Monday, March 26, 2012

Class divisions

Libertarian pundit Charles Murray (famous – or infamous, depending upon one’s perspective – for his book, The Bell Curve) has recently published a new book, Coming Apart. In his newest book, Murray focuses on white America and argues that a new divide separates and increasingly isolates the upper and upper middle class from the working class.

Murray defines the upper classes as:

We have 20 percent in the upper-middle class as I've defined it, managerial jobs, professional jobs, college education. Within that group there is the very successful, the top 5 percent of the 20 percent alright, who run the country. Now some of them run the country in terms of their local city, they're influential wherever they live. Some of them just run the country -- period -- if you're talking about Washington, D.C., if you're talking about financial centers in New York, Hollywood, that kind of thing. They are different, they have become different over the last several decades in all sorts of ways. They have essentially a very distinctive culture. They get married a lot later than the rest of the country, they have somewhat different child-rearing practices.

The new upper class devotes incredible amounts of effort to raising their kids but that also includes incredible amounts of effort in getting their kids into the right preschool in some elite communities which I think is going a little bit too far. And they also have given rise to what are called "helicopter parents" because they hover. So there are lots of good things about the way the new upper class raises kids. Pregnant women, if you're a member of the new upper class, and you're a woman, and you have a whiff of pregnancy not a drop of alcohol, not any exposure to secondhand smoke, no drugs, and they take care of themselves magnificently while the child is in utero. That's good! The lengths to which they go is sometimes kind of extreme. I could form a mosaic of these distinctive cases and preferences but you know what? An awful lot of the people who watch the NewsHour know exactly what I'm talking about already.

The average American watches TV about 35 hours a week. Among the new upper class you have sort of two basic attitudes toward TV. One is you still have one, but you use it to watch the NewsHour and "Masterpiece Theatre" and maybe "Downton Abbey." The other says that we don't even have a TV anymore -- that kind of attitude. Well, do I think watching 35 hours of TV a week is a terrific thing to do? Not particularly. But do I think you're shutting yourself off from a lot of American culture if you are so completely isolated from what goes on, on popular TV? Yeah, you are! And if you don't see the movies that other people see, if you don't eat at the same kinds of restaurants, if you don't engage in the same kinds of interest and sports and the rest of it, none of these are terrible things, it's not good vs. bad. It is isolation however of the new upper-class from the mainstream of American culture.

He defines the working class as:

When I'm talking about the white working class, here's what I'm defining: high school degree, no more, and working in a blue-collar job or a low-skilled service job. When I'm talking about the white, upper-middle class, I'm talking about people who work in the professions or managerial jobs and have at least a college degree.

(To read more, cf. Paul Solman and Elizabeth Shell, “Charles Murray on Downton Abbey, Smoking During Pregnancy,” at Making Sense, March 21, 2012)

Where does Murray place you, in the upper classes or the working class? To find out, take his 25 question quiz. His quiz will also give you his appraisal of how well, if at all, you bridge the gap between the classes.

I’ve not read his book, Coming Apart. However, I do find his suggestion of a new class divide in the United States persuasive. I’m unwilling to impose blanket value judgments on the habits of each class. Obviously some habits – watching 35 hours of TV per week or obsessing about a child’s admission to the right pre-school, for example – are unhealthy. Similarly, some habits – getting together with friends or maintaining a reasonable weight – are healthy. But as my examples illustrate, each class has some healthy and unhealthy habits.

What does concern me, more than assessments of particular habits, is the growing polarization that I observe and experience in American society. A social fabric that lacks elasticity will tear sooner under the normal stresses and strains of change. When the pace of change accelerates (as has happened), potential tears become more precipitous with larger consequences.

One of the important functions of religion has been to create community, adding elasticity and strength to the social fabric. Murray’s work suggests, and other research confirms, that religion is increasingly a source of polarization rather than community.

Reversing that trend is easier said than accomplished. Not only have people seemed to become more intransigent but they also identify several issues as litmus tests of people with whom they can cooperate or exist in community (e.g., abortion, gun control, and gay marriage). The answer is not necessarily compromise on deeply held convictions but learning to respect and to celebrate diversity (cf. my previous post on civility, Further thoughts on civility).

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