Saturday, November 17, 2012

Of folk-singers and lactation consultants

Sarah Maslin Nir's somewhat controversial story about privilege and post-Sandy volunteering illustrates exactly where YPIS goes wrong. We have a situation where outrage is in order - certain parts of NYC have been forgotten. I use passive voice deliberately, to now ask by whom? Well, by lots of people but the people who matter are the government workers who ought to be assigned to tasks like these. Obviously yuppies who come in to help aren't going to be well-trained in the various nuances of aid work, and are going to be mediocre at best at whichever tasks, and will say the wrong thing. There can be outrage (depending your politics) at a taxation situation that permits some to own Lexuses (Lexi?) while others live in squalor a few miles away.

But it's ambiguous what the criticism is - is it that yuppie volunteers are there at all, or that they don't plan to 'occupy' the Rockaways and volunteer on a more long-term basis? Meanwhile, if you're someone who's never had it easy and who's currently in a genuine disaster-mess following the storm, how gracious are you expected to be - to yuppie interlopers, or to your own friends and family? Does no one ever have a right to be cranky? If I'm owed mild crankiness for the 4-plus hours a day I spend commuting (and the days of a guaranteed seat are over), I should think those who've been without power for weeks in the projects are owed as much crankiness as they care to claim.

So it's not YPIS, to be clear, if you yourself are being i-Photographed while on line for disaster relief, or are ordered to breastfeed by a Williamsburg folk-singing yummy mummy (how do they find these people), or if your children are being treated like "Save the Children" orphans and you're standing right there, if this is you, to be furious.

But what should the takeaway be for those reading this article from the comfort of their not-washed-away homes or white-collar offices? It shouldn't be that these volunteers' privilege was showing. (One also wonders whether this journalist may have looked for examples of outrage-at-cluelessness, although I don't doubt that this outrage exists.) What is YPIS is an accusation made by those who are themselves privileged, who miss the forest for the trees and act as though the worst sin of them all is failing to capture the right tone in every situation. If whichever entity ought to be sorting this out isn't, then what can be done but accept the presence of volunteers many of whom, yes, feel more of a connection to the people they'll share accounts of this time with on Facebook than to the Them they'd gone to help.

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