Something I learned in sociology 101 surprised me. It's not race or ethnicity or religious differences that pose the greatest social mobility barriers. It's economic class. I learned this back in the late eighties in a sociology course that I had to take to graduate-- but unlike some other required classes-- I found it fascinating.
On Comedy Central, a comic named Ron White reiterated this the other night. His routine was about his marriage to the daughter of very rich parents--parents he didn't like much. I have no way to know whether Mr.White's account of his marriage to the rich girl is fictional or not. But he ended his monologue by saying the marriage is now over. And one thing he learned from it was this: You can't marry outside your class.
This highly successful comedian went on to describe himself as the offspring of a hard working man who never made much money. And he added, the fact that his Dad was working class "don't make you better than me." He said the rich view working class people as suitable for carrying the rich folks' "piss buckets." For those of us who don't accept that version of things, well, the rich simply have no use for us.
The question of class is as old as Karl Marx, and maybe as dead. Are we really limited by the constraints of the class we're born into--or are those limits artificial? How do you explain the success of Oprah? Of Senator John Edwards? The apparent failure of Florida Governor Jeb Bush' addiction plagued daughter--aberrations? Maybe.
Your socio-economic class is where you are right now-- not where you have to stay. I want to believe that, and I have to believe that. If I don't, what's the point of striving, of learning?
Here in NYC, there are posters of a shivering Statue of Liberty in the subway stations, calling on New Yorkers to donate their unwanted coats to the annual Coat Drive for homeless folks. Unlike people with homes, the homeless can't put their winter coats away in the closet for the summer, because they have no closets. So whatever warm jackets or coats they're wearing this year, get tossed in the trash at winter's end.
So anyway, on this one Lady Liberty poster down in a Brooklyn sub station, somebody added some graffiti. In black marker they'd scrawled: "Time to bring the sickle down on the trickle down." If that doesn't sound Marxist, I don't know what does...have some class consciousness with your coffee this morning.
The train ride brought me to beautiful Main Street, Flushing in Queens, and I say that with sarcasm, because when I ascended the subway steps to the street, I was met with a bustling neighborhood of unprecedented austerity. I thought I was in some upstate factory shuttered post industrial wasteland, but no---this is still NYC.
Everywhere are huge, boxy, dark brick buildings. The people, small and mostly thin, hurry in the streets; industrious, unfailingly polite. Something feels out of whack here, and not just because the riot of street signs are virtually all in Korean, with a few English subtitles, and there are endless restaurants, cosmetic shops, and laundries, but no gyms-- except the equally austere YMCA-- no nightclubs, no cutting edge clothing boutiques, no graffiti, and no street vendors, musicians, or artists. This neighborhood reminds me of pictures I've seen of communist countries during the Cold War. Vast stretches of dreary sameness, cheerless, uniform...
It's like a centrally planned economy--oh my!
When we reach extremes, the usual path to normalcy is first we swing back to the other exteme, then we drift to the center, and settle down in the middle path. Brothers and sisters, we have reached an extreme. We have people in wheelchairs living on the streets. We have tiny old women with obvious physical disabilities begging in the subway stations. We have babies and their impoverished mothers living--and sometimes dying in homeless shelters. We have politicians (with gay relatives and/or a personal attraction to minors of the same sex) ranting against gay marriage and refusing to raise an unliveable minimum wage. (But no problem voting to raise their own pay) We have the pro-communist/planned economy/backlash graffiti defacing Lady Liberty. The Lady is in distress, because the people are in distress.
Remember, she says: "Give me your tired, your poor...yearning to breathe free...send the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me." She doesn't say toss the homeless into the street and leave 'em there. I repeat, Lady Liberty is in distress, and we gotta find the Middle Way.