The Politics of Everything: Entitled Narcissism and The Deification of Culture

The previous post presented John McWhorter’s case for treating anti-racism and the associated cancel culture not as philosophy but as a religious creed.

So, what sort of religion is it? What are its doctrines? And can it be examined as such?

To do so it is best to start at the beginning with its foundational “scriptures.” The doctrines of anti-racism are based on notions of white privilege. White privilege is rooted in a paper written in 1989 by Peggy McIntosh, titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh is the founder of National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum and has a PhD from Harvard. She is an academic working in the field of Women’s Studies and education.

The paper is a personal reflection of McIntosh on white privilege and in the paper she lists twenty-six examples of conditions that her African-American friends, colleagues and acquaintances cannot count on.

Some point to went known and acknowledged problems that have plagued and continue to plague American society. For example, one blight on American history is housing discrimination in the form of racist neighborhood covenants and governmental practices such as redlining in the early- to mid- twentieth century. McIntosh alludes to housing discrimination in the first three items on her list.

Item #1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

Item #2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

Item #3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

Although the problem of housing discrimination has largely been addressed politically through the Fair Housing Act of 1968, few would argue that such discrimination has been totally eradicated. Outlawing something through public policy does not make it go away. Whether it is widespread or localized is subject to debate but such discrimination certainly still exists.

Mixed in with the issue of housing discrimination, however, are other issues that don’t appear to be related. Item #1 is rather odd. In a nation where thirteen percent of the population is black, why would one expect that? Or, what would keep one from associating with whomever one pleases?

Item #2 points to the affordability and, perhaps, the safety or quality of life or aesthetic appeal of the housing stock? Isn’t everyone limited to what they can afford?

Who can ever guarantee item #3?

Item#5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

Widely represented? Again, as thirteen percent of the population why would one expect this?

Item#9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

Yet again, why would anyone expect this? Businesses serve the needs of their local customers. If no one of that race lives in the local neighborhood why would anyone try to serve customers that don’t exist? The same is true of music stores and hairdressers. No one offers services that no one will buy. When demand increases businesses respond accordingly.

Item #6. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

Oblivious to other cultures? It is wrong to not be interested is how people live on the other side of the world? What sort of penalty for lack of interest should there be?

The final item reads,

Item #26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

Is this really an oppressive affront to people’s dignity to not have a band-aide that matches their skin tone? Racist intent is read into everything no matter how benign. If the band aid were invented elsewhere wouldn’t “flesh” color be some other shade? Most certainly, but who really cares?

The other items in the list range across the spectrum from serious concerns to such trivialities, but there is a common thread among them — the assumption of entitlement.

For better or for worse, any society that has ever existed has been built around the cultural mores of the majority. Cultural differences exist within any given society, and people tend to associate with their own kind, including or excluding others based on cultural commonalities. As social animals this is a natural part of the human condition. There can be friction, conflict and, yes, discrimination in any society.

If one were to move to Japan or Korea would it not be reasonable to expect some form of discrimination from the dominant culture? Would it be reasonable to complain about an Asian culture not being accommodating of or catering to other cultures? Is there something called “Asian privilege” in Japan or Korea? What color are the band-aids?

All societies organize themselves to meet the needs and desires of its citizens. Freedom and self-determination are at the heart of American society as inspired by the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. Granted, American society has often failed miserably to live up to its ideals (as all societies have). But when the citizens begin to see the fruits of society as something to which they are entitled things begin to breakdown. Instead of being participants in or contributors to the society they are consumers of it. Instead of appreciating what others provide there is resentment at society’s failure to meet their obligations — to me or people like me.

This is cultural narcissism — the world exists to serve me or people like me. When coupled with entitlement it is all about me and what is owed me — no mention of what I provide or the need to participate or contribute. The narcissism and entitlement embedded in this can turn the notion of privilege on its head. Isn’t the very idea that I have a right to walk into a store and demand a band-aid in my skin tone itself an assumption of privilege? Isn’t that unearned? Why are others obliged to provide for such a demand?

At the heart the anti-racism religion is this sense of entitled cultural narcissism. I can demand something from someone else and they have a duty to meet my demand simply because of my race. If my demands are not met it is a sure sign of racism. With this at the core any perceived slight against me or my people or to what I am entitled becomes a cosmic grievance and met with accusations and condemnation.

All religions have some notion of transcendence. The formation of religious doctrines provide a point of reference to something beyond the material world than brings meaning and purpose to this one. Traditional religions point to a transcendent god or gods or to some sort of non-material spiritual realm from which its values are derived. Secular religions are materialistic, so they must create their own notion of transcendence — provide their own gods, so to speak.

In July of 2020, Byron York, chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner tweeted out the following.“The National Museum of African American History & Culture wants to make you aware of certain signs of whiteness: Individualism, hard work, objectivity, the nuclear family, progress, respect for authority, delayed gratification, and more.”

He was referring to a chart about “whiteness” at an exhibit at the museum that caused quite a stir. From his opinion column about it, York writes,

The chart endeavors to list “the ways white people and their traditions, attitudes and ways of life have been normalized over time and are now considered standard practices in the United States.” Among those traditions, attitudes, and ways of life are: Individualism, hard work, objectivity, the nuclear family, a belief in progress, a written tradition, politeness, the justice system, respect for authority, delayed gratification and planning for the future, plus much more.

Later in the article Byron adds,

Most of the attributes listed seem to be a recipe for success for anyone. Certainly millions of black Americans work hard every day, respect individual effort, plan for the future, are polite to others, and so on. It seems odd to attribute that to “whiteness,” as opposed to, say, the everyday values of trying to lead a successful life. Yet according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, “whiteness” it is.

What is strange about this is that these “white” values were not manufactured or “owned” by white people but developed over time from the Western cultural tradition as universals that allowed the people of Western cultures to flourish. The very success of “whiteness” was due to its adherence to values that transcend culture.

The values are subject to criticism, of course, because no society is perfect. The point, however, is that the values espoused are thought of as universal. The new religion denies this. McIntosh writes,

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us.”

There is a lot to unpack here. No training to see herself as an oppressor? (She is complaining she wasn’t indoctrinated early on?) Her moral state is not dependent on her individual moral will? On what is it based? If not the individual who else dictates it? Whites (only) think of their lives as neutral and normative? Don’t all cultures think so?

Rather than attributes intended to make a people and a culture thrive such values are seen as subservient to whatever the values the culture espouses. In McIntosh’s view a culture’s social mores are transcendent over all such values. In fact, there are no universals at all. Culture is above all else and absolute. And yet, when the fruits of the culture are consumed by the “us’s,” the “them’s” view it as due to discrimination and call it unearned white privilege.

McIntosh writes,

I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy.

Perhaps white privilege is elusive and fugitive because it is an illusion. Perhaps recognizing that there is something to meritocracy as a universal trait that would go a long way in dealing with the “pressure of avoidance” rather than trying to convince oneself that it is a myth.

She continues,

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage…is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Or, perhaps that the obliviousness is a result of there being nothing there in the first place, that those in power got there by way of adhering to cultural norms like “…hard work, delayed gratification, planning for the future…” mentioned by York (above). Perhaps McIntosh is herself oblivious to the way societies actually function. Perhaps power and influence are not privileges that are distributed or doled out but are earned over time. You can’t have it both ways. If your culture honors laziness over hard work, immediate over delayed gratification, living for the moment over planning for the future, etc, it is disingenuous to call the fruits of culture unearned privileges after the fact. Perhaps examining one’s own cultural norms is in order, but that would mean opening the door for cultural change which cannot be allowed if culture is absolute. Culture has become deified.

When seeing everything through a lens entitled cultural narcissism, everyone is either oppressor or oppressed, victim or victimizer with nothing in between. It’s all about me and what I want and if I don’t get it…well, the gods of culture have been offended and require a sacrifice. And as McWhorter noted there is no forgiveness or redemption in this new faith. The oppressors and victimizers must be canceled, anti-racism’s version of sending someone to hell.

In the end this new religion breeds envy, resentment and contempt because of it’s entitled narcissistic roots.

Compare this to a traditional religion. Consider, for example, Christianity’s Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. In it Jesus outlines an ethic for the Kingdom of God that places the onus on the individual; if you want to be treated fairly and with respect than treat others the same way — no matter what. If you are insulted or mistreated turn the other cheek. If you are asked to walk a mile offer two. If he takes your cloak give him your tunic as well. It is the polar opposite of entitled cultural narcissism. The individual is not a consumer but a contributor to society by appreciating and respecting others above all else. The ethic is a universal trait — one to which all cultures should aspire.

In the final analysis this new racial religion is a poor secular substitute for what a traditional religion such as Christianity offers. Although intended to bring justice and peace the anti-racist religion will only produce the opposite.

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