Muddling Class: Populist Plutocracy and Millionaire Proletarians
One of the more disturbing and dangerous aspects of American political discourse is its tendency to muddle class. For a host of reasons that have provided rich material for generations of academicians, Americans have long been exceptionally challenged in their ability to grasp and act against their steep differences in wealth, income, and power. Their difficulty in confronting class inequality has been cultivated for many decades by corporate public and human relations specialists, advertisers, industrial psychologists, and other ideological authority figures, who poison the waters of democracy in ways that only serve the opulent minority.
Whatever its history and explanation, this confusion on class carries catastrophic consequences at home and abroad. It elevates superficial matters of personality over relevant details of policy to the point where the supposedly charismatic George W. Bush and some of his fellow millionaires (including people like the FOX News Channel’s faux-populist/right-wing pundit Bill O’Reilly) are strangely permitted to identify themselves with “the working class.” The president, a scoundrel child of High Class Privilege, gets to sell his radically regressive and economically dysfunctional tax cuts as “conservative” and “populist” measures on behalf of ordinary working people, broad-based “economic stimulus,” and the general welfare.
“Who benefits under president’s plan?,” asks the web site of the Republican National Committee. “Everyone who pays taxes,” it answers. In the latest phase of the largest tax reduction campaign in history, however, there is no relief whatsoever for nearly 8 million taxpaying Americans. More than 93 percent of those non-beneficiaries are found among Americans who make $40, 000 or less a year and 60 percent of them make $20, 000 or less a year. At the same time, America’s 200,000 millionaires – home to Bush’s most significant constituency by far – are poised to receive 44 percent of the latest tax law’s benefits in 2005 (David Firestone, “Second Study Finds Gaps in Tax Cuts,” New York Times, June 1, 2003).
The tax cut, in other words, is calculated to deepen yet further the concentration of wealth and power in the United States, already the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world. Adding rich insult to injury, George W. Bush and his accomplices get to accuse those who note the glaring contradictions between populist rhetoric and plutocratic policy reality of waging “un-American” “class warfare.” The irony is that the Bush Party wages constant class warfare from the top down and the American business class, aggressively represented in the CEO-dominated White House, is one of the most class-conscious national socioeconomic cohorts in the world.
Meanwhile, Bush’s clever, class-conscious handlers work to keep American working people focused on pretend overseas threats, diverting the population from domestic inequalities with fantastic foreign fears and adventures. Such adventures put the predominantly working-class members of the United States military at direct risk and threaten ordinary Americans at home and abroad with increased likelihood of terrorist attack. The masters of American policy and opinion do this in connection with selfish imperial objectives crafted predominantly by and for Americans of extraordinary, corporate- connected wealth and power.
Too often lacking the elementary class awareness required to formulate such basic questions as “Who Makes Policy?” and “In Whose Interests Does Policy Work?,” the hard-working (indeed badly overworked) citizenry of the world’s most powerful nation slips deeper into confusion and disengagement, with dangerous consequences for itself and the rest of the world.
The Relative Value of Two Lives
How disturbing, then, to see class in America muddled yet further by a brilliant left commentator like Nation columnist Naomi Klein, author of a wildly popular critique of global corporate marketing titled “No Logo.” In a recent column titled “When Some Lives Are Worth More Than Others” and posted on her widely visited “nologo” web site (see www.nologo.org), Klein notes a sharp contrast in the American corporate media’s treatment of two young American females – Evergreen State College student Rachel Corrie and US Army Private Jessica Lynch. The former was a brilliant young leftist. She was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza as America’s attack on Iraq began. She has already been swept into the mainstream media’s historical ashcan, her heroic defense of Arabs resisting the incursions of a leading US client state deemed unworthy of lasting recognition.
Private Lynch has received radically different media treatment, reflecting her perceived eager and heroic service to anti-Arab imperialism. According to Klein, Lynch “went to Iraq as a solider loyal to her government. In the words of West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, ‘she approached the prospect of combat with determination rather than fear.’” This was “unlike” Corrie, who “did not go to Gaza to engage in combat” but “to thwart it.” Relying on apparently manufactured stories of heroic combat and rescue, the Pentagon and the US corporate-state media have turned Lynch into a false heroine.
“It turns out,” Klein concludes, “that the lives of some U.S. citizens, even beautiful, young white women, are valued more than others.” Nothing, Klein writes, “demonstrates this more sharply than the opposing responses to Rachel Corrie and Private Jessica Lynch.”
Klein is right to criticize the imperial selectivity that makes Lynch a heroine and Corrie a non-entity, even perhaps a villain, in the mainstream corporate media. But beyond this accurate criticism Klein displays an obliviousness to class that seems odd for a serious left writer. Does Klein know that Jessica Lynch is from the working class of West Virginia and enlisted to attain tuition assistance in pursuit of her dream of becoming a kindergarten teacher? Beneath the masters’ campaign to anoint Jessica as a New American Heroine lay a harsher reality. The prewar Private Lynch was one of the many economically disadvantaged Americans George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other members of the American super-rich count as expendable in their rush to empire. And like numerous other young Americans from her socioeconomic cohort, Jessica joined the predominantly working-class ranks of the armed forces looking college tuition assistance to attain the educational certification so essential to making a decent living in the US. As Anne Tatelin puts it, “here in West Virginia, we have the highest enlistment per capita of any state. I suppose that speaks volumes about the opportunities this economy offers the young in these parts. Jobs in the coal mines aren’t even very plentiful anymore. Jessica was one of the hopeful, looking for a way to get the skills and education she needed and eventually to return to her beloved mountain home. She sure got more than she bargained for in more ways than one” (Anne Tatalin, “The Gospel According to Jessica Lynch,” view online at http://wheresmypants.net/jessica.htm ).
Military service is the price Jessica and many other Americans pay for birth into the lower ranks of America’s structurally harsh if culturally muddled class hierarchy. In paying that price, Jessica and her comrades in the US Army 507th Maintenance Company quite accidentally found themselves behind “enemy” lines in Iraq on March 23rd, one week after Rachel’s murder. As a result of the battle or crash – the real story behind her injuries may never be known, thanks to Pentagon manipulation – that ensued, Jessica is recovering from multiple injuries, including a head wound, spinal damage, and fractures to her right arm, both legs and her right foot and ankle. She has already been through multiple surgeries.
How does Klein know, really, that Lynch “went to Iraq to engage in combat” and as “a soldier loyal to her government?” Does she know that Lynch was enlisted in a maintenance (repair) unit and may well not have expected such engagement? Is it really appropriate to quote the multimillionaire Senator Jay Rockefeller as a source on how Jessica “approach[ed]” the “prospect of combat”? – a possibility that is generally escaped by young people within the elevated circles of a Rockefeller or a Bush.
Whiteness Does Not A Fortunate Son Make
The unquestionably true fact is that Lynch was sent into a combat zone, placed in harm’s way along with tens of thousands of other expendable Americans, like a piece in a giant chess game, by members of a ruling-class. Only one US Senator had a child serving in “Operation Liberate Iraq.” Jessica Lynch ain’t no Senator’s daughter, to paraphrase “Fortunate Son,” the well-known Robert Fogarty rock and roll rant about class, taxes, patriotism, and war. It is not at all clear that she went to Iraq with “star-spangled eyes” (Fogarty), rather than simple, understandable fear and a hope to escape with some federal help in attending college.
It is certainly true, ala Klein, that the militant mass consent-manufactory called the American “mainstream” (really corporate-state) media currently places more value on the life of “loyal” Jessica Lynch than it does on the life of the late dissident Rachel Corrie. This is true, however, only in a recent and politically contingent sense. It is true only after the facts of Corrie’s fatal public activism, Lynch’s enlistment, Lynch’s “rescue” (or whatever), and the decision of key government and media actors to play up the Private Lynch story for the intertwined sakes of money and empire. The long-term reality, reflecting systemic class inequality, suggests a different picture of whose life has been more valued by dominant American institutions.
Let’s be honest about painful realities and difficult choices. Rachel Corrie’s tragic and noble sacrifice was voluntary. Her presence in the volatile Middle East was not ordered from above. It was not required as the ticket to her possible economic security and success (admittedly not Rachel Corrie’s primary concerns). Things were very different for Jessica Lynch.
Jessica may have been “young, beautiful and white.” By sheer accident of birth, however, she came from a socioeconomic group whose younger members face special pressures to serve as fodder for the policymakers’ imperial schemes.
Acknowledging these differences is Class Analysis 101, conspicuously absent in other left commentary, including a prolific literature on “white skin privilege” that seems oblivious to steep class differences within both white and the black communities. As Jessica Lynch and her family certainly know too well, being white in and of itself does not makes you a Fortunate Son or Daughter, whatever the considerable advantages it does confer over the majority of more relatively poor African-, Native-, and Hispanic-Americans.
No, the muddling of class in America is not primarily the work of insufficiently class-sensitive left commentators. We have a number of historical and structural circumstances to thank for most of America’s perilous class confusion. Still, some of us on the left, myself included, would do well to take a look in the mirror before the next time we start to complain about the right’s success in capturing the loyalties of many white working-class Americans. We have helped make American institutions and culture more sensitive to and reflective of differences of race, nationality, ethnicity, language, gender, age, and sexual orientation, etc. We have raised concerns about empire and war that help put peace movements in a position to launch truly mass actions even before the masters’ wars are technically undertaken – far beyond the numbers that organizers were able to put in the streets well into America’s brutal military assault on Vietnam. It is important that we also preserve and expand the strong sensitivity to class and the core opposition to class inequality that have always been central to the historical mission of the left.
Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of “‘Class, Color, and The Hidden Injuries of Race,” Z Magazine (June 2002): 39-42.
Shortly before publishing Naomi Klein’s piece on Rachel Corrie, ZNet published “The Unequal Worthiness of Victims” an article by Paul Street discussing the differences in media coverage of Rachel Corrie and Jessica Lynch.