No one denies the palpable political polarization in America today. The questions “how did we get here?” and “how do we move forward well?” present a challenge not as easily understood as the present reality. In “Shame,” Shelby Steele lays the blame of how we got here squarely upon the new liberalism that emerged during the tumultuous decade of the 1960’s. To read his essay, one might assume all the events described took place within a political vacuum where only liberalism existed, making his conclusion overly simplistic. Steele offers no assessment of the conservatism of that era. The only references to more recent conservative leaders lacked any depth beyond a vague vision of freedom for all. Steele asserts a desire to right certain wrongs from America’s past led to a top-down, governmental approach to legislate corrections rather than giving all people equal freedom to excel on their own merits.
I was left to wonder if the essay would be any different if written after the Trump presidency rather than before it. Would Steele find conservative virtue in a version of conservatism that dramatically added to today’s polarization? Based on his description of conservatism as a movement, my conjecture would be for him to see the recent far-right as a reaction to the overreach of the left. To put into preadolescent terms, “they started it!” He attributes modern conservatism as a movement reacting to the stigma placed on it by liberalism. While he offers no critique of conservatism, I agree with his critique of governmental ineffectiveness to correct issues and his description of today’s binary choices: denial or disassociation.
I believe Steele commits the same error he seeks to expose in his essay. To blame one side of the political aisle offers a polarized answer to the issue of polarization. What causes us to move from the Founding Fathers’ ideal of a marketplace of ideas where truth wins in the end to a day where personal disrespect and moral judgment appear normative? In my earlier days, people who thought differently about social/political issues were not the enemy or considered evil. Both sides of the political debate today can take on moral terminology of good versus evil, and I believe Steele hints about the evils of liberalism. His essay sounds like a well-written version of “the problem exists completely over there.” We can do better.
As for the way forward, I offer no grandiose plan beyond honesty about our failings and seeking to work toward a preferred future. My main takeaway from “Washington” by Fergus Bordewich stated amounts to: “it is what is.” The history of the building of the capital contains a sordid complex of behaviors often conflicts with the new nation’s ideals. Own all of it, and seek to live out its vision in your time. We cannot undo the past, but we can be honest about it. Let’s not let the failures of the past deter the striving for worthwhile ideals.
I serve in northern Utah, where Mormonism stands as the predominant faith. Many people have exited the LDS Church in recent times because what was taught by leaders about church history and early LDS leadership does not match the research adherents can now do for themselves. The attempt to whitewash, even rewrite, history and not acknowledge negative events leads people to distrust and disengage. Of course, that weakness always proves easier to identify in others than in ourselves. How often have leaders modeled the kind of denial that alienates people because the solutions offered are too simple and only needed by others? How many times have I done that? This week’s readings lead me to ask about my own blind spots, denial, or inability to admit my failings. We can be wonderfully human, mistakes and weakness in tow, and seek to create the new kind of community pictured for us in the New Testament. Let’s not live in denial or aspire to “burn it all down” so we can start over. Let’s be honest about who we are and work toward where we want to go.
 Shelby Steele, “Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country,” (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 71.