Two Killers
Remembering 9/11--Or Not

Henry James On Rich Progressives

I'm reading The Portrait of a Lady (for the first time, and have no idea what is going to become of the heroine, so please don't put spoilers in the comments) and very much enjoying it. This passage has a striking contemporary relevance. Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, has come from America to visit her uncle, Mr. Touchett, an American who has spent much of his life acquiring a fortune in England. Since Mr. Touchett is portrayed as a pretty wise old fellow, I don't think it's too much to suppose that James agrees with him here. He's speaking to Isabel about the professed radical political views of a local aristocrat, Lord Warburton, and others like him.

"You see, when you come to the point it wouldn’t suit them to be taken at their word.”

“Of whom are you speaking?”

“Well, I mean Lord Warburton and his friends—the radicals of the upper class. Of course I only know the way it strikes me. They talk about the changes, but I don’t think they quite realise. You and I, you know, we know what it is to have lived under democratic institutions: I always thought them very comfortable, but I was used to them from the first. And then I ain’t a lord; you’re a lady, my dear, but I ain’t a lord. Now over here I don’t think it quite comes home to them. It’s a matter of every day and every hour, and I don’t think many of them would find it as pleasant as what they’ve got. Of course if they want to try, it’s their own business; but I expect they won’t try very hard.”

“Don’t you think they’re sincere?” Isabel asked.

“Well, they want to feel earnest,” Mr. Touchett allowed; “but it seems as if they took it out in theories mostly. Their radical views are a kind of amusement; they’ve got to have some amusement, and they might have coarser tastes than that. You see they’re very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury. They make them feel moral and yet don’t damage their position. They think a great deal of their position; don’t let one of them ever persuade you he doesn’t, for if you were to proceed on that basis you’d be pulled up very short.”


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I just finished Anna Karenina, and I got the same feeling from the political discussions in the book.


That's interesting. I read AK many many years ago and don't remember any details, but something I read about it recently made me think of the character of Levin, and that he and/or his ideas might have some contemporary relevance.

"They make them feel moral and yet don’t damage their position. They think a great deal of their position; don’t let one of them ever persuade you he doesn’t, for if you were to proceed on that basis you’d be pulled up very short.”

That's a point that Lasch makes in The Revolt of the Elites. The elites of both parties flirt with this stuff and have their little differences over it, but when anything arises that it perceived to be threatening to their position, they forget those partisan mini-issues and circle the wagons.

I believe that this is the main reason they came out so strongly against Trump. Whatever else you can say about him good or bad, he definitely rocked some establishment boats that needed rocking.

Possibly most noticeable among Republicans. I mean Democrats were bound to oppose him, hysterically in many cases. But a few things I've read here and there made it sound like the professional Republicans--people whose livelihood is tied to the Republican establishment--were the ones who exhibited what you're talking about in a pure form. Like the Lincoln Project.

There was an article, I think in Quillette, about the woman who really kicked off the "white privilege" obsession, some 30 years ago. Privilege in her case was no joke--she's an old school northeastern blueblood. But for all her denunciations she never offered to actually give up her position or anything else to a person of color.

Right. And the fact that those Republicans were perfectly willing to cross party lines not just to vote, which is non-problematic, but actually to work with liberals and progressives irrespective of the differences between them, seals it. The Dems who find no problem with this seem to be quite naive about the GOP elites, as if the latter, while pretty much lying about everything else, all miraculously become Honest Abe's in this one particular instance.

I seem to remember the woman you're talking about, if it's the same person as the one I'm thinking of. She made a lot of talk show appearances in the 90's, attacking things like "nude" stockings, "flesh" colored crayons, and the fact that maps of the world put Europe in the center. What struck me about her arguments back then was that she did not seem able to differentiate between race and culture on any level. Today's race experts have learned to bounce back and forth between the two as it suits their narrative.

I guess you meant some qualification about working with liberals and progressives--I'm sure you don't mean that right shouldn't work with left in areas where agreement is possible.

Good point about the miraculous transformation. The same miracle often happens to Republicans who have faded away from active political life: "he was an honest Republican, with his feet on the ground, unlike those who are currently opposing us." And I suppose really there's a grain of truth in that, as both parties get further out in some ways. Conservatives can say "Well at least Bill Clinton didn't deny the existence of sex." Etc.

Here's that Quillette piece. In some ways the woman is almost comically her stereotype: her father's name was Winthrop J. Means.

"I'm sure you don't mean that right shouldn't work with left in areas where agreement is possible."

Right, I meant this specific case.

That may be her -- she would have been middle-aged in the early 90's.

I was looking for info about the Lincoln Project after posting my last comment. Seems like part of the strategy for it was to work for Democrats while maintaining formal identification as Republican. Pushing the man-bites-dog angle for attention you wouldn't otherwise get.

I just read that 1989 list by Peggy McIntosh on "white privilege", and I'm not clear on exactly what the author of that Quillette piece finds so wrong with it. He seems to be saying that the things on the list would not have been any more available to poor white people than they were to all black people. If so, is that really true? Here's the list:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.

Well, there's too much there to sort out in a comment. Right off the bat, items 1-4 are most definitely far more related to class and wealth than to race. The list is a mix of the serious and the trivial. Some are pretty much natural consequences of being in the majority (like "flesh" as a color). Some are almost nonsense. Some are just plain wrong. #8 is only correct if "I" is specifically Peggy McIntosh, because it damn sure isn't me. #9 is laughable, apart from the hairdresser. No black music in the stores?!? Or is the problem that, say, Somali music is not well-represented? Gosh, I wonder why that could be. Is it white privilege, or could not being in Somalia have something to do with it?

And so on. I think what Rob said above about the failure to distinguish race and culture is a big part of the problem. That's a major part of what she's doing.

However, I think this from the Quillette guy is wrong: "All of which means that pretty much anything you read about ‘white privilege’ is traceable to an ‘experiential’ essay written by a woman who benefitted from massive wealth, a panoply of aristocratic connections, and absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever."

I'm pretty certain that McIntosh's essay is not the sole source of that. I have not read it, btw, just the 26 points. I'll take this guy's word that her essay was very influential, though she's far from the only or first to discuss white privilege. So the "kicked off" part is probably not accurate.

White privilege does exist, by the way--I don't deny that.

The Quillette piece is a bit of a jumble, because the writer jumps from McIntosh's essay to an attack on the whole race consciousness thing of which McIntosh is only one practitioner. My point in mentioning the piece is mainly that she seems to be an example of the rich progressive to whom this post was referring. I imagine "you'd be pulled up very short" if you threatened her privileged position.

All in all, it strikes me that much of McIntosh's list is an inadvertent testimony to her class and wealth privilege, which makes it a little funny. #1 and #2 especially are completely out of touch with class and wealth reality.

I have a minister friend who grew up in Mississippi, served for several years here in Pittsburgh, then moved on to a church in inner city Indianapolis. Something he said to me in a conversation right after The Bell Curve came out has always stayed with me: "Don't ascribe to race what can be explained by culture." Hearing that from a very "southern" white man made quite an impact on me, and ever since I have tried to make that my working principle when I see negative behaviors by "x" group or "y" group.

One gets the sense from some of these elites that the emphasis on race serves as a way to shift blame away from class and culture issues. Those latter two are far more closely related to each other than either of them is to race.

And as Mac says, some of the things on the list have simply to do with being in a minority demographic. Go into a Hallmark store in December, for instance, and there will be far more Christmas cards than Hanukkah cards. Is that a result of "Christian privilege"? Of course not. It simply reflects that fact that there are a lot more people in the U.S. celebrating Christmas than Hanukkah. Go to Israel and the situation will no doubt be reversed.

The Hanukkah example is a good one. "the emphasis on race serves as a way to shift blame away from class and culture issues." Indeed it does. Even better, from the rich progressive point of view, is that it provides a license for looking down one's nose at lower-class people, as long as they're white.

As a southerner, I've experienced some of the more trivial kinds of phenomena along those lines. I was shocked the first time, as a college student, I travelled outside the south with a group of people from other parts of the country and had some of them laugh out loud when they heard me talk. I remember as a child that the world depicted in textbooks didn't seem to bear much resemblance to mine. And so forth. I am NOT saying that such things constituted any kind of oppression--they were just natural presumptions of people for whom the norm was northeastern or midwestern. And I can see how that kind of thing in conjunction with really pernicious racism could make even the little things maddening. Still, they are little things.

Setting aside Peggy McIntosh in particular, one of the bad things that's happened in recent years is that in political-cultural combat little things are conflated with big things under the big ugly label "RACISM." This is not helpful, to put it mildly. It makes the whole problem more intractable, which is a bad thing if you want to solve the problem, but a good thing if you want to use the problem to defeat the enemy in the culture war. I'm afraid that's a big element in "anti-racism."

Just to make it clear: I don't at all deny that black Americans face serious obstacles that white people don't. Or, to be more precise, add "most" in front of those racial categories. In that sense, the term "systemic racism" is accurate. Trouble is, its use isn't confined to that sense.

Is my aversion to gangsta rap racist, cultural, or moral? Or are my moral standards culturally conditioned (subjective), therefore there is no difference between a moral objection and a cultural one? Or is it white condescension?

All of the above. :-) Although it probably all boils down to racism in the end, since your moral and cultural standards are an effect of your whiteness.

I'm really not exaggerating the way some of these people treat this stuff.

~~I don't at all deny that black Americans face serious obstacles that white people don't. Or, to be more precise, add "most" in front of those racial categories. In that sense, the term "systemic racism" is accurate. Trouble is, its use isn't confined to that sense.~~

Precisely. And from that perspective "white privilege" isn't really privilege, it's closer to something like "advantage." But even then it doesn't apply equally and everywhere to all whites. What's most objectionable about these things is the wrong-headedness of universalizing them.

Yes, "advantage" would be a far better term. But then it's not really a good-faith discussion at this point.


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