Copyright Atlantic Monthly
A snippet. Well worth reading the entire piece.
In January, Christian Landerâ€šÃ„Ã®a 29-year-old Toronto-raised, McGill-educated Ph.D. dropout who worked as a corporate communications manager in Los Angelesâ€šÃ„Ã®started a blog called Stuff White People Like. By February, the site was a runaway hit, garnering 30,000 hits daily. By March, it was getting 300,000. SWPLâ€šÃ„Ã®which catalogs the tastes, prejudices, and consumption habits of well-off, well-educated, youngish, self-described progressivesâ€šÃ„Ã®was refreshing because itâ€šÃ„Ã´s everything a blog, almost by definition, is not. Rather than serving up unedited, impromptu, self-important ruminations on random events and topics, the tightly focused, stylishly written, precisely observed entries eschew the genreâ€šÃ„Ã´s characteristic I (though Lander in fact writes nearly all of them) and adopt a cool, never snarky though sometimes biting, pseudo-anthropological tone.
The considered but undeveloped entries provide ample fodder for a penetrating book, in which Lander could have defined and explored the ramifications (cultural, sociological, political) of his subject, or at least addressed some of the controversies and misconceptions his site has engenderedâ€šÃ„Ã®many of which are provoked by its title. Instead, publisher and author have chosen not to monkey with success. Leaving aside the delightfully off-kilter photographs and the too-cute flowcharts and quizzes, this all-but-instant work (book deal in March, publication in July) is an assemblage of Landerâ€šÃ„Ã´s blog essaysâ€šÃ„Ã®including those available on the site when the book went to the printer plus 75 new ones, about the same length as the originals. Even if the book is frustratingly skeletal, perhaps 20 of the 150 total entries should have been cut, and while Lander is a terrific writer, rigorous editing would have made them all sharper. But the bookâ€šÃ„Ã®by virtue of both the new entries and the ease of reading Landerâ€šÃ„Ã´s observations seriatimâ€šÃ„Ã®reveals the author to be a weightier and angrier cultural critic than his fans and detractors apprehend.
Landerâ€šÃ„Ã´s White People arenâ€šÃ„Ã´t always white, and the vast majority of whites arenâ€šÃ„Ã´t White People (he doesnâ€šÃ„Ã´t even capitalize the term). But although Landerâ€šÃ„Ã´s designation is peculiar, heâ€šÃ„Ã´s hardly the first to dissect this elite and its immediate predecessors (see for instance Mark E. Kannâ€šÃ„Ã´s Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica, Christopher Laschâ€šÃ„Ã´s The Culture of Narcissism, Richard Floridaâ€šÃ„Ã´s The Rise of the Creative Class, and David Brooksâ€šÃ„Ã´s Bobos in Paradiseâ€šÃ„Ã®Brooks calls these people variously â€šÃ„Ãºbourgeois bohemians,â€šÃ„Ã¹ the â€šÃ„Ãºeducated elite,â€šÃ„Ã¹ and the â€šÃ„Ãºcosmopolitan classâ€šÃ„Ã¹). Lander, like many of these writers, traces this groupâ€šÃ„Ã´s values to the 1960s, and thereâ€šÃ„Ã´s clearly a connection between a politics based on â€šÃ„Ãºself-cultivationâ€šÃ„Ã¹ (to quote the Students for a Democratic Societyâ€šÃ„Ã´s gaseous manifesto, the Port Huron Statement) and what Lander defines as White Peopleâ€šÃ„Ã´s ethos: â€šÃ„Ãºtheir number-one concern is about the best way to make themselves happy.â€šÃ„Ã¹ That concern progresses naturally into consumer narcissism and a fixation on health and â€šÃ„Ãºwell-beingâ€šÃ„Ã¹: Landerâ€šÃ„Ã´s most entertaining and spot-on entries dissect White Peopleâ€šÃ„Ã´s elaborate sumptuary codes, their dogged pursuit of their own care and feeding, and their efforts to define themselves and their values through their all-but-uniform taste and accessories (Sedaris/Eggers/The Daily Show/the right indie music/Obama bumper stickers/uh, The New Yorker).
So why call this group â€šÃ„ÃºWhite Peopleâ€šÃ„Ã¹? Lander is almost certainly being mischievous. After all, dismissing something or someone as â€šÃ„Ãºso whiteâ€šÃ„Ã¹ has long been a favorite put-down among those who like to view themselves as right-thinking, hierarchy-defying nonconformistsâ€šÃ„Ã®that is, White People. Recall those ads extolling â€šÃ„Ãºthe new face of wealth,â€šÃ„Ã¹ which contrast male, stone-faced WASP bankers with attractive, far less formallyâ€šÃ„Ã®though far more expensivelyâ€šÃ„Ã®clad women, quasi-hipsters, and assorted exotic ethnics. The women and hipsters may be white, but theyâ€šÃ„Ã´re not whiteâ€šÃ„Ã®theyâ€šÃ„Ã´re members of the cool-looking pan-ethnic tribe, a tribe defined by economic and social status and by cultural and aesthetic preferences rather than by ethnicity. When I interviewed Lander on the telephone in July, he acknowledged that White People are in fact â€šÃ„Ãºdesperate to define themselves as other than white.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Indeed, he rightly places â€šÃ„Ãºdiversityâ€šÃ„Ã¹ and â€šÃ„Ãºtoleranceâ€šÃ„Ã¹ highest on the list of virtues prized by White People (as did Brooks for Bobos). Of course, this group shuns the suburbs (sterile, bland â€šÃ„Â¶ whiteâ€šÃ„Ã®a view that hasnâ€šÃ„Ã´t advanced much since Malvina Reynoldsâ€šÃ„Ã´s contemptuous â€šÃ„ÃºLittle Boxesâ€šÃ„Ã¹ of 1962) while it embraces certain neighborhoods as â€šÃ„Ãºauthenticâ€šÃ„Ã¹ (Williamsburg, Echo Park, the Mission) and spurns other enclaves and cities (say, Astoria, Reseda, Concord). Landerâ€šÃ„Ã´s White People approve of the kind of diversity that affords them the aesthetic and consumer benefits of what they like to think of as urban lifeâ€šÃ„Ã®that is, the kind that allows them to
get sushi and tacos on the same street. But they will also send their kids to private school with other rich white kids so that they can avoid the â€šÃ„Ãºlow test scoresâ€šÃ„Ã¹ that come with educational diversity.
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Benjamin Schwarz – The Atlantic Monthly
Copyright Atlantic Monthly