Thursday, December 08, 2016

White Class Resentment

There is a cold civil war in America – indeed, it is likely the leftover of the hot civil war of the 1860’s. It is a civil war based on white class resentment and it infects virtually all corners of mainstream American culture. Why do our kids have too much homework? Why are there FoxNews and MSNBC? Why are there smoking areas in extremely inconvenient places? Why do we suddenly have to sing “God Bless America” at the seventh inning stretch? It’s all about class insecurity and class resentment.

Middle class whites are proud of their material trappings, of their worldliness, of their bourgeois lifestyle. They know that they are doing better than their parents who did better than their grandparents, who were either immigrants or the children of immigrants and lived a tough life in the Depression as members of the working class. But that is not us now.

Then they look at their kids and the promise of social advancement that could be assumed for them is not there for their kids. There is the constant concern among white middle-class parents that their kids may not remain in the class that ought to be there by birth-right. So, they worry and they act. Helicopter parents hover to make sure that wrong steps don’t lead to the path away from the middle class. Schools press kids from a young age to make sure they can make it into college, especially the right college. They are taken from activity to activity to bolster their standing to make their success more likely. When I ask my students – largely from this population – what would happen if they messed up in college, what would be the worst fate that could befall them, without a thought they all say the same thing, “Working at McDonald’s.” Jean Paul Sartre wrote that hell is other people, but to the white middle-class of contemporary America, it is only certain people – those who identify with Sarah Palin.

Their cries of “elitism” ring strange in middle-class ears. Elite is good. Elite is well-educated. Elite is what we strive for. How is this a bad thing? What the middle-class doesn’t realize is that “elite” is used to dehumanize the working class. They are sneered at for being inferior.
But it isn’t the inferiority of minorities. The middle-class went to college and listen to NPR where they learned about structural racism and white privilege. The social status of the non-white underclass has a sociological explanation and we need to side with social justice to elevate them…eventually, when it doesn’t raise our taxes too much.

But lower-class and working class whites? They have white privilege and still ended up down the ladder. They got a head start and blew it. We knew these people in school when we were kids. They didn’t do their homework, were the first ones into drugs and alcohol, got pregnant and dropped out. They are where they are because of their bad decisions and lack of work ethic. Yes, they labor manually now, working hard for long hours, but that’s because they didn’t put in the work then. And, hey, I may be behind a desk, but I work long hours, too. I just get more money because I deserve it. I was successful. They are sneered at by us because they deserve it.

And they know that's what the middle-class think of them -- that they are human failures. And they resent it. They demand status. They demand celebration. That is why we now sing “God Bless America” at every professional baseball game in the middle of the 7th inning. It is why we “honor the troops.” Who are the troops?

After the G.I. Bill after WWII made college possible for a wide range of Americans for whom it had always been inaccessible previously, and the war in Vietnam from which one could receive a deferment from service if one was in college, everyone who could go to college, did. As a result, if you wanted a good job, your competition were all college grads and so you had to be. Everyone knows that the key to higher pay today is college. So, who doesn’t go to college and instead serves in the military? A few because they are called by duty, honor, or patriotism, but there are plenty of patriotic accountants and middle managers. To the middle-class, the military is for the few kids who mess up the statistic of how many graduates went on to earn college degrees. It is for those they see as the screw-ups. So, when we are honoring the troops, there is a sense among the middle-class that we are not celebrating dedication to democracy and freedom, but saying good job to those who refused to work hard when they were supposed to.

To the working class, they appreciate the use of words like valor and honor, but really it is finally them in the spotlight. Everyone has to stand up and honor them, praise them, value them.
And THAT, I would argue, is the real subtext of this past election. Yes, the racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism were prominently on display. But pushing it all was an argument in the white family. The middle-class thinks the working class unfit, stupid, and immoral while the working-class thinks the middle class to be stuck up jerks who don’t know what it means to have to work. I’ve seen a LOT of articles and memes about how the Trump supporters will feel when they realize that he is going to screw them over. They’ll see and we can rejoice in our Schadenfreude. But my guess is that they won’t be the slightest bit angry at all. Sure, they’ll get screwed over, but they always do. And when they don’t it is because uppity middle-class people with their sociology and stuff are giving them extra money for overtime. But they don’t want our charity. They are pissed and want to blow stuff up. Cut off their nose to spite their face? Sure, hand me the knife. At least you’ll get cut, too, this time. This election was never about policy, it was always about resentment.