Cultural Caviar

Ethnomasochism - The Musical!

November 10, 2010

(My opinion is that nobody should write at length on this topic who has not first taken the Harvard Implicit Association Test and posted his results. Mine are here.)

Ethnomasochism is the act of taking pleasure in contemplating the humiliation, subordination, or annihilation of one’s own ethnicity or race. Its canonical expression was this 1967 remark by leftist American writer Susan Sontag: “The white race is the cancer of human history.” (Ms. Sontag was white.)

How new is ethnomasochism? With human nature there is nothing truly new, only old traits in new clothes. Certainly there have, throughout recorded history, been individuals who turned their backs on their own people. Here is one from the fifth century.

In some of the early North American settlements, where women were in short supply, men went among the Indians seeking wives (so much that Cotton Mather had to preach against this “Indianizing”), and some stayed with their wives’ people.

When Britain ruled over the other Indians, the ones of subcontinental South Asia, it was common for a chap to abandon his solar topee and beefsteak for a dhoti and vegetarianism. Poor Carruthers—gone native, you know.

A sentimental attachment to other peoples from a safe distance was a less challenging option. The archetype is Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House, whose devotion to central Africa’s natives far exceeded her interest in her own children. The phrase “noble savage” goes back two centuries before that, though, and similar conceptions showed up among the ancients.

A dash of ethnomasochism often went along with a fondness for the alien Other and romantic illusions about the less-civilized. W. S. Gilbert wrote (in a real musical) of “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, / All centuries but this, and every country but his own.”

The full-blown modern style of ethnomasochism is, like many other psychosocial pathologies, a product of Anglo-American progressivism. It was already showing up in its finished form among pre-Boomers such as Susan Sontag (b. 1933) and Ann Dunham (b. 1942). We read about Ann in her son’s autobiography (p. 47) refusing to accompany her Indonesian husband to dinner parties with visiting American businessmen. These were her own people, Ann’s husband would remind her; at which, the son tells us, “my mother’s voice would rise to almost a shout. They are not my people.”

Tim Wise is, like Susan Sontag and Ann Dunham—like, in fact, every other ethnomasochist in the world—white and in the top quartile of intelligence. There are no ethnomasochists among the colored billions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America,* and there are none anywhere with IQs below 110. Perhaps Tim should get some T-shirts printed up: ETHNOMASOCHISM—IT’S A SMART WHITE THING, YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.

*There are a few still among South Africa’s whites; though strange to say, in view of Tim’s thesis, they are all rather old. Of the ten listed here, the youngest is 53, and two are in point of fact dead.

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