It's been a busy couple of days, but when I finally find time to visit the blogosphere, I find George over at "Superfluities" bashing the middle-class again as a means of defending David Cote's review of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsey-Abaire. While I find myself, for once, on George's side as far as a reviewer's perogative to address not only the specifics of the production in front of him, but also the ideas and ramification of the play and production, I object to George's sneering at the middle-class in order to do it. He writes:
Ultimately, Mr. Cote's target, and he may not himself realize it (though I just suspect that he does), is the upper-middle-class suburban or suburban-minded community that the MTC attracts as its subscriber base, as its core audience, as the source of much of its private funding, and this is indeed a class question rather than a race or an age question. A complacent section of society, complacently feeling that art is doing its job when the audience "start[s] believing that the production in front of [it] is actually relevant, that [the play] is fiercely attacking [its] political, economic and moral assumptions."
Such an art, such plays, do no such thing: instead, they congratulate the audience on its perception of itself as open-minded, confirming that the great passions and pains of life, hemmed and hawed over for two hours in the confines of the Biltmore Theatre, are best and safely contemplated as a form of genial entertainment. That this theater is an economically and socially elite entertainment only serves as a further form of self-congratulation: I applaud Cynthia Nixon's portrayal of sadness, therefore I am compassionate and thoughtful, unlike those other yobbos at home watching American Idol. It is a closed round of self-approbation, this sort of theater. Its audience, contrary to its own belief, is not open-minded. Open-mindedness is not a characteristic of the spiritually but conceitedly dead.
The results of this complacency can be seen in the culture all around us, in our politics, in our schools, in our personal lives. In an odd way, this is no longer a culture of dynamic self-invention but deadly self-completion, exchanging the motion of the spirit for the security of the body and the bank account. We become complacent in our lives and bodies, feeling that we know it all and that, having achieved material and personal goals, we need no longer to change. More points for us; we are winning the game. We have, bizarrely, proved on the individual level that we are just as capable of internalizing and neutralizing rebellions, rebellions against our own limitations and the strictures of conformity, as the modern democratic society. We have set the system up, we have constructed a self that we can pay for with our jobs: all we need do is wait, then, until we pass on, expressing our discomforts to our therapists and watching them onstage, of no importance except as a bump on a relatively smooth road to the grave.
George's characterization drove me to the writing of another George, this one with the surname Orwell. In his essay entitled "Notes on Nationalism," Orwell writes: "By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’." Class feelings, which Orwell cites as an example of "transferred nationalism," exists "among upper-class and middle-class intellectuals, only in the transposed form—i.e. as a belief in the superiority of the proletariat. Here again, inside the intelligentsia, the pressure of public opinion is overwhelming. Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snobbishness in everyday life." I don't know if George promotes the proletariat -- he may think that only the intelligentsia is worth a damn, when all is said and done -- but I think the rest of the quotation applies. In a footnote, Orwell continues: "Nations, and even vaguer entities such as Catholic Church or the proleteriat, are commonly thought of as individuals and often referred to as ‘she’. Patently absurd remarks such as ‘Germany is naturally treacherous’ are to be found in any newspaper one opens and reckless generalization about national character (‘The Spaniard is a natural aristocrat’ or ‘Every Englishman is a hypocrite’) are uttered by almost everyone. Intermittently these generalizations are seen to be unfounded, but the habit of making them persists, and people of professedly international outlook, e.g., Tolstoy or Bernard Shaw, are often guilty of them."
So are we all, sometimes, and we need to be called on it when we do it. You can't talk about ideas without generalizing to some extent. But flat stereotypes used as straw men in an argument does a disservice not noly to those who are being stereotypes, but also to one's own ideas. Here's a rule of thumb I go by: if you substitute "African-American" or "Jewish" for the the name of whatever group you are bashing, and it is offensive, then you need to rethink. This is why I try to avoid, for instance, talking about Republicans as a group -- I'd rather deal with specific ideas. Creating an Other of any kind, in my opinion, is rarely a good idea.
As far as the middle class is concerned, in The Politics of Meaning, Michael Lerner writes about a sociological study he participated in San Francisco “to better understand the psychodynamics of middle-income working people." He wrote:
"What we learned from the thousands of people who participated in these groups challenged many of the beliefs that prevailed among us, and, more generally, in the liberal culture from which we researchers had come. We had thought of ourselves as psychologically sophisticated when we started this work, but we quickly learned that our assumptions about middle-income Americans were mistaken, prejudiced, and elitist. For example, most of us imagined that most Americans were motivated primarily by material self-interest. So we were surprised to discover that these middle Americans often experience more stress from feeling that they are wasting their lives doing meaningless work than from feeling that they are not making enough money. We found middle-income people deeply unhappy because they hunger to serve the common good and contribute to something with their talents and energies, yet find their work gives them little opportunity to do so. They often turn to demands of more money as a compensation for a life that otherwise feels frustrating and empty. In the Left and among many academics it has been almost a rule of reason to believe that what people really care about is their own material well-being, and that believing anything else is just some kind of populist romanticization. But we uncovered a far deeper desire -- the desire to have meaningful work, work that people believe would contribute to some higher purpose than self-advancement." [ital mine]
Perhaps when one feels like bashing the so-called "middle-class," one might instead instead substitute for "middle class" the name of someone one knows and care about who is middle-class -- say, one's parents or in-laws -- and then decide whether the picture being painted is nuanced, fair, and complex.
I think there are better ways to defend ideas than demonizing millions.