Sunday, September 27, 2009

Two fifths forward, one fifth back

Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to get a pass to the Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival, so I shoved other work aside and attended most of it. Just to get it out of my system (and because it's on topic) I want to comment briefly on Shelby Steele's few minutes of fame on Sunday morning as one of the speakers.

From my comments elsewhere you may be aware that I'm not a fan and I don't think he makes sound arguments, but I went to as many of the main hall events as I could, and I would have had to walk out in an obvious way to miss his portion. He was embedded on Sunday morning between Frances Dinkelspiel and Richard Lederer, a useful juxtaposition, as we needed Lederer's life- and language-affirming humor to recover.

There were no surprises, except perhaps Steele's lack of preparation for the specific audience. Oh, he had brought notes, but I had the distinct sense he was mentally phoning it in, as he wasn't really in tune with the program or what had preceded him over the previous day and a half. Y'see, most of the authors were around all weekend, mingling with the readers (that's us) and attending each others' presentations. The authors appearing later often adjusted their remarks accordingly, making it a very "organic" weekend. Steele was one of the several who basically showed up, made canned remarks, and quickly disappeared.

This is coming out to be mostly about the content of Steele's character and not the color of his remarks. Well, point taken. He didn't say anything I hadn't heard from him before. OK, one exception. He claimed that the Holocaust was worse than the genocide in Rwanda not because of the number of people killed, but because of the high state of the German civilization. Apparently the Germans should have known better. No argument on that, but he left the implication that Rwandans didn't or couldn't know better. I'm not sure where he was going with this except to give a broad outline of the kind of things he believed-- Western civilization good, others not so much.

His theme otherwise was to attempt to make the case that conservatives are unfairly stigmatized (his word) by nasty liberals who keep dragging down the conversation on current issues by bringing up historic injustices (e.g. racism) and associating otherwise fine citizens with them. I think that's a fair summary of his focus. He also blamed Great Society programs for just about everything he could: Welfare broke the black family. Busing broke the public education system. Etc. My eyes glazed over.

Now, you might think he set race relations back two steps just by being black and talking this way to the mostly white, somewhat tony audience. In a way, I think we only regressed one step. This was not a friendly, conservative audience à la the usual at Hoover Institution gatherings. I'd guess most of it wasn't that kind of conservative. Sure, everyone was well-dressed and well-spoken (like Obama on vacation) and skewed older, but there was only mild, polite applause when he was done. And there was some tension in the room.

And on the next break, after the well-scheduled Richard Lederer, two people came up to me separately, each somewhat appalled, to ask what I thought of Steele. I used the words disingenuous and ill-formed a lot and did not curse. Two others checked with me later.

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