Should we be defined by what we’ve done in the world or by what the world has done to us?
Choosing the terrain on which you meet your enemy is of paramount importance. The three truly great treatises on the art of war—Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Art of War (1521), Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—are in agreement on this: battles are won before the fighting even starts by wise leaders who know which terrain plays to their strengths and which terrain plays to their weaknesses. I witnessed this often on the battlefield of the graduate school seminar.
Though we all paid lip-service to the Hydra-Headed God of Intersectionality, when it really came down to it, the working-class white guys who grew up poor (like me) would invariably (and, in retrospect, rather predictably) try to steer the seminar discussion towards a CLASS analysis of whatever we were talking about (even when it really didn’t fit); the middle-class white women tried to steer the seminar discussion towards a GENDER analysis of whatever we were talking about; and the visible minority students tried (often, alas, in vain) to get us to remember RACE.
Sometimes it felt like we were trapped in a perverse academic version of The Olympic Games, wherein we were all being forced to compete for a gold medal in BEING A VICTIM. At other times it felt like we were trapped in a dystopian intellectual version of The Hunger Games, wherein we were all being forced to tear each other apart to survive. Alas, it’s easy to see all of this as horribly cynical. But, truth be told, I doubt any of us were consciously trying to be manipulative. Privilege is, after all, for the most part invisible to those who possess it. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a wealthy white woman who only seems to see sexism. Nor should we be surprised to find a middle-class African-American man who only seems to see racism. Be that as it may, a military man like Machiavelli might suggest that me and my fellow graduate students were all, albeit unwittingly, fighting for the higher ground.
On an actual battlefield, the high ground is usually the most desirable position. Sun Tzu stresses this, time and again: the fighting force that fails to identify and seize control of the high ground is almost always forced into a reactive, defensive position. Opportunities for offensive action are highly circumscribed. By contrast, the fighting force that occupies the high ground gets to set the terms of the engagement.
On the battlefield of the graduate school seminar, the moral high ground is the most desirable position. A graduate student who fails to identify and seize control of the moral high ground is forced into a reactive, defensive position (e.g., trying to prove that she’s really not a racist, that he’s really not a sexist pig, etc.). By contrast, the students that successfully come to occupy the moral high ground in the graduate seminar get to set the terms of the engagement. It’s a powerful position. No doubt about that. But I wonder if it’s really worth fighting for. Should we be defined, first and foremost, by what we’ve done in the world OR by what the world has done to us?
Highborn patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher unwittingly inaugurated a pernicious political tradition when he reinvented himself as Joe Average to get elected in 59 BCE. Our upper class is filled with Richie Riches masquerading as self-made men. In fact, my guess is that the number of rich people who conceal their privileged origins in 21st-century America is roughly equivalent to the number of noblemen who hid their humble origins in ancien-régime France. My friend Clayton Bailey refers to this process as “privilege laundering”. Ambitious social climbers used to invent aristocratic ancestors; these days, they fabricate histories of oppression and talk incessantly about their underprivileged ancestors. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)