16 March 2017

It's my privilege (analysis, confession, accusation)

Thaw: I took this photo just over two weeks ago, but the enormous sledding hill is now almost gone. Soon even Lenin (at right) won't be able to help you find it.

I enjoyed the discussion of "privilege" on this week's Culture Gabfest podcast more than I expected to, since I'd mostly been inclined to dismiss the theme as just another way for over-privileged people-pleasers to self-flagellate.

The discussion on the podcast was prompted by an excerpt in the New Republic from Phoebe Maltz Bovy's book The Perils of "Privilege". I recommend both the podcast and the book excerpt, and won't overgraze their territory. Instead I'll just add a few comments.

First, definition. In summarizing the recent history of references to privilege in political discourse, Bovy uses a simple definition, "unearned advantage," particularly the advantages of race, social status, wealth. I'd add the word "structural," in a sort of parallel with "structural violence."

On the podcast, Stephen Metcalf touches on the paradox of identifying and naming privilege: in diagnosing the injustices caused by privilege in blocking potential participants from the supposedly free market, you're nevertheless exalting free-market thinking and its inherent injustices. His comments demonstrate one of the uses of the idea of privilege -- its usefulness for analysis. Despite my dislike of the term's overuse, I'm happy to agree that it's important to show how structural injustices affect human beings who all are endowed by our Creator with the same inalienable rights.

Once we see how privilege operates systemically -- in extreme situations resulting in impunity for some, and a total lack of security for others -- we might take another step: understanding and confessing how we fit into the systemic picture.

This step does not require any sort of progressive exhibitionism. We don't need to become codependent to the approval of less privileged people or groups in order to exercise due diligence in learning about oppressive structures and how to extricate ourselves from them, then subvert them, then sabotage their legitimacy. The better analogy is Christian repentance, or the Alcoholics Anonymous fourth step: identifying our baseline reality and then reorienting ourselves with this new information, a process that has nothing to do with self-abasement.

Analysis and confession are positive uses for the concepts of privilege. Accusation of individuals (otherwise known as shaming or one-upping) is useless or worse. As Philip Yancey wrote, "No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument." The adversarial attribution of privilege probably wipes out any chance of inviting our conversation partner into a mutual effort to analyze and confess.

Of course, if our priority is to gratify some vindictive little corner of our own selves, accusation and shaming work just fine.

Thanks to a BBC World Service documentary I heard a couple of weeks ago, I became reacquainted with the work of storyteller John Henry Faulk. In the 1960's, he traveled among the Knife and Fork Clubs and similar groups in the South and Midwest with his message of how the civil rights and peace movements were actually a rebirth of the USA's founding spirit. In territory that should have been utterly hostile to his message, he often won over his audiences by respecting their decency and intelligence, and by telling stories that slipped past their defenses through humor and familiar cultural references.

Example: His fictional cousin Ed Snodgrass on the Viet Nam war and its critics....
Johnny, we go over there to Viet Nam in a Christian civilized way, trying to fight a Christian up-to-date war with flame throwers and half-tanks and bombers and napalm like God intended folks to fight wars in this day and time, and our boys are dressed up in pretty uniforms so that everybody can tell who they are, and what does old Ho Chi Minh and those Viet Congs do, come out after dark and on bicycles. You can't negotiate with people who act hateful like that. They're just tricky and they're so hard-headed. Johnny, just ask yourself this: If Jesus Christ was over there in Viet Nam today, walking the earth, honey, would he be down in them bamboo thickets and them rice paddies with a bunch of half-naked heathens, people who don't even go to church or wouldn't come to services if you personally invited them, people that don't even speak the English language, mind, you, the language that the Holy Bible was wrote in? Or would Jesus be up in those B-52's with them fine Christian boys that's been to church and know what to do with those bombs when they get over that territory?
... from this Studs Terkel broadcast on WFMT Chicago in November 1969.

Before I called you, I saw you.

Fateful days! (In Russian: the events of the revolutionary year 1917 presented in a constant stream of daily updates, social-media style. In English: the February revolution and contemporary reactions.) Will Russia celebrate?

Speaking of celebrations, Right Sharing of World Resources prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Blues from Moscow ... Andrei Makarevich and Levan Lomidze:

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