Monday, February 03, 2014

Check your context

Everyone has been talking about privilege lately. A catchphrase I hadn’t heard since my undergraduate days has resurfaced with the vigor and tenacity of a serial killer in the final reel of a horror movie. You have surely heard it by now: Check your privilege.

The charitable reading of the phrase is that it is a reminder that life can look a lot different depending on who you are. The somewhat less charitable reading is that the phrase is an assertion that, because of who you are, your thoughts can be discounted or ignored. Human nature being what it is, you are probably equally likely to hear it used either way. Julie Borowski and Cathy Reisenwitz fought out a version of this debate in the FEE Arena.

What very few people seem to be talking about when it comes to privilege is how context-dependent it is. The privilege I have, for example, as a well-educated, upper-middle-class, middle-aged white woman is quite an asset when I want to window shop in a pricey store or talk an airport gate agent into giving me an upgrade. But it is decidedly less useful—and is perhaps even a serious disadvantage—if I’m thinking about walking alone at night to a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. The set of characteristics that is privileged in each of these cases is different. The set of characteristics that add up to “Sarah” is always the same.

Happily for those who are interested in the way that different contexts make the concept of privilege more complex, and unsurprisingly for those who are familiar with this column, there are some useful literary discussions of context-dependent privilege to consider.

Edna Ferber’s Emma McChesney story “Sisters Under Their Skin” begins, in fact, with an observation about privilege: “Women who know the joys and sorrows of a pay envelope do not speak of girls who work as Working Girls. Neither do they use the term Laboring Class, as one would speak of a distinct and separate race, like the Ethiopian.” This story, Ferber signals to us, is going to be about a very different kind of woman. The redoubtable Emma McChesney is about to be invaded by Reformers, those “well-dressed, glib, staccato ladies who spoke with such ease from platforms and whose pictures stared out at one from the woman's page [who] failed, somehow, to convince her.” While Emma is in favor of many of “The Movement’s” goals, “The Movers got on her nerves.”

This is doubtless because Emma, who has spent 15 years as traveling saleswoman, and then vice president, and then part owner of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat company, has

    "met working women galore. Women in offices, women in stores, women in hotels—chamber-maids, clerks, buyers, waitresses, actresses in road companies, women demonstrators, occasional traveling saleswomen, women in factories, scrubwomen, stenographers, models—every grade, type and variety of working woman, trained and untrained. She never missed a chance to talk with them. She never failed to learn from them. She had been one of them, and still was. She was in the position of one who is on the inside, looking out. Those other women urging this cause or that were on the outside, striving to peer in."

The Reformers, headed by Mrs. Orton Wells, have not.

Emma understands the effort and art that go into making a factory girl’s salary produce “cheap skirts hung and fitted with an art as perfect as that of a Fifty-seventh Street modiste . . . with a chic that would make the far-famed Parisian couturiere look dowdy and down at heel in comparison.” The Reformers see only that “They squander their earnings in costumes absurdly unfitted to their station in life. Our plan is to influence them in the direction of neatness, modesty, and economy in dress.… We propose a costume which shall be neat, becoming, and appropriate. Not exactly a uniform, perhaps, but something with a fixed idea in cut, color, and style.”

So when this group of wealthy, non-working women arrives at the T. A. Buck company to instruct the “working girls” on how to dress with modesty and economy, they are already on the wrong foot. But the problems really begin when the Reformers come face to face with a few real, live factory girls and find that their privilege of class and wealth is not quite the unassailable armor they had anticipated.

Emma takes one look at the proposed speaker—Mrs. Orton Wells’s daughter Gladys—and notes that “Gladys was wearing black, and black did not become her.” And then Emma introduces her to Lily Bernstein, whose “gown was blue serge, cheap in quality, flawless as to cut and fit, and incredibly becoming. . . . she might have passed for a millionaire's daughter if she hadn't been so well dressed.” Instantly understanding (or misunderstanding?) why Gladys has come to talk to her about clothing, Lily begins to give her advice about how to dress.

Gladys is smart enough to know that privilege is context-dependent. She realizes that the privileged experts, in this context, are the women she has always thought of as underprivileged. And so when Gladys is put before the women on the factory floor to tell them how to dress, she realizes that the stylish shoe is on the other delicately stockinged foot, and simply asks, "You all dress so smartly, and I'm such a dowd, I just want to ask you whether you think I ought to get blue, or that new shade of gray for a traveling-suit."

We see a similar lesson in O. Henry’s story “The Social Triangle,” which surveys the social strata of turn-of-the-century New York City through a series of brief interactions that cross class lines. Each of the interactions ends with the less-privileged person’s delight at shaking the hand of someone more important. When, for example, the tailor’s apprentice Ikey Snigglefritz shakes the hand of Tammany Hall politician Billy McMahan, he is transported. “His head was in the clouds; the star was drawing his wagon. Compared with what he had achieved the loss of wages and the bray of women’s tongues were slight affairs. He had shaken the hand of Billy McMahan.”

The story continues in this vein until it reaches one of O. Henry’s classic twist endings when the millionaire Cortlandt Van Duyckink, in a moment of passionate desire to know and befriend “the people,” leaps from his car and feels “an unaccustomed glow about his heart. He was near to being a happy man. . . . He had shaken the hand of Ikey Snigglefritz.”

Ferber’s and O. Henry’s stories suggest to us that, yes, there are plenty of moments when we should check our privilege. Wafting into a factory to tell working women how to dress might well be one of them. But we should also check our contexts, and remember that the things that make us—or someone else—important, or impressive, or privileged in one place or time, can have a very different effect in different circumstances. No one is privileged at all times and in all ways. The teenager who rules the halls of the high school is just a punk kid when she gets pulled over for speeding. And even the most powerful politician, stuck in a dance club, is still just an old guy who can't dance. Lily Bernstein can tell Glady Orten Wells how to dress. And Cortlandt Van Duyckink is elated to shake the hand of Ikey Snigglefritz.


Yes, really, Women's Lib caused inequality

Now here's a thing: the liberation of half the country from their economic and social shackles I regard as an unalloyed good thing. That this liberation of women largely came from technological causes, the "washing machine" or domestic household technology as Ha Joon Chang calls it, plus the decline in the economic importance of male musculature, doesn't matter at all. That it happened was great.

However, as recent research is showing, it has also led to an increase in the inequality of household incomes.

The argument is very simple indeed. We have moved from a society in which women tended not to work into one in which they tend to do so. And obviously, women tend to do the sort of work they are educated to achieve. Add in that people tend to meet their partners through university or work these days and it's quite clear that professionals will tend to marry professionals, blue collar blue collar and so on. We thus end up with a world in which there is a strata of society enjoying two professional incomes per household and others enjoying two white collar incomes, two two blue collar and so on. Although it does rather break down at that last: stay at home housewives are more likely to be in the working classes.

Whatever the earlier level of household income inequality we had before it's obviously going to be larger now. That a polemicist for the trade union movement is married to a GP, or that the Harman/Dromey household enjoys two, not just the one, MP salaries and allowances, makes the gap between those professional classes and the average working joe greater.

Short of the State telling people who they may shack up with there's no real way out of this either.

But what's really interesting is that that linked paper is claiming that all of the rise in US household income inequality can be put down to this one factor. And if that's so then I cannot for the life of me see that that rise in inequality is a problem. People are now much freer in their love and working lives than they used to be. That's good, in fact that's great. The side effects be damned.


Magistrate attacks soft touch justice system that allows criminals to walk free with a 'slapped wrist' after burglars ransack his home

A magistrate has warned that Britain's 'soft touch' justice system will turn householders into vigilantes after his own home was torn apart by burglars.  Abid Sharif, 36, said 'every man should have the right to defend his castle' after he returned home from picking up a pair of airline tickets to discover it had been broken into, trashed and looted of valuables including his wedding ring.

During the daylight raid, a rear window was torn from off its hinges with a crowbar before the gang climbed into the house, breaking a dining table.

They tore doors off wardrobes and cupboards before stealing the gold jewellery, a watch and electrical goods including a PlayStation 3, a Sony laptop, a Samsung mobile phone and a digital camera.  Mr Sharif later took pictures of the aftermath of raid which is said to have cost almost £10,000.

Today the father of three, a bus driver who sits one day a week at Burnley Magistrates' court in Lancs said: 'The levels of policing have gone down since the cutbacks and that's crazy when you hear about these public service executives being paid thousands.

'People will naturally want to protect their property but I fear they will then become vigilantes and will probably get done in court for it.

'If I had been in my house when these people came in and I had knocked one of them out I would be inside for assault and I don't think it's fair. Every man has a right to defend his castle and if we gave powers to the public I think the crime will drop.

'Within my job I see these criminals come before me and they seem to know more law than their solicitors about equal rights and human rights and they can get away with a lot of things.  'They know we can only give them a slap on the wrist, it's very frustrating for me - we want to throw the book at them but prison is regarded a last resort.  'We try fining them but then they say they can only pay £5 a week because they are on benefits.

'The laws have gone too lenient. In some cases everything points to custody but then they say they have medical problems and then they can't do paid unpaid work because they have a bad back. By the end its a conditional discharge.

The other day there were 16 cases and 11 of those where burglary either from a shop or a dwelling. I know when I sit again and a case like this comes up and I will be frustrated.  'Obviously I cannot and will not take my frustrations out on others in court but sometimes we walk away from court disheartened - especially when you see the criminals go away laughing.'

It is thought the burglars had been circling Mr Sharif's neighbourhood in a car before stopping at his property and then knocking on his front door to establish he was not at home.
Police are now examining CCTV footage of the raid which was captured by cameras at a neighbouring property.

'CCTV cameras caught them outside the house in a blue Ford focus. They parked up and then an Asian knocked on the door and waited for about two or three minutes.

'The car was driven around and came back and another camera picked them up going on the backstreet. They were even pictured walking out of the property with the laptop and computer in their hands - it was sickening.  'They absolutely ransacked the place, it's very upsetting.

'I used to see a lot of police presence around here. Police cars would even be around at night time and you would feel safe - but it's not safe around here any more.  'The police presence used to be fantastic and you knew that there were there. Now I can't say that they are not doing their job right if they don't have the funding.  'We used to see a bobby on the beat every day and we used to know him. Now I don't know who the local bobby is.

'I think even the police are frustrated because they have such a high workload and different teams. When they should be out investigating a burglary they are stuck doing paperwork and can't do it.


RSPCA risks losing power to prosecute

The RSPCA’s role in prosecuting cases of animal cruelty could be overhauled to restore public confidence.

Stephen Wooler, a former HM chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service, suggested the charity could be stripped of its prosecution rights because of increasing concern over its approach. Another option was for it to be scrutinised by an independent watchdog, he said.

Campaigners have long complained that the RSPCA can both investigate and prosecute cases, while also campaigning to raise money.

They have suggested that because the charity often levies large costs in the cases it wins, some people plead guilty because they fear contesting a charge and losing.

The RSPCA was criticised for bringing a £326,000 private prosecution against the Heythrop hunt in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency at the end of 2012. A judge said the costs, some of which went on external lawyers, were “staggering”.

The Heythrop pleaded guilty to hunting a wild fox with dogs, claiming it could not afford to fight the charges. A former huntsman and hunt master also pleaded guilty to the same charges.

Mr Wooler was appointed by the RSPCA’s trustees late last year to carry out a £50,000 review of its role as the major prosecutor in cases involving animal cruelty.

In his first interview since then, Mr Wooler stressed that he had not yet reached any conclusions, but he conceded that one option was to strip the charity of its right to prosecute cases.

Asked if the RSPCA could lose this role, as well as that of investigator, he said: “There would have to be some very careful discussions if one got to that position.

“But bearing in mind there is no obvious alternative, the main issue … is what needs to be done to make it work better.”

He added: “One of the things I want to find out is what would happen if the RSPCA did not do those functions. It is all well and good throwing the baby out with the bath water, but you have to put something in its place.”

Mr Wooler said one possibility was to limit the court costs the RSPCA could charge, and he said he would look at the costs of its prosecutions “to see if they are reasonable and proportionate”.

He said he would examine the charity’s approach to prosecutions, from those against fox hunts to those against elderly spinsters who cannot look after their pets.

He claimed that concern about the charity’s activities was so widespread that there was a “self-help group” on the internet “of people who have had involvement with the RSPCA”.

Mr Wooler said he would be examining criticism from hunts as well as “from small animal sanctuaries who sometimes feel targeted [and] ordinary individuals who have companion animals”.

He added that he would be holding meetings with Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, senior police officers and councils to see if the charity needed to be subject to an independent regulator. At present, the RSPCA acts as a private prosecutor. Any new supervision would help to increase accountability.

Mr Wooler said: “The idea I would want to look at is what does the RSPCA need to do, specifically in relation to its prosecution role, to get public confidence restored to what it used to be?

“The RSPCA trustees are quite puzzled [by the controversy]. They are looking … to see what the RSPCA should be doing in order for there to be that confidence that criticism suggests isn’t there at the moment.”

Mr Wooler invited submissions from anybody concerned about the charity’s policy.

“The RSPCA has given me a very free hand to look at the whole issue widely,” he said. “What I want to do is to find the best way forward … I will look very carefully at what people have to say.”

Ray Goodfellow, the RSPCA’s chief legal officer, said: “We strive to be a reasonable and fair-minded prosecutor and this independent review will provide an effective external measure of our performance and highlight any areas of potential improvement.

“We are committed to providing accountability and transparency in this very important area of our work which we recognise has a considerable impact on people’s lives, as well as for the animals we seek to protect. We will publish findings from the review when it is complete.”



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the  incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of  other countries.  The only real difference, however, is how much power they have.  In America, their power is limited by democracy.  To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already  very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges.  They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did:  None.  So look to the colleges to see  what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way.  It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH,   EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and  DISSECTING LEFTISM.   My Home Pages are here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here


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