Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Article Reading Group: Merits, Privileges and None of the Above

I have been reading a lot recently about meritocracy. About the tech industry, about smart people and superiority and the myth of specialness. Janet Frame, who I had never come across before, wrote a perfect, perfect short story called Prizes in 1962 that feels like the most fitting response/clarification/conclusion to my reading material and my own reactions. Nothing is ever new. Well, I suppose the current financial success of technocrats is new but the privilege of the few is old indeed. Miranda July, who I admire as an artist even if I do not enjoy all of her work, read Frame’s story aloud for the latest New Yorker Fiction podcast and I would highly recommend listening to it, even if you read none of the other links.

I should preface the following by acknowledging that my familiarity with the tech industry, its figureheads, culture and history, plus pretty much all of the technical details behind the technology of ‘tech’, is limited at best. Still, you don’t need to be a genius or an insider to know that Marc Andreessen is basically (technically) a butthead. You just need to browse his Twitter feed. An introduction: this man has made huge amount of money in the tech industry but it’s fine because he’s smart and he deserves it and tech innovation totally helps The Poor™. Maria Bustillos calls bullshit pretty eloquently for the Awl. The price of fridges may be down but cheap fridges won’t help people to escape poverty (Andreesson also fails to acknowledge the human cost of cheap goods). To succeed like Andreessen you need education, extended access to technology beyond fridges, free time, self-belief, the support of the people around you (be it teachers, family or industry connections) and probably a plethora of other basic requirements that I (unfortunately matched with Andreessen by my skin colour and privilege if, hopefully, nothing else) can’t even imagine/don’t think to name. To believe that you have earned your success when the odds are stacked so heavily in your favour is insane. Bustillos quotes from a 2001 Guardian article by Michael Young (on my To Read List) that almost, ha, almost, makes you nostalgic for the aristocracy:
If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.
They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody's son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.
So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.
Perhaps it is incongruous to introduce The Case for Reparations alongside a (pseudo) profile of a rich, white tech dude. Or perhaps not. Everyone who is likely to read Ta-nehisi Stoatss extended essay (feature? Article?) for the Atlantic has already read it, I’m not going to change any minds, but I would be remiss in my duty as a blogger, internet user and human being if I didn’t add my voice to the chorus of recommenders. Also, I think it is relevant and arguably parallel to the Andreesson takedown. Poverty is not a choice and African Americans are disproportionately affected by all the barriers to entry that prevent America from being a truly meritocratic land of opportunity. We are our history and Coates traces the many oppressions that have culminated in the violent, impoverished ghettos of Baltimore. Andreesson’s wealth and success exist within the context of sharecropping and redlining and gang violence. It exists in a mirrortocracy, a financially successful industry (like other financially successful industries) that disavows prejudice but demands a secret handshake, while a whole race struggles against the restrictions instigated and maintained by the (white) privileged.

The specifics of Coates’s essay are American, I don’t think there has ever been mandated redlining in the UK (let me know if I’m wrong!), but we pioneered the Atlantic slave trade and profited from the plantations. Besides, privilege is hardly an American phenomenon. Britain has a world of class and race issues of its own (among other things) nurtured in the fine historical pastures of feudalism and colonialism. As a white girl from a moderately affluent family I have benefitted from these privileges and I must strive to remember that. It is difficult because when life feels like crap these benefits don’t seem meaningful or even noticeable but they are real and these articles are important aides memoire for when I am being stroppy about my own displeasures.

Like Janet Frame’s narrator I won prizes at school. Well, I didn’t actually, I never win prizes, but I did get good grades and positive reports and a sense of promise. It is the same mind-set; work hard, be rewarded, feel good about yourself. School was neither a particular pleasure nor a walk in the park but I left it with the expectation that hard work was rewarded. Never a more privileged belief, I suppose. Adulthood has, so far, proven more complicated and success more elusive than I was lead to expect. This shit is nebulous. The prizes were empty but I don’t want some glossy domestication either.  I don’t know how you escape the pit or if it is somehow presumptuous and entitled to even try. There are times when my twenties have felt like a series of disappointments and that’s rough but then I feel guilty because most of those disappointments are still privileges. They are luxury disappointments. The guilt is probably good and my life is basically pretty sweet.

I don’t know. I don’t know. Being a person is hard. I should probably read more.

1 comment:

  1. When I worked in the nonprofit world out of SF, we ran into Marc Andreesen all the time...ahh the meritocracy that just oozes out of that city. There's so much more I can say about that...