Facebook has its uses. A pure Facebook friend — a fella I haven’t actually met in the 3D world, but would like to — passed along a link to a very nice essay at Gawker, of all places. I recommend the essay, but it’s not the burden of my song tonight. Rather, it’s a particularly smarmy bit of Oblather the writer cites:
I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy is grown. That’s how we built the world’s greatest middle class.
The platitude density is high enough here to create a black hole, an all-devouring intellectual singularity from which no stray thought can escape, so let’s heave to, well away from the event horizon, and just consider the last sentence at a safe telescopic distance.
I like the idea of the ‘middle class’ as something which has been ‘built’ — like a brick shithouse, presumably — and built, moreover, by ‘us’.
Who is this ‘us’, exactly? The Great Smarmer’s intent, no doubt, is to suggest that he and you, dear reader, and I, even, in spite of myself, have all collaborated in this world-historical construction project, an achievement that makes the Pyramids blush and hang their pointy heads, so thoroughly are they cast into the shade by the great American middle class. He and you and I have done this together, along with Marse Tom Jefferson and that dear little bear Teddy Roosevelt and Duke Nukem Truman and, for all I know, Ronald Reagan, a person whom he says he admires very much.
But regardless what giants of old ‘built’ this mighty edifice, what does it consist of? The answer is simple: a negation. The ‘middle class’ is a doughnut hole. It’s the people who aren’t obviously rich or obviously poor. It’s like erecting a category of people who are neither red-headed nor left-handed and calling them the Freds.
(We do this a lot, by the way; ‘white people’ is a similar categorical non-category.)
The myth has a certain grip on people, though. To that extent its implicit mystification has succeeded. I remember being told by an older relative of my own, when I was a kid, that we were ‘middle class’. I knew exactly what she meant, though it puzzled me a bit even then. We obviously weren’t rich — nobody needed to say that; the street address told that story. What needed to be stressed, it seemed, was that we weren’t poor either.
But I was a literal-minded, metrically-inclined kid, and it seemed to me that our condition, while certainly not poor, was a good deal closer to that of the poor than it was to that of the rich. That is to say, we weren’t in the middle in any arithmetically intelligible sense; and characterizing us that way was, in effect, a lie. It overstated our distance from the poor and understated our distance from the rich.
No doubt that’s precisely the great usefulness of it, as a national myth. If Joe the Plumber is in the middle, presumably he has an equal chance of rising or falling in the great Brownian churn. This false sense of situation is perhaps one of the things that keeps us so docile — and is, no doubt, the very reason the brick shithouse was ‘built’ in the first place.