Two Americas, John Edwards said, though he was hardly the first to say it. And while Edwards turned out to be a tragic disappointment, it was refreshing to hear a prominent national Democratic candidate point out the obvious in relatively stark terms. Who was the last high profile national presidential candidate to do so? Bobby Kennedy?
Like inhabitants of some economic Lake Wobegon, most Americans identify themselves as “middle class.” What a brilliant concept, this fictitious state of being! Like Middle Earth, it’s inhabited by many amazing and equally fictitious characters. It was sold, carefully and with forethought and intent, as a wedge to convince the working class that they, too, had a stake in the Horatio Alger constructed American dream. Like “lace curtain Irish” and the more established German Jewish community, who sometimes looked down in horror at the poorer Irish immigrants and the Eastern European Jews as uncouth and trailing upsetting remnants of the sod and the shtetl, the “middle class” could comfortably separate themselves from their working class roots. They were aspiring. They were on their way to somewhere else. And for some, at least, there were enough changes in the trappings of their lives to persuade them this dream was rooted in something other than fantasy.
You can argue that the real changes in Americans standard of living came not from the Horatio Alger bootstrap pullers and the capitalistic system but the union movement (and you’d be right) but it’s not what really happened that counts the most – it’s what most people think happened that holds the clout. The system works! Dad got two weeks paid vacation and the family really could take a vacation; a trip to the Dells or Mammoth Cave or Yellowstone. Medical care was accessible and reasonably affordable; pensions were widely offered. A (usually) man, if he worked steadily, might be able to afford to save enough to buy a home, one in the suburbs, where upgrading and maintaining that home became a kind of religious ritual, complete with the temple at the center of innumerable ceremonies. College was within reach of many, students could graduate with little or no debt. If parents could not foot the bill, part time jobs were plentiful and could often cover the costs.
It was like Brigadoon, really, wasn’t it? A fleeting moment in time where magical things seemed possible. It lasted less than thirty years.
And now those living wage jobs seem as mythical and rare as the era that produced them, and all the trappings that the “middle class” believed were proofs of their separation from the working class have been proven to be, instead, chimeras. We lost our mythology and are bereft; what will replace it?
History gives some hints. Right wing populism (have a look at what is developing in Greece) may morph into fascism. Or the working class may realize, to quote someone who was pretty well versed on all of this, that they have nothing to lose (but their chains) and unify, recognize those wedge issues for what they are and reclaim unity in a progressive way. There’s a third choice, of course – we could continue to drift into barbarism. We can accept poverty wage jobs, people pulling their own teeth in desperation since they cannot afford a dentist, our children collapsing in emergency rooms in late stage disease, with no access to medical care.
But whatever the choice is to be, we’re running out of time to make some decisions, or the choices will be made by others. The good and the beauty of this nation was not built by the “job creators,” that absurd euphemism invented by the right to describe the privileged. It was created by the working people. This is, as Woody Guthrie said, OUR land. A course change is inevitable. The choices that will produce social and economic justice are going to involve more commitment than casting a vote for the Democrat every four years. There are policy makers out there - the real ones and their elected tools - who are determined to enrich themselves at the cost of everything that makes your life and that of your family, friends, and neighbors worth living. As long as you have anything, they don't have enough - and even then, they tell you, you can borrow to give them more. You are going to have to choose. That choice may cost you the comfort of thinking of yourself as middle class, it may cost you a great deal more. But it's time to choose, and to act on your choice. The people who are making this world worse don't take a day off, Bob Marley pointed out, so neither can we.
Paul Robeson, HUAC testimony 1956, quoted in The Whole World in His Hands, p. 205.
ROBESON: I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country and they are not. They are not in Mississippi and they are not . . . in Washington. . . . You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people. . . . That is why I am here today. . . .
MR. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?
MR. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist- minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?