Saturday, July 09, 2016

Fear of an impoverished people

Americans are afraid of the poor, and this book looks like a very interesting examination of that very question:

I became interested in figuring out the language: how do Americans talk about the poor? And then I realized that this is connected to the larger problem Americans have about class, that they believe a myth. We are told over and over again by writers, sometimes journalists, but mainly politicians, that we are an exceptional country, that we embrace the American dream. And what’s that rooted to this idea that we believe in social mobility. And we think that that idea, that promise, goes all the way back to the American revolution, that at that moment we broke free from the British system and that somehow we unburdened ourselves from the English class system. Now this is a problem that Americans have – they often prefer the myth over reality.

I began to look more closely at how Americans talk about class. There are a long list of slurs and of terms such as waste people, vagrants, rascals, rubbish, lubbers, squatters, crackers, clay-eaters, degenerates, rednecks, and of course, trailer trash. And you’ll see that just by paying attention to the words people use … what comes up over and over again, is the way the discussion of class throughout our history has forced on the centrality of land and land ownership, as well as what I call breeds, or breeding. And both of these big concepts come from the British. For example, the early indentured servants, the poor who the British wanted to dump into British colonial America, they were called waste people. And where does that term come from? It comes from the idea of waste land.

If a rich field, a productive field, is the sign of success, then fallow and untilled soil, soul that is ignored, the scrubby, swampy, completely worthless tract of land, is what waste land was. We forget – through most of our history we were an agrarian nation. That means that land ownership was the most important marker for designating an individual – and course we’re talking about, primarily, men – it was the most important signifier of civic identity, it was the first way to measure who had the right to vote, it also was a measure of independence. Americans didn’t believe everybody was free, you were only free if you had the economic wherewithal to control your destiny and where did that come from? It came from owning land.
We are also almost more British than the British.  We have a lot of culture to get over on the way to seeing the basileia tou theou.  I used to be more tolerant and even complacent about that; but I'm getting old, and age makes me think again as I did in youth:  What the hell?

Bonus:  a bit for Darwinism (which I am more and more appalled by):

One of the other really strange things that I think we’ve forgotten about the way in which race and class get intertwined. If you look at the embrace of social Darwininsm and evolutionary theory, and again this is building on the old ideas of animal husbandry, that you can breed people the way you breed dogs, there is the idea that poor whites are evolutionarily backward, they are unevolved people. And this particularly gets attached to those who live in Appalachia, the hillbilly. At the end of the 19th century there’s an attempt to recover these people as a kind of purer Anglo Saxon, that they have been protected from being corrupted. But the dominant theme is that they have not evolved at all. 
The roots of racism in America; again.

Oh, hell, read the review, then read the book.  I know I'm going to.  And I hardly read books anymore (old age that is tied to me as to a dog's tail).

People will tolerate having people above them, they’ll defer to an elite class, just as long as they have someone beneath them. We forget the psychological power of that. Americans like the rhetoric of equality but they don’t like it when it’s real, and they don’t really defend it when it comes to how can we create an equal society. When it’s so easy to dismiss different groups, usually in very shallow ways, just as a way for us who are of the middle class to feel that somehow we deserve what we have. We always want to mask it, we always want to rationalize it, but it’s been with us and it’s still with us. Not only are we not a post-racial society, we are certainly not a post-class society.

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