Tuesday, March 5, 2013

it turns out that class matters

I've been doing this for 5 years or so now, and I still have a limited capacity to predict what things I write will be considered offensive or "out of line" by the jet set. For example: I am still surprised that people get worked up when I point out that the socioeconomic conditions of a writer and his or her upbringing deeply influence their analysis. My example is usually education. When you read the professional opinion writers, you're constantly encountering discussions of education that seem not to realize that failure is a likely outcome in education. They seem not to understand, at all, that willpower alone means essentially nothing for solving our ed problems. Why? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that so many of the people in our media grew up upper middle class or upper class. They've shuffled from preschool for gifted kids to expensive Montessori private elementary schools to elite private academies to Ivy League colleges. They don't know that educators and education can fail because they've never been exposed to anything but educational success.

That seems pretty elementary and entirely anodyne. But when I've said it in the past, the reaction has been as if I kicked somebody's dog. I broke some sort of code in bringing up the upbringing of people in professional media.

So take this response by Matt Yglesias to Nate Thayer. You might say to yourself, why, this person is remarkably callous about the ability of a broad swath of people to earn enough money to live. Why is he being so glib about other people's professional lives, which is to say, their ability to secure material security for themselves and their families? Well, it's much easier to understand when you realize that Yglesias's father is a millionaire and that he grew up in great material comfort. He's never had to choose between putting gas in the car or going to the doctor. He's never been desperately afraid about paying the rent. He just doesn't know. And it colors a lot of his writing.

Now, perhaps the problem is that people read some sort of furious critique into this. It happens that I think Yglesias should think things through a little more deeply, for reasons both of human compassion and to improve his analysis. (He might, for example, ponder the fact that Tyler Cowen has a regular salaried job, making his situation wholly irrelevant to the concerns of a freelancer like Thayer.) What I am not doing, however, is saying that Yglesias is history's greatest monster, or that he shouldn't be read, or that I'd like to punch him in the groin. I don't begrudge Yglesias his secure upbringing; indeed, that's what we're working for, for more people to get access to that kind of security. I'm saying that he's being his usual short-sighted self, and that you should read his work with interest but also with an appropriate skepticism. I am also saying that perhaps he should endeavor to think a little more outside of his own particular class consciousness. You should also read me with an appropriate skepticism about my own biases.

However, if this post attracts attention, it is guaranteed to engender a response that acts as if what I said is as bad as saying that Yglesias fucks children. Just speaking from experience here.


Afshin said...

Thank you for writing this Freddie. I'm always thinking of ways of how to approach this subject with people I know, especially having lived my high school years in one of the richest neighborhoods in South Cali, which John Campbell currently represents. High school friends all have well-paying jobs now, but I'm still searching and working my way and trying to decide whether I want to take my education further knowing the burdens that decision will bring. And I don't want to offend those who have gained what I'm working towards, but I wish there was a respectful way of making them aware of experiences they've seemed to have never imagined.

So I'm sincerely grateful that you decided to write and publish this.

Ferny Reyes said...

Class matters, but so does race, gender and all that jazz. Here's the question though: a week ago, you spent your time hammering about how people were using critiques of people's positions based on gender/race/etc. as arguments trying to social position yourself.

Mind you, while to some extent, there isn't as much of that kind of language in class-based criticism of the positioning of people, it still exists.

I mean, what's the difference in you calling out to someone like Matt Yglesias to effectively check his class positioning with someone calling you out on your white male positioning, other than your belief on the importance of class as the category of distinction that matters more?

Mind you, I get sometimes the annoyingness of some of the usages of 'check your privilege' as a way to show off how open-minded one is *hah*, but your critique right here is basically of the same kind.

Paul Sherrard said...

"Now, perhaps the problem is that people read some sort of furious critique into this."

I think it's simpler. Most of them are rich kids. Or at least kids who have never wanted for anything. America has become the kind of place where they're only kids who can "make it" anymore. And they HATE to talk about that.

Freddie said...

So here's the thing, Ferny: I think we can negotiate a third way, where I recognize that my white male privilege-- which I totally have, and always have admitted to-- is both real and distorting, and yet not disqualifying of having an opinion, in large part because such disqualification inevitably makes it impossible to reach the people who need to be reached. Like I said: listen to Yglesias, let him speak, just assess where he comes from, and do the same to me.

Ferny Reyes said...

@Freddie -

Oh sure, but from your tone and style, I feel like you're obviously more hostile to the critiques based on race/gender than on class.

That might be a misread, but I think it's also because in many ways, those fights are always going to be more personal. I'm capable of escaping my class in many ways - I'm simply never capable of escaping my racial identity and as a self-conscious human being, I defend that ground in ways that are different.

I think ending the conversation because of someone's privilege is always dumb, but I do think you're far more trigger happy when it comes to fighting back against privilege claims when its your white male privilege that's being put as the one on the microscope.

Maybe that's a misread and if so, that's sort of the point? Perception is in some ways reality, duhz.

Charles said...


Leaving the substance of the disagreement aside. I want to make the case for Yglesias-style glibness. Most writers are going to hem and haw for 1000 words about the benefits to consumers of free-writing on the internet vs. the way the internet makes it difficult for writers to pay rent etc.

I think Yglesias is one of the better bloggers because he doesn't do that. He is openly saying that what matters is consumer and societal welfare and not the ability of individual writers to get paid for their work.

A lot of other writers will come to the same conclusion, but will disguise it with a bunch of hand waving.

Brett said...

RE: Charles

Agreed. If you want to see an example of that kind of whiny, "well, why don't you?" type of post, check out Tim Lee's response over at Forbes

Afshin said...

Well, the comments here have honestly confused me and I'm suspicious that it's because people didn't act on good faith to understand Freddie's points in his recent posts.

First, in regards to what Ferny has written, there is a difference between acknowledging certain experiences people have when making a seemingly holistic point from prescribing how one should think or to say what is "best" because you merely have the idea of yourself as being an empathetic person. The latter is purely narcissistic, which is how most people fault white privilege, while the former is to challenge one's awareness when aiming for a holistic understanding of certain phenomena.

So this difference could be seen when talking about class. On one hand, liberals like Yglesias, who try to use that macro holistic perspective to indicate how certain technological trends can be a 'boon to society' just like the arguments that were being made before the NAFTA agreement, all the while missing the point that the changes to society make the risks people need to take for material gain to become too great to take, thus limiting the boon from those who increasingly need it.

Because of that structure, it becomes inevitable that we see people like Freddie writing such posts for the very fact that poor people don't have a voice, otherwise Yglesias would account for them. So Freddie's here to speak for them, until they become empowered enough to speak for themselves.

But Freddie isn't defining social roles for himself or for others. He's merely pointing out that what seemed to be a macro, or a holistic approach that Yglesias post took doesn't account for the very people who are being affected by such a 'boon' which not only seems insensitive, but also puts doubt into whether the 'boon for society' is actually a boon for the privileged few who he's asking speaking for.

So this idea that Yglesias is an effective writer because he writes what matters for the 'consumer' and 'societal welfare' need to be questioned. Those terms, 'consumer' and 'societal welfare' are merely abstract concepts, that to me are self-serving to legitimize that perspective that 'you know what's best for others' when in fact you are feeding that idea that you are empathetic of that entity other than yourself, even though it is the idea of yourself that you're empathetic, that defines 'mainstream liberals', that you're trying to keep alive.

And that's the problem. That idea of yourself. For me to challenge that would be rude and disrespectful, yet within me, I find it necessary to challenge it. Some consider to challenge people in such a way to be subversive. But looking at basic principles that formed the Constitution make such statements ironic. And that's why I expressed my gratitude in the initial comment for Freddie for writing this post because he has come closest to reaching that point of acting like that mirror to those, like that of Yglesias, who haven't yet reflected on the ideas they carry that define themselves which continues to fog their minds.

cian said...

Class matters, but so does race, gender and all that jazz.

1) Wealthy blacks have different interests to poor blacks, and often screw those poor blacks. The black commentator is very good on this issue.

2) Wealthy women have almost no issues in common with poor women. The denial of this has resulted in a 'feminism' movement that focuses on things like the glass ceiling, career issues - but ignores problems of healthcare, child-care, working hours and sexual harassment at the bottom of the ladder.

3) An upper middle class black person, or women, has vastly more power and autonomy than a working class white person.

4) Class is largely ignored in the US.

Novanglus said...

Couldn't agree more regarding Yglesias. As someone from a working/lower-middle class background, he's offended me now for years. He's not the worst -- Sean Hannity's the worst -- but Yglesias is pretty bad. Glibness from a place of power towards those without it is thoroughly rotten.