Thursday, February 16, 2006

Demonizing the Middle Class

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.


Alison Croggon said...

Quite possibly, Scott, George is middle class himself; and I certainly didn't see him heroicising the Proletariat (George?!); ironically, the tradition George is calling on in attacking middlebrow art is also a bourgeois one (Joyce, Beckett et al were solidly bourgeois artists). I dare say he can be criticised for the vagueness of his terms, but the syndrome he is attacking - complacency and blindness - is nevertheless a real one, and while not confined by any means to those loosely defined as middle class, certainly exists quite strongly there. I'd define it as driven by extreme anxiety (the sociologist Zygmunt Baumann has quite an interesting argument about all this) - the bourgeois as commonly understood since the Enlightenment barely exists any more.

Scott Walters said...

Hear that, George? The bourgeois doesn't even exist! ;-)

Freeman said...

I just think that while I totally identify with the idea that some plays are solidly squalid, palid love letters to the over privileged; George pretty much seems to only give a pass to the over-educated and snobbish. He never saw a Zombie Movie that he liked, but two dollar words seem to be just fine with him.

We all have prejudices.

Anonymous said...

I heroicize no one, of course, you're right Alison, and also that I could have been rather clearer in my terminology.

And Matt--you're going to have to show me where I give an easy pass to anyone, let alone the over-educated and snobbish. There are snobs and there are snobs, including those of us who aren't four-eyed, sunken-chested, pale, washed-out creeping creatures of the library like myself.

And yes, I am middle-class and white and my parents (my father, anyway) were professional. I was a whole-hearted specimen of the bourgeois (as Marx understood it) class. And so what? If anything, it only means that when I speak of its dead spirit, I do have an inside source.

Freeman said...

Aww...when you get self-deprecating I just want to get a George Hunka doll.

Scott Walters said...

Actually, being of and from the middle class puts you in the mainstream of intelligentsia middle-class bashing. As Allison says, complacency isn't confined to a class. And having a dead spirit is a symptom, not a choice. We should be attacking the cultural values that lead to deadness, not the people who are deadened.

Alison Croggon said...

Over educated and snobbish? Matt, I hope you're not having a swipe at me there. Not only am I innocent of tertiary education, but I write pulp novels for young people that I hope will make me rich. Only it's good pulp...

No, Scott, I didn't say the bourgeois doesn't exist: I said that the bourgeois class which powered the Enlightenment and its culture from the 1700s on barely exists any more. What we have instead is a middle class increasingly squeezed by corporate interests and terrified of ending up on the trash heap with the homeless and the smelly mad people they see on the streets, only a job loss away. The middle classes are more and more under pressure, more and more driven by anxieties they barely have time to acknowledge. Hence the phenomena of gated communities, paranoias about attack from Blacks or Muslims or poor people or other "minorities", art that confirms and reassures, the degradation of journalism into opinion (try reading Joseph Roth to see what it could be), blindness and complacency, &c &c...

parabasis said...

Okay... this is the problem I'm having with this, Scott, and the problem I have every time you write something about, essentially, how the MIddle Class needs to be protected and insulated from things that challenge/offend their sensibility and how they deserve their entitlement towards said offense etc. Or in this case, that we shouldnt' go about telling our fellow Middle Class peopel that the majority of their taste in art is self-congratulatory masturbatory bullshit.

I'm not saying I agree with George (I'm not sure, honestly. I'm not a big high art/low art person, I prefer to distinguish between good art and bullshit art)but...

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. Esepcially boomer generation middle class. The world exists to not only indulge their eveyr 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.

Posts like this make me want to do immature bullshit like write "I'm cumming on the face of the virgin mary" over and over and over again simply to tweak your sensibilities. And I think this points to something, namely that a lot of the art you find so distasteful is directly created by your distase, and in rebellion to it. That might be childish (I, for example, wouldn't really want to attend a play where someone shouted "I'm wiping my butt with the face of martin luther king" over and over again), and I'm not a fan of purposefully pissing off the audience for fun and profit, but I think it' all more complicated than we're making it out to be.

Okay, that was several thoughts rolled into one, not entirely coherent. I apologize. I respect you greatly, dear fellow, and your ability to press my buttons. And boy did you ever!

Alison Croggon said...

You snuck in there before me, Scott: I don't quite get what you're asking here. Isn't George doing just what you say, attacking values? How does one attack the values held by a particular class of people without attacking, in some way, the class itself? This also makes me think of National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner's comment, quoted somewhere recently. during the fuss in Britain over a play by a young Hindu woman: no one has the right not to be offended by art.