Andy Schmookler: White privilege and the Right’s urge to kick down
In “More on the O’Reilly/Stewart Brouhaha: The Right-Wing Urge to Kick Down,” I offered one explanation of how non-rich white people can get motivated to kick down on those below them (especially blacks, but also any of those “takers” they like to contrast with the virtuous, hard-working people they like to see themselves as being). It is an old con job, where the dominant class sells a phony picture to induce one group of people they are exploiting to take their anger and frustration out on those below them.
Kick downward at the supposedly lazy, good-for-nothing poor, rather than protest upward at the source of the real injustice.
But that explanation doesn’t explain the impulse to kick down shown by the likes of Bill “What White Privilege?” O’Reilly, nor by the rich men with whom Mitt Romney sought to ingratiate himself with his “47%” comment.
Surely, part of the motivation for the distortion of reality is that the warped picture provides justification for the elite’s lack of compassion for those who suffer under their domination.
But something deeper is going on.
It is not only the poor who experience being the recipient of a downward kick. That template of the downward kick is so ingrained in the culture – at multiple levels, and especially in some parts of the culture – that even many who, in socio-economic terms, are in dominant positions have had profound experiences of that kick-down pain.
Consider, for example, the core of the worldview of many in our civilization – i.e. in the religious realm – captured in the famous phrase of that eighteenth century New England theologian, Jonathan Edwards: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
This idea expresses an important part of how, over the centuries, a large segment of white America has understood the nature of the relationship between man and God.
Christianity can, of course, express itself in other ways. In black churches, for example, it is not “an angry God” one hears about–at least judging from the many hours I spent attending services in black churches (mostly in Roanoke and Lynchburg, Virginia) during my campaign for Congress a couple of years ago.
In these services, I heard three main themes.
One was a theme of God’s love available as a comfort and a support in one’s suffering and despair. Even if one knew nothing of the historical and situational context of the congregation, one would know that this message was being delivered to people who were struggling, beaten down, in need of an infusion of hope.
A second was a theme of gratitude, calling upon the listeners to be thankful for the things that they do have–thankful for that morning, for the sunlight, for breathing, for each person among their friends and families. Even if one knew nothing of the context, one would intuit that it was important for their well-being for the people in the congregation not to focus on their deprivations.
And the third was a theme of possibility and responsibility, the idea that giving in to despair was not allowed, that an attitude of “yes I can” will carry you through, and that God is there to support you along the way. (No encouragement heard there for being a slacker, or a taker, or a parasite.)
Another thing I never heard a word of in a black church was any image of a wrathful God. (The world, perhaps, dishes out punishment enough. There’s no need to look to heaven to compound that burden.)
In white churches, over the generations in America, the message has very often been different. * [Note, below]
The notion that we are all deserving of damnation, and saved from eternal torment only through an undeserved granting of God’s grace, goes deep in the American religious tradition. Certainly not all white churches focus on the depravity of the human being and the wrath of God. But the sermons of “fire and brimstone” are still to be heard in America. And in any event, the echoes of that message still resonate in the culture.
These are not trivial beliefs. Core religious beliefs arise out of people’s core experiences of their reality. And then they in turn create fundamental templates for their reality.
In this context, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” represents a basic template for the kick-down nature of the hierarchical relationship. But as basic as it is, that template did not come from nowhere. It expressed something deep in people’s experience of the world.
It is revealing that this emphasis on human depravity emerged at the same time as certain areas of Western culture were fostering a particularly stringent set of moral demands. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism delineated how the take-off of capitalism, with its unprecedented productivity feeding a corresponding take-off in the wealth and power of nations, was made possible by an ethic of strict discipline, unceasing work, and denial of gratification in favor of continual investment.
In other words, the people who saw themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God” were people who had been compelled, as they grew up, to internalize a set of moral demands that was in conflict with their inborn needs and nature. Not for the first time in the history of civilization, power rested on a process of socialization that required the internalization of a judgment hostile to their natural inclinations.
The relation between God and man goes deep in a culture. But even more fundamental, I would argue, is the experience of the growing child of the relation between parent and child. The history of childhood in civilization contains many nightmares. One of these is the widespread experience of children, in many Western societies, growing up to be hyper-productive, hyper-responsible, hyper-repressed members of a society that worships the production of wealth. Or growing up to be repressed in the expression of their sexuality, or spontaneity, or other aspects of the human being’s inborn nature.
Such a kick-down process of socialization can be compared to the sadistic hazing of initiates into a club: as active members do unto the initiates as was done onto them, so also in a society with a harsh morality the parents will be driven by the impulse to replicate upon their own children the same kick-down energy that was inflicted on them when they were children. The parents are moved to this recapitulation not only by social pressure, but by the emotional forces growing out of their own unintegrated psyches.
It is therefore not at all surprising that it is in those parts of America that conceive of moral requirements in the most harsh and absolutist terms that we find the strongest impulse to deal with those below them not with compassion but with punitive demands.
Identifying during childhood with the punitive power, in order to escape the painful experience of being the one punished, and in order to fit into the harsh world, a person must live a lie — I am not the Sinner but the agent of the Angry God holding that sinner over the fire — and find outside himself a scapegoat onto whom to project the parts of the self that he has felt compelled to deny.
It’s a case of do unto others as has been done onto you.
And so here we have a substantial piece of the answer to the riddle with which we began: even if a person grows up to be rich and powerful, like O’Reilly and the Republicans listening to Romney about the irresponsible, dependent, slothful “47%,” the old pattern of (parental) power beating down (a child’s) weakness continues to foster the impulse to kick down.
There are two points here that are central to the overall themes of my “Press the Battle” series.
First, that there are patterns or templates that get transmitted through the human world, and that these patterns are key to understanding how “good” and “evil” (or the forces of wholeness and those of brokenness) operate in our world.
The “kick-down” template, described here, is but one of those templates by which the pattern of brokenness gets transmitted.
And second, that a key aspect of transmitting the pattern of brokenness is the inculcation of a harsh morality. A harsh morality requires the growing human being to internalize cultural demands that run contrary to the needs and nature of the human creature. This fosters a war within, which is brokenness at the psychological level. And this war within, in turn, ramifies back outward into conflict in the world.
The urge to “kick down” against the already downtrodden is one of the forms that outward ramification can take.
The “Press the Battle” series , which has been appearing here in installments, can also be seen in its entirety here.
*NOTE: Maybe an important reason for that difference — between black and white churches, in the tendency to envision an “Angry God” — is that the whites were required to identify with the powers above them, so that they would support the status quo. But the blacks –having been told that, while they were subject to the ruling system, they were emphatically not part of it — were dealt with differently: rather than being enlisted (manipulated) to support that system, as were the subordinated whites, the blacks were coerced into submitting to it. One might imagine that whether or not one identifies with the oppressive power structure dominating the secular world in which one lives will influence one’s likelihood of worshipping a wrathful God.