Monday, March 27, 2017

The last thing on ‘privilege’ you’ll ever need to read

Book Party

A new book argues that accusing people of unearned advantages does nothing to address inequality -- and may only make things worse.

THE PERILS OF ‘PRIVILEGE': Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by 
Accusing Others of Advantage
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy
St. Martin’s Press. 324 pp. $26.99
Someone needs to book Phoebe Maltz Bovy on one of those television shows featuring people who have the most awful jobs in America, because she has just completed a project so soul-crushing that I can’t imagine anyone ever doing it again, certainly not voluntarily.
She has scoured the Internet for every overwrought think piece and self-indulgent personal essay about privilege — and has read all of them, apparently. And if that were not enough masochism, she has also read the comments sections, those swamps of vitriol and condescension that no one is ever supposed to even contemplate or speak of, let alone wade into. And she has drawn on that experience to write a book about why so much of the current debate and online pile-on about privilege tends to be contradictory, embarrassing, superficial and, above all, self-defeating.
The result is “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’ ” an often lively and more often meandering book that will be of intense interest to the sort of people who are up on the latest cultural criticism on the state of our cultural criticism. Unless you are steeped in the privilege debates already, the book will be most striking for its obsessively narrow focus, and for its expenditure of Bovy’s analytic and writing talents on a work that explores the vicious and petty ways people talk about a concept more than it interrogates the truth of the concept itself. If this book constitutes a “takedown” of the privilege orthodoxy, as the author suggests, it is very much an inside job.
Must I first define “privilege” in its current use, or should I imagine that if you’ve reached this paragraph, you’re already among the cognoscenti? As it is known today and discussed in progressive circles, a jurisdiction Bovy writes about with the knowing weariness that comes with longtime residence, privilege is not just about having special advantages available only to the few, but it is also about those advantages that are entirely unearned, and usually ones of which the privileged party is blissfully unaware or, even better, somewhat defensive.

Is diversity for white people?

Review of "We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation" by Jeff Chang

WE GON’ BE ALRIGHT: Notes on Race and Resegregation
By Jeff Chang
Picador. 192 pp. $16.
The copious books confronting this moment in America’s racial politics — a mix of reporting and meditations on President Obama, on Black Lives Matter, on police violence and mass incarceration — can be roughly divided into two broad categories. There are the My Story works, deeply personal accounts in which the authors draw on their own lives to illuminate their arguments, often in self-conscious reference or emulation of notable activist voices of the past; and the Our Story versions, works of history and big-picture analysis, more academic in inspiration but no less ambitious in their ends.
Jeff Chang’s book on the culture wars and resegregation of America is different, though. There is history and analysis in these pages, and there is life and experience, too, but neither form of storytelling overpowers the other. Instead, what comes through most clearly is a versatile mind in the service of a painful and protracted story, an author who ranges widely before drawing tough conclusions and one who, despite the book’s optimistic title, appears deeply pessimistic about things getting any better, much less becoming all right. “We live in a time when merchants of division draw us away from mutuality and toward the undoing of democracy itself,” Chang writes, and by the end of his book you feel that, despite the author’s best efforts, the merchants are winning.
“We Gon’ Be Alright” is organized as a series of seven essays — the “notes” in the subtitle is a bit of an undersell but still pretty accurate — that could each be read on its own in the pages of some high-brow magazine. Two of them in particular stand out, most memorable for their ability to move easily between Chang’s story and a collective one. In “Is Diversity for White People?” Chang explains how the concept of diversity has been “exploited and rendered meaningless,” used as a corporate marketing tool as well as an evasive maneuver against more radical efforts at mitigating inequality. And in “The In-Betweens,” Chang gets personal about the Asian American experience, in all its possibility and artificiality and tension.