This clip of Dinesh D’Souza during a Q&A session at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has drifted through my social media feeds multiple times in the past week, so it was only a matter of odds that it would catch me during a moment of nighttime weakness for procrastination.
A well-spoken (if leftist) freshman referred to D’Souza’s parable of a worker walking past a restaurant full of wealthy people, feeling embittered, and asked: “Do you think any of that indignation, given certain circumstances, might actually have been justified simply because there have been systematic blocks in people’s way throughout American history?”
The student rambled on through a lot of context and a second question, so it’s understandable that D’Souza responded to the question in much more specific terms. He therefore focused on insinuations of “white privilege” in the question, and turned it around on the student, who was white.
To be sure, the student asked for it, by dwelling in the gray area between specifics and generalizations. He brought up the specific example of racism in dispensing GI bill benefits, for example, but only by way of asking a very generalized, vague question about whether “any of that indignation… might actually have been justified.”
D’Souza suggested that history is a messy thing, with nobody currently alive whose ancestors did not step on somebody else’s ancestors. He suggested that one solution is to say, “This stops now,” and we can strive to make that pledge real. Another solution, favored by progressives, is to come up with some way to remedy the problem. Retroactively, presumably picking some point in history and certain grievances.
Through all of the insinuations, on one hand, and disclaimers about complexity, on the other, the student’s remedy seemed to be along the lines of: “let’s all just acknowledge this is real and hope our acknowledgment leads to differences in behavior that remedy the disparities.” One suspects that the acknowledgment is really just the precursor to confiscation and redistribution that progressives will deny intending right up to the time that they call for it.
That suspicion is why we do well to decline to make the acknowledgment, but for the sake of discussion, we can say that, yes, as unhealthy as it may be for that person, the indignation isn’t entirely without a rational basis. But the restaurant-passerby really has no way of knowing whether he’s being indignant at the right people.
Even if he can point to his grandfather’s GI Bill denial, he can’t know if any of the people in that restaurant gained advantage from that particular program. The GI Bill wasn’t the only contribution to the growth of the middle class.
Then there’s the question of deserts. Implicit in the student’s question is that those who received the GI Bill benefit did not earn it. If they did earn it, then their receipt isn’t the problem. The denial to black GIs is the problem, and one could rephrase it to suggest that they did not received their earned advantage over those who did not go to war, who would therefore be at a disadvantage.
Next is the difficulty of subsequent contribution. With regard to Native American land purchases (and as I think D’Souza stated in one of his movies), you can’t value a property retroactively based on the use to which a buyer actually puts it. Wealth didn’t flow from the GI Bill like a stream running downhill. The people who gained the advantage of college degrees or business openings still had to work, and their children had to work to keep the family’s advancement going.
In that hypothetical restaurant, there could be diners whose grandparents received GI Bill benefits and did well for themselves, but whose parents then squandered that advantage, leaving them, the third generation after WWII, to find another way to build some wealth. And maybe the grandfather of the guy walking by indignantly would have dropped out of school or failed in business or succeeded and squandered the money himself.
Unless we’re looking at a particular family and what it owes to another particular family, we can only look in a general way at the current conditions. Now suppose we do as the progressives like to do and simply look at proportionality in current groups. Whites are overrepresented among the wealthy, so we can infer that they’ve gained some unfair advantage, while blacks are overrepresented in prison, so we can infer that they face some unfair discrimination.
Even accepting those inferences as true, we find another practical problem. Say we collect all of the white people together and tell them we’re extracting some money from them, or restricting the number of them who can go to top-tier colleges, while we collect all of the black people together and tell them they’re going to be receiving money and college seats. How are those burdens and benefits likely to be divided up?
Well, operating from the theory of advantage, the wealthier whites will be able to pass the burden on to the poorer whites within their class — a point that is especially compelling when one considers college admissions. Meanwhile, the wealthier blacks, who’ve advanced by some way or other despite the GI Bill racism and everything else, will be the ones to collect the payouts and the benefits.
At this point, without getting too specific, the progressive will simply imagine that some process must exist whereby we could means test the collection and distribution, or something to that effect, but we don’t eliminate the problem. Such on-paper hurdles, written into law and regulation, are precisely the games that that people with current advantages are especially well situated to avoid.
After all, it brings us back to enforcement through the very government that, the student insists, distributed the GI Bill opportunities in such a racist way.
Better to take the “this stops now” route, even if it makes it more difficult to divide Americans for political gain.