Saturday, February 03, 2007

Things about me, part II (Know Thy Class)

#2. I have a working class chip on my shoulder

Like my experiences in the Midwest having a lot to do with who I am today, even more of an influence on how I see the world and particularly, what I reflect on when I write, is due to being a child of the working class.

Class, for all intents and purposes, is the 500 pound elephant in the room that no one dares to talk about, or if they do, purse the topic in muffled tones and whispers. Regardless of whether it gets talked about, or not, it is more important than race, ethnicity and gender in how the affairs are carried out and the spoils get divvied out, in America.

I think politicians and probably more important, the elite who really control the economy of the U.S., if not the world, want us to keep our focus off class, because if we ever really understood the issue, it might piss us off enough to get up off the sofa and actually do something to change the way things are. So, how are things? Well, try this on for size—this study shows that whatever class we are born into, which for me is the working class (a term that has been subjugated by the more “egalitarian” middle class, btw), is the class we’ll die in, with little, or no variation of that. Only the UK has less social upward mobility than the US.

Granted, there was a brief window, particularly just after WWII, when, due to the explosive growth in unions during the Great Depression, as well as reformist policies, courtesy of the Roosevelt administration, introduced some upward mobility in the US. That window has closed, however. With current moves to dismantle most if not all of FDR’s legacy and New Deal policies, income polarization, between the super-rich and the very poor is returning to early 20th century levels. But I digress.

I was raised in a home where my dad, a high school graduate, was able to work in a paper mill and make decent wages, with benefits, which included dental insurance. Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, my mom, like many women of the time didn’t need to work and among many working class families, didn’t feel the need to have a career, or if she did, the societal emphasis was away from that. I tell you this, not to trumpet the “family values” of that era, but to say that this was the last time that non-college graduates could secure employment that didn’t necessitate two incomes.

My grandparents, on both my mother and father’s side of the family were first generation immigrants. My Nana and Opa (my father’s parents) were German immigrants, fleeing the post WWI economic collapse in Europe and my Mémiere and Pépé settled in Lewiston, a vibrant textile mill town, where thousands of Canadians, like my grandparents, came to claim abundant mill jobs in factories nestled along the banks of the Androscoggin River.

One of the lessons I learned at an early age was that good people worked hard. At a young age (eight, or nine), I was taken into the woods on weekends with my Opa, my father and my uncle, where I learned about cutting wood and that work had merit. I can’t say I enjoyed these mandatory work outings, which also included potato picking and haying, but I certainly knew what physical labor was about. These older men seemed to actually enjoy this, while I merely tolerated it.

Later, I was able to transfer this ethic, to sports, where I trained harder and pushed myself further than most of my teammates and my opponents. On the baseball diamond, this led to a lot of success. On the basketball court, mostly frustration because, while I worked hard, I wasn’t as physically talented on the hardwood—we also had bad teams and since I hated to lose, so I often found myself being overly aggressive, which led to a host of other problems, including a couple of ejections, a few fights and the reputation of a hot head.

I was proud of the town I grew up in. As I got older, I began to understand the differences between a mill town, like Lisbon Falls and a community like Cape Elizabeth. While the high school I went to didn’t have many kids with money, occasionally, through sports, or other social activities, I came face-to-face with people who had money and liked to flaunt it.

Later, at the University of Maine, I began to understand class in a way I never had before. I read Marx and other books that helped to put class into a context I had never been privy to. Later, I’d add Chomsky, Zinn, and others to my understanding of who I was and the importance of understanding class, rather than trying to disavow it.

So like religion, my understanding of class and self-identification as a member of the working-class, have contributed to who I am and how I see the world.

1 comment:

Rikki said...

[nodding ....]