It seems that ever since Obama’s election, affluent white hetero Christians – by far the most economically and politically powerful bloc in the country, far beyond their real numbers – have suddenly been waking up in the middle of the night, screaming “Holy shit, I’m not nearly as privileged as I used to be!” Their hysterics are prima facie absurd, in that their money and influence is still enough to, for instance, block necessary health reform and hate crimes legislation. If, as Bill O’Reilly says, the white Christian power structure is under serious attack, it seems to be fairly shrugging off the blows.

At the same time, though, these charges are pretty dangerous. Let’s leave aside the fact that (to use the above example) if health care isn’t reformed, millions will remain uninsured and suffer serious health consequences. I mean that conservative demagoguery can seriously fucking kill you. If puns really are the lowest form of humor, I’ll dub this list

Right-Wing Assholes’ Greatest Hits!

  • The vicious and unsubstantiated charges leveled at Dr. George Tiller by Bill O’Reilly and other anti-choice fanatics created the hateful atmosphere that led to his assassination.
  • A 22-year old white supremacist’s shooting of three Pittsburgh police officers came after an extended stroking of his paranoiac love gun by Glenn Beck, who waxed rhapsodic about FEMA concentration camps.
  • Jim Adkisson’s shooting of a Unitarian church in Tennessee was prompted by his hatred of liberals and Democrats. His desired targets included the 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America listed by Bernard Goldberg.

These are not fringe incidents. The direct perpetrators may not be considered part of the mainstream, but they share a significant and critical affinity with the vanguard of the social conservative movement: namely, the belief that they are defending a traditional, god-given social order from dangerous outsiders.

This worldview is insanely intolerant, absolutely unwilling to accept difference – not to mention utterly presumptuous, as if this fantasy version of a 50s sitcom is the bottom line in human morality. What’s exceptionally scary is how this unexamined privilege has firmly embedded itself in the news cycle in just the last month:

  • Sonia Sotomayor’s hearings have been nothing but a sustained Othering of an accomplished Latina woman, with the none-too-subtle goal of maintaining white supremacy. The bizarre, nonsensical Vulcan Standard to which she’s being asked to adhere to reflects a perception that Latina women aren’t human beings – even when her words and actions are almost identical to those of her white colleagues. For this, we are forced to witness the mind-boggling sight of Sen. Jeff Sessions – whose judicial appointment was derailed on account of the fact that he’s a huge fucking racist – admonishing her not to consider race in her decisions.
  • The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the most prominent African-American professors in the country, sparked a debate on racial profiling and law enforcement – that is, unless you’ve paid attention to conservative media. That Gates was doing nothing wrong, and in his own home, simply hasn’t factored into the nonstop finger-wagging from Rush Limbaugh et. al., who accuse Gates of “playing the race card” and displaying improper deference to police authority.  President Obama’s remarks, while clearly an attempt at a measured take on the incident, were interpreted as “an attack on law enforcement” (read: white people) and evidence of anti-white racism in his administration. This despite the fact that Gates’ arrest was – not just by any decent standard of justice, but in stark legal terms – obviously wrong.
  • And, speaking of Obama, the “birther” conspiracy theories challenging his eligibility to the Presidency, advanced by Lou Dobbs and a disturbing number of Congressional Republicans, are a pretty obvious attempt to paint him as an alien creature, a seditious element, something short of an American ideal – in other words, non-white. It’s no coincidence that these easily-debunked rumors are held as gospel truth by both (a) James Von Brunn, the white supremacist terrorist who murdered a security guard at the Holocaust Museum, and (b) de facto Republican leader Rush Limbaugh.

You might ask: why are Republicans being such racist assholes right now? It’s a trick question – Republicans have been practicing racism as a strategy since, oh, 1876, and have gotten particularly adept at employing it since Nixon. The Bush years encoded a shocking degree of racism under the terms “terrorist” and “illegal immigrant”; these targets were ‘acceptable’ in the mainstream, in that they referred to condemned actions rather than condemned races (*cough cough*).

What’s changed now is that, with an African-American President and a Democratic Congress, there is a miniscule possibility that white supremacy, Christian exceptionalism, hetero dominance, and corporate hegemony might be inconvenienced. Ignore the fact that the President is a moderate, and Congress can’t get its shit together in between massive corporate lobbying efforts – any threat to privilege is un-American, damn it!

These sweaty exertions to keep the underprivileged in check are obviously antithetical to American society, as well as any society that gives two shits about substantive justice. As such, I’d like to start the (semi-regular) series Privilege Watch, to call attention to privileged assholes trying to write others outside of the bounds of humanity.

Obviously, this will focus to a large degree on the aforementioned conservative pricks. However, I’m hopeful that this series can help us at Brandeis become aware of our own privileges. You heard me right – even we latte-sipping Obama voters are complicit in racism, sexism, classism, and myriad other forms of oppression. Hopefully, we can move from ridiculing Fox News hosts for their unfounded assumptions to seeing how we ourselves enable these attitudes – and  from there, working to dismantle oppressive hierarchies.

I appreciate and welcome all comments which direct me to instances of privilege, including my own; as a white hetero male myself, I’m not by any means alert to all of them. While many examples will be from society at large, this will hopefully/unfortunately include examples from personal life and the Brandeis community.

(If it seems these pushbacks for privilege that I’m focusing on are media-centric, it’s mostly because the mass media is extremely visible (duh) and the main lens through which political reality is manufactured. For that reason, it’s useful to consider this right-wing backlash in terms of the propaganda model of media proposed by Noam Chomsky. In particular, there are two critical ‘filters’ for what is considered newsworthy, and therefore real. ‘News’ needs to be acceptable to (1) the dominant economic and political institutions, which govern resources and access, and (2) to the “flak machine” which produces negative feedback against unacceptable/unpatriotic/unbalanced media. Through these filters the privileged classes easily control the surface of the American mind, and thus public opinion. For more information, Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent is a great introduction, as well as a great read.)

6 comments on “Privilege Watch: An Introduction”

  1. a history major Says:

    To be fair, the Democrats were practicing racism as a strategy since long before 1876….they just decided to give it up within the last half-century. maybe the Republicans just need time to catch up?

  2. Jon Says:

    Hear hear! And let’s not even presume that the Democrats haven’t stopped strategically employing racial language and codes.

    The much-hyped ‘beer summit’, I think, pretty much shows how subservient liberals are to racial framing – while Obama’s call for a hashing-out of issues was certainly laudatory, the manner he conducted it in was clearly calculated to appease and mollify faux-outraged whites. After all, the absurd focus on the choice of beverages was a way to emphasize the working-class character of the event, and Joe Biden’s presence was calculated to ensure that Sgt. Crowley wasn’t ‘overwelmed’ by people of color.

    This is, of course, not at all to say that the event was racist. Rather, it simply shows that any challenge to white hegemony – such as Obama’s totally correct assertion that Sgt. Crowley’s arrest was wrong – has to be made up for, to soothe the bruised egos of whites. This should pretty handily put the lie to mass-media claims that minorities are too easily offended.

  3. Matt Says:

    I’ll reserve judgment on “Privilege Watch” until I see the actual posts, but I’m not optimistic. In a single post, you’ve unleashed more tinfoily rhetoric than every other contributor. Prime examples:
    *”conservative demagoguery can seriously fucking kill you” – substantiated by… murders committed by two “seriously fucking” insane people, and the murder of Dr. Tiller. It’s worth noting that no anti-abortion group with a sizeable following (in other words, mainstream) had called for the murder of people who perform abortions, and that they all pretty much jumped to condemn and disown Tiller’s murderer.

    *The continued assumption that people like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh represent currents of American popular thought. They have clawed their way to the top of the dunghill that is American media by being louder and more reactionary than the other guys. It should come as no surprise that they are now being loud and reactionary. I’m unconvinced by the argument that the mass media are a form of deliberate control, and still less that the people that deliberately control them are part of a neat political group. That said, I will take a look at that book.

    *”millions… serious health consequences” I’m not going to argue about the merits of any healthcare “reform” plan, but the passing of a single bill is not going to magically fix our tottering mess of a healthcare system. Regardless of what ultimately makes it through Congress, I suspect millions of people are going to remain underinsured and sick. And of all the obstacles standing in the way of universal insurance coverage, angry white people are perhaps the most manageable.

    *Obama conspiracies -> their disturbing racial undertones -> white supremacist shooter? -> Rush Limbaugh??

    Near the end of post, you show a more nuanced view of the situation, mentioning corporate hegemony, massive lobbying, legislative incompetence, and race, religion, class, and sexuality as partially separate issues. Then it’s back to self-flagellation with phrases like “white hetero male”. I do hope that “Privilege Watch” doesn’t keep this tone, and instead points out hypocrisy and unthinking contribution to social flaws in the Brandeis community and at large.

  4. Art Says:

    I don’t know that Sotomayor is being too harshly critiqued she 1) brought any and all race-oriented judgments on her self by making race a larger part of her persona and nomination process than needed. I think she embodies one of the problems America suffers with race-we make it a larger issue than it ought to be by pointing it out and spotlighting it. Racism will never go away with the snap of a finger, but less emphasis on race may mitigate it.
    2) Like any SCoTUS nominee, she has soundbites and opinion/dissent quotes which work against her. I am sure Gates had no shortage of these, but she has them as well. In particular, she has some 7-8 year old quotes and clips she was grilled on, where it sounded like she had a judicial philosophy that would promote ‘legislation from the bench’. Now of course anyone who has any familiarity with the SCoTUS knows that this seemingly evil practice is commonplace and has led to some of the most favored and important rulings. Roe v Wade would have had a far, far, different outcome had the privacy argument been deemed contrived, which, in an objective sense, it is.

  5. Jon Says:

    @ Matt: There’s a lot I’d like to say in response, but I’ll try and be brief. In particular:

    – It’s utterly nonsensical to claim that mainstream anti-choice groups had nothing to do with Tiller’s murder; years of murderous smears and equations of him with Nazis created an atmosphere of hate that all but put the gun in Roeder’s hands. Conveniently, I’ve already written an article about Tiller’s murder (http://www.secularstudents.org/node/2594); you might also be interested in this cartoon about the disingeniousness of the claim that mainstream anti-choice groups had nothing to do with it (http://www.leftycartoons.com/regarding-the-assassination-of-george-tiller/).

    – My main reason for contending that Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh represent common trends in American thought is related to the fact that they are on major networks and pull huge ratings. I’m definitely not arguing that mass media exercise any form of subliminal ‘mind control’ – rather, they influence and shape attitudes in a pervasive way, that serves directly to maintain white privilege. Although more focused on foreign policy issues, Manufacturing Consent (esp. the first few chapters) should give you an idea of how this works.

    – And yes, Rush Limbaugh is promoting the same racist conspiracy theories as James Von Brunn did (http://www.wnd.com/index.php?pageId=100717). For more on right-wing media and violence, see: http://mediamatters.org/columns/200906120037.

    And finally, I’m really, really glad that in one post I’ve already become a “self-flagellating” white male. It’s a great way to police members of the dominant group who have the temerity to acknowledge flaws in whiteness, male privilege, and so on. If that’s not your kind of kink, Privilege Watch may not give you the hardon you’re looking for. (More here: http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2009/07/describe-white-people-who-point-out.html).

  6. Victoria Says:

    A couple things:

    “The continued assumption that people like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh represent currents of American popular thought…”

    Actually, where I’m from–the boondocks of Illinois, where my sister and I were continually told to “leave the country” during English simply because we held dissident views–O’Reilly and Limbaugh are very inline with how alot of people view issues. My next-door neighbor may not be as *bombastic* as Limbaugh, but I suppose being at Brandeis for 9 months of the year, we forget that Massachusetts–and the rest of New England–is really an anomaly when it comes to politics.

    Also: “…mentioning corporate hegemony, massive lobbying, legislative incompetence, and race, religion, class, and sexuality as partially separate issues. Then it’s back to self-flagellation with phrases like “white hetero male”…”

    I don’t see any problem with “conflating” issues. Intersectionality is ~so postmodern~ and from the standpoint of a literary theory nut, it’s actually quite naive to assume that, say, patriarchy exists as the same experience for women regardless of race, religion, or class. (This is why Angela Davis, whose entire career is based on the intersectionality of critical race studies/feminism/Marxism, is Brandeis’ coolest alum.) In fact, the Gates issue represents this. The policeman might not only have been aggressive with Gates because of his race, but because of his class. A minor point, but I was extremely surprised when I saw his house: http://i126.photobucket.com/albums/p103/aidanski/Henrygateshome.jpg . That’s a pretty nice house regardless of where you live, but especially if you live in Cambridge; as he has a funded chair at Harvard, that’s no surprise. Without knowing Crowley’s background, the gross generalization is that law enforcement officials usually come from petit bourgeois backgrounds. To further entangle this, the stereotype is that african-americans are of lower socio-econommic class; consequently, Crowley sees Gates in an affluent neighborhood having trouble getting into his house and assumes he’s breaking in.

    That’s actually another interesting issue in regards to privilege. I know in Britain, growing nationalist and far-right wing political parties enlist working-class white men (usually disenfranchised from Margaret Thatcher’s demonic schemes…I mean, her desire to turn Britain’s economy from industrial to commercial, which consequently left alot of families in areas like Essex and the industrial North in squalor). They see growing immigrant populations (usually from former British colonies like India, Pakistan, Jamaica) as their competition for public services like housing, the dole, etc. So not only can racism be a symptom of privilege, it can also be a symptom of the loss of privilege and economic power. (If you want to see a great movie on this subject, there’s This Is England, which is about skinheads during the Falklands War.)

    A final note: I’m looking forward to reading this articles. Let’s dismantle binaries! Sublate the aufhebung! (Can you tell I really miss being in school? I just wanted to say aufhebung.)