Privilege can be a weird thing. If not dealt with from a place of humility, it most often presents as arrogance and if taken to an extreme can cause damage. Since Sherman Hemsley recently passed I've been thinking about his George Jefferson character on his most famous show, The Jeffersons. We all grew up watching it, singing " We're a moving on up!" He was the embodiment of the American dream that finally became a possibility for Black people in the aftermath of the civil rights movement of the 1950's and '60's. His feelings of privilege and arrogant behavior came from both his audacity and his hard work creating a dry cleaning business that finally allowed him, and symbolically all people of color, the ability to walk into and actually live in the places that had once been reserved only for those privileged enough to have great sums of money and a certain cultural background (read: white people). He had a maid and sent his son to a great school. George Jefferson had all the trappings of wealth, quite a bit of arrogance; Sherman Hemsley portrayed him as an annoying but essentially kind hearted man. But here's why, in my opinion, we all loved the show as Americans: Mr. Jefferson was the person who hustled and fought and came out on top. His arrogance came from his absolute awe, amazement and, frankly, his feelings of validation, that he had worked hard and succeeded. "Look at me! See what the hell I did?! A poor black boy is now significant. You betta recognize!" This is privilege people understand and even sympathize with, even when you might think the person's a prick.
But privilege has a darker side. There are various degrees from just annoying to the truly dangerous. The sense of privilege that Mitt Romney and those like him portray is what turns people off or at least makes them feel a little edgy about supporting him. His batman-style car elevator, his wife's two cadillacs and pet show horses, and his knowledge of NASCAR by way of closeness to team owners make us feel like he's not one of us, just a slob like all of us.
My frustration with Romney does not stem from his wealth. It's the arrogance of not knowing just how disconnected he is and the impact of that disconnection; the feeling that somehow you know better than the rest of us just by virtue of being rich. This is best demonstrated by an unnamed woman commenting from her Toyota Range Rover while waiting to park for a Romney fundraiser:
A New York City donor a few cars back, who also would not give her name, said Romney needed to do a better job connecting. "I don't think the common person is getting it," she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. "Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.
"We've got the message," she added. "But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies -- everybody who's got the right to vote -- they don't understand what's going on. I just think if you're lower income -- one, you're not as educated, two, they don't understand how it works, they don't understand how the systems work, they don't understand the impact."
So because we, meaning the rest of us non-Range Rover driving slobs who can't go to a $75K-a-couple-fundraiser being serviced by those same non-ranger Rover driving slobs (chefs, waiters, hotel managers, janitors, parking service attendants..all those dumb people that have the right to vote), don't and can't really understand the system because they are either too young or…not wealthy. Uh huh.
This kind of thinking can lead people who have privilege to disassociate from those who are not in the same place they are. Privileged folk can put themselves and their needs on a higher level than those who do not have their same level of wealth. Since their needs become paramount, if the government services their needs, then of course the rest of the country will benefit. Well, we tried that in the 1980s. How's that working for the middle class and poor, who have seen their wages consistently remain flat or lower over the past 20 or so years??
Robin Wells (Paul Krugman's wife) writing in The Guardian, a British Newspaper, really puts this notion into perspective. She centers in on an article from New York Magazine which talks about this very phenomenon.
...As a very perceptive article in the New York Magazine, Lisa Miller describes how new psychological research indicates that wealth erodes empathy with others. In the "Money-Empathy Gap", Miller cites one researcher who says that:
"The rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes the more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, ASSHOLES. (emphasis mine)"
Researchers found a consistent correlation between higher income, management responsibility and disagreeableness. One researcher interpreted her findings to imply that money makes people disinterested in the welfare of others. "It's not a bad analogy to think of them as a little autistic" says Kathleen Vos, a professor at the University of Minnesota.
Now this sense of privilege can get really dangerous, as I said earlier: Simply by virtue of some thing making lots of money, that thing or person must be taken care of at all costs. Penn State decided to sacrifice young boys' innocence because, of course, the football program was more important than anything else. It makes the town a lot of money; around $70 million a year. The program brings great prestige to the college, which in turn brings in money from alumni which allows the school to build more buildings, have more scholarships, fund the other sports teams…They seemingly calculated that a few children's innocence is not as important as a multi-million dollar collegiate enterprise. When coaches found evidence that Jerry Sandusky had molested young boys in his care, Sandusky was not challenged. He was too important to the team. More importantly, it couldn't be said that the great Joe Paterno had a molester on his staff. What would this information do to the program? This must be silenced, for the good of all. People outside of the program just wouldn't understand the importance and complexity of the issue…. uh huh. ewwww…
FInally, the NCAA sanctioned Penn State saying essentially that a football program is not more privileged than everyone else. It is not okay that the College sacrificed children on the alter of money and prestige. You must pay the price for your arrogance and criminal behavior.
It's about time that someone said that money and power and privilege do not trump decency, honesty and virtue! You ain't better than me just cuz you got duckets! I, and everybody else, am worthy just because; no matter how much money and power and "knowledge" one has. Your knowledge is not more knowing than mine because you're rich. It's time for the term privilege to be taken back to its roots in virtue and humility: It's a privilege for me to sing for people, it's a privilege for me to teach and raise my kids, it's a privilege for me to have enough money to take care of my family. It's a privilege to play football. It's a privilege to be able to run for the president of the United States of America. It's a privilege just to be alive.