In this month’s National Review, Shelby Steele offers an extremely insightful article on how liberals came to dominate American culture. The gist of his argument, more fully laid out in his book “White Guilt,” is that post-1960s white liberals, ashamed of the nation’s record on race, chose to dissociate themselves from America. He sees the rejection of American exceptionalism as an unfair clinging to past crimes in the face of the enormous good America has done for the world. He’s right. But there is a glaring omission in his account of the rise of liberal cultural power. At no point does Steele mention privilege theory, the modern, magic talisman that defines and explains the often absurd positions of twenty-first-century liberals.
Privilege theory is based on a 1989 essay by Peggy McIntosh, in which she lays out the subtle ways in which white people have advantages that they often don’t even realize. Robert Tracinski has suggested privilege theory is merely an extension of Steele’s theory of dissociation. This argument says that because by the 1990s young people were so far removed from segregation and Jim Crow, privilege theory stepped in to continue their association with past guilt. This interpretation of privilege theory is off the mark.
It’s Not about Disassociation, But Privilege
Unlike dissociation, privilege theory does not argue that we should atone for the sins of the past. It argues that those sins never stopped. In fact, it argues that they aren’t even sins, but rather the predictable manifestations of evil brought about by the American political and economic model.
This represents a significant shift from the liberal culture that Steele describes. Aside from outliers like the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, and the fairly elite followers of Marcuse and Foucault, the post-1960s liberal did not find the entire American experiment to be an a priori evil. In fact, often what they found lacking was a real adherence to the principles announced at the founding of the Republic, first and foremost the principle of equality. And they had a point.
The resounding defeat of conservatism in culture from the 1960s through the 1980s had everything to do with the abject failure of conservatives to reject racism. It was an almost fatal mistake that still haunts efforts to counter the liberal hegemony in culture. But the liberal dominance of culture is no longer rooted in Steele’s model of dissociation. Dissociation was a strategy to attain cultural power. Steele acknowledges this by breaking down the formula as “relativism, dissociation, legitimacy, power.” The final phase of the formula is power, which by the late 1980s was achieved. New rules of discourse had been established, generally known as political correctness. Now the challenge was to maintain them. That’s where privilege theory came in.
By the late 1980s, there were no more institutional mountains to be climbed. On paper the United States had moved beyond officially sanctioning the second-class treatment of any of its citizens. Lacking institutional fights, liberals focused on culture wars—the National Endowment for the Arts versus Jesse Helms, or Murphy Brown versus Dan Quayle. The concept that began to take hold was that the marginalized should be given more agency by virtue of their oppression. In fact, level of oppression became the standard by which speech would be judged. This differed from the dissociative concept of political correctness because the rules of political correctness applied, more or less, universally. After McIntosh, they no longer did. By virtue of the privilege whites enjoyed, their speech was now subject to stricter scrutiny. And that development directly leads to the far more dangerous turn our society’s discourse has taken.
Privilege Theory: Some Are More Equal Than Others
Make no mistake, privilege theory is a fierce and effective threat to basic American values. Privilege theory is the means by which equality, enshrined (albeit imperfectly) in the Declaration of Independence as the cornerstone of our nation, is turned on its head. Under privilege theory, we and our speech are no longer equal, even in theory. While previous generations of liberals longed for a day when people’s contributions and ideas were not judged on the basis of their skin color, privilege theorists insist that they must be. A recent spat in the Chicago theater scene shows us how this warped philosophy has set us all against each other.
Steppenwolf, one of the most respected and best funded (yeah, that means the government) theater companies in the country is currently running a show for teenagers called “This Is Modern Art (Based on True Events).” Both the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times ripped the play for sending badly misguided messages to kids—namely that destruction of property (in this case graffiti) is okay and that race is the essence of who you are and how you participate in society. Sun Times critic Hedy Weiss writes:
This play is a wildly wrong-headed and potentially damaging work — one that fails to call ‘vandalism’ by its name, and rationalizes and attempts to justify that vandalism in the most irresponsible ways. It also trades in all the destructive, sanctimonious talk about minority teens invariably being shut out of opportunities and earmarked for prison in a way that only reinforces stereotypes and negative destinies. Counterproductive in the extreme, it deepens and solidifies racial and class divisions and a sense of hopelessness among those who need to dwell on possibility.
Here is the response from one the creators of the play, Kevin Coval: “What I’m not surprised about is old white people, critics for these dying papers, don’t want to celebrate stories about youth culture who have been systematically denied agency.”
Privilege theory cannot be displayed much more clearly. Coval rejects the very idea that “old white people” have any right to reasonably question his play. To him, they are so locked into systems of oppression that their warnings about his play’s message are illegitimate. Not because of their warnings’ substance, but because of their source. This is exactly where privilege theory diverges from the post-’60s liberal culture that Steele writes about. Steele’s post-’60s liberals loved old white guys; from Alinsky to Zinn, they were prophets. But no more. Today, at best they can be allies, the only position that the privileged can hold.
What happened next, what grew out of the concept of white privilege, has come to shape the education of our kids in ways that threaten to destroy them.
The Unquestioned Hierarchy Of Privilege
McIntosh’s seminal essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” was focused squarely on the unique question of race in America. It talked about how white people have an easier time getting a cab, or an apartment, or seeing themselves reflected on TV. But today this message has moved beyond race.
Straight white men are privileged, and gay white men are privileged, though less so. Straight white women are more privileged than white lesbians, and both straight and lesbian white women are way more privileged than trans women, meaning people who once identified as men who now identify as women. Women, arguably the most oppressed group of people in history, now must show deference to their advantages over former men who now call themselves women. But instead of confronting these absurd ideas, conservatives too often ignore them or laugh them off. This is a horrible mistake.
When did the mainstream media decide that a man who believes himself to be a woman had to be referred to as a woman? Three years ago? Five? Certainly no more than ten. How did this happen? How did those who stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” in regard to gender become bigots? It wasn’t disassociation, it was privilege theory that brought about that lightning change before most Americans even knew it was happening.
Most Americans have no idea they are cisgendered. What is anti-American is not the trans movement or the imposition of cis identity, it’s that these changes are being grafted onto our culture with no debate. Worse, with those who question it are delegitimized as backwards, privileged bigots whose opinions should be at best ignored and at worst banned.
Conservatives Can Beat Privilege Theory
The 1960s liberals whom Steele talks about had a joy and commitment to change. They took over campuses. Who would take over a campus now? The administrators are complicit. The 1960s liberals formed communes to exist in the world as they wished it to be. Park Slope and the Castro are no communes, they are liberal paradises where confessing your privilege absolves you of actual responsibility.
But the good news for conservatives is that the Progressive falconer is losing the falcon. A widening gyre of ludicrous policies and ideas is opening all around us. From Ta Nehisi Coates’ absurd assertion that reparations make the least bit of sense to Katha Pollitt’s “Pro,” which claims abortion to be a wonderful thing, the Left is overplaying its hand badly.
Established conservatives have been too slow to confront Privilege Theory. In part, this is because it appears to many conservatives to be too silly to even engage. When it is taken on, it is disregarded as nonsense. It isn’t nonsense. It has become a sophisticated, though lazy, philosophy that can explain and forgive (or punish) everything. Thankfully, young conservative journalists like Katherine Timpf at National Review Online and everyone at Campus Reform are doing yeoman’s work exposing, almost every day, the absurd speech, dress, conduct, and association rules that our colleges are imposing on our kids. And those kids are going to teach your kids.
The fight against privilege theory is a fight conservatives can win. But we have to engage it on its own terms. We have to admit, as we failed to in the ’60s, that racism and bigotry does affect the opportunities of marginalized people. But that the basic American value that “all men are created equal” still means something. And replacing it with “all people are unequal and should be considered based on their privilege or lack thereof” is a destructive notion that should be confronted and defeated.