15 April 2009
Hierarchy in America? Say it Ain't So!
Just a few weeks ago a former acquaintence of mine had some objection when someone was referred to as "trailer trash." "But they have loads of money," he protested, "they live in a lovely apartment in the hills of West Salem." Living in America I realized how easy it would be to become confused on the subject of class and its relation to money. America was just over a century (a mere infant on the international scene) at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This Revolution did away with some long established societal norms. A new class known as the Nouveau Riche arose from the increase of wealth. These were tradesmen who were born to a lower position in life, but due to the spread of factories and increasing opportunities had access to more and more money. Until the late 1800s/early 1900s the societal or class hierarchy was predominantly static and rested on your ancestry, societal influence, and your conduct. Those born into upperclass families acted with a certain amount of grace and expected manners, and it was a simple thing to differentiate between the classes. However, after the Industrial Revolution it became possible for those with no good breeding, education, or manners to become exceedingly wealthy. After a while things became even more confused with the rise of Liberalism in the minds of the wealthy who were still excluded from power. America was influenced greatly by the Revolution and by Liberalism. The class hierarchy in America, although it's there is not quite as static as it is to this day in some European countries. And there are good things to say about that. Unfortunately, the downside is that now our society has come to define money as a way to distinguish the upper from the lower classes and this is simply untrue. Many Americans don't want to accept that there are class distinctions in America. Cultural and Literary historian Paul Fussell in discussing his book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System says, "When recently asked what I am writing, 'A book about social class in America'....a few minutes later they silently get up and walk away....It is as if I had said, 'I am writing a book urging the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals.'" It's a touchy subject with which many Americans are uncomfortable. But whether or not we want to admit it. It is there. And when I refer to someone lacking class or being "trailer trash," I am not merely referring to money. Journalist Doug Robarchek once said, "Money is related to class only in the minds of people who have too much of the former, too little of the latter or none of either." Anyone who knows me knows that money means absolutely nothing to me outside of paying for my student loans. I am not impressed by the Nouveau Riche or anyone claiming to belong to that section of America. Consider Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears. They are all wealthy women, but I would still consider them trailer trash because of their conduct, attitude, lack of education, and taste. I actually consider it slightly vulgar and lower class to compare incomes and talk about who "makes more." I shall conclude with a quote by director Roger Spottiswoode, "Class isn't something you buy. Look at you. You have a $500 suit on and you're still a lowlife." I think this pretty much sums up my feelings on class. If you want to talk to me about class, we'll talk. If you just want to compare incomes go to WalMart. They would probably be more impressed than me anyway.