Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Class Structure in the 'Land of the Free'

My last post, and particularly the comments from it, got me thinking about American class politics and structure. The Romantic image that we are brought up with in Britain is that the USA is the 'Land of the Free' - the land free from class barriers, free from artificial restraints of birth, the land free with every possibility. This Romantic ideal haunts the history of the American pioneers, the pilgrims and the cowboy. The Declaration of Independence sounds like this ideal is sealed into law:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It is a most attractive proposition. It sounds like Utopia. It sounds too good to be true. It is.

America has a class structure. But it is different from the long established aristocratic familial one in Britain. At the time of the Declaration, most white affluent men owned slaves who were never accredited the title of "Man" written by their masters. Women were disenfranchised and powerless. The poor immigrants from Ireland were kept one step away from slavery by the nature of their skin. Thomas Paine's idealism bore little relation to the class structure of the New States of America of his day and the acknowledgement of every man being created 'equal' came also with an equally large blind spot. Its a stirring message in theory, full of hope and value but in practice it has never been fully applied.

In America there are still the upper class that [pay to?] go to the vaulted Ivy Leagues of Harvard and Yale. There they find there is a commonly accepted and even encouraged means of solidifying such class structure - the Greek System of Fraternities and Sororities. When I first came to this country I was dumbstruck by such institutions. Here were these students voluntarily joining "houses" where they lived like they were at a private boarding school in Britain - only with alcohol thrown in for good (or bad) measure.

They have "rush" week where freshmen attend parties where they are tempted by the lure of each house and then vetted by each house until they are finally accepted or rejected. The general means used for vetting? Who they are! What does their father do? How much does he earn? Which school did they go to? What is their major and how much are they likely to make after graduating? And is she still a virgin or at least has she been faithful and pure towards her high school sweetheart?

Acceptance then means the ushering of a degree of hazing. All Frats and Sororities claim they have outlawed such behaviour but it persists. New members are made to perform demeaning and degrading tasks for senior members. Their desire to be part of this exclusive club is tested to the very limit. After all this is how to win friends and influence people. This will be the social network that will guarantee your career. This will solidify your place in the class structure. This will even help you find a perfect mate for a future perfect family. This is clear because this is what your father and/or mother did so before you.

Amongst this upper class are the WASPs. This stands for White Anglo Saxon Protestants. They are a group at the high end of American society that have held onto power and privilege since they arrived by boat in the 18th or 19th centuries. This breed can mostly be found in such states as Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Delaware.

Then there are the family dynasties. The oil rich Bushes. The bootlegging Kennedys.

For all the talk of freedom that abounds in this country everyone knows their place and generally stays there.

But there are the exceptions. This is where I perceive America as different. Only in this country could a poor peanut farmer from Georgia become the 39th President of the wealthiest nation on earth. Only in this country can a poor black girl from the ghetto rise to the top to become her own brand of "O". Only in this country can new money be spent as old resulting in the perpetual fantasy of the lower classes: the American Dream.

I believe it is this dream that keeps America's class structure in check. Why would you revolt against the rich when you hold onto the dream that you too can join their ranks? The upper classes let the occasional Donald or Martha into their exclusive club in order to let the others see from below the glass ceiling that they should tow the line, behave, because they never know when they may be given the key to the golden elevator of upward social mobility.

I think that the American class structure is so very sad for this very fact. The belief that riches are but a dream away placates so many from taking issue with a system that shuts them out.

But as with everything in this country there is also another side and its what I love about this country. For all the people adhering to the system there are others who do not. The Amish, the Mennonite, the Mormons all step outside the mainstream culture that slices society into class. There are people who pioneer outside the boundaries in a progressive activism of thinking and living outside of class. There are the vibrant and varied Gay communities in every American city with San Fransisco and New York leading the way. There are right wing and left wing anti-government types who hanker after the days when not every state was under the federal United States government. And then there are always the crazies. The ugly men dressed as women in South Beach, the freewheeling eternal backpackers and hitchhikers and those who provide fodder for shows on crazy lifestyles or crazy homes for a sleek coffee table book.

America has a class structure that can and does determine a great deal in regards to upward mobility and professional success. But America still retains that glow of the Romantic ideal, the image I was fed growing up, where some individuals step outside that structure and operate in their own way be it for religious, political, ethical, environmental or crazy reasons.
I can never pin this place down.


Anonymous said...

ooooh look at you quoting words that don't even belong to you yet!!!

from The American Man you Live With :)

A Paperback Writer said...

Wow. Well, this was cool. To my American heart disillusioned by W. and his Patriot Act (Which essentially nullifies several of the rights for which the colonists fought a revolutions, such as the protection from searches without warrants) and the NCLB gunk and a hugely wasteful and horrible war (okay, well, all wars are awful, but this one is just so unjustified), you make me feel a little bit proud to be an American again. Thanks.
As to the class system in the US and the UK, I've long seen the difference as that in the UK what family you're born into makes the most difference, whereas in the US how much money you have makes the most difference. You can work your way up to upper class (and be more respected for it than for inheriting money) in the US, but in the UK, coming from an "old" family means more than just the money alone.
I'm not really sure that one of these is better or worse than the other, but that is how they differ (in the eyes of the American who lives in Scotland as often as possible).
Oh, and I can assure you that (in general) Scots exhibit friendlier tendencies toward Americans than the English do. Perhaps this comes from years of being kept out from those "old" English families that have so much power the same way the Americans can never really achieve it....
Now, things are a little different out here in the West. Most of us don't give a hoot or a holler about Kennedys or Rockefellers and Ivy League schools. Yes, we have our stupid Greek frats and sororoties, too (I thought they were dumb even when I was that age.), but, although "Harvard" sounds very impressive, the young adult who gets a good academic scholarship or goes to grad school or chooses a tough major wins just as much respect out here.
Now, I do appreciate your respectful mention of Mormons not going with the mainstream, but let me assure you that living in the heart of Mormondom is not all virtue and simplicity. There is still a good deal of misunderstanding, xenophobia, and prejudice between the Mormons and the non-Mormons in the area. The most bitter conflicts are between the Mormons and the evangelical (born-again) Protestants. And Mormons have their own little social heirarchies that are not understood (why would anyone else care?) by those outside of this little world. To be a McConkie here in the Mormon West is a lot like being a Kennedy in the East. Certain people are much more likely to be given certain positions of responsibility than others. It's not talked about much by "the faithful," but it's very obvious.
Now, I can't speak for the Amish or the Mennonites, so let's hope they're escaping microcosms of social heirarchy.
However, I will tell you that it is a very amusing thing to be a born-and-bred Mormon living in Scotland. Oh my. It was really quite funny sometimes. Bob Irvine once offered me a glass of wine at a reception. I merely said, "no thanks," but he apologized profusely. To me it was no big deal, but it occurred to me afterward that he probably thought what he had done was as offensive as offering pork to a Muslim. Poor guy. He felt so bad. And Collin Nicholson was very on edge with me at first -- until I convinced him he could ask me whatever questions he liked. It turned out he had Mormons mixed with Amish, and was really wondering why I wore 21st Century clothing and used electricity.
And whenever I really wanted to shock someone, I just casually let it drop that my great-great-grandfather (died in 1899, so it's been awhile) had 5 wives and 32 children. Now, out here in the West, most long-time Mormon families have polygamous ancestors (mainstream Mormons gave up polygamy officially in 1890 -- anyone who practices it now is excommunicated. the modern polygamous groups are fundamentalists and are considered to be of a different religion, both by themselves and by mainstream Mormons), but you (as a Scot) certainly can imagine what kind of remarks I'd get from that little tidbit off the family tree!!
Sorry if I've waxed rather lyrical here. this is way too long. I hope you found it amusing.

Katie said...

While upward mobility exists in the US to a degree, there's still a huge gap between those who were born into wealthy families and those who weren't. My boyfriend's brother recently applied to Brown University, one of the country's top Ivy League schools. The tuition? Over $50,000. They may offer a few scholarships for a select few, but ultimately only the rich and powerful can afford that kind of education.

The book "Freakonomics" talks about how the kind of family that you're born into (in terms of class and your parent's education)has more of an effect on your future than how your parents actually raise you. It's a fascinating read. I seem to be recommending a lot of books these days. :)

adrastos said...

You need to learn more about the *real* NOLA, CT. It's very much a class/caste oriented place. The upper crust are represented by the Carnival elite: Momus, Comus Proteus and Rex. There's also serious class stuff in the black community with the lighter skinned mostly Catholics Creoles on the top of the heap.

ashley said...

While talking with a friend from Denmark, he said he didn't mind paying 90% taxes because nobody in his country had to go without food or shelter or health care.

Whereas in the US, people say it's a great country because someone can win the lottery.

Cursed Tea said...

pbrbckwrtr - Thanks for your comments. Although I was not aware of a class structure within the Mormon community, it does not surprise me that there is one.
I'm sure you had some interesting interactions in Edinburgh as a Mormon . The sorty about Bob is so cute!! Bless his cotton socks! You mut have thrown them for a loop! Your experience must have been somewhat different to mine - I was getting my liver in training for my future of living in New Orleans!
That's quite a family history by the way!!

Katie - yes, US college fees are ridiculous and divisive. The concept of "buying" an education is so very wrong to me. please, keep the book recommmendations coming!! Thanks

adrastos & ashley - thanks for commenting on my witterings!!
Ashley commented on another blog :

"Kirsty doesn't live in America -- she lives in New Orleans. Big difference."

I was aware when I wrote this post that NOLA would be different. I am interested to find out how. However just as I've seen people loath to post on my blog for feeling ignorant about UK politics, it kinda scares me to post on NOLA class structure. Mind you there are so many wonderful NOLA bloggers to keep my right .... I think at the very least I should wait until I know the place better.

Ashley - Wouldn't you rather live in poverty with the hope of winning the lottery than be a sucker and pay 90% tax?
Me neither...
"Wonderful, wonderful Cooooopenhaaagen... dum dee dum"

celcus said...

"I think at the very least I should wait until I know the place better."

That could take a lifetime...or longer. 20 or so years and I still am regularly surprised.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

If I may, I think that you can't pin America down because we are a nation of people whose ancestors or selves came from most of the other countries on earth. We do not derive from a common gene pool, as in some other places with which you might be familiar.

We are a nation of great diversity. We do not have a single lifestyle, religion, cuisine, or even language anymore. We mostly coexist with those who in many ways are quite different from ourselves.

What we do share is the belief that being an American is an extraordinary stroke of luck. The founding principles are still alive in many of us, and even a succession of bad governments cannot completely kill our spirit.

When we need to, we manage to pull together as a family, a big, unwieldy quarrelsome family, but one just the same. We saw in 2001 that an enemy attack on one of our cities was felt in every one of our cities.

If we have a caste system, it is considerably less rigid than one in which birth into a particular family sets our course for life. Individual pursuit enables those with talent, intelligence and diligence to rise to the top in their chosen fields.

And we are not a nation of snobs, although we certainly have individuals who believe that for whatever reason, they are better than others. They are only tolerated by those who are just like them.

We allow people to come here and make new lives for themselves, and they do. Sometimes even from Scotland.

The thing about Americans is that although we often and openly criticize many aspects of life here, we do not appreciate hearing others malign our family.

It will be a very sad day when we completely lose our love of country because that will be the day we stop being Americans.

ashley said...

heartinSF: well, yeah, to a degree.

Most of the US was settled by people whose religious views were so draconian that the Dutch evicted them.

The Dutch.

So this Puritanical streak permeates most of the culture and politics of most of the country. The US is, on the whole, a Protestant country.

Not in South Louisiana, particularly New Orleans: we're historically French and Roman Catholic. We never fit into your single language, single cuisine argument. We don't live to work; we work to live.

Also, we saw 2005 that a tacit attack at the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers on one of our greatest cities led much of Amerika to abandon us and say our city should not exist.

We don't need to join together; we need to stand up for our rights, and if that means secession or divorce or whatever, so be it.

I no longer self-identify as an american. I am a New Orleanian.

K: don't know if you knew it, but in the last presidential election, both Kerry and Bush not only both attended Yale, but both were in the same fraternity.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It was (and remains to this day) utterly shameful that our government abandoned New Orleans after Katrina destroyed it. That is one of the saddest examples of Bush's America NOT being of, by and especially for the people. And I am deeply sorry for that.

But as you know better than I, people from all over the country did go there to try to help, and sent money and food and clothing and medical supplies, even though our government did nothing.

Most of us are sick and disgusted with Bush and his marginalizing of those who are not wealthy.

He has done so much harm to our image around the world as well, and made me question how I really feel about America.

I have concluded that the country of my birth is still there, shining under the detritus that Bush has heaped upon it. I abhor our present government and as I implied in my comment to Kirsty, I don't think much of some of his predecessors either.

But I do still believe in Americans.

I did not argue that we have a single languge or cuisine. I said that we do not. But I will add that if we were to adopt a single cuisine, my personal choice would be that of New Orleans.

I have only been there once (so far,) but the beauty of the city and its people far exceeded my lifelong fantasies, and the food and music everywhere were truly miraculous.

I didn't know that Kerry and Bush were in the same fraternity. How fitting. I have always thought the Greek system was stupid and chose not to participate when I was in college.

I'm sure that most Americans work to live. Any other concept is really foreign to us.

Cursed Tea said...

oh wow, I feel like I'm havin a party (hey this is N'awlins!!) and my 'friends' are meetin each other -

HinSf meet Ashley - he wants Chirac to "buy us back" (I'm sure he'll update his plea when the French election is complete)!!

Thanks for your comments. HinSF - I'm so glad to hear some American pride - I hate how its been hijacked by the republicans and idiots who are fixated on keeping us all blind and dumb in the name of the "war on terror"!!

It has always distubed me when Americans tell me "i'm Irish" or "I'm German" etc - when they are American and its OK to be AMERICAN!! You can descend from Irish or scots or italians etc but you are AMERICAN!!!

Ok, enjoy the party!!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Please invite Sean Connery, too, Kirsty. He doesn't have to wear a kilt, although it would be nice.