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    Coat of many colors

    Both Mark Alger and Robohobo commented on this post in ways that I think deserve a fuller response.

    On the one hand, class doesn’t matter in a free America. Mark says:

    Actually, Sean, if there’s a point to be made about Palin’s class, it should be made about where she is as an adult — what she accomplished on her own — rather than what she presumably “inherited” from her parents. In that case, she is — or was — working class, as her husband is virtually a poster boy of a working-class hero. (The real one, not the Sears one John Lennon sang about.)

    I’m going to argue that, since we don’t HAVE a hereditary ruling aristocracy, we don’t have an upper class, and, since we don’t HAVE a class of helots or villains, legally bound to the land or to an occupation, we don’t have a lower class, and that therefor, we are ALL middle class, and that trying to parse us further is invidious and — dare I say — un-American.

    The way Robohobo puts it is:

    No one in America is in any way disadvantaged. Fer heaven’s sake our poor are fat. The good part about this country is that someone like me who comes from a poorer background can succeed – and then have it disappear again – but that is another discussion.

    It sounds illogical to call everything the middle, which implies the existence of endpoints, but I know what Mark means: by standards that take in older societies with a history of aristocracies and serving classes (or flat-out serfs), America is entirely made up of commoners who are free to move about and make money and use it as we see fit. No one is titled, and there’s not even the shadow of disused titles cast over us. We have the Social Register and the First Families of Virginia and stuff, but they’re not the same thing.

    So at the most basic level, I think the point Mark and Robohobo are making is the most important one. People in their twenties just starting out may have quite a bit of baggage from their background to contend with, but those who’ve reached their mid-30s or so are responsible for what they’ve done with their own lives. They shouldn’t be indulged if they start whining that they can’t get it together because of their underprivileged childhoods. As a friend of mine who’d made a stable, happy life for herself after an abusive childhood once said, “Your issues may be your parents’ fault, but they’re still your responsibility.” Any discussion of class in America that encourages people just to resign themselves to the lives forecast by their upbringings is fallacious. I agree with that.

    I don’t really think that that’s the issue we’re talking about here, though. No one is arguing that Sarah Palin or Barack Obama was reared by wolves. What people do argue over (or at least make assertions based on questionable assumptions about) is how much their paths to success were eased by upbringing. Within that framework, I still think the point that neither had to struggle as much as some members of his or her claque imply is a valid one. (And Mark, isn’t it just as possible to say that Todd Palin was willing to marry up as that Sarah Heath was willing to marry down, in class terms? Presumably, moving into the governor’s mansion involved concessions for him, just as working the fishing boats involved concessions for her.)

    And when we’re talking about non-politicians, the issue expands to include children, who are not yet responsible for their own paths in life. We may not like to call the mechanism “class,” but it’s a fact that your parents’ education and income level are the most reliable predictors of your own. “Equality” can be conveniently waved around to give cover to social policy that actually reinforces inequalities that need to be addressed. By that I mean inequalities of opportunity, of course; I in no way support coercive programs engineered to fulfill someone’s grand vision of equalities of outcome. My point is not that calling Sarah Palin a “working-class” woman dilutes the meaning of the term in a way that drains authentic prole energy away from fundamental social revolution, or some such nonsense. My point is that there’s a real difference between modest middle-class and working-class realities, and if we’re going to use those terms, we shouldn’t misapply them.

    5 Responses to “Coat of many colors”

    1. Mark Alger says:

      I guess the whole idea of “class” as a meme for parsing the relative value of human beings (and that IS what it is used for by classists: face it) is a hot-button issue for me. Too many great Americans (and citizens of other countries, for that matter), have “risen above” their putative classes for me to consider it valuable, and too much ill is done in the name of this parsing for me to consider it harmless.

      On a lighter note, if you take a look at the sums involved in capitalizing even a small-ish commercial fishing operation, you’d instantly stop talking about “working” class in the Palins’ case. ::grin::


    2. Leslie says:

      You sure you’re not an editor as well as an ably quick writer, Sean? I’m an editor myself and agree wholeheartedly with using the meanings we have for words rather than allowing for out-of-the-ballpark implied meanings or kicking around meanings like they were little hacky sacks. (Though I also recognize that this is the process through which nuance and neologisms derive, so maybe it’s a losing battle?) I do think that writers, especially essayists, should make a pretense of at least trying to be understood by others.

      I do, though, have a sweet spot for the idea that “class” as an old world term does not really sync up with “class” in the new world sense and that that might be a big part of the explanation for the disconnect in terminology you’ve been addressing. You know?

    3. Sean says:

      Mark, I really do agree with you on the ideals. But I think that in practice, these considerations are always going to sneak in, just like evaluations of politicians based on looks. It’s as well to use the most obvious and commonly recognized label for them so that we can see them for what they are and give them (no more than) due weight. Also, you’d have to get public figures to stop talking about their upbringings as a way of signaling to voters that they’re Their Kind of People if you really wanted to take invidious class distinctions out of public politicking, and that’s just not going to happen.

      Leslie, I agree. The same word can always resonate differently with different groups within the same language, especially a multi-regional language such as English. If you’re going to use a word (such as class) that’s known to have a fluid definition, it’s your responsibility to make it as clear as possible what it means when you’re deploying it. And of course, that goes double for when you need to use a non-standard definition of a word in order to get across a particular idea. Your intended audience should not be forced to flail around in your text in order to figure out what the hell the words mean.

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