The Shams of My Demographic

It’s interesting to catalog people’s reactions to the blog-cum-book Stuff White People Like. The responses that intrigue me most are the cloying, almost gleeful way white people themselves, directly at the center of the author’s crosshairs, are eager to identify themselves as such: “Guilty!” or, “He’s right, I do LOVE my Macbook!” or, demonstrating an even more profound lack of self-awareness, “But I’VE loved the Cubs from the beginning, before it was popular to like the Cubs.” (I actually saw a comment to this effect, and a savvy commenter pointed out that this demonstrated a typical strategy of white people, viz., to claim authenticity by trumpeting their a priori loyalty to the trendy object under scrutiny.)

These responses are a little bit bewildering to me, because the insights of the blog/book seem so utterly damning, and irony is in so many ways central to white people culture. And here let me insert myself into the equation. I am a white person (albeit in qualified ways, but there is much proof). So when I read the blog, it’s like having the mirror held up to me, and as a good caricature often shows, I am able to see my flaws all the more clearly, and hopefully able to view myself with a little more irony than before. In other words it provides an opportunity for self-examination and a mild form of catharsis — some worthy Socratic and Aristotelian practices. But I said it was damning, not just funny and a little bit helpful. Perhaps this review by Matt Milliner will help explain why. Near the end he says, “Stuff White People Like . . . has defined not a race but a demographic; and by defining it, has exposed one massive pretension: We white people thought we had escaped demographics.” And later on he says, “Lander [the author of Stuff White People Like] so effectively demolishes our attempts at uniqueness that his book could legitimately be called the end of Generation X. In other words, we’ve all been found out.” (The subtitle to the book, by the way, is “The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions.”

So I necessarily ask myself as I write this: am I really just trying to demonstrate that I am part of this trendy demographic? Well, I hope not. But in many ways I can’t escape it — my adherence to evangelical Christianity providing the major exception to the rule, although Milliner also notes that Lander “inadvertently provides the definitive guide to the Emergent Church.” (But let’s be clear: I in no way identify myself with the Emergent Church, aside from also being a young evangelical Christian, and as such somewhat confused about my identity.) So what’s the tonic? The ironic self-posturing and sham pretensions of my demographic/generation having been exposed and lampooned, what to do? Here’s Milliner’s remedy, which has much to commend it:

Have children, stay married, learn more about economics, be more sincere than ironic. Despise not the specter of Lander’s book – “the wrong kind of white person” – i.e. the ones at Sam’s Club. Know that it’s as pathologically weird to hate one’s country as it is to hate one’s parents. Above all, take traditional faith seriously.

Good words, and ones I intend to (and already do) follow. But still, but still. The more cynical part of me remembers this quote from Life After God by Douglas Coupland:

You know – I’m trying to escape from ironic hell: cynicism into faith; randomness into clarity; worry into devotion. But it’s hard because I try to be sincere about life and then I turn on a TV and I see a game show host and I have to throw up my hands and give up. Too many easy pickin’s!

There’s some kernel, some germ of truth to the shams and pretensions of my demographic, some search for a genuine and authentic lifestyle that’s at the heart of much of the facade (and much of the answer, or the beginnings of one, is also found at the end of Life After God). I think it’s for people like me to parse that answer out, but importantly, much of that must be done privately, under the discipline of silence, without the snobby pretense that usually accompanies it. To that I now go.


1 comment so far

  1. Greg on

    There seems to be an awful lot of recursion involved here, in the form of self-examination, being aesthetically displeased with what one sees, adjusting one’s beliefs and behavior accordingly, but then stepping back and examining the result of self-examination, being displeased, in an endless cycle.

    I don’t think it’s an entirely bad thing, even though some of the memes that fall out of it are frivolous and shallow. However the recursive self-examination meta-meme wouldn’t allow anything resembling a smugness-meme to survive, so such a thought quickly perishes.

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