Privilege and entitlement. We assume it only applies to people in positions of power or influence. Or that it’s something that rich folks, famous people, professional athletes, musicians, artists, writers, or actors exercise. But from years of observation, I’ve come to understand this. That in a nation as imperial as ours, as rich as ours, as powerful and power hungry as ours, that privilege permeates everything. It’s why our social safety network is so deeply flawed. It’s why universal health is greeting by many as if Armageddon is just around the corner, while the cruelty of American Idol and The Bachelor might as well be manna from heaven. It’s why the allegedly richest nation in the world has mediocre public education, even in its wealthiest school districts. It’s why we can’t walk down the street without being smacked in the face by privilege.
Yes, even walking down the street. Most people in this country don’t even have the decency to say “excuse me” or to move slightly to the side whenever other people approach. Couples act as if there couple-ness gives them the absolute right to take up an entire sidewalk, as if it’s alright for other people to step in mud or out in the street. Groups of folks who think that their numbers give them the right to be oblivious to the rest of the world, forgetting that a public sidewalk is just that. It’s as if others have to beg for the right to exist in order to walk a block in a standard American downtown.
I used to think that this was a racial issue, and it very well may be. But privilege exercised in this manner does cross racial, socioeconomic, even regional barriers. And not just on sidewalks. In getting off elevators or trains, in which people refuse to step to the side and expect you to say “Excuse me” to them in order to get off before they get on. In meetings, where people will cut you out of a conversation if at all possible, as if manners don’t matter at all. From cashiers giving you bills, change and receipt all at once, as if you’re five years old, don’t own a wallet or purse, and are supposed to shuffle off at warp speed so that they can serve the next customer. To people constantly cutting you off in traffic without using turn signals or even hand signs.
So many have written about civility and etiquette as if they only went out the window because the very nature of American culture changed in the good old ’60s, because dissent and rebellion became a common part of it. As a Black male who has been called the N-word in public before, and for all of the other persons of color who’ve experienced far worse, the culture isn’t that much difference in terms of language than it was fifty years ago. What’s different now is that there’s virtually no pretense of manners. This isn’t due to dissent or rebellion. It’s because of privilege. It’s privilege that enables people to lack the simple social skills of politeness, to not say “Excuse me” when they blatantly step on your foot or cut in line.
If this were caused by dissent or rebellion, there’s no way our government could’ve gotten away with the Patriot Act, with the two Gulf Wars, with Iran-Contra or Supply Side Economics, with “mend-it-don’t-end-it” welfare reform or not ratifying the Kyoto Agreement. We’d be more like France or Germany with workers shutting down the country in order to force our government to change. No, the attitudes that most of us exhibit in public are ones of complacency, of the need to get away from as many people as possible. We’d rather drive our cars and talk on the phone than put some music on, watch out for pedestrians and think of the fellow drivers around us. Or walk and window shop in a mall like an oblivious fool as if we’ve phased out of our world and into a parallel one. Or better still, act as if others don’t matter at all.
The sense that the public sphere belongs to them, and them alone, is so common that we only seethe when we actually pick up on these everyday sorts of slights. I’m convinced that the last six decades of American dominance in the world has left us at home with the feeling that no one else’s feelings, ideas, beliefs, theories, and lives matter. It’s why we can be all right with the deaths of 1.7 million Vietnamese in a war of little meaning, but only be heartbroken by the loss of 59,000 Americans. It’s why we can be ho-hum about three million homeless Americans (and growing certainly within the past year) and upset that a stimulus package will keep several hundred thousand Americans from joining them on the streets. It’s why we can avoid a “dangerous neighborhood” with a wink of glee in our eyes and fall apart when one violent crime occurs in a middle class or affluent community, often saying “I never thought that it could happen here.”
I’ve always wondered how Americans (and, for that matter, other Westerners) could be the way that they are in an increasingly interdependent, global, cooperative world. The answer’s been here the whole time. With the end of the Second World War, America was literally half of the world’s economic engine, had the atomic bomb, the world’s second largest army and the largest navy. We were, as they say these days, the shit, and we’ve let the world know if for the past six decades. Like an aging beauty queen, even with the cracks and wrinkles, we act as if we’re still in our prime. We’ve borrowed from China and Saudi Arabia to botox our forehead, to have collagen injected into our lips and cheeks, had liposuction on our midsections and otherwise to keep up appearances. Like every empire of the past, we’ve entered a dangerous phase, a make-or-break period in which our decisions to exercise privilege or to see beyond ourselves could make the difference between a well-fed and good-looking corpse or a nation that understands that the world is not ours, it’s everyone’s.
The oblivious, sheep-like sense of entitlement that we exercise in our everyday interactions is directly tied to how we operate as a nation. We can’t expect one to change without the other changing as well. If we want a government that’s responsive, efficient, and truly bipartisan, then we need to insist on living our lives in a less privileged manner. Otherwise — to quote the artist Sting — for those of us who at least recognize the dangers of privilege, we might as well be “singing in the wind or writing on the surface of a lake” for all our words might matter.