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SCIENCE SALON # 139

Michael Shermer with Shelby Steele — Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country & the film What Killed Michael Brown?

The United States today is hopelessly polarized; the political Right and Left have hardened into rigid and deeply antagonistic camps, preventing any sort of progress. Amid the bickering and inertia, the promise of the 1960s—when we came together as a nation to fight for equality and universal justice—remains unfulfilled.

As Shelby Steele reveals in Shame, the roots of this impasse can be traced back to that decade of protest, when in the act of uncovering and dismantling our national hypocrisies—racism, sexism, militarism—liberals internalized the idea that there was something inauthentic, if not evil, in the America character. Since then, liberalism has been wholly concerned with redeeming modern America from the sins of the past, and has derived its political legitimacy from the premise of a morally bankrupt America. The result has been a half-century of well-intentioned but ineffective social programs, such as Affirmative Action. Steele reveals that not only have these programs failed, but they have in almost every case actively harmed America’s minorities and poor. Ultimately, Steele argues, post-60s liberalism has utterly failed to achieve its stated aim: true equality. Liberals, intending to atone for our past sins, have ironically perpetuated the exploitation of this country’s least fortunate citizens. Approaching political polarization from a wholly new perspective, Steele offers a rigorous critique of the failures of liberalism and a cogent argument for the relevance and power of conservatism.

Shermer and Steele discuss:

  • 30th anniversary of his book The Content of Our Character, and what has changed in race relations in America in those 30 years,
  • Steele’s response to President Johnson’s famous quote:

    “Freedom is not enough. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him; bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

  • why “The promised land guarantees nothing. It is only an opportunity, not a deliverance.”,
  • literal truths vs. poetic truths and power:

    “What actually happened was that liberalism turned to poetic truth when America’s past sins were no longer literally true enough to support liberal policies and the liberal claim on power. The poetic truth of black victimization seeks to compensate for America’s moral evolution. It tries to keep alive the justification for liberal power even as that justification has been greatly nullified by America’s moral development.”

  • political correctness is the enforcement arm of poetic truth,
  • black families & fatherless homes,
  • white guilt,
  • race fatigue,
  • reparations,
  • anti-racism,
  • achievement gap,
  • Princeton racism letter,
  • race and IQ,
  • SAT tests,
  • BLM and the nuclear family,
  • training and sensitivity programs.

Shermer and Steele also discuss his new film, produced with his son Eli Steele, titled What Killed Michael Brown?

Steele:

“We human beings never use race except as a means to power. Race is never an end. It is always a means, and it has no role in human affairs except as a corruption.”

“America’s original sin is not slavery. It is simply the use of race as a means to power. Whether for good or ill, race is a corruption. Always. And it always turns one group into the convenience of another group.”

“Liberalism’s great sin was to steal responsibility for black problems away from black people, leaving them vulnerable to destructive social forces, such as the drug epidemic of the 70s and 80s. It was the suffering of blacks that justified liberalism’s demand for power, but this only relegates blacks to permanent victimhood and alienates them from the power to uplift themselves.”

Shelby Steele is the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Winner of the Bradley Prize and a National Humanities Medal and the author of the National Book Critics Circle award-winning The Content of Our Character, Steele lives in the Central Coast of California.

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