Sometimes it seems that, for all practical purposes, the class war is over and indeed the rich have won. And then there are times when I’m hopeful that we can address the growing inequality in America with some of the aspirational ideals upon which this country was founded. Perhaps the first consideration here should be to look at what we mean by class.
More than two decades ago, in his book Class, cultural historian Paul Fussell declared that just to mention that he was writing a book on the subject of class was enough to cause people to abruptly exit his presence. In describing the way people define class he said, “At the bottom, people tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have. In the middle, people grant that money has something to do with it, but think education and the kind of work you do is almost equally important. Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are indispensible criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation or education.”
In my historical reading of the subject, money and education are so closely bound to the notion of class that it’s hard to separate their importance. Money is clearly out front in significance since, for most people who have money, a good education has been easily within reach. In light of today’s observance of class, things have not changed; net worth is still perilously important and education is even more so, in an existential sense, because it is an essential key element to one’s quality of life. Our democratic values demand a liberal education as the starting place for responsible citizenship.
Recently I’ve heard the term class warfare called a dead metaphor, a political weapon, a distraction, and a reality. Perhaps it’s all four and more things to boot. Wars start for all sorts of reasons. Oftentimes war was far from the minds of those whose actions gave rise to battle. Imagine a peacetime warplane on a training mission that accidently releases live bombs on a sleeping community. War was certainly not the intent, and war may not follow if those adversely affected accept an apology and reparations.
The results, however, are the same. The dead are still dead, and what was destroyed remains so. Results are interesting and relevant, but too often considered beside the point in such matters. I do not believe that the rich people in America set out to wage a war on the poor, but who could tell the difference in the results, if the current economic conditions were all we had to go by? The rich, in recent years, have made out like bandits—literally so—while the poor are demonstrably poorer and the divide between the two groups is growing exponentially. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision heralded the decisive shot a while back, rendering all future battles moot. The results of thousands of other political decisions, at the behest and on behalf of the rich by politicians and lobbyists have resulted metaphorically in a fiscal bombing on all of the lower economic echelons in America. Reparations in the form of a more progressive tax rate are in order, but we’ve lost the power to make it happen. Even if it does, there will be no apology.
As in any occupied state, however, there are those among us who will never give up the fight. We will continue to act as if we can regain lost ground. While doing so is not impossible, it seems nearly so. All you have to do to confirm this in your own mind is to imagine what it might take to overturn the Supreme Court decision that effectively gives corporations the right to buy elections—any election. Can the Occupy Wall Street movement change the political climate to a sufficient degree that our politicians will enact a legislative remedy for Citizens United? Only time will tell.
Now in my seventh decade, I haven’t been able to rid myself of the unrelenting impression that America as a land of opportunity is, for an ever-increasing percentage of our population, a losing proposition. I make this observation after having published a book that posits a hopeful future for our country. That future will depend upon the baby-boom generation’s awakening to their impending mortality in time to unselfishly turn the tide toward a more positive outcome and help the younger generations take the reins of authority.
Nothing in memory compares to the political and economic reality of today, as most all of the people who lived through the Great Depression are gone. Of course, there have always been strains of political animosity so scurrilous as to have erupted, years ago, in the caning of a member of Congress. But today’s ideological divide seems unique in its naiveté. Too many people expect something for nothing. Tea Partiers long for the 1950s as a kind of social nirvana, and yet, in their wanting to return to that era, they don’t seem to have a clue about the tax rates in those days. America has always embraced debt, but a half-century ago we were much better about paying our way.