In Praise of Privilege

Give me privilege or give me... a different kind of privilege.

I’d like to write about my grandfather, but to pre-empt any potential accusation of over-sentimentality or naval-gazing, I’m about to sneakily sandwich the topic between pseudo-topical reflections on the word “privilege.”

One of the many unfortunate implications of living in a society that sets its watches to Twitter-time is that the meaning of phrases like “privilege” — or “cancel culture,” or “free speech,” or “social justice” — inflate and burn out with staggering speed. 

So let’s dial it back. Privilege is about “singling out.” Its Latin origin, privilegium, can be cleaved apart to “lex” and “privis”, loosely meaning “personal law”, that is, a piece of legislation tailored for the benefit of a single person. Fitting in with the political squalor of ancient Rome, the word carried a venal undertone, implying grubby senators brazenly splitting the spoils of the Commonwealth between their close friends and donors. This meaning fell out of use once Gaius Octavianus Caesar turned Rome into a Republic in name only. (You can’t be a corrupt lawmaker when only one person is allowed to make laws!) From that point on, privilegium meant not a law but a personal assignment by the Emperor. This could mean an outstanding right or duty. Being “chosen” isn’t always a blessing, as the subdued residents of the crumbling Judean province would have readily attested.

Royals in Middle Ages England took the practice further after the fall of the empire, granting privilegia to loyal warriors, through which long-term bonds between monarch and subject were forged. When knighthood fell out of fashion and trade bloomed, the word was used to describe special freedoms enjoyed exclusively by certain professions. Religious minorities that were otherwise treated as second class citizens but were lucky enough to receive a “privilege charter” from a Christian sovereign were at least assured protection from casual pogroms (the original #jewishprivilege).

By the time the 20th century collapsed into world wars, the word had grown at once more abstract and more commonplace. A finely-coiffed, Upper West Side socialite might have clinked her glass of cava and announced, “it is my privilege to entertain such a cultivated audience for dinner, please enjoy these veal cutlets in beaujolais reduction,” while her philosophy-major son would have bitterly thought to himself, “privileged bourgeois pigs, your time will come.” Meanwhile in Moscow, where the time had indeed come, old members of the Communist Party were being forced to publicly confess and show remorse for their “privilege” before detailing how they all conspired to assassinate General Secretary Stalin.

From the 70s on, the word swerved away from materialism, as the orphans of Marx wrung it into its now familiar meaning: the psychological and social advantages gained through unelected and immutable attributes, like race or sexuality. “An invisible package of unearned assets,” in the words of Peggy McIntosh, the fairy godmother of ecumenical “privilege” tests.

But around the same time McIntosh was tidying up her PhD dissertation, John Rawls, working across the Quad, came up with what to me seems an even more radical understanding of “privilege.” In A Theory of Justice he did away entirely with “moral desert,” the intuition that anyone can claim to “deserve” in some deep, moral sense any of the rewards they reap through life. The wealth, prestige, and comforts one accumulates are just luck of the draw. It’s not just being born to the right race, gender, and parents that gives you an advantage: it’s also the very society you’re born into (a kid with a knack for numbers would be awfully privileged to grow up in California in the late 20th century, less so in Iceland in the 12th), the people you happen to cross paths with, and even the books you read. Your family and upbringing, your ability to concentrate or to persevere on a math puzzle or to practice an instrument day after day, they’re all unearned privileges. The smallest differences between people, even birth order or time spent watching TV as a kid, can end up delivering fortune to one person and leaving another destitute. (That’s, by the way, Gladwell’s real point in his overquoted “Outliers,” not the 10,000 hour mantra that sprouted from it.)

And then of course there are genes. The further along we get in studying behavior, psychology, and DNA, the further away we move from seeing nurture and environment as decisive factors in shaping a person. Some geneticists, like Robert Plomin, come very close to dismissing nurture altogether.

“Your personality, your mental health and illness, your cognitive abilities and disabilities,” the majority of a person’s “individuality” is accounted for by “inherited DNA differences,” according to Plomin.

Even if Plomin is correct (and understandably he has many critics), and DNA is the crucial determinant of the length of a person’s reach, material circumstances still decide what is available within this reach.

No matter how you slice it: Genes. Family. Society. Privilege is all of them.

The prattling pauper

In the category of noxious cliches, I’d rank “the personal is political” in the top five. But I did warn that this whole spiel was a ploy to get myself to write about my grandfather, so no walk-backsies.

I always considered growing up in his household — with my grandmother, mom, and uncle — to be an enormous privilege. We lived on the humble side, and the uncertainty of knowing whether or not I’m going to have a roof over my head tomorrow still haunts me today. But for the most part the scarcities of being born, as my mom puts it, “to the wrong percentile,” didn’t dominate our lives. These were filled instead with books and music, the constant company of good friends (marked by Talmudic arguments over instant coffee and an infinite supply of toast and butter), a constant feeling of being loved, and an insistence on finding value in tragedy. Despite everything we lacked and despite the many darker moments that would inevitably creep in, I never felt wanting.

But the world was different when my grandfather was born, in 1924. For the first 20 years of his life, the British occupiers of Palestine watched with English reticence and fecklessness as their subjects — two nationless people — slaughtered each other over a tiny, dry sliver of the Ottoman carcass. The British would rarely intervene, hoping the grisly affair would resolve itself. Neither Jews nor Arabs were privileged. In some ways, to be born in Jerusalem then was to be waiting, without knowing it, behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance.

Both my maternal grandparents were born to impoverished Jewish families with too many children and not enough food, in a city with no running water and no state to protect them against periodic massacres. Things weren’t looking much brighter even after the founding of Israel, as rule over the city was contested between the fledgling Jewish state and the Jordanian kingdom. To the persecutions and food shortages were now added routine blockades and occasional aerial attacks. College, of course, was out of the question.

But my grandfather was nevertheless lucky: he had an ear for language. The Yiddish at home, the Arabic of his neighbors, the Hebrew of the new-generation Zionists, and the English of the stolid patrol officers — he absorbed them all and made them his own. His fluency, combined with an innate, indiscriminate love of people, allowed him to make friends outside his tribe and above his station. It also unlocked for him libraries of thought, over which he’d pore in endless lucubration.

Being a polyglot (and polygluttonous) got him a job at the region’s biggest English language newspaper, The Jerusalem Post. Soon after, his managers sent him to study print in London. He returned to run the paper’s printing press himself. Convivial and garrulous, he joyfully parlayed between his fellow workers (Yids and Arabs), the Israeli distributors, and the Anglo bosses. He unwittingly became a class warrior. He took part in building the Israeli workers union and was even courted by the national Communist party, who urged him to run for office. He declined several times, explaining with his typical earnest-but-friendly verbosity that, alas, he can’t stomach the injustices required for winning in politics. A weak spleen can be a kind of privilege, too.

This tendency for verbal outpour he passed on to my mom. They exchanged books back and forth, blotting them with more margin notes in every transfer. They cluttered drawers and closets, to my grandmother’s dismay, with their correspondences with each other, which (as recent excavations through said closets and drawers confirmed) would go from criticism of poetry and philosophy to paternal exhortations (in one letter he told mom, who was about to join the Israeli army, how to maintain individuality in a setting of mandated conformity: “swim with the flow, without getting pushed around by the currents”).

It was this setting — emotional, intellectual — that inspired my mom to ace her English literature classes and get accepted  — with a full scholarship — at NYU. And there I’m born, giving me dual citizenship: one making me an ethnic minority in one of the wealthiest countries the world has ever known, the other granting me membership in a rising nation that by then had developed its own system of oppression and privilege (of which I’m on the “right” side). 

How many links in this chain were already determined behind the veil of ignorance? The British departure? The founding of a majoritarian Jewish state and the conquest of Jerusalem? The consequential love for literature that my grandfather would pass on to my mom? The twist of neurons in his cerebral cortex that settled this love in the first place?

Did this privilege already include the time bomb that, in his final years succumbing to Alzheimers, turned this love into a pandemonium? 

I also view it as a privilege, though of a darker kind, to have been with him in those days, and to have witnessed the cabinets of his mind, once so scrupulously sorted, begin to overflow into each other, as if a tornado had torn through. It wasn’t quite that he had lost his facility for language, but as if his Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, and English were now forming a new language, one that sounded meaningless, but was — as betrayed by the desperate sincerity in his glassy, silent, shouting eyes — trying helplessly to say something.

Is this, again, an inseparable part of the privilege package? Genes. Family. Society. No matter how you slice it.

Privilege for all

The most valuable throughline that connects the works of McIntosh and Rawls is the acknowledgment that society grants privileges, that this process is inevitable and often transparent, but not immutable. (The idea that society can evolve to reduce its structural inequities would have been a hard one to swallow for the ancient Hebrews who wrote the Talmud, which orders the devout Jewish man to begin his day by praising god for not making him a slave, or worse, a woman.)

But the understanding that, barring a Harrison Bergeron Handicapper-General solution, inequality can never be truly eradicated can generate pessimism. For Rawlsians the goal is instead to ensure that the work done by those at the top benefits those at the bottom. For some of McIntosh’s current torch-bearers (see: Robin DiAngelo), this pessimism leads rather to an inward, solipsistic, and almost Augustinian focus on perennial shame and repentance on the part of the privileged.

A thirst for social justice is almost by definition unquenchable, as the goals themselves shift along as society changes. But in the case of privilege it’s practically a doomed cause. The variables that piece together a single person are infinite and ultimately incommensurable, and dwelling on them too much could foster new resentments and prejudices, and ultimately despair.  

Tiffany Jana, the founder of TMI diversity consultancy firm, said in her widely-shared TedX that in her youth she had been so fixated (her word) on all the privileges she didn’t have — being a black woman who had suffered spousal abuse — that she failed to take advantage of the privileges she did have — being exposed, as an army brat, to different cultures and (yes) languages, for instance.

In contrast, Jana brings up Maggie L. Walker, a distant relative of hers, who defied the impossibility of social climbing as a black woman in Jim Crow Virginia and went on to charter a newspaper and a bank and even run a store, all almost 20 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Walker’s story doesn’t show that the weight of inequality is imaginary or even tolerable. But it does exhibit the most powerful way to combat it: by leaning on, rather than denying or condemning, every privilege within reach.

P.S.

If you’re in the mood for more dementia-related rumination, I recently finished making this short video in memory of Saba Ya’akov (whom, by the way, you can see on the cover photo of this newsletter, standing next so his wife, Rivka, and covered in his glorious long coat).