Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Culture Wars

The Enlightenment Project has a fascinating cultural critique suggesting liberals are to blame for conservative populism in the US (thankfully the masses are more liberal here in New Zealand!)
We despised and lionized the working class by turn, and always patronized them... Working class people recognized that they were being trashed and fought back.

[As a solution,] I would favor genocide--cultural rather than material. We could let them in and by doing that dismantle their culture--we could wipe out the working class by assimilation. If, as the author suggests, class has become a matter of ethos rather than economics then anyone can join the elite. Ideas are free: anyone can, and should, be a liberal "intellectual."

But we excluded the working class by romanticizing their "culture" and despising their religion, by adopting passes and signs to keep them out and by consuming positional goods to set ourselves apart from them. We despised their food preferences and body fat, their fundamentalism, their leisure activities, their grammar and the little boxes made of ticky-tacky in which they lived because those were the things that set them off from us and gave us claim to elite status. We didn't want them to slim down, repudiate fundamentalism, speak grammatically or develop a preference for microbrews over Budweiser because then our status symbols would be tarnished: there's no point in eating whole grains or practicing Wicca if everyone else is.
This is all interesting stuff - and I do find the central idea (that "anyone can, and should, be a liberal 'intellectual'") quite attractive - but I'd like to hear a bit more about precisely how we are to entice the working class to adopt our culture. I am especially skeptical of the suggestion that the problem is with our motivation: I would have thought that most liberals would be overjoyed to see more people "repudiate fundamentalism" - the difficulty is in convincing them to do so! We can open the door as wide as we like, it won't do any good if nobody wants to walk through it.

The question of how middle-class liberals should relate to working class culture is a tricky one. Should we respect their (conservative) values? Try to convert them to ours? Is education the key? Is assimilation or multi-culturalism preferable? I'd be very interested to hear others' thoughts on this issue.

1 comment:

  1. [Copied from old comments thread]

    Richard, this is an interesting problem that I have to deal with on a daily basis. I am currently teaching at a college in rural North Carolina with many (almost too many) conservative working-class students.

    Education is definitely not the key. In fact, most of the working-class folks do not see education as an end in itself. The only thing an education is good for is the end result - a job. They are die hard instrumentalists in the education department. So, what you and I consider education, they think is crap and not a worthy pursuit.

    Also, to suggest that education is something different, something to be pursued for its own sake usually is met with an incredulous stare.
    Joe | Email | Homepage | 1st Jul 04 - 11:44 am | #


    It's a fundamental problem of the left. There is this fundamentalist view idealising the 'working class' among too many of the intellectual left. "They're fine when they are being working class heros, but I don't want them in Logan Brown with me!" sort of thing.

    Middle class liberals should get over ourselves, and not be so certain that our own values and ways of life are universally valid and relevant. We should perhaps embrace and engage the progressive elements of working class culture if we want to get in. It's only once you're in that you have a hope of influencing the backwards bits.

    What're the progressive bits in classic working class culture (don't know if this translates to USA since I'm not there) - solidarity, sticking up for your mates, equality/egalitarianism. For starters.

    Jordan Carter | Email | Homepage | 2nd Jul 04 - 12:29 am | #


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