Free To Be… Straight White Males
by Maria Bustillos and David Roth
Here is a tweet that Gawker writer Max Read retweeted a few days ago.
— max read (@max_read) May 23, 2012
So, sort of a backstory, to begin. Last week brought us two Internet rumpuses regarding and/or demonstrating an especially privileged kind of blindness/obliviousness/ridiculousness. One was TED curator Chris Anderson’s flabbergasting decision to withdraw a TED speech about wealth inequality on the grounds that it was “too political.” The other, John Scalzi’s head-patting essays on Kotaku, comparing straight white male privilege to playing the game of Life, as it were, as if on the easiest setting of a video game. Thus it was that we began to Yak.
David Roth: Maria, I am but a humble sports-doofus. So what is a TED speech? Also, a follow-up: why are there TED speeches?
MB: A question for the ages. Opinions vary wildly. Anya Kamenetz of Fast Company wrote an article in 2010 (“How TED Connects the Idea-Hungry Elite”) in which she claimed that TED was “creating a new Harvard — the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years.”
DR: Which is hilarious, of course, but also maybe backhandedly/depressingly apt. The New Harvard would naturally be an online correspondence school for very rich adults who want to be flattered w/r/t their role in The Future. The New Harvard should also serve tapas or something.
MB: Maura Johnston took the piece very neatly to smithereens right here at The Awl. Then Kamenetz herself turned up in the comments explaining about how she is Elite, and went to Yale, unlike us Awl guys.
MB: One really does keep reading, though, that “TED talks” are supposed to be improving the public in some way. They’re also touted as being “exclusive,” because they’re so expensive to attend in person, and there is some kind of screening process for attendees. No idea what kind of riffraff they are looking to exclude. I’m imagining A Night At The Roxbury. Alternatively, you may wait and watch the TED speech on the Internet.
DR: “I paid $7,500 to hear the Eat, Pray, Love lady talk about creativity.” — A Job Creator.
MB: Exactly, and/or “I watched it on my computer and she sounded like a total ding-dong.”
DR: “But I saved what David Roth makes in three months by doing so, so I guess I still came out okay.”
MB: But this Nick Hanauer wealth inequality talk last week was different, because it was forbidden the glorious pulpit of TED proper, and so it tore all over the regular Internet instead.
DR: I was startled to find, in the wake of this story, that there are THOUSANDS of these TED talks, all of which people pay to go to. It’s like finding out that the people in a David Brooks book are real.
MB: You would have to take acid and travel to an alternate universe for that.
DR: Thousands of Davos Men, out there listening to tech CEOs talk about innovation. Consuming soybeans in symbolically significant ways.
MB: Anyhoo, the guy Hanauer claimed to have been “censored.”
DR: The problematic thing, here, seems to be that he is maybe kind of a jerk.
MB: He’s terrible! Super bossy, always bragging about his airplane this and his ski chalet that.
DR: A jerk I agree with on the points of his argument, admittedly.
I was startled to find, in the wake of this story, that there are THOUSANDS of these TED talks, all of which people pay to go to. It’s like finding out that the people in a David Brooks book are real.
MB: You’d have to be completely insane not to. Insane like Edward Conard, I mean.
DR: But he seems to fit well into the cohort of TED people, which seems like a bunch of very wealthy people who are used not only to being right, but to being dapped up like crazy for how pyrotechnically, dazzlingly right they are, talking past each other in a series of open emails. Emails written in a weird, condescending tone that expresses a sort of disappointment at the other side’s inability to comprehend the manifest rightness of the argument they’re making.
MB: I suspect the real problem is that these TED guys are “good boys” who have been steadfastly obedient the whole time, and have somehow failed to ask one single tiny question of authority ever. So they should get an A, because that is what always happens to good boys.
DR: The strange thing, I guess, is that these guys are by and large on “our” side of important issues. Like, these are the multi-millionaires who are NOT obsessed with privatizing social security and policing the vaginas of poor women.
MB: The mere absence of villainy isn’t enough to make an actual leader, unfortunately. Chris Anderson’s response to the Hanauer affair demonstrated a total failure of imagination. He goes, “I think a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted” — what, to be forced to hear that they require markets for their products? Maybe the worst was his monstrous ignorance regarding the economy.
MB: So, how much of this broad-spectrum ignorance is owing to “white privilege”, do you think?
DR: To me, the whiteness of all this seems secondary. Or inevitable. This is obviously a white (well, Jewish) guy talking, but I feel like all people, at a high enough level of affluence, converge on a certain colorless whiteness-by-default. Just a sort of assumption that the world works best when it works in the way that’s best for you. Which is maybe similar to white privilege, or the same.
DR: It’s far harder for me to imagine being wealthy enough to attend a TED conference than it is for me to imagine being, say, someone of a different race with a similar upbringing to mine. (I grew up in a wealthy suburb with less-wealthy parts.)
MB: Really? I can so easily imagine you being rich enough to attend a TED conference.
DR: That’s the plan. Write enough 800-word columns for $75, and someday, boom, there I am listening to Marc Andreessen talk about The Future of Innovation.
MB: I ain’t saying I can imagine you going, just I can imagine you rich.
DR: I already am. I sold my book “Ham Jokes And Overreaching Political Parallels About Football” for $6.8 million. I’m going to give a TED speech about how hilarious ESPN’s AM programming is next week.
MB: Saving my allowance so I can attend in person. My TED talk will be about how the U.S. economy can be saved if only DirecTV will stop snail-mailing to tell me how they “miss” me, because they must have squandered a million dollars and half a rainforest on just me, by now.
DR: (I also think the secret of Davos is that no one goes to ANY presentations, and just chases, like, Eli Broad around all weekend)
MB: Hmm. I could chase Eli Broad for a while. I would be wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and screaming.
DR: In any case, the assumption is the thing. And it’s what bothers me about the prospect/fact of TED attendees currently representing the lefternmost flank of the discourse at the moment. The prospect of a discourse in which vicious billionaire libertarian crumbums who also hate gays are one pole and fatuous techno-futurist libertarians who don’t hate gay people are the other is really not a very appetizing prospect.
DR: Which, yeah, #privilege to even be having this beef. But also the issue here is that we can talk about Twitter starting revolutions, but we can’t talk about power as it exists in our world. At least if it seems “partisan” or “political,” which was Anderson’s beef with Hanauer’s inequality talk. Which, in the end or at least to me, amounted to taking a guy to the woodshed for some Very Uncool Mellow-Harshing.
MB: God, yes. Something else I wanted to ask you about l’affaire Scalzi: these commenters on Kotaku saying look, I am a straight white guy and my life is super effin’ hard so fuck you, you know. How do you feel about them?
DR: Sad, mostly? Because most everyone’s life is hard. If they think it’s because they’re straight white guys, they should really read more.
MB: Disagree there. Sometimes I am very sure it must be. Baseless assumptions are made all the time. And this is especially alienating for those white guys who are wronged, of whom there are a lot, with so much suffering these days. Because they are wronged for serious, and then they are yelled at for even pointing out that they’ve been wronged. On an individual level, this seems terrible.
DR: Yes, those are surely the real victims. I just can’t buy that at all, although clearly everyone is (increasingly?) alienated from everyone else. But the version of that alienation that converges on a sense of victimhood is the saddest to me, though. Because it’s wrong and small and vain, but more because it makes the whole rest of the world your enemy.
DR: Obviously the internet helps with that. Wealth helps with that. But walking around in a city is a nice reminder that it is bullshit.
MB: “Get over yourself, everyone’s life is hard.” Same with Hispanics and divorcees, you know, and dinosaurs. All my own demographic niches, I react really strongly against that kind of alienation. Get up, you know. “Come with me if you want to live!”
It seems like such a primitive, obvious thing to have to say, and yet just take a gander at that featured comments thread over at Kotaku, it is eye-popping. This guy wrote an absolute book about how hard he has it because he is a white guy and people don’t feel like they have to be sensitive to white guys. He was very sincere, and he was promptly flambeed.
DR: Lots of dudes being all “THIS! I also had to work hard, where I imagine minorities didn’t!” in the comments, too, though. But in terms of the flambee-age, I’d say deservedly so. I mean, privilege is privilege, and it’s complicated, but there’s no reason to be a dick about it.
DR: And more to the point: BIG-BOY PANTS. Does he imagine anyone has it easier? Life is complicated, and clamoring for victimhood is just definitionally Not A Good Look. Especially when you’re born with advantages, and then insist on turning turn them into meta-anti-advantages.
MB: You’re right obviously (Trayvon Martin alone will silence anyone, in this respect.) I just wish there would be less judging and more compassion for everyone all the time equally.
DR: Agreed. But also, this dude: “I have been in so many situations where I’m expected to go above and beyond what is expected of me because I’m a white guy. I’ll be asked to move heavy loads to someone’s car or other menial work, even though it’s not in my purview, because, hey, I’m the white guy I have been denied jobs because ‘well, we have enough guys right now; we really need to hire more minorities.’” I understand that his life is hard, but I would advise he invest in some big-boy pants. Like, the pull-up kind.
MB: Yeah, but this argument, it’s like ping-pong, back and forth forever. One side demands that the mean or median effects of white privilege be taken into account, which, again, is a good idea in terms of formulating policy but a terrible idea in terms of determining how you, an individual, should treat other individuals; the other side is insisting look, I am an individual, treat me like an individual!
MB: Anyways, I would hate to be a straight white male myself, because half your peers are complete idiots, horrible, and have made a complete hash of everything.
DR: Oh man, HALF?
MB: DEFINITELY half.
DR: You need to meet more straight white males! We’re terrible. I mean, if you want to talk about sports, we’re pretty great.
MB: The other half are lovely! I am a lifelong fan. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
DR: Or, I guess, get really fussy about meat-restaurants. But beyond that, yikes like a motherfucker.
MB: Plus the gnarly half have hogged all the moneys and the property and power. So if you are an ordinary straight white male and you want even a particle of any of those things, you’d best start apologizing NOW.
MB: Is this fair, I ask you? That it should be so impossible to defend the rights of the decent portion of the straight white male population.
DR: You know, I kind of think that’s silly.
MB: Certainly not. I mean, maybe you are a straight white man but what you really are is a person, with your own set of weirdo obstacles, like maybe you are really short, well obviously you are not short, David. But maybe you can’t do math or some other thing you need to be able to do.
MB: I object to the idea that we don’t treat everyone equally.
DR: Although I can do all those things AND I’m tallish, but also shitty at math. But I also reject the idea that there’s something actually hard about being a straight white male.
MB: Sometimes there is — but for individuals, not as a group, is the thing.
DR: It may make my novel less appealing — another novel by a straight white man. But also: no doors are closed to me because of that, and anyway white straight dudes have kind of hogged literary fiction for some time.
MB: It COMPLETELY makes your novel less appealing. Another DeLillo! Just what we need. And yes, many doors are closed to you, just like many doors are closed to anyone, for any number of different reasons.
DR: You think so? Because I kind of don’t think those doors are truly closed. ALSO, I’ll take having to rewrite my novel over repeated stop-and-frisk or daily stinkeye or all the other things that come with escaping the curse of being a straight white dude of decent means. And more to the point, I think it’s churlish and kind of bullshit to complain about it. Privilege is privilege.
DR: And anyway if I have to write better to sell my novel, I do at least have the benefit of having had my parents send me to a fine liberal arts school with all the MONEY THEY MADE.
I mean, maybe you are a straight white man but what you really are is a person, with your own set of weirdo obstacles.
MB: Oo, this is just where I wanted to go. All these guys on Reddit (guys of every color, but I’m just talking about the white ones, here) became completely incensed, legitimately incensed, because they’d found themselves on the wrong side of prejudice.
MB: I, on the other hand, am total brown trash and benefited a lot from the opportunities extended to Hispanic girls of slender means. Who could get a decent SAT score. Who were in very short supply, where I went to school. Just by chance. So I was offered more and better opportunities than my white male compatriots of like accomplishments, as a young kid. This is a fact. Just because I was kind of a freak.
DR: You are also smarter and more deserving of opportunities than most people, honestly.
MB: Sorry, no.
DR: What, just because you are short and speak quickly?
MB: Well, in the sleepy seaside hamlet of Long Beach, California, there were maybe two or three Hispanic kids at my high school who could mop the floor with the standardized tests. So the scarcity created value, you see. And freakish-seeming-ness. I mean, I’m grateful!
MB: Anyway, I want to be very clear, what I wish for and what we don’t have, is equality. For a young white straight guy not to be resented out of the box but judged on his merits. This is the part of the conservative position that I can get right behind.
DR: Again, though, I haven’t felt resented or discriminated against, and I think that the presumption of that resentment is a really good, quick way to become an unbearable, curdled person. The world is the world, that exists, but this quest for victimization is POISON. In politics and personality and everything else. That way lies the cruelest and smallest and most sorry-I-have-to-go-stand-somewhere-else-now solipsism.
MB: Oh I agree, believe me. Not only do I revile the victimhood, I totally help myself to the privilege when I need to. For instance, when I were a lad I used to work in law offices in downtown LA and there are a lot of Spanish-only-speaking guys in that part of the world, and they would be perpetually offering me these very unpleasant observations and invitations, and I would become very crisp and lofty and totally pretend not to have understood and go, “I beg your pardon?” When us brown persons learn to speak exactly like an NPR correspondent, then we can PASS. Which is very useful.
MB: So the colorlessness of privilege, I loved your phrase. It’s such an important distinction. What it really means is that you can lay claim to the maximum rights: respect, fair treatment, dignity. That is to say, rights that everyone should have. And if you can get an education, like I did, they are far easier to assert.
MB: But anyway, come on, surely you’ve felt discriminated against? I am friends with the odd ultra-feminist who will judge you wrong on contact, just for starters. Before learning your name, even. Are you denying this?
DR: It has not been my experience, honestly. Or if it has, I’ve kind of jogged on by it. Assholes gonna asshole. Again, I’m lucky to be able to say that. But if someone is like “ugh, white sports dude” then I figure I don’t need to reach that person. Because what am I reaching? (Also, they must not be familiar with my work, which: their loss)
MB: Because where you can just skate past and not care, I go straight off the deep end, and it’s not even directed at me.
DR: I get that. That is a very reasonable response.
MB: And conversely, I really could give a damn about the Hispanic thing, for me personally. I mean, I care a lot about, e.g. the mess in Arizona, but for myself, whatever. Like some editor is asking me about all the Hispanic hoo-ha and I haven’t got the faintest clue aside from knowing a bit about the news. I’m like, hmm, I love salsa music (also the condiment) and watching telenovelas with my aunt but otherwise I’m kind of blah on it? I am privileged, in the sense that I don’t experience much in the way of prejudice in my life? So why would I be leaning on this?
DR: Right. THAT I could see being infuriating. When I worked in an evangelical real-estate office, I remember feeling like Exotic Jewish Dude, and that was weird. But what it’s about, finally, is not feeling caricatured or hamstrung or otherwise dehumanized by your identity. That’s close enough to equality, right?
MB: I AGREE. Oh golly, “dehumanized by your identity,” that is the thing that truly is hard to articulate and is the real reason the Kotaku commenters got so furious at the Easy Videogame Setting guy. The reason it is so irritating that you can’t talk about wealth inequality at TED.
DR: And TED-style libertarian techno-futurism is, finally, intensely dehumanizing, to me. Because the world humans live in is a world of power and influence. That is: of human bias and pettiness and ugliness and smallness and so on. When you lose that context — all of it, all the various kinds of privilege and reflexive privilege-denial — you are not talking about things as they are. You’re talking about “killer apps” or “innovation,” to and for rich people. The future won’t look like that. It won’t care about it. It shouldn’t.
DR: But the idea of a future where there’s a fucking app that gets rid of bad governments and lets us Celebrate Our Preferences via eCommerce… that is not only not real, but also infantilizing, if not quite dehumanizing. Because what are we then? Avatars for Progress?
MB: But in reality the power and influence part is total hogwash because the real story is we’re these little temporary organisms hanging around wondering what the hell is going on.
DR: Well, sure. But we all have bosses. They have bosses.
MB: So the overlay of so-called Power is a fantasy, pathetic actually, crumples after a moment’s reflection.
DR: And if all those bosses are watching TED speeches about creativity in management instead of remembering that their employees actually need health insurance or whatever, then no one is winning. Because everyone’s losing something human in the deal, right?
MB: Yes, bosses. Not to minimize anyone’s suffering; on the contrary.
DR: We lose our dignity; the higher-ups lose their agency, or trade it for surfing on Future Tsunamis. And no one makes eye contact with anyone else, somehow, because we’re fuming over something or other. All the slights we absorb because we are [Fill In Yourself], and for no other reason.
MB: Yes, yes. Everyone is losing when we make these divisions. White, rich, poor, privileged, conservative, progressive. The sadness of the Facebook IPO.
DR: Oh lord, the tragedy of our time.
MB: What isn’t sad about that. Sad little bajillionaires fussing over their bank balances.
DR: And wondering why no one can engage with them. I like that they call them TED “talks,” when only one person speaks.
MB: “Power and influence,” as you say.
DR: A small, elite segment applauds. Everyone else goes about paying down their credit cards.
MB: Pleasant dreams, Mr. Roth, scion of Privilege.
DR: Ah yes. I’ll climb up on this pile of influence and sleep sweetly.
David Roth writes “The Mercy Rule” column at Vice, co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix,, and is one of the founders of The Classical. He also has his own little website. And he tweets inanities!