Thursday, October 25, 2012

a life of privilege

It was an intelligent, if somewhat one-dimensional, program, so I watched Bill Moyers' interview with journalists Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland yesterday. Everyone involved in the conversation was capable of thought and expression. They were neat and clean. The segment was titled, "Plutocracy Rising" and focused on the attributes and abuses of income disparity. I was as disheartened as I was supposed to be ... the rise of a feudal society in my homeland is pretty sad.

"Privilege" is defined in part by an Internet dictionary as:

-- a special benefit that is available only to a particular person or group
-- something that only a particular type of person is allowed to do
--  a way of life that involves having many advantages and opportunities, without working hard for them

In the last category, former U.S. president George W. Bush was once described as "a man who was born on third base and imagines he had hit a triple." The arrogance of the 'haves' is discerned by the 'have-nots.'

But as I watched the program, it occurred to me that "privilege" required an additional component -- the invariable blind spots that privilege bestows. Privilege for one requires a lack of privilege for another. Without such an axiomatic understanding, the whole notion of privilege falls on its face. And who, having attained a privilged position, does not lose that perspective and imagine that what is in hand is nothing special -- after all, I deserve it ... or can't escape it ... or something.

Bill Moyers and his guests talked about privilege from privileged positions. This is not a criticism. It's just an observation. Each was clean and well-kept and educated and well-intentioned and well-fed and ... the list of privileges went on and on, just as it did for the privileged plutocrats they were discussing and decrying.

But lumping Moyers and Taibbi and Freeland in the same privileged pot with, say, the high fliers of Silicon Valley or Wall Street, is not to suggest that since everyone is privileged, we can just forget about it and move along blithely. One additional quotient needs to be noted -- the degree of cruelty that privilege can inspire. Knowingly or unknowingly, someone has to suffer ... preferably not me.

From the other end of the privilege telescope, a friend sent along a news story today about a lawsuit being brought against Median, Mississippi, (et al.) for its school-to-prison pipeline: School children "who talk back to teachers, violate dress codes and commit other minor infractions" have been taken from their classrooms in handcuffs, brought to court and incarcerated with little or no attention to their constitutional rights. That'll teach 'em! The kids are, of course, minorities.

The gross and subtle tendrils of privilege seem to be everywhere. Since I cannot undo the privileges that my past bestowed, I tend to overlook them: What the fuck? I can't do anything about that; I yam what I yam and ... forgetaboutit! I don't think anyone, from high-flying tycoon to activist critic to poor schlub living off the detritus of the privileged, is much different.

But the cruelty factor -- however difficult to discern or depict -- is worth the price of admission. How much harm does my privileged lifestyle do? Do I make any effort, however incomplete, to see or correct or revise my unkindnesses? Can I see that what I imagine is kindness has some concommitant unkindness attached? Am I willing to inflict this incidental unkindness and look in the mirror without shuddering?

I am interested, for example, in spiritual endeavor, a privileged sport if ever there were one. Because I am getting old and cranky, it can really drive me nuts to be stuck in a group that is similarly involved in spiritual adventure. Such company can make me want to run away and join a leper colony. But spiritual endeavor interests me, so I circle around it -- extolling and deriding by turns -- and ... exercise a privileged existence. About the best excuse I can come up with for my privilege is that I have not yet incarcerated any school children.

And my privileged interest in spiritual endeavor does provide the opportunity to examine the highways and byways of "privilege." The privilege of breathing, for example, occurs to me. Without it, I would be dead as a door nail. But each breath I take can rightfully be imagined as depriving another. How shall I square that circle ... undo or correct or revise the unkindness that rises up out of this kindly privilege? "Reductio ad absurdum!" you say? I say, think again.

I see nothing wrong and a good deal that is right about calling out the cruelties of privilege. But if there can be no care in calling out those cruelties, if calling out those cruelties creates a righteous and privileged realm of its own ... well, I think it deserves some consideration.

1 comment:

  1. Makes me wonder if (or at least, how often) the idea of karma can be used to justify privilege. (By the way, I excerpted this to my tumblr blog.)