Thursday, February 16, 2006

Why Protect the Middle Class

Isaac asks a wonderful series of questions (getting to be a regular occurrence) that is prompting me to elaborate on my philosophy (which is one of the main reasons I decided to blog, by the way -- each challenge or even each misunderstanding makes me adjust and fine tune my ideas). So here is what he wrote in my comments box:

"Why for the love of god do you think the middle class needs protection? Why do you feel a need to stick up for us? We run the fucking world. We own it. Especially boomer generation middle class. The world exists to not only indulge their every whim and desire, but to tell them that they are entitled to that indulgence.I just don't get it. I don't understand why we should make ourselves feel good about this incredible waste of power and priviledge currently going on in the world. We have a criminally negligent society, and that criminal negligence extends to people's taste in art (they want art that makes them feel good about themselves, which is not always true in all cultures throughout time and can hardly be calleda particularly high purpose for art) and I don't understand the point in not pointing that out for fear that it'll make someone feel bad. Or offend them."

The short answer (which will be followed by the long answer) is this: because middle class "deadness" or "complacency" is the symptom, not the disease, and by attacking the middle class for displaying these symptoms, we are attacking the victims instead of the disease. Let me elaborate.

What is the disease? Late capitalism combined with scientific materialism. Scientific materialism, because its proponents have de-spiritualized the world, eliminating all sense of mystery, all connection between humanity and nature, leading to a deep sense of being cut off from anything that might imply meaning, purpose, or hope in the world; late capitalism, because it tells us that the hole in our hearts can be filled with expensive "stuff": bigger cars, bigger TVs, etc. These things must be paid for with money earned by spending more and more hours at work, and fewer and fewer hours with family, friends, or even alone reflecting. Also, Late Capitalism, through its mass media, tells us that the status quo cannot be changed.

The middle class are as much victims of this overpowering ideology as every other group in the world. Let me tell you a story. I sometimes teach a course on the Hero's Journey in Literature, Film, and Drama to incoming freshmen Honors students. These kids almost always are from upper-middle-class households in the suburbs. These kids tell me that, from the time they were in late elementary school, they are being groomed for college and a "good career." They are told to participate in extra-curricular activities not because they are interested, but because it will "look good on their resume" when they apply to college. They take classes not because the subjects interest them, but because the classes will look good on their college apps. When they finally head to college, they are pressured to major in something that will lead to a "good job," so that they don't "waste" their superior intellects. By the time they get to me, and I start talking about their lives as a hero's journey, and ask them what sorts of things really excite them, they stare at me, open-mouthed: they have been told what to do so long that they have never really asked themselves what they love, what makes them happy, what excites them.

These kids will do well in college, because that is what they have been trained to do. They will complete their education and get a good job that will allow them to live the life that their parents aspire to -- a comfortable life in the suburbs. But at night, they will lie in bed asking themselves, "Is that all there is?" And they will feel the hole in their hearts, and they will secretly dream of making a contribution to something larger than themselves, but they have been taught to be afraid -- to choose security over all things. As Lerner says, "They often turn to demands of more money as a compensation for a life that otherwise feels frustrating and empty." If they ever had any artistic leanings, they may become season subscribers to MTC or some other theatre, and they will arrive in their SUVs and eat in a nice restaurant before heading to the theatre. And you will all scorn them.

These people are victims whose souls have been oppressed by the Expectations of Late Capitalism. They have been locked up in spiritual prisons as strong and oppressive as the actual prisons that I teach in every Tuesday night. They are in pain, and they cover that pain up with what seems to be superficial laughter, but is actually a defense against despair. These people don't need to be attacked, they need to be encouraged to break out of their prison and follow their hearts. They need don't need to be told they are evil, but rather shown that it is possible to live without fear and to join something bigger than themselves. They need to be shown that there is fulfillment outside of "stuff." They have forgotten where their soul is.

So I am not saying that we should confirm them in their current way of life -- that would just add another padlock to the prison door. They might be shown, as Chekhov does, how tedious and boring their lives are as a starting point, but in such a way that a door is opened, not slammed shut. They need to be shown another life, one of imagination, of beauty, of risk, of contribution, perhaps of pain, but dignified pain, noble pain, pain with a purpose.

Encouraged thus, they might see that the "power and privilege" that they have can actually be used in a way that would contribute to the world, and fill the hole in their hearts at the same time. That it is an opportunity to fulfill themselves. They own everything, as Isaac says -- they can change things.

Many of them have been betrayed by the people they should have been able to trust: parents, teachers, friends, and they have believed what they shouldn't have: the mass media. And that betrayal is painful and damaging, and deserves understanding, if not sympathy. I think art should recognize this wound, rather than judge the behavior that results from it. Don't reinforce the old message, but create a new one. Do surgery to repair the wound, don't sneer at the bleeding.


P'tit Boo said...


This was a very moving post in many ways. Because I can hear that you speak from experience and from having actually seen and felt the fear and the traps that surround the kids you teach.

But still , I can't reconcile the middle class being called victims. I just cannot go there with you. The middle class is the class which has led all revolutions and which has always been the real power as long as it has existed.

I hear what you are saying about the need to not sneer and treat these kids like they are the "bad guys" but I also think that something that isn't taught enough ( and especially not by white males ) is the concept of privilege and what that means.
The middle class is still privileged. I agree with Matt . And while we can hear and listen to the privileged and recognize the strange reversals which occur overtime ( the appearance of fear within the privileged group) I still think that the first thing the middle class needs to be taught is how to give and share power with others.
I still think that a white male talking about the lack of female playwrights being produced for instance is way more powerful than a colored woman bringing it up ( if that analogy makes any sense in our context here.... ).

I can hear most of what you're saying but the minute you call the middle class victims, I can't listen.
Because that is just plainly disrespectful to the real victims in this world. And it's plainly elitist.

P'tit Boo said...

Also.... the kids might have been betrayed. But they haven't been killed or tortured. So theoretically speaking, we can't classify them as victims.

Zay Amsbury said...

Jung said, "The cause of all mental disfunvtion is the inability to experience suffering."

I love this post. Perhaps I'm playing both sides of the fence, since I liked George's as well, but I don't think they're mutually exclusive.

Even the most compassionate teacher -- or perhaps especially the most compassionate teacher -- must take their students to task every now and again.

It's the job of the artist to bring the sublime back into a world. The sublime is terrifying as well as beautiful.

Sometimes tough love is the only way to go.

As long as it's still love.

Have you read Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredrick Jameson? Or Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord? I imagine so, but if not, sit down and check them out. They're right up your alley.

Alison Croggon said...

I take people pretty much as they come (which is perhaps a rather Australian attitude). I've been condemned all my life for being too bourgeois by pretentious pseudo-Marxists with fake working class accents, so I don't have a lot of sympathy with that kind of judgement. Yes, of course all people, on an individual level, ought to be treated with respect for who they are, not whom they represent. George's and Isaac's attack on artistic complacency isn't at that level, and of that kind.

Still, it seems to me that what you're doing here, Scott, is pleading victimhood where none exists. The spiritual imprisonment of the privileged is no worse, and perhaps a lot better, than disadvantaged kids who get such a substandard education that they can barely read, who come from dysfunctional families so know love only as a form of abuse, who suffer discrimination and harassment all their lives because they are the wrong colour or the wrong religion, or who live in countries ravaged by war or economic depradation.

And after reading this, I have even more problems with the metaphor of Dr Artist. Art is important for its own reasons, not for the things it is supposed to do. Adorno has a lot to say about the instrumental attitude to art and I agree with him. It debases and obscures what art actually is.

Scott Walters said...

Allsion and p'tit boo: you are writing from a capitalist viewpoint, which operates from an attitude of scarcity -- there are simply not enough resources to go around. In your case, the resource is sympathy. You think that if you actually recognize the pain of those in the middle class, that means either you cannot sypmathize with disdvantaged kids, with minorities, or people who have been "killed or tortured." This is not true -- it is not either/or. It is possible to do both. I do it every week, when I teach middle class kids during the day, and inmates in prison (mostly members of the underclass) at night. I hear both of their dreams and frustrations, and they are very different, but they have the same root: a society that emphasizes the material over all else, and relies on a system that needs winners and losers.

However, I am not pleading for moral equivalence: the pain of the middle class is not the moral equivalent of the pain of the oppressed. It is different, and the effects are different. But again, the root is the same.

p'tit boo is right: "The middle class is the class which has led all revolutions and which has always been the real power as long as it has existed." But instead of recognizing that power, and appreciating that power, and encouraging that power, and educating that power, you spend your time alienating them, accusing them, disrespecting them. By doing so, how likely are you to accomplish your goal of getting them to "give and share power with others"?

There is racism, there is sexism, and there is also classism, and each is destructive and reductive. Neo-Nazies prefer the first, white males the second, and artists the third. But hatred is hatred, and to express hatred for a group simply because they belong to a particular group shares the same underlying pattern as racism and sexism. You cannot be against racism and sexism and embrace classism -- they share common roots.

What is a victim? Does it only involve the torturing and killing of the body? This seems too narrow to me. Is it not morally despicable to kill a person's heart, soul, or mind? The American Heritage dictionary defines a victim as "one who is harmed or killed by another," but also "one who is harmed by or made to suffer from an act, circumstance, agency, or condition." It is possible to sympathize with both.

By all means, we should be teaching people with power to give and share power -- I am not advocating the maintenance of the status quo. But change comes from people who are willing to take a chance, to be a hero, to follow their heart. It comes from a sense of commitment and purpose, not from a sense of guilt. What you are seeing as arrogance is actually a combination of fear and futility.

Until artists can open their hearts large enough to recognize all kinds of pain, including the psychological and spiritual pain of those who seem materially well off, they will be unable to reach those most likely to be sitting in the theatre watching them.

George Hunka said...

That's one way of putting it, Scott, though you're making an assumption that Alison and Boo believe that sympathy and compassion are zero-sum qualities, and that just does a reductive disservice to both their arguments. Nowhere do they suggest that the pain of individuals, whoever they are, of whatever class, is unworthy of assuagement. The theater may be a place for this comfort. But not necessarily, and it's a limiting perspective.

There is also the possibility that this attitude, the lachrymose depression that Michael Lerner and his survey subjects describe, is also a means of refusing responsibility for the world in which they move: we are victims, therefore our situation is beyond our control. This is a key quality of anyone who describes himself as a victim of forces outside his self. It's crippling and paralyzing because it removes volition from the individual and places it outside.

I can easily picture in my mind a mid-level New York corporate lawyer who is finding a way around an FDA restriction for his drug-company client side by side with a starving African woman who's unwittingly being used as a guinea pig for an experimental new drug too dangerous to be tested in the United States. I know who the victim is, regardless of the sad look on the face of the lawyer.

Theater is too important, powerful and potentially transformative an art to be wasted as a hankie for the well-intentioned tears of the rich. Especially in these increasingly terrifying times.

P'tit Boo said...

About this :
But instead of recognizing that power, and appreciating that power, and encouraging that power, and educating that power, you spend your time alienating them, accusing them, disrespecting them. By doing so, how likely are you to accomplish your goal of getting them to "give and share power with others"?

Um... I can honestly say that's not me and what I do. Not even on my more personal blog do I hate and disrespect purposefully. And even if I did, well I am being disrespected and disregarded on a daily basis silently and passive agressively through the sexism. So ... while I hear you that it's not about blaming and judging and revenge, don't accuse me of doing that. Because neither I or Allison are doing that from what I see.

Also, how can we not come from a capitalist perspective ? That would be like you telling us we are coming from a human perspective.... Can we help it ?

And lastly... I don't believe there aren't ressources to go around or that the pain of one person can be compared or takes away from the pain of another person.

Just needed to correct because while you argue our points well , I still think you are being reductive with our points .


George Hunka said...

Also, from what I know of Boo and Alison, I think to characterize any of their positions as having a capitalist perspective ... well, I haven't had a laugh like that in several days.

Alison Croggon said...

I cite Adorno's critiques on instrumental attitudes to art and I get told I'm writing from a "capitalist viewpoint"?! Wow. What's a woman got to do to establish her radical credentials around here?

And can I quote myself: "Yes, of course all people, on an individual level, ought to be treated with respect for who they are, not whom they represent." I believe that completely, and try to live by that. I wasn't saying that one should not feel empathy for the dilemmas of young people: I was saying that it is somewhat obscene, in this world where there are people who are unambiguously suffering, and especially when much of that suffering is caused by the economic structures that create our own privilege, to posit these privileged kids as "victims". Especially as victims who need the "therapy" of art.

I am not sure either that giving them the ultimate expression of individuality, the "hero's journey" (yes, I know my Joseph Campbell too) is going to challenge those limiting assumptions too much - after all, it's not much different from the ideologies of individualism that soak them from birth. All you are doing is transforming that individualism into a spiritual metaphor: the end point is, like buying a new car or getting a good job or having plastic surgery, ego-fulfilment, becoming a better, more attractive person. If you could teach them to question the social and economic structures that lead to their own and others' suffering - by giving them some intelligent critique, say, that leads them beyond themselves - well, you never know, they might exercise some agency and start making some moral choices about who they are.

Scott, I recommend Adorno's essays on art and culture. Old snobby modernist he may be, but if you're thinking about art in post-capitalist consumerist society I think he's pretty necessary and illuminating reading.

P'tit Boo said...

... of course with a name like Boo, my credibility goes way down doesn't it ?

Alison Croggon said...

I don't know ... Boo sure scares the hell out of me.... especially when a child creeps up behind me while I'm absorbed in writing and shouts it in my ear (a not infrequent occurence, sad to say.)

Just one last point. Scott says:

What is a victim? Does it only involve the torturing and killing of the body? This seems too narrow to me. Is it not morally despicable to kill a person's heart, soul, or mind?

First among the examples I provided were those people with no education or opportunities, people in both our societies who are condemned, through a wide combination of factors, to lives brutalised by poverty and disadvantage in which their human potential remains unfulfilled or is destroyed. That seems to me a total killing of the soul, heart and mind. And yes, I do think it is despicable.

Anonymous said...

"These people don't need to be attacked, they need to be encouraged to break out of their prison and follow their hearts."

Hear, hear! That is precisely the point: we are talking about "people", not "the middle class" or "the working class".

Consider: why would anyone want to listen to some artist essentially lecture them about their so-called failings? Does anyone really desire to hear that? Even if the artist has a valid point, there's no relationship and thus no real communication. If an artist wishes to teach, they should follow the approach used by the vast majority of successful teachers (and parents): "no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care." Touch people's hearts, let them know what's on your heart, and they might be a lot more willing to listen to you.

We all get more than enough criticism during a normal day, no matter what "class" (and what a tired, "last millennium" term that is) we may belong to. We don't need or want more lectures - we want encouragement and inspiration. If change is needed (and it always is, if we are to improve), it is light, not heat, that will make the steps clear.