The obverse of this self-congratulatory instinct is the liberal's habit of seeking out villains to denounce as benighted, intolerant and mean-spirited. James Taranto observed one such example in the case of a Denver Post columnist who waxes indignant over an allegedly racist incident at her health club:
One of the employees was checking the tea and noted out loud that they were out of black tea. To the other server, she made a joke about ordering some more "Obama tea."(Via Instapundit.) Now, there are several questions here. Was the health-club employee's reference to black tea as "Obama tea" self-evidently racist? Better yet (and this is a question seldom asked) what exactly do we mean by "racist" in such a context? And perhaps best of all, in what sense is this kind of "racism" actually harmful to anyone?
On this day, of all days, I could not turn away, pretend I didn't hear.
My pulse raced a little. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. In the larger scheme of things, calling her on it was a small act.
Think about it: This "Obama tea" remark was made by an employee of a health-club snack bar, someone who probably makes about $10 an hour. The snack-bar employee is being denounced by a style columnist for the Denver Post who makes at least twice as much, and whose social influence and prestige is infinitely greater. The influential columnist is afflicting the afflicted, so to speak, by picking on a low-wage laborer who almost certainly intended no harm with her stupid joke.
It is, of course, entirely possible that this snack-bar employee is a genuine bigot. But even if she were, if we borrow the Left's formulation that racism equals prejudice plus power, what sort of power is exercised by someone earning $10 an hour serving protein smoothies in a health-club snack bar?
This is not about her. Even if the employee's joke represents real prejudice, the purpose of the columnist's denunciation is not to make a statement about the snack-bar worker. Rather it is the columnist making a statement about herself: "Look at me! I am a courageous crusader for social justice!"
If there is one lesson you should synthesize from this incident, it is this: When someone points the accusing finger at "racism," a reasonable person must examine the motives of the accuser. And this is what Sowell does in The Vision of the Anointed. Sowell shows that when the anointed adopt as "mascots" various oppressed victim groups -- the homeless, the mentally ill, AIDS sufferers -- what they are doing is using those people as symbols. Advocacy on behalf of "mascots" serves to demonstrate the enlightenment of the anointed, and denunciation of allegedly oppressive "targets" serves the same purpose.
Thus, a crusade to distribute free condoms in San Francisco serves the same purpose as a crusade to provide legal protection for illegal immigrants: These crusades function as demonstrations of the moral superiority of the crusaders.
This is why liberals become so furious when you try to draw them into a discussion of the actual merits of their crusades. The simplest question -- "Are gay men in the Castro district so impoverished that they can't afford to buy their own condoms?" -- is enough to spur the liberal into a vehement denunciation of your homophobia. Nothing you can say in your own defense will persuade the liberal to abandon his idee fixe. Opposition to his policy is synonymous with fear and hatred of gay people, and on sober reflection you realize that the liberal isn't really interested in policy qua policy. He is a moral narcissist engaged in displaying his own "tolerance" and "sophistication."
Crusading on behalf of "mascots" allows otherwise privileged people to co-opt the Complete Moral Authority of the victim, to bask in the warm glow of reflected glory of the oppressed. (A point that Ann Coulter makes in Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and Their Assault on America.) And so the style columnist for the Denver Post -- a privileged white woman -- stages her own little psychodrama by taking a courageous stand against a $10-an-hour snack-bar worker who lamely jokes about "Obama tea."
The half-Kenyan son of a Harvard-educated economist is thus converted into a proxy for 40 million African-Americans, and an unfunny joke -- the tea is black, Obama is black, LOL -- must be denounced as "blatantly racist" (to quote the columnist) so that we can be piously lectured:
If those of us who are offended by bigotry don't speak up, if we don't examine our own assumptions about race, how will the offenders ever get the message?As interesting as it might be to learn more about how Kristen Browning-Blas has examined her "own assumptions about race" -- out there in the blindingly Caucasian state of Colorado (90% white, 4% black) -- it is reasonably safe to surmise that she's never even scratched the surface, that her "assumptions" are those of millions of others of privileged white liberals who think their vaunted humanitarian benevolence (dare I call it "pity"?) toward black people is both necessary and courageous.
The Kristen Browning-Blases of the world wear their moral narcissism like a warm sweater, secure in the assumption that their goodwill is beyond interrogation. They are the bien-pensants, smugly condescending with "the courage of their convictions" by lending their moral superiority to assist those whom they patronizingly assume are incapable of acting on their own behalf. And if you call their bogus philanthropy what it really is -- a manifestation of what Shelby Steele identifies as White Guilt -- they will lash out to denounce you as an uncaring bigot.
It's not about you any more than it's about that poor snack-bar worker who made that stupid joke. It's not about you, it's not about Obama, it's not about racism. It's about them, the anointed.
It is never enough for the anointed to congratulate themselves on their moral superiority. Rather, they must strut about on the stage, inviting us all to applaud them for it. You can applaud Kristen Browning-Blas if you wish, but that's not my cup of tea.