Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Social Stratification

It’s the elephant in the room, lint on the shoulders of a dark suit, body odor and bad breath. We’re aware of it but most of us still pretend that it doesn’t exist. I’m talking about class in America.

photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman
It’s a subject that has long fascinated me and I have no idea why. Growing up the idea of class and status never entered my lexicon. Upon reflection, I think the reason I never felt different or out of place in my Highland Park neighborhood was simply because we had a house. Granted, I certainly understood there was no father around, we had no car, couldn’t afford summer vacations and I had to start working (on my paper route) in seventh grade.

I knew, in the back of my little pea-brain, that our family was different from my classmates. But those differences never seemed to matter much. I lived in a house on Randolph Avenue and that was all that mattered, especially to my mother. I guess we were solid, abet maybe a little lower than middle class. I never felt lacking for anything because there wasn’t much to want.

photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman
For mobility, I had my 100 pound Huffy bicycle, public transportation and my own two feet. A paper route gave me some spending cash and comic books were only a dime at the corner drug store. So were the chocolate and cherry cokes. If there was another world outside of my bubble (and there certainly was) I wasn’t aware of it. Perhaps ‘clueless’ is a better description for my insulated world back then.

In the 1950’s, author Vance Packard delved into the phenomena of social classes in America in several books, primary his ‘The Status Seekers.’ It followed his unvarnished look at the practices of Madison Avenue to entice the American public to buy more called ‘The Hidden Persuaders.’

‘The Status Seekers’ sought to examine the beginnings and evolution of social class in America from the Revolutionary War on. From our very beginnings as a nation, we the people have sought to better ourselves and tear away the tyranny of ‘social classes in old England.’ For the most part, we have succeeded in creating a country of opportunities. As a capitalist society, we have embraced the accouterments of success.

This subtle yet persuasive message that newer is better and neighborhoods can spell out prestige in a silent yet clearly understood language is all around us. There is a subtle yet persuasive hint at ‘class’ in newer neighborhoods and we all know the ‘better’ neighborhoods in town. Yet housing by itself is no indication of the class of people who occupy that space.

Many of my novels have, as an underlying theme, this idea of class separation among groups. In ‘Love in the A Shau’ it is the stark difference between high-bred Colleen and rough-hewn Daniel. In ‘Debris’ it is the half-Mexican kid, Robert and business owner’s daughter, Miranda. In ‘Follow the Cobbler’ it is classy Katherine and Brian. Finally in my newest novel, ‘Playground for the Devil,’ it is the stark background differences between Brad and Laci, even though both are damaged individuals.

America has always pretended to be a classless society and yet has never been able to pull off that fantasy. Blame it on Horatio Alger Jr. or Tom Sawyer or Steve Jobs. We all want to believe that this is the country of opportunity for all and that if we work hard enough, success can be ours. While true at its core, there are still some among us who haven’t lifted a finger and yet hold tight to the golden ring. That’s life in America; before, now and probably into the future. Yet that in and of itself doesn’t define class.

Karl Marx came to power with his quest to eliminate the bourgeois ruling class in Russia. Joseph Stalin continued that social and class branding but also failed. Modern day Russia hasn’t done much better.

Farm collectives in Israel, like the Hippie communes of the 60s, tried to create a society of equals and also failed. The golden dream of Haight-Ashbury didn’t last long amid the free love collective mindset there. There will always be strivers and stragglers. Some will rise and others will fall.

Since the Revolutionary War, America has struggled to preserve the ideals of equality in the face of persistent tendencies for elites to develop and consolidate their power of prestige, power and wealth. The ‘Gilded Era’ presented the perfect clash between the needs of the masses for subsistence and the desire of the elites for a more distinguishable and tangible life style at the expense of the masses.

Many claim today that the ‘American Dream’ is dead. If not dead, it has certainly been challenged and tattered a bit by the unequal displacement of wealth. Yet opportunity still exists if even in a different form than yesterday.

But wealth and class are two different things. Again, I tried to explore this idea in ‘Love in the A Shau.’ Colleen’s boyfriend, Bradley, while on the cusp of financial greatness and stature in the New York social scene, has little if any class. He is a reflection of the fallacy that wealth equates class. Too often today, we equate wealth with class and automatically assume that if an individual or couple has money, then they must have class too. Nothing could be further from the truth.

More than anything else, class is a state of mind. It is an honest reflection on the dignity of another person. It is a respect for honesty, for self-respect and fairness. There are far too many examples of the moneyed masses that have no clue as to the simple lessons of life. Their only quest is the latest and greatest of material goods and above the fold headlines.

A person of class respects everyone but holds dear in his or her heart the selfless individual who works for the betterment of all. Now that is class.

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