The problem with privilege


Dear readers,

My last post was rather controversial. This was, predictably, excellent for the blog, which spiked to relatively new records for readership.

At the same time, it was personally troubling, since I didn’t mean to devalue the perspective of real mothers and fathers who deal with the problems of caring for an infant as well as the misery of being perceived as the sources of a nuisance. If there was a “right side” in this debate, I felt, it was the “anti-mommy bag” side.

Something deeper was troubling me about the argument, something that tied in with my experiences being miserable as a renter in and around New Haven, Connecticut. I finally discovered what it was: the “anti-mommy bag” article I read presented the argument for mommy bags as a privileged or entitled view that their fellow annoyed passengers, in effect, could not afford and therefore did not deserve. In other words: you want to be free from the sounds of babies? Hire a private jet. If you can’t afford a private jet, you can’t afford such extraordinary peace.

This reminded me of something I would say, in my head, to certain neighbors of mine in New Haven. Don’t like Korean pop? Don’t like listening to the audio of Spring Breakers at 1:30 in the morning? Annoyed by occasional shouting fights? Don’t understand why my wife and I bought disco lights (which we totally did)? BUY A FUCKING HOUSE OF YOUR OWN. As long as you are a renter, you are going to experience the sounds of living next to other people. If those people are different from you, and have different habits, that’s just too bad. I yearned for the days when Stella and Stanley could scream wildcat operas of passion at one another, from the bottom to the top of the apartment building, and (as far as we know from Tennessee Williams) everybody understood.

Again, however, there’s something wrong with this argument, because it’s such weak sauce. It implicitly idolizes the position of the rich, who are imagined to be leading isolated, hassle-free lives. This was also the problem with the anti-mommy bag article: don’t like crying babies? Well, too bad. De-plane from your imaginary jet and join the rest of us living, breathing schlubs in coach. You’re not so special.

Now, I’m not sure exactly what I gain from listening to a baby cry for three consecutive hours, but upon further reflection, I am quite certain that this is the heart of the matter. I do gain something — or, at the least, I potentially gain something. I come into contact with reality. I encounter other people in all of their complicated neediness. I am enriched by the experience, to use a monetary metaphor. Maybe I think about the parents, and whether they are doing good parenting. (And, yes, I get to judge them. Ah, life’s little pleasures.) Maybe I wonder at the ability of babies to cry without seeming to tire, which Lao Tzu used as a metaphor for the inexhaustible Tao. Maybe I turn up my own headphones louder and become a temporary punk rocker — or maybe I simply go over and interact with the family. Regardless of the choices and interpretations I make, the point is the same. I am better for being connected to other human beings. It makes being alive a deeper dye.

This is, by extension, the problem with many exhortations to “check your privilege” or to stop being so “entitled.” The most annoying thing about many so-called critiques of the Milennial generation, which supposedly grew up feeling oh-so-special, is that the writers sound jealous of the Milennials. It’s nice egotism if you can get it, is the underlying message. Well, of course it is! Shouldn’t people feel that they matter? Shouldn’t they be proud of their own potential? True, such things can be carried to a fault, but I see very little evidence that Milennials (who are now part of a thriving, burgeoning workforce) are really any worse than Generation X. They’re just happier.

When we argue for higher income taxes, we often frame the issue as an obligation that the rich ought to embrace. It is nothing of the kind. It is a privilege to be so wealthy that one can both live in comfort and help provide for the needs of the less fortunate. It is the guarantee of self-esteem and a good conscience, both. When religious prophets exhort people to divest themselves of their belongings, it is not on the grounds of “checking your privilege.” It is because it is better to be unburdened, and better to keep the most important parts of life in clearest focus. A mommy bag can’t undo proximity to a child. That’s alright. In the end, proximity to one another isn’t such a bad thing. I wouldn’t belong to any private jet that would have me, not for any amount of money. (Which, in my case, based on my latest bank statement, is $6.46.)

Stay hungry, my friends.