Beyond one-dimensional analysis

Parsing privilege

Marcuse lectures at an event in 1967. (Jung/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

This fall brings the 50th anniversary of a guest lecture I attended while in college. The speaker was Herbert Marcuse, known in 1969 as chief theorist for the Marxist new left. Marcuse’s most famous book, One-Dimensional Man, argued that capitalism exploits people and nature and turns art and culture into commodities. I applauded, not knowing then the universality of sin and the historical fact that socialism is even more prone to lead to dictatorship and war.

Marcuse’s analysis was one-dimensional, as is one outgrowth of Marxist analysis, the “privilege walk” exercise now standard at many U.S. colleges, including Christian ones. Amy Julia Becker, author of White Picket Fences(NavPress, 2018), describes what she went through at Princeton along with 60 other students. “If your ancestors came to the United States by force, take one step back. … If your parents or guardians attended college take one step forward.”

If you know Becker is white, you can guess the rest of the story: “With every step forward, I feel my heart thump a little harder. … All of us who advance to the front of the room have white skin.” Becker is right to report that some structural injustice based on race is real. I’ve witnessed white police differently treating groups of white and black teens. So it’s important to understand the importance of privilege—but the privilege issue is complicated.

I’ll pick on White Picket Fences not because it’s a bad book—to the contrary, it’s well-written and well-intentioned—but because Becker at first accepts today’s one-dimensional clichés. And yet, her own story of upper-class privilege shows elements of the opposite. It came with a dad who commuted from Connecticut into Manhattan on weekdays, ran long distances on weekends, and essentially ignored her. In high school she felt his absence “in my gut” and “started involuntarily vomiting my food after every meal.” Furthermore, “the pressure I had internalized from teachers and coaches and friends overwhelmed my system so much that it simply ceased to function.”

Eventually Becker required emergency hospitalization. Doctors never determined a physical cause, but after her hospital stay she still fainted regularly and vomited after every meal. She notes how “my peers shared my obsession with the scale.” They received good grades and gained acceptance to elite colleges, but did their “years of binging and purging and shame” show privilege or misery?

“The real privilege of my life has come in learning what it means to love others.”—Amy Julia Becker

Becker has cared for a young daughter with Down syndrome and a middle-aged mother-in-law with liver cancer. Becker was privileged to hold a trash can while her mother-in-law “vomited, draining her tubes of blood and bile after her surgery,” and to spend “the night by her side to make sure she didn’t lurch from bed.”

Happily, Chapter 9 of Becker’s book takes a gospel turn. Without the hardships of her mother-in-law’s death and her child’s unanticipated difficulties, her future might have left her like Matthew in one of Caravaggio’s paintings, “counting the coins of my existence, unable or unwilling to look up into the light. … The real privilege of my life has come in learning what it means to love others, that love involves suffering and sacrifice and sleepless nights and tears and heartache and great gifts.”

Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man introduced to Americans a concept now fashionable: “intersectionality,” the idea that to get a whole look at unfairness we have to add up the influence of race, class, and sex. But those still leave us in only one dimension based on externals. We should at least add on a second dimension that takes note of other factors, such as growing up with two loving parents rather than with a single mom or with parents who are cold or absent. 

Oct. 10-13 brings the eighth biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference. Tenured Marxists will converge at the University of California Santa Barbara to present academic papers on topics such as “the dialectics of resistance today” and “Can violence play a role … for precipitating system change?”

Conference organizers recommend lodging on the UCSB campus at the Club & Guest House for $199 per night. Backup is a nearby hotel for $139 or $159 per night (“includes hot breakfast buffet”).

Crucial question: Will any of the participants have perceived God’s love, and thus moved into a third dimension based on the privilege of loving others because God first loved us?


MARVIN OLASKY is Editor of WORLD MAGAZINE and was for thirty years professor of Journalism at the University of Texas in Austin.