Friday, September 26, 2008
Via Arts and Letters Daily is one of those fascinating articles that sneaks up you and leaves you pleasantly surprised with an insight where you'd expected merely to fulfill a twinge of morbid curiosity. Here's the blurb:
Sushi is just what “White People” want: foreign, expensive, healthy, and hated by the uneducated. White People are not snobs or anything..."Here we go again," I thought, remembering a bus ride in Dallas shortly after college. Some black guy in the front of the bus was very loudly and pointedly slamming "white people" every chance he got.
Was he trying to incite his fellow black passengers against the whites or dare his white passengers to do something about his rude behavior?
I don't know, but I had fun reducing him to a stammer when, as I left, he looked at me and said, "Oh! When I say 'white people', I mean management."
"Well that's funny! I thought you were talking about skin color the whole time," I replied without so much as raising my voice or breaking stride as I continued to exit the bus.
I had hoped to simply not give this idiot the satisfaction of acting irate, but he handed me his own head on a platter instead. Thanks for the memories, Malcolm X!
But back to the article, which discusses the most recent "instant book" based on a blog, this one being, Stuff White People Like, by one Christian Lander. The article, rather than being some sort of elitist slam against American culture actually gives insight into someone who slams an American subculture (and probably does despise American culture).
I'd heard of this blog before, shortly after mentioning St. Patrick's Day and having this guy's entry about it pointed out to me. Kinda funny, but more sarcastic in tone than I cared for. A more recent entry of his on ultimate frisbee, which I played in grad school, is more to my liking:
If you look a little closer, you will see some surprising things. First, you will never see hippies get more upset than on an Ultimate Frisbee field. It can be jarring to see people who look like they should be playing acoustic guitars yelling at each other about whether or not Blake stepped out of bounds. Secondly, you will notice that Ultimate Frisbee matches are the best place to meet white guys who wear headbands. [bold added]Heh! How true! Maybe I like this one better because I am not a leftist. And my wife really is Irish, and yet never has said a word about being "oppressed". Maybe she's Black Irish....
But Lander is a leftist, and what he means by "white people" is basically the same thing my old pal Malcolm from the bus did: the educated elite. Benjamin Schwarz of The Atlantic Monthly comments:
Lander's White People aren't always white, and the vast majority of whites aren't White People (he doesn't even capitalize the term). But although Lander's designation is peculiar, he's hardly the first to dissect this elite and its immediate predecessors. ... [David] Brooks calls these people variously "bourgeois bohemians," the "educated elite," and the "cosmopolitan class"). Lander, like many of these writers, traces this group's values to the 1960s, and there's clearly a connection between a politics based on "self-cultivation" (to quote the Students for a Democratic Society’s gaseous manifesto, the Port Huron Statement) and what Lander defines as White People's ethos: "their number-one concern is about the best way to make themselves happy." That concern progresses naturally into consumer narcissism and a fixation on health and "well-being": Lander's most entertaining and spot-on entries dissect White People's elaborate sumptuary codes, their dogged pursuit of their own care and feeding, and their efforts to define themselves and their values through their all-but-uniform taste and accessories (Sedaris/Eggers/The Daily Show/the right indie music/Obama bumper stickers/uh, The New Yorker [And ribbons and wristbands. --ed]). [bold added]And, much later:
Here and elsewhere, accompanying the book's mockery of the essentially innocuous solipsism of White People is what Lander, a man of the left, described to me as his exasperation with progressives' "cultural righteousness" and "intolerance and groupthink"-- a set of attitudes that enhances and is enhanced by a profoundly smug and incurious outlook.In other words, Lander has spent a large amount of time and emotional energy banging his head against a cultural wall Ayn Rand identified nearly fifty years ago!
Avowed non-materialists whose only manifestation of rebellion and of individualism takes the material form of the clothes they wear, are a pretty ridiculous spectacle. Of any type of nonconformity, this is the easiest to practice, and the safest. ("Apollo and Dionysus" in The Objectivist, Jan. 1970, p.775)This irritates the hell out of Lander, who regularly lambastes his "white" fellows for superficiality and laziness ("White People 'like feeling smart without doing work -- two hours in a theater is easier than ten hours with a book.'") and apparently doesn't shrink from the impracticality of the immoral ethos/politics of altruism/collectivism he espouses ([White people] will also send their kids to private school with other rich white kids so that they can avoid the 'low test scores' that come with educational diversity.").
Lander thus seems to have an inkling that poor academic performance and public education go hand in hand -- that his moral code is at odds with the requirements of human survival -- and chooses what he regards as the high road. He is thus intellectually independent to the limited degree that he can call his fellows for "acting white", so to speak, but he ultimately fails, for whatever reason, to stray too far from "white" tradition himself. Rand said something about this, too.
Intellectually, the activists of the New Left are the most docile conformists. They have accepted as dogma all the philosophical beliefs of their elders for generations: the notions that faith and feeling are superior to reason, that material concerns are evil, that love is the solution to all problems, that the merging of one’s self with a tribe or a community is the noblest way to live. There is not a single basic principle of today’s Establishment which they do not share. Far from being rebels, they embody the philosophic trend of the past 200 years (or longer): the mysticism-altruism-collectivism axis, which has dominated Western philosophy from Kant to Hegel to James and on down. [bold added] ("From a Symposium," Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 174.)The fact that so many "white people" act the same is certainly irritating (But see the Note below.), but when one understands the source of an irritation, one can, accordingly, learn to accept the circumstance or act to change it. In Lander's case, understanding why so many "white people" are banal hypocrites might help, but he would first have to take time to critically evaluate (and therefore reject) his own moral code and political assumptions.
"White people" are hypocrites in part because their survival depends on it: Altruism and collectivism, if consistently applied, would ultimately be deadly. Some are, doubtless, also hypocrites because they do not want to think. And some, after an entire lifetime of being told that the moral and the practical are at odds, have been beaten into intellectual submission.
Lander seethes about the wrong thing even as he, "acting white" himself, profits from the book he published -- not that there's anything objectively wrong with earning money.
It isn't that personal style, or exotic food, or sending one's kids to good schools is wrong because it isn't altruistic. It's that altruism and collectivism are wrong. Lots of those "white people" out there would have become much more interesting and dynamic people had they not been saddled with an inverted morality their entire lives, and that probably includes the witty Lander himself.
Note: An astute commenter reminded me later today that people acting similarly to one another is also not in and of itself a bad thing. I refer the interested reader to the comments for further elaboration.
Today: (1) Added a sentence explaining why I thought the article was valuable. (2) Corrected a typo. (3) Added a Note. (4) Having "one of those days", I re-word the Note.