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Check Your Privilege

Settler colonialism, progressive-style.

People cheer as pro-Palestinian demonstrators march around the "Gaza Solidarity Encampment" at Columbia University on April 29, 2024, in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Which moment from the past week best captures the absurdity of pro-Hamas campus protests?

This one flagged by Jonah Goldberg is a strong contender:

Marxist dummies dying of thirst a few hours into their “revolution” in the middle of one of America’s wealthiest cities plays like a conservative satire of communist economics. But that’s not the moment I’ll most remember from all this.

This scene from the University of Alabama is another keeper, a rare example of “horseshoe theory” captured in the wild. Turn down the sound if you’re at work or around children, as it’s salty:

The right-wingers there seem to have believed that insulting the president would antagonize the left-wing radicals whom they came to counter-protest, never mind that those are the people most likely to refer to Biden as “Genocide Joe.” Now that the two groups have realized they’re allies, who knows what wonderful things they might accomplish together?

I wouldn’t choose that moment as the most memorable of the week either, though. The one that sticks in my mind wasn’t captured on video but in print, by a reporter for The Atlantic who went to Columbia University to check out the scene.

Many protesters argue that, from the river to the sea, the settler-colonialist state must simply disappear. To inquire, as I did at Columbia, what would happen to Israelis living under a theocratic fascist movement such as Hamas is to ask the wrong question. A young female protester, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, responded: “Maybe Israelis need to check their privilege.”

If you’re answering a question about the eliminationist ambitions of your cause by mumbling glibly about “privilege,” you either haven’t spent a second thinking seriously about it or you have thought about it and decided that those ambitions are morally acceptable.

Menace or cringe. There are no other options.

We should spend some time on the concept of “privilege,” though, and not just because it’s eternally hot stuff among the politically conscious campus set. It turns out to be a useful lens through which to examine the protests themselves.

Ask a progressive to define “privilege” and they’ll say … a lot, I’m sure, much of it unintelligible. Leftist political theory as a genre is famously turgid, obtuse, and overly dependent on jargon, the better to signal its alleged sophistication. The woman in the first clip above provides a minor example: After reading her summary of her dissertation, I can’t make heads or tails of what she’s writing about.

But we can define the concept simply ourselves. “Privilege” refers to how supposedly neutral institutions end up favoring the interests of politically powerful groups. If a city announces a new “stop and frisk” policy to reduce crime, for example, and the police disproportionately target African Americans in applying it, that’s white privilege at work. If a man gets paid more than a woman does for doing the same work, that’s male privilege.

Whether under the law or under capitalism, formal equality is a ruse designed to obscure the fact that true power depends on race, sex, education, and wealth. That’s the leftist view of privilege in a sentence. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread,” Nobel Prize-winning author Anatole France wrote. Policies against vagrancy, begging, and theft apply to everyone in theory but in practice serve the interests of the privileged gentry exclusively.

No wonder, then, that Israel slots easily into the “privileged” role among progressives in its conflict with the Palestinians. It’s whiter, wealthier, better educated, and follows the same Western political norms that the privileged here in the U.S. have used to exploit the dispossessed. And of course Israelis have claimed what the left believes is rightly Palestinian land as their own: “Privilege” doesn’t get any more unjust or obnoxious than evicting someone from their home and convincing much of the rest of the world to endorse it.

Inevitably, progressives are destined to loathe Israel and to do what they can to reduce the power disparity it enjoys with the Palestinians. (“Maybe Israelis need to check their privilege.”) What makes the campus protests noteworthy is that this righteous fury about privilege is being carried out by people who are themselves some of the most privileged on Earth.

Who, after all, is more privileged than an Ivy League student attending school in the financial capital of the world’s richest country? To be born an American is to be born into privilege, assured of freedoms and a standard of living that most of the world envies. But even within that privileged sphere, a degree from Columbia means your ability to earn considerable wealth and the considerable additional privilege that comes with it depends only on your willingness to do so. The chumps camping out on the quad in Manhattan in pup tents are part of the global elite by any definition of the term.

And, importantly, they know it.

A few days ago a post about the protests by attorney Elica Le Bon swept across The Platform Formerly Known as Twitter. Her analysis was irresistible: Isn’t the nonsense going on at Columbia a simple case of protesters acting out their fantasies of glamorous oppression by “role-playing” as Palestinians, she asked, with the university administration thrust into the role of Israel?

They’re “liberating” buildings and “taking back” land on campus. They’re requesting “humanitarian aid,” as in the first clip up top. Many are wearing keffiyehs. Some are wearing Hamas headbands! And according to Le Bon, all of it is downstream from their immense privilege: “You don’t see this in lower-tier schools from kids of lower socio-economic standing because they aren’t plagued with the guilt of privilege that they’re seeking to launder through Middle East role-plays of feigned suffering. This is as first-world dystopia as it gets.”

They’re privileged, they know it, they’re uncomfortable with it, and they’re seeking absolution by taking on the trappings of the dispossessed and rebelling against the nearest authority. It’s not a campus intifada or even a protest, really. It’s group therapy.

That’s a satisfying analysis. For one thing, it jibes with the humiliating coddling of students that we keep seeing:

They’re not adults rising up on behalf of Palestine, they’re children playing the jihadist equivalent of “cops and robbers” with their campus president. So why shouldn’t they be coddled? Children often are.

Le Bon’s explanation also accounts for why the protest effort seems so unserious. It’s cockamamie to vent one’s grievances with Israel at the leaders of American universities, who have no influence over the war in Gaza and more often than not are as stridently leftist in their politics as the protesters are. And it’s pointless to agitate for days on end without making any meaningful demands. The closest the students have come is to call on their schools to divest from Israel, but as others have noted, they don’t seem especially serious about that. If they were, they would use their financial leverage by withdrawing en masse and starving the administration of tuition revenue until it capitulates.

The fact that they’re not doing that suggests that they care about the privilege that comes with a degree from Columbia just a bit more than they care about divestment from Israel. That leaves the protests feeling less like an earnest attempt to influence international affairs and more like an unsanctioned extracurricular activity—it’s all inherently juvenile and unserious.

As much as I like Le Bon’s read on all of this, though, it’s missing something. There’s another layer of privilege among the protesters that she overlooks.

Many observers of the protests, Jonah included, have noted that universities besieged by Hamas-LARPing dopes are merely reaping what they’ve sowed. “Administrators have spent much of the recent past recruiting social-justice-minded students and faculty to their campuses under the implicit, and often explicit, promise that activism is not just welcome but encouraged,” Tyler Austin Harper wrote recently at The Atlantic. “Now the leaders of those universities are shocked to find that their charges and employees believed them.”

Academia could select for kids who show intellectual humility and curiosity, to borrow a point from my colleague Sarah Isgur. Instead they’ve selected for kids who feel not merely entitled to demand that their elders “check their privilege” but morally justified in acting aggressively to make sure they do.

All told, one might say that progressives, the great enemies of colonialism, have … colonized higher education over the past half-century.

And you know how settler-colonialists are. They can be very defensive when you demand that they vacate territory they regard as rightly theirs.

The behavior of campus progressives this month has radiated the sense that American universities are “theirs” in a way that isn’t true of other students. It’s been pointed out repeatedly but can’t be emphasized enough that the sort of disruption in which they’ve engaged wouldn’t be tolerated from those whose political beliefs offended the administration’s leftist orthodoxy. In a piece published on Thursday by The Free Press, Abigail Shrier writes:

The lengths administrators have gone to placate, encourage, and embolden the pro-Hamas protesters in the past weeks provide a signal reminder that there are at least two sets of rules governing elite universities today: one for the favored, protected class; the other for everyone else. And in case anyone has any doubt which category Jewish students fall into, the unwillingness of universities to enforce their own codes of conduct against pro-Hamas protesters in the months since October 7 should disabuse them.

Punishment is meted out swiftly and mercilessly, and with no consideration for free speech principles, any time Confederate flag flyers are posted, any time students hold culturally insensitive themed frat parties, any time colleges uncover student use of the N-word while in high school (or even a word in Mandarin that sounds like the N-word), or even when students or faculty make the familiar conservative argument that affirmative action sets black students up to fail. Rinse and repeat and repeat.

Anyone who doubts that university “tolerance” policies are being applied arbitrarily is invited to parade through a campus with an image mocking Mohammed and see how long it takes the administration to act, Shrier continues. But you don’t need a hypothetical as provocative as that: Recall the icy panic that gripped the brain trust at Yale when a student merely used the words “trap house” in an invitation to an event in 2021.

What’s the word again for when the rules of supposedly neutral institutions favor the interests of politically powerful groups?

The special privilege that progressives enjoy at American universities doesn’t factor into Le Bon’s read on the protests but it explains some of their more grotesque excesses. It emboldens them to use tactics that wouldn’t be tolerated by disfavored groups, like occupying buildings. But it also encourages them to try to limit access to parts of the campus as if they own the joint. Which, in a manner of speaking, they do.

Setting up de facto checkpoints to control access to your territory feels very settler-colonialist.

One of the first things you learn in property law as a law student is that property rights include the right to exclude. No student on an American campus should properly be able to claim that right against any other; the fact that some campus protesters have done so betrays their sense that the university is their property. They dominate the culture; they expect special dispensation from the authorities; they’re possessive of the land and of the privilege it grants them, so they police it for trespassers. The rest of the U.S. might sympathize with Israel but school is their turf. Go figure that they’ve resorted to the otherwise inscrutable tactic of pitching tents in order to symbolically broadcast their claim to it.

As you might hear at a campus football game: Whose house? Our house.

So Le Bon’s theory of teenagers cosplaying as Hamas to expiate their privilege as Americans is true but incomplete. The other part of the explanation for what’s happening is progressives reveling in and ultimately abusing their privilege on campus to misbehave on behalf of causes with which the fellow travelers who run the school sympathize.

The former is juvenile and embarrassing, the latter is domineering and corrupt. Menace and cringe, again.

All of this feels familiar, no?

It’s strange to think of campus progressives simultaneously play-acting as the dispossessed by rebelling against the powers-that-be and behaving as the powers-that-be themselves by aggressively policing their sphere of influence for dissent. You can’t represent the popular resistance and the ruthless establishment at the same time.

Except that you can, sort of. There’s another political movement that I write about from time to time that routinely tries to pull that trick.

It too postures as a popular insurrection against a corrupt establishment and it too has become a corrupt, ruthless establishment enforcing ideological orthodoxy within its own political niche. Like the kids who took over that building at Columbia, it’s even been known to find itself in a standoff with police from time to time.

In fairness, many members of that movement are much less privileged than the average Ivy League student. But plenty are just as privileged, if not more so. And their leader is one of the more privileged people who’s ever lived.

The two sides do have some stark differences on the subject of mask-wearing, though, it must be said.

All anti-establishment political projects that achieve partial success are destined to be privileged and dispossessed, I suppose. Whether it’s progressivism on campus or Trumpism on the right, a felt sense of dispossession is the moral energy that attracts recruits, and ruthless enforcement of orthodoxy in its own ranks is the mechanism that protects its privilege within its own niche.

I strongly prefer not to be governed by either, but there wasn’t much I could do about that when I was a college student and it seems there isn’t much I can do about it as an adult. America loves angry, aggrieved, self-righteous children. We get the government we deserve.

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Nick Catoggio

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.