The idea of Power & Privilege is admirable: students get to give presentations and hopefully enlighten Whitman’s dominant demographic of white upper-middle-class liberals as to the daily experiences of people from marginalized social and ethnic groups. But what comes after that? Does P&P then go on to challenge the very foundations of the upper-middle-class social reality? Does it tie that reality to broader structures of power in the US and beyond?
P&P contains just the right type and amount of programming to make us educated liberals feel self-satisfied in our boutique activism. It presents us with what appears to be a vibrant and important discourse over a broad range of topics. In reality, it is limited in scope, avoids scrutinizing truly important political and economic power centers and reinforces an already-existing consensus among college liberals about what is important.
None of this is to discount the work and vulnerability of those who present at P&P. But to understand P&P’s flaws, we have to take a look at what is missing.
At P&P, you will not be led to investigate and scrutinize political and economic power centers in the US. You will not hear about the cooperation between corporations and intelligence agencies to infiltrate, defame, undermine and crush contemporary protest movements such as BLM, Occupy Wall Street and the anti-Keystone XL pipeline movement.
You will not be educated on the recent and widespread censorship of progressive media by Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon.
You certainly will not hear about the most important political prisoner in the West today, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. You will not hear about the American war and espionage machine Assange helped expose, which keeps the rest of the world in check for Western corporations — a state of affairs on which rests the power and privilege of the entire North American educated class, including those that administrate, attend and teach at Whitman College.
You will instead be primed to engage in the same kind of scripted programming that is used in corporate HR departments all over North America, whose workshops you will be expected to attend and nod your head accordingly. You will be led to think that you are somehow challenging oppression, while in reality, you remain comfortably inside the upper-middle-class institutional matrix.
You will be discouraged from scrutinizing that matrix — you will instead be diverted toward neurotic thought-and-word-policing of yourself and your peers: a culture which successfully maintains a culture of paranoia and fear that keeps people squabbling among each other, prevents them from collectivizing and helps maintain the dominance of heartless state and corporate bureaucracies like the one that runs Whitman. Don’t believe me? Just look at how effective that culture is at punishing critics of Israel’s apartheid policies — Harvard professor Cornel West was recently denied tenure for this very reason.
As an elite institution, it is literally Whitman’s job to prepare you for the upper-middle-class matrix; and for them to get you to think that you’re being subversive when you’re actually following the script is a very sophisticated technique of indoctrination. As a rule, you should understand that when the revolution is being administered by an elite institution, it’s probably not the revolution.
Now let’s pivot: have most Whitman students, while walking by Safeway, ever given two minutes of their time to speak with a homeless person? I think a lot of Whitman students don’t know what a moment of sincere conversation means to a homeless person’s dignity.
Now ask, what might it mean for you to get off of Instagram and outside the Whitman bubble to engage with the other human beings that you usually pass by without acknowledgment? What kind of possibility might you both be introduced to, outside of the pseudo-political terms set by the upper-middle-class matrix?
It’s never too late to find out.