White Privilege: Kumbaya Won’t Cut It

How Sad

A sad fact: Many things that are good for society or the earth itself are not good for me, me, me.

Higher taxes hurt people like me. A livable minimum wage costs people like me. Fair trade costs me money. Carbon cap and trade hurts the pocket books of people like me, me, me.

A sad fact: wealth can be fairly distributed in three ways: the rich can decide to give it away; taxes; revolution.

I can live in delusion and sing Kumbaya and say I’m in solidarity with all those other people—then do nothing—or I can get out there and break down White Privilege. And American Privilege. And Human Privilege, come to that. I can’t get there through studying the problem; or guilt; or singing Kumbaya.

Tell Em What They Wanna Hear

Edward Bernays was the “father of mass marketing.” His most influential book, called Propaganda and published in 1928, is the bestselling book on political psychology of all time. (It has recently become a favorite among business people in China.)

Parenthetically, when Bernays saw that the word “propaganda” had negative connotations, he invented the term “public relations.”

Bernays believed that a democratic society required what he called “hidden governors.”

Bernays is probably most famous for breaking the taboo against women smoking in public. He was hired by a tobacco company to convince women to smoke. He hired a group of models who marched in a parade in New York City. On cue, and in front of the cameras, the models lit up their cigarettes, called in the press release “Torches of Freedom.” And soon every trendy flapper smoked.

Bernays feared what he termed “herd mentality.” He thought that the bourgeoisie—the upper-middle class—had deposed the kings, but had, by the 1920s, been in turn deposed by the working class masses. He was convinced that the way for the upper-middle class to re-establish power was through propaganda. Uh, I mean public relations . . .
A study of his career is a study in bad ideas becoming popular. And I think we have to admit that his experiment worked. The privileged are still in power, perhaps more securely now than ever.

And the poor watch the endless parade of bait and switch.

The concept of privilege does not imply that someone did not work hard for her or his stuff. Or work hard for his or her accomplishments. It means that the stuff and accomplishments she and he get a chance to work for are largely based on arbitrary factors such as geography, time, gender, and the religious and racial attitudes of the place and time of his and her birth.

In the United States, privilege boils down to exactly what Bernays and the people who hired him were: European, male, heterosexual, good education.

Me, me, me.

I can join a good liberal church and sing Kumbaya and let those market forces continue to work me me, me, me. Or . . .
Oh, No, I’m a Humanist!
It’s a burden. Those who do not believe in supernatural forces easily see how arbitrary privilege is: We did nothing to deserve it. It is not the choice of–or a reward from-supernatural forces.

The very arbitrariness of privilege tells us that privilege is unjust. Furthermore, the realization of this arbitrariness tells us that we have an obligation to undo the effects of privilege, even though we may be directly benefiting from said privilege.

I don’t doubt that those Chinese business folks currently studying the methods Bernays touted will develop their very own special form of privilege.

North Americans of European descent are born with privileges based on circumstances few of us had anything to do with—the genocide of the peoples who owned the land where we are; the unpaid labor of African slaves for hundreds of years; the exploitation of various immigrant groups; the exploitation of the working class for hundreds of years; the exploitation of poorer and smaller nations; biased tax structures . . . etc, etc. etc.

But these actions are not in the past—because the wealth and power accumulated through these actions are not in the past. The solution is not as simple as passing laws against racial profiling; the solution isn’t as simple as changing the hearts and minds of those who benefit so that we feel sad all the way to the bank.

The solution is the redistribution of the wealth and power accumulated by the actions.

And, yes, that would look exactly like the sort of democracy that Edward Bernays feared . . .

And, yes, that would make many privileged white people sad.

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