Monday, November 21, 2016

"check your privilege" as a vindictive variation of "count your blessings" (warning, links to wildly syrupy songs from the 1970s and 1980s show up)

To a Calvinist with a sense of meticulous sovereignty at the level espoused by John Piper, there was, in hindsight, no way I could have escaped having heard music by Evelyn Tornquist Karlsson known by the simpler sobriquet Evie.

So, as a Pentecostal kid growing up in western Oregon through the 1970s and 1980s it was impossible, perhaps, to have not heard Evie singing how we should be thankful for the good things that we got, because the good things that we got are, for many, just a dream ...

Can't really unhear the song having heard it once, which may simultaneously be a testament to the ear worm aspects of the song and to the fact that I didn't exactly want to remember this song decades later.

Actually ... from about the same era there's also that old song "What About Me?"

To go by these pop songs the spectrum of extremes between grateful counting of blessings and the earnest clamor to get my share can be expressed through ... well ... really cheesy ballads.

It is, perhaps, this second song from the 1980s that may encapsulate an element that isn't even latent about the phrase "check your privilege".  Can't you see I wanna live but you just take more than you give?

College students have discovered that being at college brings with it a lot of privilege and not necessarily the "count your blessings" kind.  The axiom "check your privilege" can seem to be a vindictive, assessing variant of "count your blessings", articulated by those who would say, "You better count your blessings that you have that others don't have because if you won't do it I certainly will."

There is a sound concern in the axiom "check your privilege", but the capacity to check the privilege of someone else is not an assurance you have checked your own.  To invoke Adolf Schlatter's axiom from his commentary on Romans, our own share is not removed by condemning the evil in others.  So checking your privilege does not remove my privilege any more than you checking my privilege would remove one iota of yours.

These two cheesy pop songs may serve as a reminder that these social/emotional poles have always been with us.  I hate both these songs because, for me, the two songs seem to reek of a shared sense of entitlement.  It might just be a personal hang-up, your mileage may vary.  The way the former song has been rolled out in church contexts it could be construed as, pardon the language, "quit bitching about stuff and be grateful for what you have." At the other end of the spectrum, the other song seems determined to trot out a series of sob stories about other people that culminates in "so now I want what I think I deserve from life and it's YOUR FAULT I don't have it."  The song clearly was intended to be a plea for social justice at one level but at another level it reads like the subtext or text of any given plot of any given Adam Sandler film, of whom it's been written he plays characters who believe that the mere presence of desire in the protagonist ought to be taken as prima facie evidence said desires should be granted.

And that could describe the vibe I sense not just in the college students who are discovering what this "privilege" thing is a rhetorical weapon as well as those alt right guys who believe that somehow the cards are against them, too.  There's a zinger Gerald gets in a recent South Park episode where he tells another internet troll that "you're not a political internet warrior, you're just some guy who can't get laid."

While I sometimes try to be sympathetic to both groups as having grievances that are based on real inequalities it can be hard to shake off the sense that if you have the time, money, technology and leisure to vent on the internet there may be a silver lining that's being missed.  That literacy is, in the grand sweep of human history, something of a privilege. Or there may be something else.  One of the paradoxes of our era is that there are writers who can discuss the prevalence of rape culture while simultaneously affirming the necessity of defending reproductive rights as a euphemism for not carrying a fetus to term. 

Because if we're looking at both genders and not just whatever "reproductive rights" are euphemistically supposed to be for women, there are obviously guys who think they have a right to sex and they act accordingly ... which has had me wondering whether or not a more honest appraisal of reproduction is that any act of human reproductive routines is a negotiated privilege, and some guys had better own up to the possibility that any previously negotiated privileges could be revoked or that they may never successfully negotiate said privilege.  Years ago I heard a fellow intone that Proverbs says that he who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.  Well that proverb never articulated a "promise" that a guy will get a wife, it's more like counsel to be grateful for the wife you have when you meet her.  It's count your blessings there, not "I've had enough now I want my share." 

Even though I've read some stuff on some manosphere blogs about custody battles and divorce laws it sometimes seems like dudes on the manosphere may be guys who have significantly overestimated what some people call sexual market value.  Rather than concede that they are simply not as desirable to others as they regard themselves to be, it's easier to imagine that there's a war on men or a war on boys or some kind of war rather than concede that maybe we live in a world where if there's a sexual marketplace your market value is somewhere in the zone of zero. 

Why shouldn't it be possible for men, not least because men exist who are willing to say such things about women.  The men who have been willing to say those sorts of things about women almost invariably resent having the same things said about them.  I can recall a guy sitting at a fire with a bunch of other guys who were talking about the challenges of relating to their wives in their respective marriages.  The guy at the fire, single, blurted out that he was amazed at all the complaining guys were doing about how tough married life was.  "At least you guys get to have sex!" he said with indignation.  An older married man said, "No you don't, if none of the other areas of the relationship are working that doesn't happen."  

Soren Kierkegaard once mused that the single men bitterly resents not having a wife and then the married man bitterly resents the loss of his freedom and time.  I.e. humans may be disposed to ingratitude even after they have gotten the thing they were sure they wanted. And the flip side of this is that those who are the beneficiaries of privilege often invent ways to convince themselves and others that it was not the proverbial luck of the draw. No, it was all the greatness of the effort and the worthiness of the accomplished.   Sometimes it seems as though the sum of American high and low culture could be expressed in an axiom--we loathe and resent those relationships that we have coveted as the relationships most able to give our selves meaning.

It would be nice if there were a midpoint between the Evie song and that song recorded by the band Moving Pictures.  I mean these two songs are brutally open campaigns to extort water from your tear ducts.  You'd be better off reading Ivan Karamazov's parable about the Grand Inquisitor!  Perhaps we're really more sophisticated now than all that, we don't have songs that trumpet these sentiments 1980s style.  We are able to get more directly to the point with some help from Twitter.  Still ...

So here I am, wishing I'd never heard either of these songs even once in my lifetime but in a way it's a reminder that for people who find it frustrating that kids these days say stuff like "check your privilege", it's not like things have changed THAT much.  At least the kids these days aren't writing songs of the aforementioned sort I've been trying to forget pretty much all my life but can't forget.

If you haven't heard either of the songs and were prudent enough to not click on the links, check your privilege and don't give it up by listening to either of those two songs. Hold on to that privilege and don't let it go. 


Cal P said...

On the otherhand, like Alastair pointed on his blog, that all of this weepy eyed guilt induction has produced people who are immune to it. Thus, in music you have the now infamous interview with Lil Wayne, or the theatrics of a Kanye, and numbers of other pop-stars who sneer at these pleas. Perhaps that was the onset of the robber barons, a "get off your high horse" to would be SJWs, whether today's instantiation, or the Moral Reform societies of the late 19th century, and Social Gospellers of the early 20th.

In someways I can't blame them. Yes, let's work towards justice in our time and space, but Christians ought to know that the Devil is still the god of this age, and the blood of the martyrs is yet to be avenged. The great irony is that which political theorist Carl Schmitt pointed out, decades ago: liberalism can only be defended by illiberalism. You can only have free speech if you tightly police the boundaries. It's all a kind of illusion where some are benefited at the expense of an other. Is it any wonder that the zenith of classical liberalism and individual rights came during the age of mass chattel slavery? Freedom was bought and secured through the blood, sweat and tears of the slave.

So, today's "check your privilege" sounds so morally righteous. But who's aware of the material cost of having an iphone and all the cheap accessories many carry around. As long as America becomes the boundaries of one's imagination, it's easy to think we can all be free: we just export wage slavery and horrible working conditions elsewhere. It's almost as pathetic as it can be annoying.

2 cents,

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Well, that could fit in with my dour conviction that Americans crave opportunities without even the possibility of associated opportunity costs.

When he emigrated to the United States it was not very long before the German composer Paul Hindemith complained in a letter that "America is a land of limited impossibilities". He also complained at some length in A COmposer's World about what he considered the delusional idea at the heart of American music education mid-century (20th), that any kid with enough pluck and will could become the next Heifetz or Beethoven. He complained that in 1950s America the musical education was not so much geared for normal musical life among amateurs as the training up of schoolteachers who would train schoolteachers. It can seem he was way too bitter about American academic life as a German émigré. On the other hand, when Sherman Alexie fielded that controversy that dusted up a few years ago about a poem he published he said he was getting concerned over the years about how poetry journals always seemed to publish poems written by ... poetry teachers.

Eric said...

I didn't know that "What about me?" was famous outside Australia. In the 90s it was on an ad for pies. Then in the 00s it was a hit with the runner-up of the inaugural Australian Idol.

I remember at uni how some of the student political types would protest proposed unfavourable changes as though students were a poorer class who deserved a break, while I thought we were fortunate class.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I only heard it maybe a dozen times in my life, perhaps, but the "What about me?" song was virulently memorable since it trafficked in such brazenly manipulative sob story tropes that were a set-up for the "it's your fault" chorus on the one hand, and on the other, it was one of those archetypal 1980s kinds of attempts at soul in which the closer the singer got to the end of the song the more attempts at soulful singing fit the, well, the stereotypical white guy approach to soul perhaps most embodied by Michael Bolton where the more the singer tries to sound soulful the more he sounds like he's passing a kidney stone.

Eric said...

I quite liked the song - I'm a piano guy, and maybe it reminds of Balfours pie ads during the cricket in the 80s/90s - but not the last chorus. I wonder about the meaning of "Nobody’s changed, nobody’s been saved".

And now that you mention it, it reminds me of a another song, with three verses of increasing complaint of unfairness...

One difference is that mine was conceived as a song for a character in a show (although it was inspired by a real person). Another difference is that any feeling I write into songs ends up hard to take seriously.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Perhaps pianists are more disposed to like the song than guitarists. :) As songs about the small horizons of people go I've been more partial to "Living for the City" and "Village Ghetto Land" by Stevie Wonder, but then perhaps social protest songs more readily find receptive audiences in specific geographical contexts.
The 3+3+3+3+2+2 rhythmic pattern in the chorus for "What about me?" is a pretty cool cross-bar syncopated pattern--that may be partly why the song's so easy for me to remember in spite of my not being very fond of it. Then again, I actually like a few Paul Hindemith string quartets so you get used to the idea, as you go, that sometimes you like something while someone else doesn't and vice versa.