The minds of American college students are like jello. So said Camille Paglia, via yesterday's post. If this is true—and I have every reason to believe that it is—we should be very skeptical of an idea that has recently occupied said minds. That would be the idea of “white privilege.” Or, if you prefer: privilege.
Somehow, Joy Pullmann argues, conservatives and those who oppose the idea have been notably silent.
Why are the jello-like minds of American students enthralled by the idea of privilege? Perhaps they have taken the idea of equality too literally.
By indulging in an idolatrous worship of the god of equality they can rail against the fact that members of one family have more skill at mathematics while members of another are more talented at spatial reasoning.
If they come from a privileged background themselves—many of them do—they can feel a typically adolescent contempt for their parents. This contempt merges ingratitude with self-loathing.
What better description of the soul of the American college student.
Privilege theory does not merely ignore whatever our genetic inheritance but it takes special offense at the fact that parents might wish to earn a living in order to provide their children with a better upbringing. They might be more motivated to work for the benefit of their children than they would be to work for their own personal benefit or for the benefit of your children
In one sense, privilege theory is an assault on parental benevolence. It’s a perfectly narcissistic assault on the notion of caring for others and of doing good things for other people.
The theory implies that parents should either spend it all of themselves, or deprive their children of benefits that they earned in order to give it all to the federal government.
As Pullmann points out, those who rail against privilege are promoting a redistribution scheme that would allow the government to decide who gets what.
Where have we heard that before?
Of course, privileges can be earned or unearned. If you believe that human beings are blank slates, born equal in all senses of the term, it is not fair that some have better upbringings that others. But, in the real world no two individuals are really ever equal, because no two individuals are ever really the same.
Human beings are born with genetic predispositions. They are born with different personalities and with different body types. They are born with different talents and different abilities. They are born with parents who spend more or less time with them and who provide them with a better or a worse education. They are born in the right or the wrong place at the right or the wrong time.
Think of what would happen in New York City if all the parents who send their children to private schools—a privilege if ever there was one—were suddenly forbidden to do so.
Would privilege theorists want to ban Lebron James’s son from playing basketball? Would they prefer giving him a handicap when he does play?
How is it fair for me to have been born to parents who remained married, and thus benefited me immeasurably, while many children are born half or whole orphans, and also immeasurably harmed, again through no fault of their own? Privilege theory at its best, when it is not a cynical masquerade for socialism or worse, is one of many attempts to right these apparent wrongs in the universe.
It’s pretty hard to dispute the basic proposition of privilege theory, that some people are born into advantages they, themselves, have not earned. That fact has been evident just about as long as society has existed. The truth of its converse is also obvious: Some people are born into adverse circumstances that are in no way their fault.
But, even if you did not earn your privileges, someone else most likely did.
The first thing to consider is that, while certain individuals may have advantages or disadvantages they did not earn, very often someone else did earn them. We know, for example, that children born into stable families have better odds at a happier life than do children born to fractured, dysfunctional families. It is hard work to fight relationship entropy. Therefore, it is certainly just for couples to enjoy the fruits of this labor, which include higher lifetime earnings and lower risk for many health problems, and it is just for them to pass the fruits of their labor on to their children. They have, indeed, earned this privilege.
Human beings are not monads. They cannot exist as singular individuals. All human beings are born into groups. All human beings live in groups. Maintaining group cohesion is manifestly in the interest of all human beings. Promoting group success is essential to survival and well-being.
Sorry to have to say it, but creating and maintaining a good family and group reputation is also important. In many cases what is considered to be privilege derives from a reputation earned by other members of one’s family, one’s group, even one’s tribe. In some cases the reputation of one's group is damaged by the behavior of certain members of the group.
In a competitive world, some people do better than others. This might not seem right, but it is still true. And it is still advantageous. Without the possibility of success or failure, people would cease to try to improve themselves.
And yet, the spoils of success are not merely personal and unique to the individual. They are shared. Pullman notes wisely that people would be less motivated to work hard and to succeed if they were not allowed to bestow benefits on significant others.
And also, the people who earn privilege will also want to have a free choice in bestowing them. If all their wealth is confiscated by the government, they will lose that freedom to choose.
One might consider it unfair that those individuals who inhabit the Anglosphere are granted certain privileges. And yet, Great Britain and America have produced an extraordinary civilizational success.
If you ignore it or if you decide that those who profit from the successes of their ancestors should be punished for them you have created a fundamentally different social organization.
In Pullmann’s words:
Most people think it is fair for families to be able to pass on to their children what those families have earned through hard work. The ability to do so is a huge positive motivator for many parents, and sacrificing oneself to better one’s children is noble. The same people who would insist on snatching away these kids’ advantages are often the ones who cheer on illegal immigrants who are functionally pursuing (and often achieving) the same thing. Who would be so cold-hearted and selfish as to argue for taking away good things for some children simply because every child can’t have them? We should instead urge everyone to do what privileges their children, too, and show them how.
As it happens, when parents care for their children, their children grow up to be more responsible citizens, more likely to contribute to society.
Indeed, the compounded effects of many generations of most families within a certain culture making the hard choices and sacrifices to better their children creates a certain inheritance that ultimately lifts that entire society above others. Notice that I am granting cultural and even ethnic privilege to some extent. But my argument again indicates that it is often deserved privilege, not at all random and unfair. What is actually unfair is taking from a society the intellectual and financial riches it has, over time, accumulated and passed down to its children.
If you take privilege theory to its reductio ad absurdum you arrive at the notion that children, especially the children of the wealthy, should be taken from their parents to be brought up in communes. If you really want to erase privilege, then you will be obliged at some point to offer all children the same upbringing.
This theory of equality may sound attractive and sensible, but it leads to mayhem and cruelty. For one, it would require either redistributing children randomly to ensure none get a better chance at better parents by being born into a stronger cultural tradition, or holding back the children and parents who exhibit higher natural gifts than anyone else. Or, I suppose, one could give children no parents at all and whisk them away from their mothers at birth to grow in communal daycare centers until maturity—but even then some children will simply have better genes than others, and some will be born with defects.
As you know, privilege can be used or abused. The picture of the scion of a great family squandering the family fortune on dissolute living and decadent pursuits is, alas!, well known.
There’s a reason why certain cultures do not believe in the conspicuous display of wealth. And do not believe in wasting money. It's one thing to have a great fortune. It's quite another to flaunt it and to wave it in the face of those who do not.
As Paglia also noted, we Americans could use with a little less decadence.