Cultural Caviar

Ethnomasochism - The Musical!

November 10, 2010

Multiple Pages
Ethnomasochism - The Musical!

Well, not really a musical, nor even the lyrics to a musical. The piece under discussion is, though, definitely not plain prose; so musical-wise, we have the beginnings of a start here.

I am referring to Tim Wise’s furious rant on Daily Kos the other day under the title “An Open Letter to the White Right, On the Occasion of Your Recent, Successful Temper Tantrum.” Mr. Wise—“Uncle Tim” to us race-realists—let loose on the old white reactionaries who, according to him, were responsible for so many Republican victories in the elections. You can read the whole thing here.

Uncle Tim’s thesis is that the election results were an Old America’s death spasm. This Old America is slipping away, but those who cling to it are putting up a rearguard fight. Their cause is hopeless, though, and before long they will have disappeared, replaced by a New America.

What was it like, this old America that’s passing away? Well, it was white, or at least white-dominated. TV sitcoms were all about white people reveling in their whiteness. For colored people, Old America was a living hell where they “could legally be kept from voting solely because of race, or holding certain jobs, or living in certain neighborhoods, or run out of other towns altogether when the sun would go down, or be strung up from trees.”

And what will the New America be like? Tim tells us gleefully that “half the country will be black or brown,” all of them of course “progressive.” Enough of the white minority will also be “progressive” to ensure that the evil, reactionary Old America never comes back.

In a way it’s all very quaintly American. What came to my mind when reading it was Charles Mackay’s grand old uplifter “There’s a Good Time Coming”:

There’s a good time coming, boys,
  A good time coming,
We may not live to see the day,
But earth shall glisten in the ray.
  Of the good time coming.

In his footnote to this poem, Michael Turner remarks:

This brave and very touching work confirms…the unshakeable nineteenth-century faith in the benign workings of Providence, in the certainty of Progress. The prophecies of the fifth and sixth stanzas have largely come to pass in Britain and America; we must continue to wait for the rest.

How true. Certainly, to judge from the timbre of Uncle Tim’s post-election rant, we are still some way from a time when “The people shall be temperate, / and shall love instead of hate.”

“The full-blown modern style of ethnomasochism is, like many other psychosocial pathologies, a product of Anglo-American progressivism.”

Uncle Tim has the demographics pretty much correct, though. No less an authority than the Census Bureau tells us that whites will be a minority in the U.S.A. by 2050. Whether Tim has the rest of it right—whether, in particular, his millenarian dream of harmony and justice in a majority black-‘n’-brown U.S.A. will come true—is a different matter. The curricula vitarum of black and brown nations do not offer much encouragement.

The world would be a happier place without racial and ethnic antagonisms. But as disagreeable as these phenomena are, they have shown up all through human history wherever different peoples have mingled. This suggests that they are rooted in human nature.  That they will disappear as those who remember Leave It to Beaver die off seems improbable.

(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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