‘Privilege’ Comes Dressed in Overalls and Looks Like Work

The Left has launched a kind of free-floating cultural witch hunt aimed at uncovering and denouncing “privilege.” This has become a normal part of the indoctrination—excuse me, orientation—for new college students: to be asked to unpack an extensive list of their “privileges” and to grasp, or at least repeat back to their trainers, how guilty they feel about it all.

When you think about it, college freshmen are a perfect target for this sort of thing. Nearly all of them come in with a long list of good and generous things their doting parents have done for them, and they have to admit that they themselves didn’t particularly do anything to deserve this. Then they’re told, in effect, that they are the beneficiaries of an unjust system and must atone for it.

How? By doing whatever the leftist indoctrinators tell them to do, whether that’s adopting the latest PC language or reflexively voting for Democratic Party politicians. So it’s an ideal method for taking young people, who ought to be on their first steps toward becoming independent and self-reliant, and instead making them obedient to a new tribe. For some of the more extreme victims of this higher education Stockholm Syndrome, it lasts for life. For most, though, it lasts until they leave college, get a job, get married, have kids of their own—and proceed to bestow on those kids the very same advantages their parents gave to them, only more so.

The fig leaf for the campaign against privilege is that it targets the kind of advantages that are mere accidents of history—for example, the advantages that come with being free from the more odious cultural expectations foisted upon people because of the color of their skin. But this isn’t what it’s really about, and predictably they have extended their campaign to target every little aspect of life, including such privileges as having your parents read to you when you were a child.

No, really. A report from the ABC—not the American network, but the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—discusses the ideas of “philosophers” Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse, who are concerned that the family itself is an engine of social inequality. Specifically, according to Swift:

The evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t—the difference in their life chances—is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t.

Swift doesn’t actually think we should ban parents reading to their kids, though he does think we should ban private schools. He actually offers a kind of twisted defense of the family—from a collectivist perspective which starts from the assumption that the private family should be abolished unless it can demonstrate its social utility. Some defense. So he concludes that it’s okay to read to your children, but you should feel guilty about it.

I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.

Note the hidden assumption there: by giving advantages to your own children, you are “disadvantaging other people’s children,” as if the good things you do for your own kids constitute actual harm for the children of others.

This whole question is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, because I have two young kids. And I am working my tail off to give them as much “privilege” as humanly possible.

I want my kids to start their adult lives with a laundry list of advantages: I want them to be bright, literate, skilled, capable of self-discipline, athletic, with good taste and manners and grooming, maybe a little bit of money, and heck, even a few family connections—enough to get their feet in the doors of whatever careers they choose. I had some of these things, mostly a good education, and undoubtedly more than most people. I want my kids to have even more. Why? Because that’s my job as a parent: to give my kids the best start in life possible—and better than mine.

Privilege is not the same thing as “entitlement.” Entitlement means taking one’s advantages in life for granted, as if they are part of the normal order of things, and not realizing where they came from or what made them possible. Which usually means frittering away all of those advantages by failing to take the initiative to accomplish anything of your own.

In fact, one of the most important advantages you can give your kids is a lack of entitlement, the ethos of knowing that he has to work for what he wants in life. One of the great secrets of the middle class strivers is that they realize lack of entitlement is a “privilege” that will give their children a leg up on the spoiled rich kids.

This privilege, like all of the really important privileges, is less a matter of money than of values, the investment of time, and work. What really confers the big advantages on young people is not some vague, collective social structure. It is the work and care and effort of those who came before them.

What looks like “privilege” from my perspective—because I didn’t earn it—looked like work for my parents and grandparents, because they did earn it on my behalf.

I have very fond memories of my grandfather on my mother’s side, who was born in a shack in the hills of Kentucky and had to drop out of school as a teenager when his father came down with smallpox. He worked to support his family and continued working hard all his life, rising up to a position as foreman. He saved, invested, built a stable home for his family, and sent three kids through college so they could pursue careers as educated professionals.

The next generation, my parents, read to me, ferried me to piano lessons and who knows what else. They had bookshelves I could ransacked to learn about history and literature and science, and they spent time and money, and time, encouraging my interests and education.

What I take from this background is that it is my job not to let their efforts go to waste, and to do the same for the next generation. I’ve always loved an old quote from Henry Ford: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” The same thing goes for “privilege,” which is really just a disparaging term for “opportunity.” In this white-collar era, it doesn’t necessarily come dressed in overalls any more. But it still looks like work.

This is a central part of what is generally called the American Dream: that your kids will have the opportunity to go farther and be better off than you were. Founding Father John Adams expressed one version of this: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” That final sentiment is a little too Ivory Tower for my taste, as if the only real purpose of life is to study highbrow art. But it captures the idea that life in America is supposed to be a multi-generational ladder, with each generation providing advantages to the next, which they build on to go to a higher level.

But aren’t there people who are excluded from this? That’s the most pernicious part of the Left’s theory of privilege—the insistence that privilege is for white people. That’s a waste of a lot of work and sacrifice. To borrow Adams’ formulation, previous generations studied civil rights so that today’s young black and Hispanic students can study math, science, engineering, history, and so on, and climb the multi-generational ladder. By contrast, the obsessive focus on “white privilege”—the notion that you, too, can enjoy the same privileges as that guy with missing teeth who bagged my groceries this morning—seems narrow and defeatist.

I’m not denying that there are some real disadvantages members of racial minorities still struggle with. But particularly today, all of the really good privileges, the ones that will do the most to propel you and your children forward in life, are available for the cost of dedication and hard work.

Yet there is a certain ideological and political advantage to be gained by convincing people to abandon the path to advancement and wait instead for a Great Levelling to be brought about by the vanguard of the Left. As the Telegraph‘s Tim Blair notes, in a follow-up on that Australian piece about reading to your kids, “Asked if it might be just as easy to level the playing field by encouraging other parents to read bedtime stories, [ABC host] Gelonesi said: ‘We didn’t discuss that.'” That says it all, doesn’t it? They didn’t even consider the idea of raising everyone up. They start with the premise of tearing everyone down, so we can all be equally disadvantaged.

If we’re concerned about how to raise ourselves up, the first step is to stop complaining about the privileges others have provided for their children. Instead, go thou and do likewise, on whatever scale is possible for you. And teach the next generation to take those advantages and do even better.

I’m going to give my kids a lot of advantages. I’m also going to teach them to be proud and grateful for what the people who came before them accomplished, and to make sure they live up to that standard by using what we gave them to achieve something of their own. Giving them that sense of striving is the greatest privilege I can pass on.

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