Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Great Divide

Today, I'm going to lambaste you with some economics and politics. Bear with me; there's a fandom root in it all; it's just going to take some build up to get there.

Some time ago, I wrote some thoughts on the Occupy movement within another blog post. My opinion is probably an unpopular one, especially given the fact that I agree with Occupy - and simultaneously don't.

I've been thinking about Occupy and wealth inequality again recently, for various reasons. One of them is because I reread an excerpt of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels for one of my classes (poor Engels; everyone forgets about him and just focus on Marx). And then I came across this video via the interwebs:

And suddenly the Occupy movement starts to make a lot more sense. Given that this video gives sources at the end and sounds fairly reasonable, I'm more apt to believe this than some of the other videos made to explain the issue of the 99%. It's true that there are ridiculously wealthy people out there and that they likely aren't who we think they are. And the people who are wealthy are so ridiculously wealthy that we can't even really fathom it. For this reason, as a newscaster on one of the local channels in Minneapolis expressed this morning, one million dollars isn't as much money as it used to be.

Perhaps I like this video because of how different its rhetoric is. It isn't discussing a hate for the bourgeois or how rich people are to blame or how having money is a terrible evil. It's essentially just showing the disparity (though there is a rebuttal video called "What Wasn't Said in 'Wealth Inequality in America.'" You can watch it on your own but I won't discuss it here because I think it's a pretty weak counterargument. It suggests that this video doesn't discuss income/social mobility and that this data needs to be included. While I agree that this might be useful, I think this rebuttal misses the fact that income mobility will not solve anything here (ie: the middle class doesn't even exist anymore in the chart shown because the wealthiest members of society are so unbelievably wealthy) and also the data isn't suggested by this rebuttal. Yes, they provide a critique but they don't really tell us what this additional data might show or even what the data could be. Kind of a weak response, if you ask me).

Income inequality isn't new. It's been around since... well, probably since money became a way of buying stuff and in return paying people for their labor. While these ideas aren't new, I think recognizing that they exist in the United States is a growing phenomenon. Obviously social classes exist in the States. We've just been very good, in my experiences, at pretending that they don't. The US is supposed to be a land of equality, a place where anyone can make it, the American Dream is real, and it's possible to pull yourself up "by your own bootstraps." To see data that suggests that this may not be possible or doesn't mean what it used to deeply questions these notions and perhaps even poses the idea of what's even the point of trying if it isn't possible or doesn't mean anything.

That's at least the crux we seem to currently be in here in the US. To other countries, I imagine this seems a bit weird. Especially somewhere like the UK where class issues has been part of society for quite a while. I remember fondly the first time I read a novel set in Victorian England, where the upper class individuals looked with disdain down upon Americans who didn't seem to care about class and how marrying an American was a step down in the world. While this made me realize that class does exist in the States, albeit in different ways, it also made me realize how much I don't understand the class structure of the UK. With set positions such as lords and dukes and other remnants of monarchical structure, I honestly have a hard time wrapping my head around this. I feel as if it's ingrained in the American psyche to have a complete and utter disregard for the power complex associated with the hierarchies associated to monarchies. At the same time, "living like a king" is still aspired to and being the "king of your own domain" is idea tied to home ownership and design. Maybe this has a lot to do with current confusion about economic standing; it's never been clearly outlined in the US so trying to discuss and fix it is unclear. Though really it might help if we did think of these premises - we a former colony of Britain, after all, and I think despite my confusion and not knowing the nuances of British society, that perhaps the US and the UK has more in common than we might initially think.

I'd like to use the idea of class issue in the UK as a jumping off point to express some of the confusion I've been experiencing on my Tumblr dashboard, where one moment I can see a video like the one posted above and the next see people's dreams for lives of glamor and wealth. That's a bit jarring but more so is seeing a series of photos of your favorite celebrities and then seeing a text post like this:
Which is a little awkward, because....
Er... yeah, this is awkward. Actors like Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Cumberbatch are often attributed to the sort of quotes that come under the scrutiny of that Tumblr text post. And I utterly agree with their positive views. Maybe it's because I never cared about money - and this isn't because I didn't have to care about it. I grew up believing that my parents' income was less than it actually was and thought we were poorer than we actually were. We did have some financial instability, but mainly our spending habits were just tighter than the other families around me. This continued on until... well, until I started college and I realized that my ideas of social class were a bit off. Regardless, my idea of my parents' income never affected my career plans. I always wanted to do something because I wanted to do it not because of monetary gain. "Find what you love and then do it forever" never seemed like something that would be easier had if I were wealthy. Money can't buy me love and it can't make my dreams come true. Of course, I'm still speaking of a space of privileged - I've never been really hungry, never had to worry about whether or not there'd be food on the table. I'm just as worried that I can't imagine what it's like to be in the wealthiest 1% as I am that I can't actually fathom what it's like to be in the lowest economic bracket and to never actually have the opportunity to do what I love because I simply don't have access to it.

It gets more awkward. Mostly because I really like this song by a punk group called the Jam:

I heard this song on the Current (a Minneapolis radio station) and they gave some interesting background on it. It's a protest song about class issues in the 1970s in England, discussing the "Eton Rifles" (not a real group, according to Wikipedia), a sort of military group at Eton school fighting with working class boys. From what I understand, it's about a privileged class picking on the lower classes and, more generally, hypocrisy. However, I have mixed feelings about Eton. It's always been represented as a positive, respected school so seeing a counterpoint to this is interesting. But I also feel like Eton gets a bad rap these days. Partly because it's no longer the 1970s and I'd really like to think things have changed since then (though it doesn't help when David Cameron misses the point of this song - Wiki this if you want more details), partly because I think universities have equalized somewhat (I'm pretty sure I can get just as good of an education at my university as I could at Harvard, thank you very much), and a couple of my favorite actors went to Eton (*cough* Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston *cough*) and because they appear to be level-headed, down-to-earth individuals, the whole idea of Etonians being absolute asshats sounds like crap to me. Just like the idea that everyone who went to Harvard is either a) elitist, b) a super genius, or c) a lawyer is also wrong. Or that everyone who went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a frat boy or that everyone who went to University of Minnesota-Twin Cities is pre-med. Schools tend to garner certain perceptions and labels and the general public likes to use them as a certain heuristic or stereotype. Which is kind of a problem. Because guess who doesn't like labels as absolutes? This girl.

On that note, every once in a while, the internet throws something my way exactly when I need it and that's precisely what I found today. This article came my way - it's from the Daily Mail (*cringes*) but it looks as if it's a better written article for once. It's an interview with Tom Hiddleston and, lo and behold, he discusses the concept of labels:
‘But I’m wary of labels,’ he says. ‘As an actor, the labels that are so easily attachable to me – like Old Etonian or Cambridge graduate or Rada alumnus – are, in a way, the least interesting things about me. I’ve had to do a lot of work taking off those jackets. The last thing I ever want is to be pigeon-holed.'
(My apologies to Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Cumberbatch for always being the examples kn these posts. But when you both say such clever, useful things so... I'm actually not that sorry.) Before you jump the gun and criticize about how being labeled an Etonian has a far different effect than other, more negative labels (which is a valid critique), I'd like to approach this from a different angle. Something about this 99% rhetoric still bothers me, and I think I'm beginning to latch on to what it might be, from my perception, at least. Underneath all of this critique of the upper classes and certain labels is the idea that the upper classes are still better off, and are, overall, better. A lot of the hate towards the upper classes comes less from wanting to equalize them I think and more of a jealousy of wanting to be like them. Because if we really wanted equality, would we be showing such hate and disdain towards them? Maybe I'm being way too Hufflepuff about this, but I'm failing to see how hating on the rich is really any different than hating on the poor. Isn't judging people based on how much money they have - no matter the amount - reinforcing the same principles of money being the only marker of success in society?

(Meta moment: I would like to check my privileged again because I'm hyper-aware of social justice bloggers who probably want to skin me right now. Also, I can't get the line "Is this only a game for rich young boys to play?" from Les Miserables out of my head. Not that I'm rich. Or a boy. But the fact that I'm able to blog about this at all asserts a certain kind of convenience and stability. So yes, I am aware of this.)

We use Eton as a certain marker of success and create attitudes about people based on this, much in the same way we use technical colleges or blue-collar work for the same. While there are clearly more nuanced things going on here, often these nuances get oversimplified by the labels we create and even the discussion about the 99% seems to miss out on this. That's not to de-legitimize any anger that might be felt towards upper classes - I myself have felt my own fair share of jealousy and anger; it's something I think that's inherent to the way our desires around wealth work. I think its incredibly important to be aware of the jealousy and how it operates, though. Because, when it comes down to it, do I want to be wealthy? In the past, the answer would have been yes. Now, I don't know. Why? Because it just doesn't matter to me that much. Maybe because I don't have to worry about it. Maybe because I'm too focused on this aspect than an actual set position:
This is one of my favorite propaganda slogans to come out of the blacklisting and witch hunts associated with Communism. Unfortunately for whoever make this, it's far more of a compliment than a warning about artists. Damn straight we mix with different social classes. And you're problem with that is....? Therefore, I'm going to take this confusion I feel about liking both the song by the Jam and liking Eton as a school and the awkwardness all of this has created as a good sign. Social classes are being pitted against one another and maybe, just maybe, refusing to play this "us vs. them" is a better strategy. Especially if that income inequality video is correct and the wealthiest of people make several times more than what the those we usually think of being wealthy do, in which our hatred might be a bit misplaced.

What then do we do about income inequality? Great question, so glad you asked - I have no idea. The only thing I can suggest, not being an economist, sociologist, or anything of that nature, is to keep talking and keeping an open ear and mind. Maybe then we'll come up with a solution.

This post was initially supposed to incorporate a segue into discussing role models and celebrity endorsement for charity, but clearly that didn't happen. So, that'll be Saturday's post. Until then, adieu dear readers and thank you for putting up with my ambiguous political ramblings.

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