look at the world through polarized glasses

Privilege, wealth, entitlement, perception. Those are the four words that keep recurring over the last six months.

Privilege can only be seen from outside and below. As a straight white male U.S. Citizen from a prosperous suburban Southern California home, I’m only about an inch from the top of that hill, but it takes effort and education to see it. It looks as though there’s a huge peak of wealth and power towering above me that I can’t achieve, but the real mountain is beneath me and it’s vast.

Because of all these advantages, which were mostly invisible to me, I had a very easy time of my first 18 years. I recommend a suburban middle-class environment for any child. When you’re demanding, immature, and helpless anyway it’s a tremendous help to be in a community designed for such people.

After that, my privileged status was notable in the negative. I didn’t suffer the full consequences of my nervous breakdown after college. Instead of being dead, I was kind of broke for a few years and got a lot of help from family and friends, and got decent medical care, and was able to be partially employed, and finally able to use my educational and other advantages to recover financially and build a new career. Everything about my background served as a cushion, and I survived a nasty depression and a series of personality and mood disorders and came out okay. During this time I got to see a few rungs down from my own place in this society, and who was clinging to them, and I got some idea why. That was my education. I didn’t get my face smashed in when I had my car crash; I got a nasty shock and a couple of burns from life’s air bags.

Now I’m back in suburbia and making a decent living. I’m effectively insulated from my own capacity to fuck up. I could lose my job. I could get a new disease or injury. I could get into legal trouble, acquire a new addiction, crash my car, whatever. If I didn’t kill myself I’d be okay. Not just my own personal situation (my family is okay for cash and owns some property, etc.) but the entire framework of society will save me. It’s very, very unlikely that I’ll experience poverty in my lifetime.

So, why am I droning on about this?

The privilege of this suburban, entitled life creates an illusion of flatness. Looking around me I see what looks like a universe of people like me. There’s a perception of that “level playing field” where everyone can get a job, everyone has a working car, everyone has a little free time and a reasonable education and a few bucks in the wallet. If someone succeeds, it’s because he worked a little harder and a little smarter. If someone fails at life, maybe he’s not too bright or he drinks too much. People who want to go back to school, or buy a condo instead of renting, or travel, they just make it happen with a little elbow grease.

Far too many of the people around me resent this existence.

They want more! Television shows them wealth porn and then explains that anyone can achieve this, with just a bit more of the elbow grease. They fall for it, reliably. Since the only things holding them back from the MTV’s Cribs lifestyle are welfare queens, whiny liberals, and tax-and-spend politicians, they can be induced to vote against all of these things. Once these obstacles are removed, every man a king! The message is that we are all entitled to more wealth, and that wicked or mistaken people are trying to rob us of it.

That mountain stretching above us looks so huge and inviting and beautifully unreachable; we can’t see how tiny it is without looking down. And that’s a painful view, because suddenly we see how rich we’ve been all along, and how many people we’re sitting on. The people on the summit would rather we kept adoring them.

10 thoughts on “look at the world through polarized glasses

  1. Brilliant post. I really relate to what you’re saying here. Whenever I start to get all bummed out that I’ll never be rich, I remind myself that I’m already richer than 90 percent of the world will ever be.

  2. When you’re demanding, immature, and helpless anyway it’s a tremendous help to be in a community designed for such people.
    You have described Palo Alto and its inhabitants perfectly.

  3. This is a perfect articulation on my feelings.
    I spent most of my life wanting more, Now I just feel really grateful.
    thanks for this.

  4. This is a brilliant entry. If I have time I may make a referral post in my own journal. It’s especially significant for me because I’ve hit a point in my life where I have to make sacrifices and be more focused after a lifetime of being disorganized. What seems like a sacrifice to me – i.e. working harder – would seem like luxury for 90% of the world population. I think it was when I was feeling bored in my cubicle, surfing the net while waiting for my next assignment that I realized that while I was stressed about how money I have, I was still making more on an hourly basis than half the soldiers getting killed in Iraq. My main regret in life is I didn’t get to travel much when young. Of course I did get several decades of a vacation from worring about things which plague many people before they even get out of high school. And now I’m filled with angst because I’m having to struggle a bit to secure my future, that I actually have to think ahead for once in my life. This is only tragic when viewed by the standards of my little plateau of social status. In the grander scheme of things I’m incredibly lucky. Under other circumstances I could easily have ended up bankrupt, living in an SRO, permanently unemployed or any other hideously traumatic consequences. Instead after therapy when the crisis hit and my struggle is mild frustration while I spend a few years fixing my finances.
    It is difficult, however, to realize this as the cultural bubble I occupy does not provide the proper contrasts.

  5. I agree more than I can articulate.
    Upper-middle-class lifestyle: if I want to, I could know more than the librarians of Alexandria, eat better than Napoleon, see more of the world than Magellan, have more time for spiritual matters than the average Pope, and be healthier and fitter than most of the people who have ever lived.
    But my life apparently sucks because I have NO HUMMER.
    Maybe we’ve got a built-in desire to want more. Partially because a lot of these advantages have come with class and the wealth of my country, so I don’t feel these achievements are quite mine. Also we all want to be more favored in the mating game, and that’s all about your relative status among peers.
    Solution: date downmarket! Or naive teenagers.
    Also: when am I going to see these writings syndicated? This one and that article about Chinatown are both better than most editorials.

  6. Excellent post! It’s rather frightening that all of us are affected, no matter how conscious we are of the carrot and stick.
    Still, the start of freedom is the recognition of cultural enslavement to so-called “betterment”. Though it is an extremely fine line that we empower ourselves with personal advancement due to self desire as opposed to a culturally driven instinct.

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