Thursday, January 31, 2008

A word about class.

Anyone familiar with filmmaker Michael
Apted's tremendous "Up" series must also
have a sense of familiarity with the
British class system. Odd that it seems
so unfamiliar to American viewers, considering
the rigidity of our own class divides.
Is it odd, though?

There are quite a few differences between
the British class system and the American
one, albeit differences of an aesthetic
kind. First, in the United States there
have always been the twin mythologies of
mobility and meritocracy. Anyone born in
a West Virginia holler could, provided he
had the wit, skill and work ethic, rise
to the upper echelons of achievement. This
misapprehension doesn't appear to have captured
the proletarian mind of Great Britain, and
for good reason. If nothing else, that it
is complete rubbish. Or, in the American
vernacular, more appropriately, bullshit.

And it is a bullshit we hold onto with religious
fervor. This is not to say that lightning doesn't
strike, or that a combination of intelligence
and doggedness will not lead to a better
station. It has happened, and, despite the best
efforts of the ruling class in the States, it
might even continue to happen. This does not
change the manifest truth that it is
a complete aberration. In addition, the American
working class has so completely internalized
this bill of goods that it comes as a great
surprise to many when the clear evidence points
to the fact that social mobility is much more attainable
in Norway, the Netherlands... come to think of it,
probably even in England, Ireland, Scotland and
Wales... than here in the States. Though it is
a pleasant dream to many, one must wonder whether
it is a net positive.

This brings to mind a concrete similarity on both
sides of the pond: the ruling class has and
openly displays a disgust and contempt for its
underlings. One could break it down even to
separate taxable classes, with the net result
always remaining; namely, that each class
above loathes the ones below it, and that the
ones below, by and large, aspire towards the
ones above. This is where old Horatio causes more
than a little head scratching.

Mobility and meritocracy promote class antagonism
among the working class, all right, but it manifests
itself in an injurious sort of self-loathing. "What
does it say about me," the lower income bracket
can be heard to say collectively, "that I am where
I am? Obviously, because I haven't worked hard
enough, I am not smart enough, I haven't the
gumption." Within this formation, the concept of
the American Dream has done little, save to
wrest us from inconvenient realities.

The upper classes have their role to play, too.
Whether consciously or not, they maintain the
mythology. On the question of consciousness, one
might lean to the latter. This function goes on
without so much as a thought to what it is or
why it is being done. The American way about
being upper class is, to use the tired baseball
analogy, to be born on third thinking you've
hit a triple. Forgetting that the preponderance
of wealth is inherited, rather than created,
the higher tax bracket folks... just plain
folks, mind you... renounce the quite admirable
British traditions of noblesse oblige and
wearing an élite education on one's sleeve --
or his blazer, as the case may be. When it
comes to attaining educations or operations,
we're all in it together, the thinking goes.
Never mind that our public schools are looking
more and more like British public schools. (Of
course, a public school in Britain would be called
a private school here. To bring the continent in
for just a moment, I am reminded of just how
gobsmacked an in-law living in Paris was when
she was informed that an American "public" university
education came at a great cost. "How is that
public?" she asked. I didn't have an answer, really,
other than to point out that they are at least
tax exempt.) The leap from an American
public school in, say, rural Mississippi, to
one in Napa Valley, cannot be ignored, try as we
might. It is beyond clear that opportunities are
apportioned, as most opportunity stems from
education, and that the apportionment is overwhelmingly
related to income. That this states the obvious is
not as telling as the fact that it need be stated.
Whether it is technology or tutelage, or the combination,
the poor (and one might hasten to add more
qualifiers, such as black, rural, urban, Latino, &c.)
begin with a marked disadvantage, only to be
sold the idea that it is their lack of initiative
that keeps them behind their affluent countrymen.

A third "m" could be included, in the form of
militarism. Again, it is not so much that the
investigation of militarism in the United States
should lead to a string of truisms, but that they
require any investigation in the first place.
Truism one: the poor disproportionately fight and
die in our wars, to the benefit of the wealthy. Most
of them do so because the possibility of a solid
public education often requires military service to
pay for. If one looks anecdotally to a place like
Manhattan, Kansas, the class rift becomes clear in
euphemism as well as concrete terms.

Manhattan is home to Kansas State University, and
is situated only a few miles from Fort Riley. There
is much lore of the sordid and base ways of the
GI's among nonmilitary residents. This occurs
especially within the academic population, whose
students refer to the soldiers and their offspring
as "Riley Rats." Nice term, that, for the men and
women who, at great cost and little reward, help
to maintain America's economic primacy. Again,
those fortunate enough to have their education paid
in full respond to the working class community, in
this instance, the military, with undisguised contempt.
Again, the people on the lower rungs of the class
ladder respond by endeavoring to join them in their
educational pursuits. These pursuits are demanded
largely because they are becoming the only way to
transition into that mysterious world heretofore
unmentioned: that of the middle class.

With education being a for-profit enterprise, the
best way to sustain profitability is to pretty much
demand universal, or near-universal attendance.
In this globalized economy, the thought of working
an assembly line and earning enough to house, feed,
clothe and educate one's family is nigh on quaint.
So what is the answer? Get some enormous loans,
hope that you keep above water while bettering yourself,
and earn that degree. It would be interesting to
have solid statistics on how many Americans who
give it the old college try a second time around end
up with a diploma rather than just debt. Now, being
a perpetual debtor isn't your only option. There
are recruiters near you just waiting to tell you about
the educational opportunities available to the
few and the proud.

All told, the American class system appears more
intractable than the fabled British one. In the
end, the treadmill working class Americans find
themselves on goes nowhere because of our
mythologies. It is as though there are thousands
of sailboats, dinghies and the like out there,
some of them more posh than others, but most of
them sea worthy. In the old British system, a person
would pick his boat, occasionally making a
fuss over just what kind of a boat he was saddled
with. In the United States, we're told that we
can all, in one way or another, get on the Queen
Mary. Little wonder so many of us find ourselves
out to sea in need of rescue.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A quasiclerihew for a bit of fun.

Jotted something down last night which
reflects an aesthetic opinion, so I thought
I'd share... also, I need to bump the
election down a little. Politics and
middleweight boxing matches can really
mess with a person's sense.

Academics is a parlor game,
set them up
knock them down.
Evidence available? Today,
do we revere or revile Ezra Pound?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Circular Firing Squads

It has been a while since
any substantive talk of poetry has come up. At the
moment, versifying has taken a back seat. So, here
goes politics. Again.

The nominations from the "two" parties look to be
a long, hard slog. Just as I found myself poised to
watch a second coffin nail, in the form of a
double digit New Hampshire win, into the tiresome
Clinton dynasty, here came an appalling surprise.
Now, it's on to South Carolina, Nevada and Super
Tuesday. Then, possibly a brokered convention.
Maybe even two. What is the likely outcome? If
recent history is a good judge, two war candidates,
two candidates in the pocket of banks and insurance
and oil companies, a two-headed monster of a decision
which will speed us along to 2012 in a way that
must make the descendants of the Mayans laugh. (If
it weren't for all that death squad business.)

Democrats seemed ready. Republicans seemed ready.
Independents seemed ready. Whether it was crocodile
tears, the cynical politics to attack JFK and MLK,
or the Bradley effect, the race is going on to all
50 states.

One interesting postulate was given by none other
than Pat Buchanan. As he sees it... and I have a
tough time disagreeing... the Democratic Party
is going through an identity battle, splitting its
six primary blocs into two wings: on one side,
the blue collar (labor) folks, the old and
middle class women; on the other, the educated,
African Americans and the young. I can't see
much cause for arguing Buchanan's assertion.

Despite the fact that Bill brought us NAFTA and
welfare reform, despite the fact that Hillary has
retained the services of a Wal-Mart executive, labor
is somehow leaning towards Clinton. So much for
voting self-interest.

Portion two of the Clinton/establishment triumvirate
are the baby boomers. They like one of their own,
and they don't have any interest in ceding their
stranglehold on the American consciousness. Nothing
suits this group better than America existing to
relive their glory years over and over, until they
leave the country to their kids. (Sorry, GenXers,
your time will not be coming.)

Finally, the women. The woman who is a Hillary voter
swings on the issue of plumbing.

On the Obama/change side, there are the educated.
Does this suggest that those voting for Hillary
are uneducated? Pretty much. Excluding the
baby boomer group, the basis of her support, i.e.
the less than erudite blue collar worker and
the symbolist feminist, is one of blissful
ignorance. It is a curious conundrum for a person
such as myself: the working class, my class, is
again going against me. Much as I loathe academics,
I find myself on their side of things.

My consolation is that I can group myself on
the "young" side of things. Relatively speaking,
I am young. The unfortunate kind of young that
landed before boomer kids, destined to swim in
a sea of sixties nostalgia and ironic despair
until the kids ten years my junior take the
reins. It is obvious why younger voters
swing towards Barack: he's one of us, he's
different, idealistic, he isn't a product of
the cynical Clinton-Bush era. He isn't a Clinton
or a Bush, and that counts for something.

Then, there are the African-Americans. Their
reasoning is pretty obvious. I don't blame
them either. I would, were it not for the
case that Barack Obama is a great candidate
and a great man, from all indications, who
represents the best of this country. You
wouldn't see large percentages of the A-A
vote for J.C. Watts or Alan Keyes. That the
best candidate happens to have this skin
tone is just icing. Plus, you have the Bill
Clinton "first black president" bullshit,
which would be enough for me to vote against
him, were I not so pigment challenged.

So, there you have it. The future of America
comes down to a thirty-five year old black
college professor vs. an old dumb broad.
Unless the Republicans win out. Then, it is
a battle between corporatist religious wingnuts,
populist religious wingnuts, war hawks and
a man with a 9/11 mantra.

Even though they've moved all the primaries
up, we'll still have August conventions,
meaning an Independent would have a tough
time getting on the ballot or building a
ground game. This election season has been
unusually long, but it'll seem very short
if Rudy and Hillary prevail.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

What Song Would You Pick?

A recent development has convinced me that
many of us compose in what amounts to an
electronic Bantustan. This medium allows the
impression of egalitarianism, but it really
isn't the case.

I'll leave it there for the moment.