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.