I was surprised by how good Chelsea Handler’s Netflix documentary on white privilege turned out to be, for obvious reasons: here’s a middle-aged white woman famous for drinking and swearing and generally not giving a fuck about anything, not even herself really, being given who knows how much money to teach us, the world, about how white people have it good and don’t even know it. I even grumbled a bit with my wife when she said we should watch it. Just the title alone pissed me off: Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea.
I get it; just like the title of her second book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea. Cute.
But it was good, because Chelsea came at it the right way. She approached the topic of white privilege like, I’m a stupid a bitch, so teach me. That’s how we should all approach all things in this big wide world we’re in — as the stupid bitches we are. Even Socrates in his wise old age supposedly admitted: I know now that I’m a stupid bitch, or something to that effect, though I’m sure it sounds more philosophical in the old Greek.
Maybe you’ve heard, but Chelsea got super depressed after You Know Who got elected (not by the people, remember, but by the Electoral College) in 2016. She became super political, bringing people on her show to talk about You Know Who, the people who voted for him, and where the country might be headed. She even headlined the Women’s March at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, right around the time You Know Who took the Oath of Office before a “record” crowd in D.C.
Chelsea went on The Howard Stern Show early this year to talk about how deep she sank. Apparently she was shocked by how racist the country is — which is the main reason I secretly hoped You Know Who would win, to flip the light switch on this roach nest of ours. People have always underestimated the levels of ignorance and hatred in this country, while some have been warning all along that, where you see one ignorant suburbanite or racist cop, there are probably thousands more; they’re just good at hiding in the crevices. And even with videos appearing every other week showing black people, men and women, young and old, getting beaten and choked and killed by police officers, and White Supremacists now in charge of at least two and a half branches of government, you still hear people dismissing racism in America as a myth, “fake news.”
Like the clueless women Chelsea sat down with in Orange County. Kathy, a middle-aged Republican with a Greek last name, and who is or was Director of Community & Government Relations in Orange County, blames white privilege on a “cycle of poverty” fueled by single-parent families in the black community, and presumably Latino communities, too.
“Really, privilege is growing up with a mom and a dad,” says Kathy, a self-identified “white woman” (“obviously,” she says, though it may surprise her to learn that Greek whiteness hasn’t always been so obvious). Kathy seems to think single-parent child-raising is a black-people thing, and not an oppressed-people thing. Not the ghettoes the country has built for black people, or the underfunding of black and brown schools, or the racism in banking and the job market, or a criminal justice system geared toward criminalizing and locking up people of color, making it harder for them to be fully integrated and productive members of society once they’re back out — not according to Kathy. No, there must be something about blackness itself that leaves too many black boys and girls with only one decent parent at home, if that.
“White privilege didn’t give me any jobs,” she says. “I didn’t get anywhere by being white and having privilege. I got there ’cause I worked my ass off.” …Because both things can’t be true at the same time; that would be too complicated, too messy. It’s either one or the other, and if forced to choose one reason for your success, you choose the one that makes you look good.
Or take Mallory — if ever white privilege had a name… — a twiggy 30-something blonde living in Orange County who uses air quotes when referring to white privilege. Mallory thinks she’s so smart, her brow arched, big blue eyes bulging, her thin lips tight with contempt. She seems offended to be even asked about any privileges she may enjoy, and is ready to bury the accusation with her razor sharp wit.
“If we’re gonna say there’s ‘white privilege,'” she says, “then you would have to say there’s some form of privilege for any race or any gender, any religion. If you’re an attractive woman, you have a privilege. I think there’s all different kinds of privileges.”
She voices her stupidity with the tired, bored look of an academic, as if she were lobbing a grenade against Critical Race Theory and exploding it forever. Little does she realize that the same facial expression is just as common among the ignorantly confident. It’s the same face You Know Who makes whenever he explains anything. They’re so privileged, they resent even having to explain away their privilege.
You’re tempted to shake the shit out of such people, if you weren’t afraid you might dislodge whatever brain cells they have up in those thick skulls of theirs. But I’m starting to suspect some of these people are all skull.
Which is the big picture of this little rant: people are just different. Some people know, and some people don’t. Some people are smart, and some people are stupid. Some people are open-minded, and some people can’t see past their noses. Some people are givers, and others, hoarders. Some people love all around, and some, not at all.
As a reader of too much philosophy, I tend to think flaws in character stem from a lack of knowledge and experience: people aren’t good when they don’t know enough to be good. Ignorance breeds things like selfishness or hatred for the stranger; the greedy or racist person doesn’t know enough to be better. And so the campaign to make sure everybody has the knowledge to be a good person — that they know science and their history, the history of this country, the history of us as a species — that struggle will always need to be fought.
Though I be a lowly atheist, condemned to eternal hellfire for having the audacity to try thinking for myself, my secular prayer is nearly the same as Saint Francis’s: oh, almighty Universe, make me an instrument of peace — where there is hatred, let me bring love; where there is ignorance, understanding; where there is dogma, skepticism; where there is fear, hope; where there is pain, joy; where there is darkness, light.
Still, to wish that by educating people we can bring about a thoroughly enlightened world, a world that’s all peace and love and understanding and light, is merely wishful thinking. It’s a great political dream but a terrible political goal, as it forgets one crucial truth of human nature: every human being is different from every other human being. No two are exactly alike, not even those who split from the same egg in the same womb. This fact of human nature is what makes the human race so incredibly beautiful, but so hard to govern in groups larger than a few dozen or so.
I can teach a white racist the history of race relations, not only in this country but in the world, and I can fill him up with philosophy and ethics and science and all that, but I can’t make him see me as his equal, much less love me as his brother. Knowledge and experience shape character, but they aren’t its only parts. And there’s no way to ensure every person has the same knowledge and experience, as each person is an individual, in a unique time and place, with unique brainpower.
A person’s character is formed and guided by something else, too. I don’t know what. Probably a million different things. Maybe a soul, and sheer free will. Who knows why people do the things they do, or feel the way they feel? “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing about.”
Now, I’m not saying all stupid people are bad, just that most bad people are stupid. And before you tell me about Senator Cruz’s law degree from Harvard, or the billions in Mr. Adelson’s bank account, let me first tell you that degrees and money don’t make a person good or smart.
As it stands today, as it has usually stood, the good smart people are being dominated by the bad stupid people, though some of the bad people aren’t so stupid — a few are even smarter than a lot of good people, since most good people know little more than to be good, for goodness’ sake. Bad stupid dominate through the use of force, just like the stupid animals do, and they get away with it because good smart people don’t believe in using force to get what they want. Because good smart people know anything gained by force is easily lost by force, sooner or later.
Using force to gain something is not only not good, it isn’t smart either, which is really saying the same thing. Whatever is smart is good, and vice versa; whatever is stupid is bad, and so on. Racism and greed are bad because they’re stupid; because they’re mean and ugly, both of which imply “not good”; because a society filled with a bunch of racist greedy people is doomed, and being doomed definitely isn’t good.
So it seems the good smart people have to figure out what to do with all the bad stupid people they can’t at least make good. We could launch a coup against the Idiocracy, and submit the stupid bad people under a dictatorship that surpresses their stupidity and badness, but the good smart people will only be in power so long as they can maintain their dictatorship through the use of force. That gets tiring, and expensive, which is why all dictatorships are doomed from the very beginning. Force falters eventually.
Which is why dictatorship and oppression are bad: they’re stupid, doomed to fail, whether in a hundred years or a thousand. If nothing good lasts, then there’s no hope for the bad.
In the end, we’re going to have to live with the fact that the world has a lot of bad stupid people in it, and no amount of shouting or arguing or writing or fighting is going to effect much change in the right direction. Making the rest of the world good and smart is as Sisyphean a task as making ourselves good and smart; it’s never-ending. And the war against the bad stupid people is itself never-ending. It really can’t be won either way — the bad stupid people can’t keep the good smart people down for long, and vice versa — but the battles must be fought anyway. It’s the good, smart thing to do .
Hopefully that new Chelsea Handler documentary on Netflix causes massive casualties.