Brooks: In praise of privilege

David Brooks

I have to say, I loved the gun-control march I observed Saturday in Washington. The crowd was good-hearted, gracious, diverse and welcoming. At a time when trust in democracy is waning, everybody kept underlining their faith in our democratic system, that voting is the way to make change. There was no culture war nastiness, no hint of resentment. Hunters and farmers and vets were celebrated. There was no ill will toward anybody but the NRA.

Of course some of the student speakers were grandiose and pretentious. Most of us were like that when we were 18. But for all their talk of “revolution,” at its heart, this march was about a series of sensible, practical and moderate reforms: restricting assault weapons, expanding background checks and similar measures.

Recently, it has seemed like the country is gyrating out of control, that extremism on one side is generating extremism on the other. But the march I saw was not extreme. It was a responsible moral answer to right a very specific wrong, gun violence. It struck me as a very characteristic burst of American moral passion.

The march passed what I have come to think of as The Privilege Test. One of the great privileges of life is to be born an American citizen. We are the lucky inheritors of the American Creed, built around freedom, equality, opportunity and democracy. There’s no such thing as the French Creed or the Italian Creed but there is an American creed. As Richard Hofstadter famously put it, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.”

Furthermore, we’re the lucky inheritors of the system Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton built to reify that creed, the words Lincoln, King and others used to expand it. We’re the inheritors of not just philosophical generalizations but of a very specific historical struggle — the legacy that Crispus Attucks, Nathan Hale and Sullivan Ballou left by dying for the creed; the legacy that Eugene Sledge, Frances Perkins, Bayard Rustin and a million immigrant ancestors left by suffering for it.

All we have to do is live up to this privilege of being American, to take our turn narrowing the gap between the American Creed, which binds us, and the American reality, which always disappoints us. The rally in Washington, which took place against the symbolic and literal backdrop of the U.S. Capitol dome, seemed squarely in that tradition.

You’ll notice that in the preceding paragraphs I use the word “privilege” in a very positive way. The sense of American privilege fills us with gratitude and humility. That privilege unites us across division and disagreement. It calls forth great energies.

There are, of course, some parts of society where the word “privilege” has a very negative connotation. In those parts of society, history is not seen as a shared debate over how to pursue a common ideal. Instead it is seen as a zero-sum power struggle between oppressor and oppressed, and America is not a distinct and special place but just another country where the powerful stomp the vulnerable.

This prism is an understandable pedagogical tool. It’s a way to show students the reality of injustice and inequality. But as several writers, including Phoebe Maltz Bovy, have argued, this concept of negative privilege doesn’t seem to lead to productive social change.

The negative-privilege mindset usually begins with a privilege call-out. Somebody accuses someone of not checking their privilege. This leads the accused to respond that in fact my group has also been marginalized, and that if anyone is the oppressor, it’s some other group more privileged than mine. This leads to an ever-higher-decibel-level identity war that sucks up everybody’s good will and doesn’t actually lead to social action.

It’s the perfect exercise for the social media age because everything happens on the level of display. The result is a bunch of divisive bickering that leaves everyone feeling offended and morally superior. Saturday’s march reminded me that it’s still possible to practice a style of politics that doesn’t send us down that recrimination psychodrama.

As Samuel Huntington used to argue, the key fact of the American Creed is distrust of centralized authority. So moments of creedal passion are almost always about opening up the system, expanding participation, decentralizing power. They are about new groups previously outside the system busting their way in and taking possession of the great privilege to be American.

Saturday’s march reminded me that often we behave better than we talk. Sometimes I think the decimation of American history in the schools has left a generation ignorant of the creed and ungrateful toward our ancestors’ heroic sacrifices that brought it down to us. When I look at the Twitter commentary of the march I see out of context insults that distort the reality of what actually happened.

But the deep inheritance isn’t so easily blotted out. Saturday I saw people motivated by idealism and humbled by gratitude. Do some people have benefits they haven’t earned? Yes, and some a lot more than others. But none of us has earned the great privilege we share together and which is the furnace of most reform.

David Brooks became a New York Times Op-Ed columnist in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and is currently a commentator on PBS.

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