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Cultural Edification vs Empowerment
We are not all Multiculturalists.
The only thing power respects is power.
— Malcolm X
I’ve been thinking about that thing we call culture and I want to make a knock against that thing we call multiculturalism. Why? Because I once thought it was a good idea, and I have remarked lately at conferences I’ve spoken at that multiculturalism has gone horribly wrong. It started as a matter of edification, and now has become all about political power.
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First let me start with my own way that see culture. Culture is, I say, that set of winning formulas that are successful and repeatable in society. They could be attitudes, fashions, styles, recipes, mannerisms, manners, all kinds of combinations of hard and soft skills that get you navigating through society. Basically, if it works over a period of time in society and can be taught, it’s culture.
Among cultures there are broad and influential sorts and small obscure sorts. Also, importantly, cultures weave specific paths through society. For example a highbrow culture purposefully seeks sophistication and depth. A lowbrow culture the opposite. Each sort of cultures has some core assumptions and generic bag of skills. For example if you want to be a sports fan, you would probably have to own a jersey and understand how to read the stats and standings and know something about the art of tailgating and over & under betting. You might be a very specific kind of sports fan, like a fan of the Detroit Tigers or of the LA Sparks or of the All Blacks of New Zealand. It takes some effort and diligence to be a true sports fan.
Beyond the skills and outward signs of culture, the import aspect is that culture imparts a sense of belonging. You belong to the culture and that sense of belonging can be shared with others. You take some pride that you can follow the rhythms of Bohemian Rhapsody, or how to distinguish an IPA from a nitro brew. You know when the saxophone solo is winding down and you’re ready to clap. You can decipher the idioms of West Virginia or deadpan British humor. I don’t want to overuse the cliche that these things generate community. I wish to express it in the spirit of you singing Bohemian Rhapsody in your car with friends, or toasting beers at the bar, or clapping after the solo, of getting the joke. It creates that moment of belonging. These moments are meaningful. These moments are edifying.
Now I’m going to take a moment to make an important distinction between edification and empowerment. One of the ways in which our society is being abused is the ways in which multiculturalism has been twisted into a weapon of the Culture Wars. It is all about power. Political power, social power, economic power and the power of influence. These are aggregated and amassed by elites who are playing a different game than those who pursue cultural edification for its own sake. As I have mentioned before, the proper sentiment of ethical humanity is love for the other as the other. “You do you” without sarcasm. I’ve also called it Taylor’s Golden Rule.
I am going to consider a recasting of three metallic rules by way of Dennis E. Taylor’s excellent new book Heaven’s River.
The Iron Rule:
Treat others less powerful than you however you like.
The Silver Rule:
Treat others as you’d like to be treated.
The Golden Rule:
Treat others as they’d like to be treated.
These are rules for those of us with some power to spare. These are lessons from kings to their princelings. But what’s important for us citizens is the matter of regard. So the implication here is that we don’t necessarily have the wherewithal to treat somebody some way. But we can indicate our regard for them. For example, we may watch a YouTube of somebody dancing. We can’t treat that person any different. We’re never going to meet them in our lives. So there is no power relationship. But we might regard them with respect or with envy or with disgust or with admiration. I say, fine. Let us judge them. Let us critique them. Let us opine about them. We also may attempt to persuade others to change their regard for them. We can do all of that without using what power we have. Thus without defying Taylor’s Golden. Here I go into our regard.
When I read an excellent critique of a film, book, restaurant, dancer or of an historical battle, I may be persuaded to change my regard for that person, place or thing. That doesn’t necessarily empower me. I am edified. I am making a step closer to that culture. There will come a moment when I will be able to share that edification spontaneously.
The point to make here is that edification for its own sake is the basic aspect of culture. As we start off on the many journeys to discover our selves, this cultural edification is a prize. Practiced spontaneously generates a sense of belonging. There is a fundamental difference between this exercise of cultural practices and those done for the sake of power.
Now let’s get colorful.
My old friend Count was one of the sharpest cats at my college, probably the sharpest. I generally got to know all of the straight A students. He was cool. Along with Billy whom all the girls thought was dreamy, we hung out mornings to get our weightlifting on. Count was on point to make sure we were listening to jazz, specifically John Coltrane. He asked me if I knew Coltrane and I told him that his name sounded familiar but, no. He began his worldly-wise harangue that lasted about five minutes before he turned on the music, and it was made clear to me that I was culturally retarded. Then came Giant Steps, oh yeah I knew every note. So that’s who that was. At the time I was absolutely dedicated to the cult of Stanley Clarke and could not be swayed. I still prefer a good fusion over a good bebop but that’s another story.
What was unusual about Count was that he was light-skinned, and my heuristics are just as bad as anyone else’s but I still think I can recognize when black people feel like they need to be more black in every dimension of blackness. It may or may not have been his light-skindedness that was the cause, but he was definitely going for deeper edification. Can’t say that I blamed him, after all, the three of us were all officers in one or more black clubs and organizations on campus. We had reputations to uphold as well as genuine curiosity. But Count’s next move came as something of a revelation. He put on KPFK.
KPFK is the the Pacifica Radio affiliate for SoCal. It’s about as Marxist granola crunchy as they come. The show in question was Black Mental Liberation Weekend. This is a very large can of works and worms. Let me introduce you to the Hoteps. Headliners in this cascade of interviews included Legrand Clegg, Jawanza Kinjufu, Yosef Ben-Jochannan aka ‘Dr. Ben’, Neely Fuller Jr, John Henrik Clark, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing and Ivan Van Sertima. Now if you’re an engineering student and you have any doubts about whether or not your being black is adding to the difficulty of getting As in your major, this collection of thinkers are bound to get your attention. I had no doubts as to what my blackness meant any more than I had about my hairstyle or the length of my toenails. I didn’t just happen to be black, I had what turned out to be an epic amount of self-confidence in my ability, my blackness, my style, my will and determination. I was one of those people called ‘arrogant’. My arrogance was actually an affectation which I found fun to get away with.
Now the problem with Hoteps is that like many Americans today, they presume that many if not most black Americans look in the mirror and always come up with questions about racial identity and their success in this country that should have extraordinary explanations that are conspiratorially world-historical in scope and complexity. It therefore falls to the proper Hotep to both explain and to ‘raise the race’. In other words, they are the Alex Joneses of blackness. For the most part, they are pseudo-intellectual cranks.
The consequential problem is that their explanatory weakness does not change the fact that few other competent people are considering similar problems at length, at least not during the 80s. It also does not change the genuine curiosity of those seeking edification. Nor does it change the limited amount of time KPFK and every college in the nation has to deal with ‘the black thing’. So whatever Ivan Van Sertima says about the African features of Olmec monuments in South America which is certifiably provable gets aired in the same program with Frances Cress Welsing’s claim that the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital is representative of the white man’s dick, which we all must look up to. Welsing taught me exactly one thing. It’s actually more difficult than you would think to burn a book without tearing out every single page. But see for yourself, it gets 5 stars on Amazon. Crank quackery mixes with mere controversial interpretations of history, but it’s all black, right?
The Hoteps generally speaking took a toehold in black self-doubt, raised the stakes to world history and established a foothold at Temple University in the late 80s. Molefi Asante’s smashing success with his Afrocentric concept managed to unite a wildly dynamic market for blackified self-help by casting the world not so much as the negative of Fuller’s assertions of a Global System of White Supremacy as the warm cozy fantasy of a lovely mother Africa. Somewhere around 1992 young adults like myself found ourselves wondering exactly which Kente was the right color, if we should grow dreads or go bald like Mike. Others were taking the Hoteps and anarchic nihilists like Steve Cokely and Khalid Abdul Muhammad a great deal more seriously.
So what happens when you mix the possible edifications of Spike Lee art house films, the new variety of hiphop still-evolving styles, some old school WEB DuBois and some new school Jawanza Kunjufu who made a mint selling a book about the American conspiracy to destroy black boys? You begin to see the complex miasma of cultural cross-currents within black America which owing to Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, NWA, Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby was clearly fracturing from a ‘black monolith’ into African-America. The invention of the African-American term was required because you couldn’t accurately call Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor ‘black’. They were Negroes who transformed before our eyes becoming black as Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Clearly since north of Temple U. in Philly you had the likes of Randall Kennedy and Henry Louis Gates in Boston, there was a real diversity of black studies. African-American fixed it, sorta.
What happened was that the convenience of a multicultural validation of study was able to ride on the back of these black and Latino politics in the emerging populations of higher educated ‘minorities’ in American universities. At least that’s how I see it from the perspective of a witness who didn’t need self-help. I resented my Black Studies professor’s easy A. So much so that it ruined me for my second semester’s Drama class easy A. I just didn’t show up and really despised my General Ed teachers with few exceptions. That too is another story. Yet it relates to the extent to which millions of American collegians were given freedoms, affirmations and credits against the backdrop of self-help and that big ghost of a massive “thing that’s wrong with America”. Ronnie talk to Russia before it’s too late. We begin bombing in five minutes. It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.
You and I know race talk is back with a vengeance. What we have done for the sake of empowerment is aligned multiculturalism’s implied irreconcilable cultural differences and mapped them onto racial essentialism. Racial essentialism is easy to assume if you don’t have the self-possession required to resist KPFK’s formulation of panelists aimed at Black Mental Liberation, or if you’re looking in from the outside with little ability or desire to make distinctions.
Where multiculturalism might have been integrative, you could never convince a Hotep that was possible. It would undermine their entire agenda of establishing a world-historical struggle against the Global System of White Supremacy. Not until you’ve knocked down the the DC dick. The Struggle is about power. The reason to read history is, as the Hoteps will tell you, to find out about your self. Naturally, their selection of history is very narrow as if the dozen or so inclusive of the list I provided were the only historians worthy of mentioning. I quote the Hoteps who answer with 7 reasons why people hate the Hoteps
It all boils down to the fact that Hoteps make people feel self-conscious.We make you look in the mirror and really judge yourself and everything you thought you knew. It requires you to take a look at your flaws. In 2018, with Snapchat filters and social media, it’s so easy to avoid your flaws. But flaws make the man. Hoteps make you see everything that you’re NOT doing and maybe SHOULD be doing so that makes you self-conscious. It’s a bumpy ride for a weak ego.
So where are you in society? To accept the racial essentialism of hard multiculturalism, you must racialize culture. When you racialize culture it means you cannot change teams. You can’t spoof race. You are what you are, dammit. Crime is black culture. Science is white culture. We cannot integrate. That would be inauthentic and appropriative. We can only create safe spaces within white culture for everybody else. See how easy that comes out?
None of this works if you make the distinction between the edification that adopting cultural skills, styles, etc gives the individual and the empowerment games that are mapped onto ‘cultural groups’ that make them so useful for the purposes of political partisanship.
I’m not sure the social sciences are adept enough to have whatever value their studies produce not be co-opted into power games. There’s no money in it. Who cares what some political think tank says if they don’t say it about race? Yet marketing to consumers can easily evade race all the time. Yet still racialized multiculturalism rides all ponies. And you absolutely know that genderized multiculturalism does the same thing. (I knew you were waiting for me to say that.) America seems to have fully accepted the racialized, genderized multiculturalist definitions that fundamentally cast us all into politically divisive camps. We therefore distrust the very idea of nationalist citizenship and naturally fall into the battles of a never ending Culture War. Thus we are at war with ourselves having accepted that our collective selves are incapable of common purpose as citizens. Nobody’s pronouns are ‘we the people’.
What does the Stoic care?
This Stoic is invested in the liberty an open society provides. I have mastered my own ability to socialize. Took a while. I haven’t depended on cosmopolitain sophisticates, much of that owes to the fact that I’m a computer geek. Work has very light babeage. You can get along via Sci-Fi bingo, Calvin & Hobbes and Dilbert for decades. But tech geek culture is a complex adaptive system as well. But there are annoying edge cases, like when the guys at Dell will not allow you to bring a non-Dell machine into their buildings at Round Rock. These hardenings of culture stand out and they constrain social liberty with partisan ideology. Their impractical economies are sustainable over the short term but they defy the underlying enabler of Turning’s Law. Any digital system can be indistinguishably mimicked by any other digital system. There are only differences in the compute hardware.
Any human culture can be indistinguishably mimicked by any other human culture. There are only differences in the compute hardware. Any human can learn any human language.
When proponents of CRT and other Woke Folk seek to inform you that their insights were not born yesterday, you might consider my informal history here. Quackery is as old as time. When they pretend that the edification of black history is at risk if their recommendations are not taken seriously, ask them if edification requires political engagement and power shifts. Is it or is it not self-determination? Is it really about respect and dignity, or is it about power?
The Stoic has a critical regard for all others. We engage in judgement and criticism. We engage the public, but we do not (certainly not as peasants) do so in seeking to change the balance of power so that it fits our regards. We should be satisfied to speak the truth.
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