Sunday, September 21, 2008

How White of Them

Intolerant Chic

[D]ismissing something or someone as “so white” has long been a favorite put-down among those who like to view themselves as right-thinking, hierarchy-defying nonconformists—that is, White People. Recall those ads extolling “the new face of wealth,” which contrast male, stone-faced WASP bankers with attractive, far less formally—though far more expensively—clad women, quasi-hipsters, and assorted exotic ethnics. The women and hipsters may be white, but they’re not white—they’re members of the cool-looking pan-ethnic tribe, a tribe defined by economic and social status and by cultural and aesthetic preferences rather than by ethnicity. ...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...

[A] good deal of the progressives’ attitudes, preferences, and sense of identity are ingrained in an unlovely disdain for those outside their charmed circle. In Lander’s analysis, much of their self-satisfaction derives from consumption (the slack-sounding “stuff” in the title is deceptively apt)—and much of that consumption is motivated by a desire to differentiate themselves from the benighted. Sushi, for instance, is “everything [White People] want: foreign culture, expensive, healthy, and hated by the ‘uneducated.’” And whatever its goals, the ACLU is beloved by White People, Lander satirically but not wholly unjustifiably asserts, because it protects them “from having to look at things they don’t like. At the top of this list is anything that has to do with Christianity”—an aversion, Lander discerns, rooted not in religious enmity but in taste (Christianity is “a little trashy”), formed largely by class and education. To those of this mind-set, the problem with a great many Americans is that they don’t “care about the right things.” In fact...White People “really do hate a significant portion of the population.”

I hate that significant portion of the population too, but I'm overtly hostile rather than than covertly contemptuous. And I don't dislike them for their food preferences or fat, or because they "cling" to guns and religion: I don't like them because they're boring, unreflective, and incapable of making interesting conversation. However I find White People appalling. They don't care about the right things either. In fact, at bottom, all they really seem to care about is caring as such--about being fastidious and fussy.

They fetishize food. They congratulate themselves on their pickiness which they seem to regard as good taste, as if their preference for fresh veggies, exotic cheeses and whole grains, and their disdain for fatty burgers and fries, were a manifestation of some refined aesthetic sensibility. There can't be an aesthetics of food because, for humans at least, taste and smell aren't sufficiently developed to yield the complexity that distinguishes aesthetic experience from mere sensual pleasure. Dogs may have the equipment to appreciate the aesthetics of smell: they can perceive the complexity of scents and analyze them in the way that we can experience the separate lines in a piece of music and apreciate the complexity and structure. But for us, taste and smell are simple, unanalysable sensations. There's no more sophistication involved in preferring sushi to fries than there is in preferring yellow to blue.

Beyond that, it's hard to understand why likes, and even worse, dislikes should be sources of self-congratulation. I like fish and just had a bang-up champagne brunch with my family at the Southbay Fish and Grill. Well, great. I don't see how liking this reflects favorably or unfavorably on me. I like Haydn string quartets but I don't see why this should reflect favorably or unfavorably on me either. I could once play the violin part for these pieces and that certainly reflected favorably on me: it took hard work and skill. And if I could compose music like that it would reflect very favorably on me indeed. But I fail to see how consumption and enjoyment, much less distaste and disgust, can be understood as virtues.

Maybe at bottom what is most irritating about White People is that they congratulate themselves on what they consume rather than on what they produce. And what exactly is that supposed to show? First, I suppose, consuming the "correct" products shows that you are sufficiently en rapport with the community of elite taste-makers to know what sorts of stuff you're supposed to like. Secondly, it shows that you have the money to buy expensive stuff and the leisure to mess around. You have the money to shop at Whole Foods and the time to crap around cooking from scratch--unlike those fat trashy women who, fagged out after a day's work at Walmart, pick up McDonalds. You have the time, money and leisure to be fastidious, and to indulge yourself.

I don't like working class people but I suppose that when it boils down to it I like White People even less. If you can fix a car, knit a sweater or cut a dovetail joint that's worth something, just as it's worth something if you can write a paper, teach a class or do a proof in logic. Not having a TV is worth nothing. Visiting Machipichu, being massaged, doing yoga and eating arugula are worth nothing.

Even worse, as far as well-being goes, it is bizarre to imagine that fastidiousness makes one better off. Intuitively, the more you like, the better off you are. If you like Haydn quartets and country you're better off than if you just like one or the other. If you don't like McDonalds then, ceteris paribus, you're worse off than if you do. The disdain for "anything that has to do with Christianity" really eats me. Christianity is our cultural honey pot. I'm looking at pictures of St. Mark's, Venice, on my wall. I went there last January and spent 6 hours gaping at the mosaics. How can this be trashy? Christianity was the source of all high art until the Renaissance and much of it ever after. How can these idiots imagine that sushi is somehow better than the Bach B Minor Mass?

1 comment:

John Baber said...

Congratulations! You're almost at the point of true enlightenment -- hating everybody. Liberals, conservatives, White People, minorities, jews and gentiles -- humans are pretty awful. As they're encouraged to be by those who dictate our culture.

I only enjoy the company of calm, reflective, morally rigorous, intelligent humans -- all seventeen of them.