Monday, May 16, 2005

Class in America

The New York Times is publishing a series on class in America this week. The first article in the series appeared on Sunday under the heading "Class in America: Shadowy Lines That Still Divide." There were four criteria the authors (and presumably scores of researchers) used to set their definition of "class" --- occupation, income, education, and wealth. To be fair, they regard this as "one way to think of a person's position in society." Unfortunately, because they chose, or were forced, to use these four quantifiers in their studies through surveys and data compilation from various sources, the entire study seems almost entirely to miss the mark in terms of what really matters in an analysis of class in America.

Class in America escapes precise definition for two reasons. The first is that the mainstream media cannot undertake any kind of discussion of class without alienating a significant segment of its audience and advertising base if it does not use statistical analysis (as the Times so exhaustively has) backed up by surveys from people of all levels of the society. The main thing wrong with this approach is that "class" is not determined by "the people" themselves; it is, by definition, determined by the historical elite of the society. Perhaps in the colonial period of our country's history, the four criteria the Times uses may have made sense as real determinants since colonists were coming from the same area of the world --- many from the same country. But, when the American society began to exhibit a specific culture of its own (which, with the advent of television, has become something different from what it was prior to the latter half of the twentieth century) as successive generations of elites were born into the society and subsequent waves of immigrants came to America, the four determinants quickly began to break down. The main determinant that remained was, and still is, the elites' power to control placement of any striver to the upper echelons of "American" society.

The other main reason class in America escapes definition is that, as a country, we have done our level best to pretend that class does not exist here, especially in the form our founders were trying to advertise an escape from. And "advertise" is the key word here because they have (eventually) built an infrastucture (the vast American media) based on the flow of information which, for the most part, only they can manipulate, simultaneously keeping themselves "elite" and promoting the idea that there is no "elite" in America, just fame and money earned by the sweat of one's "American Dream."

I could go on at book length about this topic. Suffice it to say, the above paragraphs encapsulate my view on the subject. If the Times is ignorant enough to go ahead and trod this well-worn, dead-end path, so be it. Any real discussion of class in America will have to begin with a real admission of its existence. And that means the Times will first have to admit that it IS an "elite" entity which has long been, and continues to be, in the business of telling the American public which classes they belong to, though obviously not through the democratic-style statistical analysis they purport to be using this time around. I'm not kidding when I say a still better way of determining class in America would be just to research and write about what words people use to communicate and how they pronounce those words when they speak them aloud.