Books October 2008

Intolerant Chic

Editor’s Choice: The new “white people” are bigoted, but not the way you think—or they’ll admit.
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In January, Christian Lander—a 29-year-old Toronto-raised, McGill-educated Ph.D. dropout who worked as a corporate communications manager in Los Angeles—started a blog called Stuff White People Like. By February, the site was a runaway hit, garnering 30,000 hits daily. By March, it was getting 300,000. SWPL—which catalogs the tastes, prejudices, and consumption habits of well-off, well-educated, youngish, self-described progressives—was refreshing because it’s everything a blog, almost by definition, is not. Rather than serving up unedited, impromptu, self-important ruminations on random events and topics, the tightly focused, stylishly written, precisely observed entries eschew the genre’s characteristic I (though Lander in fact writes nearly all of them) and adopt a cool, never snarky though sometimes biting, pseudo-anthropological tone.

The considered but undeveloped entries provide ample fodder for a penetrating book, in which Lander could have defined and explored the ramifications (cultural, sociological, political) of his subject, or at least addressed some of the controversies and misconceptions his site has engendered—many of which are provoked by its title. Instead, publisher and author have chosen not to monkey with success. Leaving aside the delightfully off-kilter photographs and the too-cute flowcharts and quizzes, this all-but-instant work (book deal in March, publication in July) is an assemblage of Lander’s blog essays—including those available on the site when the book went to the printer plus 75 new ones, about the same length as the originals. Even if the book is frustratingly skeletal, perhaps 20 of the 150 total entries should have been cut, and while Lander is a terrific writer, rigorous editing would have made them all sharper. But the book—by virtue of both the new entries and the ease of reading Lander’s observations seriatim—reveals the author to be a weightier and angrier cultural critic than his fans and detractors apprehend.

Lander’s White People aren’t always white, and the vast majority of whites aren’t White People (he doesn’t even capitalize the term). But although Lander’s designation is peculiar, he’s hardly the first to dissect this elite and its immediate predecessors (see for instance Mark E. Kann’s Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, and David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise—Brooks calls these people variously “bourgeois bohemians,” the “educated elite,” and the “cosmopolitan class”). Lander, like many of these writers, traces this group’s values to the 1960s, and there’s clearly a connection between a politics based on “self-cultivation” (to quote the Students for a Democratic Society’s gaseous manifesto, the Port Huron Statement) and what Lander defines as White People’s ethos: “their number-one concern is about the best way to make themselves happy.” That concern progresses naturally into consumer narcissism and a fixation on health and “well-being”: Lander’s most entertaining and spot-on entries dissect White People’s elaborate sumptuary codes, their dogged pursuit of their own care and feeding, and their efforts to define themselves and their values through their all-but-uniform taste and accessories (Sedaris/Eggers/The Daily Show/the right indie music/Obama bumper stickers/uh, The New Yorker).

So why call this group “White People”? Lander is almost certainly being mischievous. After all, dismissing something or someone as “so white” has long been a favorite put-down among those who like to view themselves as right-thinking, hierarchy-defying nonconformists—that is, White People. Recall those ads extolling “the new face of wealth,” which contrast male, stone-faced WASP bankers with attractive, far less formally—though far more expensively—clad women, quasi-hipsters, and assorted exotic ethnics. The women and hipsters may be white, but they’re not white—they’re members of the cool-looking pan-ethnic tribe, a tribe defined by economic and social status and by cultural and aesthetic preferences rather than by ethnicity. When I interviewed Lander on the telephone in July, he acknowledged that White People are in fact “desperate to define themselves as other than white.” Indeed, he rightly places “diversity” and “tolerance” highest on the list of virtues prized by White People (as did Brooks for Bobos). Of course, this group shuns the suburbs (sterile, bland … white—a view that hasn’t advanced much since Malvina Reynolds’s contemptuous “Little Boxes” of 1962) while it embraces certain neighborhoods as “authentic” (Williamsburg, Echo Park, the Mission) and spurns other enclaves and cities (say, Astoria, Reseda, Concord). Lander’s White People approve of the kind of diversity that affords them the aesthetic and consumer benefits of what they like to think of as urban life—that is, the kind that allows them to

get sushi and tacos on the same street. But they will also send their kids to private school with other rich white kids so that they can avoid the “low test scores” that come with educational diversity.

Here and elsewhere, accompanying the book’s mockery of the essentially innocuous solipsism of White People is what Lander, a man of the left, described to me as his exasperation with progressives’ “cultural righteousness” and “intolerance and groupthink”—a set of attitudes that enhances and is enhanced by a profoundly smug and incurious outlook. To be sure, these faults aren’t peculiar to the progressive and the hip, but Lander repeatedly and cleverly shows how some of White People’s favorite activities (watching political documentaries, “raising awareness,” foreign travel), which they complacently embrace as broadening, are in fact lazy and tend to be intellectually and politically stultifying: White People “like feeling smart without doing work—two hours in a theater is easier than ten hours with a book.”

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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