The Left and Original Sin

Check your privilege.  You are one of the white oppressors.  You are part of the patriarchy.   These are all frequent rhetorical flourishes from the Left today.  What do they have in common?  Well, beyond the fact that they are all ad hominem and have nothing to do with a person's actual arguments or even character, they all work under an assumption of original sin -- that the sins of past generations somehow accrue to individuals of this generation.  If you are male, you are born guilty for the infractions of all past males.  Your maleness or whiteness or the bank balance of your parents creates a stink that can't be washed off.

There is a certain irony to all this, particularly on gender issues, since many of were often justified on Biblical notions of original sin stemming back to the Garden of Eden.  Which all goes, by the way, to demonstrate my contention that "tolerance" today is not about ending out-groups but about shifting the out-group tag to different people.

Don't believe me?  Well, how else to explain this story about Ben Affleck:

Last week we learned that distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. compromised his integrity when actor Ben Affleck — a guest on “Finding your Roots,” the PBS documentary on celebrity lineages that Gates hosts — asked Gates to omit a portion of his ancestry.

Affleck, soon to be seen as Batman on the big screen, learned he had a slave-owning ancestor and promptly pushed Gates to spike that detail.

“We've never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote in an email to Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Entertainment, adding: “He's a megastar. What do we do?”

Perhaps I might try to whitewash a story about my parents.  I barely knew my grandparents and can't imagine trying to whitewash their history.  But for what conceivable reason would I whitewash my family history 4 or 5 generations back?  How in the world, unless I were to accept some notion of original sin, would the crimes of a relative more than 150 years ago accrue to me?

A few other thoughts:

  • This concern is also pretty selective.   So an ancestor held opinions about slavery we all would find horrifying today.  But given the times, I can bet that pretty much every relative of Affleck's of that era, slaveholder or no, held opinions (say about women) that we would likely find offensive today.
  • Congrats to Affleck for achieving some negative alchemy here.  He took an issue (his ancestor's slave-holding) that did not reflect on him at all and converted it via some "I am a star" douchebaggery into something that makes him look like a tool.
  • PBS often makes the argument that they somehow have the moral high ground because they are non-commercial and publicly-funded.  Uh, right.  Look at how quickly they caved here.
  • I find it hilarious that any kids in the US feel the ability to say "check your privilege" to someone else.  Even someone at the 20th percentile in the US would be among the richest 20% in many countries.  From the world's perspective, we are all affluent here.
  • SamWah

    Speaking of PBS, I found this morning: Seems like their local funding may now be questionable, though they may need considerably less.

    On topic, I remember my dad saying that Negroes need to know their place.

  • Rob McMillin

    It's amazingly stupid. The entirety of modern feminism can be described through the devices of "patriarchy", "rape culture", and "male privilege", all of which exist to either demonize men or turn female failings into men's collective fault. Those of you who may recall the Scott Aaronson fracas that briefly lit up the dim lights at Jezebel, among other feminist watering holes, may not be aware of his brilliant limning of and dispensing with these pernicious concepts.

    This particular skirmish is actually noteworthy because Aaronson is an agile, fluid thinker, unlike his opponents; he outclasses them at every turn. His allies seem similarly competent, as for example, this long-form takedown by the blogger writing under the pseudonym Scott Alexander. His exposition on the "motte-and-bailey" concept developed by Nicholas Shackel is a terrific metaphor for the bait-and-switch of modern feminism, in which advocates publicly make broadly acceptable definitions, but then derive much more extreme and controversial positions and policies from those definitions.

  • Jim Collins

    Damn! I'm a White, male, heterosexual, conservative, veteran. Everything is my fault.

  • bigmaq1980

    Interesting relationship you found here Warren. Affleck showed his true "colors".

  • Rob McMillin

    One more thing: though I linked to it from one of my blog posts in my last comment, Laurie Penny's remarks about male sexism really stand out as a singular, crystalline example of the sort of seething, religious guilt men are supposed to feel. In this telling, if any sexist man exists, then all men benefit from it, no matter how far removed, and thus patriarchy, Q.E.D. It's rare to see this level of original sin so nakedly discussed. She has done the world a great favor by exposing just how much vituperation and delusion infuses modern feminism.

  • Daublin

    You are rejecting the whole premise of Roots, though, which is that where people come from several generations back is supposed to be interesting to viewers.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    No, you're wrong, it's San Andreas' fault. :)

  • slocum

    But aren't African Americans the *most* likely to have a slave-owner as an ancestor?

    "A whopping 35 percent of all African-American men descend from a white male ancestor who fathered a mulatto child sometime in the slavery era, most probably from rape or coerced sexuality."

    In the lefty 'original sin' game, do they get to disown these ancestors? If so, why?

  • STW

    Luckily for me I discovered my slave owning ancestor before I learned it was guilty by blood. Now that I know, I don't give a hoot.

  • NL7

    I was somewhat sympathetic to Affleck when I first heard this, though I completely disagreed with the conclusion. But after a little reflection, I got more offended.

    If we stop talking about the history of slavery, including slave owners, then it partially wipes out the fact that slavery is a part of the past. That seems somehow problematic in the same way that ceasing to talk about the perpetrators of the Holocaust diminishes remembrance of the victims. Wiping out the bad actors also marginalizes discussion of the victims, so refusing to hear about your asshole slave-owning ancestors is de facto reducing discussion and awareness of slaves and their plight.

    I don't think we have an obligation to discuss tragedies endlessly, which would take my perspective to its absurd logical conclusion. But I think that there's something mistaken in the idea that we should shy away from hearing about the shameful things in our past. It's equivalent to declining to hear about the trail of tears or, in Japan, about war crimes committed in China, or, in China, about the Cultural Revolution. These are painful things and we might be ashamed to have ancestors or co-nationals or folk heroes be associated with those painful things. But simply erasing them in favor of only discussing the polite, the palatable, the tepid, is to help remove these parts of history from common awareness - almost as if it were an unintentional form of censorship.

    I'm not saying I don't get it. I have a few Southern branches that dipped into slavery, so I get not wanting to discuss it. I sure don't volunteer that information. But erasing it from a natural discussion of your family history I think is mistaken.

  • Don

    It does not, nor ever has had anything to do with privileged. It's the modern equivalent of "When did you stop beating your wife?" It's meant to shut down people saying things that the left doesn't like.

  • FelineCannonball

    My 19th century relatives were racist Europeans with strong clan affinities. No slaves though. Probably headhunters in the days of Gaul. If you spoke the wrong dialect you could go fuck yourself.

  • c_andrew

    I just gotta give kudos to puns. However bad they may be.

  • c_andrew

    Just another iteration on the Leftist tactic of '"shutup!" he explained'.

  • Gil G

    Uh oh. It looks as though Affleck's up for slave reparations.

  • ano333

    "Check your privilege. You are one of the white oppressors. You are part of the patriarchy. These are all frequent rhetorical flourishes from the Left today. "

    While I agree with the sentiment of this post concerning being labeled an oppressor (I am a white male), I disagree that this labeling is something "frequent", at least with real people. I am close to many very liberal folks down here in FL, and none of them ever has said anything about privilege or white oppressors.

    I think, rather, that these "rhetorical flourishes" are only frequent on very progressive websites and college campuses, and are actually not frequent at all in the "real world". Even when I attended law school in NYC and frequently abused the PIRG office candy jar (my law journal office was next door), not once did any of the folks there mention this crap.

  • CapitalistRoader

    Even someone at the 20th percentile in the US would be among the richest 20% in many countries. From the world's perspective, we are all affluent here.

    Does anyone have a source for this? For days I've been looking for a calculator or chart or something that shows how US income percentiles rank against world income percentiles.

  • morgan.c.frank


    yup. that was my thought as well. i have a suspicion that slave reparations look like any other sort of lawsuit: go after folks with deep pockets that are easy to shame into settlement through threats of publicity.

    ben looks like a pretty juicy target.

  • skhpcola

    Just playing around with this:

    and a total wealth of $28,100 puts you in the top 20% of global wealth.

  • alanstorm

    " I am close to many very liberal folks down here in FL, and none of them
    ever has said anything about privilege or white oppressors."

    Maybe not, but have they disagreed with the premise?

  • CapitalistRoader

    Thanks! The Forbes article was exactly what I was looking for. Quote:

    The poor in the US are about as poor, perhaps a bit richer, than the poor in other rich countries. It is true that there is more inequality in the US: but this isn’t because the poor are poorer. It’s because the rich are richer.

    ...which explains the frustration of successful entrepreneurs in the rich EU countries. They're every bit as smart and resourceful as US entrepreneurs but taxes kill any incentive they have to keep producing.

  • Nehemiah

    I can beat that. I'm all those things and a Christian.