Before I begin, I want to stake out my position on the use of the terms "racist" and "racism." There are people (though far fewer than the Right would suggest) who throw at the label "racist" at any hint of anti-progressive ideology dealing with racial matters. There is also a section of academia which wants to expand the definition of racism so that it encompassing all acts which preserve racial hierarchy, while concurrently recognizing that not everybody who participates in such an act should be subjected to the type of social ostracism that typically accompanies being tagged "racist."
I subscribe to neither camp. I believe that the term "racist" should only be used in the most serious cases, either in terms of specific acts of hate, violence, or prejudice, or ideologies which overtly proclaim one race to be manifestly superior to others. I think that more "moderate" cases should still be addressed, and addressed seriously, but I think that they are best met with terminology other than "racist." Using racism to address the non-extreme cases, in my view, devalues the term and reduces the credibility of the anti-racial hierarchy movement. If you want more on this, check out Lawrence Blum's spectacular book: "I'm Not a Racist, But...".
So basically, I'm not a raving leftist who tags people as "racist" at a drop of the hat. When I use it, I take it seriously. And this definitely qualifies.
I'm just going to excerpt from the parts that are the most, well, insane. Which, to be perfectly frank, is just about all of it:
There was, though, a certainty in the world in ages past - a century ago, it was taken as a natural that Europeans (and their American and Australian offspring) had developed not just a high civilization, but the highest civilization - a civilization so manifestly superior to all others in existence that it must be the result of some special ability on the part of those who built it[....]
It had its good and bad points, as all human constructs do - the most glaring bad point, of course, was the disgraceful way it treated non-white people, and even those white people who didn't measure up to an alleged Anglo-Saxon ideal. The largest good point, however, has been lost entirely - what has been lost is a conviction that the civilization is fundamentally good. Confronted with the crimes of racism and imperialism and deformed by the monstrosities of communism and Nazism, that European - or white, if you will - civilization has entirely lost the ability to look at itself and see something good. This sort of attitude is more prevalent on the political left, but I think that nearly all white people feel it to some degree...some sense that we got from point A to point C only by walking all over people at point B. Our success, as it were, is ill-gotten and thus not something we should ask anyone to emulate...better, especially in the mind of the leftwing elite, if we just leave well enough alone and, indeed, pretend that we've something fundamental to learn from other civilizations whom we once oppressed.
As Mr. Steele points out, this has led to a bit of half-heartedness on the war - We are, in a sense, afraid to apply our full might because that would seem to be a bullying approach...and unfair way to deal with people from other civilizations which never managed to advance themselves until they were forced into modernity over the past century.
As it is, I believe in the civilization I belong to - I believe, indeed, that it is a dispensation granted to mankind by a benevolent Providence. Our civilization is designed, especially in its American form, to liberate and advance all of our brothers and isisters [sic] who continue to labor under oppression, ignorance and poverty. It is this belief of mine which sustains me through the difficult day to day of the War on Terrorism - just because my civilization is excellent, it doesn't mean that the barbarians don't have a trick or two up their slieeve [sic], but knowing that my civilizations produced civilized soldiers while their produces nothing by murderous villians, I am encouraged.
In reading Mr. Steele's piece I began, I think, to better understand my leftwing readers - at bottom, they simply must be of the opinion that we are not the best, that American civilization, far too tainted with guilty white people, simply cannot be correct, and thus anyone we fight must have right on their side. Its a default mental mode, and I don't think we'll be able to shake them out of it - but at least Mr. Steele has given us a way to understand them, and thus work around them if we can't work with them.
The emphasis is my own--the ellipsis not in brackets are Mr. Noonan's in the original.
There are really two types of idiocy present above--the blatantly racist stuff, and the shoddy argumentative maneuvering that supports it. They're interconnected, but distinct in that the first is a moral failing on Noonan's part, and the second is a logical failing.
I object to three specific claims by Noonan in the "moral" category. First:
Our civilization is designed, especially in its American form, to liberate and advance all of our brothers and sisters who continue to labor under oppression, ignorance and poverty
The problem with this statement is that it is empirically denied, rather harshly, by the facts of the last two centuries. I don't even need to make the radical claim that the War on Terrorism is just Western imperialism run amok (because I believe the exact opposite in fact). Let me just run through the list that nobody denies: Slavery, colonialism, lynching, Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the slave trade (which, given its likely 8-figure death toll, deserves independent recognition from slavery), communism, the My Lai massacre, fascism, anti-semitism, misogyny, spousal rape exemptions, segregation, the Native American genocide, reservations, the Dreyfuss affair, the eugenics movement, Japanese internment, and child labor. I could go on. All had relatively prominent roles in Western civilization at points in the last 200 years. This isn't to say that any given one of those wasn't present elsewhere. But it's just not intellectually plausible for Noonan to dismiss all of this as a historical footnote or aberration from Western civilization. We're talking about procedures of death and destruction that led to a body count well into the 9-figures. One can recognize positive contributions made by the West to the global community while still realizing that these horrors cast doubt on the West's claims to being designed for liberation (more on this later).
pretend that we've something fundamental to learn from other civilizations whom we once oppressed.
people from other civilizations which never managed to advance themselves until they were forced into modernity over the past century.
The former claim is almost too idiotic to address. I'll just give out a reading list: W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Fredrick Douglass, Kenji Yoshino, Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. should get you started.
As to the latter, I'm tempted to just refer Noonan to W.E.B. Du Bois, but I'll chime in with a few points of my own (still--read Du Bois. You might learn something from a person we had oppressed). For starters, I don't know what "modernity" means in this context. I'm assuming that Noonan is referring to the Enlightenment philosophical model developed from the 17th through the 19th century, focusing on individualism, the autonomous self, and the rights of persons. If that is indeed what he's talking about, then he is probably right that South America didn't have was not "modern." But then I have two questions.
First, with the Enlightenment model under attack from both the right and the left as being philosophically insufficient, why are we so happy to claim it as a perk? Again, there are loads of good things about the Enlightenment, but as commentators from throughout the political spectrum have noted, there are problems too--the emasculation of religion, the devaluing of communities and traditions, the destruction of solidarity, the myth of an atomic self, the inability of negative rights to secure positive liberty, and the persistence of subordinating ideologies even amongst the most "enlightened" civilizations. Why are we proclaiming our owe for a philosophy we (Republicans and Democrats) are in the process of rejecting--or at least heavily modifying? That moves me to the second problem: sure, Zanzibar probably didn't have a full panoply of rights prior to European colonialism, but it didn't have them during it, nor after it. And more importantly, neither did we. America was not and cannot be described as a "liberal" (in the philosophical sense) state while in the throes of Jim Crow and segregation. The response is always "well, we were liberal except for that," as if the official political suppression of millions of American citizens was just some afterthought we can cast aside. I'm sorry, but there is no way that can be considered a compelling argument. At best, the enlightenment model is an ongoing project that nobody has come close to achieving. And listening to the voices of oppressed peoples, their stories and analysis, might teach you that.
knowing that my civilizations produced civilized soldiers while their produces nothing by [sic] murderous villians, I am encouraged
How on earth does Noonan justify this without admitting naked racism, I have no idea. "Nothing [but] murderous villians"? If racism is defined (and I think this is a pretty restrictive definition) as the belief that a given civilization as a whole is completely and totally inferior to one's own, then saying that other civilizations produce only murderous villians leaps the bar without trouble. It's not even clear if Noonan is restricting this sweeping generalization to only Arabs (if not, see the above list), but even if so it's hardly warranted. Ibn Khaldun springs immediately to mind, and Saladin was without question both less murderous and less villainous than his Crusader counterparts. I'm not an expert in Arab history, but I'm sure I could go on here as well with only a cursory review. But there is no justifying this statement. At all.
The logical failing is simply an inability to grasp a middle ground between "always being the best" and "always being wrong". It's present in several places throughout the piece, but this excerpt works particularly well because the slide occurs within a single sentence:
at bottom, [liberals] simply must be of the opinion that we are not the best, that American civilization, far too tainted with guilty white people, simply cannot be correct, and thus anyone we fight must have right on their side.
Let me spell it out. We aren't always "the best", which doesn't mean we "cannot be correct." I think we've been correct on plenty of issues--one of which, incidentally, is overthrowing oppressive regimes like Hussein's and the Taliban. We've also been wrong (incorrect) on plenty of cases--like enslaving millions of people. So I can applaud the introduction by the West of a canon of Universal Human Rights, while decrying their introduction of the ideology of scientific racism and the blueprints for gas chambers. Recognizing that we've been both right and wrong, liberals believe that American policies should be evaluated a) case-by-case, rather than just assuming that because America does it, it's correct and b) with humility, because (inter alia) six million Jews, over a hundred million of Blacks, and countless other peoples know what happens when we get it wrong.
Burke might call this sort of prudence and caution a virtue. But what would he know about conservatism?
This is the rare post of its type that left me, not angry, but horrified. Here's where a more partisan blogger would go into the "this represents the modern Republican party" rant. I won't indulge, because I don't believe that most Republicans fit this mold. I'm willing to believe that most Republicans, presented with this throwback to our most evil ideologies, would be quite willing to codemn it as immoral. I take a lot of flack from my liberal pals for being more willing than they to ascribe good motives to most conservatives, and their deep opposition to racism and racist ideology (even if I think their tactics on opposing it are misguided). I know conservatives read my blog, so I'd appreciate a chance for some confirmation. Prove me right, and my critics wrong.