So you might have heard about this blog Stuff White People Like. (You might have heard about it from Girl Detective’s post about her ambivalent feelings about it; I echo some of that ambivalence here.) The blog isn’t a take on all white people—no jokes about C&W music or mayonnaise sandwiches here—but rather on the educated, liberal, urban or pseudo-urban white person, what you might call the Hipster-Yuppie Complex. You also might call it “me and many, many people I know.” For instance, the top entry right now (#71: Being the only white person around)…I swear to God I’ve been in that exact Dim Sum place. It’s in Artesia or something, and yes, we drove 45 minutes to a lunch spot exactly because of its amazing authenticity. (Other entries that describe me pretty well: Apple Products, Kitchen Gadgets, Apologies. And the one about the Sunday New York Times is a dead ringer for my family, except for the part about listening to music while reading it.)
In general, I think the blog is really good, and going through the archives suggests to me that it’s just been getting better. It ranges from simple observational humor (#63: “Remember that whenever a white person says they wants to go to a sandwich shop you are looking at at least a $15 outlay after tip and drink … Also note: white people will wait up to 40 minutes for a good sandwich”; #24: “Wines that are acceptable: Red, White (less so)”) to incisive critique (#62: “It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them. In fact, the only reason that poor people make the choices they do is because they have not been given the means to make the right choices and care about the right things”). Sometimes it’s not as funny as it could be—usually this happens when it lapses into mere sarcasm—but what is? In general, I think it deserves the hype.
Predictably, one strain of the blog addresses privileged liberal self-righteousness about the everyday steps they take to advance liberal causes (or Awareness): Priuses, Vegan/Vegetarianism, and what seems to have caused the most internet-wide dismay, Recycling. The joke is generally that these “50 Simple Ways to Save the ____” steps are ways of mollifying liberal guilt without actually changing one’s lifestyle, as in this excerpt from the Recycling entry:
Recycling is fantastic! You can still buy all the stuff you like (bottled water, beer, wine, organic iced tea, and cans of all varieties) and then when you’re done you just put it in a DIFFERENT bin than where you would throw your other garbage. And boom! Environment saved! Everyone feels great, it’s so easy!
There are two over-reactions to this kind of joke/critique, and this applies to all sorts of comedy and commentary besides SWPL (which is my broader point). The obvious one is to huff and puff that these things aren’t funny, because they’re really important: are you saying people shouldn’t recycle? These are the same people that hold that South Park or Team America are conservative, because they [the angry liberal viewers] can’t tell the difference between pointing out the flaws or foibles of one position, and endorsing the opposite position. In other words, while you should take positive steps that may be minor or symbolic, it is possible, and in fact important, to recognize the limits of what you’re doing, so that you can remain humble and motivate yourself to take more substantive steps. Later I’ll get to how this happy medium works.
The other overreaction is to say, “Absolutely right—all that stuff is phony liberalism, and it doesn’t make a lick of difference.” This is where that ambivalence I mentioned comes in: it’s right to take comic positions seriously, but one should never forget that those positions come from a comic persona, and absolutism is often part of a comic persona. It generally should not be part of how we actually formulate positions.
For instance, one of my favorite comedy routines of all time is, brace yourself, Chris Rock’s “Niggas Versus Black People.” The reason it’s so funny is that it’s so startling: not just because Rock uses profanity and racial slurs, but because he adopts an extreme persona that casts American racial politics in a stark light. Whereas, when people (invariably white people) talk about how much sense that routine makes, they not only sound racist; they generally are racist. (Here’s a Sadly, No! post about one example.) This has nothing to do with the question of who can say what words; it has to do with the difference between comedy, which is based on extremes, and real-world decisions, which should include nuances. Chris Rock is not “just joking”—his position is not a total fabrication—but he is definitely joking; he’s exaggerating for comic effect. Anyone who fails to see that is mistaking the moment of laughter for the moment of truth.
Similarly, we have this post by Ogged about how really true SWPL is. He abandons the comic persona (“Now I realize that this really isn’t funny”) but thinks that what remains is still just as valid. Here’s an excerpt (thanks to Mithras for the link):
You can’t sit at the top of the empire, particularly an empire that fucks over millions of its own citizens, and not be a villain. I’m sorry, those are the breaks. … That’s why things that are well-intentioned, like recycling, are absurd, because nobody cares if you spit shine the bullet before you put it in someone’s head.
This is where I get off the bus. First of all, it’s obvious that if recycling and choosing a car with good gas mileage doesn’t make a difference, neither does littering out the window of your Hummer H2. So essentially this is a Get Out of Jail Free card for the people, and they are legion, who believe that they don’t have to do anything for anyone because it’s all bullshit; they see what a joke personal responsibility is, and what sheep we all are for trying to make a difference. As Mithras said (sardonically): “So there you go, folks: You may as well act as evilly as you care to, because it doesn’t matter what you do. Isn’t that the moral of this story?”
Second, actions that are not efficacious in themselves often are when taken en masse; furthermore, sweating the small stuff is how you stay primed for the big stuff. For instance, on a personal level, being frugal when you buy groceries or go out to eat isn’t going to help your bank account very much except over the very long term, but it puts you in the mind-set that you’ll need when bigger financial decisions arise. Similarly, voting in an election isn’t going to affect the outcome—if everyone I know even casually had skipped the primary earlier this month, the result would have been the same—but it’s the kind of behavior that makes change, and keeps you connected to the world of politics rather than detached from it. So it’s important to sort your recycling, because it keeps your mind on the importance of environmental change over convenience; at the same time, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that recycling is change. What SWPL is critiquing is the idea that driving the Prius, or taking out the recycling, clears you to live guilt-free and smug and buy all those Apple products. I’ll stop a moment to let you think whether you’ve ever known anyone like that. (One of the places where the site loses me, incidentally, is its take on non-profit organizations: aside from the canard that “the sweet side of non profits is that you are paid a competitive salary for your field,” it seems to me that working for change as a career is above this kind of scoffing. So this parenthetical just proves that everyone has their humorless side.)
We—the universal we, but especially we privileged, well-intentioned people—need comedy to poke fun at our values, which is to say at us, because otherwise we risk missing the forest for the trees: the echo chamber of our good-natured friends and our feelings of self-satisfaction needs to be punctured every once in a while so that we can see the bigger picture. That said, the difference between comedy and mere cynicism is that comedy sees another way. The people like Ogged who have figured it all out feel just as superior as the yuppie recyclers, but they’re content to simply sneer at the idea of political efficacy. That’s a form of smugness we can’t afford.
(And yes, I know that another overreaction to a joke is to go on and on about it on your blog. “Overthinking” should really be the next Stuff White People Like entry.)