You may or may not have heard about the kerfuffle surrounding the reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom. (Franzen is no stranger to kerfuffles: his last release, The Corrections, temporarily brought about the end of Oprah’s book club.) NPR has an excellent and even-handed summary of the situation, which discusses some facts that the whole discussion has brought to light: namely, that the New York Times reviews a significantly higher number of male authors than female authors. NPR then wonders why the whole situation has devolved from seriously addressing such a fact into petty accusations leveled against the two female authors (Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, both bestsellers of so-called “chick lit”) who instigated the fracas via their Twitter feeds.
Now, as much as I appreciate the even-handedness of the summation, this is kind of a dumb thing to be wondering about, because when a disadvantaged group calls out an advantaged group for their privilege, this is what pretty much always happens, particularly when the facts are damning and warrant more serious discussion. Of course the Times doesn’t want to have to admit culpability in supporting a tired paradigm of presumed female creative inferiority! Of course male writers don’t want to get edged out of the reviewing pages, or to admit that their vaunted position in literary history is owing at least in part to systemic advantages granted to them by a tired but well-supported paradigm of presumed female creative inferiority! But the facts are against them: the paper of record clearly and inarguably reviews male writers at a disproportionately higher rate than women writers. What else do we expect besides personal attacks designed to neutralize the issue by questioning the motives of those who brought it up?
This is a hugely common strategy whenever a non-normative group demands real equality, or calls out an an advantaged group on their shit. When the NAACP said that the Tea Party was acting racist, rather than engage in any kind of serious policy reflection, the Tea Party trotted out twenty-year-old, heavily edited footage of Shirley Sherrod to prove that the NAACP had no right to call anybody else racist. When Judge Vaughn Walker ruled, in a scathing opinion, that the anti-gay-marriage side of the debate had put forth absolutely zero credible or serious evidence for their side in the suit to overturn Prop 8, few on the right took time to analyze their position; no, the first move was to attack Judge Walker himself, because he is himself gay and therefore incapable of rational opinion. Only straight white men are capable of rational opinion, is the real takeaway lesson from all of these examples. Whenever any other group complains of their mistreatment by the system, they are whining, “playing the victim”, not being sufficiently appreciative of the rights and freedoms that straight white men have deigned to extend; what more do these disadvantaged people want? Do they want to be treated the same as straight white men? But then… then straight white men would be treated the same as gays and minorities and women! And then the Tea Party forms to take back America, but its claims toward victimization are perfectly valid because they are being made by straight white men.
Sure, this Franzen incident is pretty well-contained amongst a minority of elite opinion-makers and literary professionals. But these elites purport to be amongst the most progressively-minded of contemporary American society, and yet they are exhibiting here exactly the same biases — and unwillingness to acknowledge bias — as the Tea Party. Maybe left and right really aren’t so different, after all.