Several decades ago, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff contended that, in the West, the religious worldview that was concerned with personal salvation in God had been eclipsed by the therapeutic culture. The primary goal of this new, dominant culture is for the individual to feel good because there is “nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.” In the decades that have followed, Rieff’s thesis has been confirmed over and over.
For example, in 2005, Notre Dame sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton provided an illuminating window into the spiritual and religious lives of American teenagers with their book Soul Searching. Smith and Denton coined the term “Moral Therapeutic Deism” to describe the dominant religion of American teenagers. God’s role, for them, is not to bring about one’s redemption and sanctification, but instead, like a Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist, to make one “feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life.”
Today’s Woke mob have become the poster children for such narcissism. Ivy League professors Glen Loury and John McWhorter, who both happen to be black, recently pontificated on what they call “the warm cloak of victimhood.” They refer mostly to certain people of color who ascribe to themselves a dignity and nobility as “victims” when their diminished socio-economic status is more attributable to bad decisions they have made (e.g., dropping out of high school, out-of-wedlock births) rather than systemic racism.
The focus of this article, however, is on the white Woke and how they have sacrificed the Good and the True on the altar of feeling good—especially feeling good about themselves. This self-love can be seen through at least two lenses: (1) the religious; and (2) the dysfunctional family. This is by no means an exhaustive treatment but only a conversation starter.
Much has been written about the Woke religion. Years ago, Shelby Steele identified the phenomena of white guilt. This is behind much of the white Woke excusing the rioting and looting that took place after the George Floyd incident because of what they called blacks “enduring years of racial injustice.” On one level, it demonstrates the soft bigotry of low expectations in that blacks are held to a lower standard and not expected to follow the rule of law and protest peacefully. On another level, the white Woke, being aware of the racism of their forebears, can have their guilt expiated by excusing criminal behavior and supporting Leftist policies. All of this feels good, but it doesn’t do good.
Orthodox Catholics know how good it can feel after certain trips to the Confessional. You go in with a 500 lb. gorilla on your back and leave light as a feather. With the white Woke, expiation of guilt restores a kind of moral authority that was lost through slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining. They are imputed a certain kind of righteousness that causes them to become a part of the Woke Church, and, thus, stand in contradistinction to the non-Woke, what Hillary Clinton referred to as the “basket of deplorables.”
Belonging in the white Woke pays huge emotional dividends. The orthodox Catholic is gratified to learn in the Holy Writ that she is a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9); the white Woke feel good about themselves in knowing that they are not racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic, etc. They can hold their heads high as they sip their lattes at their local Starbucks and read The New York Times. It’s an identity by negation, and a moral superiority is cultivated that results in virtue signaling.
The Pharisees were ancient virtue signalers. They sought the praise of men by making their good deeds known to those around them. Rather than offering long, pretentious prayers in public places, the white Woke take to social media to let everyone know how righteous they are. And yet, like the Pharisees, there is a chasm between what they signal and how they live. One thinks of celebrities who decry gun violence on Twitter yet have armed bodyguards, or billionaires who go on and on about “diminishing our carbon footprints” on Facebook but globe-trot all over the world on jet airplanes.
The narcissism of the white Woke can also be seen through the prism of the dysfunctional family. John McWhorter is accurate in asserting that Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility infantilizes black people. For example, DiAngelo says that you should never cry in black people’s presence as you discuss racism, not even out of compassion, because then all the attention goes to you. It’s also a no-no to ask blacks about their feelings and experiences, because it isn’t their job to bring you up to speed. Instead, you should get educated through books and websites. Such inane directives make me think the book should be titled Black Fragility not White Fragility.
What would you call a family where the parents treat their 18-year-old son who is a senior in high school, and is not handicapped in any way, like a one-year-old? You would call that a dysfunctional family. Yet, in promoting such paternalism, DiAngelo not only reaps rewards in money, power, and notoriety, but it also pays significant emotional dividends.
By infantilizing blacks, she becomes the parent, and every parent knows what an immense source of meaning, purpose, and identity there is in the parent-child relationship. She feels good about herself in the care, concern, nurture, and protection of her children. She’s created a “crisis” in race relations and that crisis cannot be resolved without her seminars, speeches, and books. She’s the parent-hero. Since blacks are her children, they have no agency to solve their own problems and need a “Mom” to talk to white people about their “whiteness.”
Saying this gets me in trouble with “progressive” women without kids, but, over and over again, I’ve seen a misguided maternal instinct among them. Years ago, I noticed that the leaders of the animal rights movement were white liberal women without kids. It’s no accident that the size and scope of the U.S. government grew significantly when (liberal) women got the right to vote. The less fortunate became their children and progressive policies the means to address their deprivation.
When young women are radicalized at your typical public university, their professors provide them with an almost endless supply of victims/children from the vast storehouse of identity politics. I’ve seen a “Mama Bear” dynamic kick in. We all know what happens when a perceived predator gets between a female bear and her cubs. The “predators,” in this case, are anyone who opposes the Woke dogma. They must be cancelled.
As always, the best way for practicing Catholics to counteract the spirit of the age is by incarnating the opposite spirit. We see this in the biblical directives to return blessing for cursing, turning the other cheek, and turning away wrath with a calm answer. In an age of narcissism, this means dying to our own self-love by configuring our lives to the Passion. Yes, the Passion is about the forgiveness of our sins, but it is also about us being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).
The average husband or wife in the Domestic Church has ample opportunity to do this because so much of their day involves things that don’t make them feel good or feel good about themselves. It’s more about laying their lives down for others. He may work a job that is a “mixed bag,” but he endures because he needs to provide for his family; she feels neck deep in a quotidian of diapers and homeschooling but hangs in there because she has the vision of cultivating virtue in her children, whom she hopes will someday shine as lights in a dark world (Philippians 2:15).
It’s not a journey of self-discovery where they both learn to love themselves as the gurus of self-love promote; no, what they do often doesn’t feel good but it does good. It doesn’t pay emotional dividends in the present necessarily, but it lays up treasure in heaven where “in thy presence there is fulness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalms 16:11).
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