Of offensive costumes and red social justice warrior cheeks
Ah, it’s that time of the year again. Autumn is in full force: The leaves change color; the days get shorter; the weather gets colder; the social justice warriors (SJWs) croak louder, as the attire for the final day of October gets sluttier and more stereotypical. I am of course talking about that most socially unjust and frivolous of holidays, Halloween, and the torrent of pumpkin spice, politically correct opprobrium it draws.
It’s a wonderful day — that is unless you’re of the sort of moral fiber made of intertwined strands of victimhood instead of actual moral fiber. You take issue with some girl donning a slutty Pocahontas costume not so much because of its rank immodesty but rather more for its “cultural insensitivity.” The wearer is guilty of “cultural appropriation” from indigenous peoples even though most of her accusers, preferring a Trail of Tears-fits-all rubric, are insensitive to distinguishing the individual Chinook, Apache, Choctaw, Miami, Sauk, Sioux, Powhatan and plethora of other tribal cultures and histories from one another.
No matter though, as this willful ignorance hasn’t stopped MTV Decoded host Franchesca Ramsey, who decries “dominant groups ‘borrowing’ from marginalized groups who face oppression or have been stigmatized for their cultural practices throughout history.” Nor has it prevented the likes of YouTube personality Kat Blaque from lecturing on the “taking of different aspects of culture, and in the process, kind of erasing the meaning and the importance of these aspects.” Both Ramsey and Blaque also indict the commodification of these cultural “aspects,” e.g., white models with dreadlocks strutting the runway to sell fashion.
For a more formal definition of cultural appropriation, About.com’s “Race Relations Expert” Nadra Kareem Nittle (2016) quotes Fordham University law professor Susan Scafidi, who defines it as in Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law:
“[The] taking [of] intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects” (para. 4).
So, according to SJWs, cultural appropriation is a big no-no. So heinous is it, Nicholas Christakis, formerly of Yale, was hounded in Red Guard-like fashion after his wife downplayed the gravity of culturally insensitive Halloween outfits in an email last year. More recently, Tufts University put its Greek community on notice, threatening “consequences for wearing an offensive costume.”
This all sounds super serious, and I promise to apologize for my daily, mint julep-spiked yoga sessions just as soon as the Ramseys, Blaques and Scafaldis of the world apologize for their daily cultural appropriation.
As Alfred North Whitehead noted, philosophy is just a “series of footnotes to Plato.” So as adherents to an philosophically-based ideology, from whose footnotes do SJWs liberally borrow, all without giving credit to whom it’s due, mind you?
Enter Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erick Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, Walter Benjamin and company of the Frankfurt School. These Germans pioneered and developed what’s known as Critical Theory, of which critical race theory, critical gender studies and critical queer theory – all the fetid domain of SJWs – are offspring.
The Frankfurt School vs social justice warrior
What is Critical Theory? There isn’t a straightforward, simple answer, nor did Critical Theory’s originators intend it to have a positive definition or serve as a finalized philosophical system purporting eternal ontological first principles. In fact, they purposefully argued for it not to be and despised philosophies and schemas of metaphysics that laid claim to ahistorical absolute truth. University of California-Berkley professor Martin Jay (1996) describes it as a “gadfly of other systems” in his history of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination (p. 41).
In the broadest sense, Critical Theory criticizes: It’s supposed to be normative, practical, critical, directed at radical social change and disruptive of the status quo. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article paraphrases Horkheimer as identifying it as “seek[ing] human ‘emancipation from slavery,’ acts as a ‘liberating … influence’, and works ‘to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers’ of human beings” (Bohman, 2005, para. 1). Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, et al. operated by the Marxist dictum (Vallicella, 2016): “The philosophers have only variously interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it” (para. 1, trans. Vallicella).
So do SJWs. As exponents of Critical Theory in this broadest sense, they criticize to liberate the oppressed from the “circumstances that enslave” them (Bohman, 2005, para. 1), psychoanalyze indiscriminately, believe the notion of classically liberal tolerance is a sham and repressive like Marcuse did, e.g., safe-spaces, disdain absolute truth and collapse the distinction between subject and object, preferring subjective narrative to objective fact. SJWs are undoubtedly the children of the neo-Marxist Institute for Social Research.
They also are very much bastards. For while they are certainly intellectually descended from the likes of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse, many show they know nothing of their parentage. Sure, they wax about “being on the right side of history” and chant, plagiarizing Marx, “we have nothing to lose but our chains.” But for as much as Jonathan Butler, the hunger-striking student behind the University of Missouri protests last year, fancies himself a radical, does he really know what he primarily criticizes is what Marxists identify as the “superstructure” as differentiated from the “substructure” of society? If someone asked Trigglypuff what is Hegelian dialectic, should that person expect anything but a confused response along the lines of “Dia-what?” between exasperated shrieks of indignation. And while anti-racism activists get protective of black music as exclusive property of black culture, chastising whites for daring to cover particular songs that were apparently intended for black ears only, they seem way too comfortable with the status quo-reinforcing, praxis-stymying culture industry that drew Adorno’s ire.
Indeed, one of the hallmark differences between SJWs of today and their social justice forefathers is how provincial the latter are in their thinking compared to the former. Marx and his Frankfurt School disciples were Hegelian. They saw society as an intertwined, interacting “totality” of contradictory social relations of which everything exists as merely “moments” to eventually be negated, overcome and assimilated back into the whole to form a new, better, more rational status quo just until the same process of change, dialectic, begins again. On the contrary, as much as SJWs insist institutionalized oppression exists in the marrow of the West’s bones and proclaim the pervasiveness of “cultures of hate,” most never feel obligated to flesh out an underlying mechanism, as the Frankfurt school did, about how social injustice works.
Perhaps, as I strongly suspect, they don’t acknowledge this inefficiency in mere rhetoric and are mum about the details largely because they are not cognizant of these problems and don’t view social reality nearly comprehensively enough. For example, tut-tutting about whites culturally appropriating the black struggle via popular music affirms the freedom-crushing culture industry perpetuating false consciousness. Rather, most emote and have a penchant for anti-intellectualism masked by specialized academic jargon. If they do any critical thinking, it’s not dialectical. It’s easy to see they have almost nothing. What they do have, however, is a diluted Critical Theory, largely bereft of its intellectual context, nature and meaning, that they shamelessly appropriated.
Damning objections…for those who would raise them
Now, I anticipate an objection that SJWs, often being comprised of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, can’t culturally appropriate; they lack the institutional power, while Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, et al. – Germans that they were – were white and never faced oppression and discrimination. They had white privilege, so the retort goes.
But this dodge is so inept, it would further indict its user, betraying his ignorance, confirming his guilt of appropriation. Yes, the Frankfurt School was made up of people whom would be considered white, but they were also predominantly Jewish academics who lived in the death throes of the Weimar Republic. In the 1920s and early 30s, they witnessed the rise of Nazi fascism. They literally fled Germany in 1933 to avoid the persecution of the Third Reich. To claim that the members of the Frankfurt School never experienced anti-Semitism is unequivocally false.
Likewise, it’s equally dubious to declare, as I expect SJWs would do, America and the West as somehow qualitatively on par with or even worse than Nazi Germany, even in the regime’s early days prior to the Final Solution. After all, it is the progressive fashion to fetishize victimhood as virtue. In order to regain the moral high ground, they would try to out-victim the victims of Nazi institutionalized racism in an effort to once again to evade the charge of cultural appropriation. SJWs like Black Lives Matter would likely equate urban black communities as the new concentration camps. Others would cite Donald Trump and his base of “deplorables” as ascendant American fascism akin to Adolf Hitler and goose-stepping Brownshirts. These calumnies are so outrageous, they practically refute themselves in the view of anyone sensible and honest and fall one step short of Holocaust denial – talk about marginalizing the experiences of historically oppressed identities.
Consider the fact the members of the school departed Germany. Nazi authorities also shut down the Institute (Jay, 1996). On the contrary, SJWs today thrive on American campuses. They’re free to form their own organizations, institutions and do so unimpeded. Culture and gender studies departments face no impending threat of closure and seizure of research by a hostile government. Favored “diversity” or “cultural sensitivity” training curricula are commonly imposed on all campus students, staff and faculty. The social justice cause is funded on the taxpayer’s dime, no less.
Furthermore, before Adorno left Europe for America in 1938, Forward’s Benjamin Irvy (2015) quotes a letter to Horkheimer from Adorno therein which the latter predicted the Jews remaining in Germany would be “extirpated” (para. 6). Contrast this telling insight and the facts concerning the Institute members’ exodus, from not only Germany, but Europe as well, with the behavior of current SJWs. Many never truly leave their cushy university habitats, becoming “diversity” officers and such within the administrative leviathan; they are not bolting the country nor the continent despite professing fear of a rising authoritarian regime, comparable to Hitler, that’s proactively antagonistic to racial, sexual and religious minorities.
Despite persistent cries of enduring hourly oppression, their conduct strongly suggests life here is not nearly as unbearable as they assert. They say one thing, while their feet do another. Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and company literally fled for their lives. SJWs can find the time to hyperventilate about oppression in the form of Kylie Jenner sporting cornrows – that is privilege, and it doesn’t belong to Jenner. Indeed, the Kardashians are undoubtedly evil, but not Nazi-level evil. The point is the members of the Frankfurt School, being both Marxist and Jewish, weren’t afforded the same luxuries in pre-war Germany their spoiled 2016 counterparts, being superficially Marxist but often not Jewish, so thoughtlessly enjoy.
“…to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”
The Nazism, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism the Frankfurt School saw overtake Germany is crucial to understanding Critical Theory, especially the Institute’s analysis of American culture while in exile. In short, Critical Theory is essentially interconnected with Jewish identity, and the Institute members perceived it throughout American bourgeoisie culture. Ivry (2015) explains in his review of Jack Jacobs’ The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism:
Adorno wrote home to his parents in 1940: “Fascism in Germany, which is inseparable from anti-Semitism, is no psychological anomaly of the German national character. It is a universal tendency …The conditions for it – and I mean all of them, not only the economic but also the mass psychological ones – are at least as present [in America] as in Germany…and the barbaric semi-civilization of this country will spawn forms no less terrible than those in Germany” (para. 8).
Indeed, they were emotional about racism against Jews – Adorno perhaps most of all. According to Irvy (2015), the Critical Theorist opined, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (para. 10).
One wonders then how Adorno would feel about Kendrick Lamar’s Platinum-selling rap album, To Pimp a Butterfly, and its verses peddling the critical race theory-inspired diatribes that are popular today on the left. Then there are the demands, purportedly justified by critical race theory, for safe spaces segregating “people of color” from whites, many of whom could be Jewish in descent. Moreover, the conclusions of critical studies departments have become so reified as a form of “instrumental rationality” that people are literally re-educated and indoctrinated like when the Soviet Union transmitted to its denizens its ideology, the “vulgar Marxism” the Frankfurt School detested. This is nothing to say about the commodification of their intellectual tradition and lives’ work by university, government and big business bureaucrats. These entrepreneurs assume the Critical mantle but make a living selling “diversity” and multiculturalism to those who want to stay up to date with the latest political correctness fad.
Are these not examples of cultural appropriation, as so described by Ramsey, Blaque and Scafidi? They show sacred culture – intellectual property intimately tied to Jewish history as it relates to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust – demeaned by SJWs who stripped it from its philosophical and historical context and now implement it in ways its creators arguably would not have intended. Moreover, these hypocritical puritans are clearly more privileged than the people from whom they’re appropriating.
Self-liberation as oppression
Truly, it now seems the social justice that nominally references Critical Theory is oppressive by both the Frankfurt School’s and its own standards. So-called “self-liberation” is now the subjugation of not just dominant groups, but historically marginalized ones too. This is the new contradiction in the status quo, the cultural appropriation of Critical Theory, which seemingly demands now negation. The critical theory of the sort appropriated and employed by hordes of today’s facile SJWs is just a ideological veneer of objectivity to mask their wills to power for dominating and reshaping the world from the top downward.
The paradox, of course, escapes them, as most SJWs show no robust understanding of the radical thought to which they are indebted. Nevertheless, they face three options:
- A) Abandon social justice activity as the Critical enterprise it exists as today to preserve the injunction against cultural appropriation
- B) Abandon the injunction against cultural appropriation to preserve social justice activity as the Critical enterprise it exists as today
- C) Familiarize themselves with the literature of the Frankfurt School and become full-blooded, Hegelian-style Marxists to diminish their cultural appropriation
As a trilemma, none of the horns are appetizing. C) is embracing Marxism, the Dark Side of the Force. “Marx,” after all, is a dirty, four-letter word that brings to mind 100 million, discrediting it in the public eye. They wouldn’t want to be associated with its bloody rhetorical baggage. B) is the most palatable, but both it and A) would never happen.
SJWs won’t stop wielding Critical Theory and cultural appropriation as weapons out of some sense of intellectual honesty and upstanding rectitude. It’s not in their nature to desist and be content. Well, so be it because it’s now even harder to see why everybody else should heed their gnashing of teeth about anything, much less cultural appropriation. By all means, celebrate Cinco de Mayo by doing the Haka, kimono-clad, all the while taking Tengri’s name in vain.
Just some candy for thought.
Jay, M. (1996). The Dialectical imagination: A history of the Frankfurt school and the institute of social research, 1923-1950. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
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