I should know by now that when a new Shelby Steele op-ed appears in the Wall Street Journal, I should treat it as a low-level crime scene, observe the police tape boundaries and just move along (as in "move along, nothing to see here folks") so I don't act suspicious and get myself pulled aside for questioning.
But there are certain writers who project themselves in a way guaranteed to hit a hot button. Steele can do that with me. As a Hoover Institution fellow, he frequents the same parts of California I do, and that means he resides in a comfortable enough universe to write things such as:
America still has a race problem, though not the one that conventional wisdom would suggest: the racism of whites toward blacks. Old fashioned white racism has lost its legitimacy in the world and become an almost universal disgrace.Oy vey. He was obviously hibernating over the summer and fall of 2009 when birthers, deathers, and other miscreants "just wanted their America back." I refuse to further engage that exculpatory aspect of his writing until he comes up with something new.
What I found hot-buttonish and new in this piece were several references to the President that reminded me more of G. W. Bush than of Barack Obama.
The first of these was a brief retelling of "The Emperor's New Clothes," which metaphor certainly applied early on in W's first term, with press secretary Ari Fleischer's too-frequent use of the word thoughtful to describe Mr. Bush the Younger. No, them clothes won't wear, I thought at the time and still do. Steele says that Obama's emperor-clothes are a sophistication, not in the sense of complexity but in the (archaic) sense of something misleading or corrupting. He argues that this sophistication is about race.
All emphases added in the blockquotes below.
And yet, without self-disclosure on the one hand or cross-examination on the other, Mr. Obama became arguably the least known man ever to step into the American presidency.Hm. Let's see. We don't even know where W. was for all his National Guard service, while Obama had published an autobiography (that needed no ghostwriter).
Our new race problem—the sophistication of seeing what isn't there rather than what is—has surprised us with a president who hides his lack of economic understanding behind a drama of scale.Waitaminnit-- which previous President started this stimulus package thing anyway?
Mr. Obama's economic thinking (or lack thereof) adds up to a kind of rudderless cowboyism combined with wishful thinking.Well, I can give Steele half a mixed metaphor (horse as ship?) here. I'm not sure W.'s cowboyism was rudderless, I just didn't like the direction he was steered in. Overall, though, I am still confused as to which president Steele's describing.
I think that Mr. Obama is not just inexperienced; he is also hampered by a distinct inner emptiness—not an emptiness that comes from stupidity or a lack of ability but an emptiness that has been actually nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the political world.All right, if you want to go there, I guess that would differentiate Obama from the previous occupier of the Oval Office.
Steele seems more comfortable-- at least more honest-- as he resurrects one of his own metaphors, that of the bargainer's mask:
He always wore the bargainer's mask—winning the loyalty and gratitude of whites by flattering them with his racial trust: I will presume that you are not a racist if you will not hold my race against me. Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and yes, Tiger Woods have all been superb bargainers, eliciting almost reverential support among whites for all that they were not—not angry or militant, not political, not using their moral authority as blacks to exact a wage from white guilt.At the end, amid a rare instance of seeming to blame white America for the Obama we've got ("white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness"), I sense an implicit dare to Obama to drop the mask. To which I would say to Steele: You first.