Rex Murphy and Privilege

“White Privilege” and the checking of same, is one of the latest memes to exorcise conservatives. Things got started when Tal Fortgang’s,  “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege”  was somehow plucked from the obscurity of The Princeton Tory and ignited the blogosphere.

Fortgang probably got more piling on than he deserved. Despite the self-confident tone, a freshman writing a column for a campus newspaper, in April, with the same word twice in the title, all suggests that Fortgang was laying out some unpolished thoughts. If the discussion was on a much smaller scale – say, within the campus – it could be seen as an opening statement, or invitation to constructive dialogue. But the teachable moment, if ever there was one, was lost some time before the essay was reprinted in Time magazine a month later, with the title tellingly changed to “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” “Check” doesn’t generate nearly as much ressentiment as “apologize for.”

But if we can forgive Fortgang for a youthful indiscretion, National Post columnist Rex Murphy is old enough that he should know better. Yet his column of May 17 repeats the same tired tropes of campus political correctness run amok. Bad enough that he recycles Fortgang’s arguments – halfway through the column I was expecting Murphy to say that his own grandparents’ suffered at the hands of the Nazis – he also doubles down on the “fundamentalist fury” of anti-racist activism (or as he styles it, “the privilege movement”) on campuses.

“Fundamentalist” anti-racism, as Murphy sees it, is the other side of the coin of racism. The “privilege movement” asserts “that all a person does and is springs from the colour of his (sic) skin.” Of course, many of those who responded critically to Fortgang argued against exactly this, but Murphy ignores them, because they don’t fit with his thesis, namely that the identification of “privilege” is a “blatant attempt to chase effort, merit, industry and determination off the field entirely.” Outside of the fevered imagination of conservatives like Rex Murphy, though, about the only place we might actually find this is the 1980s SNL skit (“White Like Me“) where Eddie Murphy (no relation) goes undercover as a white person. But instead of engaging with ideas that are seriously presented, Murphy prefers to ask about universities: “do they ever test an idea?” And particularly the one that he describes as “strange, absurd and utterly self-contradictory.”

Well, yes. The racial inequalities are well-documented with respect to wealth, access to jobshousing, protection from toxic environments, police suspicion and harassment, educational (mentoring) opportunities, and so on. (And if you think this applies only to the USA and not Canada, see here, here, and here.) So it is at least equally strange and absurd to argue that privilege is non-existent in our world, and that all difference is attributable to individual effort or “character,” as Rex Murphy implies.

And self-contradictory. On April 4, two days after Fortgang’s first published his refusal to “check [his] privilege,” Rex Murphy wrote a column about Justin Trudeau. It’s title? “The Pain of the Privileged.” In it, he describes Trudeau as, you guessed it: privileged.

Trudeau, according to Murphy, is “a man too advantaged by benign circumstance and nature.” A well-connected family, wealth, education, good looks… To be sure, these are reflections of Justin Trudeau’s good fortune rather character. And here, Murphy may well be accurate. But we can easily imagine a Trudeau defender responding to that April version of Rex Murphy with the May version of Rex Murphy:

Why should all a young person’s effort and sweat, holding on to a moral code, and determined application to make something of their life be turned against them, be denied its efficacy, and everything praiseworthy about a person be dismissed as merely a gift of their [inherited characteristics]?

And what of the questions that Murphy (May version) insists universities should be asking about “white privilege”? Before insisting that Trudeau is privileged, does Rex Murphy ever think to ask:

What part of the great DNA chain, specifically, houses the gene for [Trudeau] privilege? How does [family name] and privilege interlink, and why does privilege always follow only one [Canadian political family]? Do individuals always and only reflect the characteristics of their [family] group? Do “[Trudeaus]” have any qualities or achievements at all that do not spring only from their [family name]?

When Rex Murphy looks at someone else, like Justin Trudeau, he can spot privilege easily. When he looks at a social group that he belongs to, that as a group has disproportionate access to political power, material wealth, educational opportunities, healthy environments, freedom from police harassment… Nothing to see here! Move along!

It is, for all of us, easier to see privilege operating in the lives of others than it is to see it operating in our own. And that is why we need to be reminded to check for it.

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