The word ‘privilege’ originates from the Latin privus lex, ‘private law’—law for a private individual and by extension, an aristocratic entitlement. For the privileged, there is a secret code: their transgressions will never be challenged, and if exposed, will be discreetly forgiven. Privilege is generally male, white, born to riches, expensively educated and clubbable, and entitled to power.
The privileged are brought up from infancy to see their special entitlements as their natural right, to assume that their position at the top of a hierarchy derives from their merits and virtues, not the accident of birth. America has historically prided itself as a meritocracy, but it is also a society where wealth is virtue, and where even the poor assume that the wealthy are virtuous. And it is increasingly a society of inter-generationally entrenched hierarchy.
For the privileged man, all is smooth while he enjoys his rise undisturbed. The most expensive education, connections with the most powerful, ascent to the top of his profession—these are his birthright.
But there is no fury like that of a lord dragged before a jury of peasants. His transgressions exposed, his entitlements transgressed, he falls back on those long-concealed (but never forgotten) talents of banditry, intrigue and demagoguery, which were so necessary to his family attaining good fortune in the first place. All barons descend from robber barons. Unable to deny his crimes, he denounces the legitimacy of the court.
Among the darker arts of skilled lawyers is applying republican law to preserve privilege. Conservative jurists in the United States of America have become accomplished practitioners of this. The most notorious example is the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court. The Republic has come to resemble the system of privileges against which its founders rebelled—the ‘old corruption’ whereby royal licenses, government offices and legislative positions (‘rotten boroughs’) could all be bought for cash. In 18th century England, even lordly titles were for sale. King George III alone created almost 400 peerages in return for political favors or money—demonstrating that aristocracy is defined by fortune more than ancestry.
Hence our October Employee of the Month is Judge Brett Kavanaugh: paragon of privilege who displays the unruffled demeanor of effortless privilege, until that horrifying moment when his gilded cage is rattled, and suddenly his unbridled, ruthless defense of entitlement can be seen in all its savagery.
Kavanaugh is the face of privilege this month, but he is a token for many others. Most of the time, the privileged are simply narrow-minded, albeit smooth champions of their own prejudices and interests. But the self-delusion of the privileged can be their downfall. Lacking empathy for anyone outside their own gilded social circles, the discontented aristocrat may become an accidental revolutionary, championing radical slogans without realizing that his social inferiors will seize on those principles, and even seize their noble champion and drag him to the guillotine. The privileged play politics as a game, recklessly throwing fireworks and then looking on in disbelief when the house burns down. This is the story of the ultra-comfortable hard-drinking English Conservatives who heedlessly wrecked Britain at no hardship to themselves. It may yet be how America’s country club plutocrats pollute their country’s democratic norms, and leveraging themselves as absentee slumlords of the eviscerated institutions of government.
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