When Eve Fairbanks wrote Well-Off Millennials Are All Julia Salazar. I Wish We Weren’t. for Buzzfeed, she was a graduate of Yale with a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy. But, might she have been better off as a Mumbai street child? What heights might she have attained if she had grown up as an orphan who survived by selling water to passerby in 90 degree heat? No, no, selling surplus fruit on the streets of Lagos would have been better. That way, when she came to America as a stowaway on a container ship, she could have made good rhetorical use of pregnant analogies to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Even better!….No, wait, Eve would have been set if she had shredded her only pair of sandals walking the rocky, unpaved streets of her slum. Then maybe she could have snuck into a factory at night in search of a new pair, only to be chased out by a baseball bat wielding security guard, causing her to open a massive gash in her tiny leg while climbing back over a rusty fence trying to escape a beating. If her luck hadn’t run out, the gash might have become bloated and gangrenous, causing her to undergo an incredibly risky street amputation. That way, after stowing away aboard a container ship, with 30 days worth of dried peanuts and the money she earned selling her young body to grown men, she could write, with moral authority, about her commitment to expanding the intellectual framework for disability rights when she applies to Yale to study political philosophy. Surely then, not only would she have gotten into Yale, but, she would have gotten a full-ride, or even an endowed professorship. No, surely I am thinking too small; an orphaned, one legged, former child prostitute from Lagos and an undocumented immigrant to boot! Surely. that should at least be good for a fast track to citizenship and a seat in the United States Senate.
Maybe the whole thing has too much pathos and would overwhelm the admissions committee. Maybe the safest bet would be to have been born to a crack addicted single mother in the Bronx, that way, as a natural born citizen, she would have been a cinch for the presidency.
That’s how all this works right? After all, as Fairbanks has assured us:
“…let’s be real here: We have a culture that lionizes survivors of challenging childhoods…”
I suppose that depends on what is meant by “survivor.” Does she mean anyone who happens to survive past the age of 18? Most people with “challenging” childhoods manage not to die off before reaching adulthood and most “challenged” children that make it past 18 aren’t lionized, they don’t get to write memoirs. Around the teenage years, poor children, especially Black and brown ones, transition from being objects of deserved sympathy in the cultural imagination, to being deadbeats, shiftless thugs and “super-predators.” The few who do make it into the elite do have a story to sell, but, how many ever get there?
Ah, but those that do, seem to enjoy an enviable position since:
“…having endured harrowing circumstances seem[s] almost necessary to speak with any moral authority.”
Where in the entire world she could have gotten that idea is a complete mystery to me. The media, academia, politics; those industries where your job is to speak and be heard, are dominated by the privileged. If experience on the underside of society were a requisite for moral authority, America would be a much quieter place.
You’re probably wondering if the piece gets better, it does. Fairbanks tells the story of a high school friend who faked a “fatal degenerative lung disease” and used stage makeup to give the appearance of being the victim of severe physical abuse in order to gain the respect and attention of her classmates. This is, we are assured, one of those cases where untoward means are deployed toward an understandable end:
“It obviously lent her a nobility and a heroism far above all the rest of us boringly comfortable and well-provided-for suburban youngsters, an air of the overcomer, who is the aristocrat of our time.”
I’m sure those who actually have to endure severe beatings from their parents while slowly asphyxiating look on with bemused pity at this pathetic effort to join their “aristocracy.” Fairbanks goes on to tug our heart strings even harder by relating the tragic story of a Yale campus full of people who live their lives in mortal fear of being branded with America’s most dreaded slur: “Legacy.” Which leaves me to wonder, at the risk of seeming insensitive, why such people didn’t just choose one of the dozens of elite schools their parents didn’t attend, or even another Ivy. Surely no one exists who can claim legacy status at all the Ivy League schools? Or do they? Forsooth, such a fate must be worse than death, or, at least, kinda sorta almost maybe a little just as bad as growing up with a crack addicted single mother in a Bronx slum. I mean, how dare we split hairs? In the killing fields of suburbia, the classrooms of elite high schools are strewn with existential carnage, as the children of lawyers, doctors, college professors and corporate executives march arm in arm with trust funders into a world obsessed with the lofty downtrodden.
The beneficiaries of massive unearned privilege have much to teach us, if only we would stop worshiping refugees from Honduran gang violence long enough to listen. For instance, apparently there is a general belief in our society that a person can’t object to a system that has advantaged them. Fairbanks the great moral crusader asks: Why? In my shameful ignorance, I ask why nobody was kind enough to have told Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, either of the presidents Roosevelt, Huey Long, John and Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Che Guevara, and any number of people born with the shameful marque of inherited privilege who managed to overcome the power of societal censure to become advocates for social justice, despite an apparent lack of creative writing skills in the autobiographical area. For that matter, nobody seems to have told Julia Salazar’s followers, who stunned the journalistic community by not only not caring that Salazar was not a Colombian immigrant raised by a financially overburdened single mother, but by not letting the fact that she lied to make it seem so dampen their support for her.
But even if this reality in which people from privileged backgrounds are denied the right to speak out against inequality appears to be inconsistent with….reality, we have greater matters of suffering to which we must attend:
“…[E[ven advantage, in an unequal world, can harm a person. I think my suburban classmates really did feel pain. It was the pain of also being caught up in a visibly unequal and brutally success-oriented world, of being told to strive for roles and lives that they knew, in their child’s hearts, were lonely and disconnected, punishingly individualist and heartbreaking. It didn’t do anybody any favors to insist, societally, that people had to make this discomfort tangible in the form of oppressed ancestry, family hardship, or visible physical suffering.”
Wow, sounds rough. This great marginal over-class haunting our dominant institutions is not, as you may have ignorantly assumed, made up of individuals worthy of such horrible, outdated epithets as: “Spoiled” “hopelessly self-indulgent” “comically brattish” no, these are the unsung, isolated victims of a world of horrid injustice and material inequality: Those whose class-induced sense of congenital perfection is thrown into a tailspin by the realization that in order for there to be “haves” there must be “have-nots,” deserve our ever more worshipful pity, for they suffer the pangs of luxury on our behalf.
This fundamental angst leaves those heavy laden with privilege with no choice but to spin fanciful tales. Not taking full advantage of their privilege is no option, of course. Don’t ask me why, I am of the blessed, I’ve not a single Ivy League degree to be tormented by. On the other hand, using their control of all levers of power in this society to effect a massive redistribution of wealth and access would be not only irresponsible, but cruel. What dystopia would it be to see millions of people adorned with joyous poverty suddenly burdened with the horrors of privilege, why, there might not be enough lies to go around!
So the poor, amply supplied with suffering to “perform” continue to wax fat with touching stories for which they may be lionized and the Eve Fairbanks’s of the world bravely turn their existential angst into fabrications. But, all is not lost. It seems Fairbanks is working on a book about Post-Apartheid South Africa. This kind of admirable pluck is characteristic of her downtrodden class. Not having been blessed with enough suffering of her own, with the assistance of the generous Black people of South Africa who are rich as Croesus with touching narratives of vainly struggling to overcome centuries of racism and colonialism; Fairbanks may finally be able to borrow a share of that moral authority which fate has cruelly denied her. And of course, true to form, she will nobly bear the burden of any royalty checks and speaking fees.