“The rich are different than you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously penned in his short story “The Rich Boy.” Fitzgerald observed that, since the rich are born into wealth, it shapes their worldview — gives rise to an air of superiority and confidence — so that even if they do fall upon hard times or “sink below us,” they still manage to think that they are better than the rest of us. Whether Fitzgerald intended it or not, what he essentially described was a type of mindset that is somewhat akin, in its logic, to racism — that being the notion of classism.
In America, today, we are surrounded by classism. We are immersed in a culture that treats it with the same acceptability that its iniquitous cousin enjoyed not so long ago. What’s more, because of how history played out over much of the 20th century, with the struggle between totalitarian pseudo-communism in the Soviet Union and capitalism here in the U.S., the idea of class struggle has long been considered somewhat of a taboo subject.
The failure to acknowledge the phenomenon has not made it any less real. On cable news programs, entitled wealthy members of Congress rail against welfare entitlements or unemployment benefits for the alleged indolent legions that have found themselves out of work since 2008. On the Internet, popular websites clandestinely snap photos at mega stores frequented by the permanent underclass for the sole purpose of snickering derisively at the less fortunate. From an insular perch somewhere in the nation’s suburbs, the children of the elite (and perhaps what’s left of the middle class) laugh at the clothes, at the physical traits, at the behavior of a class of people that, to them, must seem like some sort of fiction. After all, who needs empathy when you’ve got luck or birthright on your side?
I live in a small town just outside of the Washington, DC metro area — far enough away to preclude it from being considered a true suburb, but close enough to still observe the proximate effects of being so near the wealthiest region of the country. Only recently have we seen an influx of government agencies into the area, and with it the flow of taxpayer money that eventually makes its way into the various (and nefarious) contractor coffers. Long before that subsidy, however, has existed a core of wealth that dates farther back than the Civil War.
Like many small towns in America, the monied class in this town has always made up its governing bodies, planned its direction, and divvied out its finances in ways that it best saw fit. When a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman willed a significant portion of his fortune to the community in the 1890s for the expressed “benefit of its poor children,” the ruling class saw fit to erect an exorbitantly costly neoclassical high school that catered to those fortunate enough to have been able to attend school in the days before truancy laws over-ruled farm work and when segregation ruled supreme. To be sure, classism and its cousin are no strangers to this town.
My morning commute through this community enviably consists of a stroll through the sleepy downtown en route to my temporary office. Scattered about are sundry reminders of its historic past: its strategic importance during the Civil War, the pre-Revolutionary days, or its once formidable textile industry. The names of the who’s who of the wealthiest families still adorn the facades of many of the old storefronts, some of which have now been converted to bars and restaurants serving up the typical yuppie fare: sushi, microbrews, imported this and that (elites of any political slant love imports). Each new establishment, part of the town’s latest attempt at revival, is constructed with its own gated eating area and the occasional security guard — necessary accoutrements for excluding the less desirables that befoul the old town landscape.
Though less desirables have always existed downtown, their appearance has become more frequent in the last few years. Even before the housing collapse, I had observed the gradual arrival of more new faces panhandling on main street, many having migrated to the area from New Orleans in search of work following Hurricane Katrina. Their numbers, however, have dramatically increased since 2008.
These down and out are easily evident by their countenance: drawn faces, hollow eyes, and none of the confidence that Fitzgerald observed in the topic of his novel. Many have been out of work for years, no doubt, but I tend to notice newcomers to the scene. One such individual, we’ll call him Christopher, started appearing sometime last fall. I remembered Christopher because he had once been a host at a local franchise diner over near the interstate. As recently as 2008 he could be observed, with his thick black tussled hair, walking back and forth between work and home in his white button down shirt and navy blue trousers. He had seated my wife and I on a few occasions.
The last couple of years have not been kind to Christopher. He lost his job at the diner and has been essentially lingering around town ever since. To be honest, when I first began noticing him wandering about the area, he was barely recognizable. Gone was the thick black hair he had not so long ago, replaced by frazzled gray and a beard to match. His constantly-averted eyes looked tired and his new uniform was more dirty t-shirt and jeans. Now, instead of seeing him from time to time on his walk to work, he can regularly be observed sitting at the picnic tables in the courthouse square fumbling about with an old cell phone. The phone has long since been disconnected, but he manages to charge it up and play games on it to pass time. He says he tried looking for work for a while, but with nothing but a high school diploma under his belt and only menial work experience, his chances of landing a job are slim. Unemployment ran out long ago, and he would not say where he was living.
In some ways, Christopher is lucky, at least he has a high school diploma. Approximately twenty-five percent of downtown residents don’t even have that much. It’s a sad irony that less than fifty feet away from where Christopher and others like him spend their days wasting away, the young professional set dines on $75 dollar steak dinners, sucking down martinis and assorted imports like the final days of Rome — or the American empire in its twilight. For them, apparently devoid of any emotional intelligence, the concern is more for how to rid the downtown of Christopher’s presence, lest he undermines its revitalization, rather than understand what caused him to end up there in the first place.
For many across America, Democrat or Republican, it does not matter, addressing the ills brought about by classism is subversive to an embraced ideology that has taken root in our country over the last few decades. Merely identifying it brings about charges of class envy or, oddly, discrimination towards the rich. To the wealthy classes, while tempered sympathy for the poor is permissible, it should only be doled out with the understanding that every human being is responsible for his or her own plight. Economics, like nature, is selective. Like the idea of social Darwinism that the wealthy clung to one hundred years prior, this notion is absolute bunk meant to reinforce a flawed system that favors the few. As the Great Depression once taught us, people are often powerless victims of economic circumstance. In turn, the effects of each circumstance affects each of us differently, depending on a whole set of variables.
I suspect that, coupled with ideological indoctrination, the distance between the depression of the 1930s and the present has given the masses a false sense of security. Though history rarely repeats itself so precisely, the future is not immune to encores bearing at least some resemblance — nor is it implausible that future circumstances may even go beyond the level of past catastrophes. Indeed, the disappearance of the Great American Middle Class did not begin in 2008. No, its descent began decades earlier as a significant amount of economic data now shows. As we enter into the most severe downturn that has existed since the 1930s, that descent will undoubtedly accelerate… and another irony will become apparent.
For all the members of the middle class that have participated in the classist pastimes that once belonged exclusively to the rich, for all the former middle class that spent themselves into oblivion trying to be more than they could ever afford to be, it’s time to recognize classism by its true colors. It is, in effect, a device born of a system brought into being by an elite ruling class, and used to manipulate the middle class, itself a victim, into becoming a willing accomplice to that system’s emplacement. Such bigotry, whether derived from the shade of one’s skin or the size of one’s wallet, is eating away at the foundation of our society. The object of our derision should not be those who have been most adversely affected by our perverse economic system, but the system itself.