Friday, June 02, 2006

"Do you Get this A lot?"

From my email inbox:
Anya,
Very nice op/ed in the Times. Impressive and true. I myself had to make the difficult choice between doing an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill or earning money back home, and, coming from a relatively modest Midwest background, was certainly aware of the "rich kids" club... But perhaps it worked -- currently I'm a staffer for a Congressman from Indiana.
One question, and I imagine you get this a lot: Isn't your agenda a bit whiny, considering your cause represents a bunch of overeducated twentysomethings blessed with countless advantages? I think you're on to a real problem, but isn't it way more important to worry about the truly poor and disenfranchised rather than graduates of our best colleges who can't find "good" employment right away? Personally, I'm more worried about the former.

My response:
Hi B,
Yes, I get this a lot, but not from people who really take the time to understand my work. If you'll read my book, you'll find that I devote equal time, space, and effort to both the college educated and the 2/3--the majority--of young people who do not have a college degree, whose 20s are likely to be a succession of low wage service industry jobs, credit card debt, and a degree of hopelessness about the future. In no way am I working only on behalf of privileged kids like you and me. But I'm speaking to kids like us because I think that educated middle class kids need to make common cause with the people their age in their cities, maybe even their former classmates in public schools, who have little chance of getting ahead in this economy. The way to do that is to realize how the current institutions hurt everybody. The high cost of college, for example, falls the hardest on the working class and racial minorities, keeping them out of school altogether at much higher rates. But it also puts a burden on the middle class and people on the edge of it who carry high loan burdens that affect their career choice, ability to buy a house and start a family.

I am working very hard to correct this perception of whininess. In some ways, it has to do with the way my book has been marketed--putting me and my story at the front and center, which really isn't appropriate since I am one of the most fortunate people I know (which I say right up front in the first pages of the book). It also has to do with the fact that the New York Times, for example, (which asked me to write this piece on this topic) is slightly more interested in printing stories about the children of its affluent readers than about people they don't know. Almost everywhere the book has been covered, reviewers focus on the "people like us" in the book and not on the many stories of working class young people, those who grew up on public assistance or as first-generation Americans.

His response:

Hi Anya, nice to hear from you. It makes me feel much better that you have the broader perspective. Whew :) I understand how the marketing thing can be frustrating -- it annoys me when reading the Times or even Newsweek that it's so obviously they're not speaking to, or even for, average Americans. Their "normal" is probably the top 10% of the population at minimum, and I hate how they write as if this is the everyperson's experience.

Hopefully the success of your message will give you a platform to press the broader issues you mentioned -- namely how our institutions aren't really good for anyone. Still, I'm not exactly comfortable with your idea of treating the problems of people like you and me together with the problems of those lacking college degrees, struggling through vocational school, etc. But definitely could be a winnnig political strategy.

My response:
It's more than a strategy to me. The way I see it, once you have accepted that there are problems and you are the type of person who thinks about them and wants to do something about them, then there are 3 options:
1) Advocate solely for people like yourself, on a basis of shared identity. You are on absolutely solid ground when it comes to "identity politics" and authenticity, BUT your problems might not be the worst ones out there.

2) Advocate for the people who you think are the worst off, while maintaining that you have nothing in common with them. "I am helping you, because I am altruistic, but obviously I am much more fortunate than you and therefore I am just lending you my advanced expertise and energy."

3) Advocate for yourself AND the people you think are the worst off. Ally yourself with people whose background and options in life may be very different from yours, on the basis of what you DO have in common (including both good things and problems), and advocate for what you think will honestly help both of you.

Any thoughts?

1 comment:

JRB said...

"3) Advocate for yourself AND the people you think are the worst off. Ally yourself with people whose background and options in life may be very different from yours, on the basis of what you DO have in common (including both good things and problems), and advocate for what you think will honestly help both of you."

Isn't that what the greatest civic leaders have always done? My heroes, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez (circa mid-to-late 60s), all took up causes they could have easily avoided. In the 1950s, King could have stayed in the Northeast and been a college professor. In the early 60s, Chavez could have stayed in his modest though steady job as a mainstream organizer, rather than go off and start something great for the neglected. And Kennedy had it made with party regulars in '72 as long as he kept his mouth shut (I don't buy into the idea that he was ruthlessly ambitious).

The common good argument makes a lot of sense for any issue or movement. It only takes the right people and the proper circumstances for it to work.