Author: Aaron Jacob

Social class in America: the inequality we ignore

When Paul Fussell wrote Class in 1983, social class in America was “notably embarrassing”; sociologist Paul Blumberg, three years earlier, had called it “America’s forbidden thought”. Today, with the focus of media, academic, and political rhetoric on matters of race and sex, class consciousness—to use an admittedly dangerous term—seems absent from the public mind. Rather than being forbidden, the matter of social class as something which can transcend race has been all but forgotten.

But certain questions are only answerable in terms of socioeconomic class. When one asks, as the Washington Post did recently, why the country’s “most progressive cities” are losing their Black residents; or, as the Atlantic has asked, why “blue” cities are often unaffordable for middle-class families; or why the poorest county in the country—Owsley County, Kentucky—is about 98% non-Hispanic White; the progressive cries of racial injustice fall flat.

When I was growing up in suburban areas of the peripheral South, there was no “social class” per se—there were merely different kinds of people. Some lived in houses, others lived in trailers; some moved a lot, others didn’t; some always had money in their pocket, others didn’t. But more importantly to me as a kid, some people looked and acted very differently from others; some read books and others didn’t; some listened to the music I liked and others didn’t. These latter differences, especially the petty disagreements between subcultures which are so important to post-WWII Western youth, did much to cloud my vision of the socioeconomic divisions which were at the root of so many of them.

Such divisions are, ultimately, a matter of differences in shared experience–vocational experience in particular. Differences in shared experience are related to nearness and similarity; people are especially likely to form group identities with those to whom they perceive themselves to be geographically close and similar in culture or likeness. If someone lives far away and has no relation to you, you probably don’t perceive any deep commonality with them–unless you simulate nearness with the help of, say, the Internet.

To draw a useful map of class in the United States, then, means knowing what are the most socially divisive differences in vocational experience–in other words, the differences which are most likely to determine: 1) what kinds of people you live near and 2) what your (sub)cultural norms are, not to mention 3) your material conditions. Some of these might be: whether you have gone to college, whether you own a business, what your credentials are, etc. We can develop such a map in greater detail in the future, but for now we can distinguish an educated class–those living in what Charles Murray calls superZIPs–and an uneducated one. The two are easy to tell apart:

Several teenage church members spent a weekend helping to repair an elderly woman’s small house on a winding country road. For some, the experience was an eye-opener.

“I don’t usually encounter people who aren’t like us,” Zach Hannan, a River Hill High School senior who hopes to become a doctor, said as he joined adults replacing a damaged kitchen floor. He added, “I’m not used to seeing small houses.”

Hannan said that he has accompanied his parents, both psychologists, on cruises to Europe and Alaska and that most of his friends have been to Europe, too. Working nearby, Brandon Pelletier, who headed to Ohio State University this fall to study business, said his friends all have smartphones and shop for high-end clothes at the local mall.

So why, with all this in mind, are “America’s most progressive cities” in the process of “losing African Americans”? For the same reason that Chicanos in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago want “White hipsters” to stop moving in: the educated class is culturally unlike the urban minorities in places like Chicago and Austin, and, more to the point, it makes use of material conditions–gainful employment, home ownership, stable location, etc.–that the uneducated, of any race, urban or rural, do not enjoy in the same proportion. It wields greater social capital as well as economic capital, and both are dependent on social networks which members of the uneducated classes tend not to belong to. This means that, as happily egalitarian as the gentry might be, gentrification doesn’t somehow induct poor Blacks into their ranks. Eric Tang at the Washington Post answers his own question, and does so in terms of class:

It’s not that these cities are no longer liberal, per se, but that the brand of (neo)liberalism they now celebrate is unaccountable to the concerns championed by lower-waged workers[.]
[…]
It’s a liberalism that has, quite literally, left no room for the low-waged worker, particularly African Americans.

Not to mention poor and rural Whites, who not only do not benefit from affirmative action, but are discriminated against by universities. Whatever “White privilege” the educated class has, poor Whites are missing out.

Progressivism, then, is a signal of class; perhaps the greatest impediment to its acceptance by more Americans is economic insecurity. After all, if you went to a good school and make more money than most of the country, bloating the bureaucracy a little more doesn’t sound so bad. But if your livelihood is threatened by possible layoffs, high rent, and debt–in other words, if you’re one of an increasing number among the uneducated middle classes–voting Democrat may be simply unaffordable.

One doesn’t get the sense that middle- and working-class people are as conscious of this as they were, say, a century ago. Americans seem no longer to be as suspicious of the very wealthy as they once were. With the neoliberal GOP moving leftward on social issues and the Democrats losing their economic populism, we are left with two brands of big-government quasi-libertarianism: one for the dwindling middle class, and one for the gentry and their expanding class of dependents. Huey Long and William Jennings Bryan would find both parties hostile to what they stood for; more to the point, so would most of the American political establishment prior to the late 20th century.

To think that the implementation of egalitarian ideas would cause such an ever-growing class divide–an increasingly racial one at that!

Bootleggers and Baptists: cannabis edition

Last month in Garden City, Kansas, an 11-year-old boy was detained by police after speaking up during a talk by a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) police officer about cannabis. His mother, as it turns out, is one Shona Banda, who has spent years advocating for the medicinal use of the drug, and after her son was detained, her home was raided and a judge recommended she lose custody of him:

As Shona’s son listened to the misinformation given by authorities to his class during the drug education presentation, he courageously spoke up and informed them that the information they were relating was incorrect in regards to cannabis.  He was pulled from class and sent to the office for questioning by authorities without his mother present.

When he failed to return home from school, Banda contacted the school only to be told that her son had be detained by authorities.  She went to the station, where she was informed that she was not being detained, but that they were obtaining a search warrant on her home and that she would not be permitted to enter the residence until the search was executed.

During the raid, authorities confiscated an alleged mere 2 ounces of cannabis flower and 1 ounce of cannabis oil. Banda has yet to be charged and was able to go home after the raid.  Shona had a hearing, which seemed to be going her way until the judge spoke up about how many charges she was going to be facing as a result of the raid on her home.  It was recommended that her son be placed into the custody of her ex, the boy’s father.  Luckily, he lives very close-by and she has not been denied visits with her son.  Shona’s next court date, is ironically schedule for 4/20.  She has no idea what will ensue next as a result of her son’s courageous words, but says, “they don’t have a clue that I’m walking in with [my] head held high, proud of who I am and what I do.”

This incident isn’t egregious simply because cannabis is “merely a plant” or has health benefits. Aside from any such benefits cannabis may have is the fact that the resources spent on its prohibition, and the very question of whether to prohibit it, are managed at levels of jurisdiction which are too high to accord very well with the cultural exigencies of people “on the ground”. Prohibition creates a boundary of legality that matches poorly with local and regional boundaries of culture (Garden City, it is to be noted, is only a few towns away from Colorado, where cannabis is legal).

Not only are there perhaps millions of cannabis users like Shona Banda, but those who go to prison for possession or sale of the drug are not actually having any possible underlying problem of criminality in their community addressed. They are being swept into a larger system of administration, which outsources the task of handling criminality—and indeed that of determining what constitutes crime—from the local or regional level to that of three hundred million people.

The channels through which $8.7 billion are spent each year on cannabis prohibition do not distinguish between a mother who uses cannabis oil medicinally and a delinquent for whom cannabis use is simply an easily targetable offense—or the many shades of respectability therebetween—nor do they provide solutions for the root causes of delinquency in particularly crime-ridden areas. Could the case ever reasonably be made that Detroit, for example, would see a massive drop in violent crime if cannabis ceased to exist?

You may have heard the tale of the bootleggers and the Baptists, in which groups who would never otherwise interact, and are in fact at cross purposes, join together to promote regulation:

“Arkansas liquor stores have allied with religious leaders to fight statewide legalization of alcohol sales. The stores in wet counties don’t want to lose customers. The churches don’t want to lose souls. Larry Page, a Southern Baptist pastor and director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, which traces its roots to the Anti-Saloon League of Arkansas in 1899, [also recalled]. . .when his group joined with feminists to oppose pornography and cooperated with Mississippi casinos to fight gambling in Arkansas.”[14]

The lesson here is twofold: first, that the prohibition of a given substance or activity will be to the benefit of both moralists and those who make their buck by taking advantage of the prohibition; and secondly, that the maintenance of local norms in a given area may be helped by ad-hoc alliances with outside groups.

Note, however, that the very fact that Arkansas liquor stores make money on sales to residents of dry counties is an indication of dry ordinances not matching real-life norms. In other words, the boundaries we set between groups are not always to the good of those groups; they limit agency in unhealthy ways, not only on the individual level but more importantly on the level of small groups. Drug prohibition is one example of such a boundary:

One pathological boundary that has been imposed top-down by our democratic system is drug prohibition. Total prohibition, in the form of the drug war, drew a boundary that created a very lucrative niche that only the most ruthless, violent actors could fill. The drug war prevented small-scale, non-totalitarian solutions to drug problems from ever being attempted, including the kind of small group rituals that allow people to use drugs in healthy, prosocial ways. The drug war hampers small group agency even more than individual agency; individuals may use drugs underground, supplied by those violent niche-fillers, in isolation or among the dispossessed, but if groups attempt to use drugs in healthy ways, a raid is almost guaranteed.

So for a conservative who values the formation of stable families and communities, as for a proponent of exit, to uphold such boundaries as drug prohibition is to harm one’s own interests—assuming that one does not live in a high-crime area whose safety would only be further endangered by the release of delinquents who happen only to have been busted for drug-related offenses, of course. But even then, no solution is being provided, only a temporary fix which must be continually repeated.

As we see in the case of Shona Banda and her son, this temporary fix also creates new problems of its own. It prevents healthy, semi-permeable boundaries from forming between different groups and areas, and thus diminishes local autonomy.

Britannus Americanus: A Letter from a Jacobite

FROM THE PEN OF AN AMERICAN.
TIME, DATE, LOCATION UNDISCLOSED.*

O Britannus Americanus! That great Spectre by which the entire World knows most keenly the Mind and Wit of the Puritan,—a Form of Mankind whose presence upon the Earth we should, as I will shortly endeavour to shew, not much have suffered without,—New England, the Symbol living and breathing of the Usurpation by which the Anglo-Saxon has found himself, in your mad Twenty-First Century, abolish’d by his own hand, in its grand Accusations against the fornication and impurity of other nations reveals itself,—if you, my Dear Reader, would countenance such a comparison,—to be Babylon’s Whore reconstituted, and the said Whore has perhaps too late begun to choke upon her Luxury and Splendour that we might save ourselves, that she might not choke us too with the Wine of her mad Fornication, our greatest Efforts to spew it from our mouths notwithstanding.

What a grand Irony it is for me to make such a Proclamation, recalling that New England’s own Theologians spoke in so similar a manner. Finely unlike the Puritans, you will however note, my Dear Reader, that I do not claim the Authority of the Good Lord, nor His Glory, nor even His particular Favour. In the present Treatment I aim merely to shew, with brief specimens from the relevant History as necessary, that the Anglo-Saxon Race, perhaps once granted indeed the Favour of the Lord, has most surely lost it,—or as it would be said in the old Chinese Tradition, that he is now without the Mandate of Heaven.

The said Usurpation by which England would appear to have lost the Divine Mandate is that by which she declared her rightful King to have lost it himself. Hear me, Britannia, where you have still ears to hear: You have wrongly killed your King, Charles the First, a Good King and a Good Christian! You were furthermore given the blessing of Cromwell’s demise, only to allow the overthrow of James the Second and Seventh by William of Orange! You dare still to give this latter Usurpation the happy Appellation of “the Glorious Revolution”! It ought not to give the Reader any great shock that I am therefore a Jacobite; that I am of the sure belief that England’s last chance for Redemption was,—and perhaps remains if God’s Mercy should allow it,—the restoration of her rightful Line of Kingly Succession.

I am not without fear,—as I assume the Reader to be so intelligent to suppose,—that the Jacobite position cannot be but a Symbol and a kind of Moral Statement. For Old England’s Ruination is New England’s Ruination, and New England’s Ruination is that of the whole World.

O Britannus Americanus, you great whore among Nations! You have cast away the yoke of Old England only more easily to despoil the riches of a New World! It is only a natural consequence, then, that America should find her Manners and Customs to an ever-augmenting degree untethered to anything which might best be called Anglo-Saxon. For it is you, New England, you who are to blame for the Fall of the Old American South, the Exploitation of the Old American West, and the Overthrow of the World’s Old Order; it is you who brought the frenzied burning of supposed witches to a new Continent and who, after ages have passed, taken Sodomy as a Sacrament with the very same Ferocity with which you once punished it!; and it is you, indeed, who have left us,—we the sad Remainder who speak your time-tested Tongue,—sarded and sodomised, so coarsely fuck’d, by a Novus Ordo Sæclorum over which even you no longer reign! By your thousand prides and your myriad vanities, the Possibility is not at all faint that we all may perish! I can only pray that the divers Nations with which you share North America will unchain themselves from you, just as you so duplicitously unchained them from Old England.

*The auspices by whose guidance I was given the letter above would be so foreign—and perhaps even distasteful—to the sensibilities of the present day that they would be almost impossible to articulate without a serious risk of miscomprehension. Let it suffice to note the striking resemblance of quills to wands.