The year Operation Rescue came to Des Moines, I happened to be renting the attic of a friend who worked for Planned Parenthood. I'd lived in DM less than a year and was happy to volunteer. The first day I was the camera recorder, but after that they figured out that someone taller than 5'2" might get better video, I became a runner, escort, and fill-in-the-blanks. That was the beginning of my volunteer peacekeeper career.
The national Suits were gone shortly, along with the television cameras, and the gig descended to something I'd call "bearing witness:" a group of conservative right-to-life folks standing on one corner, holding up signs, and a group of liberal, mostly Unitarian right-to-choice folks standing on another corner holding up signs. There wre days providing amusement, such as the day I made signs that said "honk if you're pro choice" which brought a lot of honking to the corner, but mostly the witnessing was dull, and I preferred being an escort and a lot guard, so I seldom stood with the politicos.
Then one day I spent the whole afternoon over there.
The (mostly women) pro-choice group had found their own amusement, which was to mock the pro-lifers. I was inured to this -- my entire life, I've watched people mock the different, though usually from the other side. I was uncomfortable being on the mocking side anyway, it being rather more reminiscent of high school than I really cared for. But worse, the topic of mockery happened to be -- appearance.
That's right. My liberal allies were making fun of the people's clothes ("must go shopping at Walmart") their hair styles ("Great Clips specials; look at those bangs!") shoes ("Well, they must all be vegans -- no animals died for those!") and their education ("Look! That sign isn't mis-spelled! Must have had the priest do it.")
They went into great detail -- the geographic part of town the folks probably came from, for example, i.e. the East Side, where the working class lived, many of them descendants from Italians and other Catholics, and the cheaper suburbs (also East Side, at this time). The only thing they didn't make fun of was their whiteness, and that, I suppose, was because the group of pro-choice people also was unvaryingly white. Being white was kind of an Iowa disease in the early 90s; most people who ventured out had it, so it wasn't polite to mention.
I found in myself a remarkably strong urge to drop the bottles of water I was carrying and walk across the street. l happen to believe that foetuses are just as human as most born people; I just believe that no person has a right to live off another's body without their consent. (I was later to horrify a friend in PP, who said she had no idea I was so ambivalent. I was not and am not ambivalent; these are strongly held convictions which do not seem in conflict to me. I don't think any state or family should force someone even to donate blood during a disaster. That doesn't mean people who refuse to donate are equally admirable as the people who do.)
For a minute or so I did try to rationalize walking across the street. I could hold up signs that said, "Don't abort your child," right? But of course, that wasn't true. I could hope someone wouldn't, but pressuring her when I knew all the truly horrific pressures against having that child -- many of them policed by the same people who professed to care for a baby -- simply is unethical. I spent years of my teenage life helping friends who were pregnant or thought they might be as they looked for illegal solutions. The blaming and criticism of the right-to-life people disgusted me.
And yet... the policing of status markers disgusted me as well. I secretly knew which of my clothes were old and cheap -- all of them, basically. I was well-educated, but some of my siblings never went to, or even thought of, college. Knowing the value of a good haircut, I'd opted out by getting my hair cut about once a year. In short, the people who assumed my agreement were targeting me and people like me. The only certain difference was that they viewed me on their side, and would not say such things to my face.
To dismiss a group of people for their motives, their religion, or the designer of their shoes should be obviously wrong. And yet, I constantly hear it, the cleverly-disguised working class academic who is a little afraid of getting caught if she opens her mouth or dresses, shops or grooms herself according to income rather than expectation. I have spent most of my life learning ways to disguise the fact that my brother's a bus driver -- the brother with the steady job, at any rate.
I know a lot of people who do it better than I. My sister, ashamed of her Goodwill coat, left it at a friend's house on the way to school all winter, so she could go in disguise as well. An academic friend knew others felt uncomfortable about her and hid it in layers and girls. A lot of workingclass background people disguise it by becoming Republicans.
The Ivy League graduates who talk so smoothly and get along so easily, who stay at each other's cabins and pieds-a-terre and apartments in Paris; we're not them. And we're not their slightly poorer cousins, the middle class who shop at similar places but can't carry off the easy camaraderie either. I didn't forget that the middle class women making those comments had to be not so far from the working class, or they wouldn't have worked so hard at emphasizing their differences.
I never voted for Clinton, but I identified with him: the kid from a bad family who was ambitious enough to go for scholarships, make friends among the well-off, and ultimately go for POTUS. I feel the same about Obama; the urge to be nice to one's enemies is a great marker of an upwardly-mobile person who started at the bottom. But then, I also relate to Sarah Palin, whose evangelical roots are class markers all by themselves, even if we couldn't tell by her National Enquirer sort of family. Contempt for Fox news viewers is far too often a marker that you have class differences you're proud of.
And, yes; the urge to distinguish yourself from your intellectual enemy should be a red flag for you. Look hard at exactly what you say about them when you're among your own kind. Or what you perceive as your own kind -- remember, there are always people passing in your crowd, who say little but remember much. In an academic essay, it may make sense to distinguish; but in a supposedly progressive environment, where we supposedly support as well as represent "the people," the only sense it makes is that class warfare takes predictable forms.
If someone questioned my motivations for being a professional, or said I think what I do because I'm poorly educated, I wouldn't trust them. When I see them do it to someone else, I don't either. Because I'm smart, which is definitely not a class marker, no matter what you think. And I know that people who look down on me might claim to be my allies, but have contempt for the people I came from. The people I came from are safer, whoever they are. Everyone knows that.
I don't trust the middle class. Do you blame me?
Of course (some of) you do. All of us have a reflex to ascribe the problem to someone else's behavior. Blame is a handy substitute for reason. I am no more free of that than you, of course. All we can do is keep listening for our own errors, and try to forgive others.
And every day I hear the contempt of people who should be defending the working class, finding every excuse for why they're not worthy of being defended, I hear, loud and clear, that there is no shelter for reason which will not blow away.
Tue Oct 29, 2013 at 11:54 AM PT: I was puzzled at the word "cowards" appearing in the first comment, and on rereading the diary realized my (deliberate) misquotation from Shakespeare's "conscience makes cowards of us all) could easily be misread. After struggling for a way to keep in the thought, I finally abandoned the phrase and just rewrote to intention -- we all have the urge to blame others in order to protect ourselves. I do apologize for the poor polish of the earlier phrase.
Wed Oct 30, 2013 at 11:11 AM PT: I note more people keep endorsing the first comment, asking why I didn't do anything. You should be aware that a) the reader presumes I said nothing, which is inaccurate; b) the reader assumes that what I wrote of working class hesitation to speak up is invalid, because people from a privileged class would have spoken up; and c)the reader misses the whole point concerning why many working class people are afraid to speak, by telling us what to say. Thank you. You are making my point for me.