Stuff White People Like: A Theory of the Liberal Leisure Class
"Look at our generation … Stuff is all we have … It's not a display of wealth. It's about a display of authenticity and taste."
You’ve probably heard this one before, but I have to begin at the beginning anyway. A few weeks after starting Stuff White People Like, a blog satirizing upper-middle-class liberals, primarily the American version and including the green-centric and hipster mutations, copywriter Christian Lander found himself at the forefront of the “Internet famous”. The success of the blog (over 47 million hits at the time of this writing) made the eyes of the scouts over at Random House flash with dollar signs, and the publishing giant hastily offered him a pile of money to put out a book, cheaply constructed but with expanded content, of the same name.
Since its July release Lander has been interviewed by The Onion’s A.V. Club, Salon and CBS, among others; has given a talk at Google headquarters (no exercise ball-chairs were harmed during the event); and, in early September, he crossed over into the dreaded (to white people) mainstream with an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
The book/blog is essentially a numbered list of things (“stuff”) that Landers, who is white (you knew that), thinks most hilariously represents his demographic. The entries are delivered deadpan throughout, as if he were writing a how-to manual for outsiders trying to infiltrate and exploit (financially, usually) white culture. Here’s an example from Threatening to Move to Canada (#75):
Though they will never actually move to Canada, the act of declaring that they are willing to undertake the journey is very symbolic in America's white culture. It shows that their dedication to their lifestyle and beliefs is so strong that they would consider packing up their entire lives and moving to a country that is only slightly different from the one they live in now…
Be aware that this information can be used quite easily to gain the trust of white people. Whenever they say, “I’m moving to Canada,” you must immediately respond with “I have relatives in Canada.” They will then expect you to tell them about how Canada has a perfect health-care system, legalized everything, and no crime. Though not true, it will reassure them that they are making the right choice by saying they want to move there.
Stuff White People Like (SWPL hereafter) can be incredibly funny and, excepting the oblivious and the hopelessly self-righteous, those who can identify with it at all might just learn something about themselves—like how obnoxious it is to think Vintage (#49) clothing makes them “authentic”, or how ludicrous it is to think a Toyota Prius (#60) is somehow (1) good for the environment, and (2) affordable to the overwhelming majority of people who drive cars.
And those who find it funny might, like me and many other commenters, account for it along these lines: “This is totally me, but not really. I mean, sure, I can’t help Standing Still at Concerts (#67) and think Living by the Water (#51) is awesome, but at least I’m not one of those smug, composting yuppies with that stupid Apple (#40) logo tattooed to their ankles—I get stuck behind those assholes every time I go to Coffee Bean (Coffee is #1) for my iced mocha latte.”
That’s why it’s important that Lander’s stuff isn’t mutually inclusive. “White people” who attend Film Festivals (#3) do not necessarily Make You Feel Bad for Not Going Outside (#9), and so on. So the outdoorsy environmentalist justifies himself against the film school hipster, the film school hipster justifies himself against the wine-tasting yuppie, who justifies himself against the pop culture savant—or any hybrid of subcultures in between, really—and all, by believing they alone are living rightly, unique beings irreducible to stereotypes, prove themselves guilty of the class elitism at the heart of Lander’s satire.
They're the right kind of white people, don’t you know; they are resplendent individuals who simply cannot be determined by their economic status—they are above class. It’s a free will philosophy that, unfortunately, is not extended to the `wrong’ kind of white person (the kind from Kansas that votes Republican, or the kind that discovers `your’ obscure band after it gets popular), and is especially not extended to the poor person of any color who is uniquely unqualified to afford shopping at Whole Foods (#48), or to afford food at all (more on poor people as automatons in a minute).
I should make it clear that SWPL is not, by any means, a mean-spirited screed. “It’s comedy first and foremost,” Lander says of the book in his Onion interview (The Onion made it on the blog, finally, at #109); and when asked how he decides what makes it on the list, he replies, “Me. It’s a mirror.”
He admits that there’s some anger behind the comedy—it is satire, after all—but it’s not the kind of anger you might expect from someone giving his class, mostly the 40 and under subset, its first proper comeuppance. “Look at our generation,” he says. “What do we have left? Stuff is all we have… You’re just as guilty of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses' mentality as your parents or grandparents. It's not a display of wealth. It's about a display of authenticity and taste. And so it's just my anger about that competition. And what I'm angry about is, I just can't stop myself from doing it.”
Lander may have a point, but I find it odd that, instead of getting angry at the legitimate follies he exposes—egoism, hypocrisy, conspicuous consumption, self-righteousness—he gets stuck in the web of his own blog, and hates on himself because he can’t keep from committing these follies. Not Being Responsible for Their Actions is surely something else white people like, but only when they fail; “any time that a white person succeeds it is entirely because of their hard work and natural talent” (from Therapy, #146).
But, to be fair, Lander is a comedian, and comedians generally make a living by not biting the hands that clap for them. Delving seriously into the deeper, more subversive criticisms in SWPL presents a looming catch-22, as he would have to make unironic judgments on his customers, thus implicating himself (unironically) in the circular process of elitism he created. But there comes a point at which calling out a behavior or a belief goes further than the humor aisle, whether he (or Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert [their respective shows are #35]) cares to admit it or not.
Take this, for instance, from Hating Corporations (#82): “When engaging in a conversation about corporate evils it is important to never, ever mention Apple Computers, Target, or IKEA. White people prefer to hate corporations that don’t make stuff they like.” One can’t get much closer to the bull’s-eye than this, and I doubt that Lander, the next time someone claims to have achieved enlightenment after reading Naomi Klein’s anti-corporate, anti-globalization manifesto No Logo, won’t realize the Irony (#50) of the fact that the book was an international bestseller published by a multinational corporation. In other words, I assume he learned something through the process of writing the book/blog, just like I learned something by reading it.