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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: privilege

Samuel L. Jackson just made struggling artists feel like shit

Stephen H. Provost

I’m a fan of Samuel L. Jackson’s work, and that’s probably not going to change. I enjoy his acting. I’m also a critic of Donald J. Trump, and that certainly ain’t gonna change. I don’t enjoy his play-acting as president.

But what Jackson said in repudiating Trump stuck in my craw: “I know how many motherfuckers hate me. ‘I’m never going to see a Sam Jackson movie again.’ Fuck I care? If you never went to another movie I did in my life, I’m not going to lose any money. I already cashed that check.”

Emphasis mine.

Here’s the point: Jackson can afford not to care. Most actors, writers, visual artists and musicians can’t. Jackson doesn’t have to choose between his integrity and his bank account. Gee, that must be nice.

He goes on to say he does care about health care, but not because he wants the best for his loved ones. Because he wants to protect his bank account(!): “Some of this shit does affect me, because if we don’t have health care, and my relatives get sick, they’re going to call my rich ass.”

Ask me if I feel sorry for him.

Somehow, he’s got enough money not to care about pro-Trump haters, but not enough money to care more about whether his relatives get good health care than the prospect of having to for it.

Actually, I agree with Jackson on this issue, too. The prices for hospital stays and prescription drugs are obscene; the system is broken, and it’s causing people to lose their homes, their cars and their retirement savings. But let’s be clear here: That’s not going to happen to Jackson if one of his relatives gets sick.

Say, for example, one of them had to stay a month in the hospital. At $30,000 a day, that would be $900,000. Yeah, that’s a lot of money. Now say it cost another $900,000 for surgical procedures and meds. Let’s round up to the nearest million. That’s $2 million. Yes, that would break most people. But Jackson? His net worth, as of 2019, is 111 times that much: $220 million. It’s a drop in the bucket for the man who made the 2011 Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-grossing actor of all time.

Gimme mine

Maybe Jackson’s just trying to be funny. He has, in fact, donated money to more than two dozen charities, including $1 million for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. But in spite of this, his latest comments come off as gloating. I’ve got my $220 million, and I’m gonna keep it.

And why shouldn’t he? He’s a good actor. He’s worked hard, and he deserves what he’s got. No argument there.

But there’s a flip side to his comments: A lot of people work just as hard and are just as good at what they do, but they struggle to get by. Vincent Van Gogh, famously, sold just one painting during his entire lifetime. He died a pauper. He killed himself. There are thousands of good – even great – artists, writers, actors and musicians you’ve never heard of who are in the same boat. Yet the notion persists that how much you have in your bank account defines your value as a person.

Bullshit, motherfucker.

Economic entitlement

In a world increasingly sensitive to attitudes of race- and gender-based entitlement, the concept of economic entitlement remains largely ignored. Health-care and education reforms are stymied. Sure, there’s talk about a $15 minimum wage, but that’s not even a living wage for most people. And indexing it to the cost of living? You might as well try planning a trip to Jupiter. Anyone who suggests leveling the playing field is accused of (gasp) socialism and de facto thievery.  

Because economic hardship isn’t always tied up in things like racial and gender identity, it’s assumed that those who don’t have money somehow deserve it. They’re a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings leeching off society because they’re allergic to hard work or don’t produce something of real value. Art? That’s dismissed as a “luxury.” But Jackson can’t very well say that, because he’s an artist too.

The work he produces is extremely valuable, but so was the work Van Gogh did. And he never complained about having to support a sick relative, because he never even had that option: His brother was the one supporting him.

This is why it’s so jarring to hear a rich actor issuing such a complaint, even if it’s to highlight the inequities of a broken health care system. Regardless of how talented he is or how many charities he’s supported, this is how it comes across: I’ve got my $220 million. You can’t have any of it.

Ironically, this is exactly how Trump thinks. He’s got his, and nothing else matters. Jackson is a Trump critic, yet he comes across as sharing the same attitude – unless he was just joking, in which case it’s not very funny. Because the joke is on creative folks who aren’t worth one one-ten thousandth of what he is.

I applaud Jackson for criticizing Trump. I share his views. But he doesn’t deserve any special pat on the back for voicing them when he has, by his own admission, no financial stake in the game. The people who do deserve props are the struggling artists who could lose a sale by speaking out – but do so anyway. The unknown Vincent Van Goghs of our time who might just, one day, change the world.

 

White guilt is a distraction in the fight against racism

Stephen H. Provost

White guilt is a better look than racism ... but that’s not saying much.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by white people about privilege the past few years, and the more I see of it, the less I think it does any good. Hand-wringing in general isn’t the best way to get things done, for one thing.

So, it’s not surprising that all the guilt and self-flagellation over racism isn’t accomplishing much. If anything, the battle for equality has taken a few steps backward since it’s become fashionable among whites to bemoan white privilege. Take a look at who occupies the White House, at Charlottesville, and at racists emboldened by the president’s ambivalence become more vocal/active.

None of these racists are people who would have been the least bit guilted by talk of white privilege. They’re people who were just waiting for an opportunity to come out of the woodwork and promptly declare that they were all for it. Hand-wringing doesn't do anything to keep them from spreading their hatred.

Why are privileged whites spending so much energy guilting other privileged whites – energy that could be spent fighting against police brutality, discriminatory prison sentences, unequal pay and other very real, very damaging consequences of racism? And why do they seem to be wallowing in their own guilt?

Guilt is a human response designed for one thing only: to alert us that something needs to be fixed. That we need to do something differently. The Civil Rights movement alerted us that we needed to fix our warped ideas about race back in the 1960s, and occasionally, we need reminding of that, now especially. But hearing a reminder is different than wallowing in guilt, because wallowing is the exact opposite of what guilt is supposed to promote: action.

The real problem with white guilt over white privilege is it puts the focus ... on white people. Sounds pretty egotistical to me. Shouldn’t the focus be on the people who are getting beaten up by police or bypassed for jobs? Shouldn’t we be trying to empathize with them, rather than becoming so wrapped up in our own “awareness” that we forget to be aware of the actual problem? The actual problem is not white privilege. It’s racism.

Mesmerized by the mirror

The problem isn’t that white people have it too good; it’s that people of color aren’t given the same opportunity to reach those heights. All this talk about white privilege might even be a form of racism in itself – because it keeps the spotlight on white people. It’s a lot easier to say you’re “looking at yourself” than it is to look at the results of poverty, poor health care and discrimination. Instead of looking in the mirror, we should look at what’s happening in the communities affected by racism. That’s where the problem is.

That’s where we must focus our attention.

I know if I have a problem, I’m a lot more interested in getting it solved than hearing someone express regret. If someone served you a dish that gave me food poisoning, how would you feel if he spent the next 20 minutes bemoaning what a terrible cook he was rather than giving you a ride to the doctor?

Awareness is a good thing. So is self-awareness. But any protracted infatuation with white guilt on the part of white people is self-centered and distracts from the real issue: People are being treated unfairly, and they’re suffering for it.

Want to help someone with food poisoning? Take her to the doctor. Want to end racism? Improve the lives of those affected.

Don’t waste time gazing mournfully at your own reflection.