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Privilege and Idolatry

In May of 2005, the late David Foster Wallace delivered one of the wisest, most demanding commencement speeches in recent memory. The speech is titled “This Is Water,” a phrase drawn from the following joke: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

The aim of the speech, delivered at the elite liberal arts school Kenyon College, is to encourage Foster’s listeners to examine those assumptions that are so broadly, blithely assumed that they escape detection, never mind questioning. His counsel is hard to heed, because, as Wallace avers, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

I was reminded of this difficulty when reading Matthew Crawford’s provocative, illuminating essay “Privilege” in the Summer 2018 issue of the The Hedgehog Review. Crawford first explains that the historical march of Liberalism has made “privilege”—something along the lines of unearned advantage—into a dirty word, and bequeathed to its bearers a guilty conscience. It hurts to feel guilty, and so we seek absolution; this is a not-insignificant function of most religions.

Crawford argues that the privileged classes in America—much as we’d like to deny that such things exist—have found a way to at least redirect their proper liberal opprobrium away from their own privilege, via the secular cult of diversity. Students at elite universities are especially drawn to this cult. It makes sense—if privilege is a sin, they have much to atone for. Crawford writes, “As gatekeeper to the upper middle class, the elite university has as its primary social function the sorting of the population. . . . It detects existing inequalities, exacerbates them, and certifies them.”

It’s difficult to see how one could deny this with a straight face. There are myriad, overlapping “existing inequalities” that one could focus on—cognitive, financial, familial, affective, educational, cultural, etc. It’s very hard to get into Yale or Kenyon or Chicago. Most people who try will fail, because they possess a dearth of whatever currencies the admissions boards desire. Those who have enough are well on their way to being safely installed in the bosom of the upper middle class, at a time when the distance between the haves and have nots is exploding.

But privilege is bad, right? The whole apparatus ought to be guilt-making if you look at it with proper liberal eyes. What to do? According to Crawford, the regnant solution, presumably adopted subconsciously, is to avert one’s eyes from the lion’s share of these inequalities, and focus instead on other inequalities that are indexed to identity categories like race, gender, and sexual orientation. Rather than contemplate the yawning socioeconomic gap between myself and the inhabitants of Appalachia or Compton, I can think about, and strenuously protest, the gaps between white and brown, male and female, cis and trans, etc. It’s a kind of communal absolution via scapegoat. If I spend enough time and emotional energy denouncing that privilege, I can avoid confronting my own. My liberal conscience can rest easy.

However difficult it would be to prove, Crawford’s thesis is intriguing, and has a considerable ring of truth to it. It also throws an illuminating light on some of the clearest water in our contemporary social ecosystem. These are the currents we swim in as good liberal meritocrats; we reflexively believe that inequalities resulting from some accidents of birth and upbringing—things like skin color, gender, etc.—are moral travesties that cry to heaven for redress, while inequalities resulting from  some other accidents of birth and upbringing—things like raw I.Q., emotional intelligence, emotional stamina, and drive for achievement—are legitimate because they cash out into good, effective work. It is perfectly true that some people get into Yale because they work hard, overcome obstacles, take risks, etc. But where, exactly, do the relevant grit, discipline, resilience, confidence, courage, etc., come from?  They come from genetics and environment, just like everything else. Success is made of luck, all the way down.

So Crawford’s call to examine our meritocratic water is salutary. We ought to have some idea why we hate some inequalities and sanction others. I need not expend many words in 2018 arguing that racial prejudice, gender chauvinism, tribal preference, etc. can warp our view of reality, and sow suffering and enmity. So fine—they’re bad and let’s keep an eye out for them. But Crawford thinks the concern with these inequalities functions in some significant part as distraction from other forms of unearned advantage. And should we care about the inequalities dividing, say, the cognitive haves and have nots? The socially awkward and the debonair? Those whose parents read to them and made them finish their homework versus those whose parents never much cared to? Should we campaign like mad to standardize socioeconomic outcomes? Demand equal pay for unequal work?

These are complex ethical questions, and our answers will be marked by how and how dearly we value the spoils doled out to the winners of our meritocratic race. What exactly do they get as a result of their unearned advantages? Money comes immediately to mind, of course, along with the social status that we accord to the rich, and the moral approbation that America shines on those who’ve been smart, diligent, and professionally successful. Earlier this year, ostensible champion of the weak and downtrodden Hilary Clinton had this to say in a speech she delivered in Mumbai: “I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product, so I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.”

It would be difficult to miss the moralization of money here—it’s pure benediction for a life well lived. The good ones generate wealth, the bad ones are poor. That famous photo of Bill and Hilary at Trump’s most recent wedding makes more and more sense the closer you look at it; the two couples swim in the same philosophical water. But is this a healthy way to think? Should entry into the upper middle class mean so much to us?

No, in a word. It should not. The venn diagram of wealth and human excellence boasts a fairly slender overlap, and it’s no thicker if your two circles are wealth and happiness. After your bills have been paid and economic calamity reasonably defended against, money’s happiness-making powers fall off sharply. Ask an honest billionaire, and hear what sorts of things they sigh through the haze of distraction, status anxiety, therapeutic platitudes, and Xanax. The pleasures of social status lie chiefly in the perception that if all of these people respect me, I must be an excellent person. Pursuing actual excellence is a shorter, steadier, path to that same pleasure.

That’s what Aristotle says, at least. There’s little that’s new here. Figures like Socrates and Confucius and Jesus—and really the lion’s share of religion and philosophy, not to mention art—have long set themselves against the idolization of wealth and social status. But in the absence of a deeper, more realistic pathway to happiness, wealth and status will often become the default desideratum. They are easy and alluring. Witness their flooding takeover of atheistic, formerly communist societies like Russia and China, where traditional religion and philosophy were long suppressed. No society can abide by an ethical vacuum—we must and will find some way or other to tell whether we’re doing well in life.

Money’s not nothing, of course. Some decent, shared standard of living is a wonderful thing to pursue. No one should starve to death, or be unable to take their child to the doctor, least of all in a world-historically wealthy country like this one. The specter of society in which billionaires have to actively search for novel ways to “deploy this much financial resource” while others are brought to ruin by their children’s medical bills is morally grotesque. But that’s not what the diversity-hawks on campus are exercised about, exactly. They have, for the most part, bought into a moral system that is bankrupt, a vulgar animal default, and what they want is for the plastic fruits of that system to be spread more evenly amongst certain identity categories.

Foster Wallace thought that we should look closely at our water precisely to avoid kowtowing to these sorts of default value systems. Towards the end of his speech, he says: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. . . . If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.” He’s right. Our default idol needs to be undressed for the poseur that it is. We get money or don’t according to the vagaries of luck; it doesn’t say much of anything about us, and above a certain modest point, it doesn’t matter very much for our happiness. A lot of the guilt and insecurity felt by the American elite—not to mention the rapacious, keening greed—could be assuaged if they were apprised of just how little the spoils accorded them actually matter.

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