White Liberal Dude Privilege Syndrome: An apology
So, I said something horrible on Twitter. Since I can’t go back in time and take it back, I thought I’d try to make something worthwhile out of it. Here goes.
Tonight I read this unbelievable story on Talking Points Memo about Anthony Weiner’s communications director, Barbara Morgan, losing her sh*t on the phone with a reporter, on the record. It seems an intern that worked briefly for the campaign, Olivia Nuzzi, wrote a tell-all about the campaign which appeared on the cover of the Daily News. In it, Nuzzi said that the only reason anyone worked for Weiner is to get close to Huma, and noted that Morgan “last worked as the press secretary for the New Jersey state education commissioner.”
Unprompted, on the phone with the reporter, Morgan lost it:
“Fucking slutbag. Nice fucking glamour shot on the cover of the Daily News. Man, see if you ever get a job in this town again,” said Morgan.
“It’s all bullshit,” she said. “I mean, it’s such bullshit. She could fucking — fucking twat.”
Based on her colorful description of Nuzzi’s cover story, TPM asked Morgan whether she thought Nuzzi joined the campaign with the express purpose of penning a tell-all story.
“I have no idea, but I can tell you she … like accosted me at like our petitioning thing to be able to become my intern, begged me to be my intern, sent me something within like 20 minutes of meeting her and then proceeded to — she came in the next day and was like, basically, ‘I want to be your bitch all summer long, that’s all I want to do is be your righthand person,'” Morgan said of Nuzzi. “I was like, ‘OK, well, it’s not really glamorous, like, you’re going to do clips, and you’re going to do media catching, and you’re going to do x, y, and z and maybe I’ll get you to the point where you’re like doing some other stuff.”
Despite what Morgan described as Nuzzi’s initial enthusiasm, Morgan claimed her job performance left much to be desired.
“She sucked. She like wasn’t good at setting up events. She was clearly there because she wanted to be seen. Like it was, like, terrible and I had to like — she would like, she would just not show up for work,” said Morgan. “For the four weeks she worked there — she didn’t work weekends, so twenty days total. Of those twenty days, she missed probably five because she would just like not show up and not tell me she wasn’t going to be there. So, yeah, so there’s that.”
Morgan also expressed disbelief that Nuzzi criticized her credentials.
“And then like she had the fucking balls to like trash me in the paper. And be like, ‘His communications director was last the press secretary of the Department of Education in New Jersey,” Morgan said. “You know what? Fuck you, you little cunt. I’m not joking, I am going to sue her.”
Aw, man. My first reaction reading this, weirdly, was sympathy. I pictured a frazzled middle-aged woman in her office, out of her depth, in a campaign that’s very publicly falling apart, now being dished on by some pretty young intern on the front page, just running her hands through her hair and dragging on cigarettes and taking a shot of the vodka in her bottom drawer and coming unraveled. It’s like something out of a Coen Brothers movie. I felt like TPM was being a little mean in transcribing her so literally, with all her “like this, like that.” Oh, the humanity.
And then I said this:
I dunno, and I also kinda think the intern sounds like a social-climbing mercenary hobag. I’m oddly #teamweiner on this one.
— David Roberts (@drgrist) July 31, 2013
Looking back on it with a few hours’ perspective, this is a classic outbreak of White Dude Privilege Syndrome. Let’s walk through it and see what we can learn from it.
First, the personality archetype I was going for was Kurt Bardella, the hungry young intern so ably profiled by Mark Leibovich in his new book This Town, about the dysfunction of D.C. political culture. Bardella seems like a pure creature of D.C.: in the game for the game’s sake, angling for the next status upgrade, loyal to no person or ideology but his own advancement. A courtier. “When he talks with you,” Leibovich writes, “you suspect you are being worked.”
That’s sort of how I was picturing Nuzzi. She hit the Weiner campaign briefly, looking to get in with Huma, didn’t work much, and quit when there was no opportunity for glory. Now she’s drafting off Weiner’s notoriety, getting noticed. And she’s ruined this poor middle-aged comm manager’s life. Such a quintessentially D.C. story.
That’s what I had in my head: nothing gendered, just a certain young Beltway type that I find both familiar and distasteful.
This is the key first step in a bout of White Dude Privilege Syndrome, especially the specific variant of White Liberal Dude Privilege Syndrome (WLDPS). Very few bouts begin with deliberate sexism or racism or heteronormativity. We are not thinking sexist thoughts! Our intentions are pure! We love women! Some of our best friends are black! We are good people, dammit!
When that doesn’t work, the second instinct is to mansplain that there was no sexist intent and thus no crime. “That’s not what I meant!”
When that doesn’t work, the third instinct is umbrage and aggrievement, perhaps a blog post about how the WLDPS sufferer is the victim of a “witch hunt” by the “politically correct.”
Luckily, my case is not that bad. By the time I reached that second instinct I was able to do what I have encouraged so many other WLDPS sufferers to do during similar episodes: take a step back, get out of the defensive crouch, and think about what people are saying. Would I stand by and let my 9-year-old use the word “hobag,” even if he meant nothing by it? Hell no! I would lose my sh*t. So.
The first step in WLDPS therapy is for the sufferer to acknowledge that it does not matter what was or was not in his head, or what he “really” meant. Part of privilege is the deep conviction that one is the absolute authority on one’s own mental states and thus the dictator of one’s own meanings — no one can tell you what they are, what you think, who you are, man. You don’t know me! We privileged dudes have trouble accepting that language is a social phenomenon, a social act, and meaning is created collectively, in the spaces between and among people. When you use language that is freighted with social meaning, you are responsible for that meaning, even if you did not “intend” it.
In my case, it doesn’t matter that there was a time in my life when “hobag” was a favorite insult among my peer group, used, irrespective of gender, for social climbers. In the broader culture, “hobag” carries a set connotations that serve to sexualize and objectify women. When you use the word, you invoke (and reinforce) those connotations, no matter what you may or may not “mean.” Women, people of color, LGBT folk, they have meanings and identities imposed on them every day. It is no great imposition on your White Dude autonomy just to be f’ing respectful.
As for the “political correctness police,” well, I’m happy they got me. It sucks to think I may have lost a small measure of the respect and reputation I’ve spent years building over a stupid slip, that the stupid slip will always be with me, that at least for some subset of people it will define my social presence, however unfair that seems to me. That’s all fine. It shouldn’t be fair. There should be a high cost to it. That kind of social censure reinforces norms that badly need reinforcement in social media. God knows I have scolded many WLDPS sufferers in my day. If I’m briefly being made an example of, that’s as it should be — learn from the example!
So, that’s that. In a moment of unthinking Twitter smack talking, I said something ugly and sexist and I’m sorry about it — sorry, in particular, to Olivia Nuzzi, who I don’t know from Adam.
Get Grist in your inbox