Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Under normal circumstances, I make a point of being Team Stuff. I am principle-of-the-thing in favor of taking pleasure from browsing and god forbid sometimes even purchasing physical objects. Now, however, I'm simultaneously on the lease for two apartments, in two different cities. Having two homes is a glamorous situation when intentional. When unanticipated (long story involving American and Canadian logistics), it's more like an expensive, if temporary, pain in the neck. Not dire, thankfully, but not inconsequential, either. (My desire to take up kickboxing, say, fluctuates, but is, as I type, at maybe an all-time high.)

Various situational factors have combined to completely change my relationship towards stuff. On the one hand, I can't imagine even wanting new clothes. The mere thought of packing - and of two rents - leads me to enumerate all those items that seemed so necessary, and to which I so brattily, in some past version of myself, felt entitled: Four sleeveless blouses. A romper and a jumpsuit. A blazer and a trench coat. All purchased, needless to say, Before.

While I know I'm a quick Google search away from reminding myself that my clothes-purchasing rate is unimpressive cost- and quantity-wise by the standards of the average Western woman, and while some of these purchases (no, not the romper) were the pretty straightforward result of under-packing initially, the sense of shame I feel when thinking about having gone to stores and bought myself stuff is sort of intense. While I confess to having replaced an old and broken $50 pair of sunglasses with a new and not-broken pair of the same over the weekend, my impulse to treat myself is at nil, and has been for the past couple months. Which is bleak. Situational, which is something, but bleak all the same.

It's not, to be clear, that the inability to go and buy myself whatever Uniqlo has new for summer is the biggest problem anyone has, or the biggest one I have, even just as it pertains to this rather craptastic situation. But I am basic and ridiculous and it's something I notice all the same. I experience one kind of self-loathing for having shopped, and another for feeling even at all bad for myself for not being able to do so now.

On the other hand, I will soon - finally - be settled. Or settled-ish. Settled for at least a year in a specific apartment, and indefinitely in a specific city and country. Which means... I'm not even sure what to call it. Decorating? Me?

In the immediate future, it means assembling (helping my spouse assemble) IKEA furniture, and otherwise stocking a new apartment with such urgent home decor accents as olive oil and laundry detergent. But I can finally - finally finally - have a vision for a space. Ancient history for many 33-year-olds, I realize, but a first for me. All previous places I've lived as an adult have either had dorm furniture of one sort or another, or the haphazard result of Brooklyn street-furniture and panicked IKEA, which is, let me just say, a very different beast from thought-through IKEA.

I dream - dream! - of purchasing a jewelry stand, and knowing I won't have to find a way to bring it on an international move. (Of purchasing jewelry itself? Ugh, nope.) Maybe even clothing storage purchased with aesthetics a liiitle bit in mind. (It is for the best that there's no Container Store in Toronto, because if there were, oh boy.) The same don'tspenddon'tspend impulse guiding my current not-shopping will still be present, but balanced with the need to, you know, not have all my clothes on the floor. All sorts of decorating inspiration picked up, inadvertently, from Japanese and Scandinavian poodle Instagram, is going to be channeled into, I don't know, bins or baskets, or selection of armchair cover. (Oh, did I mention an armchair is finally happening?)

The not-so-distant-future-oriented shopping that, look, has to happen whether I enjoy it or not is the cheerier reason for aggressive non-shopping now. I'm really looking forward to checking out this shop on Queen West that sells practical items for apartments. So I guess this means I'm still Team Stuff. It just means the Facebook ads for cool-girl athleisure are wasting their time with my account.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The privilege books I didn't write

Maybe the strangest thing about writing a book on privilege is the passion with which some readers (or prospective readers) fill in the blanks with what they imagine/want/fear such a book to be about. Everyone has a novel in them, and so, too, it seems, a privilege book. To which I say, the more the merrier! I certainly did not intend for my book to be the only voice or angle on what is a fairly huge and abstract topic.

With that in mind, below, a mere handful of the books about privilege that maybe someone else will one day write - and some of which I'd happily read - but that The Perils of "Privilege" is not.

-A study of The Privileged, in which I delve into the lives of the rich and well-connected, using the weddings covered in Vogue as a starting point.

-A book uncovering privilege in its many facets, with the goal of making sure that those who may think they have it tough have properly reckoned with forms of privilege of which they may have been oblivious.

-A holding-forth about "SJWs" and Young People Today and anyone else who speaks out against injustice, informing the reader that Well Actually racism, sexism, etc., are simultaneously over and delightful, and also the real privilege is being American.

-An academic monograph on the detailed origins of how "privilege" is used in the social sciences and humanities.

-A guide, for those who see themselves as privileged, on how to avoid coming across as such.

-An activist instruction manual, teaching heirs how to leverage their inherited advantage for good.

-A memoir analyzing my own privilege, across the various axes (cis, straight, white, from New York, and with a doctorate in French for crying out loud), and delving deep into the history and significance of the neuroses and (symbolic) self-flagellations these inspire in me personally.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Counterpoint: Rich people know they're rich and wish to stay that way

Whenever I see someone arguing that the solution to inequality is for haves (in whichever area) to acknowledge their privilege, I have to see how they think this will play out. How is getting the beneficiaries of unearned advantage to admit to being advantaged ultimately anything more than an etiquette ritual, one that - like all posh etiquette rituals - winds up reinforcing privilege?

Richard V. Reeves's NYT op-ed, "Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich," is a request that attention be paid to the "favored fifth at the top of the income distribution," rather than just the One Percent. It's also a UK-US comparison, in which the UK's notoriously bonkers class system comes out ahead, because the British privileged have checked their privilege:

[M]ost of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.
(Have white Brits checked their white privilege? A question for another time.)

Reeves's argument is that the annoying, hypocritical behaviors of the rich and upper middle class - things like preaching meritocracy but sending children to private schools - happen because "the people who make up the American upper middle class don’t just want to keep their advantages; armed with their faith in a classless, meritocratic society, they think they deserve them." He writes:
There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up.
If only American fancy types knew they were fancy, problem solved!

So. I think Reeves has correctly identified several of the structural obstacles to social mobility in education, housing, and tax policy. He's completely right - not the first to point it out, but totally right - about a certain brand of liberal hypocrisy, especially where private education is concerned.

But I don't think he quite makes the case that "class consciousness" is what's lacking. And that's for a couple reasons. First, Reeves ignores the tremendous and obsessive rise of privilege-awareness in the US, during and since the 2008 recession. There's been this enormous expansion in the way liberal Americans understand privilege - and, yes, a parallel expansion in how it's understood by conservatives. On the left, there's now an understanding that privilege isn't just wealth, but also whiteness, maleness, cultural capital. On the right, it's about urban coastal elites, and anyone who finds Trump distasteful being inherently a posh snob. So when Reeves writes,
The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy six-figure incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.,
I'm not sure who's being addressed. Who has absorbed the notion that to be privileged is to be in the One Percent? Occupy Wall Streeters? A handful of socialists? Because this is not, I don't think, a mainstream view in liberal America. Americans don't have the same history of class consciousness as Brits, but Americans have embraced the notion of privilege-checking with newcomers' zeal. Americans frequently overshoot the mark and speak about huge swaths of the population as privileged that are not in any meaningful sense privileged. (As in, consumers of lattes, kale, avocado toast, and yes, I know the avocado toast dude's Australian.)

Second, then, there's the feelings-ish question of why, if American meritocracy's a myth, upper middle class parents are so fixated on their kids getting ahead. Is it, as Reeves argues, that they're unaware of their privilege?

No. A lot of it is that there isn't much of a safety net in the US, so if your offspring leave their schmancy class of origin, they don't just have to contend with not being as rich or posh as their childhood playmates. They might, for example, not have health insurance. (Where, one wonders, does the Struggling Millennials narrative fit into this?) It's not good enough, for them, to look at stats ("Most of the children born into households in the top 20 percent will stay there or drop only as far as the next quintile.") and assume their kids will probably be fine.

Then there's the fact that the US doesn't have an actual aristocracy, and has, at least, a history of mobility, such that today's fancy types, at least until recently, would very often have not-so-fancy parents or grandparents. (I'm guessing this is less true in the UK, Reeves's family history notwithstanding.) What Reeves calls "the American class reproduction machine" is the result of effort. It's not a passive maintenance of social hierarchies. It's precisely because American elites understand themselves as not "entitled" to their status that all this effort gets made.

Point being, the reason rich and upper middle class Americans are not acknowledging their status as an aristocracy is that they're not an aristocracy, but rather a precariously situated caste that needs to take active measures to hang onto its position. Or, rather than even looking at this as a caste, it's a bunch of individual families with shared interests where their kids are concerned.

The answer, then, is... more of a safety net. It needs to be not-dire if a rich person's kid doesn't wind up being rich. As for how to get rich people to go along with this, that's the tricky bit. But I see no reason how (further) alerting them to their privilege will inspire them to spontaneously give it up.

Friday, June 02, 2017

History's least-dramatic 'Why I'm Leaving New York' announcement

Hello, blog-readership. The rumo(u)rs are true: I'm returning to Toronto. And pleased, very pleased, to be doing so.

I had expected to arrive back in my hometown and never, ever want to leave. That didn't happen, for reasons I could pretend have to do with the new New York, with its craptastic subways and its current state of beyond-gentrification, but that only partly relate to anything that general or objective. Yes, the city's unaffordable, but when was it ever otherwise? More so these days, sure, but the principle's the same. (That said: the school fundraisers where you have to pay $35, $55, $700 to sample tiny portions of food from local restaurants, and, upon realizing this, shuffle quietly away from what you'd thought was just a street fair? Those are, for the record, Why I'm Leaving New York.)

It's also not because of the current sorry state of my nation's politics, but in some sense not not for that reason. I'm moving to Toronto for the usual work-personal reasons, and not - as is often assumed - Because Of Trump. I will say, however, that I was on the cusp of purchasing a couch - from a thrift store but still - the evening of the election, but woke up and, yeah, decided against. I never really got comfortable again here, literally. 

Mostly I'm just relieved: The bureaucratic complications of living kind of in Canada, kind of the US, are... far too boring to get into, but at any rate wound up sort of eating up much of the year. ("Bureaucratic" implies a lot of paperwork; this went beyond that.) While there are professional reasons for me to consider the time back in New York a success - I published a book! I got to work for a great publication! - it occurred to me, not infrequently, how much of this could have happened from Toronto.

But it's also that the New York I was picturing was some mix of one that no longer exists and one that never did. It was, in my mind, some mix of the best parts of late high school and the post-college years, crossed with the sheer exhilaration I felt, living in New Jersey, when I'd leave Penn Station and be in the city. In my mind, every friend I'd ever had in New York, every café I'd ever frequented, everything from categories Stuff and Experience alike, all was just there, preserved, unchanged, and awaiting my return. Clearly that did not wind up being the case, but I think there's more to it: A sense that I was probably-but-you-never-know going to leave in several months' time made me reluctant to really dive into life in New York. It made me wary of making choices that would make leaving too difficult.

Ultimately the city comparison question hardly enters into it. New York is bigger, but Toronto, not being my hometown, feels bigger. Toronto subways actually work; New York subways actually reach most of the city. Streetcars are lovely! So, too, traffic rules that don't encourage cars to park on the sidewalk. Both (now) have Uniqlo. Both are among the few places in North America that the likes of me - city-loving and driving-averse - is ever going to feel effortlessly at home. Both are great! I'm more than ready for Toronto.