The Trope Dope: “Check Your Privilege”

In the final analysis, Madame Bovary is just another trope.
Unknown academic wag.

an illicit, habit-forming, or narcotic drug;
a stupid person;
[slang] the inside scoop, the poop, the skinny, the lowdown

Cant kills ideas. Leaves them dead in the field, their tongues swollen and hanging. Flies buzzing.

(They fell in love too easily. He took her for granted, abused her. Then he beat her.

She shot him.)

You know what they say, it’s chickens coming home to roost, because both sides do it when a conservative is a liberal who got mugged for the American Exceptionalism of the Founding Fathers, whose shining city on a hill where that government is best which governs the least makes it possible to raise yourself up by your bootstraps, so check your privilege.

By way of cant, tropes are made trite. When you’re finished retching from the sound of an idea stretched on the rack, words being tortured beyond all bearable value, something more than one’s aesthetic tolerance is sacrificed. There was once an idea living in that body of syllables.

The politically antagonistic are, of course, uncorrectable by a cant phrase like “check your privilege.” Thrown at them, its intent is to shut down debate by enclosing a complex notion in a hard shell. With needles. It is meant as a shaming prick. For the ideologically sympathetic, the smug ethical superiority of the injunction is intended to cow. It’s a political reeducation camp in a figure of speech, a dressing down and a slap in the face before the neighbors rousted from their homes.

The greater shame is the opportunity such cant provides the enemies of the greater idea to mock it. It is like the way postcolonial excess has granted the retrograde the meaningful space in which to attack the anti-colonial: Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich attacking Barack Obama for his supposed Kenyan anti-colonialist roots – as if to be anti-colonial were, you know, a bad thing.

So, now, “check your privilege” gets to play a little Mao in a jacket, and the reality of actual privilege escapes another instance of important recognition. While hardly all white people get to enjoy much benefit of white privilege, there are genuine manifestations of it. So, too, benefits that qualify as male privilege – as the privilege of any dominant cultural group.

They are all easy enough to miss, like thinking space is empty because it contains no visible matter. That the earth doesn’t move because you can’t sense its motion. That air is nothing, unseen. Earlier historians of the American West could write of the North American continent before conquest that it was a vacant wilderness, even though settlers as early as the New England colonists saw and encountered Natives regularly, both bought and stole that “vacant land.”

We are the ether that surrounds us, in which we live. We can know ourselves, but not deeply enough and truly until we see the ties that bind, the barriers that distance us, the ether of relation through which we move.

No ether is less visible to Americans, no web of relation less recognized, than that to Native America. Recently, amid renewed and growing attention to the issue of American Indian sports team names, David Freedlander wrote about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s legislative encounter with the issue. We are not so much concerned here with Walker as we are with the issue, which has been addressed on the sad red earth more than once before. There are no better examples of privilege unrecognized than the arguments in defense of naming sports teams after American Indians. Usually, the first and foremost is that it is done to “honor” either Native Americans in general or the local Tribe.

“One has to wonder,” I wrote,

if the Native population had managed to hold off and limit the European advance on the continent in any significant way, had achieved any measure of victory – at far greater cost to non-Native life, as is the nature of war – would the present-day fans of Redskin “courage” and “dignity” be nonetheless similarly enamored? One tends not to ennoble one’s conqueror. The defeated don’t make pets of the victorious.

Let’s look around the world. Let’s note the instances in which subordinated groups of have named their soccer teams affectionately in honor of the people who conquered them. Were there on the dirt fields of the townships of apartheid South Africa, or in organized play, teams of black players named the Afrikaners or the Boers? All in praise of their fierceness and courage, let’s say?

Then there is this from Freedlander’s report.

“When we look back at the history of these communities, we find that Native Americans often had a significant role in the development and prosperity of these communities, and that is why the high schools decided to name their schools after them,” [Sam Hall, a lawyer who represented Mukwonago in a lawsuit] said. “It is source of pride for these communities, a way to talk about the history and heritage of the area” at a time when “the Native American people that live on the reservation are far removed from the land that their ancestors were on, but you can still educate the kids who are 30 miles away from where the reservation is currently located.”

Now, elsewhere, Freedlander informs us that the current Native population of Wisconsin is now only about 1% of the general populace. How exactly did that come about?  From the Wisconsin Department of Health Services:

In 1804, the government forced the Sauk and Fox tribes to cede their land claims in Southern Wisconsin in a treaty they had not agreed to9. These actions lead to the Black Hawk War of 1832. The largest American Indian population in Wisconsin, the Menominee, was pressured to sell away 11,600 square miles along the lower Fox River10. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien of 1825 was significant in the history of American Indians in Wisconsin, post-European settlement. The treaty was facilitated by the United States government to end the inter-tribal warfare that was disrupting the fur trade and creating tensions between settlers and the tribes11. The tension between tribes was created because the United States government had used them against each other to gain more lands12. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien established a treaty of peace among the tribes and demarcated boundaries between settlers and American Indians13.

By 1971, most of the American Indians had been placed on reservations and the government discontinued their use of treaties14. The government moved their focus to de-indianizing this population, creating schools that attempted to rid this population of their cultural traditions and way of life by breaking tribal ties and molding them into the image of white settlers15. However, before this time, between 1887 and 1934, the federal government aimed to mainstream Native Americans through the policies of assimilation and allotment16.

Is this what Hall means when he says, “Native Americans often had a significant role in the development and prosperity of these communities”? Yeah, that’s some role worth “honoring.” Is this the “source of pride for these communities”? Really? Yes, “the Native American people that live on the reservation are far removed from the land that their ancestors were on.” The history of how that came to be does not exactly, ethically, lead to the making of mascots.

This kind of defense of the naming of athletic teams after citizens who are fellow by fact, but not by choice, and in so many ways not fully, this is an example of privilege – the privilege, at the very least, to remain blind to forms of diminishment and disadvantage not a part of one’s own life.

We should check it out.


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