The Spectacle Blog

Feeling Guilty?

By on 5.2.06 | 9:32AM

Over the weekend while discussing the illegal immigration situation with a friend, I was asked why I thought our government seemed so paralyzed and fearful of taking action to protect itself from the invading hordes. “Guilt,” I said. “Guilt over what?” he asked. I tried to explain, but Shelby Steele does so much better here. For years he has made essentially the same if compelling point, that whites’ racial guilt over the sins of the past has robbed them of moral authority to act. This guilt, he believes, has ramifications everywhere from how wars are fought in

Iraq/>/>, how immigration is handled, and how black and white children are educated. No doubt, the signs are all around us.

I’d quibble with Steele, though, on how closely he conflates Western guilt with racial guilt, as well as on his chain of causation. While racial guilt is probably the most important subset of Western guilt, the West feels guilty about more than just its racial past. And where Steele traces the origins of white guilt to the end of World War II, there was a terrible war before that one that left Western self-confidence in tatters. In his book The First World War, John Keegan asked why the West chose to march towards self-destruction in 1914, and did not venture an answer. Steele’s analysis of the impact of white guilt is valuable as always, but the origins of the West’s loss of faith seem to be older, deeper, and more mysterious than the question of race.

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