Cultural Condescension

In interviews with Eliot Cohen, the authors, Saldin and Teles (terrific book so far) quote him referring to Obama’s “cultural condescension” and to how furious people were with the Left’s “cultural condescension.”
Here is a foreign policy expert of the highest caliber taking the side of people whose rural, Evangelical, White values are offended by the urban, Black, secular values they see as dominating the country’s culture. OK.

But how does a guy like Cohen, who embodies the antithesis of the Trumper and general grass-roots values, speak to the notion that, in his words, Obama embodies cultural condescension? His background – Boston, secular Jew, Harvard, prominent Neo-Con…… prepare him to judge how Obama strikes or the Left in general strikes rural Evangelical White voters? Talk about arrogance! Oh, Obama embodies arrogance, too, according to Cohen. 

So let’s smooth out the distinctions between Neo-Cons and Conservatives for a moment and look at cultural condescension. Have you noticed how the supposed roots of American culture lie in the Christian West and go back to the Classical ideal and so on and so forth, evoking images of cathedrals and professors garbed in togas, may have arisen in response to the rise of Marxism but was shouted louder as the Civil Rights Movement gained ground and the culture became more and more inclusive of hitherto excluded people and the influx of non-Western immigrants swelled? Having become aware of these things in the 50s when the issue of the day was what we called integration, and later marrying into a Black family out of my own White working-class background, my antennae rose higher and higher as the backlash grew. So that words like The West were employed more often as code for White – and I think that has been occurring in Europe as well. 

A crucial difference between the U.S. and Europe the reaction of Blood and Soil conservatives is directed toward Muslims in Europe but toward African-Americans here in the U.S. Note that does not included Caribbean Blacks, African Blacks or Hispanics nor Native Americans – only Black Americans whose ancestry goes back to slavery. Here is not where I want to explain all that but suffice it to say the tension between “Whites” and “Blacks” in this country is a matter of caste, not class or race (again, the last term is normal in such discussions but I want to emphasize the distinction in attitudes toward Black Americans of Southern and slave origin versus other Black people). 

When we see cultural condescension in action on the Right we can search in vain, in my judgment, for similarly strong condescension on the Left. It certainly exists on the Left but it is very social, like when a friend of mine expresses total puzzlement at some features of my Midwestern, nominally Protestant, Appalachian-rooted upbringing and my wife’s Southern, rural, Black, Apostolic/Evangelical/Holiness upbringing; her dismay is genuine and features no hostility, just bewilderment that “anyone could think like that.” Contrast that with Roger Kimble, the literary critic who has gone to war against honoring James Baldwin and Toni Morrison as great writers, who approvingly, with a chuckle, quotes James Burnham regarding the emerging former colonies in African as consisting of “cannibalistic tribes and slave-holding nomads.” Condescension? Yes. But you have to connect that to his attitudes (expressed in an interview I have on tape) toward Black American authors. 

The other path to digging out these condescending masters of Western Culture is to read their writings and the writings of the “I remember him when….” type, back when what conservatives now call political correctness did not yet form part of the consensus on American values of equality, and you can read their “the Negro is not yet ready to take up the duties and responsibilities of full citizenship” dicta. What gave them their authority to pronounce dicta? Western Civilization to which they and only they were heir to, never mind the Black ministers well-versed in Latin and Greek authors, the professors of literature – always European – at HBCUs. 

Down to the most basic level, Cohen refers to Obama’s arrogance. Now arrogance is not something I associate with Obama; aloofness, yes. When Boston public schools were torn by racial strife I saw a young White girl interviewed who complained that “the Blacks walk around like they own the place.” Well, two things there: that is call Black style, something just about everybody has been picking up from videos and movies because it is very hip, cool, attractive…. and just how is someone supposed to respond when they know their very presence, their very existence, is an object of hatred? A private prep school education and a full scholarship to Occidental followed by a degree from Columbia and ending at Harvard Law might make someone a bit confidant and self-possessed. But on top of that, in Hawaii and in Chicago for sure Obama assimilated to many aspects of Black culture that were not available to him in his childhood. He capped it off by doing the sine qua non: joining a Black church; that is the seat and source of American Black culture. And no doubt about it, style is a part of that. 

I have a picture taken in the South in the 40s or so showing two groups of men standing next to each other, one group White, the other Black. The point of the photo was the role of posture in race relations: the White men were standing erect and the Black men were slouching. Anything less could have led to trouble for “sass.” The powerful scene in In the Heat of the Night, where Sidney Poitier, the Black detective from the North, is waiting for the train on the platform when the sheriff approaches him. Against all custom and common sense, Poitier rises to meet the sheriff eyeball to eyeball, a serious breach of race etiquette. Nowadays anyone under 60 would not notice.

So Obama had the arrogance to epitomize grace and sophistication – even wearing a tan suit – and displayed cultural condescension by not just reading books but by writing them. Silly? Vernon Jordan told the story of taking a summer job in the South for a White lawyer as his house servant. One day the lawyer found Jordan in his library browsing a law book. He asked Jordan if he were interested in the law and Jordan replied that he was a third year law student at DePauw. That night Jordan was serving the lawyer’s guests at dinner when the lawyer asked for attention and then announced that Vernon………. could read! A Negro that could read; that would be a topic of conversation for some time. But it is arrogant of us to think of people like that as being backward. How could we be that way when their White skin gives them a direct pipe line to Aristotle and Voltaire.

But we are culturally condescending.

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