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October 19, 2002

Magazine Culture Redux


As I browsed a magazine stand recently I was surprised to see an essay by Shelby Steele in the November issue of Harpers. Moreover, it had the extremely un-Harperian title of "The Age of White Guilt and the Disappearance of the Black Individual." Puzzled, I bought the magazine, and discovered that the essay is exactly what it sounds like. As Harpers does not divulge content on the Internet, the following is an excerpt from this excellent essay:

What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative—that they are not racist—to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma…The fact is that affirmative action has been a very effective racial policy in garnering moral authority and legitimacy for institutions, and it is now institutions--not individual whites or blacks--that are fighting to keep it alive.

But I still can't figure out what this essay is doing in Lewis H. Lapham's (you must not forget the "H") sandbox. This is still the same guy who writes, in his "Notebook" column:

At ground zero, [President Bush] presented himself as a humble man of God, comforting the faithful in their time of trouble, at the United Nations as an impatient and angry general shaking the fist of war at Saddam Hussein. In neither setting did it matter whether he, or anybody else, understood what he was saying. The congregation at ground zero didn't ask for words, and if the summons to a descent on Baghdad proceeded from premises both illogical and false (about Iraq's store of nuclear weapons and its stature as a great power) to an imbecile conclusion (that Iraq transform itself into the state of Connecticut or suffer the penalty of extinction) what difference did it make?...But if it is no disgrace for any country at any particular time in its history to rest content among the relics of a lost language and an imaginary past, it is a matter of some interest in a country that possesses the power to poison the earth without possessing either the means or desire to know itself.

As best I can tell from the entire column, which runs an exhausting 2400 words, Lewis H. Lapham is saying either that he would make a much better President than George W. Bush, or that he would make a much better magazine essayist than George W. Bush, or that everyone in America, including George W. Bush, should be paying a hell of a lot more attention to Lewis H. Lapham, who alone possesses the means and the desire to know America.

Shelby Steele.jpg
Steele and Lapham--Strange Bedfellows

If I humbly ask you, Lewis H. Lapham, to save us from our low-class, ignorant, illiterate selves by explicating America to us, will you please explain what you are doing running Shelby Steele essays in your P.C.-patrician rag?



posted by Friedrich at October 19, 2002


Do not read Lewis Lapham. Even with modern medical technology, your life span is limited. Time spent reading Lapham is not available for more productive pursuits, such as watching reruns of "Married with Children."

Harper's publishes good stuff occasionally, and they have a history with Shelby Steele. Did you see the debate on what really happened at the O.K. Corral between a descendant of Wyatt Earp and a descendant of Ike Clanton? Last month' s issue, I think.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs on October 21, 2002 10:19 PM

Lapham's essays frequently provide clarity in politics, which some of us find refreshing.

Posted by: Daniel McDermon on October 22, 2002 1:25 PM

I too just noticed the Shelby Steele in Harper's. Fortunately, Lapham's wide-ranging interest in the relevant and provocative co-exists with his apparent political and stylistic hot-spots. It is always encouraging to see intelligence trump bias.

What interests me also is the parallel prompt in the Philosophy and Literature weblog (a worthy successor to Arts and Letters Daily) through whose links I discovered you:
Imre Kertész * on the inhumanity of being defined through group identity, the same complaint Steele makes. The drivers seem to be, respectively, anti-Semitism and White Guilt, both leading to the despotism of definition-as-group-member despite the individual's experience and self-definition.


--Post-Marx alienation: the self from its private experience and values through the stigma and public demand of identity politics.--

Posted by: B. Cavana on October 23, 2002 3:22 PM

You are exhausted by 2400 words? Symptom of the American disease known as TED...Televisual Exhaustion Disorder...

Quit suffering from TED. The more you read extended arguments and ideas like this one, th more you might come to authentic knowledge, and not knowledge based upon a "Friends" or and "Oprah" timeframe...

Posted by: Mel Brennan on November 19, 2002 10:12 AM

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