Author: Blake Smith

The Problems of “Privilege”: Lessons from the French Revolution

In recent years, ‘privilege’ has become an important concept in modern politics, academia, and popular culture. It appears in an increasing and disorienting number of forms, from male privilege and white privilege, to “gay privilege,” “black male privilege,” and “family privilege,” and these claims about privilege animate a wide array of political stances. Supporters of Hillary Clinton criticized voters for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein as privileged radicals risking a Trump victory for the sake of inflexible principles. Supporters of the latter candidates returned fire, targeting Hillary voters as privileged centrists out of touch with America’s economic and racial inequalities. Donald Trump, of course, as countless media outlets insist, is (white, male) privilege personnifed; his supporters, meanwhile, are said to demonstrate the extent of their own privilege by denying that privilege exists. In the classroom and in the media, people are increasingly asked (or made) to measure, acknowledge, and strive to reduce their privilege. “Privilege studies” is a growing field, with more and more scholar-activists devoting themselves to its practice. In the midst of all …

Muslim Vikings and Abuses of History

Two weeks ago, Swedish researcher Annika Larsson of Upssala University announced that she had discovered a thousand year-old Viking textile with ‘Allah’ inscribed on its hem. Major international media outlets rushed to publish news of Larsson’s supposed discovery. Within a few days, the BBC, The Guardian, and The New York Times had run articles on the subject, all of which raised the possibility that the Viking wearer of this cloth might have been Muslim, or even a Muslim immigrant from the Middle East. Larsson, and the reporters who echoed her, argued that the Viking culture of medieval Sweden was therefore open to Islamic influence–an idea, they gleefully noted, bound to enrage right-wing opponents of mass immigration from majority-Muslim countries. The New York Times was insistent on the political meaning of the ‘Allah cloth,’ interviewing Swedish activists who try to disassociate their country’s Viking past from its appropriations by right-wing nativist groups. Archaeologists and historians immediately pointed out problems in Larsson’s interpretation, recalling similarly outlandish claims that she had made in the past. In response, Sigal …