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Shelby Steele: Poetic truths work by moral intimidation – not reason

Shelby Steele

Shelby Steele

Two of the many things my wife and I have in common is our keen, life-long passion about rational thinking and our great admiration for Shelby Steele.

In a recent article at Wall Street Journal Dr Steele discusses the Trayvon Martin — George Zimmerman issue and coins the term “poetic truths” (highlighting & additional paragraph breaks added by me) …

The purpose of today’s civil-rights establishment is not to seek justice, but to seek power for blacks in American life based on the presumption that they are still, in a thousand subtle ways, victimized by white racism.

This idea of victimization is an example of what I call a “poetic truth.”

Like poetic license, it bends the actual truth in order to put forward a larger and more essential truth— one that, of course, serves one’s cause.

Poetic truths succeed by casting themselves as perfectly obvious: “America is a racist nation”; “the immigration debate is driven by racism”; “Zimmerman racially stereotyped Trayvon.”

And we say, “Yes, of course,” lest we seem to be racist.

Poetic truths work by moral intimidation, not reason.

In the Zimmerman/Martin case the civil-rights establishment is fighting for the poetic truth that white animus toward blacks is still such that a black teenager— Skittles and ice tea in hand — can be shot dead simply for walking home.

But actually this establishment is fighting to maintain its authority to wield poetic truth — the authority to tell the larger society how it must think about blacks, how it must respond to them, what it owes them and, then, to brook no argument.

Perhaps the problem is even wider — applying to more than just race issues.

The “poetic truth” approach is one that can be applied to many areas in order to construct and reinforce a romanticised (if ridiculous) narrative and to repel, not just dissenter, but thinkers per se.

Shelby Steele’s term suggests not just that emotion is substituted for reason — evidence + logic, but that poetic truth constructs a falsehood which when spoken gives the speaker a heroic feeling. It’s a particular kind of emotionalism.

It has the aesthetic of melodrama. It works well on stage, in front of an audience. It creates relationships. And the relationship of the individual is not between his mind and the facts of reality. Reality is boring. Reality is for amateurs. Reality is no help at all. Life is too short to waste it on mere reality!

Poetic Truth is transcendent. The best feedback you can get from presenting the facts of reality is “Hmm … yes, that makes sense. Thanks. Have a nice day.”

Not so with Poetic Truth. There, the sky is the limit. To Infinity and Beyond!

The Zimmerman/Martin tragedy has been explosive because it triggered a fight over authority. Who gets to say what things mean …

… The civil-rights establishment’s mistake was to get ahead of itself, to be seduced by its own poetic truth even when there was no evidence to support it.

… If there is anything good to be drawn from the Zimmerman/Martin tragedy, it is only the further revelation of the corruption and irrelevance of today’s civil-rights leadership.

Greek men in tights

Greek men in tights

While I’ve been in the USA, one thing that’s struck me about the way some African-Americans (and nearly all White “liberals”) approach real and non-existent racism is how special they think they are.

They seem to think that prejudice is something abnormal and unique to them. That they are the greatest victims of racism in the annuls of history. They think their problems are the most precious problems ever. That no-one has ever suffered as they have.

Growing up in Australia in a Greek sub-culture, I found that the Greeks of my parents’ generation had a similarly inflated view of their own victimised uniqueness. As if they had been singled out for special treatment. Meanwhile they behaved (and still behave) in a far more bigoted way than any Anglo-Australian I’ve ever met.

It would be interesting to compare sores and scars.

Who is the truly the Biggest Victim? The Greeks or the African-Americans?

“My Victimhood is bigger than your Victimhood!”

I would begin by pointing out the domination of Greece by the Ottomans from the mid 1400’s until 1821. That’s 400 years of oppression. What African-American can match that?

But there’s more.

How about World War I?

Then, World War II (Nazi Occupation).

And finally, on the heels of WWII, there’s the Greek Civil War.

And as already mentioned, the migration of poor, huddled masses of Greeks to English speaking Australia.

(Aside: We won’t touch the recent self-inflicted financial troubles of Greece. That would not serve our purpose and would open us up to ridicule.)

Off to a flying start!

May your Truth wax Poetic!


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1 Comment

  1. Yes, I know, you Greeks have had it tough! But did you ever face Jim Crow laws? Did your parents have to ride in the back of buses and worry about Klansmen lynching them and were they forced to go to Greek hospitals because non-Greek ones wouldn’t let them in? Were some people so ignorant that they wouldn’t let your mom or dad put coins into their hands when making a purchase because of a fear of poor hygiene? Were you forced to go to an all-Greek school by state law?

    Did… hey, wait a minute. That stuff used to happen to African Americans, but you don’t hear about it happening now. Laws have changed, attitudes have changed, the culture has changed in regard to Americans of African descent. I think maybe Shelby Steele captures the truth of things in his article:

    “This would not be the first time that a movement begun in profound moral clarity, and that achieved greatness, waned away into a parody of itself—not because it was wrong but because it was successful. Today’s civil-rights leaders have missed the obvious: The success of their forbearers in achieving social transformation denied to them the heroism that was inescapable for a Martin Luther King Jr. or a James Farmer or a Nelson Mandela. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton cannot write a timeless letter to us from a Birmingham jail or walk, as John Lewis did in 1965, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., into a maelstrom of police dogs and billy clubs. That America is no longer here (which is not to say that every trace of it is gone).”

    Of course there *is* still some racism. And there always will be, or some prejudice just as thoughtless, because some people will always take the sloppy, emotion-driven, invalid path to judging others. And you deal with that by looking for the reasonable, thoughtful people to deal with, and by always bothering, yourself, to think and judge with care and objectivity, and to argue using reason and facts when someone tries to get away with asserting unchecked assumptions and feelings.

    People who haven’t dedicated themselves to honest and careful analysis of facts, who put feelings above reason and fuzzify their own perceptions in order to not be attacked by other fuzzy-minded or unscrupulous people, are capable of huge injustices in the name of justice. (Sure, people dedicated to honest and careful analysis of fact can make some tragic errors, but they’re open to correction by facts and sound reasoning. If your self-respect is invested in seeking the truth, finding out that you’ve been wrong is not threatening.) And people who deliberately stir up racial fears for the purpose of maintaining a status of leadership only help to perpetuate a dangerous paranoia that could result in more tragedy and injustice. They’re demagogues who deserve to be shamed.

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