citizens rather than of some terrible event like another big attack.

UPDATE: Rethinking this topic in light of what commenters have written, I agree that guilt is an issue. Or perhaps “guilt” is a flavor of lack of self-confidence. But white guilt is a red herring. Americans who lack enough confidence in their country to defend it rhetorically or militarily are members of a distinct class, heirs to an intellectual tradition having nothing to do with race and whose adherents come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some of the members of the guilty class believe themselves guilty by virtue of being white; others believe that their guilt comes from being westerners, Christians or people of wealth. It is ultimately leftist ideology that underlies the lack of confidence and that uses race consciousness as but one of a number of tools of mass-manipulation.

UPDATE2: David Foster offers an alternative explanation.

15 thoughts on ““White Guilt,” National Self-Confidence and the War”

  1. I like Shelby Steele myself! The guilt thing is interesting, isn’t it? I’m a stranger to guilt myself — raised a Protestant, which means that shame is familiar but guilt is a puzzle. Yet I think Steele is right, that “white guilt” has a gigantic impact on the US’s public discussion. But why should this be so, if so many white Americans are shame-culture rather than guilt-culture people? How did it happen that the guilt-culture people came to dominate the conversation?

    I don’t have an answer, although from personal experience I can attest that when guilt-culture people start carrying on, I tend to check out. They’re aggressive, it’s melodramatic, I don’t really know what they’re carrying on about or why they’re doing such a lot of moral breastbeating and grandstanding, and I can sense (dimly — I’m dumb!) a moral blackmail taking shape. So I’m outta there. If these conversations are going to take place, they’re going to take place without me. The guilt-people never seem interested in my input anyway.

    Maybe that’s an indicator of what’s happened more generally: that the guilt-people are more … aggressive or something, and that the shame people just cut and run, leaving the public-affairs conversation to the guilt people. I dunno, it’s a thought. There was a good book I read years ago about the diffs between guilt and shame cultures that I found helpful — the author’s p-o-v was that part of what the ’60s were was Guilt Culture overwhelming traditional American Shame Culture, and that things have gone too far in that direction. More shame, less guilt. I’ll try to remember what the book was.

    Fun posting, tks.

  2. Blowhard: “….How did it happen that the guilt-culture people came to dominate the conversation?

    I don’t have an answer,….”

    I don’t know about the shame vs guilt problem but I’ll take a stab at the general reason some folks get exercised about historical, societal events that cause guilt.

    The short answer is that the guilt tripper’s perspective lacks imagination and a reasonable historical context. My favorite example being the abominable way Euro-Americans treated Amer-Indians. The rub is that, had the power situation between the two groups been reversed, it is very likely that the Euros would have been as badly treated and worse. The way that tribes related with one another before the Euros arrived supports this.

    Given equal propensity for savagery is it better that the superior Euro culture dominated? The answer is clearly yes. Therefore, no guilt needed.

  3. I’m afraid I disagree with you, Jon, Steele nails the paralyzing effects of the relentless drumbeat of guilt that has been going on for decades.

    There is a nice little movie from the post WW2 era starring Cary Grant called “Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House”. Its funny, and revealing. Grant and his wife have two daughters, both of whom attend a very expensive, progressive Manhatten private school.

    One of the running gags is the utter contempt that the daughters have for Grant, an advertising exec, and the whole “materialist” culture he represents, based on the “progressive” social theories of the school they attend. Their teenage moral superiority is painful, but very instructive when viewed in the light of subsequent events in the 60’s and 70’s.

    The doctrine of Western criminality, and responsibility for all the bad things in the world, has been preached from the pulpits, taught from the podiums, and written about in an endless series of books, plays, movies, and academic theses.

    The entire multi-cultural, race-gender-sexuality focus of much of the educational establishment in Western society is based entirely on the idea that European, Christian, individualistic, capitalist society is fundamentally corrupt and exploitive.

    It is literally impossible to make a positive remark about Western culture, especially American culture and society, in any forum without being instantly attacked by any number of people who are absolutely indignant that one would dare support such a violent, evil, corrupt entity as Western or American culture. It is unthinkable to these PC types that there is any redeeming feature worth defending.

    And that, finally, is the source of so much of the paralysis that afflicts us in the current crisis, as it did in the Cold War previously.

    Guilt only works if its victim actually has a functioning moral code in the first place. Many of our adversaries over the centuries have not, and have taken advantage of the fact that we do.

    A very pertinent question is: Why does our moral code serve our enemies interests instead of our own? But that is a very large question for another time and place.

  4. Two aspects of the problem that keeps recurring to me is that (a) war, conquest, slavery, and human aggression and exploitation in general are as old as history, and were practiced everywhere and by every race, so far as we can tell, including by our ancestors, of course, (along with everybody else’s ancestors).

    What is historically unique about the West is not its immaculate conception, therefore, but rather that (b)it found within itself the moral resources to call a halt to these barbaric practices and to pronounce them wrong.

    The guilt trippers are ignorant of (a) and are also unaware of (b). They therefore use our createst civilizational achievement — our universal moral values — to condemn their own society.

    In other words, they are ignorant fools. In the long-run the only answer to this problem is to teach more world history in our schools and universities, a subject which, at this point, has almost faded away into nothingness.

    Those who do not study the past . . .etc.

  5. Jonathan, I’m a bit dubious about the “guilt” explanation. I think those on the left are often without any personal feeling of guilt whatsoever–it’s the *rest* of us that they think should feel guilty

    My post Repent Now expands on some thoughts by C S Lewis on this matter.

  6. Steele is on to something and adds to what Wretchard said about not being allowed to win wars anymore, only to lose them. With our timid actions we say to the enemy: don’t worry, we’ll kill as few of you as we can and destroy as little of your country as possible, we’ll even flagellate ourselves publicly if anything really wrong happens (Abu Ghraib), and then we’ll do our best to pay you back a thousandfold for all the inconvenience we caused (ceremoniously called ‘nation building’). Then we wonder why our enemies despise us, while the rest don’t take us seriously.

  7. Don Rumsfeld has amply demonstrated the futility of winning as soon as possible and getting out. We have spent enough resources to “win” several times – it is the “getting out” that has an asymptopic cost, if “getting out” includes leaving a better situation than we found.

  8. In relation to this question, although from a different view with different terminology, see the article in Commentary by a guy named Wiegel. I linked thru NRO. Sorry, I don’t know how to embed links.

    I think where Steele uses guilt, Wiegel uses self-hatred. The effect on a culture’s sense of worth and value is roughly the same—devastating.

  9. “it is the “getting out” that has an asymptopic cost, if ‘getting out’ includes leaving a better situation than we found.”

    This is exactly why we can’t win wars anymore, because we’re trying to change the concept of war while human nature remains the same. In fact the opposite is what you have to pursue, to leave a much worse situation than you found. John Derbyshire:

    “The question is: What action? My answer would be, has always been: Attack them, smash up their assets, kill their leaders if you can, cripple their military. Then leave them in rubble and chaos. They’re not going to be making any nukes in that condition. Mission accomplished. That was what I hoped we would do to Iraq, and why I supported the war. It is what I believe we should now do to Iran. The reduced-to-rubble nation might indeed ‘breed terrorists’; but then … so might New Zealand or Spain. Rubble nations are not a threat to us. Africa has a score of them; none threatens us.”

    This may sound terrible to postmodern ears but it has the proof of history.

  10. Veryretired: “Guilt only works if its victim actually has a functioning moral code in the first place. Many of our adversaries over the centuries have not, and have taken advantage of the fact that we do.

    Luke Lea: “The guilt trippers are ignorant of (a) and are also unaware of (b). They therefore use our createst civilizational achievement — our universal moral values — to condemn their own society.”

    The West’s most dangerous adversaries are those who seek power in Western nations on the basis of their asserted moral superiority over their fellow citizens. These politically ambitious guilt trippers are not ignorant or unaware, but they do rely on both the functioning moral code and the historical ignorance of the average Western voter. And increasingly on the prestige of the law and the power of the state where guilt alone has come to lack the power to hold voters in thrall. In their pursuit of power, they risk destroying the very communities they seek to lead.

  11. One word summary: dreck.

    This bizarre opinion piece contradicts his ideas from 2003:

    “No group in recent history has more aggressively seized power in the name of its racial superiority than Western whites. This race illustrated for all time–through colonialism, slavery, white racism, Nazism–the extraordinary human evil that follows when great power is joined to an atavistic sense of superiority and destiny. This is why today’s whites, the world over, cannot openly have a racial identity.”

    Thursday, November 13, 2003
    Yo, Howard!
    Why did Dean have to embrace the Confederate flag?

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