Sunday, August 15, 2004

Virtutis Ex Gratiae

Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams
by Alfred Lubrano

Excerpt from the book

Our country is very uncomfortable with class. We pretend we have no social classes, and to the extent their existence is alluded to, it is deprived of any ancillary impact. Some of us are wealthier, some less so, but according to popular myth this has little to no impact on our society.

This is polite idiocy. To pretend that people don't change based on their experiences as they grow up is to pretend that "Nurture" (of "Nature vs Nurture" fame) has no impact on a person's psyche, goals, morals and values. It should be the goal of any egalitarian or "meritocratic" society to minimize and mitigate the impact that these differences have on people, but to pretend they don't exist gets in the way of dealing with this issue.

Are some of these "class cultures" better than others? A silly question, but it is very clear that some do generally motivate people to achieve more than others, even controlling for the impact of the differences in wealth and personal contacts. No two cultures can have the same impact on a person in this (or any other arena), unless one posits that culture has no impact at all; insofar as that culture shapes people's desires and decision-making, that claim would just be silly as well.

So granting that each culture impacts widely disparate aspects of our lives, and that some of these cultures advantage us with regards to areas that the others find valuable, while others are comparative disadvantages in their impacts on their adherents, why do we pretend that all cultures, all mores from all walks of life are normatively equal and ought be promoted equally?
  • Why do we pretend that it is as "good" a choice to choose to be a philistine over being cultured?
  • Why do we pretend that mass culture is as "good" as, (or better than) high culture?
  • Why do people pretend that emulating the working class is somehow virtuous, when, given the choice, every member of that class would gladly give up their lives to live in "high society", even as they reject the values that one would have to accept to get there?

There are people who grow up in this country who see no value whatsoever in education. The social emphasis on the enabling qualities of college has convinced them that attending such and obtaining sheepskin is important, but the virtue of the liberal arts education still passes them by. Others, initially interested in the pursuits of the mind but scarred by hazing and condemnation from the knuckle-draggers they grow up with, see cultured hobbies as guilty pleasures, and fairly pointless ones. They grow up twisted, seeing virtue only in the values and preferences of the majority. Both may think to themselves that they have transcended their roots, but will inevitably prefer happy hour to a cocktail party, bowling to attending a lecture on the issues of the day, and "Kill Bill" to Control Room or the National Symphony Orchestra.


At 2:34 PM, [REDACTED] said...

Fascinating read. I've been reading it over a few days interspersed with actual work, and hoping none of my coworkers catches me educating myself when I should be working on some technical problem.

I believe that your basic argument is that we have definite classes even in (obstensibly) meritocratic society. This is nothing particularly revealing, as it's probably quite obvious to anyone who travels from one side of the city (DC) to the other.

Your more controversial argument, perhaps, is that there is nothing wrong with the existence of higher classes, or at the very least nothing wrong with lionizing certain characteristics or elements (culture, education, society, nonlocal politics, etc.) of the higher classes. I think this is a rather courageous thing to say, and I applaud you for it. I even agree; however, I expect you to receive some mild (and perhaps not-so-mild) criticism for making value judgements on the behaviors of the lower classes, largely because you are differentiating between the classes.

Screw that. The thing that separates you from a machine is that you *can* make value judgements, and I'm happy that someone is brave enough to come out and say that a college-educated person discussing international affairs at Politics and Prose is engaging in a higher activity than the uneducated janitor drinking away his sorrows at the local dive. Furthermore, engaging in that higher activity says something about the person. Perhaps it is unfair to say that it *always* translates into one being "better" than the other, but that *general suggestion* seems fair.

Am I better than everyone else? Of course not. Am I better than the average shlump who doesn't know who is running for president, who can't even identify a differential equation, who has no idea of the origin of the term "Catch-22", or why ad hominem tu quoque attacks are logically invalid? Yes, I think I am. I think you believe this of yourself, as well.

Where we get into danger is in assuming that there is nothing redeeming about the behaviors of classes outside of our own, or in believing that by membership in our class intrinsically translates into a member of that class being unquestionably valuable.

The book illustrates this: the lower classes value hard work, result-driven work ethics, family ties, and such, yet also [apparently] value blind obedience, conformity, a short-sighted view of wealth, and education *merely* as a means to a more comfortable existence (not as an end in itself). Those who really succeed "move on to the next level," i.e., move up to the middle class, and are what the author labels "Straddlers". Those who moderately succeed remain in their class, perhaps small business owners or a good steady union job, to raise a loving family and continue the struggle through to the next generation. Those who do not succeed at all die, end up in prison, or have such positions in life as such that they cannot maintain a family (and one may hope that they do not procreate).

We can also easily recognize things in the upper classes that are perhaps less desireable elements: decadence, ostentatiousness, elitism, consumerism, and quite frankly, we see a disturbing number of uneducated philistines in the "upper classes". A prime example of this would be Paris Hilton, whose behavior we clearly find appalling.

So when we are defining class, I think it might be appropriate to differentiate between those merely with money, and those who rank high in [our concept of] the meritocracy.

At 12:46 PM, [REDACTED] said...

Something to consider.


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