Monday, August 8, 2016

Class Myopia

On my way home from work on the bus, I read the New York Review of Books. Today’s poignant, personal essay, “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” by Zadie Smith, touched on the divide between those who have a college degree and those who do not, which I addressed in “I Love Donald Trump.” The discrepancy between those two groups in terms of their support for Trump is striking. Understanding that pattern could help us prevent the future rise of a more effective Trump-like candidate. Though most responses to my post have been positive, two critical responses lead me to feel that I did not articulate my position clearly enough. Reflecting on “Fences: A Brexit Diary” may help to clarify my thoughts.

Smith is an English writer born to a Jamaican mother and an English father and raised in a relatively low-income, ethnically diverse London neighborhood. Two days before the Brexit vote, after a long absence, she returned to her ‘hood and noticed a wall of bamboo slats and plants that blocked the view of her school yard. She soon saw that fence as a metaphor of what was happening to the world of her childhood and her school, with its mix of the “relatively rich and the poor” — as well as the vote to erect a fence between Britain and Europe.

After considering the standard explanations for the decision, including racism, she concluded:
The profound shock I felt at the result—and which so many other Londoners seem to have experienced—suggests at the very least that we must have been living behind a kind of veil, unable to see our own country for what it has become….
A few days before the vote she was at a dinner party with other London intellectuals:

We were considering Brexit…. But it turned out we couldn’t have been considering it very well because not one of us, not for a moment, believed it could possibly happen. It was so obviously wrong, and we were so obviously right—how could it? 
After settling this question, we all moved on to bemoaning the strange tendency of the younger lefty generation to censor or silence speech or opinions they consider in some way wrong: no-platforming, safe spaces, and the rest of it. We were all right about that, too. But then, from the corner, on a sofa, the cleverest among us, who was at that moment feeding a new baby, waited till we’d all stopped bloviating and added: “Well, they got that habit from us. We always wanted to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of an issue. More so even than doing anything. Being right was always the most important thing.” 
In the days following the result I thought about this insight a lot. I kept reading pieces by proud Londoners speaking proudly of their multicultural, outward-looking city, so different from these narrow xenophobic places up north. It sounded right, and I wanted it to be true, but the evidence of my own eyes offered a counter-narrative. For the people who truly live a multicultural life in this city are those whose children are educated in mixed environments, or who live in genuinely mixed environments, in public housing or in a handful of historically mixed neighborhoods, and there are no longer as many of those as we like to believe. 
For many people in London right now the supposedly multicultural and cross-class aspects of their lives are actually represented by their staff—nannies, cleaners—by the people who pour their coffees and drive their cabs, or else the handful of ubiquitous Nigerian princes you meet in the private schools. The painful truth is that fences are being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around neighborhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black are real and need to be confronted by all of us, not only those who voted Leave. 
Amid all the hysterical characterization of those Leavers in the immediate aftermath—not least my own—I paused and thought of a young woman I had noticed in the playground the year my daughter spent in that school…. She was a mother, like the rest of us, but at least fifteen years younger. After walking behind her up the hill to my house a few times I figured out she lived in the same housing project in which I myself grew up. The reason I noticed her at all was because my daughter happened to be deeply enamored of her son. A play date was the natural next step. 
But I never took that next step and neither did she. I didn’t know how to penetrate what I felt was the fear and loathing she seemed to have for me, not because I was black—I saw her speaking happily with the other black mothers—but because I was middle class. She had seen me open the shiny black door to the house opposite her housing project, just as I had seen her enter the project’s stairwell each day. I remembered these fraught episodes from childhood, when things were the other way around. Could I ask the girl in the big fine house on the park into our cramped council flat? And later, when we moved up to a perfectly nice flat on the right side of Willesden, could I then visit my friend in a rough one on the wrong side of Kilburn? 
The answer was, usually, yes. Not without tension, not without occasional mortifying moments of social comedy or glimpses of domestic situations bordering on tragedy—but still it was yes. Back then, we were all still willing to take the “risk,” if risk is the right word to describe entering into the lives of others, not merely in symbol but in reality. But in this new England it felt, to me at least, impossible. To her, too, I think. The gap between us has become too large. 
The tall, narrow Victorian house I bought fifteen years ago, though it is exactly the same kind of house my middle-class friends owned when I was growing up, is now worth an obscene amount of money, and I worried that she might think I had actually paid that obscene amount of money to own it. The distance between her flat and my house—though it is, in reality, only two hundred yards—is, in symbol, further than it has ever been. Our prospective play date lay somewhere over this chasm, and never happened, as I never dared ask for it. 
Extreme inequality fractures communities, and after a while the cracks gape so wide the whole edifice comes tumbling down. In this process everybody has been losing for some time, but perhaps no one quite as much as the white working classes who really have nothing, not even the perceived moral elevation that comes with acknowledged trauma or recognized victimhood. The left is thoroughly ashamed of them. The right sees them only as a useful tool for its own personal ambitions. This inconvenient working-class revolution we are now witnessing has been accused of stupidity—I cursed it myself the day it happened—but the longer you look at it, you realize that in another sense it has the touch of genius, for it intuited the weaknesses of its enemies and effectively exploited them. The middle-class left so delights in being right! And so much of the disenfranchised working class has chosen to be flagrantly, shamelessly wrong. 
We have a history of ridiculing the poor, in Britain, for “shafting themselves,” for “voting against their interests.” But no less has the neoliberal middle and upper-middle class shafted itself, living in its gilded London prisons…. 
There has been a kind of money madness in London for some time and for the rest of us looking on it’s hard to find in such symbols any sign of a beautiful, harmonious, or even happy life…, though at least when you are this rich you can comfortably fool yourself that you are happy, utilizing what the old North London Marxists used to call your “false consciousness.” That crusty standby won’t work anymore for describing the economically and socially disenfranchised of this nation: they are struggling, deeply unhappy, and they know it. 
…The majority of those who voted Leave did so out of anger and hurt and disappointment, helped along by years of calculated political and press manipulation of certain low feelings and base instincts…. I don’t find the people who voted Leave to be in any way exceptional in having low motives. 
While we loudly and rightly condemn the misguided racial attitudes that led to millions asking “them” to leave “us,” to get out of our jobs and public housing and hospitals and schools and country, we might also take a look at the last thirty years and ask ourselves what kind of attitudes have allowed a different class of people to discreetly maneuver, behind the scenes, to ensure that “them” and “us” never actually meet anywhere but in symbol. Wealthy London, whether red or blue, has always been able to pick and choose the nature of its multicultural and cross-class relations, to lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness while simultaneously fencing off its own discreet advantages. We may walk past “them” very often in the street and get into their cabs and eat their food in their ethnic restaurants, but the truth is that more often than not they are not in our schools, or in our social circles, and they very rarely enter our houses—unless they’ve come to work on our endlessly remodeled kitchens. 
Elsewhere in Britain people really do live cheek-by-jowl with the recently migrated, and experience the undercutting of their wages by newcomers. They really do have to fight for resources under an austerity government that makes it all too easy to blame your unavailable hospital bed on the migrant family next door, or on an oblique bureaucracy across the Channel, which the nitwit demagogues on the TV keep telling you is the reason there’s not enough money in the NHS. In this atmosphere of hypocrisy and outright deceit, should the working-class poor have shown themselves to be the “better man” when all around them is corruption and venality? When everyone’s building a fence, isn’t it a true fool who lives out in the open?
When I read those passages again just now, it broke my heart. The parallels to this country are too powerful. I recall my own “white trash” roots, the shame I felt, and the slights I received. I reflect on how when I hear a southern accent, my gut reaction tends to be disparaging. I regret how when I lived in a low-income housing cooperative, those of us with college degrees who lived there voluntarily gravitated toward one another, and were targets of resentment from those without degrees who lived there out of necessity (it didn’t help that we romanticized the neighborhood). And just tonight the news reported that Trump still leads Clinton 2-to-1 among whites without a college degree.

Still, as with Smith and her friends, we progressives tend to arrogantly always assume “we are all right about that.” We speak proudly of our multicultural, outward-looking cities that we consider so different from narrow xenophobic rural areas and red states. Few of us interact with people without college degrees.

To draw more parallels:
One useful consequence [of the Trump campaign is] to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in [American] society that has been [decades] in the making. [Those gaps] are real and need to be confronted by all of us….The left is thoroughly ashamed of [the poor]…. We have a history of ridiculing the poor… for “shafting themselves,” for “voting against their interests [or not voting at all]” …The majority of those [“uneducated” voters] who [support Trump do] so out of anger and hurt and disappointment…. [They are not] in any way exceptional in having low motives…. We might … ask ourselves what kind of attitudes have allowed a different class of people to discreetly maneuver, behind the scenes, to ensure that “them” and “us” never actually meet anywhere but in symbol. Wealthy [America], whether red or blue, has always been able to pick and choose the nature of its multicultural and cross-class relations, to lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness while simultaneously fencing off its own discreet advantages.
Those are some of the factors that motivated my “I Love Donald Trump” Perhaps this commentary will clarify my meaning for any who missed it.

I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump” by Jonna Ivin and the KALW interview with Nancy Isenberg about her new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. have also influenced me. I also recommend those resources.

Our prospects will improve if we learn better how to connect with white poor people who have no college degree.

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