We have enabled a culture of patricide.
In a recent appearance on CBS Mornings, Colin Kaepernick—who traded in a brief career as an NFL quarterback for what is, in the America of 2023, a still-more-lucrative opportunity to become a high-profile professional malcontent—was interviewed about the contents of his new graphic novel memoir. In it, and in the interview as well, he accused his adoptive parents, who are white, of racism. Their crime? Trying to protect him from himself and make sure he looked presentable.
When he, as a kid, is trying to emulate his role model, former NBA player Allen Iverson, and wants to get cornrows, his mother, in one panel in the graphic novel, says “He’s getting what rolls?” Kaepernick said in the interview that she told him, “Oh, your hair’s not professional. You look like a little thug.” A few decades later, he still hasn’t gotten over it. His mother’s comments are part of why he now wears his hair long, he explained.
This newest instalment in Kaepernick’s sad saga is more than merely anecdotal; it is emblematic, archetypical. A man who subjects his own adoptive parents to public accusations of racism and constructs his identity around his rebellion against their tutelage is a living symbol of the spirit of our present age. Meghan Markle presents another, still-more-glaring exemplar of the same phenomenon. Realizing she was more comfortable in the role of a figurative coddled “princess” than the role of an actual princess, which—she discovered to her chagrin—saddles one with strict norms of behavior and burdensome royal obligations, Markle has become a serial offender in this regard. Like Kaepernick, her foremost claim to fame arises from her sensational and ongoing rejection of her family. Already embroiled in a public feud with her father, she proceeded to: defect from the family into which she had married, levelling, like Kaepernick, charges of racism against it; turn her back on and leave the nation to the symbolic stewardship of which she had ascended, levelling charges of racism (“structural racism”) against it too; return to the U.S., promptly accusing the U.S. of racism as well; and then, along with her husband, decide, again, like Kaepernick, to make the profitable enterprise of racism-grifting into something of a métier.
Besides sharing their conspicuous casting off of a privileged existence to adopt, instead, the still-higher species of privilege conferred by claimed victimhood, Kaepernick and Markle share another interesting feature in common: Despite their death-grip upon a constructed “black” identity, they are both mixed-race, i.e., half-black and half-white. That predicament presents another invitation for us to allegorize: It as though life has perched these figures at the edge of a tenuous balance, leaving them to choose between two worlds.
And between two worlds, though not black and white, is where our society presently finds itself. Intermediate gradations aside, there are fundamentally two kinds of people: those who embrace their patrimony and those who reject it. We can keep the faith and honor our ancestry, or we can defy, traduce, and desecrate it. It is no accident that the Bible refers to the creator God as “the Father,” while Satan—especially as vividly depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost—is the ultimate rebel against God’s paternity.
But things are never this simple. Theologically barred from giving his distant, all-powerful God much in the way of likeability or personality, which would have entailed giving him all-too-human flaws, Milton, likely unwittingly, cast his vividly painted figure of Lucifer as a fallen tragic hero rebelling against oppressive authority. The generation of Romantics who came a century later recognized as much. As the iconoclastic William Blake famously proclaimed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “[t]he reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
Fittingly, the Romantics found inspiration in the civilization-upturning French Revolution and composed mythologies of the sacred Self, the individual protagonist, at home within nature but at odds with authority, the accretions of civilization, and the established order of things. Whatever we might say of their politics, they produced poetry that was compelling, to say the least. They hit upon something universal.
Whether figured as Moses, Jesus, Prometheus, Socrates, Brunhilda, Romeo and Juliet, Gandhi, or Rosa Parks, the courageous rebel defying authority has long been a kind of exalted heroic archetype — the archetype of the Outlaw in Jung’s typology. If children never rebelled and never rejected their parents’ ways, things would get stale in a hurry. If children lived out their lives the same way their parents lived out theirs, we would still be mired in the stone age. Dynamism requires some degree of rejection and rebellion, and even revolutionary change is sometimes called for. This, after all, is a nation forged of a revolution. And would we not, even now, welcome a revolution in which the citizens of a nation like North Korea overthrow their repressive regime? Those courageous enough to lead such revolutions are heroes in our eyes.
The point, then, is not that those who honor and obey are necessarily good while those who rebel are invariably ingrates and evildoers. An evil society needs rebels galore, but even a healthy society maintains the necessary balance between stability and progress when there are a few rebellious outlaws seeded among its many dutiful and loyal sons. Today, however, we are rapidly reaching a tipping point where we have many of the former and increasingly few of the latter.
We have created a culture in which adopting the victim-rebel pose, denouncing and lashing out against one’s parents, one’s nation and one’s civilization is just the thing one does to be one of the cool kids. Conversely, we now risk our future, both personal and professional, not by rebelling against the past and the present but by pointedly refusing to rebel; to honor our parents and their legacy paradoxically represents the ultimate form of rebellion. That there is something deeply amiss in such a state of affairs is obvious. A society cannot long survive when its dominant ideology is patricide.
Colin Kaepernick and Meghan Markle were, of course, wealthy, successful individuals before they ever claimed victimhood. This is part of the irony: So many of those who adopt the victim pose and cause in America today seem to emanate from the class of rich, educated social elites, whereas it is largely the poor and powerless who are in the infamous “basket of deplorables” to be condemned.
Because they represent the powerful in-crowd rather than any beleaguered outgroup, much less lone voices in the wilderness, our modern-day would-be rebels and their gestures of defiance should make us wince. It is as though there exists a fundamental mismatch between the costumes they have donned and the actual role they are playing. Beneath their heroic armor with gleaming show-muscles are fragile, manipulative narcissists glomming on to popular memes and making a show of victimhood to win plaudits from the would-be lynch mob in the cheap seats. In contrast to true martyrs, who champion viewpoints that oppose dominant ideologies, today’s victim-rebels ride the coattails of already-regnant ideologies, such as “antiracism,” using these as swords to skewer others and then throw them to the wolfish enforcers of the orthodoxy, ever-eager to devour what remains.
The actual rebel-heroes of history, religion, and myth—Moses, Jesus, Prometheus, et al.—risked bodily harm and even death to defy authority and faced their fate with the strength of those who know that the truth they stand for will not perish with them. Today’s victim-rebels, on the other hand, have tethered themselves to our deep-seated, longstanding positive associations with the martyr pose in order to win our approval, but without making any of the sacrifices real martyrdom requires. They like to talk of “harm” to themselves but rarely if ever are exposed to the true risk of any such harm.
Like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez contending that she had feared for her life and that she had hidden in the bathroom during the January 6 riots despite never actually having been in the besieged Capitol building that day—part of a larger pattern in which she likes to imagine herself as a martyr and has claimed to fear for her life ever since her 2018 election to Congress—Meghan Markle, Colin Kaepernick, and other, similar contemporary victim-rebels have made elaborate shows of being victimized, and used such gestures to gain advantage or turn a profit. In contrast with the notable stoicism of true martyrs, these martyr manqués have availed themselves of trivial incidents—a mother’s concern about a hairdo, a British royal’s musing about the skin color of a potential child-to-be—to enact elaborate passion plays with them cast as querulous dramatic leads. Then, like the notorious Superbowl Pepsi ad trying to commodify protest, they have rapidly parlayed their claimed victimhood into careers, books, Netflix specials, apparel sales, and so on.
Their parents, meanwhile—whether their literal parents or their adoptive parents or their greater national patrimony—have been, in the process, turned into stepping stones, props, or worse, undeservedly thrust into the villain’s role in the melodrama for the sake of giving the victim-rebel some windmills to tilt at on the way to greener pastures.
As the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have documented in charting the transition from pre-modern honor culture to modern dignity culture to contemporary victimhood culture, by constructing a society within which a claim of victimhood confers a kind of sacrosanct status it is improper to question (i.e., “believe all women”), we have enabled the worst tendencies of manipulative narcissists, even while disabling ourselves from offering what would have been our natural human response when people engage in unseemly public denunciations of family members, friends, colleagues, and countrymen. Consistent with this state of affairs, narcissism has risen precipitously and empathy declined substantially among younger Americans over the course of the past 30 years.
The psychologist Sam Vaknin paints a clear picture for us of where we now stand and what our future portends if we do not awaken from our slumber in a hurry:
These people are actually very narcissistic, very grandiose, extremely aggressive, lacking in [empathy] of any kind, and yet they claim they have been victimized all their lives … and they are proud of their victimhood…. [S]tudies in Canada and elsewhere ha[ve] shown that, very fast, very soon, within usually two to three years maximum, victimhood movements, such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and so on, get hijacked by narcissists and psychopaths…. The infiltration of these narcissists and psychopaths is universal in all these victimhood movements, and they become the public face of the movement…. It’s very dangerous because if you are [a] perennial victim, if this is your identity, you are defined by your victimhood…. You would tend to feel entitled to special treatment, and if you don’t get this special treatment, you will become aggressive. This is the irony…. The potential for aggression and even violence in victimhood movements is much larger than in the general population. And even I would go as far as saying that it’s equal to psychopathic movements, for example, the Nazi movement…. Of course, the Nazi[s] [were] a victimhood movement. They presented themselves as victims of the Versailles agreement, of the world order. Germany was discriminated against — and look where it led. Similarly, communism was a victimhood movement. The proletariat was exploited by the landowners and the industrials and so on. We need to redress grievances. Anything that is grievance-based leads to violence and death. End of story. All death cults start as victimhood movements.
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We can now recognize, with this stark unveiling of the true political valence of their plaintive outcries in mind, that the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Meghan Markle follow in the footsteps not of Jesus, Socrates, or Rosa Parks, but rather, of the notorious Pavlik Morozov, a 13-year-old boy who, in the Soviet Union of 1932, publicly denounced his own father for the latter’s aid to fugitive kulaks (rich peasants) who were being expropriated and persecuted by Stalin. Pavlik’s father was imprisoned and then put to death, and Stalin, while having Pavlik officially exalted for his patriotic deed, is said to have remarked, privately, “What a little swine, denouncing his own father!”
Too many Americans today have no hesitation in mustering up Stalin’s grotesque public exaltation for the posturing victim-rebels among us, but have difficulty accessing Stalin’s far more human private reaction of revulsion at an act so repugnant to the natural order of things. In his own society, Stalin was not alone in expressing such disgust. The end of the Pavlik Morozov story goes like this: A bunch of his relatives, none too pleased with his diligence in service of communism, decided to get together to excise the cancer in their midst and hacked little Pavlik to death. I do not quite wish such a cruel fate upon the likes of Ms. Markle and Mr. Kaepernick.
But we must begin with the recognition of our own complicity, of our own responsibility for enabling, through our continued silence, a state of affairs where people can aspire to social credit and cash profit by betraying their family and their nation or by turning family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances over to the mercy of the mob. A truth and reconciliation process after genocide has already occurred comes far too late, of course. We must begin our own cleansing process now, before we all have blood on our hands. We must scrutinize our present-day “heroes” and see ourselves and our values reflected in them. And, though our wayward sons and daughters may turn away from us and wage war on their own paternity, we must refuse to let go and say, with Shakespeare’s Prospero, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”