How Privilege Dies
Pondering the deeper meaning of Eric Garner’s killing, food blogger Nishta Mehra writes of her traumatic loss of innocence in the valley of the shadow of grad school:
For many years, I was accused of being a Pollyanna: optimistic to a fault. I grew up inside a lot of privilege, protected for many years from most of life’s truly awful things. Those things existed for me in a mainly theoretical way, in the way of a kid who read a lot, and empathized a lot, and cried a lot, but who didn’t have much more than feelings at stake. I cared and despaired and I went about my life.
Much as I liked to think I wasn’t naïve, I certainly was. And I’m probably not alone in saying that it was grad school that disabused me of my self-conception as a worldly and sophisticated person. I went straight from undergrad to an MFA program and quickly became aware—was made aware, by some brutally honest workshop critiques—of my tendency to wrap things up into nice, neat little bows: pat endings & pretty morals, easy answers and “everything’s going to be okay.”
Dear God. It was even worse for one of Mehra’s fellow grad students, whose raw reaction to the brutally honest workshop critiques was captured on film.
Where would we be without MFA programs to smash the false consciousness of bourgeois privilege? As the Kitchen Krupskaya writes on her food blog about the distressing Garner news, “I was planning to blog about turkey pot pie this week, but my God, who the f**k cares about turkey pot pie when we are living inside of, as my friend Mark put it, some kind of midnight?”
Right. Some aggressive cops pile on to a fat guy in Staten Island, who dies, and the grand jury fails to indict him — and we’re in Darkness at Noon territory? What kind of grad school was that, anyway?
This cannot be improved upon.
But seriously, I don’t blame Mehra for being upset with the Garner no true bill, especially because she and her partner have an adopted black son. A lot of people are upset about the Garner case. And they’re caring about pot pie too. People cared about pot pie in 1990, when New York had its all-time high murder rate: over 2,200. The city was worse than grad school, if you can imagine it. Here we are in 2014, nearly at the end of the year, and do you know how many murders there have been in the city of New York? 286.
That’s still 286 too many, granted, but it’s good thing Nishta Mehra was protected by that bubble of privilege in the 1970s-1990s, when the city’s crime rate was through the roof. She would never have eaten turkey pot pie in this country again.
You will be happy to learn that Mehra talked her partner out of fleeing America:
Jill turned to me last night in bed and said “I would say we should move, but I don’t know where to.” And I said, “No, we have to stay. We have to stay and fight.”
It’s time for pot pie!
[Thanks to the reader who tipped me off.]
UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, some commentators are missing the point of this post. It’s not to diminish people’s anger of Garner’s death, which is understandable. Nor is it to diminish the problem of police brutality, which is real. It’s to marvel at the psychology of this kind of reaction from a privileged person (like, well, me). I would expect Mehra to be particularly upset about the Garner killing, given that she is parenting a black son. What blows me away is her lack of self-awareness in claiming that graduate school, one of the most privileged experiences an American can have, occasioned her awakening to the harshness of existence. Come on. And then to keen over not being able to make pot pie because Eric Garner is dead? This is not a post about Eric Garner, may he rest in peace; this is about the compulsion a certain sort of person has to catastrophize, and to appropriate other people’s tragedies so they can feel an exaggerated sense of drama.
You would actually take seriously the idea that you should flee America because of the Garner killing, as shocking as it was? Really? Last year, a white family who lives down the road from me was beaten at a gas station because, according to their black attacker, they were white and in the wrong neighborhood. It was a horrible crime, and a racist crime. Had I flipped out and said that this reminded me of the time I was in Paris and a mugger slugged me and took my wallet outside of the George V, and how that showed me that we will never live in a world that is just, you would have been justified in poking fun at me. And if my wife had said that crime against that local family just goes to show that we should put away the pie filling and crusts, and talk about fleeing America, and I said no, we must stay and fight for our country, well, I think you would have a moral obligation to poke fun at my hysteria, and to legitimately wonder why someone who lives with as much privilege as I have — and Mehra has — would be so undone by one violent act, as appalling as it may have been.
UPDATE.2: Mehra’s reaction reminded me of this scene from the black comedy Heathers, in which a grieving father of a football player whose murder (by Christian Slater’s character) was staged to look like a gay murder-suicide, joins the communal hysteria surrounding the event by making an artificial gay-affirming speech at his son’s casket. The point of the scene is not to make fun of death, or gay people, but at manufactured emotion and their display.
UPDATE.3: Here’s the right-wing version of this. I once talked to an Iraq war veteran who told me that he hated people coming up to him in public, when he was in his fatigues stateside, looking at him deeply in the eyes, and saying, “Thank you for your service.” Why does that bother you? I asked. He said that he knows people mean well, and he feels bad for hating these moments, but he said he finally got the sense that many of these people want so badly to participate in the emotional experience of the war, and felt that by going overboard to empathize with soldiers they were trying to get kind of a contact high, an unearned experience. It was a complicated emotion this veteran had, but I understood what he meant. It’s like that passage in “All Quiet on the Western Front” in which Paul, the protagonist, comes back to his village from the front, and all the older folks are sitting in the cafe cheering for him and telling him how wonderful he and the boys are for fighting, etc., and Paul finds it alienating. I think the emotion that Mehra and many non-black others have over what happened to Eric Garner is real, but there’s also a false note in it, or so it seems to me.