Michael Phelps: Man of Privilege

I’ve had as much fun as the next person watching Michael Phelps do the unthinkable in Beijing. But I think Saxon Baird at my other blog, Pushback, raises some really critical points when he reminds us that success and failure at the Olympics are not disconnected from economic or national privilege.

Michael Phelps just put on what was arguably the most spectacular exhibition of athleticism in Olympic history. Newspapers across the country have hailed him as possibly the greatest Olympian of all time. And while Phelps’ talent is undeniable, I can’t help but view his success as not just a demonstration of talent and hard work, but of resources and economic backing. Not to take away from Phelps’ historic Olympic success, but I have to ask: Would Phelps have done as well swimming for a country with fewer economic resources to support its athletes? I doubt it.

The top three medal winning countries as of today are China, the United States, and Russia. All of which are large, economically affluent countries. Australia, Germany, and France make up the fourth through six th spots. In the top 10 medal winners there are only three Asian countries, and none located in Africa or South America. The reason for this is clear: A country’s Olympic success directly correlates to the level of funding and the quality of training it can provide to its Olympic athletes.

I’ll add that Phelps’ success isn’t just about the economic resources of his country, but also about the resources of his family. Not everyone in the world could have the chance to train like he has, and neither could everyone in the United States. Phelps was lucky to be born to a family that could dedicate so much time and money to their son’s athletics.

This isn’t to take anything away from Michael Phelps’ success and athleticism, but I think it is important when we take part in these “if you believe in it, anything is possible” narratives that we also remember some things are more possible for certain people than they are for others.

Matt Zeitlin on class in our marriage debate

I threw my hat into the blogosphere’s recent marriage debate (see Martin, Singal, Matthews, and Marcotte, phew) last week with a post on how much gender plays a role in a person’s acceptance of critiques of marriage as weak or strong.

Matt Zeitlin at Pushback adds a critical component to the debate, when he zooms out and reminds us just how bourgeois our debate is:

We all know that when families far apart, children generally suffer. And with the college wage premium and financial returns to education both at all-time highs, any disruption to a working-class child’s life makes advancement much more difficult. Unstable family structures aren’t great for adults either, especially women. When parents split, it is usually the woman who is left to raise the child, meaning that she has to provide a loving, supportive home, all the while trying to make ends meet as the head of a single-paycheck family.

For those with high amounts of social capital and good jobs, this is a much simpler task, but for everyone else, it is incredibly difficult. This all gets worse when children are born out of wedlock; when parents don’t want to sanctify their bond and commitments to each other, it becomes all the easier for one parent to skip out.

I agree with Matt to a certain extent. It’s important to note what the context of considering marriage is for middle class bloggers. However, I’m always skeptical of arguments that suggest the crumbling of the traditional, two-parent family is contributing to economic deprivation for kids. Blaming “the family” for the larger economic and social factors hurting poor kids, especially kids of color, is often a right-wing talking point, in my opinion, and a cop-out for the failures of our government and society.

I have to disagree with Matt’s assessment that parents who don’t “sanctify their bonds,” are less likely to stick around and hold up their end of the parenting bargain. A dead-beat parent is a dead-beat parent in or out of a marriage. While abandoning one’s financial responsibility to his/her children may be more difficult to a certain legal extent within marriage, I’m highly skeptical that one who wants to abandon their children would only stick around because of the inconvenience of divorce. After all, I know a few dead-beat dads myself who just took off at some point but remain married to the mother of their children. If babies are being born to couples in which one or both partners are less than committed to emotionally or financially supporting the child, the obvious problem seems to be that parents who are going to bail are having kids. After all, poor parents, married or single, are poor parents.

I guess this is all a way of saying, I think the marriage disparity between high and low-income people is more a symptom of economic and social turmoil than a cause of it.

The much better explanation for the class-marriage disparity to me, is that wealthy people who are more often married long-term and having children in those relationships, have more of a financial interest in being married and staying married. They’ve got a lot to lose in a divorce. But when a woman gets pregnant with a guy who makes no money and is a dead-beat, why would she want to marry him? If anything, she wants to make sure the courts will be enforcing his child-support payments and to see little of him afterward. Even when completely committed working-class couples get married and have kids, their marriages face much higher levels of stress than the more successful marriages of the privileges, because of their financial struggles. This undoubtedly contributes to the higher rates of divorce.

Now I can see quite clearly that having two parents who are involved in your life, both financially and emotionally, is going to contribute to a more secure life, but then, the argument should be for planned, well prepared parenthood, rather than for marriage.

The myth that marriage is morally sound is part of a larger dialogue to convince people they shouldn’t expect to be able to support themselves and their kin with one, full-time income. I think they should be able to do so. Ideally, the fact that by the time I’m ready to have children, I likely will be able to do so, would be the usual situation for a woman, rather than the exception.

Now I recognize the reality is that in our current society, most people cannot expect to be able to support a family with one income and one committed parent, and this undoubtedly makes marriage or at least reliable, long-term parenting a desirable outcome for many working-class people, but I don’t think the statistics about marriage and class and race mean marriage itself is the answer to working-class problems.

If working-class people do manage to find a partner who will be committed to sharing the responsibilities of parenting, they too will have the opportunity to determine whether this commitment will be in or outside a marriage.

Poor people are poor because they have bad attitudes. Huh?

Kayla Walker at Campus Progress has a great review of the book Scratch Beginnings, in which some privileged dude seeks to prove the American dream really is possible if people would just work hard enough. Well, yeah, no kidding it’s possible — for an educated white male who already lives a life of status and comfort.

Adam Shepard was sick of hearing the impoverished in America whine and complain. He was “frustrated with the materialistic individualism that seems to be shaping every thirteen-year-old to be the next teen diva,” Shepard wrote in the introduction to Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream. In a move that is reminiscent of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Shepard boarded a train to Charleston, S.C., with nothing more than $25 in his pocket, the clothes on his back, a sleeping bag, and a tarp.

Shepard set out to disprove books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. He wanted to achieve the so-called American Dream—without using his college degree, friends, or exemplary credit history—proving that it is still possible in America to break one’s way out of poverty. Shepard gave himself just one year to break from poverty and homelessness. Completion of his project would be considered successful if Shepard was able to own a functioning automobile, be living in a furnished apartment, have $2,500, and have the prospects to go to school or start his own business.

Shepard later concludes that poor people could live the American dream if they’d just stop being so damn pessimistic. Hey, um, maybe they’re pessimistic because they and their families have been trying for generations to get ahead and they haven’t been able to make their hope turn into reality? Hey, maybe if society gave poor people a reason to be optimistic about the future that didn’t self-righteously blame them for their own predicaments, they’d see the future a little more brightly?

Hey, maybe you should admit that being an educated person who is able to dig your way out of a hole after a year of an arrogance soaked experiment which you went into with the least sympathetic presumptions I’ve ever heard does not qualify you to diagnose the causes of poverty in the U.S., when the people who are actually poor have done a pretty good job of diagnosing the roots of it themselves?

Kayla makes a great point as she acknowledges the obvious point that inequality is related to immobility, and it’s poverty itself that reinforces the conditions of poverty. Of course temporary, self-inflicted deprivation for a highly privileged person won’t render him socioeconomically immobile. Why are the reproductive, cyclical conditions of poverty so difficult for otherwise logical people to understand?

Ok, ok, I’m being hard on this Shepard guy, considering I haven’t even read his book. But God, even the very basic facts of his little experiment are dripping with so much privilege I really struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt.

SATC: Of men and money and self…

Spoiler alert:

Last night I saw Sex and the City: The Movie, because after the longest job interview of my life, and because I’ve been anticipating this movie for a year or more, I couldn’t bear to wait any longer, even with those qualms I hinted at here. All in all, it was pretty much what I expected from a 2 1/2 hour big screen rendition of that predictable but charming little series — everything I liked and hated about the series but with the hated stuff magnified and more drawn out.

With this mixture of emotions, I found myself wondering: “Is all –” hahaha no, no, I kid. I won’t write this post like a Carrie Bradshaw column…

Dana Stevens at Slate wrote a review I agree with almost entirely. Here’s a highlight:

No real-life relationship, Carrie and her cohorts reluctantly concede, can live up to the impossible expectations our culture places on romantic love. But luxury commodities? Those are more than capable of fulfilling every fantasy. The right Louis Vuitton bag—hell, any Louis Vuitton bag—can change your life.

Now, there is a plot thread in the movie naysayers will point to as an exception to this part of Stevens’ argument. Carrie’s desire for a big and fabulous wedding at least contributes to ruining her first attempt at marrying Big. This could be read as a tsk tsk against pomp and circumstance and materialism. But it’s a little ironic if big spending Big is the character who is put off by money. It’s more like he can’t handle cliched romantic settings and commitment, rather than anything he has against a little glam.

And when a romantic partner fails them (like Big fails Carrie in epic fashion), the girls can take solace in the one constant in their lives: No, that’s not in their own selves or even necessarily in each other (Samantha, for example, is going it alone in California for a large portion of the movie). It’s in things. Fancy things. Really, really fancy things.

Getting Samantha a $60,000 ring is the only kind thing Smith does for Samantha in the entire movie. One of two romantic gestures Big makes during the movie is agreeing to buy Carrie an apartment she thought was outside their price range. Fashion Week makes Carrie feel like herself again. (What is this “self” she speaks of then? A gaggle of labels and lights?) Buying a Louis Vuitton bag for Louise is her final grand gesture to her servant/savior. Why is all the stuff about stuff so problematic?

While the ensemble is praised (and rightfully so) for normalizing discussion of female sexuality and highlighting the beauty that can be female camaraderie, and these are feminist aspects of the series, I maintain that these characters are some of the weakest women on television. They rise and fall with men, and while Carrie had the chance to prove she could be strong and happy with or without Big in this movie, but that she simply prefers having such a companion, all she proved is that she can fill the void left by a man by spending money and surrounding herself in some glamor, i.e. decorating her apartment, hiring a Personal Assistant/Rent-a-Friend, going to Fashion Week.

I won’t deny that her close group of girlfriends is a huge part of her life and helps to determine her happiness, but where, in all this mash-up of men, money, and mates, is Carrie’s independence or self-reliance? Where’s the actual person beneath the designer clothes and apart from all these friends and lovers?

And I shudder to ask: In this fictional world where money is the vehicle for the vast majority of women’s happiness outside of upper-class marital bliss, how do less privileged women keep themselves from slitting their wrists? — I guess they just have to keep their spirits up with rental designer bags and hope they get lucky enough to be a P.A. to someone like Carrie Bradshaw some day…

A round-up of good SATC reviews and reflections:

Dana Stevens at Slate

http://www.slate.com/id/2192379/

Stephanie Zacharek at Salon

http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/2008/05/30/sex_and_the_city/

Sex writers reflect on the impact of SATC

http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2008/05/30/sex_writers_on_sex/

Manohla Dargis at NYTimes

http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/05/30/movies/30sex.html

Karina Longworth at Spout, gives the top 5 reasons to explain why you might “semi-rationally” hate the movie:

http://blog.spout.com/2008/05/30/5-ways-to-dismiss-the-sex-and-the-city-movie/

And Ed Gonzales at Slant Magazine on the racism of the relationship between Jennifer Hudson’s character and Sarah Jessica Parker’s, and the materialism of the film:

http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/film_review.asp?ID=3695