Class-less Society

HiddenInjuries Dated, yet still relevant, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb brings to the limelight that which much of the world wishes to ignore. At least the affluent world. The very concept of “class” has a dangerously tilting effect on human society. That which is “valuable” is only so by common consent, and those who have more of it inevitably raise themselves above those deprived. In a world where food is scarce, bread becomes currency. The trick to any unequal society is declare an arbitrary standard of value that some may horde while others strive to attain it. We are largely content today to work for money we seldom physically see. We are employed at professions assessed by their value to the “owners” of companies who frequently misunderstand that ownership to include the lives of their employees. And that’s just the middle class!

No doubt, living standards for most people have improved in the decades since Sennett and Cobb produced their study, but the base root of the problem still projects out far enough to be tripped over repeatedly—lack of a sense of personal worth. The working poor have always striven for dignity, a sense of worth. I found much in this book that rang true for my personal circumstances. The Hidden Injuries of Class is based on interviews with workers, some of whom “changed classes,” working from blue collar to white collar positions. Validating my experience, the sense of self-worth among those who’d thus advanced did not keep pace with their class expectations. Those of us raised in the working-class world know our place. Yes, we may learn to act like those middle class, and sometimes privileged workers around us, but we know deep down that we came from humble stock. We sit at desks in offices, knowing that we belong behind a broom or holding a shovel. Not a day elapses when I don’t ponder that I’m a drone a little too deep into the hive.

Any society requires those who are willing to do the less-than-desirable jobs. It will take more than reality TV to add dignity to the personal assessment of such workers, however. Although I’m not a TV watcher, the times I view reality programs that highlight the “ordinary people” we come off looking like the unsophisticated rubes of the affluent imagination. Duck hunters may laugh all the way to the bank, but when you’re off camera a different reality, I’m sure, takes hold. We are entertained by the antics of those who don’t know how society folk behave. In my limited experience I went from janitor to academic dean of an Episcopal seminary where Archbishops of Canterbury were not rare visitors. Literal lords of the realm sat at the same dining table that now holds the peanut butter that comprises my lunch each day. I can act polished with the best of them, but I know once they leave I’ll again become the kid who grew up among junk cars and working-class prospects. And I know which is the more authentic life.

Hidden Messages

Symbolic gestures are among the simple pleasures of life. Unobserved, and certainly unappreciated, they comfort only those who perform them most of the time. Nevertheless, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Upon being summarily released after long-term employment at a certain institution of higher education, the day I left campus for the last time, I left a note with a Shakespeare quote tacked to my office door before literally brushing the dust from my feet as I drove through the gates never to return. The quote was from Julius Caesar, a play to which my niece had taken me that summer for a Shakespeare in the Park performance:

Let me have men about me that are fat
Sleek-headed men, such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

I have no doubts that my symbolic gesture was overlooked and the chit summarily discarded as the detritus of a warped (i.e., liberal) mind. The act, however, had been done.

Due to a booking accident, I once found myself flying first class. Those who know me will understand just how vexing this was for me. I fly quite a bit for work, and I am a populist through and through. Airlines set apart special bits of feet-darkened carpet for premium-class passengers to tread upon. They cordon off a special “lane” for the pampered class that is a nothing more than a matter of a jump to the left and a step to the right away from where those of us who wear last year’s (or decade’s) clothes board the same vehicle headed for the same destination and to which we’ll all arrive at the same time. I don’t disparage those who like receiving drinks while on the tarmac and hot towels to freshen up, and actual food on real plates while those of us before the curtain insist that there is no wizard hiding up there after all. I’m just not one of them.

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So I found myself in a leather seat with an entire cow’s worth of skin to myself. I had never been so kindly treated on a plane, with perhaps the exception of flying economy on Virgin Atlantic. I knew from the in-flight magazine that those behind me received only little pretzels and overpriced snack boxes while I was offered warm food and champagne. I pulled out my reading for the flight, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett. I’m sure nobody else noticed. But wasn’t that precisely the point?