Wednesday, September 17, 2008

white quotation of the week (Sigrid Nunez)

In Sigrid Nunez's novel The Last of Her Kind, Ann Drayton and Georgette George meet as freshman roommates at Barnard College, in 1968. They're both white and they're both fleeing their backgrounds, but they're opposites in nearly every other way. While Georgette comes from an impoverished family with an abusive mother and absent father, Ann aggressively pursues everything that represents the opposite of her privileged, wealthy background. As they settle into college life, Ann throws herself into every anti-establishment cause she can find, while Georgette has all she can do just to fit into such an unfamiliar environment.

In the following excerpt from the novel, the narrator, Georgette, describes some of Ann's interests and activities:

Though she had lost none of her political passion, Ann had grown disenchanted with the student movement. Students for a Democratic Society, with its commitment to civil rights, helping the poor, "letting the people decide," and ending the war had seemed, at least when she joined as a freshman, the obvious happy home for her.

But partly because of the escalation of the war in Southeast Asia, SDS itself was at war. In June there had been the organization's tumultuous national convention and the splitting of groups such as the Weathermen with their ominous cry: "The violence of Amerika must be answered with violence." That fall brought the raucous trial of the Chicago Seven and the riotous Days of Rage; within months the Weathermen would have moved underground, and by the time the school year was finished, so, more or less, was SDS. . . .

Before she had given up trying to make a radical of me, she had dragged me to some meetings, and I did not remember anything so lively as the brouhaha she now described. All I remembered was talk. Talk interminable and impenetrable, at least to me. A crowded and invariably stale-aired room, a microphone, often malfunctioning, and each and every person queuing up to have his (and it was almost always his) say.

Once again I had the sense of a language beyond my grasp. I had to ask Ann later to explain what things such as "the bourgeoisie dictating consciousness" meant. And though she was as fluent in that language as anyone, and knowledgeable about political theory, what Ann herself stepped up to say was that she was far less interested in sitting around discussing the differences between Leninism and Marxism with a bunch of college students than in tutoring ghetto children.

In fact, she never would come to terms with this: virtually every political activist and radical she knew came from a privileged background. "We're all haves," she said ruefully. But of course. In the words--the very first words-- of the first official document of the SDS: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities . . ."

Ann thought the Huron Statement was a beautiful thing. She knew many in the movement who, bred like herself in something closer to luxury than modest comfort, were now striving to make up for that. Good, brave, serious, responsible haves, dedicated to improving the lives of the have-nots. And she did not wish to take that away from them.

Still, she could not escape the belief that the attempt to create a new social order by any group made up almost entirely of children of the elite was doomed. Those born into the ruling class were corrupted by its stain; they had the blood of millions on their hands. How could they now expect the children of their victims to join hands with their bloodied ones? Wasn't this why black militants preached that any black man who called any white man "brother" was a Tom and a traitor to his race? Not even civil rights martyrs Goodman and Schwerner could escape this rule.

"You cant steal nothing from a white man, he's already stole it he owes you anything you want, even his life." --LeRoi Jones.

Everyone in the movement talked about the need for stronger ties with the working class. Ann, who regularly gave to strike funds, was all for strong trade unions and for any measure that resulted in increased power or protection for workers. But unlike most of her comrades, she did not romanticize the working class.

Corrupted by the culture of the bourgeoisie, workers were if anything more fiercely attached to bourgeois values than the bourgeois themselves. Most were hostile to the civil rights movement and even to the peace movement that was trying to save their sons from destruction in an unjust war. About the people of Vietnam, one of the poorest people on earth, whose death toll from the war was climbing into the millions, they cared not at all. Activists who had gone in after white proletarian and slum-dwelling youth discovered that the building of a more equitable society was the furthest thing from their minds.

For Ann, American blue-collar workers could not seriously be considered have-not; however hard, their lives must not be compared to the lives of those trapped in ghettos, say, or Third World peasants. And so, though it mattered not to her how they were treated, though she could--and did--fight on their side, she could never feel for them the same unconditional love she felt for the truly deprived. She could never embrace them.

She said, "I wish I had been born poor." ("I wish I'd been born an Indian." --Robert Kennedy.) The ideal would have been to be born poor and black. But the counterculture was full of people in the grip of the same fantasy, with some--from street fighters to rock stars to flower children--even starting to believe they were black.


  1. I could follow, up until the "unconditional love". What?

    Don't get me wrong, being privileged based on corruption should inspire some level of culpability, and I understand thoroughly the desire to see where someone is coming from and understand their point of view, but love and desire to be a part of the groups taken advantage of is very strange to me. I mean, the only thing I can think of that even makes sense in that situation is a romanticized view of the exploited people to the point where the privileged would believe the identities and emotions of those people would be "purer" because they aren't tainted with money.

  2. genevieve: "I could follow, up until the "unconditional love". What?

    Yes, it is an odd, almost maternal notion, isn't it? As you point out in your paragraph (if I'm reading it right), I think there's a lot that subtly undercuts this seemingly positive snapshot of the character named Ann.

  3. macon d,

    This white quotation is an excerpt from a novel? Or is this a review of a novel?

  4. Interesting in light of a recent meeting I attended. One of my colleagues is the faculty advisor for the Animal Rights Coalition on campus.

    The majority of our students are white and wealthy, but we always rank in the top 10 in students that go into the Peace Corp.

    Regardless, the conversation at this meeting was about organic food and factory farming. One student said that people are just too cheap to pay a couple of extra dollars to buy organic food.

    I spoke with my colleague after and mentioned that I had come across this a lot with the student population here. Very socially, environmentally, and politically active but blind to their own privilege and how that impacts their ideology.

    It never occurred to her that for some, a couple of extra dollars is more than they could afford. This has, in fact, inspired me to write a post about food :)

    But, the point we were discussing is that many of these movements suffer from class bias and they do have a very maternalistic/paternalistic view of the working class. And to want to be born poor? WTF! Only someone who has never been poor could say that with a straight face.

  5. redcatbiker, it's an excerpt from a novel, which I indicated before the excerpt with these words: "At one point, the narrator, Georgette, says the following:"

    I'm glad you asked--I added a phrase to those words to make it more clear that this quote is from the novel itself, not from a review of it.

  6. Thanks for the answer macon d. I did read your intro, this time. After reading the excerpt, I thought that you had made a mistake by saying that it is an excerpt from a novel, for the piece does not come across as a piece of fiction: Her writing is very dull.

  7. Holy crap, I hadn't heard of the Obama Waffles until I read your post on them. I featured my own post on the subject on my blog because it was so enraging. Thanks for the info.

  8. Thanks for posting this, macon, sounds like a good read. I like how she juggles issues of race and class and gender here, and maybe more.


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