The Perils of “Privilege”: does the book make the word a near oxymoron?

I’ve already written my own missives about “rightsizing” and meritocracy, but I have used the “P” word all that much.  So I thought that this new book (mostly written right before the 2016 presidential conventions) by Phoebe Maltz Bovy would consolidate my thinking, even about my own life.  That is,  “The Perils of ‘Privilege’; Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.”

The basic reason is that of a natural logical paradox.  Those who point to someone else’s unearned privilege are creating a reciprocal unearned privilege for themselves. Of that, she gives many examples.  And in her Conclusion, “After Privilege”, she tries to unwind our thinking, with suggestions like “less awareness” or less hypersensitivity, repudiating the overuse of the word “violence”, returning to a focus on the macro rather than the micro, and making social justice a means rather than an end.

She makes good use of buzzwords, most of all, “YPIS”, or “Your Privilege Is Showing” (I can think of another “P” word), as well as problematic “faves”.  But she tends to go back and forth over the same materials in the five chapters.  The organization of the book seems a bit arbitrary.

She gives many little anecdotes.  One is a narrative of an upper class young man who wants to prove to himself he can hold down a “real job” in a fast food restaurant – to find out if he can work in a regimented environment.  I[m reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” (2001). She mentions the conflict of interest problem in whether a social studies professor can ethically write about a “privilege” issue of one of her students.

She also talks about the context problems caused by membership of people in multiple groups in crisscross fashion. She mentions how this affects our perception of the victims of terrorism (against white or well-off civilians, on the one hand, and against religious populations by dictatorial governments, like in Syria, on the other).

In the Afterword, particularly, she explains the irony of Donald Trump’s reinventing the exploitation of privilege by building a voting block of rural white people without college degrees.  But this views elitism (e.g. the Clintons) as another variation of the privilege theme, as fodder for the political Right. It can morph into anti-intellectualism, anti-science, and religious “cultism” as well as a “take care of your own first” idea of charity.

For an individual, the question is, “What am I supposed to do about it?”  I could be viewed as in a marginalized group (gay), which brought considerable consequences earlier in my adult life.  But I was also “privileged” in being brought up in a state, prosperous family as an only child (cis-male).  In ,y working career, my childlessness was seen by other colleagues as a kind of privilege. Later in life, I have benefited from inheritance.  I think that implies some obligation.  Is it to focus less on my own expressive goals and join in to reinforce other people’s social capital?  That could make a difference, for example, in assisting asylum seekers (and refugees), the former having become very difficult to do totally legally and entailing risk. I think the question of “privilege” intersects with that of “fairness”, as my own experience early in my life with the military draft and my use of deferments (ultimately to finish education before service and be sheltered from combat, while giving people grades as a math instructor in graduate school, possibly putting some of them at more risk) now adding to some moral burden.  Maybe the right word to use is “karma”, rather than “privilege”.

Whimsically, I’m reminded of an essay about gays in the military that I authored for Colorado’s “Ground Zero News” in 1995, “The Perils of Rebuttable Presumption“, which I never mentioned again.

Author: Phoebe Maltz Bovy
Title, Subtitle: “The Perils of ‘Privilege’: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage”
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-09120-8
Publication: New York: St. Martin’s, 324 pages, hardcover, Introduction, 5 chapters, Conclusion, Afterword
Link: authorreview

(Posted: Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 3 PM EDT)

“The Space Between Us”: the first boy born on Mars is almost Christ-like

The Space Between Us”, in this sweet sci-fi fable by Peter Chelsom (story was a group effort of Stewart Schill, Richard Barton Lewis and Allan Loeb) is probably about 15 light-minutes, the based on the time it would take for light (or an Internet message in a chat room) to get from Earth to Mars – it can vary a lot with orbital positions.

In fact, a similar concept motivates one of my own screenplay scripts, “69 Minutes to Titan”, about which I’ve actually gotten one call.

That’s the one serious flaw in the setup of this rooting-interest film.  While still on Mars, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), now 16, and the first human born on Mars, chats with Tulsa (Britt Robertson) on Earth. No problem with the idea that Mark Zuckerberg (rather than running for president) has set up Facebook on Mars;  but it would have to follow the laws of physics, which would slow down communications.

The movie is a bit hokey as it set up the situation.  But astronaut Sarah Elliott (Janet Montgomery) had a hidden fling before leaving for Mars, and experiences her first “morning sickness” on the voyage.  They really have a first rate clinic on Mars already, but she dies in giving birth, maybe because of low gravity. Gardner will be raised by colleagues, including at least one woman who has said she had never intended to have or raise children.  Point well taken.

It’s a good question how Gardner grows up not only brilliant (with hacking computers and driving Mars rovers without permission) but sweet and socially well adjusted (even as a robot is his best friend – he tells the robot that it doesn’t have emotions).  He’s learned morality, like his dad had once said, “bravery is about not knowing what to be afraid of, but courage happens when you do know.”  Of course, he wants to move to Earth to have a real young adult life and he doesn’t want to ghost his Facebook girlfriend  Later, before tracking down Tulsa in a California public high school by pretending to be an AP chemistry student (he knows the material well enough to place in college), be befriends a homeless man and then a dog, getting all these creatures to trust him.  Kept in quarantine to protect himself, he escapes and plays “Catch Me If You Can” like a younger DiCaprio.

But the medical issues come back.  Before coming to Earth, Gardner had a procedure to strengthen his bones with carbon nanotubes (I think Jack Andraka –  who inspired his own depiction in a space suit as “Nanoman” on Twitter, had suggested this idea in a tweet once)   But once on Earth, despite running around a lot, his heart enlarged because of having to adjust to Earth’s mass – gravity, making him weigh 2-1/2 times as much as he did on Mars.   The doctors want a heart transplant.

The last twenty minutes give us real cliff-hanging, including a weightlessness ride (which rests his heart) before home-sweet-home.  Mars will need more babies.

The movie does not look at the question of indigenous life on Mars (neither did “The Martian” with Matt Damon).  However, a recent series on NatGeo “Mars” (reviewed on one of my legacy blogs) indeed does so.

I have to come back to Gardner’s charismatic presence.  Gardner is so compelling with his smarts that he seems to be a reincarnation.  His demeanor and speech style resemble the real life Taylor Wilson (the book “The Boy Who Played With Fusion”),, now 22, who invented a fusion reactor in his garage.  (Or, Taylor could have acted in this role with the same effect.)

I could offer one other comparison to the idea of a teenager born on another planet: Clark Kent in the WB series “Smallville“.  You wonder what Clark’s legal rights would be:  unlike Garnder, he is a real alien, but still a person.

Wikipedia link for sources of methane on Mars.


Name: “The Space Between Us”
Director, writer:  Peter Chelsom
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/2/9, afternoon, small audience
Length:  108
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  STX Entertainment
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2017 at 8:30 PM EST)

“(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies”: Duke Professor Ariety explores human nature and little white fibs, which get bigger on their own


Name: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies
Director, writer:  Yael Melamede
Released:  2015
Format:  video TV
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play 2016/8/23
Length 89
Rating PG-13?
Companies: CNBC, PBS, Bond 360
Link: PBS


(Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies” (2015) is a CNBC film by Yael Melamede featuring Duke University professor Dan Ariety presenting the topic of naturally human tendencies to gradually become more dishonest.

Ariety starts with his own story, of how he was severely burned in a fireworks accident in Israel, and how dealing with pain forced him to think about the way people like to avoid sudden discomfort.

People will wonder how far they can bend the rules and still be “good”.

There are several compelling stories.  An African-American woman in Ohio falsifies her residence so her son can go to a better school district, and winds up in jail.  A Wall Street trader is brought down by an undercover sting in an insider trade scam related ultimately to the 2008 collapse.  Bernie Madoff is mentioned.  An accountant for MCI in Georgia, finding it hard to collect from 900-call customers, gets involved in cooking the books with an offshore operation after the WorldComm takeover and winds up in jail.  An appealing young public relations executive manipulates “Tucker Max” with public sign defamation campaigns.

Ariety also goes into the issue of college honor codes, not quite getting to the subject of term paper plagiarism and academic integrity.

But when I was growing up, “cheating” on tests was one of the biggest sins – and they would say, “You are cheating yourself.”  Well, if you were a young man, you had to worry about the military draft.  I worked as an assistant instructor in graduate school and flunked one person whom I caught cheating, And he was worried about Vietnam.

(Published: Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, 7:15 PM EDT)