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Author Biography: Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of numerous books, including The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Fight ...
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Author Biography: Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of numerous books, including The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Fight from Commitment. Social critic, essayist, and journalist, Ehrenreich has written for most of the major magazines and newspapers in the United States.
THis provocative study challenges the middle class to become the intellectual and moral conscience of America.
The "discovery" of poverty at the beginning of the 1960s was something like the "discovery" of America almost five hundred years earlier. In the case of each of these exotic terrains, plenty of people were on the site before the discoverers ever arrived. The fact that they had to be found reveals less about them than it does about the delusions that guided their discoverers. Columbus's discovery, for example, tells us something about the vantage point of fifteenth-century Europeans: Believing that the world was small and conveniently arranged for commerce in spice and gold, they misjudged the size of the earth by at least two continents and an ocean.
So, too, the discovery of poverty tells us something about the peculiarly limited vision of middle-class Americans at the middle of the twentieth century. Living in what they took to be the final stage of material affluence--defined by cars, television, and backyard barbecue pits-they believed that this was America. Looking out through their picture windows, they saw only an endless suburb, with no horizon, no frontier, in sight. They believed, almost, that America had stepped outside of history, and that the only changes to come would be the Predictable improvements brought by technological progress: automation, space travel, a cure for cancer, more fidelitous hifi equipment.
From this vantage point the jagged edges of inequality seemed to have disappeared, smoothed out by the affluence that had come to encase American society like middle-aged girth. There were no distinct social classes-only one vast middle class with no known boundaries. As VancePackard, one of the few dissenters from the dogma of American classlessness, wryly reported in 1959:
A number of influential voices have been advising us that whatever social classes we ever had are now indeed withering away . . . Some months ago, a national periodical proclaimed that the United States had recently achieved the 11 most truly classless society in history." A few weeks later, a publisher hailed the disappearance of the class system as "the biggest news of our era."
Unfortunately, even Packard quickly turned from class, with its implications of persistent injustice, to the more entertaining subject of status-as expressed, for example, by one's sofa:
The lower-class people preferred a sofa with tassels hanging from the arms and fringe around the bottom. The high-status people preferred a sofa with simple, severe, right-angled lines.
Yet, despite the intricate hierarchy of tastes documented by Packard and others, there was a general sense that America had finally been homogenized into a level mass. Blue-collar workers were reported to be buying houses in Levittown and sending their children to college; union leaders, as C. Wright Mills had shown, were becoming gray-flanneled executives like their corporate antagonists. "Negroes" were on the march, of course, but only for the apparently unobjectionable goal of sitting down at the same lunch counters and consuming the same good things available to white Americans. Wherever one looked, America seemed to have risen above the hurts and injustices that kept less-favored nations febrile and restless. Nothing much would change because no important social group had a stake in making change. They were all happily joining the universal middle class.
Thw Problen of Problemlessness
If this was the best of times, there was still, inevitably, a flaw. Popular wisdom held that any utopia was bound to be disappointing because "there would be nothing to do," no challenges and no excitement. As evidence, people liked to cite the high suicide rate of the Swedes, who were supposedly enervated by their overprotective welfare state. Now it was as if America had also stumbled into utopia only to confront the ultimate human problem--problemlessness--and with it, the threat of a wasting ennui. "What can we write about?" a college newspaper editor demanded querulously in 1957. "All the problems are solved. All that's left are problems of technical adjustments."
America's best-known--intellectuals-who were themselves, almost to a man, members of the professional middle class--agreed. "The fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved," pronounced Seymour Martin Lipset in 1960. There was nothing to do, and certainly nothing worth doing with enthusiasm. After surveying the American scene in 1955, David Riesman and Nathan Glazer taxed their minds to discover an issue that might engage the reformminded. "One could raise the floor under wages," they considered briefly, or "press for socialized medicine," but most people, they concluded, were too comfortable to care. "To be sure," they mused, "there are enclaves where the underprivileged still can be found, as in the Southern Alleghenies or the rural Deep South." But this problem of "underprivilege" was so marginal, so geographically isolated, that it would hardly take a full day's work. "There are still pools of poverty to be mopped up," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., noted, but then we would be right back to the more vexing problems posed by "an economy of abundance."
It was the "end of ideology," Daniel Bell announced in 1960, and if no one missed it, this was because no one, perhaps including Bell, seemed to remember what ideology was. Searching for a definition, he kept falling back on the hot word passion: "A total ideology is ... a set of beliefs infused with passion.... What gives ideology its force is its passion." But the waning of passion was hardly worth mourning, for passionate beliefs about society could flower, apparently, only in the harsh ground of inequality, in circumstances where social position was scripted from birth. In "modern" society, occupation and hence status were determined by "technical skill," a purely neutral attribute that anyone could pick up along the way. In this situation, Bell asked rhetorically, "What then is the meaning of class?" Not much, the reader, numbed by ideology's slow death in the author's hands, would have to agree. If there were no deep injustices and only an occasional matter for "technical adjustment," there were surely no inequalities worth getting passionate about.Fear of Falling. Copyright © by Barbara Ehrenreich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted October 19, 2011
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