Pop singer Ariana Grande is on the cover of this month’s Vogue, and, naturally, some folks have found something to complain about. Apparently, at least a few think that a deliberate effort to darken her skin color was made, presumably to look “black” (she is of Italian descent) to increase her cultural appeal.

Yeah, I know. My OFFS response probably mirrors yours, and I was ready to simply ignore it and move on with my life. I’ve got similar genes (I’m Greek) and have tanned darker than that without even trying.

In hearing the story, however, I recalled a bit about Scandinavian culture, called the Law of Jante (which I’ve discussed here before). It’s a societal norm that discourages exceptionalism and individualism, summarized in ten rules. Related to it are “crab antics,” which refers to the behavior of crabs in a bucket (they continually drag each other down as they each try to climb up, meaning none get out), and “tall poppy syndrome,” where those who stand out from the crowd are targeted for their excellence.

It used to be that imitation was considered the sincerest form of flattery (not that I believe the accusations leveled against Grande and Vogue), but now that cultural appropriation has become a cultural taboo, that idea has been flipped on its head, as evinced by this brouhaha over Grande’s skin tone.

Much of the anger and vitriol we see in such social and cultural media seems born of presumptions of legitimacy, cultural ownership, and authenticity (a joke, as one look at the Kardashian sisters’ (who I admire for their success and business savvy) plasticine ways demonstrates). You can’t sport dreads if you’re not of the right heritage, you can’t cook certain foods, you dare not speak certain words or in certain styles/cadences. You are in an illegitimately-conceived nation, “stolen” from its rightful owners. You’ve benefited from labor stolen from others, centuries ago, and owe their descendants recompense. Your success is based on the exploitation of others’ labor (no matter that they freely contracted with you), and therefore you have an eternal obligation to paying for it, via government. And on and on.

All these examples speak to an emerging cultural phenomenon, one that’s similar to, but not quite the same as, Scandinavia’s Law of Jante. What we are witnessing is the merging of “hanger-on” behavior, where people elevate themselves by riding others’ coattails, with a crab-antics-ish zero-sum view of success and with tall-poppy attacks. In dissing someone famous, you grab some of the eyeballs that were directed at him or her for yourself. In making authenticity/legitimacy challenges, you validate your attacks and elevate your identity group’s standing in the cultural hierarchy.

The Law of Jante, bleak as it is, at least provides a sense of cultural inclusion. In telling you not to rise above the pack, it asserts that you are nevertheless of the pack. This American Jante is, however, not just bleak, it’s also exclusionary. It is tribal warfare, where one tribe’s success can only be achieved via the tearing down of another tribe’s standouts. And, the tribes keep getting smaller and more numerous, as internecine squabbles lead to the increased granularity of identity politics. It’s a system that extols the greats of one’s own tribe and derides those of other tribes, for personal gain. It does so with absolutely no self-awareness, both in its dismissing of legitimate criticisms of its own and in the delegitimizing result of excessive criticisms of others.

Consider the parallels in attitudes towards Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both have blindly loyal followers, who brook no dissent or critique, no matter how reasoned or legitimate. Both have blindly dismissive skeptics/haters, who won’t concede a single positive observation. I don’t equate the two themselves, but the behaviors surrounding them are remarkably similar, and speak to this personal elevation via tear-down of another that’s at the heart of social media nowadays.

Back to Ariana. In an era where sexuality is a spectrum, where the media seem to work overtime to show us “mixed” couples (race/ethnicity and/or gender), and where mixed- or multi-race individuals are more and more common, America still has a very regressive view of race, especially when compared to a country like Brazil. One source puts it as “The United States has a color line, while Brazil has a color continuum.” Our cultural taste-makers may tout diversity and inclusiveness, but their reality is incredibly exclusionary and divisive.

That Ariana’s tanned skin tone prompts some to accuse her and Vogue of attempted cultural appropriation or racial deception is emblematic of an emerging cultural shift, one that rewards self-promotion at another’s expense.

This is American Jante, where people look to advance themselves by stealing from others’ success. And, it explains why socialism is suddenly popular again.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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