Checking Your Privilege At Auschwitz

Primo Levi, 1976 appendix to If This Is a Man:

We should recall that in some camps uprisings did take place: in Treblinka, in Sobibór, and even in Birkenau, one of the sub-camps of Auschwitz…In all instances, they were planned and led by prisoners who were in some sense privileged, and so in better physical and spiritual condition than the ordinary prisoners. This should not be surprising: only at first glance does it seem paradoxical that the ones who revolt are those who suffer least.


  1. Mushin April 23, 2015 at 12:55 am | #

    Thank you and I will be reading with you this trilogy over the summer.

    Virtue is victorious over vice because it is the emergent immanent man we are looking for is search in philosophy and metaphysics. .

    “One of the realizations today is this. I trust you. The ‘oar’ (your background of human endeavour, human relationships and domains of expertise) are vast and beyond my capability to understand even if we lived together for next 100 years. I do not under-estimate the significance of what we are sharing and effective action is in taking the comment of Maturana and living it with others in real-time and pure-play. My invitation to you is “open conversations of possible possibilities” within your network of trusted friends, associates and relationships. In freedom let’s see what emerges and I am always already with you in the ‘speculative conversations’ that may emerge. I am committed to entering effective actions in our heart’s desire and I know that all of us are ready for some new ‘surprises’ to arise in our joyful concern to designing a new future together.
    Mushin 12th June 2008

    Our conversation is useful and fruitful. “In the course of my life I have seen Frenchman, Italians, Russians …but as for Man, I declare I have not met him in life. If he exists, I have no knowledge of him.” Joseph de Maistre

    Maybe we will begin to discover in our mutual curiosity the “Man” we are searching for in oneself?

    I highly recommend you add an outlier to your summer curiosity in reading “The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision” by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014). The central insight in my own curiosity over the past 30 years in the field of Cybernetics was a discover that simultaneously happened from two different processes by Gregory Bateson’s “Ecology of Mind” and Humberto Maturana and Francisco Verela Santiago Theory “Unitary Epistemology of Autopoiesis” in cognitive science; the process of knowing within the process of life is living-in-realization.

    Our mental activity, 25 Watt 10,000 million elements and trillions of cellular enactive embodied quantum activity is self-generating and self-perpetuation of living networks, within the very process of life itself. The organizing activity of living systems, at all levels of life, is mental activity. Like the ancient Kybalion “All in All is Mind ~ The Universe id Mental” and this relates to Abraham originating realizations. The interactions of a living organism plant, animal, or human with its medium (surrounding world, environment including social cultures or patriarchal power mistake observer errors based in exclusion and appropriation as power) are COGNITIVE INTERACTIONS OPERATING IN THE PRESENCE OF MOMENTS. The convexity in chaos, disorder, inhumanity to man’s goodness based in love is an antifragility. We are antifragilty confronting mistaken notions and assumptions of sustainability that is powerless in the truth of this moment in human histroy. Life and cognition are inseparably connected. Mind or more correctly the poiesis of Primo Levi distinguishes mental activity in conversations for adequate effective actions, and this is IMMANENT in matter at all levels of life. Your gift of offering this poietic examination is precious and priceless. Thank you.

    “Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system. Biology of Cognition original paper 1970/1980.

    “Everything said is said by somebody” Maturana and Verela. This is immanent presence in living life consciously aware of what you are saying in triadic appreciative inquiry and dialog that creates societies.

    I am a slow reader, so be patient, your light years ahead of me in this conversation.

  2. Junius April 23, 2015 at 10:06 am | #

    “In all instances, they were planned and led by prisoners who were in some sense privileged”

    This is the historical great responsability of the “educated class”, the “middle classe” or any other name – related to the social context – you want to called it.

    Call it national socialism, call it ordo-liberalism, nothing is changed: that’s the imperialism of german capitalism.

    Call’em Jews, call’em Greeks, nothing is changed. Consider «se questo è un Uomo».

    As Italian, thank you for reminding Primo Levi.

  3. Cade DeBois (@cadedebois) April 23, 2015 at 10:22 am | #

    Very cute, Prof. Robin. Of course, privilege is power. When you’re an actual oppressed person among a group of oppressed people–like someone in a concentration camp–having some privilege can be directed toward ways of alleviating that oppression for all (let’s also keep in mind that not all “privileged” concentration camp prisoners were so altruistic–with power, there is always choice). But when you’re an educated, employed, socially-included individual who has a platform and network to be heard by the larger society, the power of privilege becomes the power to insulate yourself from the actual experience and voices of the oppressed. It becomes bias. It becomes a way to tell oppressed people to STFU and not bother your conscience with “privilege checks” because you know who the *real villians* are and if the filthy rabble would just fall in line behnd you, you’ll lead the revolt for them. When it’s comfortable for you, that is. Also, clinging to one’s privilege takes a lot of cognitive energy. Which is funny when you think of all the privileged people now insisting we not talk about (their) privilege because it’s a “distraction”. What a luxury it must be to have the energy to waste with such games. Oppressed people don’t have that kind of energy. They have to expend so much energy on simply coping with all the oppression that gets heaped on them every day, including by elite left folks who want oppressed people to be quiet and wait patiently while they can talk about oppression in comfort and without such rude interruptions. This is why the oppressed need tools like “check your privilege”–it’s one way they can cut through this B.S. and lead the revolt themselves.

    • Susan Sample April 23, 2015 at 10:54 am | #

      Do you understand that the truly oppressed are not reading intellectual blogs and commenting on them with their electronic devices connected to the Internet? Presumably, if you don’t actually see yourself as the elite, but rather as in solidarity with the oppressed, you might then be exactly one of the people in the category mentioned here–people who are slightly better off and thus have the energy to act and lead. Further, it only takes a passing acquaintance with the conditions in the concentration camps to understand that the lack of energy in the mass of people was brought about by starvation and deprivation…their bodies were shutting down to the point where they couldn’t physically resist unless someone who was marginally less privileged and less weak was able to get them to expend that last energy in one desperate bid to survive or die. Most oppressive circumstances aren’t that life and death, but the literature on revolution certainly upholds the basic thesis about who leads revolutions or when they happen.

  4. Glenn April 23, 2015 at 11:38 am | #

    Marx and Engels, who called for a dictatorship of the proletariat, were solidly privileged by the bourgeois wealth and continued income from Engels’ inheritance and manufacturing operation.

    Engels did not allow the proletariat to take over and dictate the terms of his proletariat’s laboring.

    Thomas Jefferson, who tried to write the abolition of slavery into the Declaration of Independence, could not free his slaves without the certainty of becoming a non-factor in public life, as hated by the nation’s new powerful as the post-revolutionary era Tom Paine.

    The question is, how can the privileged do what justice and morality demands without reducing oneself to one of the voiceless many and leaving the amoral rapacious few to exploit this very same voiceless many, which would then include you?

  5. Frank April 24, 2015 at 1:20 pm | #

    Maybe I’m missing the meaning (which is possible), but it seems like the title of this post is pretty tasteless.

    • Junius April 24, 2015 at 4:42 pm | #

      Maybe Frank, you could consider that “politically correct” is pretty tasteless.

    • Alex April 25, 2015 at 2:07 pm | #

      Maybe I’m missing your meaning, but how, exactly, is it tasteless? It seems a pretty simple reminder that checking one’s privilege doesn’t just have to entail a revocation of power or ability, but rather a redirecting of that same power and ability towards liberatory ends?

      • Frank April 25, 2015 at 2:24 pm | #

        If that’s the meaning, then I was wrong.

  6. Frank April 24, 2015 at 6:22 pm | #

    Did you just respond with “I know you are but what am I?”

  7. kaleberg April 27, 2015 at 11:46 pm | #

    There were many types of privileged prisoners at concentration camps. Some of this was based on Nazi racial theories. You were a slave being worked to death in brutal conditions, but Northern Europeans – usually political prisoners – were treated better than Eastern Europeans who in turn were better treated than Jews. There were also various collaborators. The kapos were Jews who got slightly better treatment in exchange for hauling bodies and extracting gold from dead people’s teeth. Primo Levi was Jewish, but was treated better than many others in exchange for his work as a chemist.

    Given the near starvation rations, lack of medical care, slave labor and the like, it isn’t at all surprising that the few effective revolts were led by the better treated prisoners. I’ve heard enough survivors stories to have figured out that any chance of rebellion would require organization, outside contacts and bodily strength. An Aryan communist political prisoner, for example, would be in much better shape to try and fight back than a random Jew or gypsy.

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