Monday, June 18, 2012

Is Resentment of Privilege Inevitable?

Where the Rubber
Hits the Road
Now that our society seems to have fully incorporated the one percent/ninety-nine percent concept into our socioeconomic discourse, right-wing conservatives are busy impugning that all this negative attention the one percent are receiving is simply the jealousy and resentment of the "deservedly" unsuccessful, or less successful, underclass.

With all their money behind them, they are getting some traction with this approach. As for myself, in my sixth decade, I am trying to make peace with my life decisions, opportunities and lack thereof. Lately I've been thinking a lot about whether or not my political positions are motivated by these types of unsavory and destructive emotions.

Just this past Friday, my partner and I went to see a couple of films at the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival that were on the subject of specific lesbians of our generation who achieved recognition in progressive politics. One film was about Charlotte Bunch who started out in the seventies as a lesbian feminist activist and wound up a career academic (without advanced degrees) who worked with international organizations advancing women's rights in mostly third world settings.

The second film was about Ellen Ratner, someone whose work I was not familiar with. She is a liberal radio broadcaster (she claims the only one) for the rabidly conservative Fox network. Ratner is my age and actually attended the same junior high and high school that I did although I never spoke with her. She inhabited a wealthy world that did not intersect with mine in any way (neighborhood, friendship circles, activities, interests).

This documentary, "Ellen Ratner: "A Force of Nature," was produced by Barbara Kopple filmmaker of "Harlan County, USA," the award-winning chronicle of a coal miners' strike in a rural Appalachian town. Clearly, this film was a challenge for Koppel. Unlike the Kentucky coal miners, Ratner is an heiress from a real estate dynasty. (this information is from other research, it is not in the film). I understand that in these times particularly, depicting an eccentric, essentially kind-hearted, but massively privileged, liberal who made good is not easy. None of her homes or living arrangements were shown. The segment of Ratner, a boss in her workplace, trying to get a black woman underling to say she liked Ellen as a person, made me cringe. But more safely, Koppel filmed Ratner almost exclusively on a philanthropic mission in Africa. The only outright allusion to the wealth of her family was the fact that she bought her wife, a former Air Force pilot, her own airplane as a gift. It was a sweet gesture but certainly not one that many other folks could duplicate.

So am I resentful of people, even those who are speaking up for lesbian rights, who have benefitted from so much more opportunity and privilege? And, if I am, is that wrong? I am aware that when I am feeling good about myself and my life, my negative feelings toward others disappear. As a nominal Buddhist, I know not only that those feelings are counterproductive, but also that having access to money and things doesn't necessarily make a person happy. On the other hand,  not having any access, i.e.: living on the street and starving, can truly make a person miserable. To some degree, I also believe, even though this sounds really corny, that experiencing struggle tends to build character and resourcefulness.

I do often wonder who I would have been and what I could have done if I'd come from a background where financial stress did not play such a starring role. But truly, that's as hard to imagine as who I'd be if I'd been born African-American, straight or even gentile. I'm not sure of what that person would have been like, only that she (or he) would have been someone else.

So, do I covet Ellen Ratner's cushy life and experience? Absolutely not! Do I resent people who have had access to more power, privilege and opportunity? Well, not in theory, but my honest final answer would have to be that it depends on which moment you ask me.