A guest post by MJ Lisbeth
Even though I’ve experienced a few things no one should have to, I have had privilege and still enjoy some privileges. I have lived a bit more than a decade and a half as a woman and have experienced “mansplaining” and all manner of microaggressions, in addition to outright discrimination and a sexual assault. But I realize that even though I grew up working-class and used a couple of scholarships, a few part-time jobs and the US Army to finance my post-secondary education, my path almost certainly would have been more difficult had I not been living as a male. (Mind you, I say that as someone who experienced a sexual assault in the Army a decade after experiencing serial sexual abuse from a priest.) Or if my skin had been a few shades darker. Or if someone could tell that the first language I spoke wasn’t English.
I was, and am, privileged in yet another way: I have visited twenty countries and lived in two. Of those countries, only two (including one in which I’ve lived) had not—until yesterday–experienced a violent overthrow of a sitting government or a violent attempt to prevent a newly-elected government from taking its place. Seeing how some people, decades or even generations later, still carry the trauma of successful and attempted coups helped me to understand—as corny as this sounds—what a privilege it had been to live in a country that had never experienced a coup, and had gone more than two centuries without its capital being sacked.
When the hordes of Trump-election-loss-deniers stormed the Capitol, I couldn’t help but to think about the privilege I’ve lost, and what I still have. The latter—or, perhaps more precisely, my awareness of my privilege—is the reason why I never could cast my lot with those who felt aggrieved enough to attack the seat of American democracy. On the other hand, the fact that I’ve lost some privilege in my life allows me to understand, to some degree, why those mobs behaved as they did.
Privilege makes your life easier but it doesn’t make your life worth living. However, at the moment you lose–or feel as if you’re losing–your privilege, it feels as if you are losing your rights. And, in such a wounded, vulnerable state, it’s too easy to see that others getting the same rights you’ve always had (voting, marriage, not getting fired or evicted–or denied a job or housing in the first place–because of your race or gender identity or expression) as having “special privileges” bestowed upon them, and to see those who would grant those rights as “enemies” or “aliens.” It’s easy to see the “others” as “taking” from you.
In other words, you feel like a victim. In other uprisings and insurrections, the rabble-rousers had legitimate reasons to feel victimized: They worked and paid their taxes, but they were still hungry and some leader said, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” Or they were harassed, imprisoned or tortured for being poorer or darker, being of a different religion or not following the gender norms mandated by their ruling classes. Or they were taxed but not represented.
Nearly all the President’s storm troopers at the Capitol were white, and most were male. From what I could see, not many were hungry. (In my experience, hungry people don’t pose for many selfies.) Moreover, they seemed a bit older than the participants of other disruptions to the normal order. So, I believe that I’m making another reasonable guess in assuming that relatively few of them are burdened with student debt or have had their futures foreclosed by the economic upheavals of the past generation or so. While their wages may not have kept pace with those of, say, tech entrepreneurs and executives, they are not where they are because they were denied opportunities on account of their race, gender identity or expression—or religion.
Which brings me to this: another educated guess I can make about the mobs that stormed the Capitol is that most of the people involved were Christians in some fashion or another; many were Evangelicals. I can say this because, during the past few decades, utterly reactionary interpretations of the Bible—or, more accurately, fanatical, cultish devotion to the personalities offering said interpretations of the book they believe to have come directly from the mouth of God—have become one strand of the far-right’s DNA. (The other is White nationalism.) So, really it is no surprise that at least some in those mobs believed, with a certainty rarely seen among anyone else, about anything in the Western world, that they are carrying out the Will Of God, not to mention their Constitutional rights.
Anyone who is so fanatical believes that those who question, let alone try to stop them are persecuting them, and anyone who dies in the course of carrying out their fight is a martyr. So, if they are beaten, arrested, imprisoned or killed, it is proof that the powers-that-be are against them, and that they are as endangered as, supposedly, the early Christians were
The problem with their position is that it simply has no basis. No Christian can claim to be a “persecuted minority” in the United States, any more than a white cisgender heterosexual male can. If their preferred candidate didn’t win, it’s not the fault of the system, just as if they didn’t realize their youthful dreams of becoming professional athletes, entertainers or simply wealthy, they weren’t held back by some conspiracy funded by George Soros. Likewise, if they lost their old jobs because factories shut down or headquarters relocated, their black or brown or yellow neighbors aren’t to blame. Rather, they simply didn’t have the talents, skills or simply luck to fulfill their hopes and dreams: in other words, to leverage the privilege they have.
As someone who has had and lost privilege, I am conscious of what privilege I still have. I believe I can also recognize it in others. Most of the mob in the Capitol (which included, by the way, at least a few cops) have no idea of how much they still have, which is why they feel “their” country has been “stolen” from them when people different from themselves simply out-organized and out-voted them.
Speaking of voting: It’s not a privilege; it’s a right. And it’s not granted by God; it’s guaranteed in the Constitution. The only way to lose that right is (in at least some states) to be convicted of a felony, as those mob members may be when they are found. Whatever your privilege—and whether or not you believe in God, or at least the protesting mob’s vision of His Kingdom On Earth—you have it and I have it, as they do, even if they lose their privilege—of living their lives outside a prison cell.
In brief, the folks who stormed the Capitol were not victims. They also benefit from privilege they don’t realize they have but impute to others. Some of that privilege comes, for many, from accepting a paleolithic interpretation of a collection of late Bronze Age myths. The rest comes from being of (at least in their eyes) the right race, gender, and sexual identity. Until they understand as much, they will see themselves as victims and some will perpetuate the violence fomented by a public figure they worship as they exalt their God.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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MJ Lisbeth, Your writing is bright, pure light. It deserves to be broadcast far and wide across the continent. Thank-you, Bruce, for publishing this brilliant essay and thank-you, MJ, for being here. I would say more but want to stop and read this piece again!
I can only disagree with one of the writer’s comments. Voting is not a right. Nor is freedom. They have to be earned. They are privileges. Sorry to say. You either earn them or your parents earn them for you. It’s like land or money. Same thing. I say this because all this can be taken from you in a breath. Trump lives exclusively on privilege earned by the ruthlessness of his parental guardian.
With 1/2 of America hating the other half, America does risk falling. I sometimes wonder what those “private” talks were really all about between the King of Russia and the wannabe King of America. Don’t you ?!?
Not only were the rioters influenced by fundamentalist Christianity, but many of them were following that crazy Q cult. And I have to say, I’ve known about Donald Trump most of my life. When he first became active in NYC I lived in the NE, and he didn’t have a good reputation. Honestly, the devotion of all these people to FUCKING DONALD TRUMP amazes me. The paintings they paint depicting him as muscular, strong and handsome…it’s obvious they are deluded. The one (I think McNaughton) painted with Trump and Melania on a motorcycle is sheer hilarity. Neither Trump nor Melania would go anywhere near a motorcycle, as that is too low class for them. So I feel sheer amazement that Trump is proclaimed as the most masculine of men. Wha…? Somehow his flaming narcissism is seen as strength.
MJ, I agree with you. I know my privilege has allowed me an easier course through life, but as a non-binary person who has been out in recent years, I also must deal with the bigotry that I now encounter. Before coming out I did not personally encountered prejudice. I never had to consider how my presence could cause negative or dangerous reactions from others.
Trump has made life immeasurably for anyone not white and not Christian. Members of my own family still support this man, thinking he is wonderful. It doesn’t matter that his brown shirts attacked the capital.
I point out the priviledge in these middle class and above white people in my latest writings, one needs cash to go try and overthrow the government while mugging on your smart phone. Let’s remember these aren’t people who are protesting to the government for more social and economic equity. They are the types who call people “snowflakes” who protest for things to be changed so they can afford the basics of life. They aren’t struggling to pay their bills as Covid took away their jobs. None of them complained about the very little money handed out 600 a dollars which won’t cover most people’s rent. The system as it is now is serving them and the billionaire worship is the icing on the cake for these Dominionists who want even more tax cuts for billionaires at the behest of their Orange Sociopath. Years of David Ramsey brainwashing has indoctrinated them all with firm belief in Republican “trickle down” economics, even as the USA faces the closure of small businesses and millions of homeless, these types just don’t give a crap. “God will provide”. Add on to this, that the privilege they most want to defend is white supremacy.