02 May 2006

The Content Of Our Character

I don't normally have too much good to say about NPR, and inevitably end up comparing it unfavorably with the BBC and the Australia's ABC. But when it comes down to it, most of my objections to NPR are of the superficial variety. Specifically, I don't like a) the constant pledge drives coupled with the commercials masquerading as "underwriting announcements; b) the almost terminal smugness of many of its presenters, as in, "We're doing SUCH an important service to America here, so you should really appreciate how great we are;" c) the reluctance to say anything more controversial than, "Gosh, that President Bush isn't the brightest of fellows, is he, tee hee;" and d) the most maddening of all, the snippets of annoying and/or atonal music they insist on playing between each segment, apparently broadcast in the belief that Americans have the attention spans of hyperactive fleas and couldn't possibly sit there listening quietly to several bits of information in a row without going into cognitive overload.

The pledge drives and commercials probably can't be avoided as long as NPR can't rely on the kind of public funding the BBC and ABC enjoy, and as for the personality disorders of its staff, well, I don't know what can be done about that. Community radio, like community anything, exerts an inordinate attraction on those who have trouble functioning in a normal competitive environment, and Gresham's Law of People Who Are A Pain In The Ass (adapted from Gresham's Law of Monetary Value, generally rendered as "Bad money drives out good") dictates that those who are most constant and persistent in their annoyingness and boringness end up rising to the level of station managers and national on-air "personalities."

All that notwithstanding, when I'm in the USA and don't fancy the rabid red-meat entertainment of AM talk radio (something sadly missing from the ever-moderate British Isles), I have little choice but to tune into NPR. And eventually I end up conceding that despite my complaints, it's not all bad. In fact, I've heard a fair bit of good programming this week, most recently an interview this afternoon with Shelby Steele, who was saying, more articulately than I've thus far managed, pretty much exactly what I've been saying for a few years now: that the prime villains behind the alarming growth of the black underclass are misguided welfare and affirmative action programs.

Steele, promoting his new book, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, also stated that in his opinion white racism is no longer a major issue, at least not to the extent that it could be used as a valid excuse for anyone failing to make the most of the opportunities available in contemporary American society. This was certainly not the case only a few decades ago, he readily acknowledges, but goes on to say that the cultural transformation that has taken place since the mid-60s is one with few parallels in human history.

In 1965, he said, racism was a tacitly and often openly woven into the fabric of everyday American life; today it is rightly seen as a social disease, something to be ashamed of and apologized for. This of course flies in the face of those who see intractable racism at work every time a black person fails at anything, but that attitude, often promulgated most militantly by whites with an ax to grind, does a huge disservice to blacks, because it tells them implicitly that without help from the Great White Father (i.e., the institutions, public and private, who hand out welfare and affirmative action places), they really don't have what it takes to make it on their own merits.

The greatest victims of this philosophy, Steele points out, are the gifted and talented young black people who normally would be competing with the best and brightest of their peers of all races for jobs and university places, but thanks to affirmative action, need only make a half-hearted effort. Of course it's not only the individuals thus affected who suffer; society as a whole misses out on what these young people would have accomplished had they been required to exert themselves to the fullest of their abilities.

Secondarily, of course, every black person who does rise to a position of prestige and responsibility does so under a cloud; no matter how hard he or she worked for that achievement, no matter how clever and well-educated he or she may be, there will always be grounds for suspicion that they were given a built-in advantage because of their skin color. Of course one could argue that whites have had just such an advantage for centuries, but a) that's rapidly ceasing to be the case; and b) while whites may have had an advantage in getting hired, few bosses are going to be afraid to criticize and/or fire them for fear of being called a racist if they turn out to be incompetent.

Steele reserved some of his harshest criticism for the welfare rights movement of the late 60s and early 70s, which, though it used poor, black single mothers as its shock troops, was primarily led by left-wing whites, many of them hoping to undermine "the system" by bankrupting it. Steele is not opposed to welfare per se - few human people are - but against the principle that handed out "free money" without requiring anything in return from its recipients. Nobody insisted that they try to find employment, acquire an education or job training, try to keep a family together, or even use the money to feed the children it was ostensibly intended for. As the title of Steele's new book implies, it was more a means of assuaging white guilt than effecting meaningful social change, unless massive increases in prison populations qualify under your definition of social change.

Someone inevitably phoned in to accuse Steele of selling out his fellow blacks, but as he pointed out, the viewpoints he's putting forth, widely derided as "conservative" or "right wing" are virtually identical to those of Martin Luther King and the early civil rights marchers. They weren't demanding special treatment or compensation or free money. What they wanted - and this is why their message touched the hearts of people of good will, regardless of race - was a fair chance to compete on an equal footing for all that America had to offer. True, there are those who quote Dr. King to prove all sorts of points, even diametrically opposed ones, but it's pretty hard to argue with his dream that one day people would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

But every time someone accuses someone like Shelby Steele (or, for that matter, any black person who breaks ranks with the prevailing ideology of welfare and affirmative action) of treachery or not being "truly black," one can almost imagine Martin Luther King rolling over in his grave. Was this what he marched for, went to jail for, ultimately died for? So that black people think only in lockstep and function as a class permanently dependent on the magnaminity and/or guilt of white America? I'm pretty damn sure not.


Patrick said...

I didn't read this, but aren't you supposed to be on vacation?

Dave said...


Good post. Normally, I tend to think that the traditional anti-welfare/affirmative action arguments are completely full of shit, put forth by self-satisfied people who think they were naturally successful when they were born into privilege and never had to endure "trivialities" like racism. I can't say that about what you posted, which frames the issue intelligently and credibly.

What I never see are statistics on how welfare is actually implemented in America, or how many A.A. reciptents slack off and get a free ride due to skin color. I'd like someone to put those out there eventually, if only to avoid the nauseating platitudes that come from topics like these.

And people who claim whites have gotten a free ride since the Age of Exploration have a historically valid point; whites have been, and still are, the power structure. The extent of that has changed quite a bit, but it's still true.

Still, this was a fun read, and provided much to think about.

Anonymous said...


Good to listen to it. He spoke out here in the SF Bay Areal, where he lives, on the NPR channel, KQED. Above is the link to the archive file. Scroll down to it.

Michael Krazny's show is good, although it could use more guests on the mean hearted conservative side. Probably on around 4 pm London time. People listen to it all over the world.

Any similar talk shows in the UK that you could suggest?