Tag Archives: Canada

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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Entitlements in an Age of Austerity

“I am entitled to my entitlements.” So said outgoing Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall as he defended his generous severance package in December 2005. The line was used to great effect in the 2006 election campaign that the Liberals lost, commencing the reign of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Post-economic crisis, and in what is often called an “Age of Austerity,” the fury directed at lavish spending by public servants has only intensified. The trope of public employees living large on the taxpayers’ dime tends to be used more frequently by conservatives who favour small government anyway. But of course individual conservative politicians – Bev Oda, Mike Duffy, and Alison Redford to cite a few recent examples – can also be caught up in its wake.

Thus there is a sense in which this critique of the “culture of entitlement” among the political class might be seen as non-partisan. Certainly that seems to be the thrust of Gary Mason’s article in today’s Globe & Mail, “The days of entitlement in office are ending.” On the other hand, getting people to see themselves first and foremost as “taxpayers” may feed into a critique of public sector spending more generally. In this sense, the view that there is a culture of entitlement among political elites feeds into the view that government is inherently wasteful, put most straightforwardly by US conservative activist Grover Norquist, who once claimed his ambition was to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Mason’s article cites Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (a group often sighted lurking around the bathtub), who says that “Public pressure is changing the rules for political perks.” One of the reasons cited – maybe because it is used to explain everything else in the world, so why not this? – is the rise of social media. The other, though, is more interesting.

Mr. Bateman believes that more people today have what would be considered white-collar jobs. They understand how executives and business leaders should be conducting themselves and don’t see politicians as being any different or more entitled. “They understand that world and what’s appropriate, perhaps more than a 1950s blue-collar worker did,” said Mr. Bateman.

And in the information economy of today, most workers don’t get to fly business class, take their spouses to South Africa, stay in $1,000-a-night hotel rooms or sip $16 glasses of orange juice, he said. Their working lives are much more austere.

Much could be said about the way that “austerity” is seen (or argued) to be internalized, particularly among a class of people (white collar, information workers) who were once supposed to be immune from the economic insecurity that was foretold for blue collar manufacturing workers. The ideological sleight of hand in the move from elites (“executives and business leaders”) in the first paragraph to “most workers” in the second is certainly revealing: if there really is the same standard applied across the board, then we would have to say “executives and business leaders don’t get to fly business class…” But if business leaders shouldn’t fly business class, who should?

More interesting, though, is the narrow way that “entitlements” are defined. It is a mark of the triumph of neoliberalism’s economic mode of thinking that when talking about “entitlements” we seem to only end up talking about spending perks: a second home, luxury hotels, overpriced orange juice, and outright financial transfers like severance agreements and “gold-plated” pensions.

Less commonly discussed, but arguably far more common and dangerous, is a culture of political entitlement. If we think about entitlement to wield power without meaningful accountability, then we are in the heyday of entitlement in office. The mayor of Toronto’s case is known well enough to be summarized succinctly: despite everything that he has done, he feels entitled to continue in office. His sense of entitlement seems based only on his professed love of the job and the city, and his belief that only he can stop the gravy train. The case of our Prime Minister: here it is a matter of complete disdain for even the idea that anyone outside of his inner circle (said circle perhaps extending no further than his own head) could have a valid point of view. His government recently dismissed the unprecedented number and diversity of dissenting views on the so-called Fair Elections Act as the opinions of “self-styled experts.” More generally, the use of omnibus legislation, the prorogation of Parliament, the canceling of the long-form census and other measures typically used to inform evidence-based policy-making, the muzzling of government scientists, all of this has been in the service of more efficiently driving through Stephen Harper’s agenda. He knows what he wants to do. He thinks it is right. Therefore, whatever anyone else might do or say, he thinks he can, he should, and he will do it. He is the Prime Minister, and is entitled to wield power. He feels entitled to his entitlements.

To return to what was said by Jordan Bateman, above, the problem with the current era of austerity is not just that white-collar workers in the information economy were denied the promise of a better material life, or that “their working lives are more austere.” It is that in the current information economy, the veneration of “leaders” (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) extends well beyond our working lives. Our political lives have become more austere. One way to describe authoritarianism might be an exaggerated sense of entitlement among political leaders: authoritarian leaders feel entitled to wield power without the checks that are present in a more democratic system. In Canada today, that culture of entitlement, unfortunately, is alive and well.