The Alchemy of Privilege

Nancy Slonim Aronie

Nancy Slonim Aronie

At the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers last night, Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping into the Power of Your Inner Voice, declared that every powerful writer must be an alchemist: “every writer must turn shit into gold.”

She told the story of the life and death of her angry, terminally ill son, Dan, as an example of how the bad stuff that happens to you can be turned into gold—in her case, a documentary film about her son, whose death, she says, taught her so much about life.

Aronie said that the video editor working with her on the movie decided at one point to cut out a scene where Dan’s girlfriend struggles with his urine bag, which had gotten snagged on a bedpost.

“No!” she roared.  “Don’t cut out the urine bag!  Don’t try to protect us from the tough stuff!  Go ahead and make us uncomfortable!  That’s the stuff we most need to hear and learn from.”

She led a short writing exercise, in which she told the group to “start with your brain, drop into your heart, then your gut, and let it out onto the page.”  Writing from your brain alone, she said, will not get you into the zone of authentic, powerful expression that every writer seeks.

She gave us the starting prompt: “Dinner at our house was…” and told us to go back to our childhood dinner table.

When people stood up to read their pieces afterwards, I was astonished how most of them reported dinner tables that were frightening and painful.  One woman remembered how no one listened to her at the dinner table, leading to a lifetime of wondering whether she had anything valuable to say.  Another wrote about how she couldn’t wait for dinner to be over so she could get away from her threatening, angry father.

Nancy Aronie applauded them all, and kept insisting that powerful writing needs to write out of that “core wound.”

But what if you don’t have a core wound?

What if you grew up in a happy, peaceful household, with kind, productive, harmonious parents who did not wound you in any way?

Can your writing still be powerful?

In the memoir that I am working on, I recognize that I had an almost magically privileged childhood.  No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty damned good, and my good fortune continued well into my adulthood.  I sum it up in the memoir by describing the feeling I got in my twenties, when I was working as a journalist in Manhattan, of a “red carpet rolling out in front of me wherever I went.”

It didn’t last forever, of course, but it is that early experience of privilege that I am interrogating in my book, not just in my own personal experience, but also in our general culture as Americans in my lifespan of the past 50 years.

For all the bumps in the road we’ve had, we have still been extraordinarily privileged and comfortable as Americans, relative to so many of the other billions on the planet.  While we’ve been riding around in our air-conditioned Cadillacs, figuratively speaking at least, so many others have been living and dying precariously on the garbage heaps and slums, the brothels and the prisons of tough, violent cities.

As a scholar of comparative literature, I’ve made a career of studying texts by women from all over the world that tell stories of suffering and oppression in order shine a light in dark corners, raise awareness among the more privileged, and act as catalysts for political action and positive change.

In introducing these stories to generations of students, and editing the related anthologies that have made their way out into the world, I have felt myself to be working on the side of justice, doing my small part to help make things right.

Now, in my memoir, I want to shine the light in a different direction: back at myself, as someone who grew up in privilege yet did not become inured and deaf to the suffering cries of others.

I am certainly not alone. I believe that most people of privilege do have a social conscience; do care about how the other half live; and are willing to be part of a movement for positive change if they can see a clear, trustworthy channel through which to pour their energies.

The “shit” that I need to alchemize in my memoir is precisely the lovely bubble of privilege itself, which protected me–and others who grew up like me–from setting foot outside of our comfort zones.

We enjoyed ourselves poolside and planned our next vacation; got married and had children; bought houses and cars and ever-faster computers and gadgets; and had no clue at all how our lifestyles were contributing to the accelerating disaster of global heating and climate change.

In my case, the “shit” I need to write about is as squeaky clean and wide-eyed as my own innocence as a young woman seeing Third World poverty for the first time and having no clue, none at all, of the role of my country in creating and sustaining it.

That cluelessness seems to be the “core wound” that I have to interrogate in my memoir, recognizing how very comfortable it has been to be so protected, and yet how destructive it has been too, as generations of elite young people like me have been raised to take our place in established social frameworks without questioning the underpinnings of social and environmental injustice on which we stand.

It is not easy to call out your tribe, to criticize a way of life that has been so easy and sweet. I have only gratitude for the gentle, loving upbringing my parents gave me, and the support they provided that made it possible for me to step out into the world on a strong footing. I am not being glib when I say that everyone should be so lucky.

It’s the bigger picture that I am questioning: how all of us privileged Americans, without realizing it, have contributed to the twin crises of social inequality and environmental holocaust that we now must face today.

It’s not about casting blame; it’s about accepting responsibility and putting our shoulders to the wheel of the enormous task of making things right again on our planet.

That is the alchemy I seek as a writer in these dark transition times.

On MLK Day, Opening the Hearts of the Privileged

When I first heard the phrase “privilege is invisible to those who have it,” it seemed like the answer to a question I didn’t even know to ask:

How can people who are so nice, who would never hurt a fly, be so oblivious to the ways in which their lifestyles are deeply hurting others?

Oblivious is the operative word here.  Most privileged people really don’t have a clue as to how “the other half lives”–or make that, the other 90% or so. Just as I don’t understand how it is to be a child slave working on a cocoa farm in Africa, or for that matter a honeybee bringing poisoned pollen back to the hive and dying of it myself, people way up on the class ladder in the US can’t understand what deprivation feels like–and if you can’t get to that feeling place, it will be very hard to arrive at any sort of comprehension or even curiosity.

There are so many examples of what I’m talking about, but having just signed a petition to President Obama calling attention to the issue of contingent faculty, my mind is going to a memory I can’t shake, from my days of adjunct teaching.

I had been teaching as an adjunct at my alma mater for a couple of years, having decided to forgo a serious tenure-track search while my first son was an infant.  In the spring, after a busy year of adjunct teaching, I went to talk to the Dean, to see whether it would be possible to improve my status at the college so my salary would not be cut off during the summer.  I don’t remember the exact words of her response, but her attitude was plain: what happens to you over the summer, when we don’t need you, is none of our concern.  Next!

I was naive, I guess, to imagine that she would care that she was not paying me a living wage.  But I had grown up among the privileged, for whom it was really unfathomable, the idea of not making a living wage.  If you weren’t making enough to live on, then something must be wrong with you.  You’re not trying hard enough, you’re not talking to the right people, you just don’t have what it takes.

In this situation, I felt the duality of on the one hand being outraged, as any privileged person would be, at being treated in such an unfair, exploitative fashion, and on the other hand, feeling shamed and inadequate because of course it must be true, it must be my fault that I’m being treated so badly.

For people from a different background than mine, it would be quite easy to internalize those feelings of shame and self-doubt, to the point where one would begin to believe them.  I have studied many autobiographies by people who were marginalized and disadvantaged from birth by their race, ethnicity, gender, etc, and this self-loathing is a common feature of what W.E.B. DuBois called “double-consciousness,” seeing oneself through the eyes of another.

But I grew up with every advantage, and was always a star in the academic realm, a child prodigy in reading and writing who received a BA magna cum laude at 19 (it would have been summa if I hadn’t had to take those damned statistics classes!), a straight A student through grad school who excelled at jumping through every hoop set out for me.

Thus my amazement at finally attaining my goal of teaching at the college level, and being told that while I was doing a great job, there was no chance of being paid fairly for it.

My point in relating this story is that most people who grew up like me would never have such a story to tell.  For us the red carpet rolls out automatically wherever we go; people bow and beckon, smiling; life is easy and delightful. And when you live that kind of existence 24/7, when it’s your whole life from earliest childhood, it’s just inconceivable that it could be otherwise.  Or if it is, then as I said, there must be something wrong with you personally.  It’s not the system that’s at fault if things aren’t going your way, it’s your own personal inadequacies.

That seems to be the explanation that many among the 99% accept when they fall upon hard times.  Home foreclosed? What a fool you were for signing that mortgage!  Lost your job?  Why didn’t you go into a more stable field?  Single mom?  Honey, don’t you know how to keep a man?  And so on and so forth.

Both sides of the class divide need reminding that we are all born into a pre-existing social structure, some with gold spoons, and some with plastic spoons in our mouths.  The playing field is most assuredly not level.  Those who are living well need to realize that they owe their good fortune as much to their favorable placement in the Game of Life as to their own smarts and hard work; and those who are struggling need to realize that it’s not all their fault.

Pointing fingers at individuals is not going to lead to a fruitful discussion.

Was it the Dean’s fault that it was standard practice at the college to pay adjuncts by the semester?  She was just going along with the flow, wasn’t she?  Was it the mortgage lender’s fault that people took on more debt than they could repay?  The mortgage officer was bending over backwards trying to give that family the house of their dreams, wasn’t she?

Right. Rather than seeking to cast blame, we need to be looking for ways to make the system fairer for all the new children being born into it every minute.  One of the most basic steps we can take is making privilege visible to those who have it.  The privileged, who have more social power than the disadvantaged, need to know and understand how their complacency with a warped social system impacts the less well-placed.

Knowledge is the first step towards compassion, and from compassion comes the desire to make what’s wrong right.

It’s not about casting stones.  It’s about sharing experiences, and hoping that those in power will listen with open minds and hearts.

On the eve of MLK Day, that is my fervent wish and prayer.

 

 

Fighting for Change with Hearts Wide Open

The environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore looks out at the Occupied social landscape and sees “The Big One”–a movement that will bring all the disparate struggles of our society together on common ground, and effect deep, lasting, structural changes.

“The lines that connect climate change to jobs to the environment to education to health to justice are strong and undeniable,” she says. “The time has passed for an environmental movement. The time has passed for a climate change movement. The time has passed for isolated grassroots movements. We stand on ground that trembles with tectonic movement. Along the straining fault lines of our civilization, we feel the forces building for justice, sanity, and lasting ecological and cultural thriving.”

She’s certainly right that isolated movements are not going to change the world. That’s what’s been so great about the Occupy movements–they’ve been widespread and inclusive,a big big tent spread out over a lot of ground, coast to coast.

As Moore says, the moral ground of the Occupy movements is quite simple and clear: “it’s wrong to wreck the world.”

That’s something I knew instinctively as a child, as most children do.  Part of the great tragedy of our society has been the way we slowly deaden and numb the compassionate, empathic instinct of our children, teaching them to ignore pain and injustice, to just keep walking and mind their own business.

I know that’s what I was taught as a privileged young American growing up in a deeply unequal, unjust and exploitative society.  I know now that it was wrong.

And thanks to Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy movements, I am beginning to know what to do about it.

We need to stop going about our business as usual, and relearn how to see and feel suffering and inequity.

We need to think outside the box of our normalized capitalist assumptions, making well-being rather than profit the goal of human effort.

We need to make protecting our planetary home our highest priority, because without a healthy environment, we will never build a healthy society, and things are so far gone that bringing back ecological balance will take everything we’ve got.

One of the reasons that revolutions are almost always carried out by the young is because they are closer to the instinctual compassion of their childhoods.

If only the stuffed shirts in Congress and in corporate office buildings all over America could remember what it was like to live with their hearts wide open, we might start to see the great boulder of social change really start to pick up steam.

Is there an “American Spring” around the corner?

You have to admit my blog is aptly named.  Each day brings new evidence that we are living through a speeded-up period of rapid change.

Was it only a few short months ago that we were stuck in the August doldrums of Congressional gridlock, in which the Republicans seemed to have a total stranglehold on the nation’s very lifeblood, our Treasury?

Was it only a few short weeks ago that the first Occupy Wall Street protesters arrived on the scene, the vanguard of what has now become an international political movement that just might have the power to challenge the two-party American oligarchy?

The deep distrust and disappointment Americans feel in our government is represented in a new NY Times/CBS News poll published tonight.

Get this: only 9% of those polled approve of the way Congress is doing its job.

Only 10% say they trust the American government to do what’s right for its people.

 These are dreadful numbers, especially when compared with the 46% of those polled who said they believe the views of the Occupy Wall Street protesters reflect the views of most Americans.

The urgent question becomes, will this dissatisfaction with our government and strong identification with the protest movement lead to actual sociopolitical change?

In one of my classes we are reading Allan G. Johnson’s book Privilege, Power & Difference, which seeks to understand why those with social privilege so rarely lend their support to any movement that might upset the status quo, even when they profess to be sympathetic with the goals of social equality.

Johnson says that all of us, but especially the privileged, tend to follow the path of least resistance.  Our society is set up in such a way that the paths of least resistance all favor the privileged, making it very hard for anyone to rock the boat.

But, he says, if we are aware of the ills of social inequality and do nothing about it, we will become “like the person who loses the ability to feel pain and risks bleeding to death from a thousand tiny cuts that go unnoticed, untreated and unhealed” (124).

I think that many of us privileged folks have indeed become numb to the harsh realities of our social system, which we have come to accept as natural, like the weather or the usual background noise of civilization.

That this callousness is wounding in ways we are hardly aware of is less obvious, but it comes out in the deep malaise of privileged American society: our tendency to depression, self-destructive behaviors, and underlying rage.

We are living through a moment in time when it is just possible that the privileged will wake up and decide that enough is enough.  That is the hope and the lure of the 99% movement.

There are a lot of privileged people in that 99%: educated, wealthy people, who have a lot to gain, in material terms, by not rocking the boat–but who, it seems, are doing some real soul-searching right now about taking the right path, instead of the path of least resistance.

Think about it: only 10% of Americans think Congress is doing a good job.  If that isn’t a mandate for change, I don’t know what would be.

Everything is speeded up these days.  Even last night’s solar storm, which caused spectacular aurora borealis displays all over North America, apparently hit Earth eight hours faster than predicted, and spread out much further over the U.S. than usual–visible all the way down in the Deep South.

Could it be that we will have our own “American Spring” in 2012?

WHY NOT???

Confessions from Park Avenue: Ignorance, Privilege and Change

This week the Occupy Wall Street protest ventured uptown, to the Upper East Side of Manhattan–where I grew up.

I have always been reluctant to admit that for a good portion of my life I called Park Avenue home.  I knew what kinds of stereotypes would instantly leap to my interlocuters’ minds upon hearing these gilded signifiers: “Upper East Side,” “Park Avenue,” even “Manhattan.”  And indeed, I have known many neighbors who fit the model of the wealthy socialite snob.  But there are also thinking, feeling, compassionate people living on Park Avenue.  They are guilty, above all, of the privilege of ignorance.  They truly don’t know how the other half lives.

I can just hear the scornful snickers and groans that greet this statement.  But it’s true.  I know it because I lived it.  And to some extent, you’ve lived it too.  All of us Americans have this privilege relative to people living in desperate material circumstances in other parts of the world.  At least our society pays lip service to the ideal of equality.

The tony apartment buildings lining Park Avenue are urban gated communities.  Most are co-ops, and it is difficult to buy your way into them–money alone won’t do the trick, you also have to be thoroughly vetted by the co-op board, and depending on the building, you may or may not pass muster.  The people living inside tend to be very reserved with one another.  You might not get to know your neighbors even if you live in the building for twenty years or more.  You might know your daytime and nighttime doorman better than the person who lives on the other side of your bedroom wall.

As for knowing more of the world, and how ordinary people live, well–there is television. There is the internet.  But in terms of flesh and blood, there is very little connection.  Back at the turn of the 20th century, Jacob Riis captured the lives of the less fortunate in his sensational book How the Other Half Lives, which shocked the nation and inspired some excellent reforms.  That kind of documentary expose has become much more commonplace in our time, to the point where even the most shocking revelations–sex slaves in Westchester, sweatshop labor in Chinatown, human organ thieves in Brazil–have lost their power to shock.

A crowd of people chanting, holding up signs and making merry through the hushed, tranquil streets of the Upper East Side, though–now that is shocking!  In my 20+ years of living in that august quartier, I can only remember a few times when anything like this happened.

Once was on a long-ago St. Patrick’s Day, when the Fifth Avenue parade-goers got a little too drunk, a little too rowdy, and the police had to step in and reimpose order.  My mom, brother and I watched in amazement from our the 9th floor window overlooking Park Avenue.  Quiet was soon restored.

Another time was when the lights went out back in 1977, and there was some looting over on Lexington Avenue.  We heard the shouting and sounds of glass breaking, but of course nothing could touch us, secure behind the gates and under the watchful eyes of our uniformed doormen.

This is the central fact of privileged existence, Park Avenue-style.  Nothing can touch you.  The red carpet of privilege rolls out in front of you effortlessly; you live in an enchanted bubble, from which the distant rumors of unrest are just that–distant rumors, which you don’t understand, and don’t care about enough to investigate.

I say this now to underscore the success of the Occupy Wall Street protesters in breaking through that bubble, at least a little bit.  The tight membrane of privilege surrounding the NY Times popped after three weeks of pressure.  It will take a lot longer to penetrate the hearts and minds of the men and women who work on Wall Street and live up on Park and Fifth Avenues.  But just because it will take a while to get through is absolutely no reason to be discouraged.  It can be done!  And it should be done.

I have a feeling that there are probably a lot of people like me living on Park and Fifth Avenues today.  Privileged by birth, but with the same hearts, minds and sense of compassion as any other American.  Just ignorant of what’s up with the 99%.

For instance, one observer of the “Millionaire’s March” noticed “a chic young mother,” who “turned to a puzzled daughter in a tony school uniform, “People don’t have jobs right now,” she explained. Whether Mom connected this fact to the actions of any of her neighbors was anyone’s guess.”

Did Mom connect this fact to her own actions, is more to the point.  For the privileged, it’s too easy to pass the buck.

I am currently working on a book, which I call a “political memoir,” in which I try to understand the social dynamics of privilege, and how and why some people become “privilege traitors” and go against their own class interests.  Judging from this week’s events in New York, I am going to have a lot of interesting material to study, beyond my own story.  Stay tuned.

9/11 beyond the hype: What are YOU going to do about it?

Someone asked me today, What do you remember about 9/11?

I remember that at the moment the Twin Towers were hit, I was walking down to the Simon’s Rock College Center from the parking lot, on my way to my morning class—Sophomore Seminar.  It was a gorgeous September day, cool and bright.

My first indication something was wrong was inside the College Center, where there was a strange aura of people scurrying around, consulting with each other in the halls.  I quickly caught on to what at first seemed like a malicious rumor: a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  An accident?

But then no—a second plane had hit.  And the building was on fire.  People were jumping out of windows.  It was a terrorist attack.  Another plane had been hijacked.

And so, within an hour, the whole ghastly event unfolded.  The world that had seemed so safe, predictable and sane to me just minutes earlier, rocked crazily on its axis.

I met my students in the classroom, told them the news, and we all went over to the Lecture Center to watch CNN on the big screen.  The beautiful sunny day faded into the darkness and virtual screenlight.  The towers, falling over and over.  The people, jumping out of the flames to their deaths.

The firefighters, covered with eerie white ash.  The streams of people walking uptown, away from the Towers, like refugees leaving the scene of a genocide.

Manhattan is my hometown.  I have many memories of visiting the Twin Towers.

As a child, I remember when they were built, two identical towers rising on the skyline, bristling with huge cranes rendered tiny by distance.  I remember riding the elevator to the observation deck, the sick, scary feeling in my stomach as the elevators accelerated to a speed I didn’t want to fully imagine.

The wind up there, laden with the faint salty tang of the nearby sea; the tourists pointing cameras at the Statue of Liberty, or uptown at the rows of orderly buildings broken up by the green oasis of Central Park.

I have very fond memories, too, of eating dinner at Windows on the World, and the even more exclusive Cellar in the Sky, restaurants that my parents took me to for special occasions, like my 20th birthday.  At Cellar in the Sky, in addition to the fabulous food, you would get a different exclusive wine for each of seven prix fixe courses, ending up with a deep snifter of fine cognac with dessert.  We would leave the restaurant tipsy and glowing with a sense of well-being, the animal satisfaction of being relaxed and truly well-fed.

All gone, after 9/11.

What I lost on 9/11 was far more than just a physical place holding pleasant memories.  I lost my naïve belief that bombings and terrorist attacks only happened somewhere else in the world, never in my hometown.  I lost my sense of privileged aloofness from the rest of the world.

Mind you, by 2001 I was already a college professor, had already finished a dissertation that focused on personal narratives by human rights survivors from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as North America.  I should not have been so naïve.

But somehow, until the Towers crumbled, it did not fully hit home to me how inevitable it was that the arrogance of American imperialism abroad would boomerang back around to hit us.

And it certainly did not occur to me that this strike would be used to initiate a regime of “homeland security” that brought our country closer to fascism than we had ever come before.

Ten years later, I am still feeling the pain that spread out from Ground Zero like the low ringing of a gong.  It is the pain of all of the peoples exploited by American-led capitalist imperialism, for whom World Trade is synonymous with oppression.  It is the pain of the widows, widowers and orphans, left not only by the terrorist strikes, but also by the ensuing vengeful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pain only deepens as I begin to understand the extent to which the effects of Western imperialism have hurt the natural world, and destabilized the delicate ecological balance that has made our planet so fruitful.

9/11 hurt America, yes.  But America has been a leader in a global assault on our planet, on a scale that dwarfs the Al Qaeda strike.

 I would never support Al Qaeda, or its methods.  But neither can I support American-led corporate capitalism, with its chemicals and clear-cutting, its cowboy swagger as regards regulation, that has inflicted us with BP-style disasters replaying again and again in excruciating, devastating slow-motion.

 

What I lost on 9/11 was the sense that none of this had anything to do with me as an individual.

9/11 launched me on a difficult period of self-reflection, in which I realized the extent to which my own privilege as a member of the ruling elites had blinded me to my complicity in the oppressive system that spawned the anger that led to the World Trade Center attacks.

Once you realize your own complicity, you can either wallow in unproductive guilt, or you can roll up your sleeves and resolve to do whatever you can to make a change for the better.

History has shown us that it is the insiders–the wives, sisters and daughters of the masters of the universe—who have tremendous power over the men who love them.  In our day and age, women too can be “masters”—that is, members of the ruling class who control our society.

I think the question for us, ten years after 9/11, is a simple one.  What are you going to do about it?  Are you going to support the status quo, which may benefit you and your family greatly, but which ultimately leads to greater social instability, through political and environmental vulnerability?

Or are you going to be a change agent, someone who is not afraid to speak truth to power and insist on positive change?

On 9/11, there is no more important question to be asking ourselves.

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