Privilege and Reward

I remember a glib put-down I overheard a few years back, referring to a casual acquaintance, a self-important scion of a wealthy family, whose attitude conveyed to everyone that he deserved everything he had.

The jerk was born on third base and grew up thinking he’d hit a triple!

The speaker wasn’t so much resentful of the person’s privileged position in life as she was of the fact that he didn’t seem to appreciate the tremendous head-start he’d enjoyed.  Had he at least acknowledged the advantages he’d been born with, she might have been more forgiving.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of both of them, have no idea to what extent they may have succeeded or failed in their respective life-journeys.  But I’ve been reflecting on the comment itself during these troubled times of pandemic, economic woe, and racial upheaval.

In our society, wealth or the lack of it is not the only factor that bestows or denies advantage.  Other dynamic influences include quality of family-life, level of education, type of employment, housing, race/ethnicity, gender-identity, and age.

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Other than that last one (I am past my mid-seventies), I score among the most fortunate in those categories, in that my status lies solidly within the traditionally-accepted norms.

The key phrase in the previous sentence is traditionally-accepted.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you doubt that, consider the following hypothetical scenario.  I am arranging a footrace for fifteen young people, mid-twenties, all of whom will compete against me for the prize.  The course is the staircase of my condo building; the starting-line is at the first-floor level; the winner is she or he who arrives on the twenty-fourth floor first.  Given the width of the staircase, the runners will begin in five ranks of three, arrayed behind me, the septuagenarian.

As in many races and competitions, however, handicapping will be a factor.  When everyone is ready and in place, I issue a series of statements to sort the field prior to the gun.

If your parents are both alive and still married, walk up one floor.

Almost everyone obliges, putting them one flight ahead of me.

If you graduated from college or university, walk up one floor.

Perhaps half the group does so, including me.  Several racers are now on the third floor, but a few are still back on the first-floor.

If you are employed full-time, or retired on a pension, walk up one floor.

Although I can’t see them as I climb to the third-floor, I hear some people climbing to the fourth floor.

If you own your own home, walk up one floor.

I am almost the only one who moves, given the age of the group overall.

If you have never been racially-profiled or discriminated against because of skin-colour or religion, walk up one floor.

Those of the fifteen who are not persons of colour advance, including me.  I am now on the fifth-floor landing with two other racers.

If you have never been discriminated against because your gender-identity is straight-male or straight-female, walk up one floor.

Below me, I hear people moving, and I now find myself on the sixth-floor with only one other person.

If you are over the age of thirty, walk up one floor.

This is a sneaky one, because I am the only one able to benefit, of course (age discrimination-in-reverse?), and I happily trudge to the seventh-floor—alone.  After gathering my breath for a few moments, I lean over the railing and call down.

How many people on the first-floor landing?

Five.

How many on the second?

Three.

I quickly learn there are two people on the third-floor, two on the fourth-floor, two on the fifth-floor, and one on the sixth-floor.  The staggered-start to the race is complete, and I have a six-floor advantage over one-third of the field.  That’s equivalent to a one-lap advantage around a 400m track in a 1500m race!

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Remember, though, this race was merely hypothetical; it never took place.  But had it been run, it’s likely that some of the fifteen racers would have overcome my advantage over them, my age being too crippling a factor.  I’m sure I would not have finished first—or maybe at all, alas!

But the unfortunate racers who started on the lower levels would have faced an insurmountable obstacle against whomever did win, someone who started perhaps from the fifth- or sixth-floor.  The disadvantages pressed on them by their life-experiences (as represented by my seven handicapping-statements) would have allowed them no chance against their more-advantaged competitors.

One of those racers starting at the first-floor might have been able to climb twenty-two levels in the same time-period the racer who started on the sixth-floor climbed eighteen levels to the finish-line, yet that person would still have failed to win.  Better effort is not always enough to surmount inborn advantage.

Someone starting on the sixth-floor—if they resist the urge to think they deserved it through their own efforts, if they apply themselves—will almost surely attain the prize over those starting on the lower levels.

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That’s life in a nutshell, as we know it.

That’s privilege and reward.

As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, …the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

Still, for those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, it behooves us to listen, to try to understand, and to support the cries of those who would seek to change the imbalance of the status quo.

That’s equity.

 

Hall of Infamy

In times of distress and uncertainty, many of us turn to respected leaders from days of yore to find solace or encouragement from their words.  A number of their declarations deservedly occupy a place in the hall of fame for inspiring messages.

But I have often wondered if there might be a hall of infamy for utterances that do just the opposite: reveal hateful philosophies that denigrate and belittle the spirit of humankind.  Goodness knows, there is no shortage of despicable characters from our history to whom we might turn for such messages.

We might think, for example, of Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Al Capone, Mao Zedong, Lenin, even Caligula.  All men, they made many dystopian claims during their respective reigns of terror.

A small sampling of these follows—

What good fortune for governments that the people do not think.

To read too many books is harmful.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

Make the lie big [and] simple.  Keep saying it…eventually people will believe it.

The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.

Politics is saying you are going to do one thing while intending to do another.

Vote early and vote often.

Death is the solution to all problems.  No man, no problem.

One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.

It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.

Religion is the opiate of the masses.

I don’t care if they respect me, so long as they fear me.

despots

Any search on the internet will turn up dozens and dozens of such statements by these men and others.  And it’s interesting to note that those who said these things might have actually believed them.  Even if we find their sentiments monstrous, they could have been telling the truth as they saw it.

Or, conversely, they might have been deliberately making such utterances, knowing they were false, to further their own ends.

But what of today?  Are there statements like these being made in our own time, perhaps believed by the person uttering them, even if misanthropic and obviously false?

Let us consider this next sample in the context of the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the planet—

Looks like the story was an exaggeration…Fake News…

It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.

One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.

We’re doing a great job with it.  Just stay calm.  It will go away.

I felt it was a pandemic before it was called a pandemic.

If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be able to be tested.

I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute…is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?

We’ve taken the most aggressive actions…the most aggressive by any country.

Cases, Cases, Cases! If we didn’t test so much and so successfully, we would have very few cases.

Now we have tested almost 40m people. By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless.

Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.

We’re on our way to a tremendous victory. It’s going to happen and it’s going to happen big.

How likely is it, do you suppose, that the person who made these statements truly believed them at the time they were uttered?  Could anyone in a major global-leadership position be that deluded?  That ignorant of science?

Or perhaps he knew what he was saying was false, but did it anyway to advance his own agenda.  Could that be so?

Each of us must make of it what we will.

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The bigger problem, of course, is that the person who has spoken these words is the democratically-elected leader of more than 330 million people—just a tad more than four percent of the planet’s population—whose nation is presently being overwhelmed by almost twenty-five percent of Covid-19 infections in the world.

More tragically, at the time of writing, the number of deaths is almost one-quarter of the worldwide total.  One-quarter!

All this from a country ranked first in the world in 2020 in GDP (gross domestic product)—presumably the best-equipped nation to deal with such a crisis—yet only the fifty-eighth safest nation in the world in the face of the pandemic.

So bad is the situation that four of the fifty states of the union occupy spots in the list of top-five world nations for Covid-19 infections.

When future generations seek an explanation for all of this, they may well focus on leadership—or its absence—at the very highest level.  And they may study carefully the statements made by the man at the pinnacle, some of which were listed above, to ascertain how effectively he grasped the dire situation, owned it, and set about to vanquish it.

If so, they may have to look no further than this remarkable statement from that very man—

I don’t take responsibility at all!

For the Hall of Infamy, I nominate…

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The Benighted States of America

As a boy and young man, I was fascinated by tales of derring-do and feats of glory by heroes, both real and fictional.  Among the earliest of these were the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; to this day, I can name my favourites without a fact-check—Sir Kay, Sir Gawain, Sir Bedivere, Sir Tristan, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad.

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Arthur and his knights, according to Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory—one of many writers who wrote of their exploits—swore to uphold a code of chivalry, which included:

– never to assault or murder,

– never to commit treason, and

– to provide succor to those in need.

I was too young, of course, to understand the clashes that arose between Arthur and Sir Lancelot, and later between Arthur and his son, Sir Mordred, which stemmed from their illicit love for the faithless Queen Guinevere.  Those led ultimately to the death of Arthur and the end of his glorious reign, and I mourned their failed quest.

A lasting effect of this Arthurian fascination was a propensity as I grew older to favour the underdog in any conflict, to root for those attempting seemingly-impossible pursuits—the Don Quixotes of the world, engaged in Sisyphean tasks to which they would not surrender.  I was an incurable romantic.

So it was unsurprising, I suppose, that a major focus for me in university would be Russian and American history—to wit, the demise of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, and especially the U.S. Civil War from 1861-1865.  In both cases, I found myself on the side of the lost causes—the Czarist regime and the Confederacy—despite knowing the outcome for both.  And like my younger self, who didn’t understand the Arthurian contradictions until much later, it took a long time for me to realize the root causes and lasting implications of those cataclysmic events.

The Civil War, in particular, captivated me.  I read as many as I could of the chroniclers of the period—Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Douglas Southall Freeman, Henry Steele Commager.  I favoured the gallant Confederate commanders—Lee, Jackson, Stuart—seeing them as descendants of the Arthurian knights of old.  I was taken by their tales of heroism, their masterful military maneuverings, and dismayed as the tide turned inexorably against them.

civil war

Even still, the names of the battlefields (hallowed grounds for both sides) strike a chord—Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and of course, Gettysburg.

As I sit here now, however, I have long since come to view things differently.  The young man I was had absolutely no concept of the evils of slavery, the forced subjugation of an entire race of people; the unfettered privilege of landed, white, male gentry, determined to maintain their autocratic position; the venality of elected politicians (again, all male and white) who put their personal interests and the fate of their political party ahead of their vision of a nation of freedom for all.

That young man, the beneficiary of white privilege, had no idea what being white and privileged meant, either for him, or for those to whom it was denied.

But as I said, I have come to view things differently.  And following the killing of yet another unarmed black person in the poor Benighted States of America, it is impossible not to cry, “Enough!”

In a post on this blog a few years ago, On Being White, I wrote:

White privilege explains power structures inherent in our society that benefit white people disproportionately, while putting people of colour at a disadvantage. 

White nationalists believe white identity should be the organizing principle of Western civilization.

White supremacists believe the white race is inherently superior to other races, and that white people should have control over people of other races.

In another post, Of the People, I wrote (quoting Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat):

 [Such] false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.

And to that I added:

Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie…

racism

I realize now that, because that young man I was did not understand the roots from which sprouted those underdog causes he once supported, he accepted at face-value their false opinions.  It was only as I began over time to see them through the eyes of those who were suppressed that I realized their falsity.

Although I decry violence and vandalism, I endorse the legitimate protests of a people who (to excerpt a song from Les Misérables) declare they will not be slaves again.  It has almost always been so, that the downtrodden and oppressed will eventually rise up and seize what they have not been granted, their freedom.

In one of those previous posts, I also wrote:

…[sometimes] we decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the [society] we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with. 

When those others are entrenched in their high positions, they are never eager to surrender their privilege.  But a righteous cause cannot forever be stifled, and many of the American people are deciding in front of our eyes, not to refrain from acting, but to take action to bring about change, despite the decades-long reluctance of those in power to do so.

It will be interesting, indeed, to see what emerges from this latest round of justifiable insurrection against the white bastion of entrenched power and privilege.

History is watching.