Tag Archives: ron fournier

The year that class apparently stopped mattering

TW: classism, racism, nativism

2012 was a fascinating year, especially from a perspective within the United States. There’s a long history of residents of this country telling ourselves that we’re a classless society, or failing that a country where opportunity is ubiquitous and untainted by social and political biases. Last year, and particularly the presidential election over the course of it, seemed like something of an abrupt end to that, with Romney’s 47 percent video solidifying class as inevitably one of the salient identities and the post-election analysis often becoming fixed on how rapidly support for the Democrat Obama transformed into support for the Republican Romney at around $50,000 per year per household in most states.

romney in a pile of money

(It was also a golden age of photoshopped images of Mitt Romney, for obvious reasons, from here.)

This past year something else happened, however, particularly in how the media analyzed issues. In short, class completely disappeared from the conversation. In some cases, the absence of class in how representative sets of groups were selected was appalling obvious, with Ron Fournier’s perceived look into the heads of current students he expects to lead the country in the future being a particularly vivid example. That the class of those he talked to (never even directly about the issue, it seems important to add) was a force that could bias them to a certain view on government was something Fournier never broached in his article. While he could obliquely reference their class status as easing their launch into “public service”, he couldn’t imagine it as something that shaped their opinions, their experiences, and ultimately their politics. It’s not that the economic system is invisible, just people’s status (that is, class) that apparently was to his eyes and ears. Likewise, the result was that the differing positions held by poorer young people weren’t considered.

Fournier was just an undeniable example of this phenomenon. Earlier in the year, in fact, Obama’s State of the Union address reflected a similar disrecognition of how his language divided immigrants into those that worked desired jobs and hence were imagined to be “highly-skilled” and even “entrepreneurs” and those that, ostensibly, are neither of those things as a result of them being unwanted. The reality that many undocumented immigrants are badly wanted as laborers by US-based businesses, but precisely because they can be exploited economically and socially, wasn’t acknowledged in the slightest. Much like the high school students with less affluent backgrounds, their reality (and hence, their political interests and needs) were outside of the discussion.

This failure to consider how class intersects with nearly all political issues didn’t merely erase poor people from the discussion, but actively distorted a number of historical figures records while they were remembered this year. From Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr, the class politics of a number of Black political figures were totally removed from public political memory, often as a part of otherwise remaking them into figures useful to White commentators. The former was done an additional disservice before his death, by BBC reporting that disregarded the economic reality of historical and modern South Africa, largely again by means of erasing the poorest residents of that country (who remain the indigenous Black communities) in order to make a political point that seemed stolen from White nationalists.

In a lot of formal and official discussions, 2013 was a year of class needlessly receding from the discussion, which often took any type of look at the beliefs, ideas, and even existence of the poorest people with it.

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The classless generation

TW: classism

Buried inside of Ron Fournier’s rather dull and predictable article in The Atlantic on the crisis of millennial disinterest in government and politics, I found an interesting chestnut. Fournier allegedly spoke directly with one group of current high school students:

Matt Kissling teaches government at Langley High School, an elite public school in suburban Washington that caters to the sons and daughters of U.S. congressmen, ambassadors, and Cabinet members. If his students aren’t the best and brightest, they’re close enough. So I asked them: “How many of you volunteer in your community?”

Every student raised a hand.

“I teach autistic kids to ride horses,” Morgan Wallace said.

“Me, too,” said Ashley Morabito. They’re all chirping now:

“I work at a food pantry.”

“ … at my church.”

“Tutor reading …”

“… and teach English.”

“But how many of you think traditional public service is the best way to help your community and country?” I asked. “In other words, how many of you will make a career in politics or government?”

Not a hand went up. No chirping. Nothing — the only noise in the abruptly silent room was the electronic hum of a fluorescent light. Finally, Shayan Ghahramani, a student, whispered, “Is this a joke?”

Now, to begin with, the idea of community service being something entirely distinct from government work for US millennials – typically defined as being born shortly after the 1980 “Reagan Revolution” – shouldn’t be surprising. We were actually raised within a culture where governance was defined as strictly disinterested if not actively hostile to social welfare. Even if we are uniquely interested in community service, it makes sense for it to rarely occur to us to seek that out in a public sector position, because of the political reality in which we’ve been raised.

(Guess what gamed system got even more messed up during that time period? From here.)

Likewise, Fournier fails to even cursorily consider whether the “best and brightest” (by which he meant ‘born to the wealthy and powerful’ – you can practically hear the echo of older phrases like ‘good breeding’ in his words) are representative. He’s posited the millennials in the US as a classless generation, with no reasoning to support that.

While the studies to back it up don’t exist to my knowledge – I would suspect that this limitation imposed on millennials is being expressed uniquely among the socio-economic sample of us he actually spoke with. As members of what’s essentially a political and economic elite, it would make sense for many of them to wholeheartedly accept the prevailing wisdom of their subculture. In an era of elites wishing to free themselves from democratic constraints, it makes sense that their children (if motivated to improve general welfare)  would like those benefits to be mediated through charity. They would like to exercise control over who is assisted and how much and in what ways.

Among the variously less privileged classes of millennials, I suspect you would find dismay at how few government programs are actually hiring, how drastically those that remain have been cut in wages and pensions, and how dramatically smaller their purviews are after decades of welfare “reform” and other moralizing movements. In short, there’s a sleight of hand involved in pretending that there are no classes among us young folks and then that the wealthy can speak for all of us.

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