So I read some of his work online, and the suggestion was totally spot on. Joe was a white liberal from the rural south... and to be honest, I didn't know that such a creature ever existed. He had an open disdain for the middle class, especially white urban liberals, which I found totally interesting. I have only scratched the surface of his writings, but his take on the topics of class and culture brought up some very interesting questions for me.
What actually defines the middle class? Is it purely income level, or is it something else? And what exactly is meant by working class? Is that below middle class? Is the distinction white collar vs blue collar? And where do I fit in with these classifications?
I've always sort of considered myself to be middle class, but the truth is, I've never really fit very comfortably into any of these pre-defined class groups. Financially speaking, I've generally existed far below the line for what's considered middle class, but culturally... well I don't really know.
I had a college professor once who was from India. I think he was actually here for only a year or two under some sort of cultural exchange program. Anyhow, the class was a required freshman course called "General Education: The Roots of Western Civilization." It was quite interesting to be taught such a topic from a fellow with his perspective.
He had been a leading proponent of the "green movement" in India, which, in this context meant the shift to a western style of agriculture, and he had come to believe that it had all been a horrible mistake. According to him, the advent of modern farming techniques had essentially destroyed the Ashram system, upon which much of Indian society had been built.
This meant that millions of rural Indians could no longer be self-sufficient, and were forced to migrate to the urban areas where they either became slaves to giant corporations, or eeked out an existence in one of India's now legendary slums. I wish I could remember his name because I'd love to learn more about the fellow... But I digress...
Anyhow, one of the things this guy believed was that the economic classes in modern America, rather than simply being an indicator of income level as we were all taught to believe, were actually the equivalent of the caste system in India, consisting of a whole network of rigid cultural rules.
Now let me tell you, this postulation was enough to send a few of my more affluent classmates into apoplectic fits. Their outrage was palpable at the mere suggestion that America, the land of opportunity, could be accused of maintaining such a restrictive and oppressive social system.
But whether or not the US system can be labeled as one of caste or not, if you accept the notion that the defining factors of class in America are somewhat more complicated than mere income level, it brings up a variety of interesting social dynamics, especially for me personally.
You see, my parents came from dramatically different backgrounds. My mother was a member of what you might call the working wealthy. Her father was one of the top executives for the Ford Motor company, and she grew up in a world of money and privilege.
But a falling out with her parents, and a subsequent decision to marry, and then divorce my father - a man who had grown up in abject poverty - left her in a decidedly lower income bracket. Yet even though our income barely clung to the bottom rungs of the middle class, my mother retained many of the attitudes and prejudices of her wealthy upbringing.
My father, on the other hand, was raised by a single mother who ever-so-barely kept him fed, clothed, and with a roof over his head. He joined the Air Force right out of high school, and as the story goes, when he had to apply for security clearance, he had to list every address at which he had ever lived - the list included well over 25 residences - most of which they had been evicted from.
Nevertheless, the military turned out to be his saving grace because, as fate would have it, he ended up stationed on a small island in the Aleutian chain, spending his days sitting in a shack out in the middle of the tundra waiting for radio signals from incoming weather balloons. Since the job was boring at best, he asked his mother to send him books to read to pass the time.
My grandmother, who had no education beyond primary school, struck a deal with the woman at the local Woolworth's shop - Grandma gave her money every month, and the woman sent my father books. Well, thanks to some combination of the literary prowess of the Woolworth's lady, and the long hours of isolation, my father ended up becoming an academic.
As you might imagine, my parents' union was a short lived one, and I have very few memories from before the divorce. I often wonder what it is that drew such opposite souls together, but given my father's desire to cultivate a liking for all things upper class - opera, wine, etc...
... and my mother's desire to do anything possible to piss off her wealthy parents, one can only imagine. But I'm sure on some level they were speaking completely different languages. Come to think of it, save the occasional hurling of invectives, television sets and puppies, I really don't remember them interacting at all. (OK... he didn't exactly throw the puppy at her, but close enough...) Anyhow, once again, I digress...
I guess my point is that if you look at all this through the lens of a class/caste system, I was basically raised by two people who were living outside of their respective castes. I mean they sort of split the difference somewhere between wealth and poverty, but neither one was ever very comfortable in the middle class.
It sort of explains at least part of why I always felt like such a misfit among my peers. I guess in a very real sense I'm sort of a person without a class - or I suppose one could argue that I'm just a person with no class! :)
It sort of makes me wonder if the relative ease with which I adopted the voluntary simplicity lifestyle is, at least in part, due to the fact that I never felt a strong class identity to begin with. It's sort of hard to feel like you're missing out on being part of a group that you never really felt you belonged to in the first place.
Anyhow, I had a bit of a revelation about class, culture and frugal/green behavior when I was out working in my yard today. My neighborhood is lower middle class... barely, and mostly populated with blue collar folk and recent immigrants. With the "cool" weather that we enjoyed today ("cool" meaning low 80's) people were out and about. There were a few guys across the street working on a car, a fellow painting his house, some people gardening, and lots of folks walking and biking around.
It suddenly struck me that much of the behavior that is considered laudable, "frugal" and "green" by the wealthier white collar crowd, is just day to day normal for those on the bottom end of the financial spectrum. I mean, I am seen as a bit of an oddity in my neighborhood, but it's mostly because I'm white and educated.
People think it's curious when I walk or bike to the store, but when the Mexican immigrants up the street do it, everyone figures it's because they can't afford a car. When I take on various DIY projects, it's a blog-worthy event... but my neighbors fix things every day, because they have no other choice. I hang my laundry out to dry because I enjoy it and because it saves energy, my neighbors do it because they can't afford a drier. The list goes on, but you get the picture.
I'm not exactly sure what my point or conclusion here is, but I just find it sort of fascinating to look at the different assumptions that we make about ourselves and each other based on race, class and culture. And maybe the "have nots" of this society are really the people who we should be looking to as our environmental role models... as opposed to the Prius driving, organic food eating hipster "green" crowd.