Friday, May 13, 2005

Social Classes

BotWT had a good post today on one of the essential differences between America and Europe. Of course the post wasn't written by Taranto, but by one of his readers, a Mr. Jonathan Kahnoski. And though I disagree with the (implicit) idea that egalitarianism is something good or desirable, I think it's worth sharing Mr. Kahnoski's observations here:

When the American intelligentsia bought the whole Marxist-Leninist vocabulary back in the 1920s and 1930s, they bought into the idea of social classes. Marxism-Leninism is a product of the European experience, with its long history of often rigid social classes (royalty, nobility, bourgeoisie, etc.). This vocabulary has had great appeal to Europeans, especially on the Continent. Today, Europeans claim their societies are more egalitarian than America's because of their social welfare programs, while completely overlooking how stationary their citizens are both geographically (what Frenchman will leave his birthplace to take a better job?) and socially (can a "working class" German aspire to a university education or obtain a bachelor's or master's later in life?).

The American experience has been quite different. From the colonial period on, the ideal of America was to free the individual from the artificial constraints of social class. In America, so the pitch went, every person was able to pursue his dreams, whatever they might be, without regard to family or place of birth. It is true that America's fulfillment of that dream has been imperfect, but not nearly as imperfect as the American intelligentsia would have us believe. Indeed, it might be that more Americans would strive and succeed if there was less talk about class barriers and more talk about freedom.

This is not to argue that every plumber mistakes his wrench for a scepter. The same working stiff who takes offense at being called "working class" is quite comfortable being called "blue collar." It is easy to understand why. A class is something you are born into, and trapped in--concepts completely antithetical to the American self-image. A collar, blue or white, is something a person chooses for himself--a concept congruent with the American ideal.

It is puzzling that so many American academics do not understand the great gulf between the European experience and the American experience. It is as if they say: Americans mostly are the descendants of white Europeans, therefore most Americans must think and feel and perceive themselves the same way Europeans do. The simplicity of this line of thought is tempting, but it demonstrates how little these otherwise highly educated and well-traveled people know about their fellow Americans. Perhaps they would feel more at home in Europe?

Thus, as you say, some janitors and secretaries and carpenters are insulted when they are referred to as "working class." However, perhaps most ignore the term because they don't associate themselves with "working class" or any other "class." They may agree they wear a white collar or a blue collar, practice a trade or a profession, but these they do by choice. They also will insist they are born-free, "jen-u-ine" Grade A, USDA Choice Americans and they don't know what class you are talking about. Bully for them!


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