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The Abuse of Privilege (a short essay)

Updated on July 11, 2013

The Abuse of Privilege

Ever since I was an adolescent--or old enough to wonder about where words originated--I remember being annoyed by the use of the word "privilege." I did not know why, at the time, I was so annoyed. I know only that I was certainly annoyed every time I heard it used. I should add that it was used wrongly, but I did not know this at the time.

I read a lot when I was a boy. And perhaps the reading imparted to me an ear for good usage. Perhaps the inkling of poor usage was a sign of a latent interest in the serious study of literature and language. Perhaps, like an English pointer whelp, I found myself incipiently on stand whenever there was a dirty sock wrongly mixed into a pile of clean ones. Whatever the reason, I found myself staunch whenever I scented "privilege" in the air.

Today, I am older, and I have flushed the bird out of its covert.


The word "privilege" is used mostly in sentences like the following: "The poor are underprivileged" or "He is a child of lesser privilege" or "Inner city youth don't have the privilege of belonging to that elite country club." One rarely hears the word used except to point out a disparity between the haves and the have-nots. The word is tainted with the sarcasm of the envious. It rives the rich and poor better than a national border. The word seldom issues from any mouth but that of the well-meaning leftist who has taken it up from his political forebears and carries it proudly forth, inching, daily, ever closer to the utopia.

If the utopia is to be reached by such vehicles, the plodder will certainly despair, well-intentioned or not.

The word "privilege" comes from the Latin word "privilegium," which means "a law applying to one person, a bill of law in favor of or against an individual." Later, in the Middle Ages, the word became "privilege," which comes from two Latin words, "privus" (private) and "lex" (law). The word had merit in a monarchy, for in a monarchy a King or Queen did certainly enjoy special or private allowances that servants did not. The King was allowed to feast on venison, but Robin Hood and his merry men were not; the deer belonged to the King. That is what a privilege was. And, for any mind honest enough to use words correctly, the privilege did not make it across to Plymouth Rock. The privilege ended with the shot heard round the world, with John Hancock, with the flintlock rifle snatched quickly down from above the mantle by the hand of a vigilant Minuteman. The privilege stops when the homeless man stands up against a Lexus full of brigands and threatens them with legal retaliation if they continue to spit on him. The privilege stopped with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, with jazz and the Negro Spiritual, with Rosa Parks and every right minded American who understands his own origins.

America has no place for the word "privilege," abused as I have indicated. The wealthy--this may come as a surprise to many--were not granted their wealth by bloodline or royal birth. They do not enjoy special rights not enjoyed by poorer folk. A man with only a dollar to his name may sue a millionaire for all his money and win. The cynical may sneer all they want to, but there is no place in the law that sneers at this. It is a right that is self-evident. It is born with us, with all of us, not with only some of us. The American must always go about with "All men are created equal" on the tip of his tongue. Disparities between cars and clothes and house and food and job and fame and influence end abruptly at the dock of your local court room, where stands a woman with a blindfold, a sword, and a scale. But the blindfold is the best of her apparel. There was no blindfold in Merry Old England. For this reason, every American should wince and grind his teeth every time someone says, "The Kennedy's are our Royal Family." Fatuous pretender! Addlepated poseur! Noxious Colonist!!! Men bled to keep America uninfected by "privilegium." Are we so brazen as to resurrect it on their graves?

Several years back, I took a very enjoyable tour of the Amish farmlands in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The tour guide, with great avidity, informed us that the Amish call the rest of us "the English" to this very day. I horrified the group of contented fools by standing up and telling her to please remind the Amish that untold numbers died precisely because they wished no longer to be English!!! And that any Amish person, any American at all, should be summarily reprimanded the very second that slur comes forth from their lips. The Amish are very fond of reminding us that they are not Dutch; they routinely correct that misunderstanding by reminding us that they are German. But I stood up and reminded them that they are American and none of the others.

They are not the only ones who do not know who they really are. Like something out of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," modern Colonists still walk among us, infecting others with their words. It is easy to identify and avoid them. Just listen to the way they use the word "privilege." And at the risk of insulting my reader--something I would never knowingly do--let me guess that at first reading the title "The Abuse of Privilege" what came to your mind was probably an image of some rich person getting away with murder. But remember: that was what Kings did. And you and I are not Kings. We are better than that.


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