How to Answer the White-Privilegers

The sad debate over “white privilege” education sessions on elite campuses has reached its low point with a comment in a New York Magazine article by a Harvard student Reetu Mody, a graduate student in public policy and “campus activist.” Mentioning Princeton student Tal Fortgang’s protest against these privilege-consciousness-raising programs, the article continues:

“Mody has some sympathy for Fortgang and his ilk. ‘If what you’ve been told all your life is you’re really talented and you deserve what you have, it’s going to be really hard to find out Maybe I don’t deserve it, and all these other people equally deserve it but never even had a shot,’ she says. ‘Schools are not giving students a space to manage that loss of identity.'”

Do you hear the voice of the re-educator? Mody (and others like her) have a social condition in mind, whether it exists in reality for this and that individual or not, every selective-college student is to undergo and accommodate its cure. One can sense an entire world view based on victimhood behind those phrases, and one hears the confidence of an insecure ego having suddenly discovered a reliable ground. The moralism is astounding, the ease with which the re-educator puts words in others’ mouths and thoughts in their heads. The condescension is high–“it’s going to be really hard”–and the recommendation is stern. And note the final, feeble, confession of helplessness (not being “given” a “space to manage that loss of identity,” as if a school doesn’t provide it, these 20-year-olds can’t do it on their own). After Mody’s comment ends, one is left with a pathetic question: “Don’t you have anything better to do than drag others down?”

Of course, if asked, that question would only evoke louder volumes of accusation. It is a waste of time to engage at all. In his declaration in the Princeton Tory, Fortgang made a crucial mistake. He cited his own personal history (a family background in the Holocaust) to show the privilege merchants that he didn’t enjoy quite the precious legacy that white-privilege allegations assume. But this was to play the personal history game that white-privilegers ask us to, to join the rivalry of suffering on which the whole deplorable strategy rests.

The better way is to go to the source, not the history and pseudo-history of white privilege in America, but the psycho-social syndrome that underlies it. That takes us back to Nietzsche and his repeated and trenchant analysis of ressentiment. It is the method of “lambs” who bear a grudge, the consolidation of feelings of weakness and inferiority and failure into a force of aggression, the way in which the “herd” responds to power. Under Nietzschean eyes, white-privilege appears in its actual being as a tactic, an intimidation. To take it seriously as something else, for instance, a historical truth or a social injustice, is to enter the debate disarmed and set up.

You don’t argue with a pathology, you ignore it. Or, if it goes on the offensive, you mock it. It is easy for white males to believe that their accusers have all the momentum on their side, but given the latter’s insistence that white males have all the power, one wonders just how firm is their certitude. They have numbers on their side, of course, and righteousness, but it takes little to explode the attitude and frustrate the academic crowd, which relies overmuch on, precisely, numbers and righteousness, not facts and arguments. In fact, the school of resentment (as Harold Bloom memorably called the identity-politicians) needs privileged people to play along with the instruction for it to work. If we didn’t have white men admitting their guilt, confessing their past sins, and agreeing to programs and policies (overt and covert) that discriminate against them, this bilious atmosphere would never have prospered. So, when they find themselves in white-privilege situations on campus, white male students should reply with a “Whatever” shrug or a smiling, “Yeah, I love my privilege, and I’m not giving it up just because you tell me to.”

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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