25 January 2012

Victims of Privilege

I recently realised that progressives aren’t the only ones who think they are striving for the welfare of the oppressed and vulnerable. Upon speaking to a Ford supporter for the first time, I was struck by how the right-wing strain of thought on which his political tastes were based painted himself – a white, middle-class, forty-something years-old, car-driving, Toronto home-owning man – as a victim in need of support from local government.

He complained of the entitlement of “lefty pinkos” that caused the current financial situation in Greece and of the increase in property taxes that he has to pay after having renovated his house recently. At one point, after emphasizing the excessive taxes he has to pay, he told my (young and non-home-owning, like myself) friend and I, “Wait, you guys aren’t even in this,” declaring the illegitimacy of the political opinions of such non-home-owning (and thus [supposedly] non-property tax-paying) Torontonians as myself. People like me, he implied, have no stake in Ford’s absence or presence in mayoral office, since we putatively don’t reap the benefits of tax cuts. I only realized after our brief conversation how spectacularly he had managed to spin a home-owning, materially-more-than-comfortable, always-driver as a victim of tax oppression, and young men like myself who rent tiny (shared) apartments and need to take TTC, cycle, or walk everywhere as invulnerable princes, with no care in the world. Despite his taxes being a product of having way more than us, he thinks of himself – at least in speaking of municipal political concerns – as more vulnerable and deserving of politicians’ support.

I have hitherto seen the progressive narrative as having a sort of monopoly on concern for the less privileged, seeing ourselves as countering powerful societal bullies and using government to make society less unfair for those that are most vulnerable. Recently, however, I’ve begun to realize that the right-wing perspective somehow has cast a similar oppressed-oppressor narrative on its own belief system. Through a sort of extreme meritocratic mindset and work indignation, people like Mayor Ford have come to see tax paying (being indicative of hard work) as the ultimate sacrifice, which magically renders the most economically comfortable as the most socially oppressed. This taxation-as-oppression mentality completely reverses traditional ideas of privilege, casting the poor as individualistic hedonists and the rich as exploited by a gluttonous collective. Amazingly, it seems that Ford genuinely believes mini-van-driving, huge suburban house-owning, comfortably-employed people like himself are the victims since such privileges (theoretically) amount to more of their dollars going to taxes. Essentially, the right have deluded themselves into seeing privilege upside-down.


  1. Well, to me it seems like both parties are making a false assumption that TTC passengers are a homogeneous group. Our social group is a special case because- while I know we're not immune to economic stress by any means, and at least for me having lower funds does for instance affect my diet, or put me into debt- we are sort of privileged in the way the man might have been describing. If he knew he could reasonably say that most of us came from relatively comfortable home situations, many of us had help getting through higher education, and when we graduated instead of getting taxable jobs to pay our way we chose simpler lives, which may have involved greater use of the programs and services that taxes pay for. If he came from a lower or lower middle-income family, it's possible that he struggled a lot to get to the point where he got his (probably mortgage-laden) house in the 'burbs, and so if he sees himself as toiling to buy quaint transit systems for people like us I can see why he has the resentment. Now the problem with his argument in my mind is:
    a) there's actually nothing wrong with our lifestyles, and I think that a large part of the reason none of us are living particularly lucratively has to do with a dearth of jobs that are in line with socially/environmentally-conscious values(and the lack of jobs generally). If we rely on tax-raised programs it's because we think it leads to a richer community if we share funds to create programs that everyone can participate in, and I honestly can't see any of us at any point complaining about being taxed. And more to the point,
    b) A lot of the people who take TTC are as hard-working or harder-working than he is or we are, and don't have another option because of barriers to employment like immigration status, living in poor situations/neighbourhoods, etc. When it comes to them he could isolated from their reality/ignorant, or even if he came from a similar situation himself he might not have sympathy since he "made it so why can't they" or something.
    Anyways, while I don't agree with him I can appreciate some sense of justice in his perspective. I also think it's harder to judge when you don't know if people have had to work a lot since they were very young, because if they have they simply haven't had the time to gain the perspectives that we enjoy, and I think a lot of the people in the suburbs/most people haven't been lucky that way. To me that's part of the larger problem that encompasses us, and the working poor, and the suburbanites- that people are working more, making less on the economy's growth, and growing less and less powerful and wealthy compared to that one percent.

  2. - to clarify, in (b) by "don't have another option" I mean don't have an option to drive, get a house, make over the taxable income line.