March 15, 2006

The Shame of New Orleans

TWO STORIES CAUGHT MY EYE YESTERDAY. The first was your standard New York Observer media humm-job on the current "I've got a new film coming out" movie celebrity; in this case our current contender for the Black Robert Altman award, Spike Lee.

Ah, that dependably outspoken Spike Lee -- Career Transgressor, Professional Edge Walker, soothsayer of race in the United States today, the Al Sharpton of the Silver Screen, the Maya Angelou of the movies. In an aptly titled article, Spike's Pique , Lee out-Moore's Michael Moore with his determination to find a big lie about the New Orleans' flood and make it bigger still. There's no doubt about it. When it comes to race hustlers in the United States, Spike runs with the big dogs.

Mr. Lee said he'd be including in his documentary the conspiracy theory that it was the U.S. government who bombed the levees.

Here's the thing," he said. "Even today, a large part of the African-American community of New Orleans thinks that those levees were bombed. Now, whether that is true or not, that should not be discounted." He rattled off past government trespasses: 1927's Great Flood of Mississippi, when the levees were, in fact, blown up; the flooding of the Ninth Ward during Hurricane Betsy in 1965; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

"So, in the collective mind of African-Americans, it is not some science-fiction, hocus-pocus thing to say that the government is doing stuff," he continued. "Even if it didn't happen, you cannot discount it and dismiss it as Oh you people are crazy.

Alas, we can and they are. There's never a disaster anymore in America that can happen as an "Act of God." No, all disasters are, by default, an "Act of Bush." On the one hand, George Bush is, in the eyes of many, a stupid and utterly incompetent President. On the other, Bush has absolute power over the winds and the waves and is even now deploying a limitless army of spooks, spies, and repurposed Spetsnaz to listen in on every Americans' international calls to that transsexual phone sex bank in New Delhi. And, between photo-ops tomorrow, Bush will be taking time out to blow Bedford Sty off the face of the map before swinging by Spike Lee's Upper East Side townhouse to stifle his dissent with a LAWs rocket.

A man of Spike Lee's stature and position should be ashamed to continue to inject the poison of conspiracy into the race issue in America today. But being ashamed didn't get Spike Lee his position and stature. Being shameless did. Weaving the big lies of contemporary race hustling into movies made Spike Lee what he is. It is working for him and there's no reason to think shame enters the picture.

But there is a deep shame associated with New Orleans and you won't see it any Spike Lee "documentary," or in any other dramatization of the event. Instead, you have to hear it in the voice of Stanford's Hoover Institute fellow, Shelby Steele, author of The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America and the forthcoming White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.

Steele, a black scholar and intellectual, has been speaking about and writing the hard truths about race in America today for years. Because his truth is hard and far from the palliative bromides of the Sharptons, the Jacksons and the Lees, he's often judged be not "authentically black." In a way, that's an accolade. If what you say is so hard to bear, it just might be that there's something in it of the truth.

Discussing New Orleans in an interview ( The American Enterprise: "Live" with Shelby Steele ), Steele brings up what many black and white Americans think, but few would dare say.

STEELE: I think New Orleans shamed black America. I was in Europe when it happened, and we saw all these images of "deep intractable poverty." For generation after generation, New Orleans was full of human despair and backwardness. The flood just brought to the surface what had been there for so long, so we could see it on TV every night. And black America was truly shamed -- just ask blacks and they'll tell you. The whole world finally saw how hopeless and desperate the poorest blacks are. So then the question becomes, what do we do?

Instead of saying what we should have said -- which is that this was an extraordinary wake-up call to black America, and we've got to make some profound changes in our way of life -- we said, "George Bush is a racist." Then we weren't shamed any more. He did it. He's the bad guy. He's the problem. And, once again, we're victims of white racism. We pulled out that old trustworthy excuse that has served us so well for 40 years. We blamed our problems on white people. And it works.

It doesn't matter that you've got a black mayor who's obviously incompetent. Bush is the fall guy because he's white. And no American politician ever asks black America what they're going to do. Whites just accept the excuses. That's why Bush is just going to dump a lot of money into New Orleans.

"Just dump a lot of money...." That's really the response across the board to all the racial issues that continue to bedevil America. Except for a small number of men like Steele, nobody wants to have a frank and full discussion of race in America today at all. Not whites, less the very mention of the subject brand one a racist. And blacks least of all since any real discussion would threaten the vast bureaucracy and wall to wall entitlement programs that have been thrown up by the government over the decades to keep so many African Americans firmly inside of the Democratic Party's Plantation. Instead, we get the endless Kabuki postures of the race hustlers.

It's a fat nd happy country indeed that can take its most intractable problem and, instead of working to solve it and move beyond it, can "Just dump a lot of money..." into perpetuating conditions that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history a generation ago.

We could talk about race in this country in a sane way if people of good will on both sides of the divide could sit down without malice or recrimination or guilt. But we won't. Guilt hamstrings whites and, as Steele notes elsewhere in the interview, freedom paralyzes blacks. As a result, we'll do nothing substantive and in the light. Instead, we'll get the chance to sit apart in darkened movie theaters across our land, slip a few bucks to Spike Lee, and learn how George W. Bush blew up the levees of New Orleans.

And when we all go down in the flood, we'll wonder why.

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Posted by Vanderleun at March 15, 2006 8:48 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Brilliant interview with Shelby Steele. Thanks for the link.

TAE: How does political correctness affect black Americans?

STEELE: Political correctness is an outgrowth of white guilt. It’s a way for guilty-feeling whites to constantly indicate that they’re not racist, not colonialists, not imperialists, not warmongers, and so on. It’s a kind of ritualization of life by which some whites free themselves of the stigma that history has left them. History has left whites stigmatized as racists, just like blacks were stigmatized as inferior. Both of those are irrational conclusions, but that’s how stigma works. And political correctness is a way to address that.

Posted by: Jack Trainor at March 16, 2006 10:15 AM

I am amazed to read exactly what my thoughts have been for the past 25 years. I was apparently born the same year as Mr. Steele. It is so discouraging to have lived through those promising '60s and see it all go to hell. And we aren't "allowed" to speak honestly about it all. We've all lost so much freedom in this politicization and hijacking of the race issue by the black and white charlatans.

Posted by: Sheila at March 18, 2006 9:55 PM
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