Graham Greene’s observation has lost none of its salience in 50 years: innocence remains “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
The latest illustration comes from Wisconsin, where the state’s Department of Public Instruction website devotes a page to “Power and Privilege.” Caucasians who volunteer in the state’s AmeriCorps VISTA antipoverty programs are instructed to “set aside sections of the day to critically examine how privilege works”; “put a note on your mirror or computer screen as a reminder to think about privilege”; and, in order to underline white guilt, “find a person of color who is willing to hold you accountable for addressing privilege.” The site generously provides a link to a “diversity document,” recommending that Caucasians “wear a white wristband as a reminder about your privilege, as well as a personal commitment to explain why you wear the wristband.”
This, of course, is not meant to be an echo of the Third Reich. It’s doubtful if the ahistorical functionaries who run Wisconsin’s DPI have ever read the racial laws of Nazi Germany. They may never have heard of Nazi Germany, where a series of cloth badges singled out “guilty” Germans for their race or their beliefs—yellow Stars of David for Jews, red triangles for political dissidents, green for criminals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, blue for emigrants, brown for Gypsies, black for lesbians and other “anti-socials,” and pink for gay men.
Germany sentenced these wrong thinkers to concentration camps; Josef Stalin sent his sinners to the Gulag; Mao preferred “reeducation centers” for those whose opinions did not jibe with the official line of the People’s Republic of China. Wisconsin is nowhere near as totalitarian; it merely wishes for VISTA folks to wear something white, an article of clothing to set them apart, to make them feel wretched about their race, and, at the end of the day, to ask themselves: “What am I doing to undo my privilege?”
What could be more innocent?