“It is as hard to tell the truth as to hide it.”
While the conservative movement, like the liberal one, has its share of dishonest and fraudulent people, liberalism is itself an inherently dishonest business whose promulgators have been lying to themselves, as well as to everyone else, lo these many generations. As a misrepresentation of fundamental reality, its intellectual coherence and integrity are increasingly challenged by conditions of its own making as well as by unfolding events, in spite of the enormous political momentum it has accumulated since the cultural tsunamis of the 1960’s as my own horrible generation (which ought to have been slaughtered at birth) has “matured” into an army of ideological zombies that first infiltrated, and finally has taken possession of, America’s cultural institutions, the publishing business, and lastly the federal government itself. Political correctness is not just a prolonged paroxysm of demoniac hatred; it is the hysteria of fanatics who, aware that they cannot maintain the pretense of reality much longer without going mad, are prepared to embrace madness in preference to the alternative, which is to tear down the imposing Ministry of Public Truth they have laboriously erected, stone by grimy stone, over the past 60 or 70 years. Their accomplishment, after all, is no mean thing: in a few decades they have managed, with some largely unaccredited assistance from such otherwise forgotten Dead White Males as William of Occam, Rene Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche, and John Dewey, to complete the inversion of reality begun some centuries ago, and transform the American Experiment into the First Universal Fantasy to which popular culture, highbrow culture, journalism, academic scholarship, and political philosophy have all succumbed.
The American people since the early 19th century have prided themselves on their “idealism,” though there have always been pessimists among them to suggest that idealism, if not actually a variant of unrealism, nevertheless is a way station on the road to it. Had the Confederacy won the Civil War, perhaps Maryland Plantation, rather than Massachusetts Bay, might have become the totemic American social order and a solid business and political enterprise replaced a colony of religious schismatics as the foundational ideal behind the development of a great nation and empire. If so, Abraham Lincoln got some of what he deserved, and we got the rest of it. As it happened, the New England tradition won over all other sectional influences, imposing upon the rest of the country its bias in favor of the perfect over the good, the ideal over the real; its commitment to the power of positive thinking (if an idea is desirable, it can be made true by fervent belief); and its assumption that America is a divine as well as a merely human experiment (no matter what crooks or nonentities are President and Vice-President of the United States, God is always its copilot). American idealism, to the extent that it is more than an aspect of liberalism itself, has always functioned as liberalism’s Useful Fool and Trojan Horse in the nation’s history—in particular its intellectual history. It may be that a country’s fate is sealed, that degeneracy sets in and decline becomes inevitable, at the historical moment when its political and material circumstances are perfectly aligned with its mental ones.
No component of the deposit of Public Truth is more zealously guarded than that which has to do with race, and cruel and unusual punishments are commonly held in reserve for those who transgress it. Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Robert L. Woodson, and Glenn C. Loury are courageous men, and I do not discount their bravery by suggesting that, were it not for the racial preference allowed even black “traitors” to the official black sodality, they would have gained far less attention and prominence than they presently enjoy. In the absurdist society that America has become, their status as victims continues to be honored and protected even while they deny the validity of victimology as a means of understanding and improving the realities of American life, and deplore what Professors Conti and Stetson call “the twisted state of racial discourse in America today.”
The importance of what the authors of Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment call the “New Black Vanguard” is the persistence of these men in attacking “the consolidation of liberal ideology as the ideology of black progress.” Thomas Sowell is well enough known to need no introduction; Shelby Steele, a professor of English at San Jose State University, is the author of The Content of Our Character (1990), a book of essays offering an “existential” solution for the condition of blacks in America; Robert Woodson is the founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and an advocate of “interior activism”; Glenn Loury is a conservative political economist at Boston University who distinguishes between what he calls “the enemy without,” or racism, and “the enemy within,” meaning the perverse and destructive self, while these four men differ in certain aspects of their social and political criticism, they are agreed in their condemnation of the power-hungry, greedy, dishonest, selfish, and manipulative civil rights establishment, which has always insisted that every problem suffered by American blacks is directly attributable to the racist feelings of white Americans and the institutionalized racism that reflects personal prejudice and hatred. Civil rights “leaders” like Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Hooks (of the NAACP) have a professional interest in maintaining the illusion that politically liberal policies, executed at the federal level of government, are necessary to alleviate the sufferings and improve the prospects of their people, as they have in downplaying or even denying altogether the personal and behavioral shortcomings of many blacks in America. As Booker T. Washington observed presciently many decades ago,
There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs—partly because they want sympathy, and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.
The more the findings of the “objective” social “sciences” are relied upon as a basis for social policy, the more subjective the view of social reality—as well as the policies themselves—becomes. “To invoke such terms as ‘values,’ ‘character,’ or ‘social pathology,'” Professor Loury has observed,
in speaking about the poor (black or otherwise) is still today to invite the charge of blaming the victim or, if the speaker is black, of being an Uncle Tom. Remarkably, one still encounters the same line that was used to dismiss Moynihan 20 years ago—namely, that acknowledging a behavioral basis to economic deprivation feeds stereotypes about blacks and provides grist for the racists’ mill. It is as if the facts about inner-city life, staggeringly evident to anyone with eyes to see, could be blunted by simply banning any discussion of them from polite society.
This conspiracy of omission is abetted by the media, as well as by the policy wonks who have reasons of their own for pressing upon the country what Sowell sarcastically dismisses as “the wonderful world of solutions.” “The one thing a white liberal can never do with a black,” Professor Steele says,
is to be honest and tell him what he tells his own children. . . . Which is that you have to work hard and your life in many ways will reflect the amount of effort you put in. They teach that every day to their own children, but they come out in public and talk about blacks just as victims who need redress. This is racial exploitation by white liberals, who transform this into their own form of power. We’re being had by them, and we really need to know it.
Sowell, Steele, Woodson, and Loury emphasize the importance of personal dignity, communal self-help, and individual initiative and deplore the message of the civil rights “leaders” and “raptivists,” which is that the American dream does not exist for blacks—or that, if it does, it is realizable only by the transformation of America through revolutionary means. In Thomas Sowell’s opinion, such a message, in addition to being a cruel discouragement of black initiative and hope, wrongly emphasizes political solutions at the expense of economic ones. As he argued almost 10 years ago in Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, an inverse relationship exists historically between the political power of ethnic groups in America and their economic progress. (At the turn of the last century the Irish, who were the most efficiently organized politically of any minority in the United States, were also among the poorest.) While the number of elected black officials in 1989 was nearly four times that in 1970, nobody—let alone the black officials themselves— argues that blacks are four times better off today than they were a quarter-century ago, or anything like it. In one respect, the Black Caucus and its equivalents at the state and local levels of government have been very successful: that is of course in the matter of affirmative action legislation. Professor Loury is unimpressed:
The growing black “underclass” has become the constant reminder to many Americans of an historical debt owed to the black community. I suggest that, were it not for this continued presence among us of those worst off of all Americans, blacks’ ability to sustain public support for affirmative action, minority-business setasides and the like would be vastly reduced. That is, the suffering of the poorest blacks creates a fund of political capital upon which all members of the group can draw in the pressing of racially-based claims.
What Mencken would have called the black booboisie are the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action, not the black poor, whether deserving or otherwise. The reward of the “New Black Vanguard” is largely vituperation from their racial brethren, who have accused them of “insensitive,” “divisive,” “self-critical,” and “polarizing” behavior. “Vidkun Quisling,” Carl Rowan wrote, “in his collaboration with the Nazis surely did not do as much damage to the Norwegians as Sowell is doing to the most helpless of black Americans.” To all of which Sowell himself has responded with simple dignity: “Dissenting views are common in every group of people and in every society. A more balanced judgment often emerges out of these clashes of ideas. There is no reason why black Americans must be the only people on this planet who have to skip this process and hit the nail on the head with the first try.” Not quite the only people, dissent among American blacks being no less popular than it is among American conservatives.
As for Public Truth, it remains a fasces of lies and illusions capable of flourishing only in the Fools’ Paradise that the United States, from affluence and good fortune, has become. While optimists may comfort themselves with the thought that the country will not be able to afford such levels of unreality forever, pessimists are likely to suspect that a second Great Awakening, when it comes, will have arrived too late.
[Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment: Profiles of a New Black Vanguard, by Joseph G. Conti and Brad Stetson (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger) 240 pp., $22.95]