On 3 Ps: On Privileges, Political Correctness and Postmodernism

This is a guest post by Jurek Molnar

In spring 1993 I visited with a colleague of mine the office of Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna and interviewed the old man for a liberal Catholic students magazine. Young and naive as we were, we asked Wiesenthal questions he must have heard a thousand times before, but he remained very patient and answered all of them with his rusty old voice. Wiesenthal was 84 at that time, but obviously not tired or exhausted. He was energetic and busy, delegated all kinds of work to his secretary while he was performing the interview with us, from time to time interrupting because the telephone rang and he had to answer the call.

We had published an article about Wiesenthal and his work in the weeks before, focusing on the disgraceful tradition of Austrian justice not to sentence Nazi war criminals in several trials. At least 20 known Nazi officials all involved actively or bureaucratically in the system of concentration and extermination camps had never been sentenced, although Wiesenthal had tried his best to collect hard evidence, but Austrian courts many times denied prosecutions. It is well known that during the 70s Wiesenthal got so frustrated, that he considered giving up and returning to his private life, working for his cousin, who ran a well established car sale.

We asked him how he had overcome these fatal blows and if he ever had thought of taking revenge by himself. One thing that I remember very clearly about his answer was that he took our naive and somehow insensitive question quite seriously. He did not laugh about it or rejected the idea; he also did not react with outrage or any other negative emotion. He just sat there, looking at the two of us, smiled a little and said: “Everyone who has gone through what I have suffered will think about revenge. But I never thought that it would help anyone if I take the law into my own hands. Even when I failed to bring some of these Nazi criminals to justice, I was always convinced and still am that the law is the only way to justice, not revenge. If we don’t take the path of the law, then nothing I have fought for makes any sense.”

Wiesenthal did not talk about forgiveness or reconciliation. He just accepted the risk that some Nazis got away with their crimes, as long as some others were trialled and sentenced according to the laws of a democratic state. I cannot exaggerate how deeply impressed I was. This man, who lost about 89 of his relatives in the Shoah, and who was himself often close to getting murdered in various places including the notorious death facility Mauthausen in Upper Austria, was not in any way making foul compromises. In the year before this interview Kurt Waldheim has finished his office as Austrian Bundespräsident, and thankfully did not run for another term. The scandal about his Nazi past has got a whole generation brought into the politics of our country, examining the past and strongly criticising the present. And Wiesenthal who was so frustrated in the 70s, returned in the late 80s to his old energetic mood. Since the Waldheim affair, Wiesenthal was speaking to students every week, was invited to talk shows and interviewed by TV and radio regularly. He had finally won a defamation trial against Bruno Kreisky, the long time social democratic chancellor of Austria who had smeared him over the exposure of Kreisky’s coalition partner Friedrich Peter. Peter, head of the Freedom Party, which was founded as the political home of all old Nazis in Austria, had served as a Wehrmacht officer and was probably involved in war crimes in the Ukraine; his name was mentioned sometimes in connection with the horrible massacre of Babi Yar, although hard evidence of direct involvement – very similar to the case of Waldheim – was not available. Wiesenthal took the chance to inspire a younger generation, guys like me for instance, and demonstrated how the justice system should work. When talking to people like me he emphasized the importance of responsibility rather than guilt. He invested his whole lifetime in the idea that justice by the law is more important and more desirable than justice by revenge, without letting the murderous Nazi criminals off the hook. His influence as a person on me and many, many others cannot be overstated.

The reason I am telling this story has a lot to do with a recent post on Harry’s Place that dealt with a British student official, a woman with the name Bahar Mustafa, who tried to ban white men from a discussion panel on the university’s actual curriculum. In response to harsh critics accusing her of being racist herself she answered that she, as an “ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist to white men because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender”. This sentence contains a lot of ideas that are troubling and at the same time typical for a certain mindset located in the culture of the Western mind nowadays. Let’s begin with the central phrase of this remark: the “structures of privilege based on race and gender”.

A privilege is something that is given, not earned. It is in its negative meaning, which is clearly meant in this context, an undeserved advantage, not justified by any measures of fairness. And there are plenty of privileges everyone can recall immediately when he or she is thinking about fairness in our societies. The problem with Bahar Mustafa’s sentence is not that there aren’t enough unmerited privileged situations, based on race and gender, but the political conclusion that follows. According to some of today’s progressive activists the people who are assumed to have privileges, for instance white heterosexual men, should be confronted  with situations in which they are not privileged any more, but submitted to the kind of humiliation black, non heterosexual women for instance suffer, allegedly or in reality, day by day. The basic idea is to create a counter racism, a counter sexism that should be performed against the privileged group in order to make them understand how it feels to be not privileged. In extremis this kind of negative reinforcement is developed by a modern theory called “Critical Whiteness”, which states that being a white person (whatever this exactly means) alone is enough to be racist. Racism they believe is not how one acts or a type of language, but an inevitable structural component of Western identity. The white skin colour itself is the marker to identify a racist mind, not its actual behaviour. “White” is the name for a privilege, one that is unearned, unmerited, that favours only white people and disadvantages people of colour, and includes every member of the group and is not driven by identifiable behaviour or language. The paradox is obvious. While “Critical Whiteness” derives from several philosophies and theories that talk about diversity and how to fight “essentialism”, in theory and everyday life, the theory itself engages largely in an essentialism, that white skin colour is equal to a membership card of the Ku Klux Klan, regardless if such a person is actually a member of the Ku Klux Klan or had a political career next to Martin Luther King. It is no coincidence that this basic idea, that white skin colour is the very embodiment of racism itself, comes from Martin Luther King’s great antagonist of his time, Malcolm X. The core element of “Critical Whiteness” is a counter racism that should exorcise the Whiteness out of white people, just like Malcolm had once imagined in his earlier days.

Malcolm X, who himself abandoned this idea in the last years of his life, was a radical man who thought this idea through to the end in the times he stuck to it. In order to free his peers, the black man – women tended to be outside his frame of reference – has to reject the idea of the law. The civil rights movements have failed, he concluded, to bring equality and justice, Martin Luther King was only an “Uncle Tom”, who served his white masters to calm down social unrest. Laws won’t provide black people any improvement, only segregation and a radical abandonment of white power and Whiteness as a principle itself are solutions to end racism. Malcolm, who was nevertheless a highly interesting figure, developed an idea of justice that was opposed to the law. The law is slow and ineffective. It favours negotiations and compromise. In the long run it is more and more susceptible to corruption and betrayal. It is not the task of this little essay to write a history of the idea of justice, but it is quite easy to find historical examples where justice in the meaning of balance was understood as opposed to the common bourgeois law. The law doesn’t wipe the privileged out of existence, it is compromise. It is important that all the phenomena I described before, Malcolm X, “Critical Whiteness” and Bahar Mustafa’s theory about her immunity to racism, is based on the idea that justice in the meaning of a counter balance is strictly opposed to an idea of the law, which in this frame of mind favours after all the alleged privileged group only. Lenin bought this idea from the French Revolution, when revolutionary terror flooded the streets of France with blood. Trotsky once remarked that socialism is unthinkable without terror and Stalin, who ordered the murder of millions, used the idea in his own distinctive way. It sounds absurd, but it is nevertheless a fact that even without the means to commit mass murder the basic ideological ground on which several political actors who understand themselves as progressive teach their theories of justice, are politics of counter balance, which has to overcome the slow and ineffective ways of given laws. Terrorists of all kinds are convinced that acting against oppression means abandoning laws in order to guarantee justice. This idea of a counter balancing justice that is not bound to laws is the main theme of most radical politics in last two centuries. This kind of justice is something that has to be achieved immediately, a permanent revolution of justice that identifies enemies of the oppressed and punishes them to regain balance. But this balance is never complete. Laws put an end to this balancing process. Laws declare when it has to stop. Justice is always looking for balance and will not find it. There are always new appearances of the privileged oppressors that have to be put in place. Like Trotsky’s revolution this counter balancing justice is permanent and never ending.

Now, let us halt here for a minute and let us imagine what Simon Wiesenthal would have said about this. His greatness as a person can be exactly spotted in the difference between the idea of the law and the idea of counter balancing justice. As a survivor of the Shoah he for sure had every right to demand justice in the meaning I have described before. But he didn’t. He was absolutely positive about the advantage of a lawful persecution of criminals, driven by rules of fair trials, independent judges and a balance of prosecution and defence. Even when it doesn’t work properly, one – so his strict belief was – must adhere to its procedures. While anti-Semites like the Norwegian bestselling author Jostein Gaarder fantasize about an original Jewish concept of revenge, Wiesenthal demonstrated like no other person that the Jewish tradition is all about the law that stands above all other ideas. Also, Wiesenthal had every right to complain about the privileges of Nazi criminals, who enjoyed very often protection and support, but he never did. Wiesenthal would not have indulged in a fantasy in which Nazi criminals should be treated like their people they murdered ruthlessly – maybe gassed in chambers with Zyklon-B to make them feel like their victims. Wiesenthal was strictly opposed to such propositions and while from time to time he might be drowned in his own anger and desperation he never expressed such sentiments in public.

Let us return to the title now, the 3 Ps, privilege, political correctness and post modernism. How are they related? Let’s take a look at the term “Political correctness”. It was originally coined by American Communists in California to describe members who unequivocally support the official party line and the politics of the Soviet Union. In the late 80s and early 90s on several campuses in the United States the word was adopted by non communist left wing students, who were influenced by the buzzword “linguistic turn”. Political correctness became a political movement that was strongly convinced that the main power in society was the ability to control language and to determine the use of words and phrases in order to promote political change. Driven by readings of French philosophy and linguistics, names like Saussure, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault and Althusser come to mind, the rise of literature theories interpreted every part of human society as a “discourse” or “ideology” and hence something that can be shaped and analysed in terms of linguistics. The principal idea of political correctness is that all human relationships are structured and modelled by language. And language itself is a “symbolic  economy” (Jean-Joseph Goux), hence every political expression is part of complicated language games in which power relations are negotiated. Everything that pretends to be given or natural is in reality a symbolic performance expressed by language and supported by traditional cultural shibboleths. In short that is the idea of Judith Butler and her book “Gender trouble”, which states that something like sex and gender are not at all natural, but representing an essentialism that hides behind performances. Gays and lesbians, the main audience of Butler’s work subvert the acknowledged norms and expose the essentialist character of sexual orientation as meaningless. “Queerness” is a kind of public appearance that threatens traditional and patriarchal orders. Gender is attributed to a person by the discourse of hetero-normative ideology throughout linguistic operations. In the world of political correctness there is nothing that cannot be described or interpreted as a play with words, a language game produced by conventions and customs. Power means to signify things and hence the perception of things. Nature, science or politics are just narratives, tools to dictate meaning and behaviour, means to an end, not in any way entities with an existence of their own. In its most extreme interpretations even the natural sciences appear as “dispositif” (Foucault), a formation of linguistic relations and discourses, mirroring the dominance of certain political agents in order to disadvantage others. Discourses form minds and represent power relations that transcend human individuals. A privilege is an effect of these power relations and is abandoned by reversing the alleged order of who is allowed to speak and who’s not.

It is not a cliché that the thinking political correctness promotes is tied to a phenomenon that is called post-modernism. The word post-modernism itself sounds very arbitrary. It can be attributed to philosophy, art and politics and sometimes seems to have no intrinsic meaning.  In the arts the word “postmodern” is often used to describe that in today’s civilisation nothing is new and original anymore, but recycled. Postmodern examples of art reflect on other works of art by quoting them and repeating their structures and methods. In politics postmodernist points of view talk about the end of “grand narratives”, like the death of religion and the loss of general political cohesion in democracies. Postmodern philosophies raise doubts that there are substantial truths and often promote that all political disagreements represent narratives and counter narratives that have no intrinsic truth for their own. Not all philosophers who are labelled as postmodern have accepted that term, but nevertheless plenty of philosophical thinking is treated as post modern in order to describe its distance from regular or old fashioned philosophical reasoning. One of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century who rejected this term for his work categorically is Michel Foucault, a trained historian and philosopher of the Ecole Normale Superieure, a French elite university. He became famous for his analysis of the term power and what it means in modern societies. One of his main ideas is that the power of ruling elites which is usually considered as violent is in fact not usually performed by violent means. Ruling elites do use violence very often, but to stabilize their power they use techniques in which they try to communicate with their subjects. (Noam Chomsky had similar ideas, which he developed in his book and film “Manufacturing consent”.) The historical form in which power communicates with its subjects is the concept of confession. Foucault researched intensively protocols of trials, books on education, medical treatises on mental illness, police interrogations and official documents on death penalties throughout the centuries, and came up with the idea that throughout all political changes ruling powers have never stopped demanding confessions from their subjects. He saw this principle not only working in dictatorships, but also in the modern Western democracies. In the long historical period he unfolds, a torture chamber and a psychotherapy session are structural expressions of the same confession concept, in which power is communicating. A concept like free speech does not exist, since all forms of speech are power generated expressions. Speech is never free and bourgeois democracy an illusion.  Foucault, an open gay man, also saw the Soviet Union this way, so Communists hated him more than anyone. He did not make any distinction between the French state and the Communist party; all these institutions were entities that submit their subjects to procedures of confession statements in order to rule them.

Now, one can subscribe to his point of view or not, but it is interesting to note that Foucault developed a political agenda that speaking truth to power means to deny the form of confession and to intervene into the public discourse by subverting usual definitions and undermining common understanding of identities. Judith Butler’s concept of queer performance as a disturbance of patriarchal orders is nothing else than a modern version of  Fouacult’s ideas. The whole area of post colonial thinking, “Queer theory” and gender related philosophies are still exploiting Foucault’s ideas of how to deny confession statements and redefine identities from bottom up. What one also can determine by reading certain fashionable accounts on “Critical Whiteness” and Bahar Mustafa’s refusal to accept criticism is that they obviously do not understand what Foucault was talking about.

The form in which for instance “Critical Whiteness” is demanding from its white adherents that they reflect upon their privilege is the confession. White people should confess to be an oppressor in the same way Stalinist torturers demanded absurd confessions of being an imperialist spy plotting to murder Stalin from their most loyal and dedicated followers. The form itself in which such ideas appear may claim to derive from Foucault, but betray in the absurdist way his actual thinking. Also Bahar Mustafa does not do better. What she was trying to say was, that nobody could criticise her for her decision, because she as a non-privileged person is immune to any critical remark. Instead the privileged ones should accept her decision and reflect their inferiority. The simple idea of reversing the terms of power is not a solution to the problem of authority. Foucault, however hard to understand his writings may appear, was very clear on that point. To take the position of power and reverse its original relationship does not remove oppression from the table; on the contrary it continues to work even more effectively.

So, to come to an end, the reason why most of this post-modern progressive talk is corrupt and oppressive in the same way as the phenomena it claims to fight is not that the assumption that there are privileges is wrong. Of course there are privileges and unfair relationships, but in order to fight them,  we need laws, not a concept of counter balancing justice. It is not meant to prove my point, but to support my argument I would like to recall that it is no coincidence that Barack Obama, the first African American president is a lawyer. Guess why.