When I checked out from the library “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg, I was thinking about the forces behind the presidential election, but it turned out to be yet another revision of US history in search of why people are losers. The main guiding principle this time is NOT that stigma oppresses people, so it’s a political problem; nor that poverty is inescapable which is an economic problem; nor that people are wicked (drug takers, sexual renegades) which is a moral/religious problem; nxor that the particular resources of a place are a lid on prosperity which is what Jared Diamond suggests. This time Isenberg points to the European serf system, as carried to the new continent by the British Empire Builders. A subjugated class does all the work; a privileged class counts the money.
It’s an assumption that people can be sorted into a hierarchy. Forget whether it’s assumed that people from noble families are better or that people who own land (landed gentry) are better or that people with a lot of money from profiteering (industrialism, exploitation of war, government subsidized advantages) are higher. Forget whether college-educated people (NOT just people who got diplomas but those who actually learned) are better than high school level people. I made a list of possible causes — which I’ll spare you because it would be better if you made your own list, or if a little group sat down to brainstorm a list — of all the ways a person could move higher up the hierarchy. Or fall. It’s likely to be very long once you get a grip on the concept.
What’s surprising is that it changes over the decades and centuries when new technologies (computers) or new natural conditions (rising sea level) or some new cultural valuing (ostentatious wealth, sexual revolution) enter the scene. Sometimes it’s an obvious loss of wealth (freeing the slaves) and sometimes it’s something mysterious (the most recent Depression, which was a matter of book-keeping and gambling of intangible assets). But the basic assumption is always that people sort out into layers and it’s better to be in one of the higher layers.
The tricky part is that what works in one set of circumstances, does not in another. If a person in an immigrant group that still has clear borders were an elder, a leader, that person would be “up,” but as soon as enough of the next generation gets assimilated, educated and making money from outside the group, that leader will be pushed aside. We see this even in the indigenous world of the reservation, but surprisingly often the next generation — the children of the assimilated people — will turn back to their grandparents and try to recapture their roots. Suddenly the epithet “blanket-ass Indian” — meaning someone too poor and culturally backward to dress properly— is gutted when the practice of recognizing leaders and achievements becomes gifting them with “Indian” blankets from Pendleton or Hudson’s Bay. (Quite expensive, actually.)
Recently an attempt by a religious group (Unitarian Universalists) which prides itself on being open-minded, progressive, and educated, was blocked by a neighborhood from acquiring a building because those folks assumed that religious people are low-class rabble-rousers who would attract unwanted attention. We are in a time of social earthquake when the bottom becomes the top and no one is quite sure how to map the terrain.
Part of this dynamic is increased “empathy,” that is, awareness that there are suffering, barely surviving people, who can’t be ignored because they show up in National Geographic all the time. They risk their lives to come over here, climbing our walls and slipping in under disguises. They dress funny and their food is different. But then those who are doing very well imitate their ethnic clothes and eat in their trendy restaurants — as though the people left to survive at home weren’t scraping by on our discarded t-shirts and NGO bulk food.
Our own people just die in our streets, a pile of rags.
Our own people just die in our streets, a pile of rags.
I try to remember that “all comparisons are odious” because it means someone has to be on the down side, often unfairly, but I blunder out of haste or insensitivity or just dumbness. We are not all equal because we are not all alike. But simple difference should not be an imposed burden. Yet it is and much of our story-telling is about how to bear life, how to rise above challenges, and how to give a hand to others. How to be loved because we are ourselves, which means stepping outside the hierarchy labels into actual relationship.
My ancestors on one side (Pinkerton) were stiff-necked Irish, prone to anger and violence. (Yeah, those “detectives.”) My grandfather on that side married a Cochran. They were a wealthy family (woolen mills) and he was not considered good enough, which made him defiant at the same time that he used poor judgment out of wrath. He had no sons, which could have been a source of rising, but resourcefully depended on education to raise the status of his daughters. A nurse, a teacher, and one was meant to be a lawyer. She wasn’t but her sons-in-law were because her daughters (she had no sons) married them. “It’s as easy to love a rich man as a poor man,” she said.
My father’s family, Strachan, was not rich, but they were honorable in the conservative Scots way, which is also a source of social status. They were homesteaders and then WWII raised up my uncles: a pilot, a draftsman, and a real estate broker. But my father stuck to agriculture, even though he was the oldest and the only one with a college degree. His failure in life came as a result of an automobile crash resulting in a concussion because he smashed the windshield with his forehead. He accumulated a lot of books which gave him neighborhood status, but didn’t help him rise at work where he could never quite grasp what he was doing. He never read the books or the piles of subscribed magazines. (I did.)
Doubling back to the Pinkertons, with the educated daughters, they all married Hatfields who were landowners. When I watch “Masterpiece Theatre”, I see their English faces. Not French enough to be gentry. Their land at the southern tip of Oregon's Willamette Valley is very much like English fields and forests. The family lore is that the old original crafty Hatfield advised his sons to marry the Pinkerton girls because they were smart and smart is a resource. (They mocked Old Pinkerton and saw him as deserving to lose his daughters.) It was good advice but my mother chose a Strachan with a degree who had brothers. No one could have predicted his trauma.
Temperament comes into it. And always the gender-roles. My mother was determined that I would have a bachelor’s degree and wanted it to be teaching, like hers. When I went back to seminary, she became angry and belittling, because she didn’t want me to be “better than her.” To her it was a betrayal of the social solidarity that proved her own value as a teacher. She believed in the higher prestige of religion, but only for men and only Christian — I was moving “up,” which was such a source of her family’s quarrelling. Ironically, I was UU, where my father attended as an atheist. (If he ever attended.)
Beyond that, there is a nearly unconscious product of hierarchical aspiration that says “Don’t get too smart. Don’t think you’re better than us. If you fly too high, you’ll crash.” (The old Icarus Complex.) Ask an American Indian about that, or anyone else who escapes a stigmatized category but loses his feathers. A fat person who tries to lose weight is often sabotaged by friends and family, because they don’t like change; they are afraid that the social marker of slimness will mean that person is above them now. The movie “Working Girl” is all very well as movie fantasy, but in real life all those applauding secretaries will desert their achieving friend and resent her behind her back.
This presidential election, when interpreted in these terms, is fascinating. Markers of class, entitlement to dominate, debts incurred and claimed, and the simple factor of appearance are all in play. Republicans who are convinced they are wealthy because they are virtuous, have their “feet” cut out from under them when their secret lives are revealed. Democrats who are convinced they are virtuous because they reach out to the poor, likewise turn out to be hypocrites. Crime, or at least law-breaking, appears to have become a source of status. Mafia rules apply, as they always do in chaos.