Saturday, May 03, 2008

Class Warfare

First, go read Anglachel's incredible post on class divide that is splitting the Democratic party.

Anglachel brings up something that has been twisting in my head for a while. I am a horrible hybrid of the two halves of the Democratic party. On one side is my father's family, who my mother called "San Francisco intellectuals". They have always had money. They have always been part of the thinking class. They were abolitionists. They are the western version of the WASP, or what happens to white Anglo Saxon protestants when they get some sunshine and a shitload of wealth from good real estate investments.

Then there is my mother's side. Sure, 500 years ago they were minor aristocracy, but they have become the embodiment of southern, working class whites. My mom grew up as a "Detroit street rat", Detroit being a place where many poor southerners (both black and white) went to get decent jobs in the auto industry. My mother's family fought on the side of the North in the civil war, but not for the esoteric idea of equality. They were too poor to own slaves to begin with. They fought for the North because many remembered the Revolutionary war and could not bring themselves to fight against a union that had cost them so much. They are hillfolk in North Carolina and Tennessee.My great uncles all live in trailers circling each other like wagons.

So I grew up with the intellectual values of my father's family coupled with a sure knowledge of the poverty of my mother's (especially since my father's intellectual values didn't extend to him paying child support). I know and treasure things that the working class isn't supposed to, like travel and languages and grand theories of how people should think and act. I know which silverware to use in fancy restaurants and how to conduct myself with people who have a lot more money than I do. I know about the weird foods rich people eat with gusto and how to pretend to like them.

I also know how to pull together with my fellow poor neighbors and share burdens. I know how to navigate the horrible red tape of social services (if anything I could be considered a super-power, my understanding of bureaucrat-ese is it). I know how to juggle bill payments with an "oh but I mailed that check last week, didn't you get it?" I know that you can work you ass off and never make it out of poverty. I know that poor people aren't lazy (and because I know the other side- I know that despite their nice words the upper class thinks we are). I know that we are not dumb, but luckless.

And there, did you notice that. That I started saying "we". I think it is only recently that I picked my side. I still cringe over the trappings of poor white culture. I will never be a lover of Nascar or football or cheap beer. I will still love art and literature and most gourmet foods. But in the basics, I am working class.

Someone once told me that I was a "good representative for poor people" (and then asked me to do an interview in order to get their organization donations). What they meant is that though I am poor, I speak like a member of the educated elite. I was grouchy about that at first. But if I can claim my class and use my vocabulary to better our lot, then so be it. Well spoken poor people have a long history of advancing society. Even Socrates was the son of a midwife and a stonemason.

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