Nervous Laughter

Jun 11, 2008 | 

Adrianna Groth, Peter Wood

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Nervous Laughter

Jun 11, 2008 | 

Adrianna Groth, Peter Wood



Multiculturalism has been the reigning social ethos on college campuses—and in K-12 education—in the United States for over 20 years. Many college graduates aged 21-40 knew little else during their school years. How well did the multiculturalists succeed in planting their ideas? Has the multiculturalist ethos survived into the adult lives of its first generation of apprentices? 

The answer isn’t so easy to nail down. Perhaps the success of Barack Obama’s primary campaign with its “post-racial” theme is a clue, but of course, a politician’s rise involves many factors. Certainly we see multiculturalism’s lessons reflected in movies (Crash) and popular entertainment (The Office), but it is hard to tell how deeply this reflects public attitudes.

But in the last six months, pretty much by accident, a new gauge of the long-lasting effects of multiculturalist education has emerged. We speak, of course, of the phenomenally popular website, “Stuff White People Like.” 

Stuff is written as faux-anthropology, in the vein of the Colbert Report’s faux-news. In this case, the main author, “clander,” adopts the tone almost of a Martian explaining to his readers the quaint folk beliefs and odd customs of “white people.” But what he is really describing—in exquisite deadpan—are the social attitudes of American adults who have fully internalized the doctrines of multiculturalism. As often happens, a humorist turns out to be our best sociologist. If we want to know how the alumni of the Intergroup Dialog Project (“Problem: Growing tendency toward individualism in American society”) are faring at age 25, SWPL is a good place to look. If we want to know what the future held for grade school students who learned that “Differences Are GOOD!” during Wauwatosa grade school Breaking Down the Walls competition (first place in the April 2002 ThinkQuest USA website contest), SWPL holds up the telescope. 

Clander isn’t the only one who has noticed the salience of multiculturalism in the inner lives of young adults. Last September, Hans Riemer, National Youth Director for Barack Obama, announced,"This is the most diverse, multicultural generation ever; they embrace diversity, they think differences are cool. Young voters are turned off by anyone who is repulsed by differences."

But Clander knows things that even Riemer doesn’t.  For instance, he observes the fine-tuned sensitivity of “white people” to offenses:

Naturally, white people do not get offended by statements directed at white people.  In fact, they don’t even have a problem making offensive statements about other white people (ask a white person about “flyover states”).  As a rule, white people strongly prefer to get offended on behalf of other people.

This sort of sensitivity to insults about other people doesn’t spring out of nowhere. It takes years and years of education, topped by a college that emphasizes that “white people” own a history of oppression that cannot be overcome but may be partially atoned for by acts of penance. Taking offense at other whites on behalf of minorities is a start:

It is also valuable to know that white people spend a significant portion of their time preparing for the moment when they will be offended.  They read magazines, books, and watch documentaries all in hopes that one day they will encounter a person who will say something offensive.  When this happens, they can leap into action with quotes, statistics, and historical examples.  Once they have finished lecturing another white person about how it’s wrong to use the term “black” instead of “African-American,” they can sit back and relax in the knowledge that they have made a difference.

Some of Clander’s observations don’t look at first glance as dealing with the adult residue of multiculturalism. What, for example, is the multi-culti origin of an adult preference for childhood games?

By far, the easiest way to befriend a large group of white people is to organize and then participate in a game that is normally played by children. Unlike the practice of having their parents help with rent, this activity is a pleasant reminder to white people that they have not fully severed their ties with childhood.

Others have observed this preference too among the “grups.” What’s up with their tenacious grip on grade school games? It has something to do with pretend innocence—the one sure way to escape the omnipresent guilt of multiculturalism. 

Clander often frames his observations as instructions on how to get on “the good side” of white people, this being presumably a difficult task given their touchiness and pride in taking quick offense. The best ways to get on their good side involves various forms of flattery. Most “white people,” he suggests, wish to appear cultured, unique, smart, and globally aware (and, it goes without saying, more cultured, unique, etc., than other white people). Here we see white people’s insidious tendency towards individualism sneaking back in. Try as they might to live up to the group-identity ethic of multiculturalism, their competitive individualism keeps breaking through in a hopelessly white “I’m more multiculturalist-than-thou” impulse.

Clander, whose real name is Christian Lander, began his blog in January, which has since logged over 30 million visitors. In February, he told the LA Times:

Too many white people don’t like to be reminded that they’re white. They like to think that white people are those evil corporate right-wingers or the uneducated masses who vote the wrong way. But 'enlightened whites' are white people too and have just as much of a group mentality as they think the red staters have.

In other words, Clander’s “white people” doesn’t really mean white people in general. White people in general don’t have a collective identity, but white kids who have been though a multiculturalist education definitely do. They have spent sixteen years or so being taught they are “white,” and challenged to do something (repent!) about it. “Enlightened whites,” Clander’s target, didn’t just wander into “enlightenment.” They were coached, coaxed, cajoled, coddled, deconstructed, edified, fairy-taled, goaded, harried, and indoctrinated into their unending pursuit of cultural forgiveness. 

Clander, 29, was born and grew up in Toronto, but now lives in LA. He told a Toronto newspaper, the Torontoist, “I'm writing about the white people who think they're absolutely unique and individual. I'm calling them out and poking fun of myself.” His characterizations ring true and his ability to strike that note may make him rich. Even if the copious advertisements on the website don’t prove profitable, Random House advanced him $300,000 to publish a book Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions, to be released July 1.

Some of Clander’s observations touch directly on higher education. He notes right and wrong subjects for “white” students to pursue:

Though professional graduate schools like law and medicine are desirable, the true ivory tower of academia is most coveted as it imparts true, useless knowledge. The best subjects are English, History, Art History, Film, Gender Studies, <insert nation> Studies, Classics, Philosophy, Political Science, <insert European nation> Literature, and the ultimate: Comp Lit. MFA’s are also acceptable.

What about the Ivy League? Well, Clander says that white people have mixed feelings towards the prestigious schools they couldn’t get into:

Once you have determined that a white person did not attend an Ivy League School, you should try to give them the opportunity to explain why their school was actually a superior educational experience. Some easy ways to do this are to mention grade inflation, professors who value research over teaching, or high tuition costs. Any one of these will set a white person off on a multi-minute rant.

Always helpful, Lander then advises his imaginary ethnic audience that, 

If you actually went to an Ivy League school, you will been seen as a threat so prepare for a lot of questions from white people….They will try so hard to figure out your SAT score. They desperately need a source of comparison so that they need to figure out if you are actually smarter than them. In fact, the only way to stop this line of questioning is to imply that you only got in because of your minority status. Once you say that, white people will stop feeling threatened since they can now believe they too would have been accepted to an Ivy League school if they were a minority. It also gives them a personal story about the effectiveness of Affirmative Action.

Here, in an apotheosis of shame, is a recipe for apologetic living. Convinced that every luxury was deceitfully won, young Americans who are ashamed to be white commit little acts as penance for the perceived sins of their race. Recycle a plastic bottle, vote for affirmative action, and only drink shade-grown, bird-friendly, fair-trade, certified organic coffee. 

In his post on vegetarianism among white people who nonetheless enjoy organic chicken, Clander reaches the Conradian Heart of Whiteness, “Yes, these white people are wracked with guilt knowing that they are eating a dead animal, contributing to rainforest deforestation, and global warming.”

In the Torontoist interview, Clander cuts to the core of his generation’s ethos:

We have a generation of white people who want nothing more than to distance themselves from being white. They need to believe that the earth is being destroyed by evil white people, culture is ruined by the wrong kind of white people, and that history's sins were committed by distant relatives. And so by eating at ethnic restaurants, travelling, trying to save the world, you can say that “I'm part of the solution, if everyone were like me, the world would be so much better.” I think that attitude lends itself to pretty easy satire.

We commend Stuff White People Like for Clander’s well-crafted irony. He is holding up a mirror to a generation which is nervously laughing at its own image. In some small way, Clander makes the broken-wall, Intergroup Dialog, difference-is-cool alumni of our great experiment in fostering multiculturalism feel a little guilty. Which, of course, is the emotional state they find most congenial. 

We at NAS, however, recognize the difficulty we have of speaking to members of this generation. What chance do we have as an organization that stands for individualism, the importance of a shared culture that transcends race and identity group, and the need for intellectual inquiry that shuns ideological posturing? In this regard, we are grateful for Clander’s help.

Hey, anyone want to come to the NAS Twister™ tournament?

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