Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Prodigal Son redux

I never really thought about privilege until I didn't have it any more. That is both - an admission of a deep-seated moral failing, and an insight into the non-intersectional anomalies that characterise the third-world lived experience and some first-world barricaded outlier cultures.
Privilege is being increasingly brought out of the shadows into the mainstream by the glaringly obvious inadequacies of our current economic system, and the reduction in the means to gloss over those inadequacies by poor inter-generational middle-class wage growth over the past three decades. Even the idea of aspiration which once redirected a sense of an insurmountable lack of privilege to an illusion of materialist parity is now long gone, replaced by dystopic visions of robotic and artificial intelligence supplanting human ingenuity resulting in our collective disadvantage. Into all this comes the recognition of what exactly constitutes privilege - the revealed knowledge that global socio-cultural and financial systems are set up to cater to the continuing comforts of a single social demographic; the middle-aged white male. There is a lot of anguished chest-beating in the media about the targeting of this group and the avoidance in discussing the flip side of the coin - supposed 'reverse-racism' and socio-cultural blow-back from the group's members being seen to be privileged. But the reality is stark; a white male emerges in middle-age, wherever he may live in the world, into a system that has primarily been set-up for, and sustained by, his supremacy in the general order of things. This is irrespective of whether he has chosen to marry someone who is outside of his racial group, his sexuality, whether he has adopted children, whether he has chosen to dedicate his life to academia or activism or even revolution, the many kinds of youth and young adult life he might have once led - the world works for him. For everyone else, whether or not you achieve success in life, it comes down to: the kind-hearted benevolence of a middle-aged white male or males, proximity to privilege, a generous inheritance, a preternaturally gifted and commodified ability, or chance. There is, of course, the deleterious belief in the value of hard work, and its positive repercussions on a life 'well-lived', but the very raison d'être of the need for such is negated by the existence of that class of people for whom everything just works, irrespective of ability or effort or merit. For this class, aspiration takes on a whole new meaning, entirely divorced from that instinct for survival, existent in a plane above morality and a sanguine fellowship with the common man (those who are not middle-aged white males) - a better word for it would be aggrandizement. Even greed is not a morally unambiguous failing for this class; it just reeks of ambition which is deviant and synonymous with trying too hard.
I did refer to the similarity in the privilege of the middle-aged white male among members of privileged classes of men in other cultures, but the main point of departure is in the cultural markers of what that privilege looks like and the transcontinental ease of access to that privilege for these 'privileged others' - a point not lost in that stark illustration of cultural appropriation in 'Coming to America' (1988) where all the affluent Africans in the movie talk in 'white bourgeoisie'. Much the same can be said of affluent Indian households as well, within which, if English is not spoken with fluency, the local practice of difference is emphasized and fetishized until it resembles a cruel parody of self-abasement in the light of an absence of racial and ethnic delineation from what is the aesthetic, whether of language, food-habits, a sense of 'taste' in acquisitions, or anything else, of the commoners.
Whether or not the world is so moved from encountering such vast disparities in the experience of life for people who constitute the lucky few who live in cocoons of trickle-down privilege across the first world, or whether there is a mass shift in the practice of shielding ourselves and others like ourselves from the reality of life's unfairness as it affects the vast majority of the world's population, it is clear that privilege will not be given up by the people who do have it.
I remember when I was first confronted by my lack of agency in a white country; I wasn't filled with a righteous indignation that translated into a storm of activism and a life-long commitment to social change, all it brought on was personal outrage - that I, who came from privilege myself, wasn't being afforded the same privilege elsewhere simply because of how different I looked. It didn't spawn a prayer for égalité; it constituted an appeal for membership... and that is not how the world changes.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Feature Thinker

What is disturbing about the times we live in, even more so than the vacant political leadership, the resurgence of right-wing extremism, the increasing legitimacy of discredited nativist philosophies and foundational myths of ethnic parochialism around the world, and the continuing denialist environmental policies we enact to ostensibly guard our way of life while inexorably degrading it, is this over-riding obsession the majority of us has with the 24-hour news cycle. For journalists, it is their bread and butter; a captured market hanging on every new disclosure and sensational advent, searching for deeper meaning that begs to be gleaned via another paid shill well-connected enough with the HR wings of multi-media conglomerates to bestow on the rest of us his/her analysis of an event in its aftermath. For those sceptical of the value these analyses bring to their own interpretations of the assault of practically unbelievable news stories that emerge in the public domain day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, there is a desperate search for considered deliberation mostly from trusted sources such as historians and op-ed writers from earlier eras and disparate backgrounds. Even these sources have to earn their bread and butter, though, and the rigors of the 24 hour cycle do the quality of their analyses no favours - fast cut and paste jobs culled from their own work of the past, desperately fitted in to match the present mood and circumstance, projecting inauthenticity and a tired jadedness, and not doing justice to their own standards. How are we meant to understand this era we live in, then? An event occurs, facts and outright lies emerge simultaneously in our curated news feeds, investigations are conducted and delayed indefinitely, and cover-ups inevitably begin, in plain and recorded sight, amidst all the confusion. How are we meant to make any sense of this world when we can't even figure out which way we're headed? Where is the framework, where are the benchmarks, where are the goalposts, and where, in God's name, are the referees? It seems like the systems we put in place over generations of community living have not so much broken down as a result of the onslaught of forces beyond their capacity to mitigate against, as brushed aside in a wanton anarchic release that overcomes every sense of orientation. Are we condemned to begin organising, once more, as small incestuous units of like-minded and outsider-wary communities that trust our own interpretations of the facts more than the facts themselves? Can we risk going back to ethnic and communal vacuity when we were fearful of our own shadows and superimposed on them a predatory visage of those who do not immediately resemble us in physicality and philosophy?
Or are we becoming feature thinkers; letting each passing controversy wash over us without impact, except as an addendum to a previously held belief, providing a supporting argument to the main discussion at hand, content in the knowledge that the centre cannot hold, that the breach will eventually turn into a gulf, that the past will inform the present and co-opt it for a future of looking back in intellectual disdain at the kind of people we once were? Can we really be this blasé about the world our young people are growing up in, bereft of an ethical superstructure, a celebration of dissent, a healthy scepticism of the powers that be, a sense of agency and control in one's own ability to positively effect social change?
I guess the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are of this world or just living in it?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Winners, Losers, & everyone else

While we're on the topic of Winners and Losers, let's spare a thought for those who weren't allowed in the game to begin with - The sad sacks who play by all the rules expecting a fair shake at the end. Those invested wholeheartedly in a level-playing field, and in the intrinsic honour in trying hard and not expecting too much except one's just deserts. Those who look up to supposed mentors and patrons and guides and well connected well-wishers and hope a bone is thrown their way eventually. Those who buy into the myth that hard work and perseverance and playing the long game will put you in the same arena as those who have come by their luck the old-fashioned way - through wealth, power and privilege. Those who have to look their children in the eye to tell them to, "hold on darling - for a little while longer before you can go to the gymnasts class or to jazz ballet or that horse riding school", knowing with that sinking feeling that the idea of equity is as delusional and beyond reach as the idea of equality. Those who have no option but to continue doing without thinking, to continue breathing without feeling, to continue to know their place and block out those delusions of grandeur and agency and control. Those who are condemned to be willfully and carelessly misunderstood until there isn't an excuse to misunderstand them any longer after which they are inducted seamlessly into the ranks of the 'us' without the means to be like the 'us' which is a, "privilege that cannot be come by so easily, my friend. Do you think I was born with this double-storey house, this 55 acre farm, this swan-shaped swimming pool in the backyard, this BMW SUV? I worked my ass off for it, son!" Those who are denied the hopes, dreams and longings of everyone else in a miasma of racial and cultural exoticism where what one wants cannot nearly be what 'I' want - "that is so assumptive of you, come on!" Those who will clean our toilets and vaccuum our carpeted surfaces and detail our cars and retreat back into the shadows finally, with all their energy spent and only eyes showing - eyes gleaming in the darkness with envy and jealousy and desperation and hate...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Dawn of a Global Neo-Fascist Polity

It is tempting to see amongst all this doom and gloom in the world today, that the: demonising of civil rights, the extraordinary intimidation of the global fourth estate, the unmasking of an age-old white-supremacist and religiously chauvinist immigration policy around the first world, and the rise of extreme right-wing political parties across great, and not-so-great, democracies, as some last gasp hurrah of a failing metaphorical sceptre of racist paranoia from erstwhile colonising countries that will momentarily overcome their predatory pasts, and are about to step out into a beaming, post-homogeneous sun when all this is over. That assumption is the intellectual equivalent of burying your head in the sand with only your ears sticking out, and mistaking those burrowing noises getting closer to you for dolphin calls from the deep ocean.
Unless you have lived in a rich, consumerist, and apparently meritorious economy for the entire duration of your adult life so far, with breaks in-between to marvel at those amazing distant cultures where women are perpetually graceful and men are forever righteous, it is obvious that people around the world are born unequal. What your name is, where you come from, how you look, and how much wealth you have backing you, determines your experience of life, and always has. In a world that has always been this way, it is easy to ridicule the idealism of those privileged protesters who don't have to worry about putting food on the table, dressing up their school-going children appropriately, and getting to a job under the watchful eye of that supervisor who needs the flimsiest possible excuse to dismiss them. But, it is also easy to assume that life goes forwards not backwards, that head-down sweat and toil hard-nosed hard work will get you and yours ahead, that your children will fulfill their potential with more opportunity than you ever had and be happy in the revealed knowledge that life is more than just surviving. Neither of these manifestations of living is the whole picture. Democracies around the world are facing a backlash from fearful, hateful, misguided, and misdirected local communities, sometimes sacrilegiously supported by recent immigrants, that are constitutionally bound to adhere to the choices of their electorates. Whatever we may think of the choices being presented to us, our levels of awareness and education, and whatever eugenic sympathies we harbour, people have every right to want to be governed by popular mandate. It is, after all, something the world fought bloodily for, over generations, at great cost to homogeneous and ethnic communities, in a world where it was thought that the divine right of kings and queens, and brute force, trumped all. To get riled up over the short memories of ignoramuses, history-deniers, and walled-off racists, who do not see the light when confronted by the horrors of the second world war, or the brutality of colonialism, or the historical crimes of slavery and genocide, is reactionary and denies the responsibility of national political systems that  have neither encouraged a holistic view of the world from a global perspective nor given credence to apparently self-evident interpretations of world history. How could they? Politics is the pursuit of power, and objective facts and subjective empathy and situational context is so far removed from that pursuit as is the idea of 'representation' about getting the plight of the broken-down, homeless, hungry, and agency-less human being on the street into the national discussion.
Blinkers are good for horses being maneuvered through the streets, and for human beings when the task at hand is direct, complex, and clear-cut in its projected outcome. We cannot continue to pretend that democracy in its current avatar is sacrosanct - it cannot be when all that is needed to subvert its beauty, poetry, and goal of freedom, is a law enforcer in uniform taking the law into his/her own hands based on their proclivities.
It is time to change our focus from the institutions that we thought were duty-bound to enforce our hard-won emancipation, to the structures of those very institutions. The need for governments to better reflect what we expect for ourselves and our fellow human beings across the world, through inequality, war, and daily struggle, is paramount, if we are to safeguard the global community from the predation of a few of us who think of winning as an end in itself.