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January 17, 2003

Imaginary Relations

Perhaps it's all the talk of various tax/stimulus proposals, but articles about economic and social class in America seem to be popping up all over. First there was The Triumph of Hope Over Self-Interest in which David Brooks argued that political movements based on class issues will never be successful in America because everyone so deeply believes he/she either is middle class or will be soon. Brooks contends that this is true because Americans are just so damned hopeful and optimistic—they prefer to believe anything is possible rather than accept some negative idea that they're going to be stuck shoveling crap their whole lives. What Brooks fails to address there is how people become so "optimistic" in the first place, and how they maintain that "optimism" in the face of ugly reality. Then answer to those questions is simple: Hollywood (and the media more generally) is a great teacher and reinforcer.

To help explain how this works, check out Scenes from the Class Struggle on Fox, in which Carina Chocano takes on "Joe Millionaire," Fox's little ditty wherein a $19k/year construction worker pretends to be worth $50 million while 20 women vie for his affections. She's right—the show would be ten times better if it featured the truly rich; only then would the show be able to emphasize the social inequalities and injustices created by class difference. But that's surely something Fox would never want to do since one of TV's major functions in our society is to reinforce the dream and myth that we can all be rich someday, or at least middle class.

Even better is Caryn James' Upward Mobility and Downright Lies, which takes on movies like "Maid in Manhattan" and "Sweet Home Alabama" to make the same point: Hollywood narratives repeatedly argue that upward social mobility is an easy, everyday occurrence in America. However:

that persistent idea ignores the realities of today's economy and research about social mobility. The aristocratic politician Ralph Fiennes plays in "Maid in Manhattan" precisely fits the profile described by the Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger in a November article in The New York Times, which said that new studies show it takes an average of five or six generations to change a family's economic position, and that wealth tends to linger in families. Such inherited wealth helps create political dynasties like that of the Bushes and of the Fiennes character — an assemblyman, a senator's son running for his father's seat, and not the kind of guy likely to take up with a maid. As Mr. Krueger added in an interview, "Recent trends in income distribution have made upward mobility less likely" than it was even 20 years ago.

And such research isn't brand new. As Kevin Phillips says in "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich," published last year, the increasing gap between the median American family income and the richest 1 percent has been "a point of national discussion for over a decade." By the turn of the 21st century, he writes, the United States "had also become the West's citadel of inherited wealth."

"Aristocracy," he adds, "was a cultural and economic fact."

The people who are perhaps most resistant to this message are those few who really have moved upward—the nouveau riche—and boy do they get mad when anyone questions their social position. [link via Slactivist] The kind of militant self-absorption shown in such rants is perhaps the extreme form of what's motivating the current Bush position on affirmative action—both arguments are founded on the idea that people should earn what they have in life, rather than having it given to them. I mean, that's what Bush did, right? But the logic behind those arguments is that we should live in a fair, just, and equal world—if one person has to work for what he/she has, others should also have to work for what they have—and this is exactly the point: People who argue for real tax relief for poorer Americans or for affirmative action programs are not asking for handouts and free rides, they're also asking for a more equal and just world. The difference is that the social conservatives believe they got wherever they are on their own, while progressives recognize that we are interdependent, social animals who don't live in our own personal vacuums.

Posted January 17, 2003 10:09 AM | general politics

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