Much has been made, and will continue to be made, of the past week’s events at the University of Missouri and, closer to home, at Yale. These flashes in the pan do signal something important, but not what most folks think. What is at stake is the death of pluralism.
In Missouri, a college president and a senior administrator stepped down after members of the football team announced they weren’t going to play anymore unless the president resigned. The president, they reasoned, didn’t do enough about campus racism. At Yale, students erupted after a silly debate about politically correct Halloween costumes and the exclusion of black women from a drunken fraternity party.
The events were steeped in the latest rhetorical weapon at hand in debates about distributive justice: privilege. It is a concept wholly at odds with pluralism and respect for persons. It is, indeed, the calling card of the identity politician. Get used to hearing about it; in the not too distant future it will be used to call for race-based taxation, quotas and marginalization of the emerging new minority — Caucasians.
Here’s how the new rhetoric works: If you are a person of a color, a woman, Hispanic, gay, transgendered, Indian — whether Asian or American, or otherwise simply feeling as though the world hasn’t “validated” you, then demand recognition. If you don’t get it, then find a white male to blame. Claim that you don’t have all you want, or all you think you should have is kept from you, because of “white male privilege.”
White males are, in this brave new era, the writers of "winner's" hisory: we oppress, enjoy the legacy of oppression, and refuse -- unless redeemed by identification with those claiming oppression -- to make amends for having reduced the prosectes of others. When a white male refuses to give another what they want, the accusation is simple, and damning, in the eyes of those hurling it: "White male privilege."
Defend yourself against the claim and the ante is raised: You are a racist, or a white supremacist. In other words, white men need simply to shut up and listen. We white men have been on top of history’s heap too long; it’s time we take a tumble in the name of diversity.
That these moves are rarely intellectually honest escapes those using them. It is a new form of racial and gender pandering — I call it racialism or genderism. It carries with it the silent and unstated privilege of claiming superior insight, desert or worthiness by accident of birth.
I confronted this nonsense the other day online, in a confrontation with a man calling himself Tariq Nasheed, an African-American of uncertain age. I chastised him for claiming black privilege. He responded by saying he was a victim, after all. Things got heated, and he concluded I was a white supremacist. Conversation ended.
For the record, I am neither a racist nor a white supremacist — I am a misanthrope: I have little or no confidence in humankind and I believe that we’re all capable of becoming monsters. The monsters I fear most are those armed with ideas and the self-righteous determination to see their ideals become reality. History is littered with the corpses of those slayed on the altars of others.
That many of those corpses have been African-American goes without saying. That women struggled long and hard for equality is also true. That the struggle for dignity and equality for all continues is obvious. This battle will go on, I suspect, until the species breathes its last gasp.
But the form that struggle takes matters. Ideas are tools, tools that can be used to cause harm. Aristotle, for example, wrote centuries ago that most people were “slaves by nature” — while celebrating democracy among the Greeks. The Bible was used in pre-Civil War times to justify slavery, although it is now used to support claims for equal dignity for all.
Ideas are slaves of the passions, and passions are how we express our interests. In an era of identity politics, interests are now advanced by a new form of Manicheanism: white men are evil, we have oppressed the world, and now silently, and smugly, enjoy the benefits of historic oppression; justice and goodness are on the side of others. Individuals don’t matter; group membership does.
I shudder to think of how this will all play out in the decades to come. Come 2040 or thereabouts, Caucasians will be a minority in the United States. The new rhetoric of privilege will justify all sorts of new and invidious policies. Calls today for reparations could well become race-based taxes; confiscatory policies might vindicate the claims of the oppressed.
Caucasians, in particular Caucasian males, have a debt to pay, or so the rising tide of the new racialism and genderism suggest. I wonder whether the spike in suicides among middle age white folk reflect an inchoate sense that it’s time to throw in the towel.
Forgive me if I do not do so. I remain persuaded that individuals matter, and each is entitled to dignity. The world is not perfect, and how we distribute its spoils will be an endless source of debate. I owe nothing to you because of my accidents or births, or on account of yours.
Ideas and ideals have histories. They struggle to be delivered into the world, they mature, they wither, and then they die, their remains swirling in the mad dash of history to recombine in new forms commensurate with the interests and passions of a new era. Pluralism is no exception.
Pluralism promised a world in which all differences were respected and all claims evaluated on their merits. That idea has been strained to the breaking point. Now, only the oppressed can speak: meet the new boss.
The events at Yale and the University of Missouri depress, not elate. There was no due process, no hearing, no right to be heard in Missouri — the administrators were driven out on a racialist rail — electronically lynched. Things were not much better at Yale, where students demanded validation of their feelings at the expense of free speech.
I watch all this with an abiding sorrow. These incendiary sparks are a sign of the fire next time, a fire that will try to consume without remorse those who oppose its heat. I am not jumping into the flame.