Wednesday, June 13, 2007

class conscious in NYC

I was in NYC visiting my wonderful girlfriend and we went to a great Caribbean spot called “Negrill” somewhere around 4th and bleeker or something. I never know where I am when I’m down there . . . I think it’s the West Village.

So we were sitting next to a table of college-educated folk, two guys and a girl. And it might have been one of their first times out together because they were talking about deep stuff . . . Christianity, religion, etc. . . but they were talking about it like they were just voicing their opinions to each other for the first time.

Now, when I’m in public, I have a compulsion to talk to people. That compulsion both irritates and amuses my girlfriend. So I held my tongue in check and got back to the conversation at our table. Did I mention that her cousin and her boyfriend were in town for the day also?

Later in their conversation I heard them talking about Jack and Jill . . . not the Ice cream, the social organization. What social organization? Well, Jack and Jill, as I understand it, was a social organization created by affluent blacks near the beginning of the 1900’s to socialize their kids and teach the kids black history . . . take them on trips etc. As of late, J&J has garnered a reputation for being elitist. And that was the point of the young man sitting next to me. The funny thing was, what seemed like his girlfriend/significant other was actually in J&J and seemed uncomfortable defending her organization.

That’s where I stepped in . . .

And when things got interesting of course . . .

My big mouth (enter stage left)

So I said to them “I’ve been trying to hold my tongue and not listen, but I want to say something” and they agreed to let me in the conversation (at the same time I could feel my girlfriend roll her eyes towards her cerebellum). Suckers!!! Anyhoo . . .

The point of the guy next to me was that J&J shouldn’t be so exclusive and they need to be more inclusive and contribute more to the black community. I was thinking that that’s all fine, well and good, but terrible!

My perspective/position in the conversation was that there was nothing that ‘obligated’ J&J members, either as a collective or as individuals, to give back to “the community”. My problem with this is that everybody says this, but nobody can tell me “why”. What “why”? The why people ‘have’ to give back? Inside of that ‘have’ lay the division between many people.

So, of course the topic turned to Oprah and her billions. This guy said that Oprah was obligated to give back. I asked to whom and why? He started talking about the ‘community’ again and couldn’t tell me why she should give back. My problem with the ‘why’ anyone ‘should’ give back moreso lay in that people assume that the ‘should’ is a fact of nature, and not an individual perspective about things.

My counter argument was that no people can lay claim to the fruits of Oprah’s labor. She doesn’t have to give back based on some abstract idealized community (or the aim toward thereof). She doesn’t have to give to anyone or anything. She made it, she can do with it what she pleases. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that her or anyone being generous is a bad thing. My position is the assumption of obligation and duty constrict the true nature of giving. If someone asks for a lollipop and you give it to them, is it a gift or a fulfilled request?

Ask any woman what she would like more: a man to give her a gift out of his own generosity, or a man giving her a gift because she asked for it. I’m sure it would be close to unanimous that the woman would choose the giving out of the pleasure of giving, not to fulfill a request. So I’m all for generosity, but only if it’s initiated on the part of the donor, not on the part of the recipient.

The problem with my notion isn’t that it’s idealized, the problem is that there are a lot of seemingly needy people asking for, looking for and wanting gifts that they neither earn nor deserve. So what happens? People who think like me, and who are rich, are turned off of giving because their gifts aren’t received as gifts, they’re received as someone’s just due. And why would I give you something if you think you deserve it?

What’s this got to do with J&J? Well, I tore into his notion that J&J should do something for ‘the community’ (whatever that means) on the basis that the organization wasn’t designed to give to the community, it was designed to socialize affluent blacks during segregation . . . now it’s mission may be called into question due to the brave individuals who populated the civil rights movement . . . but to outright say that J&J is ‘wrong’ for not doing it is, well, wrong!

The ‘wrongess’ that I’m pointing to is the assumption that that one person’s judgment ‘is’ the only judgment is wrong. What’s wrong about that is that people go around thinking that their opinions and perceptions are a fabric of reality instead of a figment of their individual (or collective/learned) imagination. And then they apply these thoughts and imaginative acts to things and talk to other people as if those figments are reality . . . and get mad when other people don’t agree with them.

In the conversation, I asked him “what drives the ‘have to’ in them having to give back? Who says?” And he replied “I do.” That’s when I celebrated. I wasn’t trying to say that the obligation and duty notion is inherently wrong, the point that I was trying to make was that the obligation and duty notion is a function of a person’s beliefs (specifically his) and not a function of reality itself.

Through the rest of the conversation I tried to emphasize personal contribution in lieu of criticizing others. Why? Because it’s easy to take pot-shots at people from the outside, but much harder to be the one actually contributing to the community. And contributing can be being a sports coach, volunteering at your local YMCA, it doesn’t even have to be some seemingly noble cause or gesture like helping out the NAACP (bleh) or a progressive organization. Any activity that fosters cooperation and competition in a healthy manner is fabulous. And I think the world would be better served if we started doing such things instead of complaining about people and things to which we have no connection . . . (he said that his criticism of Oprah was productive, and I asked “oh really, when is your next meeting with her?)

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