The Almighty is not a liberal… The Almighty is the driving force for the entire universe and the universe is not a very liberal place. That is what the modern world seems not to understand….
Simon Mawer, The Gospel of Judas
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Complaints about privilege are really complaints about power. How did privilege and power come to be conflated? Let’s begin with an authoritative definition* of privilege:
A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by a person, or a body or class of persons, beyond the common advantages of others; an exemption in a certain case from certain burdens or liabilities.
Are all privileges unjust? Do privileges necessarily confer power or arise from it?
Good Privilege and Days of Yore
There was a time when most privileges were neither unjust nor a sign of power: when younger men ceded their seats on buses to older persons and pregnant women, when a man could hold open a door for a woman and be thanked for it instead of being repaid with a stony glare or silence; when a fit person would cede a seat to a crippled one; and so on.
Was there anything wrong with such behaviors? Only a revisionist who views the world through contemporary mores (of a politically correct hue) would think so. Such behaviors were in fact widely practiced and accepted as fitting and proper. They were not condescending or demeaning. They did not confer power or arise from it, except to the extent that persons who had the power to grant them did so voluntarily and out of pity or respect for those who received them. But the grantors’ power was only situational, not general. A better word for it would be opportunity, as in the opportunity to do a good deed for a fellow human being.
The Decline of Civility and the Rise of Big Government
Such behaviors have gone out of style, or nearly so, not because they were considered improper but because manners have coarsened. Manners have coarsened because people — not all people but too many of them — have become self-centered and inconsiderate of others. My view is that the rise of the “me” generation in the 1960s curtailed instances of public kindness, thus producing fewer instances of good manners that might be copied and repeated, thus leading to the further recession of good manners, etc.
The “me” generation didn’t arise spontaneously. Its rise was an integral part of the breakdown of the social fabric that big government has abetted and encouraged. What breakdown? Anthony Esolen describes it all too well:
[W]hen we ask, “Why are the churches empty?” we might also ask, “Why are our public buildings so ugly? Why do we no longer have any folk art to speak of? Why do neighbors not know one another? Why are there no dances for everyone of all ages to enjoy? Why is the sight of a young lad and lass holding hands as rare now as public indecency used to be? Why is no one getting married? Why have family trees turned into family sticks, or family briars?
“Why are there so many feral young men and women, tattooed and slovenly, loitering about shopping malls or slouching towards the internet for their porn? Why are there so many old neighborhoods, roads, and bridges crumbling, while millions of young men are unemployed or, worse, unemployable? Why do so many teachers believe it their duty to tear down the glories of their own civilization, calling it ‘critical thinking,’ without a passing thought as to what will remain in their place? Who are what used to be called the ‘leading men’ of an ordinary town? Are there any? Who are what used to be called ‘city fathers’? Are there any?
“Where are the songs of yesteryear? Where are the poems? Where are the holidays? What happened to the parades and the marching bands?
“What virtue do we honor, other than what we call tolerance, which turns out not to be tolerance at all but the ‘virtue’ of demanding that there should be no honor granted to virtue?” [“What Is a Healthy Culture?,” The Imaginative Conservative, June 16, 2015]
Walter Williams puts it this way:
A civilized society’s first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions, rules of etiquette and moral values. These behavioral norms — mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings — represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots, such as thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not cheat. They also include all those courtesies that have traditionally been associated with ladylike and gentlemanly conduct.
The failure to fully transmit these values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” People in this so-called great generation, who lived during the trauma of the Great Depression and fought World War II, not only failed to transmit the moral values of their parents but also are responsible for government programs that will deliver economic chaos….
For nearly three-quarters of a century, the nation’s liberals have waged war on traditional values, customs and morality. Our youths have been counseled that there are no moral absolutes. Instead, what’s moral or immoral is a matter of personal opinion. During the 1960s, the education establishment began to challenge and undermine lessons children learned from their parents and Sunday school with fads such as “values clarification.” So-called sex education classes are simply indoctrination that undermines family and church strictures against premarital sex. Lessons of abstinence were considered passe and replaced with lessons about condoms, birth control pills and abortions. Further undermining of parental authority came with legal and extralegal measures to assist teenage abortions with neither parental knowledge nor parental consent….
If it were only the economic decline threatening our future, there might be hope. It’s the moral decline that spells our doom. [“Culture and Social Pathology,” creators.com, June 16, 2015]
Williams hints at the role of government in the sundering of the social fabric. Let’s spell it out. As government has become all-powerful and crushingly intrusive (with respect to Americans, if not with respect to their enemies) personal responsibility and the civilizing bonds of society have been replaced by dependency on the state and the use of its power to advance the interest of some at the expense of all. (See “The Interest-Group Paradox” for more about this phenomenon and its folly.)
The privileges that are accorded out of kindness, of which I wrote earlier, arise from civil society, and they are dying with it. People seem less willing than they were in the past to accord such privileges to others.
Privilege as a Dirty Word
With the withering away of civil society, privilege is now thought of mainly as something that someone demands or takes because of his rank, socioeconomic status, gender, or race. Privilege-taking was widely scorned until the arrival of the age of identity politics. Consider the phrase “rank has its privileges” (RHIP), which is a term of derogation that applies where persons of high status (judges, elected officials, corporate executives, military “brass”) enjoy perquisites or escape punishments because of their status.
Then there’s the case of the “privileged brat” — a young person who acts haughtily toward others. This is usually someone whose parents are affluent and on whom the parents have lavished money (or the things that it can buy) — someone, in other words, who has come to think of himself as “special” and whose wishes are to be taken as commands by others. I could add examples, but they would be of the same type: the privilege-taker who exploits his status to demand things of others.
Who are today’s dominant privilege-takers?
Is a white person — better yet, a straight, white male of European descent (preferably non-Mediterranean) — necessarily privileged in either sense discussed here: a beneficiary of privileges voluntarily accorded by others or a privilege-taker who demands and receives favors based on his race, gender, and ethnicity?
If you select either answer you’re making the grievously wrong generalization that all heterosexual, white males of non-Mediterranean European descent (hetwhims for short) are not alike. Further, many hetwhims who seem to be “privileged” owe their privilege to causes other than gender, race, and ethnicity: Intelligence, other innate traits, and hard work should come to mind. (If you say, factually, that whites of European descent are generally smarter than, say, persons of African descent, you are unlikely to be a person who pigeonholes all hetwhims as “privileged.”)
Let’s make it real by asking if the following types of hetwhim are privileged:
- a redneck hetwhim of below-average intelligence who comes from a poor Appalachian family
- any hetwhim of average or below average intelligence who comes from a family with below-average income
- a hetwhim who has been denied a job or promotion for which he was, objectively, the best candidate because he was competing with non-hetwhims, especially blacks, women, or — nowadays — homosexuals
- a hetwhim who has a mental or physical condition that makes it impossible for him to enjoy what passes for a normal life
- a hetwhim who is actively discriminated against in a university setting — as a student, professor, or prospective professor — because of his gender, color, and sexual orientation and not because of his actual beliefs or qualifications
- one of the tens of millions of hetwhims in the United States who simply does the best he can with his mental and physical endowment, and whose achievements are due to those endowments and his efforts, plain and simple.
Blaming any of them for what befalls others — usually because of their own faults and failings — is nothing less than blaming the blameless. (See my post, “Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck.”)
The Hypocrisy of the Truly Privileged
The stereotyping of hetwims as privileged is laughable when it is done by affluent hetwims in the media and academia. It is especially laughable when it is done by privileged members of the so-called victim groups: the president and his wife, many cabinet members and other high officials, many members of Congress, their counterparts at the State and local levels, a disproportionately high percentage of functionaries at all levels of government, and on and on throughout the ranks of business, the media, and academia. Beginning with the president, these privileged masses include more than a fair share of mediocrities who would not be where they are if they had to rely on their natural endowments, and if they could not exploit the misplaced guilt that underlies political correctness, affirmative action, and other modes of injustice.
“Injustice” is an apt word:
The obsession of seeing everything in race-coloured terms is itself racist. Anti-racism pursed by zealots transforms itself into the very vice it deplores. This is the cost of identity politics, and its close bedmate, victimology enterprises — the desire to judge, define, represent and indict the individual by the group he or she belongs to. Every human being’s experience in its infinite particularities and potentials transcends category. [Rex Murphy, “‘White Privilege’ on the March,” The National Post, May 15, 2015]
Another apt word is “payback.” The non-victims of non-privilege — with the considerable aid of their privileged allies on the left — are in the process of paying back tens of millions of hetwhims for their imagined sins. Payback may be cathartically pleasurable, but it isn’t justice — social, racial, or other. It’s just plain vindictiveness.
What about “fairness,” which is a favorite word of the racism-sexism-social-justice warriors? “Fairness” is the first refuge of the envious and their morally corrupt allies on the left. Whenever I hear “It just isn’t fair to [insert name of “victimized” group],” I think of a petulant child who lost a game because of his own lack of skill.
* * *
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
Liberty and “Fairness”
The Adolescent Rebellion Syndrome
The F-Scale Revisited
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
The State of the Union 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Government vs. Community
The Left’s Agenda
More Social Justice
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
An Economist’s Special Pleading: Affirmative Action for the Ugly
Nature is Unfair
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Genetic Kinship and Society
America: Past, Present, and Future
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Left-Libertarians, Obama, and the Zimmerman Case
“Conversing” about Race
The Fallacy of Human Progress
Political Correctness vs. Civility
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
“We the People” and Big Government
Evolution and Race
The Culture War
The Fall and Rise of American Empire
Some Inconvenient Facts about Income Inequality
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
“Wading” into Race, Culture, and IQ
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
Round Up the Usual Suspects
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
My View of Libertarianism
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
A Cop-Free World?
Nature, Nurture, and Inequality
The Real Burden of Government
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge
How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression
Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America
The Gaystapo at Work
The Gaystapo and Islam
1963: The Year Zero
* The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: The Oxford University Press, Sixth Printing in the United States, September 1973), Volume 2, p. 2307, at 3.