Thursday, November 12, 2015

Therapeutic Alienation in Black America

"The nut of the issue is that these people want neither justice nor healing. What people like this are seeking is, sadly, not what they claim to be seeking. They seek one thing: indignation for its own sake.

"And that means that the alienation that they are expressing is disconnected from current reality. We can only truly understand black America’s past forty years, its present, and its prospects for the future if we grasp that this kind of disconnection is very common, can have seismic effects upon the fate of a group, and can inhabit even the most brilliant of minds.

However, people do not behave this way to seek money or power. The reason this way of thinking has such a foothold in black American ideology is pain.

To black leaders a hundred years ago, the [Mizzou] episode would have looked as anthropologically baffling as sacrificing virgins. There was, however, one area of shared understanding between black leaders of yore and the [Mizzou] protesters. Centuries of slavery and segregation left a stain on the black American psyche, as well-known to blacks in 1903 as 2015. There are so very many books and articles exploring the damage that the White Man did to black Americans’ self-esteem that I will assume that even people far to the left of me will not even begin to dispute this simple proposition. That insecurity about being black is why this kind of alienation for its own sake— curiously exaggerated, melodramatic, and heedless of reason— is so attractive to so many black Americans today. It assuages a person who is quietly unsure that they are worthy or okay, by giving them something or someone to always feel better than. They seek this because slavery and segregation left black America with a hole in its soul— and why would it have not? But the fact remains that there is little connection between today’s America and their alienation . It survives on its own steam.

This is therapeutic alienation: alienation unconnected to, or vastly disproportionate to, real-life stimulus, but maintained because it reinforces one’s sense of psychological legitimacy, via defining oneself against an oppressor characterized as eternally depraved.

Therapeutic alienation is, itself, blind to race, and it was hardly unknown before the late 1960s. Alienation has always sometimes been as much theatrical as proactive. Therapeutic alienation can be as white as Anton Chekhov’s Masha in The Seagull, “in mourning for her life ” mostly because it is an endlessly interesting way of being. Therapeutic alienation is the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Even those most sympathetic to the countercultural movement of the sixties know that there was a goodly amount of performance for its own sake involved. It’s part of how human beings are.

Therefore, the question at hand is why therapeutic alienation acquired such a hold on black America only in the sixties. Insecurity alone could not have been the reason. Therapeutic alienation was not as widespread or influential in black America in 1903, or 1943, or even 1963, the year of the March on Washington— at which times black people had plenty of clear and present reasons to feel insecure. Back in the day, the idea that it was progressive to obsessively tabulate black failure and propose that the only solution was for whites to become blind to race was rare to unknown in leading black ideology. Those who purported that blacks were incapable of surmounting the obstacles were generally tarred as defeatist— witness the reaction of much of the black punditocracy to Richard Wright’s work. Most blacks were more interested in fighting the concrete barrier of legalized discrimination than the abstract psychological happenstance of racism.

Two new conditions were necessary for alienation among blacks to so often drift from its moorings in the concrete and become the abstract, hazy “race thing” that whites just “don’t get.”

One condition was that blacks had to be prepared to embrace therapeutic alienation, and ironically, this could only have been when conditions improved for blacks. When racism was omnipresent and overt, it would have been psychological suicide for blacks to go around exaggerating what was an all-too-real problem." John McWhorter, Winning The Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America

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