I’ve been reading some interesting essays recently and as I tend to do now and then they can merge into a single stream of muddy thought. This week’s themes are “Authenicity”, “Feminized” and “Priviledge”.
Authenticity comes from a Tim Parks essay in the New York Review of Books, about how an author who possesses authenticity is one whose own character can be distilled from their works. It seems a rather pointless exercise in some ways. Why bother separating authors into authentic and inauthentic categories? What possible purpose could it serve? It’s what a book reviewer such as Mr. Parks does anyway, so perhaps he felt a need to codify his approach. It’s hard to think of anything more insulting that calling someone inauthentic, though. Even worse is reducing their creative output to a single lifelong theme (so-and-so is a showoff, so-and-so has an inadequacy complex, so-and-so struggles with his or her demons, and so on).
Along the same lines as “what purpose does this serve” are some recent essays by Robin James, in which she defines a “feminized” position as one in which you get less value in return for your labor. Getting less value for your labor is a central theme of Marxism already, without lumping nearly everyone into a single gender category. It confuses the issue and begs the question, just who is ‘masculinized’? The owners of capital? Because nearly every worker ever has received less value in return for his labor, which is why there is such a thing as profit. And then, since we’re re-inventing well-established categories can we further sub-divide based on ‘how much less value’? For example, are slaves more ‘feminized’ since they receive even less in return for their labor than hourly wage earners? James also has a discussion on Taylor Swift in which she claims the artist is “unbranding” – I guess re-branding (from country star to pop star) is too obvious and unsubtle, but isn’t Swift’s latest album precisely that? Obvious and unsubtle? But since we’re making up words …
Priviledge is the core of the recent Jonathan Chait firestorm on political correctness, where we are all now living in a world where white men’s words have to be discounted approximately 60% because they’re white men and traditionally have had all the priviledge, but that priviledge now has to be “checked”, which in practical terms means “discounted”. I’m kind of okay with that. I am a white man and I understand that a generation ago my kind were the only kind who had a voice in anything American and European, and that that went way way back and it’s certainly about time everybody else got a voice, and a bigger voice and a louder voice and that’s fine with me. I don’t need to be heard above the crowd. Heck, I just write this occasional and erratic blog which weekly receives a mere 30 views or so, and my feeble tweets about the same. My fiction (which I give away for free, a seriously feminized postion, by the way) does get read more than I can truly believe, for which I’m glad, but it’s the fiction of a white man and thus deserves, in this current decade, all the discounting it receives.
But is my fiction authentic? Can you distill the central theme of my life from my writings and if so, does that mean it’s totally a waste of time to even read them? Well, yes and no. The central theme is there but that’s my business. The story and the characters are (hopefully) enjoyable enough for the reader. They don’t need my demons to go along with it. I’m probably wrong about my central theme anyway but today I wrote the following sentence in my latest novel, and it dawned on me that it might actually be that central theme, condensed nicely into these few words:
“I am not one of THEM”
That’s what my character realized (he’s a man-made artificial-super-intelligence creature, really not one of US) and made me realize as well. We were raised – as white men, my brothers and I – as the only Jewy kids in our predominantly German and Italian reactionary and racist Philadelphia area neighborhood. And we weren’t even Jews, just our ancestors were. We were atheists, and we were commies though, embedded deep in Republican suburban territory. I was an outsider in my home town always, and pretty much raised without culture – at least that’s how I always thought of it. Growing up in those suburbs was for me the equivalent of being buried alive. I left as soon as I could (I was sixteen when I graduated from high school and immediately took off for South America), but the residue remained. I am not one of THEM. And I wasn’t one of them. I was a small and weak boy living in a tremendously macho and sexist environment, where you were either the big strong man or the ninety pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face. THEY got the girls. THEY were rough and tough and total assholes. “I am not one of THEM” was probably my main thought for several years in adolescence. One of the defining moments of this period was one day when I was walking home from school, some (white) boy I’d never seen before blocked my way, and proceeded to beat the shit out of me for no reason other than he felt like it.
In those days (the 1960’s) the culture I was surrounded by was very monolithic. There were only three television channels. There were maybe as many as two movies playing in a given week. There was one newspaper. There was one group, the in-group, and nothing else was a group. Conformity was everything. It was survival and to conform meant to be one of THEM completely. There was no room for ‘others’. You were a ‘straight’ or you were a ‘freak’, and freaks were by definition anarchists and unorganized.
Today the world is different. Today there are micro-cultures all over. I didn’t even meet another atheist until I was 18, and now they’re everywhere. Now you can find your own people anywhere in the world, there are so many venues and avenues and choices and it’s okay to be whatever you are for a lot of people in a lot of places. Clearly many places in the world are not there yet. It’s especially true, though, for white men, of which I AM one of THEM. White men more than anyone else have benefitted from all forms of social progress – from feminism, civil rights, gay rights, socialism, labor gains, you name it. We are still the lucky ones, and from our position we hand down our priviledges and benefits to our children. We have more wealth, more possessions, more education, more status, more power, more say-so than any other grouping in the world, and yet you still hear some white men whining about our perceived decline. Really, guys? Hey, I can check my priviledge, I can be feminized and I can still be authentic. It’s not that scary. What’s hard is to look at yourself and look at the world and actually see what’s really there. But I highly recommend giving it a try.