Stuff White People Like
by Christian Lander
Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz
The Atlantic Monthly
In January, Christian Lander -- a 29-year-old Toronto-raised, McGill-educated Ph.D. dropout who worked as a corporate communications manager in Los Angeles -- started a blog called Stuff White People Like. By February, the site was a runaway hit, garnering 30,000 hits daily. By March, it was getting 300,000. SWPL -- which catalogs the tastes, prejudices, and consumption habits of well-off, well-educated, youngish, self-described progressives -- was refreshing because it's everything a blog, almost by definition, is not. Rather than serving up unedited, impromptu, self-important ruminations on random events and topics, the tightly focused, stylishly written, precisely observed entries eschew the genre's characteristic I (though Lander in fact writes nearly all of them) and adopt a cool, never snarky though sometimes biting, pseudo-anthropological tone.
The considered but undeveloped entries provide ample fodder for a penetrating book, in which Lander could have defined and explored the ramifications (cultural, sociological, political) of his subject, or at least addressed some of the controversies and misconceptions his site has engendered -- many of which are provoked by its title. Instead, publisher and author have chosen not to monkey with success. Leaving aside the delightfully off-kilter photographs and the too-cute flowcharts and quizzes, this all-but-instant work (book deal in March, publication in July) is an assemblage of Lander's blog essays -- including those available on the site when the book went to the printer plus 75 new ones, about the same length as the originals. Even if the book is frustratingly skeletal, perhaps 20 of the 150 total entries should have been cut, and while Lander is a terrific writer, rigorous editing would have made them all sharper. But the book -- by virtue of both the new entries and the ease of reading Lander's observations seriatim -- reveals the author to be a weightier and angrier cultural critic than his fans and detractors apprehend.
Lander's White People aren't always white, and the vast majority of whites aren't White People (he doesn't even capitalize the term). But although Lander's designation is peculiar, he's hardly the first to dissect this elite and its immediate predecessors (see for instance Mark E. Kann's Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica, Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class, and David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise -- Brooks calls these people variously "bourgeois bohemians," the "educated elite," and the "cosmopolitan class"). Lander, like many of these writers, traces this group's values to the 1960s, and there's clearly a connection between a politics based on "self-cultivation" (to quote the Students for a Democratic Society's gaseous manifesto, the Port Huron Statement) and what Lander defines as White People's ethos: "their number-one concern is about the best way to make themselves happy." That concern progresses naturally into consumer narcissism and a fixation on health and "well-being&": Lander's most entertaining and spot-on entries dissect White People's elaborate sumptuary codes, their dogged pursuit of their own care and feeding, and their efforts to define themselves and their values through their all-but-uniform taste and accessories (Sedaris/Eggers/The Daily Show/the right indie music/Obama bumper stickers/uh, The New Yorker).
So why call this group "White People"? Lander is almost certainly being mischievous. After all, dismissing something or someone as "so white&" has long been a favorite put-down among those who like to view themselves as right-thinking, hierarchy-defying nonconformists -- that is, White People. Recall those ads extolling "the new face of wealth," which contrast male, stone-faced WASP bankers with attractive, far less formally -- though far more expensively -- clad women, quasi-hipsters, and assorted exotic ethnics. The women and hipsters may be white, but they're not white -- they're members of the cool-looking pan-ethnic tribe, a tribe defined by economic and social status and by cultural and aesthetic preferences rather than by ethnicity. When I interviewed Lander on the telephone in July, he acknowledged that White People are in fact "tolerance" highest on the list of virtues prized by White People (as did Brooks for Bobos). Of course, this group shuns the suburbs (sterile, bland...white -- a view that hasn't advanced much since Malvina Reynolds's contemptuous "Little Boxes" of 1962) while it embraces certain neighborhoods as "authentic" (Williamsburg, Echo Park, the Mission) and spurns other enclaves and cities (say, Astoria, Reseda, Concord). Lander's White People approve of the kind of diversity that affords them the aesthetic and consumer benefits of what they like to think of as urban life -- that is, the kind that allows them to
get sushi and tacos on the same street. But they will also send their kids to private school with other rich white kids so that they can avoid the "low test scores" that come with educational diversity.
Here and elsewhere, accompanying the book's mockery of the essentially innocuous solipsism of White People is what Lander, a man of the left, described to me as his exasperation with progressives' "cultural righteousness" and "intolerance and groupthink" -- a set of attitudes that enhances and is enhanced by a profoundly smug and incurious outlook. To be sure, these faults aren't peculiar to the progressive and the hip, but Lander repeatedly and cleverly shows how some of White People's favorite activities (watching political documentaries, "raising awareness," foreign travel), which they complacently embrace as broadening, are in fact lazy and tend to be intellectually and politically stultifying: White People "like feeling smart without doing work -- two hours in a theater is easier than ten hours with a book."
More damning is the conclusion produced by a careful reading of this often fine-grained semi-sociological analysis: a good deal of the progressives' attitudes, preferences, and sense of identity are ingrained in an unlovely disdain for those outside their charmed circle. In Lander's analysis, much of their self-satisfaction derives from consumption (the slack-sounding "stuff" in the title is deceptively apt) -- and much of that consumption is motivated by a desire to differentiate themselves from the benighted. Sushi, for instance, is "everything [White People] want: foreign culture, expensive, healthy, and hated by the 'uneducated.'" And whatever its goals, the ACLU is beloved by White People, Lander satirically but not wholly unjustifiably asserts, because it protects them "from having to look at things they don't like. At the top of this list is anything that has to do with Christianity" -- an aversion, Lander discerns, rooted not in religious enmity but in taste (Christianity is "a little trashy"), formed largely by class and education. To those of this mind-set, the problem with a great many Americans is that they don't "care about the right things."
In fact, he asserts in a somewhat atypical aside that betrays the steel behind his joshing, White People "really do hate a significant portion of the population." But Lander, usually the nonchalant observer, never lapses into the easy faux populism of the right, and although he doesn't overstate White People's alienation from the culture and politics of the American majority, it's striking that his (to my mind accurate) list of the political and intellectual heroes of the young, affluent, and progressive -- Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore -- includes figures, wise or foolish, who are pretty detached from the mainstream (a fact made conspicuous in a comparison to the saints of the young progressives of the early-1960s, Ben Shahn-print-loving variety: Eleanor Roosevelt and Norman Thomas).
More important, for those whose "politics" are almost entirely gestural, not only do the personal and the political insidiously entwine, so do the aesthetic and the political. The logic, born in college dining halls and now embraced by people well into adulthood, that holds that donning a colored plastic bracelet or a kaffiyeh is an act of personal and political self-definition can and does attach the same significance to snowboarding and to selecting one's iPod playlist. When everything is "political," of course, nothing is. Moreover, this way of thinking is hardly a formula for the "change" so much in vogue and for the coalition-building required of a mass politics of the progressive or any other variety. Yes, yes, we've reached the highest stage of capitalism, and with it the personal choice and diversity so beloved of White People. But those who strive for truly radical -- that is, class-based -- political change must long for the days of a crude and relatively undifferentiated popular and consumer culture, when stuff was just...stuff.
Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic's literary editor and national editor.