Thursday, 27 February 2020

The Privilege Pyramid

by Eddie Scarry 


Privilege is an outgrowth of the social justice movement, that branch of political activism that asserts there’s an inherent unfairness, and prejudice, rooted in American life. This unfairness manifests itself in the oppression, grievance, and victimization of women, nonwhites, gays, lesbians, and even transsexuals. It’s an ideology that demands that the country’s very foundations, customs, and norms be reordered to right all of its wrongs. The goal of the movement isn’t always clear because it frequently changes, depending on which set of people is deemed to have suffered adequately and which set is guilty of some form of privilege. Because the movement operates largely by using shame, it can sometimes seem that shame is in itself the objective.

Friedrich Nietzsche directly influenced today’s version of social justice by asserting that there is an inseparable link between morality and power. He wrote in his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morality that those who wished to overthrow the established hierarchy intended to invert it so that the bottom would become the top and vice versa. This wasn’t his prescription for society, but rather a severe criticism of the tendency to view society’s subordinates as inherently moral. “Only those who suffer are good,” he wrote with acrimony. “Only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people, the only ones saved, salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble and powerful, you are eternally wicked, cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless, you will also be eternally wretched, cursed and damned!”

Nietzsche was identifying and criticizing the notion that those at the bottom of civilized societies should be presumed virtuous and admirable simply by nature of their suffering and disadvantages. But that concept is precisely what forms the basis of the present social justice movement. According to the movement and its ideology, the good, virtuous, and admirable are those who claim to have been aggrieved on account of their race, gender, or sexuality. Under social justice, asserting grievance and claiming oppression earns an individual a higher moral worth than those who are deemed “privileged.”

Who has the power in America’s culture now? The social justice movement does, and that power is reinforced by Hollywood, the news media, academia, and much of the Washington political establishment. Social justice ideology first spread through the universities and from there, to the other hubs of American culture. It went from university academics, who taught it to their students, and then flowed from them to screenwriters and journalists. What’s seen in Hollywood entertainment and in national newspapers, on the TV news, and on the internet becomes a piece of our collective culture. With enough repetition, it’s then absorbed into the mainstream. This is how social justice ended up everywhere.

The ridiculous notion that individuals hold their own truths, as reflected in the asinine “live your truth” mantra, is a key feature of the social justice movement’s ideology. It’s linked to what early 20th-century Hungarian theorist Georg Lukacs called “standpoint epistemology.” Epistemology is the philosophy of understanding human knowledge. Standpoint epistemology, or standpoint knowledge, holds that the perspective of a certain person can lend that individual access to a unique truth that others don’t have and can never obtain. Lukacs developed the concept in his 1923 work History and Class Consciousness, in which he refers to a kind of “knowledge” held by people of the working class that “stands on a higher scientific plane objectively.”

In essence, depending on an individual’s identity — race, gender, sexuality, or any combination thereof — he or she will have access to a truth unobtainable to anyone who doesn’t share that identity. Furthermore, social justice dictates that these truths must be acknowledged as unchallengeable and that the “victims” who profess to hold them are to be regarded with reverence.
In America, the earliest signs of social justice in its current state began in the 1960s. Postmodern theories and ideas about class resentments and struggles made their way from Western Europe, spread among academics, and eventually gave birth to the third-wave feminist movement, according to New York University professor Michael Rectenwald. They spun off from there, creating the things that normal people now dread: political correctness, affirmative action, calls for reparations, identity politics, civil rights for infinite special classes of citizens, and on and on.

Because the social justice ideology, the movement, and its enforcers operate outside the purview of normal people, they have their own concepts and terms, some or all of which you might not have heard before.

According to Rectenwald, “social justice” as a well-intentioned remedy to economic, societal problems traces back to the 1840s, when Italian Catholic Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio used the term to describe “the glaring lack of an adequate Catholic response to industrialism and urbanization, with their associated social and economic symptoms.” It was the “supplanting of guild-based cottage industries by urban factories [and] the displacement of workers” during the Industrial Revolution that moved d’Azeglio to state that a certain social justice was required to remedy the impact it had had on the laborers.

During that period, factories and advancements in machinery disrupted the working classes of Western Europe, just as automation has done to the Midwest in America today. The technological shift created economic opportunity for some at devastating expense to others. “The original social justice,” writes Rectenwald, “amounted to the protection and mobilization of small charitable and philanthropic organizations to address (but not eliminate) the recalcitrant social facts of individual, economic, and political inequality, which had been exacerbated under the new industrial economy.”
In short, there were private charities that worked to ameliorate the effects of job displacement and poverty of the industrial age. That was considered social justice. It stands in contrast to today’s social justice movement, which is only tangentially concerned with uplifting the impoverished. It instead trains its energy on bringing down the “privileged” and reordering the social hierarchy around identity and grievance. It wants the moral superiority of the oppressed moved to the top and nothing less.

Feminists of the 1980s did most of the work in bringing social justice from academia to the rest of America. In her 1986 book The Science Question in Feminism, influential feminist Sandra Harding writes that “by starting from the lived realities of women’s lives, we can identify the grounding for a theory of knowledge that should be the successor to both Enlightenment and Marxist epistemologies.” In other words, Harding is asserting that women, simply by nature of their gender, possess a particular knowledge that should function as the viewpoint by which the world operates.
If standpoint knowledge functions as the brain of social justice ideology, its heart is intersectionality, an ever-shifting ranking system that determines who is more aggrieved than the next, who deserves more deference than the other. It’s a hazy, nonconcrete way of measuring overlapping identities and their corresponding hardships and victimhood. The more cross sections of oppressed identities an individual can claim, the higher his or her status on the intersectionality scale.

It gets messy even within the movement. Who can say whether one person is more aggrieved than another? Is a black woman more or less oppressed than a white gay man? Is a Latino man more or less privileged than a Palestinian transgender woman? Is a Native American man more or less aggrieved than a lesbian Asian woman? It’s all worked out through a type of never-ending oppression Olympics, a competition for the title of Most Aggrieved. The judges are the social justice enforcers, the culture fascists in academia, in Hollywood, in the news media, and in political Washington.
Black feminist author Gloria Watkins, better known by her pen name "bell hooks," helped usher in the intersectionality ranking system in her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, a critique of the feminist movement of the 1960s. In that book, she argues that the movement overlooked struggles against forms of oppression that fall outside of gender, and outside of white women in particular. She writes, “Within society, all forms of oppression are supported by traditional Western thinking. ... Sexist oppression is of primary importance … [because] it is the practice of domination most people are socialized to accept before they even know that other forms of group oppression exist.” She continues, “Since all forms of oppression are linked in our society because they are supported by similar institutional and social structures, one system cannot be eradicated while the others remain intact.”

Hooks maintains that the most discussed grievance of the time, the lack of women’s sexual and economic independence, was only the first step in addressing other forms of oppression not yet acknowledged by society. That observation was a prescient prediction of the situation in present-day America, with its bottomless well of grievance and oppression.

The most up-to-date idea of privilege, social justice theory’s ultimate adversary, was pushed into the mainstream by Peggy McIntosh, who is famous for her 1988 essay, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. The essay builds on 1960s feminism but ventures into race by critiquing the privilege of white people in everyday life. Without ever using the phrase, McIntosh talks about the hierarchy of intersectionality. She refers to it instead as “interlocking oppressions.” And without ever using the phrase, she introduces social justice ideology’s most potent weapon — the modern-day struggle session: the command to “check your privilege” in front of the masses.

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious,” she writes. “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”
She goes on to give 46 examples of white privilege she personally enjoys, an exercise that college students are now instructed to replicate at universities all over the country. (I personally went through it during a mandatory freshman-level course.)

Among McIntosh’s examples of her white privilege are: “I can be reasonably sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me”; “I can go shopping alone most of the time, fairly well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives”; and, “Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance that I am financially reliable.”

McIntosh’s “knapsack of special provisions” might have simply served as an innocuous set of observations about unrecognized prejudices if it weren’t for the second half of her essay. That part takes a maniacal nosedive and suggests that those who possess privilege feel a sense of shame and a sense of responsibility to atone for something they had no say in.

“A man’s sex provides advantage for him whether or not he approves of the way in which dominance has been conferred on his group,” McIntosh writes. “A ‘white’ skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us.” She says that “individual acts can palliate, but cannot end” the cycle. “To redesign social systems,” she puts forth, “we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.”

To redesign social systems. That’s the entire purpose of the social justice movement. It’s to remake society from top to bottom.

McIntosh concludes her essay by denouncing the “myth of meritocracy,” which she says is kept alive by “obliviousness about white advantage [and] obliviousness about male advantage” and is “kept strongly inculturated in the United States.”

This is social justice. It’s an ideology that says the America you understand today is fundamentally broken and that full equality is unobtainable without a complete overhaul of its current order and a total abandonment of what McIntosh called the “myth of meritocracy.” Social justice maintains that there is no meritocracy, only identity, oppression, and privilege. Those assumed to hold an advantage due to their race, gender, or sexuality must submit to the aggrieved in accordance with the new intersectionality hierarchy.

“Politics,” says Rectenwald, “is reduced by social justice warriors to a series of … Facebook statuses, tweets, kneel-downs during the singing of the U.S. national anthem, and so forth.” This is called “virtue signaling” — overt gestures that communicate adherence to the movement and its ideology.
Social justice is centered on who can claim the highest form of oppression, grievance, and victimhood at any given moment. It’s an endless competition in claiming to have been the most exploited, most subordinated, and most abused.

Social justice and its enforcers have created an ever-evolving, never-satisfied new class of people: the victims of privilege, who in turn become the privileged by victimization. They are our privileged victims.

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Eddie Scarry is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner and the author of Privileged Victims: How America's Culture Fascists Hijacked the Country and Elevated Its Worst People , from which this essay is adapted.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Sex & Sensibilities

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I’ve just about made it through Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, at long last, as it’s been on my bucket list for awhile. It has arguably the greatest opening line of any novel, which has always made me want to continue with it, but apart from the odd nice observation or turn of phrase here and there, it’s been a bit of a slog.

I’ve been trying to withhold judgement or limit my expectations, since it’s a relatively ‘early’ novel (1813), but as with another highly regarded book from roughly the same period, Wuthering Heights (1847), I found it to be extremely limited in accomplishment and amateurish in execution: with both books I had the problem several times of not knowing who was talking to who on the page, which would seem to me a very elementary mistake to make when writing a novel. And then realizing this was taking place going on a hundred years after Gulliver’s Travels, which suffers from none of these deficiencies.

Most of all it’s been making me think about the differences between male and female art - Austen, after all, is perhaps the highest regarded female author there is, and especially in Britain is always mandatorily listed in the ‘top tens’ of great writers.

But why? Her strengths are few - mostly just an ear for, and wry observation of, middle-class life and gossip. Whereas, in terms of invention, originality, drama, plot, tension, sustained humour, concision, and most of all scope, she is nothing at all to write home about.

Nothing exists for her outside the comfortable drawing rooms and pleasantly-kept gardens of her world. The book was written - and set - during a time of enormous upheaval and drama and death - the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars - and yet the only flicker of acknowledgement of this is the occasional mentions of the young army officers, newly stationed in town, who are of interest only as potential marriage prospects. There is an absolute absence of curiosity about the wider ramifications of the war, the political changes daily taking place, about the horror those men are heading to or coming from - let alone the experiences of the ordinary footsoldiers. Her vision is microscopic: all that matters to her are the internal frettings of a woman in search of a marriage.

Austen made light of this herself, even writing of one character. “without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object”. But though Austen recognizes how deeply cringey and unpleasant this is, her avatar in the book, Elizabeth, is shown to be no different from the rest of the womanfolk: when the protagonist of Pride & Prejudice improbably ends up at the country home of her love interest Mr Darcy, the long, loving descriptions of the grounds and the estate, the decoration of the house, even the furniture, are all an integral part of the changeover of her feelings, all plus points and incentives on the growing list of advantages to bag him. Essentially saying ‘soon, all this will be yours’.

This is another profound difference between the sexes, for if a man - then or now - was writing about a woman he had met, and began listing all her wealth and shiny objects, about how she has a swimming pool that he looks forward to swimming in every day once they are married and she’s taking care of his every want and whim forever…. everybody, woman or man, would simply think him a heartless cad or a ridiculous gigolo. The idea that such material covetousness would be a fundamental part of his ‘love’ for her would be unthinkable in any sympathetic male character. It would not, in fact, be recognized as ‘love’ at all. And yet this fetishization of wealth and/or status is still the rule for female-written women characters in practically every ‘Romance’ novel there is, from Jane Austen right up to 50 Shades Of Grey.

To return to my original point: Austen is widely held to be the greatest female author, and yet her objective accomplishments are few. In this she illustrates in microcosm a general disparity between the sexes in ambition and achievement and, well… genius.

For example, in literature there is no female equivalent to Shakespeare, Joyce, Tolstoy, Dickens, Milton….. There’s no female Tolkien - a woman spending decades building a world for which she wrote dictionaries in an invented language and long books of political history and mythology before even publishing a word. The nearest female equivalent would probably be J.K. Rowling, a mediocre and derivative hack who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The former is the product of an all-consuming obsession, a drive to break new ground no-one has walked before, to do what previously would have been thought to be impossible. The latter is a nice, safe, part-time hobby that paid well.

On the other hand, and to be fair, there’s no male equivalent I can think of to, say, Anaïs Nin, but then she herself is perhaps the most extreme example of the solipsism I’m addressing: the subject of almost all famous female writers is the internal feelings of a single woman.

This lack of vision, the lack of ability or inclination to rise up above and out of oneself, attempting to reach far beyond one’s grasp, is largely why there are no great female composers - no female Bach, or Mozart, or Debussy or Mahler or Beethoven or Wagner or Stravinsky or so many others. Even though all you need to write a symphony is some paper, a pen and a piano, the middle class women of the 19th century, who had more free time and piano lessons than anybody else alive, came up with precisely nothing, not one orchestral work of any note.

I already (unintentionally) made a lot of people angry by pointing out awhile back the incontrovertible fact that there are no great all-female rock & roll bands - yes, a few good little cult acts like The Slits or The Dixies Chicks or The Go-Gos or whoever, but none that achieved anything like the universally recognized (and recognizable) body of work of The Beatles, The Stones, Black Sabbath, The Clash, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, The Smiths, R.E.M., U2, etcetera etcetera etcetera…

Now, part of that is simply because of how hard it is to keep an all-girl band together, when at least half the band will want to quit and become a mother instead within the first 5 years. But it’s also just because of the lack of shared technical excellence and overwhelming drive to eclipse everything by everybody (male or female) that has come before them. There ARE very important female figures in the history of rock & roll, like Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Carole King, Nina Simone, Laurie Anderson and others: my point has always been simply that either they worked alone, or almost 100% exclusively with men. Any great female singer you can think of, the entire musical architecture built around and supporting her singing was constructed pretty much exclusively by fellas. Just as in every other medium.

Even female magicians: right now I’m hooked on watching Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, and every time a woman appears onstage, I instantly know what I’m going to see: an old trick, performed at an amateur level, dressed up in an appealing and well-thought out presentation. The focus is always much more on the colours, the clothes, the backdrops, the character she is playing, rather than actual technical ability. The female magician simply refuses to spend decades sitting in front of a mirror practising with cards, or cups and balls, at the expense of all else, or obsessively designing and building device after device after device to reach towards some new standard of greatness.

And that’s a perfectly sensible position to have - to want a well-rounded, pleasant life instead of one of mania and single-minded obsession. But that’s also why no woman got to the North Pole, or the top of Everest, or up in an aeroplane, or down to the bottom of the sea, until long after the first man bit the bullet and made the trip.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

RIP Daniel Johnston




I’ve just now found out that the Vincent Van Gogh of underground rock & roll, the late great Daniel Johnston, has died, apparently of a heart attack.

The man had been a grotesque physical and mental wreck for decades, and yet it somehow still seems very sudden and unexpected.

He first came to public attention in the early 1990s, at the height of grunge, and in the middle of all that whining, self-pitying and mumbling angst, Johnston stood out as the real deal, a genuinely schizophrenic, regularly institutionalized tortured poet struggling to cope with the voices in his head whilst also writing the most beautiful, wide-eyed, open-hearted, painfully honest songs perhaps ever penned, and drawing endless pictures of an Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape, peopled with superheroes and impossible creatures of his own invention.

The musical well - along with his singing voice - dried up in his final couple of decades, most likely because of all the very heavy medication and just plain old physical deterioration, but the songs he recorded at home in anonymity throughout the 80s are now rightfully treasured among those who know as scratchy classics comparable to all the great, mysterious blues recordings from the 1920s and 30s: unique historical recordings of an authentic American artistic voice.

There’s a lot to his story, too much to try go into here, but his music has been a touchstone of truth in my life, and it means a great deal to me that he existed and made what he made. No-one ever sung truer.

So rest in peace, Daniel, and thank you.




Monday, 22 April 2019

Jordan Peterson explains the Post-Modernism/ Neo-Marxism connection to Slavoj Žižek

People always go after Peterson for his lumping these two, seemingly disparate movements together, but this is the best and simplest stating of his position I’ve seen.


Tuesday, 26 March 2019

RIP Scott Walker


So I’ve just found out that Scott Walker, one of the greatest, most influential, and uncompromising artists in all of pop music, has died at the age of 76. I guess that’s a decent innings but it still feels a blow, and too soon. It felt like he still had a lot more in him.

The newspaper obituaries all seem to be dwelling on his early mainstream success back in the 1960s with the Walker Brothers, with hits like ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’, ‘My Ship Is Coming In’, and especially the utterly magnificent ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’:



And that's to be expected, but the truth is, his most important work came later, with a long solo career that paid no attention at all to chart success or sales, or his movie star good looks, but instead fiercely followed his own obsessive, idiosyncratic avant-garde path into unknown realms, with deeply serious work that has no real contemporaries or precedent in the English speaking music world, and more easily discerned roots in French and German theatre and cabaret, as well as Russian writers of the past.


To me, more than anything, he resembles one of the great French film directors, like Bresson, or Cocteau, or Renoir, if they had instead chosen to work only in song. And like those great artists, the best of what he made will never age or go out of fashion, but still be encountered with new eyes and treasured a hundred years from now.




Wednesday, 23 January 2019

That idiotic Gillette ad may have turned the tide on ‘toxic masculinity’

Razor blade commercials aren’t supposed to make national headlines, but these aren’t ordinary times. Last week’s Gillette commercial playing on the #MeToo movement became the latest piece of corporate messaging to berate and belittle men.

The commercial implored men to “be better,” while juxtaposing scenes of boys wrestling at a cookout, bullies menacingly chasing a boy down the street, men catcalling women and making lewd jokes and generally acting like brutes.

Many Americans were angry, not least men, whom the commercial framed as universal aggressors and rapists.

Fans claimed that those who were upset by the Gillette ad should be asking themselves why. The implication was that, if you didn’t like being lectured by a company trying to sell you razors, it must mean that you are likely the bully and sexual assaulter the ad makers had in mind when they made the commercial.

Well, I’m a woman, and I hated the commercial, because I’m tired of the boy-bashing that has become all too common on our screens and in our world.

“It’s just an ad!” doesn’t fly. Would women shrug off “just an ad” that treated femininity as something inherently bad and in need of modification? They wouldn’t. Women accept far less criticism from advertisements than men do.

In 2015, a company called Protein World released an ad for a diet supplement featuring a fit model in a bikini and the words: “Are You Beach Body Ready?” The backlash was swift. The ad was defaced again and again in the NYC subways, and the city of London went so far as to ban “body-shaming” ads on the Underground.

If there was a moment in time when women collectively decided that they would no longer stand for being body-shamed, that was it.

Similarly, the response to the Gillette ad feels like a dam breaking. This might be the moment when men have finally had enough.

Men are constantly barraged with criticism. “Men are the worst” has gotten old. The word masculinity is only preceded by the word “toxic” these days.

Meanwhile, men have been on a downward trajectory for some time now. Fewer men go to college, more men commit suicide, more men live at home with their parents well into adulthood.

Men take the most dangerous jobs, they fight and die in our wars, yet they are told nonstop that they are terrible, and the future isn’t for them. They are expected to shrug it off because, well, they are men.

If men are traditionally stoic and impervious to criticism, and we like them that way, then the idea that men can take the shots simply because they are strong and manly flies in the face of the commercial — which bashes male stoicism.

Gillette implores men to be better because kids are watching. Yes, kids are watching men portrayed as bumbling idiots in so many ads and as violent misogynists in this one.

The worst part of the commercial is the group of men standing in a row over their grills robotically repeating “Boys will be boys.” The message is that men are all the same. They don’t think for themselves, and they excuse bad behavior in each other. They’re grilling just like your husband, father, brother — doing this activity they enjoy while simultaneously creating bad men out of their sons.

“We expected debate,” Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette’s North America brand director, told CNN Business. “Actually, a discussion is necessary. If we don’t discuss and don’t talk about it, I don’t think real change will happen.”

No, what we need is to stop insulting men. We can’t elevate women by knocking men down. Some men will nod along with ads that insult them, but, in general, these companies are offending men and doing damage to their own stated cause. On the Gillette YouTube channel, the commercial has garnered more than double the number of “dislikes” than “likes.”

This wasn’t a win for the company.

“Isn’t it time we stopped excusing bad behavior?” Gillette asked in the tweet introducing the commercial. Yes, it is. And that includes the bad behavior of corporate salesmen treating half of the population as monsters, all to sell a product targeted at precisely that segment of Americans.