Rex Murphy, Canada’s indefatigable slayer of straw men, has done it again. In a column titled “Check Your Bigotry”, Murphy has taken on the “anti-racism movement” which Murphy warns is imposing the “bigotry” of the “White Privilege” label on unfortunate White students at our institutions of higher learning. I’ll be honest, I left the ivory tower thirty years ago. I don’t know what the situation is in the Groves of Academe these days. Of course, its been almost half a century since Murphy left the halls of Oxford (without a degree). I don’t think it out of line to mention that Murphy sculled his dory on the Thames with his chums on a bit of a free ride, tuition and living allowance courtesy of Rhodesia’s colonial founder’s blood diamond fortune. Certainly, a Rhodes Scholarship is no mean achievement – the closest I ever got was reading the application form. For a smart, hard-working boy from Carbonear, Newfoundland, a Rhodes Scholarship is a remarkable personal achievement. I think it safe to say that if Murphy had been a smart, hard-working boy from Attawapiskat that Rhodes scholarship would be so remarkable as to be fiction. And women weren’t considered at all for the privilege of a Rhodes Scholarship until 1977, shortly before I didn’t even come close to getting one.
When Murphy went off to Oxford in 1968, he had already done some great work for his fellow students at Memorial University, convincing (bullying?) the provincial government not only into granting free tuition to undergraduates but also getting them government cash for room and board. What a privilege it must have been to be a government paid student at Memorial! And then Oxford for Murphy on the same sort of ticket! An achievement and a privilege at the same time!
Now, in 1968, when Murphy packed his books and afro-pick for Oxford, someone else was working hard on their life goals down in Southern Africa where Cecil Rhodes made the fortune (and his own personal Rhodesia) which funded Murphy’s Oxford gravy train. Nelson Mandela was breaking limestone on Robbin Island in 1968. Maybe Murphy’s right: that brown South African fellow, despite his lack of privilege, through his own efforts, later became President of his country and a symbol of freedom and hope for racial reconciliation and equality around the world. White-skinned Murphy, on the other hand, didn’t manage to get an Oxford degree and now rents his barbed wit out to various outlets to help them increase their hit counts. Surely, if White Privilege were a Thing, Murphy would be Prime Minister by now (ran three times for two parties and never won a seat) and Mandela would have come off that Island in a box.
I’m certain that Murphy is a bright guy. I think he knows full well that Mandela rose to the heights in spite of the barriers put in front of him. And I’m also sure that Murphy knows deep down that he’s just a freelance scribbler in spite of the doors opened to him because he’s a White man in a society built by White men for the benefit of White men.
But Murphy writes:
To read the student newspapers of some campuses, it would seem the hearty days of the KKK are just a tick of the clock away from returning. They seem especially convinced that every white person is a bundle of unearned advantages, owns a place purely because of his/her skin colour, and wanders through life with a Free For Me Pass simply because daddy and mommy, and their daddy and mommy, were white.
It’s astonishing. Could there be a better definition of racism, a better example of a purely racist concept, than this, the holding that all a person does and is springs from the colour of his skin?
The entire notion is called “white privilege.”
Well, I don’t know which or how many campuses are the “some campuses” Murphy means. He never specifies. Instead, he throws out a lot of straw loosely held together at the multiple “seems” and the straw man is there for us all to be horrified by. It even wears a nice Murphy-supplied name-tag. If Murphy’s straw man really is bestriding the campuses of our nation, than it’s a bit of a problem – probably not more of a problem than the absurd continued existence of fraternities – but a problem.
I’m sure that as some point Murphy was taught that a description of a factual situation is neither racism nor bigotry. Acknowledging that Western society has historically been constructed by white people for the benefit of White people is no more racist than to acknowledge that most of the people of Sub-Saharan Africa have more melanin in their skin than does pasty old Rex. The difference between those two examples, however, is that one is a description of a social fact and the other is a description of a genetic fact. And this is where Murphy plays his nastiest card, trying to twist the discussion of a social fact into some sort of genetic claim. I can’t imagine anyone claims, as Murphy suggests they do, that White people are genetically privileged. The claim – and the fact – is that due to historical facts the playing field remains uneven. Murphy ignores that fact and tries to obfuscate it by shouting “Racism!”
But in these days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of British Columbia’s impending apology for its anti-Chinese history, in this centenary year of the Komagata Maru tragedy, and in the light of Murphy’s previous bilge spewing about Elsipotog, I don’t for a moment believe that Murphy is worried about rampant “political correctness” on the campuses of the nation. I suspect Murphy privately would acknowledge not only the social fact of White Privilege but is fully aware of how he has himself benefited from that Privilege.
No. I suspect Murphy is just crassly playing the Old White Curmudgeon that his audience enjoys. He’s found a hot button to push that will get outraged traffic to his column and advertising dollars into the coffers of those who pay him.
What I would have enjoyed from Murphy would have been a nuanced high road. He could have said that to dwell on very real White Privilege at the individual level, denying the value of White individuals achievements, is not a state of affairs to be desired. Whether that state of affairs exists anywhere apart from Murphy’s imagination I can’t say. I would have enjoyed a strong statement of the importance of White individuals acknowledging to themselves that they started the race a little closer to the finish line than their neighbours of colour. I would have liked Murphy to rant about it being more important to strive for an equal world by bringing advantage to the disadvantaged than by handicapping the privileged.
But that wouldn’t stir outrage on Twitter, would it?
Unlike Murphy, I (and many others) openly acknowledge my privilege. I have benefited from Colonialism. It is easier to live life as a White male in the Western world (just as it is easier, by the way, to live as a Japanese male in Japan or an Arab man on the Arabian Peninsula.) Being a member of the dominant social group in any society is a privileged position. Saying so is not bigotry or racism. It is simply a fact. If we truly are hoping to build a more equal society, we must acknowledge that the playing field is still not level, however well or badly individuals do at the game.
Yes, Mr. Murphy, your achievements are laudable. The other closest I ever got to a Rhodes Scholarship was being accepted for a year of study at St. Andrews University in Scotland. (I couldn’t afford to go as no money came along with that acceptance.) You worked hard to get your Rhodes Scholarship, maybe as hard as the nameless South African and Rhodesian Blacks who dug those diamonds out of the ground to pay your tuition. I wonder how many of them even learned to read. I wonder if any of them, if given the chance, could have stood up to Joey Smallwood and won free tuition and a living allowance for Memorial University students. Is hard work really all that gets us up the ladder? Did you, Mr. Murphy, really never get a hand up, a door opened, or a palm greased by the simple fact that you are a White man in a society built by and for White men?
Of course you did.
I wouldn’t demand that you publicly “check your privilege” Mr. Murphy. But I must tell you that your public denial of your privilege is a remarkably ugly thing to watch.
Update, May 16, 2015: Yesterday, a year almost to the day after “Check Your Bigotry” appeared, Rex Murphy published a “new” column titled “‘White Privilege’ on the march” in which the privileged Mr. Murphy again expounded on how modern society is a level playing field for all born or immigrating into it, and that suggesting otherwise is inherently racist. I wonder: does Mr. Murphy have only a year’s worth of columns? Does he recycle them over and over on an annual basis, only changing the titles? Or has his memory simply shortened so much that not only does he forget the blood money that gave him the privilege of dropping out of Oxford in the Sixties, but he now also forgets 2014? I’ll be watching next May to see whether he once again attacks the existence of privilege.