The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

1 January 2004

Creatures of privilege

Down in the comments on this item, we seem to be getting into a dust-up over who is, and who isn't, "privileged, pampered and powerful," to borrow Bruce's phrase. (And it's a damned fine phrase at that; I may have to use it for something one of these days.)

Taking these considerations in reverse order:

I don't feel especially powerful, and the gastric ailment that hit me yesterday doesn't help matters. I can get things done, sometimes.

Pampered? Maybe. As the saying goes, I can do without essentials, but I must have my luxuries. It must be noted, though, that both luxuries and essentials are acquired the old-fashioned way: I earned them.

As to the question of privilege: fifteen years ago, I was broke and living out of a thirteen-year-old car. It took some resources — some from friends and relatives, some from government — to put me back on something resembling a firm footing. I feel very much privileged, in that assistance was offered, that I was able to take advantage of what was offered me, and that eventually, I was able to resume a relatively-normal existence. Some people, faced with the same situation, would not feel privileged; they would want to know what the hell happened to their entitlements.

And some of those same people, I expect, would protest that these things were offered to me because I'm that very personification of evil, a white male. Given the fact that my mother was half Mexican and half Syrian, I'm not so white as I look, but that's not going to matter to these people: I am by definition one of the oppressors, and I get no credit for ethnicity because obviously at some point I sold out. There's only one possible response to that: "And I'm damn glad somebody was buying when I did." Indeed, it's a privilege.

Posted at 11:40 AM to Political Science Fiction


To understand what I say you have to know that I consider things like racial and ethnic divisions to be secondary to overall class divisions. In general, things like race, sex, ethnicity and religion are used to keep class divisions in place by dividing the working class.

Its not nearly as nefarious as it seems. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, she is also ethnic looking, as am I, and she asked me if I ever feel discriminated against. I answered that I didn't but it usually takes longer for people to feel "familiar" with me. She agreed.

There is a buffer, managerial class of people that tend to reflect the racial composition of the owning class, which is still predominately white. This is not for any practical reason, just that they are "like them". A sense of tribalism exists in all of us.

Can we argue that white males are not priviledged, no, not when the proof of their priviledge is as easy to point out as looking at the past and present presidents. Look at the majority of CEO's, look at the majority of politicians.

You have two options, either a) white men are smarter and more capable than others or b) there exists an inate bias that favors their success.

There are exceptions of course. Its not ironclad. No sustainable system can be.

Being white is not usually enough, its one factor, an essential one. But if you're say, ugly, fat, or physically disabled then you have other obstacles to overcome. Mental attitude is important as well. You choose to "toe the line" to maintain the existing system then that also helps you along. Being an enabler is useful. You're boss will find it useful if you actually believe that working harder to make him richer is not only right but natural.

Most of us do a good job pretending when its necessary, I admit it. I lie like crazy to my boss when he needs to hear that I'm a happy little employeee that truly desires, at the bottom of my heart to make the company rich with no expectations of personal reward.

Posted by: bruce at 12:42 PM on 1 January 2004

Well, I'm certainly smarter and more capable, though I suspect it has nothing to do with ethnicity. (And I am ugly and fat.) There's always the question in the background, though: Suppose it could be proven that [fill in name of presumably unfavored group] really are inferior? What do we do then?

Oh, and I don't believe you'll find anyone who's ever worked with me who'll accuse me of having a good attitude.

Posted by: CGHill at 4:41 PM on 1 January 2004

Bruce, what you're describing is a dialectic. You're filtering your experiences through a political lens that distorts reality into something you're more comfortable with.

And you've accused me of being cynical?

Posted by: McGehee at 5:16 PM on 1 January 2004

And like most people who look at things that way, bruce confuses "class" with "caste." For instance, in Britain they have (or used to -- this may be eroding) a caste system: if you were drunk and broke and lying in an alley in piss-covered pants, but you were a member of some titled family, you would be considered a member of the "upper class, whereas a wealthy businessman who had come from a poverty-riddled Cockney background would still be considered "lower-class." Envision a system in which groups of humans lived permanently on separate platforms suspended in air, some higher, some lower, but disconnected from each other and ultimately leading nowhere.

In America we have a different system, a "class" system. There are rich and poor and middle-class, but there is nothing (but effort and luck or the lack of either or both) keeping members of one group from moving into the other. This system can be likened to a staircase, each step representing a class. Unlike the caste system, a class system has a destination at both ends, one desirable, and one un-.

Despite what bruce and others who think as he does believes, there is nothing inherently wrong with the class system; it reflects basic reality. Though we are all created equal, that only means we have equal right to attempt to be as successful in life as possible given our individual talents. It doesn't mean the universe will necessarily cooperate with every person's desire to be rich and happy. What wealth-distributionists like bruce want to do is to chop off both ends of the class system staircase and leave every stranded somewhere on one step. But we all know that that is impossible, and will end with the whole structure crashing to the ground.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 5:37 PM on 1 January 2004

(sigh) for obvious reasons its hard to cover all your basis in a small comment made on a blog, so invariably someone comes along professing that I dont understand X, when in fact I just didnt have time to get to X.

In fact Andrea, I dont confuse the two. We do not have a caste system here in the US, but what we do have is a class system whereas whichever class you are born into has a determining factor on your chances of success, though by no means does that preclude you from moving from one to the other. There are many examples of rags to richs of riches to rags stories but the majority of people stay within the class they were born into.

You mobility within this system is determined by many factors (I wont even try to explain any, since I'll miss something and get called out on it). And we can all agree that a system with some mobility is better than one with none whatsoever. But is it a goal to increase the chances that more capable and determined people succeed while those less capable do not. Maybe so... but is it possible?

Andrea, you do me little favors in restating my opinions in such unrecognizable form. Maybe I should have you translate everything for me from now on? Whether or not you realize it wealth redistribution is ongoing, its a matter of whether or not you are on the giving end or the receiving end that determines whether you recognize the flow. "People like me" (meaning just me) do not propose a new system of redistributing wealth but ask questions about how it already happens and the fairness of that system.

People like you (since we're engaged in such broad statements) idealize the American systemj and turn a blind eye to any bias and flaws because of your own idealogical lens. Others who have suffered at the other end of the stick might not be so understanding. Much like your typically middle/upper class surburbanite asking "what police brutality?"

McGehee, I always try to make my politics reflect my observation, not vice versa. I recognize that our views of "reality" are always tainted by our own perspective. The man on the shore of a river has a different perspective than a man in a boat flowing with the current. Teh only way you can appreciate the world from other perspectives is to experience it or learn first hand from those that do. I expect my political opinions to change as I experience more and as the world changes as well.

happy new year.

oh yeah, I forgot to mention X

Posted by: bruce at 6:51 PM on 1 January 2004

You sure read a lot into my comment that wasn't there. Perhaps the fact that I don't believe in Utopia, and thus am not under the illusion that our system is perfect, will explain it better to you. I don't "idealize" it by any means -- I just think it's better than the old, traditional stay-in-your-place system and pie-in-the-sky dreams of some vague future where no one will need anything because they will have everything they need. IN any case, you seem to have understood me quite well, despite the air of bemusement you affect, since your second paragraph is basically a restatement of my entire comment.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 8:42 PM on 1 January 2004

Its a matter of whether you assume that the way things are now are the best they'll ever be or whether you think there is something better, not utopia.

I suspect, smart person that you are, that you think what we have is pretty good, but there's always room for improvement. If that's correct then we agree on that matter.

Andrea, if I seem a bit irritated, I get that way when anyone tries to pigeonhole my opinions with blanket statements like "What wealth-distributionists like bruce want to do is to chop off both ends of the class system staircase and leave every stranded somewhere on one step." which is patently untrue!

Absurd, I'm just not convinced that we have a system that offers equal oppurtunity to all people who deserve it. I see that as a laudable goal that won't "chop off both ends". That rhetoric drives me as batty as the last time I tried to anything by Ayn Rand.

Not directed at anyone in particular, really, I always find it amusing that people always seem to think that history, the evolving changes of human society have ended right where they exist. People throughout history have believed thus, and have been wrong every time. I don't know what comes next, but I do know that it will be different. I don't think its a bad idea to think about where we should be going, as oppossed to assuming that it will always get worse.

Posted by: bruce at 11:16 PM on 1 January 2004

Can we argue that white males are not priviledged, no, not when the proof of their priviledge is as easy to point out as looking at the past and present presidents. Look at the majority of CEO's, look at the majority of politicians.

I call the Fallacy of Composition on this one, and request a ten-yard penalty. While most CEOs and politicians are, indeed, white men, most white men are neither CEOs nor politicians, and are unlikely ever to be either. Both CEOs and politicians probably share other sociological and demographic factors unrelated to their being white men; in fact, those demographic and sociological factors are probably also shared by the CEOs and politicians who are not white men. Which, frankly, would make your points about class mobility (such as they are) stronger, so it's odd that you would overlook it.

Posted by: Phil at 9:51 PM on 3 January 2004

Screw poor people, If you don't wish to stay impoverished...work out of it. If circumstances dictate that you'll never make any headway...curse your existence and start drinking heavily.

Posted by: paulsmos at 6:55 AM on 4 January 2004

But drinking heavily costs money. :)

Posted by: CGHill at 9:54 AM on 4 January 2004