the Rich Uncle Pennybags test

For awhile now I’ve counseled leftists to apply the inverse of Gandhi’s famous dictum: think of the most privileged person you have ever seen, and ask if your next act will be of any threat to him. I call this the Rich Uncle Pennybags test, after the guy from Monopoly. The question is, does your next proposed political action hurt Rich Uncle Pennybags? Does it threaten his station at all? Could it meaningfully reduce his advantage? I’m not saying everything that you do has to pass the test. I’m not saying that there aren’t meaningful, constructive types of political engagement that fail the test. But I am saying that a left-wing movement that devotes enormous time, effort, and attention to actions that fail the test risks no longer being a left-wing movement at all. I’m saying that a left-wing that constantly fails the Rich Uncle Pennybags test is precisely the kind of left-wing movement that establishment power likes: about symbolism over substance, about the individual rather than the masses, about elevating minorities in the ranks of a corrupt system rather than changing the system, about being good rather than doing good.

So, for example: does race-based affirmative action threaten Rich Uncle Pennybags? It does. Race-based affirmative action helps to address the deep inequalities in access to college, inequalities that most often help people like Rich Uncle Pennybags and his idiot kin. It’s also a (small) step to help redress the overall socioeconomic inequality that Rich Uncle Pennybags enjoys. Done well, it helps lift the fortunes of millions rather than of a few; it’s a victory for an entire class of oppressed peoples, not a lottery. Supporting race-based affirmative action passes the test. Meanwhile, whether Iggy Azaliea gets another nasty thinkpiece written about her just makes no difference to the privileged. It’s irrelevant. So: in the last year, what have you read more of in left-wing environs? Articles about affirmative action, or articles about Iggy Azaliea?

Or consider  what I am told is the great internet political debate of the moment: whether you should only read books by authors who aren’t white men. Well, if that’s what you’d like to do, go wild. I could not care less what you read. I certainly don’t think not reading white men amounts to “reverse racism” or “political correctness gone mad,” the typical complaints of conservative commenters and Twitterers. Knock yourself out. I just don’t mistake that decision for somehow amounting to a meaningful political action. It completely fails the Rich Uncle Pennybags test: what do the privileged care if you don’t read white men? Even under the absolute best case scenario, it’s hard to see this kind of action making a meaningful dent in the inequalities that are present in book publishing, already a threatened field, and there’s no way this engagement spreads to make the economy less sexist and racist generally. It’s absolutely great if this gets more people reading a more diverse set of authors, or if some non-white, non-male authors get a bigger readership. But it’s not in any sense a meaningful, structural response to any kind of inequality. Yet judging by the enthusiastic embrace of this initiative, and the palpable pride of those who espouse it, you’d think this was our Gettysburg.

Like I said: read who you want, and if this effort gets some people diversifying their reading, great. But this isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in a left that seems to have no other interests than in these kinds of purely symbolic politics. And that’s a type of apoptosis self-destruction. [I’m told apoptosis, while having a self-destructive element, is actually a good thing. Too clever for my own good.]