THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in three parts (Part I, Part ii, part iii) BY GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY’S BERKLEY CENTER FOR RELIGION, PEACE & WORLD AFFAIRS AS PART OF THEIR MILLENNIAL VALUES PROJECT, FOR WHICH I WAS SELECTED AS A MILLENNIAL VALUES FELLOW IN 2012.
Heard of “Rich Kids of Instagram”? It’s a Tumblr account recently featured in an article from the New York Times about how some New Yorkers—in a city with higher unemployment rates than Atlanta, Boston, Houston, or Chicago—can hardly afford to buy groceries. The author of the article compared these struggling city-dwellers with the stars of “Rich Kids of Instagram,” which recently went viral.
“Rich Kids of Instagram” features photos shared on the social media app Instagram, which allows users to snap pictures with their smartphones and, after adding a retro photo filter, upload them to the internet. Usually on Instagram you see plates of food, artsy sunset photos, hipsters with flannel shirts.
The photos you see on “Rich Kids of Instagram,” however, are of a different breed. Teenagers taking baths with champagne and money. Driving Aston Martins. Riding helicopters to private islands. That kind of thing. Which these teenagers have uploaded with captions like “Sent from one of my three iPads #hightec” and “$4000 bottle of champagne [!@#@]. Our table is boss.”
As I sat and scrolled through photo after photo of these young people spending their parents’ money, I couldn’t help but remember scrolling through a different Tumblr blog, with totally different kind of pictures, this past fall. Then, it was an account called We Are the 99 Percent and it was a part of the Occupy Movement.
Since last September, when the Occupy Movement first sprouted up at Wall Street and quickly spread to other cities (including Boston, where I go to college), there has been mention of “class warfare.” Talking heads in the media, politic analysts, and the protesters themselves used the phrase. In a sea of “We are the 99%” declarations, it was inevitable that the clash between classes would be brought up.
Now that election time is full upon us, the phrase has been getting even more usage. From liberals saying it’s an advantage to Obama, to conservatives decrying it as a ridiculous tactic from the left, the use of the “class warfare” argument about wealth and poverty has been in countless headlines lately (just try searching the phrase on any major news website).
And it’s with good reason. With the upcoming release of the 2011 Census results, poverty rates are predicted to be at their highest in fifty years. Meanwhile, the taxes on the very rich are at their lowest in eighty years. It’s a recipe for tension, for anger, for calls for equality. For people defensive about what they do have in life, and for people who frankly don’t have enough to even get by.
Looking through “Rich Kids on Instagram,” I was disturbed on many levels. I wasn’t even sure what bothered me most—the conspicuous consumption in the photos, the twinges of both jealousy and disgust I felt at seeing it, or the seething anger of the people who commented.
In a society with such divides between the haves and have-nots, how do we wade through the mess of envy and indignation that such chasms create? How do we make peace in a class system where the tiers are so high and precipitous? There will always be upper classes and lower classes, no matter how hard we strive for equality. Yet somehow, we are going to have to find a way to create, as a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. inscribed in granite on his memorial puts it, “a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
The middle class is an easy place to fall.
If we’re going to talk about class divides, this is something we can’t ignore. In America, land of the Protestant work ethic, the middle class has a mythical place in our national consciousness. Politicians from both sides talk constantly of “saving the middle class.” The latest Pew Research Center survey on the middle class is entitled “Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier: The Lost Decade of the Middle Class.”
Meanwhile, “the poor” are seen as completely separate, with different policies and political positioning, ones that conjure up words like “social programs” (for liberals) or “welfare state” (for conservatives). But what we have to realize is that lines between classes have blurred. To pit “the poor” and “the middle class” against each other, as if they are so very different, only exacerbates class tensions.
I come from a WASP-y, typical “middle class” town in the South. Big houses, shiny cars, well-manicured women and front lawns. We are smack dab in the Bible Belt and full of soccer moms driving Humvees. Yet I know families who have foreclosed out of their multi-million dollar homes and ended up living crammed in one hotel room, the parents and the kids putting in long hours at the local restaurants to make the minimum payments on what they owe. Like a house of shiny credit cards, these suburban middle-class white-picket-fence perfections have come tumbling down. And many of the ones that haven’t tumbled yet are on the brink, struggling to keep up with a lifestyle and social set while drowning under the surface with bills and loans and payments.
My generation, coming of age in the Great Recession, seems to have been particularly affected by this downward slide of the middle class. In fact, according to that Pew survey, 47 percent of middle class adults say that they expect that their children’s standard of living will be worse off than or the same as theirs. I have Millennial friends who live in trailers, who go to community college, who have joined the military because they just couldn’t afford higher education at all. There are young people who work the late shift at IHOP and live over their parents’ garage, trying to make ends meet. Most of them had cars and exotic vacations in high school, the latest iPhones, and new toys. They could have been placed securely in the middle class back then.
I, too, have firsthand experience with the precarious place that the middle class can be. I know what it feels like to lose your health insurance, to realize what the cost of your medicine is when it’s no longer a co-pay. To watch your parents go to interview after interview, praying that this time they’ll be offered a job. It’s scary, and I think a lot of that fear is what causes people to listen when the politicians talk about “saving the middle class,” making the phrase such an effective campaign plank that both Republicans and Democrats are using it. But it’s not as if the middle class is on an island—or a pedestal—by itself.
I’m not asking us to pity the middle class—indeed, even at their worst moments, they are still better off than the many Americans living below the poverty line and sometimes on the streets. But it is important to remember that there is not an “us” and “them.” Or an “us” and a “rich them” and “poor them.” We are all people, all human. If we are going to be “a society at peace with itself” we must realize our class divides do not separate us as much as we think they do. And we have to remember, while they may be easy places to fall from, they are much, much harder to climb to. It’s not just the middle class that the politicians should be talking about saving; it’s all of us.
“Peacemaking in Class Warfare.” It’s an ambitious title, is it not, the one I’ve chosen for this series of blog posts?
In my past posts, I’ve written about how there is growing stratification between classes, and yet how we are not so secure within our class divides as some might think. There are many conversations to be had on how to make this better–everything from income equality to social programs to political reform. De juro solutions.
But I want to talk today about something more basic. A de facto way to peacemake, if you will. Because even if we do eventually fix income inequality and strengthen social programs and reform politics (and I hope we will), that will be something that happens in our institutional systems.
We also need something for our social system. A new way of looking at things. A viewpoint where we no longer stigmatize by class.
Our society values certain kinds of intelligence, certain kinds of traits. You see them in our upper and middle classes–academic success, high SAT scores, business sense, eloquent speaking. Presidential candidates and CEOs and, yes, students like the ones who win the Millennial Values Fellowship have these skills. Can you use rhetoric? Can you read critically? Can you speak smoothy?
These are the requirements for conventional success in our society. We look for extroverts. We value “leadership,” a word that is sought on everything from college applications to job resumes.
But these are not the only valuable characteristics in our world. (In fact, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, would be happy to argue otherwise with you). We must learn to value different types of intelligence, to reevaluate our definition of success.
My grandfather is a plumber. On his wall in his office is a poster with a strong, tall man holding a wrench; underneath the image are the words: “Plumbers: Protecting the Health of a Nation.” He is proud of this poster; he’s had it up for decades and keeps it up there as he continues to protect that national health, still refusing to retire even in his seventies.
My best friend’s fiancé is a mechanic. In his twenties, he already owns his own auto shop, kept busy with a stream of constant business. He has a skill for machines, able to listen to the sound of an engine or run his fingers along a part and instantly know what is wrong, and how to fix it.
A friend from high school just joined the Air Force, heading off to training where he survived boot camp and began to learn the dashboards of the inside of combat planes, the hundreds of controls and buttons and the sheer courage it takes to fly a hunk of metal into the empty sky.
Yet somehow I am considered the successful one. My grades and book smarts earned me a scholarship to college; they somehow qualified me to receive rewards and recognition and accolades. I, who will never be able to fix a busted pipe or install a hot water heater (I even have trouble understanding the inner workings of a toilet). I, who am hopeless when my car breaks down (I barely know how to check the oil). I, who cannot even manage to operate a Nintendo controller, never mind anything with an actual flight risk.
There is something inherently wrong in a culture where the skills I possess are considered so much more valuable than the plumber’s or the mechanic’s or the soldier’s. Where the upper class, the valued citizens, are the ones who have only one kind of intelligence.
This mindset, I believe, is what we will need to alter in order to ever truly end class warfare. Yes, policy changes will be required, and legislation will have to be created. But unless we genuinely value abilities from all the classes and from all our people, we will never be able to be, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “a society at peace with itself.”