Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Politics > Donald Trump, Piers Morgan, Taylor Swift, and the Privilege Check

Donald Trump, Piers Morgan, Taylor Swift, and the Privilege Check

Check your privilege.

Many of us have heard or at least read this phrase, and have maybe even uttered it at one point or other. Contaminated with toxicologically-measurable levels of smug liberal righteousness, it’s a buzzy phrase that means well but rarely accomplishes anything productive in its usage. It refers to the concept of privilege, a generally understood but sometimes fuzzily-defined term that points a finger at wealth and inborn socioeconomic advantage as an incubator of discriminatory and/or reactionary views and opinions about certain issues. A blunt directive to “check” that privilege, to put aside the web of social and cultural assumptions that set their holder above others that are less fortunate, is supposed to be an encouragement to seek out a fairer perspective.

But does the interlocutor insisting on this check of privilege feel equally capable of separating their own particular viewpoint from the tangle of cultural influences and psychological catalysts that has formed it? Doubtless, they would not consider it necessary to do so, if the privilege of others who disagree is what requires the vital check. It ought to be appreciated even by its most strident critics that privilege, pernicious and lamentable though it may be, is as inextricably a part of the identity of those formed by it than the lack of that privilege is part of the identity of others. How readily and willingly would anyone be to shift such an identity? How effective is a rhetorical tool of persuasion that basically boils down to telling someone, “Stop being who you are”, and how might these same critics bristle if such a privileged figure punched down with a similar phrase to a figure outside of the circle of the elite?

The intractable nature of the idealized privilege check is visible all over American culture at this very moment. The current frontrunner in the polls for the Republican Presidential nomination in the 2016 election is Donald Trump, a trumpblowhard capitalist sock puppet who gleefully riles up the mostly white, male, lower-income, lower-education rump base of the GOP, a conservative political party sunk in hate, ignorance, and superstition and detached from great swaths of the complex, contradictory American social experiment. He’s violating basic campaign decorum on a daily basis, when he isn’t labelling entire internal minorities as rapists and criminals. We’re assured that he can’t win the nomination, let alone the Oval Office, but he’s ridden his unapologetic, belligerent privilege this far. How much farther can he go, and who is going to make him check that privilege?

Nor can the under-appreciated privilege of the world’s favourite pop star, Taylor Swift, be effectively checked. After Caribbean-American musical artist (and noted enthusiast of sexualized glutes) Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to complain of whitewashing in the MTV Video Music Awards nominees (or at least the exclusion of the specific brand of image-making that she herself represents), Swift felt singled out by the criticism (for some reason) and said as much. Swift pivoted the perceived offender pinpointed by Minaj from institutional and cultural racial prejudice to a gender issue, playing the wounded feminist. Swift’s country music apprenticeship and ingenue anthems of high school crushes have served to scale down her socioeconomic associations, but she is, in point of fact, the spawn of the 1%, the offspring of the wealthy American elite. Her assumptions are quite apart from those of Minaj, Trinidad-born, Queens-raised, and from fractured family circumstances, to say nothing of their divergent stances in terms of the country’s structures of cultural prejudice.

As if the lines were not drawn clearly enough, English broadcaster and puff-headed parrot of the trans-Atlantic plutocratic order Piers Morgan authored a punchy, sniffy editorial in the Tory document of record the Daily Mail castigating Minaj for her “discourtesy”. From the privileged outlook represented by Morgan, this act alone is worse than most property crimes. But both Morgan – who looks askance at such a tiff in the miasmatic swamp of lowly pop music and wouldn’t consider that it means anything – and Swift – shielded from racial prejudice and more concerned with the personal affront of sexism – are enmeshed in uncheckable privilege. Their perspectives, like Minaj’s, are formed and continually informed by their circumstances.

One of the oddest features of the so-called “classless” society of America (which is increasingly stratified in the most extreme economic terms) is the pervasive, unquestioned certainty of the superior claims to authenticity of those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Being poor is persistently characterized in media and entertainment and cultural texts and discourses of all types as being more “real” than being rich, even while many of those texts and discourses are predicated on the overwhelming desire of millions of poor people to become rich. By what measure of identity construction does relative poverty equate to greater authenticity (itself a notorious construct) than relative wealth? Socioeconomic origins are key factors in identity formation and worldview construction, but inscribe no particular moral superiority or surplus of truth in and of themselves.

A culture that romanticizes the fundamental grounded-ness of poverty, that understands it as a rich soil for philosophical robustness, works to make income divergence more acceptable. It is not checking privilege, it is aiding the privileged in achieving their goals of crafting textual symbols that normalize income divisions. Donald Trump may be a cartoon, a clown version of elite, hopelessly out-of-touch privilege, much as TLC reality show stars present as cartoons who are imbued with essential values of community and decency that the American coastal elites cannot approximate. But those images maintain the position of privilege, even as they seem to destabilize it. A “check” of privilege is impossible in such circumstances, when privilege is at once at home with itself and apart from itself.

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