Monday, September 10, 2012

Water Parks and the Myth of a Politics of Envy

Tom Junod has penned what I consider the most inspired political analogy of the 2012 campaign season. As both Democrats and Republicans alike have attempted to define the difference in what their vision promises the country, Junod sees the essence of our choice in the recent changes at a water park called Whitewater that he takes his daughter to every Labor Day:
I take her there not just for the "rides," which in most cases aren't really rides at all, but slides that combine water and gravity in varying proportions, and so pack a pretty elemental wallop.
I take her for the lines.
See, you have to wait in line when you go to Whitewater — or, for that matter, any other water park. It's like Disney that way, or any of the other big amusement parks that traffic in the ability to wring screams from even the most jaded customers. The distinctive thing about waiting in line at Whitewater, however, is that you have to wait in line without any clothes on. You have to wait in line wet and semi-naked, in close proximity to hundreds of other wet and semi-naked people. That's why the lines at Whitewater are not simply preludes to the Whitewater experience, not simply inconveniences to be endured before you go down a big blue slide that calls itself a "flume": The lines at Whitewater are the experience. They're a vision not just of democracy in action but democracy unveiled, a glimpse of what the last line is going to look like, when all is revealed, and we're waiting for our interview with Saint Peter.
And let me tell you, it ain't pretty.
Through a series of equally endearing and hilarious descriptions of what we, as a nation, look like naked, Junod defends his conclusion that "it ain't pretty," but he also goes on to explain, "But here's the thing about waiting in line at Whitewater, here's the lesson that you learn from the spectacle of America in the raw: It works."
When my daughter gapes and marvels, I tell her that human beings come in all shapes and sizes, and it's an explanation that seems to satisfy her because it's inescapable. When I hear the censorious voice in my head saying that the woman in front of me shouldn’t be wearing that bikini, I go on to draw the only conclusion that the evidence all around me permits: that no one should, and that therefore everyone can. Going to Whitewater is like bathing in the Ganges, with chlorine and funnel cakes — and also with the elemental difference that not everyone is poor, lowly, untouchable, an outcast. Rather, everyone is quite simply American, and so the line slouches and stumbles forward, the very definition of a mixed blessing — a blessing mixed black and white, rich and poor, slovenly and buff, and so on down the line. It can be slow going, it can be frustrating, but people have no choice to make the best of it, so they talk to one another, they gripe amusingly, they laugh, they compromise, they endure, and they scream when they finally go down a water slide whose initial pitch approaches 90 degrees. No one cuts, or tries to; the line works because for all its inherent and exhibitionistic imperfections it keeps its promise of equal access, and, by God, it moves.
Or at least, as Junod goes on to tell, it used to move. A few years back, an Englishman who took his family to Disneyland had the experience ruined because they had to wait in lines. So he invented a solution to what he saw as the lines "problem," named it a Flash Pass, and has been selling it to amusement parks ever since. In addition to paying all the other fees you need to enjoy your day (parking, entrance, locker, etc.), for an additional $30 or $40 you can buy the ability to cut to the front of each line.
It sounds like an innovative answer to the problem that everybody faces at an amusement park, and one perfectly in keeping with the approaches currently in place at airports and even on some crowded American highways — perfectly in keeping with the two-tiering of America. You can pay for one level of access, or you can pay for another. If you have the means, you can even pay for freedom. There's only one problem: Cutting the line is cheating, and everyone knows it. Children know it most acutely, know it in their bones, and so when they've been waiting on a line for a half-hour and a family sporting yellow plastic Flash Passes on their wrists walks up and steps in front of them, they can't help asking why that family has been permitted the privilege of perpetrating what looks like an obvious injustice. And then you have to explain not just that they paid for it but that you haven't paid enough — that the $100 or so that you've ponied up was just enough to teach your children that they are second- or third-class citizens.
Junod gains speed from there in what ends up being perhaps the most damning critique of what's happening in America I have every read. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It's changed my entire way of viewing the promises of opportunity laid out by the two major parties at the conventions recently. Junod also strikes me as the kind of person we need more of in America:
On the way home, of course, my daughter asked why we couldn't get Flash Passes. I answered that we couldn't afford it, but that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason is that I liked the people who were waiting on line better than I liked the people cutting in front of it — that I couldn't imagine counting myself among those paying for the pleasure of stepping in front of another child who might be as sensitive to slight as my daughter.
There are two points Junod makes in particular that I wanted to explore a bit more here. First is how the Flash Pass concept doesn't simply privilege those with the extra cash to afford it, it quite literally devalues the experience that everyone else can have at the park:
It wouldn't be so bad, if the line still moved. But it doesn't. It stops, every time a group of people with Flash Passes cut to the front. You used to be able to go on, say, three or four rides an hour, even on the most crowded days. Now you go on one or two. After four hours at Whitewater the other day, my daughter and I had gone on five. And so it's not just that some people can afford to pay for an enhanced experience. It's that your experience — what you've paid full price for — has been devalued.
Now we've had a debate about the "value" of programs like Flash Pass in the US for years. Entrepreneurs who use them justify the humiliations inflicted on those who haven't paid the extra fees by suggesting the extra fees enable them to keep the prices lower for everyone else. As Junod illustrates, though, this argument falls apart under examination, because although the price hasn't necessarily gone up for the non-Flash-Pass visitors, the quality of the experience has most certainly gone down. In other words, they are not getting as much for their money. It is a fallacy that everyone benefits when an elite can buy their way to the head of the line. The elite are simply buying an entitled experience. Everyone else is actually, quite literally getting less as a result. For me, this is a good illustration of why the concept of the "bitter politics of envy" misses the mark. It's not envy to insist that you get your money's worth. It's not envy to object to being made to feel you and your family are second-class citizens when you've paid full price, played by the rules (and waited in line), and simply endured like everyone else has been for so many years. The second point I'd like to explore more is in how having a Flash Pass (having elite access to what everyone else needs to patiently wait their turn for) begins to alter how one views citizenship:
The commonality of experience is lost, and the lines are striated not simply by who can pay for a Flash Pass and who can't; they're also striated by race and class. The people sporting the Flash Passes are almost exclusively white, and they tend to be in better shape than those stuck on line. They tend to have fewer tattoos, and to look less, well, pagan. And by the end of the day, they start cutting lines where Flash Passes don't even apply — because they feel entitled to — and none of them, not even their kids, will so much as look at you. [emphasis mine]
I can just imagine the fights that break out when someone with a Flash Pass, who has been cutting line all day for the rides, perhaps even innocently goes to do so at the bathroom or somewhere else it doesn't apply. The extra vitriol with which the others waiting there will pounce on them (and their children) because their resentment has built up all day only serves to make an unnecessarily unfair situation even uglier. But it's not accurate, in my opinion, to label that resentment as envy. The Flash Pass holder trying to cut in the bathroom line is exhibiting a brand of arrogance our social contract cannot survive. It's ugly to pounce on them at that point, sure, but it's entirely necessary to our shared sense of fairness to not let them cut. Moreover, why, after a day of Flash Pass holders not even so much as looking at the people their cutting in front of, humiliating them in front of their children, should they expect kindness in the bathroom line? It's not a matter of simple envy at this point, but rather of quid pro quo. They're being good citizens to remind the Flash Pass holders the bathroom line is first-come--first-serve. How much relish they take in doing so is understandably proportionate to how many slights they endured with their family all day. But beyond this potential for justifiable payback, Junod explains why this all matter so much now, as we head into the elections in November:
Both parties have used their conventions to speak endlessly of preserving opportunity, and very often it sounds like they're addressing the very same thing. But Mitt Romney was born with a Flash Pass on his wrist, and he can't help but conceive opportunity as the opportunity to walk to the front of line — to either pay for it or to dream of being able to pay for it some day. The Democrats can't help defining opportunity differently: that everybody will have an opportunity to get to the front, if everybody waits. It's not a particularly popular solution, and a lot of people who regard waiting in line as the problem will ask what ideas the Democrats have for solving it.
But they miss the point: Democrats don’t have particularly innovative ideas for moving to the front of the line because for Democrats the line is the idea — because, as anybody standing half-naked on it can tell you, the line is America itself, and it only stops when you allow people to pass it by.
Consider this an open thread on citizenship, fairness, and bitter envy.


Blogger Ben Stansfield said...

holy crap, this was SO GOOD, it gets saved as a PDF, for the times when I just don't feel articulate enough to address people I know who argue the opposite side.
I see the divide here in Canada, too.
Thanks Mr. W. and Tom.

9/10/2012 05:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

@Ben, I know, right?

The line is the solution. Brilliant!

And as an analogy, it's pure genius. What else is government for except to find solutions for the MAJORITY?

9/10/2012 07:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Ebriel said...

Brilliant article. And these problems are something so many countries struggle with, each in their own way, depending on how they've dealt with class and privilege in their history.

And it took an Englishman thought up the Flash Pass. The incredible class-consciousness of the English takes some getting used to (I married one).

Let's hope we don't.

9/13/2012 09:51:00 AM  

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