Class distinctions hide America's greatest divisions
Possessors of great wealth not only direct the nation, they ignore its neediest members.
By Leigh Donaldson
June 16, 2008
When I moved to Boston in the late 1980s, all the real estate agents could find for me in my limited price range was a one-room basement flat – with a brass knocker on the door.
For a month's salary and an eye-boggling finder's fee, I was permitted to sign 20 pages of legal excess and move my meager boxes through the rear, the servants' entrance in times past.
Never mind that the hot water was dicey for two weeks and that the kitchen smelled of cat and mildew, I had landed a bargain by all standards. Some months later, I met the owner of the building, who lived in the top-floor flat.
A third-generation millionaire Brahmin with white hair and steel-blue eyes, he allowed himself a long, frozen overview of me, taking in my humble surroundings.
At that rent, I was having none of it, so I threw back one of my own fearless gazes and asked impertinently, "Can I help you?"
Something about my tone and akimbo-stance caused both us to burst out in laughter. After that, we became friends who recognized that we shared a common humanity. I needed an affordable place to live in, and he, funds for upkeep. Caste and social hierarchy flew out his grimy, cracked, drafty windows.
Throughout history, and especially during this presidential campaign, class labels have been tossed about like too much confetti.
"Working-class voters," "the middle-class vote," as distinguished from "the white-working class vote" and "the 'elite' vote," are a few examples.
According to a recent Nation article by Zephyr Teachout, The New York Times has run 324 references to "middle-class" and 220 to "working-class" in political stories in the three months ending May 23.
Use of the term "class" is troublesome, regardless of the context. But its use in all variations is apparently here to stay.
Beyond the average person's comprehension is what I'd call the ruling class or "power elite," that small and often anonymous group of people who reflect the top layers of the corporate world, i.e. CEOs, board chairpersons and, in some cases, the independently wealthy.
These are the people who, believe it or not, have a disproportionate influence on our nation's priorities. The ruling class usually consists of individuals wealthy enough not to be concerned about bill collectors, rent hikes, mortgage payments, day-care fees, losing their job, rising gas prices and so on.
The power elite, a more hidden group of people, make and affect policy in the private and public sector on levels that influence the way this country is run.
Many people at this economic level protect their own interests at the expense of others. In many cases, they have controlled media content and the way elected officials vote, for example.
And, there is a clear difference between a person with a few million dollars to toss into the air and someone with $100 million.
People with the latter kind of ready cash can own and control the means of production and distribution of much of what the rest of us think we need and crave.
Ivy League schools and old money go out the window when there are cold greenbacks slapped on the table.
Perhaps the days of old wealth are gone. Certainly a mixture of family money and talent has resulted in a smattering of socially conscious individuals.
But too many rich ancestors never stopped their ruthless pursuits to take a hard look at the common human being.
Obsession with acquiring assets continues to sustain huge economic disparity throughout the world.
Because of the indifference of many among the wealthy power elite, other people are starving, homeless and otherwise disfranchised from society.
What troubles me the most is how we so easily neglect the poor in both private and public discourse. The ever-growing "working poor" population is even more disturbing. Politicians are reluctant to even invoke the word "poor" in their forums, as if such people are not human.
People who cannot afford to feed themselves and their children are not only victims of circumstances, but of the utter indifference of a public too often caught up in their mad dash to make it big – hence rising lottery ticket purchases, game show participation and high-stakes gambling.
My landlord has long passed away, but he left me with a vision more powerful than any diminished dollar could ever express.
His inherited riches never ruled him. It took a lifetime of self-willed effort for him to find personal fulfillment. He was in love with humanity, not wealth.
I know that he would have been proud of this column.
Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book about the antebellum African-American press in the Northeast is due for publication in 2009. He can be contacted at:
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