What Bill O’Reilly Ought to Argue

I hesitate to make suggestions for anybody (liberal or conservative) who appear on TV news shows.  Why encourage them?  That format usually promotes oversimplification and rarely encourages deeper understanding.

But I have a suggestion for conservatives.  And liberals, actually.

I argued in an earlier post that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t really understand what white privilege is.  He doesn’t get that he actually has benefited from being white, even if he grew up somewhat poor. And I have to confess that I found it hard to find any of Bill O’Reilly’s comments that I agreed with in his segment, aside from the fact that he probably does get sun-burned if he is out too long in the sun in Hawaii.

However, I think there is a valid objection to be made by some people who are critical of the idea of privilege.  On the O’Reilly segment, Stuart Varney argued that you don’t right wrongs by “guilting” the present.  Varney oversimplifies a complex issue, (see, there it is – oversimplification as a TV news epidemic), but I think he is correct that the concept of “privilege” is sometimes (often?) presented in such a way that feeling guilty is the only response whites can make. In other words, privilege is often framed as a situation that stems solely from past injustices.

Have you given thanks for the good that was built up in our society through the agonizing work done by schoolchildren (and their teachers) in generations past?

A shout-out to schoolchildren (and their teachers) in generations past: Thanks.


But that, also, is an oversimplification.  It is true that much of the privilege I enjoy as a white person is a result of past injustices.  But much is also the result of the efforts of people in the past who have worked against injustice or who have worked to empower non-elites.  I am not descended from an elite or aristocratic family lineage (how many of us in the U.S. are, actually?) but I have benefited from an education that was not conditioned on my family’s wealth or status.  This is thanks to the efforts of many Puritans, Yankees and other Americans from the past who worked to ensure the all ordinary children would receive an education.

I am also privileged because there are principles embedded in the Bill of Rights that have allowed my ancestors and me to flourish. We only need to examine how the poor are abused by the rich and powerful in places like Peru, the Philippines, India, and Kenya (just to name a few somewhat random nations) to help us to appreciate the privilege we enjoy of a law enforcement and legal system that does not only work primarily for the interests of the rich and powerful.  So, even though the founders and many after them upheld systems of injustice that reinforced the privileges of white males (slavery, patriarchy), they also promoted principles checked and limited what the most powerful in our society can do.  Later generations built on those systems, and I’m thankful for those efforts to establish justice.

I am also privileged because I was born into a stable (though imperfect) family, with parents who, among other things, instructed me in ethical principles, filled my life with books, instilled in me habits of self-denial, and sent me to church to encounter God.   That took a lot of hard work on their part, and I did not always learn my lessons well. (See: Failure to Properly Respect Others or Adequately Apologize for Sins Committed in the Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972).  However, I know that many people are born into family situations in which they did not receive as many blessings as I did growing up. I could name more.

The point is that influences on my life as disparate as public education, a working legal system, and a stable family were all given to me, through no fault, action or decision on my own part.  Those are privileges I have been given, due to the good and just things done by people in the past. I have been granted a position of privilege that is based both on terrible injustices and admirable work for good done by many people in the past.

It is important we understand both sides of this coin.  And we can’t fully understand both sides of this coin if we do not deeply engage history.  (Yes, this is a shameless plug for history, but only because I’m right).  In the O’Reilly segment, Stuart Varney saw it is a problem that we were “always looking to the past.”  His solution, presumably, is to forget the past when it comes to issues of race.  This is an extremely bad suggestion (for any issue, actually).

My guess is, though, Varney would be quite happy if we looked at America’s past to note its accomplishments.  Many conservatives fall into this tendency — to describe American society today by lauding past accomplishments and downplaying its injustices.

Many liberals, however, fall into the opposite tendency — to describe American society today by highlighting past injustices, while downplaying its accomplishments.

A fully formed sense of history will deeply engage both sides.  This means we need to take part in careful discussions in which we listen carefully to issues, respect those with whom we disagree, and search for illumination rather than ammunition.

Perhaps we can start that process by turning off TV news shows.