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Monday, December 29, 2008

Class Warfare in America

Will the Losing Side Ever Start Fighting?

Part One: Hollywood, You Suck!

I saw a very disturbing film at my cheapo double-feature movie theater last week. It's a movie I normally wouldn't poke with a ten foot stick, but my standards are different when it comes to dubbed titles. I'll watch—or try to watch—almost anything if I think it is helping me learn Spanish. This movie is called The Women and was changed to Putas Ricas (literally, Rich Hags) in Spanish and tells the story of some of the worst excesses of American consumerism ever chronicled on film. First of all, I don't think anyone in the movie drove a car that costs less than about double the average annual salary for a school teacher. I didn't stay for the whole movie (my stomach isn't as strong as it used to be) but the plot seemed to hinge on the marital infidelity of the husband of one of the wealthy harpies. I don't get why she would have been upset about her husband screwing around. He is just upgrading. I mean, she probably insists on buying a new car every year or two, so what's the difference?

In one of the first scenes a particularly horrible creature, played by Annette Bening, is ordering around her manicurist in about the same way I would imagine Marie Antoinette talked to her chamber maids. The fact that this urchin, this draft animal even has the gall to open up her fat gob seems repugnant to the Bening character. I mean, how dare she talk to her, human being to human being! “Just do my nails, cut my grass, clean my house, bring me a martini and a salad, and shut up.” Uppity servants are so tedious. As the executed monarchs of 18th century France said, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Now where did we store those guillotines? When we find them we'll start with Meg Ryan.

Remember how at the beginning of this financial crisis, or meltdown, or financial holocaust, or whatever this is, remember at the beginning when the right-wingers were insisting that the whole thing was brought on because a few poor folks missed their mortgage payments? According to the conservatives, these people had no right to own a home in the first place. Meanwhile, John McCain can't even count how many homes he owns. That's OK, though. He's never missed a payment (assuming he didn't just pay cash for them up front). I can't tell you how many times I have heard middle class conservatives defend America's hyper-rich, as if the fate of our democracy depends on their disgusting excesses. We first started hearing about this new American plutocracy back in the late 1980s, a few short years after the Reagan tax cuts freed America's richest citizens from any responsibility towards the United States of America. They were free to make billions while shipping American jobs off to the lowest bidder. God bless globilization!

I first heard about this new class in Tom Wolfe's absolutely brilliant novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, first serialized in Rolling Stone magazine, back when I was still an ardent reader and subscriber. In Bonfires, Wolfe described this newly emerging class as completely separated, or “insulated” as he called it, from the rest of our society. It was the dawn of the new gilded age.

As it turns out, we would learn that Wolfe actually admired this new breed of greed. I realize that you can't expect novelists to know anything about economics, but you expect them to keep their mouths shut if they are completely stupid and misguided on the subject. Wolfe went on to write a laughably short-sighted essay in Harper's magazine called In the Land of the Rococo Marxists*. I hated the essay when I read it in June 2000 and rereading it today is enough to make me laugh and scream at the same time. He laments the fact that America wasn't celebrating her status as the leader of the free world. He laments the fact that, “According to one survey, 73 percent of Americans don't want the United States to intervene abroad unless in cooperation with other nations, presumably so that we won't get all the blame.” I only hope that with these two disastrous wars we are fighting that the number of Americans not desiring unilateral action has reached 100%. Wolfe says that the only skill new novelists needed was, “Indignation about the powers that be and the bourgeois fools who did their bidding.” I'll be the first to admit that most novels are fatuous and have nothing to do with modern life, but what skill does Wolfe think is necessary to be a novelist? I would say the most important quality in writing is a clear eye. Wolfe had a front row seat for the entire modern era and yet he blames all of our ills on college professors. This is a trick often used by conservatives, that of demonizing a powerless and impotent sector of society in order to deflect criticism from the real sources of power. Who could have less power than college professors, or Michael Moore, or Cindy Sheehan (the mother of a slain U.S. soldier who became a voice of protest in the Iraq war)? Meanwhile, not only have the truly powerful escaped most of our ire, we want to be just like them some day. How blind must a man be that he can't see that it is America's hyper-rich who have caused our society the most damage?

During these past 25 years which have seen the rise of America's hyper-rich we have seen an equivalent rise in anti-intellectualism, a championing of the lack of sophistication. We made it cool to be stupid because intellectuals were the real bad guys in modern life. People who were well-educated made us feel stupid, they made us uneasy with our own mediocrity. Being rich was seen as a a finer aspiration for stupid people than the arduous and never-ending task of acquiring knowledge. “If you're so smart then why ain't you rich,” became battle cry of the stupid. We relished tales of uneducated people making their way up the economic ladder, rejoicing every time some moron athlete or movie star proudly confessed to never having read a book. The stupid and the mediocre became the heroes in countless movies. The pursuit of happiness was simply the pursuit of wealth. Our championing of mediocrity culminated with the election of George W. Bush. He was rich and very dumb and now very powerful. The dummies had won, or that's what they were lead to believe. These days I think that few of them think they have won.

We shouted down anyone who had ever bothered to keep reading after graduating from college. Intellectuals were mocked. Libraries were closed and replaced with more business-friendly mega-bookstores which have replaced the classics with aisle after aisle of get-rich-quick treatises, self-help books (although getting rich is the best self-help), and stacks of diet manuals. Getting fat used to be the domain of the rich but now just about anyone can enjoy this former identifying characteristic of the wealthy. In fact, we now seem to have inverted this trend, but a population of fat, happily-deluded, and stupid people seems to be the goose laying the golden eggs of mindless materialism. People already have too much with their large order of freedom fries, but now you can get 30 percent more for a few extra pennies. More is always better.

To say anything against America's new oligarchy is to advocate class warfare. I have news for the people saying this: We have been in a class war. I just think that it's about time for the losing side to start fighting back. Here is the cruel realty of economics: the pie is only so big. It has to be shared by all of us. If a few fat rich kids are eating it all this leaves very little for the kids at the bottom. I could bury people with statistics of growing poverty rates in America but I won't do that here. I don't need to unless you have completely relinquished you common sense. Take a look around. Do things look like they are going well for a lot of Americans? Or perhaps you feel that poverty only preys on the lazy? As more and more middle class Americans are being sucked into the vortex of job loss and poverty, more people will realize they have been buying into a fantasy created by the hyper-rich.

As poverty rates soar, the ultra-rich are getting richer. Our country is starting to look like a starving person with a 70 pound tick on his ass. As this tick has grown at the expense of the host organism, we have been thanking the tick for the privilege. Our popular culture has revered the super-rich while telling the rest of us that it's OK to be stupid. It's not only OK, but it's cool to be a moron. This wave of anti-intellectualism has been particularly damaging to black culture in America. Popular culture (AKA the ruling class) has glorified the basest elements of black culture: rappers, athletes, drug dealers, convicts (often the same thing). Nothing is more sacred in pop culture than an illiterate rich person. A stupid rich rapper or athlete seems to mock the once-cherished value of hard work and achievement. We have learned that it's much better to have luck or talent than to work hard and learn something—something available to everyone. It's the moral equivalent of buying a lottery ticket instead of putting money in the bank. Why work hard in school when you can just luck out and play in the NBA or get a record contract? It is incredibly ironic—at least to me—when the pop culture moguls portray these individuals as rebels in our society. The most subversive thing that the underclass in America could possibly do is to vote, not get a tattoo or write a few childish lines of verse about...about whatever the hell rap music is about these days.

And we have been bombarded by images of just how wonderful it must be to be sitting on top of vulgar heaps of currency (probably more euros these days than dollars). We watch endless hours of movies like The Women that infect our psyches with the disease of materialism, greed, and an insane hierarchy of status built upon the accumulation of wealth. You aren't really living unless you are fabulously wealthy, at least that's what they say in the movies. Hell, if you aren't rich you probably aren't even capable of achieving orgasm. Instead of resenting the excesses of our ruling class in America, we are taught to admire them. There probably isn't a college freshman in the country who doesn't think that he/she isn't going to be incredibly wealthy some day so why should we resent rich people? They could be our neighbors some day soon. The idea that we can all be stinking rich is a sillier notion than heaven and twice as farfetched.

I can say for myself that I am sick of seeing nothing but movies about rich assholes. This doesn't speak to my life in any way. I pretty much hate Woody Allen for a lot of reasons but I would like to see him make a movie about working class people for once in his career. The thing is, I think that Hollywood is simply too out-of-touch to even recognize the way a vast majority of Americans live their daily lives. This is sort of ironic when you consider how “liberal” most Hollywood stars claim to be. If they are so liberal then they should stop polluting the minds of the folks who watch their movies. Stop telling people—in so many words—that being middle class or being poor, gasp, is some sort of crime or something to be ashamed of.

Through Hollywood's glamorization of our richest citizens we have come to despise the poor among us. The real class warfare going on in America is between the poor and the middle to lower-middle class. Just like in the real wars, the rich always hire others to do the fighting for them. And please don't tell me that the movie moguls are just giving the people what they want. They have always told us exactly what to want. We need to change that arrangement somehow.

* I have never for a minute doubted Wolfe's talent as a writer. Even this myopic essay had it's odd gem, like his description of one left-leaning writer. “Actually, she was just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium, encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review.”