Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Culture, Class, Privilege, and the (justifiable?) Aggrievement of the Privileged

A great many people in my educational* and professional class are mystified by the insecurities of the white lower-middle class, especially in the context of national politics and the Trump phenomenon.  I try to avoid using this blog to discuss national politics, but I think this issue intersects with many of the class and educational issues that I've been discussing on this blog, so I will make an exception.

Someone whom I know recently wondered why Trump's supporters feel like outsiders or underdogs in a society that privileges white people above all others.  There are many assumptions buried in that question, because using the word "privilege" in regard to race connotes a certain viewpoint about social justice.  Within the framework of those assumptions, the question is purely rhetorical, because it is almost impossible to give any answer other than "Clearly those ridiculous people are wrong" and still be consistent with those assumptions.  I will have to step outside of those assumptions in order to give some better answer than that, but I will try to stay as close to those assumptions as possible, because the difficulty of communicating between people with different premises is just as great in one direction as it is in the other (to be maximally relativist).

Let us begin by acknowledging that in many (though not all) cases, bigotry is a real factor in the political motivation.  Bigotry is illegitimate.  Full stop.  Nonetheless, it is not the entirety of the motivation, and bigotry thrives most easily in the presence of real fears.

In examining those fears, we go to a central theme of this blog: America has not done a good job of transitioning its lower-middle class to a post-industrial economy.  Inequality of wealth and income bear out that observation. The most aggrieved whites are often either people who have suffered from that, or people whose friends and families have suffered from that. Some are even from families that were too disadvantaged to even benefit from the industrial economy, let alone what has come after.

The other thing that bears this out is the sheer amount of protectionism in Trump's rally speeches.  His comments on immigrants capture the media spotlight, but he has plenty to say about economic protectionism, and the victims of the post-industrial economy are eager to hear that.  If he were only about building walls and kicking out Muslims he would not have made it as far as he has.  He's doing more than just promising to kick ass.  He's promising JOBS.  I think those promises are plainly false, but he's making them, and people like them.

Academia has been particularly bad at responding to the effects of the post-industrial economy.  Some of it is for good reason:  If there's anyone geared to producing "knowledge workers" it's academics.  Good for us.  Nothing wrong with focusing on our comparative advantage (to touch on trade issues again...).  The other reason for the bad response, though, involves values and culture.  Academics are quite comfortable talking about privilege in the context of race/color/ethnicity, sex/gender, sexuality, disability, etc., but a profession disproportionately populated by people whose parents have advanced degrees is curiously uninterested in privileges associated with social and economic class.  Fancy that.  Yes, yes, every university pays some token attention to the concerns of first generation college students, and we all say something about low income as a form of disadvantage, but the fights that get people riled up are far more likely to involve race or gender.

And don't think that low-income whites aren't aware of that.  Don't think that for one second.  They may not read the Chronicle of Higher Education, they may not know (or care) about student government officers facing political fallout for wearing sombreros at a party, but they know what liberals talk about.

Furthermore, economic class is not the only dimension of class.  America has a "high" culture (well, "high" by American standards, probably "middlebrow"--at best--by European standards), and certain subsets of white people are well aware (and often proudly aware) that they aren't in it.  Country music and NASCAR and whatnot may be big business, but many of the bankers who handle that money probably have tickets to whatever is playing at Carnegie Hall.

If this were just about entertainment preferences, eh, to each his own. But it's more than that.  There are cultural differences on many levels, and they matter to people.  Southern whites haven't helped their case by claiming the Confederacy as a cultural point of pride, but there are plenty who don't do that and yet still feel out of place in white "high" culture.  One place where cultural and economic class issues intersect is in the value considerations that we bring to the question "How will we respond to the post-industrial economy?"  For more than 2 decades, the answers of the center-left have been:

1) Social programs.  Social programs have their place, but social programs do not fulfill the very human need to be a provider, and they do produce ill effects that many lower-middle-class whites are witness to.  These ill effects, and the lack of a solution that makes people into providers, offend their moral conscience.

2) Education:  There's nothing wrong with education.  I've devoted my life to it!  Still, one recurring theme of this blog is that it's often easier to improve educational systems via improvements to the economy than it is to improve the economy via improvements to the educational system. 

There have been real benefits to expanding higher education, but it's also been accompanied by credential inflation, and we've been bad at confronting that tension.  The middle class is very aware that there was a time when (at least some) high school graduates could get a "good" desk job without a Bachelor's degree, and they are very aware that that time is gone. Admittedly, those paths sans college were more for the middle class and upper-middle-class than the lower-middle class, but the existence of those paths meant that the climb from the lower-middle class to a desk job did not involve student loans. You "only" had to climb one rung through hard work at a free public high school, plus some (challenging) socialization. But you didn't need to write anyone a check.

3) Diversity: The left will work (or at least talk) tirelessly to improve the color balance of elite professional groups, but what does that matter for anyone else?  Should you feel better if your house is fraudulently foreclosed upon by a bank whose management team includes people of color?  Diversifying the 1% doesn't make the 99% any less screwed, even if it does ease the consciences of the 1-percenters.

"But I want more than that!  I'm working for diversity for everyone, not just the 1%!"  You believe that, and maybe you do work for that, but there's a lot of money at stake here.  Don't fool yourself into thinking that diversity workshops in nice hotel conference rooms, facilitated by expensively-dressed people, are really about the 99%.  That's not how it works.  Ask yourself why the moneyed and respectable, and leaders of government funding agencies and academic institutions talk more about diversity than they talk about the working class in the post-industrial economy.  And then read Class Dismissed by John Marsh and The Trouble With Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels for left-leaning critiques of how elite political and educational cultures largely dismiss economic class in their considerations.  (And note that I've blogged responses to both of those books, and you can find them on the list of tags.)

None of this is to say that the white working class doesn't enjoy certain advantages over people of color.  Of course they do.  That's a given.  But the white working class is well aware of the white people who enjoy advantages over them, and (more importantly) the white working class is well aware that white elites see something virtuous in token efforts to help disadvantaged people of color but not disadvantaged whites. Meaningful reform of the post-industrial economy might threaten business models.  Diversity generates good PR.  Lower-income whites know this, and they thus see themselves as disfavored in the elite consensus.  

And they know that it's "safe" to sneer at them in educated circles.  I doubt that your typical Trump voter reads Inside Higher Ed (though I do wonder about a few people in the comments section...) but they would not be surprised to read this article on racism, in which a professor includes in her venting about students (a time-honored tradition, and one that is not alien to the middle class, since we often have schoolteachers in our families) a derisive reference to poor whites and "Wonder Bread."  Can anybody imagine a writer concerned with social justice making a similar comment about poor people from other ethnic/racial backgrounds and foods stereotypically associated with those groups, and getting it published in a higher education publication?

"But, but, they have privilege!"  Yes, their privilege.  Let's talk about that word.  When I was growing up (in a Midwestern swing state, FWIW), "privileged" was a word to describe the upper class and upper-middle class.  It wasn't a word to describe facets of most people's lives.  That doesn't mean that there isn't a valid concept there; I freely admit that most of the things that people refer to under the social justice term "privilege" are real and important things that we need to confront.  At the same time, though, the connotations of that word are just horrible.  Not being shot by the cops at a routine traffic stop should be regarded as a baseline guarantee, not a privilege.  "Privilege" connotes something above and beyond baseline.  You might reply that for people of color it is NOT a baseline guarantee, and you're right.  Fortunately, we have a term for that, one that is quite accurate, and one that does not try to paint the experiences of low-income white people with the same broad brush as the experiences of rich people, and one that avoids treating "not getting shot" as something that should be considered above and beyond normal.  Do you know what that term is?  "Racist double standard."  It elegantly sums up a lot of things that fall under the banner of "white privilege", just as "sexist double standard" sums up a lot of things that fall under the banner of "male privilege."  And these terms do so without equating the lived experience of the poor with the highly advantageous circumstances of the rich.

Some of you may be objecting that it's sociological lingo, a perfectly fine piece of jargon.  By all means, use jargon in professional circles.  I will never tell sociologists what words to use when they are sociologizing with other sociologists.  And I freely admit that there's nothing wrong with linguistic evolution (hence I'm writing this in English rather than Indo-European).  But when you communicate outside of the circles of people who make a professional study of race and gender and disadvantage, you will be more effective if you consider the connotations that a term carries in the wider society.  You'll also be more effective if you don't view social justice as requiring the masses to adopt the correct academic jargon.

Does any of this excuse Trump supporters, or other instances of supporting demagoguery or bigotry?  Of course not.  What I hope it does do is explain the insecurities that many people carry, and why they feel that their fears are not being addressed by our more respectable elites.  If we do not fashion a genuinely inclusive and progressive consensus that includes a politically significant but economically disadvantaged group, then we will harvest bitter fruits for many years to come.

Finally, some of you might be thinking "You keep talking about the problems with the post-industrial economy, but what do you want to DO about it?"  Beats me.  If I actually knew what to DO about it I'd start a business, solve the most pressing economic problems of our time, and in the process become a billionaire.  (Then I'd go full-on mad scientist and build an underground lair with a doomsday device...)  But the fact that I can't find a solution does not mean that I'll deny the problem.

*I originally began this sentence with "A lot of..." but then changed it to "A great many..." because "A lot of" just sounds too informal, like something that a student would write.  That's educational privilege right there.

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