Home/Daniel Larison/Steele and White Guilt

Steele and White Guilt

Today words like “power” and “victory” are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, “might” can never be right. And victory, when won by the West against a Third World enemy, is always oppression. But, in reality, military victory is also the victory of one idea and the defeat of another. Only American victory in Iraq defeats the idea of Islamic extremism. But in today’s atmosphere of Western contrition, it is impolitic to say so. ~Shelby Steele, OpinionJournal.com

One quick point before beginning on my main comments: you cannot militarily defeat an idea. The coalition victory of 1815 did not defeat the ideas of 1789 (more’s the pity!), nor could it have so long as people were willing to accept those ideas. Either the idea is discredited by its adherents’ actions, it is definitivly shown to be false and thereby loses its credibility or for some other reason it ceases to be compelling and disappears from circulation, but if “Islamic extremism” seems appealing to a mass of Iraqis or other Muslims there is next to nothing our armed forces will be able to stop that. If there is not a more compelling kind of political Islam to make the better argument for why Muslims should embrace it and not the political Islam of Salafists and Wahhabis, the latter will win the contest of “ideas,” as I very much doubt that a lot of Muslims will be opting for the secular liberal democracy over and above any of the other alternatives.

When Mr. Steele’s article came out yesterday, there was something of a buzz in the world of blogs about it, but at first the topic held surprisingly little interest for me. When I heard more about it in a phone conversation, I was no more interested. Was Mr. Steele making the argument that unlimited warfare is some expression of a high sense of morality, indeed a demonstration of our moral authority? Is he saying that only those who really believe that they represent a superior civilisation and people are willing to lay waste to entire nations? Yet clearly Mr. Steele seems to find this lost sense of white supremacy and more general Western superiority to be debilitating, as it strips us of our “ferocity” in war, and so has become a practical handicap of sorts. He wants some sort of renewed sense of moral authority, though obviously he is not calling for a return to white supremacy or colonialism.

There are surely other explanations that account for the aversion to the sort of “ferocious,” unlimited warfare of the early and mid-twentieth century. One must be that, try as politicians might to make our present political enemies into incarnations of existential evil, there is no zeal for crushing enemies in the “tradition” of total war because this sort of zeal has been revealed to be morally bankrupt and hostile to our most fundamental civilised habits. Mass mobilisation attendant on total war is no longer politically viable for a number of reasons, and almost none of them has anything to do with feeling a sense of moral taint for what Westerners have done around the world.

“We” fight limited, minimalist wars because of the confused moral justifications “we” concoct for them, among which are “human rights” and democracy. The absurdity of killing the people you want to empower becomes too great, even for the most dedicated believer. Like the liberal imperialists of Britain, “we” are very keen on uplift and bringing the blessings of liberty to the dark corners of the world (though the neo-imperialist propagandists would usually not use this kind of language), and maintain the fiction that “we” are doing something significantly different from what the British were doing in India and Africa.

If anything, “white guilt” has only encouraged more violent and brutal interventionism out of a mistaken belief that Westerners somehow owe it to other nations to help them along (or that we “owed” the Iraqis because of our “failure” to help them in 1991) or, in classic supremacist pose, Westerners should feel some sort of noblesse oblige to raise up those nations that are not keeping up (even if expressed in terms of our own alleged self-interest, it is their language that is always dripping with condescension).

Instead of framing it in such stark paternalistic terms, the proponents of this stuff offer the usual blather about democratisation and modernisation and how every nation and every people is just as ready and capable for the whole package of modern, democratic capitalist life as any other. It is a sort of egalitarian paternalism: these people really need our help to make a go of any of this, as their history shows us they haven’t had any success so far, but don’t suggest for a moment that they are not capable of adopting all our institutions and way of life virtually overnight, or it is you who are the racist and supremacist!

However, having committed to the project of uplift and reform, it hardly goes over well to start leveling entire towns to break local resistance. The manifest contradictions of, say, “liberating” the Kurds, whose suffering from Hussein’s gas attacks presumably every American schoolchild must now know (so often has it been repeated!), and imitating the tactics of a Churchill in suppressing local insurgencies would be too much for anyone to take for very long. At bottom, Westerners fight minimalist wars today because “we” do not view the nations “we” are fighting as the enemy, as had been the case in modern warfare, and so we cannot remotely begin to justify the sort of wanton killing of members of those nations for the sake of “victory” (this is actually a very good thing).

We also fight these sorts of wars because we usually have fairly limited objectives (also a sane and good thing), such as removing a government from power and installing a friendly puppet, er, democratically elected replacement. The overblown rhetoric about transforming societies gets the ideologues excited and mucks up the political process after the war, but that is not strictly connected to the scope of the actual warfighting, except to the extent that its totalising goals of political change inevitably hinder how much the military will be allowed to do.

The preference for minimalism may also have something to do with the manifest injustice of attacking countries we outgun and outnumber by a factor of n–who wants to obliterate people with whom we have no real quarrel? We are fighting a minimalist war in Iraq, and even this meets with the disapproval of half the country. Not, I submit, because of “white guilt,” but because fewer and fewer people see any reason to be fighting even a minimalist war. McCain’s madness of escalating or broadening the war with more soldiers wins over very few. All of this has nothing to do with feeling badly about the uses of European and American power in the past several centuries (for people to feel guilty about these things, they would have to know enough history to know about them, and most Westerners do not). This has everything to do with fighting wars that are unnecessary, the reasons for which elude even the most keen and informed observers. That our ambivalent commitment in Vietnam was up against an elemental, powerful nationalist-communist mass revolution didn’t help at all.

Some of those most convinced of continued Western moral superiority tend to be those who think of Western civilisation in terms of the managerial social democratic state, yet their “fighting faith” is no longer convincing to hundreds of millions of Westerners and hardly justifies the coercion of other nations. Those inclined to frame traditional Western superiority in cultural and religious terms usually see the continued drive for hegemony over other nations to be one of the more wasteful enterprises of Western man in terms of what was best for the Western world. They see the drive to do the same today as even more wasteful and a more dangerous distraction than before, as there are far more pressing problems a lot closer to home. If Westerners want to start reclaiming some moral authority, perhaps we ought to live and organise our society in such a way that claims to moral authority will actually be credible.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles