The Reality of Class Society in the US

People Like Us: Social Class in America

Directed by Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez (1999)

Film Review

Produced in 1999, this video long predates the systematic destruction of the middle class that began following the 2008 global economic crash. Thus many of the observations it makes about social class are no longer strictly accurate.

Nevertheless the claim that that bias against working class people is the last acceptable prejudice* still rings true – as does the filmmakers’ premise that separation into social classes (eg preppies and dorks, nerds, goths, ghetto and other losers) begins in high school. The assertion that the vast majority of working class Americans consider themselves “middle class” seems less relevant with the galloping poverty the US has experienced over the last 12 years.

I am also skeptical of the filmmakers’ claim that all Americans feel more comfortable surrounded by members of their own social class. After 32 years of working professionally with people across all social classes, I’ve always agreed with sociological studies describing a district working class culture** placing high value on community, extended family, loyalty and emotionally intimate relationships. I’ve also found that working class people tend to have better social skills – owing in part to childhoods spent playing in the street (while rich children attend piano, dancing and soccer lessons) and in part to greater ease expressing strong feelings.

In contrast, I’ve found that competitiveness, status seeking and difficulty expressing strong emotions turn social relationships in society’s upper echelons into somewhat of a mine field.

I’m also leery about the way filmmakers emphasize style of dress (with rich people wearing more expensive designer labels) in distinguishing rich from low income Americans. For some reason they totally fail to acknowledge the current trend (starting in the mid-80s) for wealthy Americans to affect a grunge/punk dress style.

For me, the most interesting part of the film concerns a battle in Burlington Vermont over a city council decision to favor a locally owned food coop over a Shaw’s chain supermarket. It was interesting to see the city’s working class residents express their lifelong frustration with their more well-to-do counterparts trying to impose their tofu-oriented lifestyle on them. In the end, the coop won the permit but began stocking white bread to appease Burlington’s working class.

I also found the section on social class in the Black community extremely enlightening.


*Eg, Hillary Clinton referring to them as “deplorables.”

**See Working Class Culture

Anyone with a public library card can view the film free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.

 

 

North Carolina’s Chinese-Owned Industrial Pig Factories

Soyalism

Directed by Stefano Liberti and Enrico Parenti (2018)

Film Review

The title of this documentary is somewhat misleading: it actually concerns the industrial production of pork for the growing Chinese middle class. Under our present globalized system of industrial agriculture, pigs raised on factory farms (both in China and the US) are fed industrially produced corn and soybeans. Most of this (genetically engineered) soy comes from recently deforested areas of the Brazilian Amazon.

Given the current US trade war with China, I was astonished to learn that a Chinese company (having acquired Smithfields in 2013) is operating gigantic factory pig farms in North Carolina. Most are located in the state’s poor rural (and black) communities that struggle with the toxic aerosols from the (illegal) open pits adjacent to buildings warehousing tends of thousands of hogs.

In addition to visiting North Carolina hog factories and their distressed neighbors,* the filmmakers travel to Brazil to film the massive soybean plantations, as well as local small farmers whose livelihoods have been destroyed by industrial soy production. Together with local environmentalists and indigenous activists, these farmers are fighting the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest by expanding soy plantations.

Predictably only a handful of farmers and international agrobusinesses are becoming fabulously wealthy, while more and more Brazilians struggle to feed themselves.

The filmmakers also visit Mozambique, where local grassroots organizers are successfully fighting the Pro-Savannah initiative. This is a (currently suspended) government initiative involving Japan, Brazil, and Mozambique. It seeks to drive local subsistence farmers off their land to create factory farms producing soy, cotton, and corn for export to China.

Most activists blame these trends on the continued drive, both in the industrial North and China, for cheap meat – irrespective of its quality. Sadly most Chinese consumers are totally unaware of the true cost of their cheap meat. Brazil’s GM soybeans are sprayed with massive amounts of Roundup and other carcinogenic pesticides. This results in serious potential health consequences for human beings who eat pigs that are fed on them.


*North Carolina has its own grassroots organization, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network fighting their exposure to health-damaging pollution and industry harassment. See https://www.facingsouth.org/2017/02/step-toward-environmental-justice-north-carolinas-hog-country

 

A Closer Look at Trump Supporters

Trumpland

Fusion (2016)

Film Review

This documentary, filmed a month before the 2016 election, explores the life circumstances of a cross section of Trump supporters, referred to by Hillary Clinton as “deplorables.”

Commonalities shared by this demographic are

  • recent personal or family experience with job loss, bankruptcy or foreclosure.
  • strong feelings about Wall Street outsourcing manufacturing jobs to third world countries.
  • strong feelings about US politics being a “crooked” system set up to destroy the middle class.
  • strong opposition to their perceived corporate control of the two major political parties.
  • a perception that Trump, unlike other politicians, “can’t be bought.”

When answering filmmakers’ questions about Trump’s perceived racism and xenophobia, their replies vary. Some (especially women) feel that Black Lives Matter activists have a point about the abysmal way Black people are treated in the US. Others claim that Black people (and women) are demanding special privileges not enjoyed by white men.

Most deny that Trump is racist, claiming he only wants to prevent terrorist attacks by banning immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They agree with his proposed wall because they believe his claims that most illegal Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists. This flies in the face of research indicating undocumented immigrants (who are loathe to draw attention to themselves) commit far fewer crimes than either legal immigrants or native born Americans.

Progressives Who Oppose Gun Control

2nd amendment

I’ve always been curious how American progressives got on the anti-civil liberties side of gun control. It strikes me as a grave strategic error. I have written elsewhere about the extreme difficulty liberals and progressives face in engaging the working class. I have also been highly critical of their tendency to get sucked into “lifestyle” campaigns (anti-smoking, anti-obesity, vegeterianism, etc.), owing to the strong class antagonism this engenders in blue collar voters.

Contrary to the stereotypes portrayed in the corporate media, class differences – and class hatred – are alive and well in the US. From the perspective of a blue collar worker, the progressive movement is the middle class. They’re the teachers, social workers, psychologists, doctors, lawyers and religious leaders who make the rules for the rest of this. Thus when they tell us not to smoke, eat big Macs, or buy guns, we don’t see this as political reform. We see it as an extension of their (privileged) class role.

Here in New Zealand, young upwardly mobile professionals manifest the same zeal as their American counterparts for anti-smoking and healthy eating campaigns. However there’s no gun control lobby here. It would be unthinkable in a country where one third of the population lives in cities. Gun ownership and proficiency are fundamental to the Kiwi way of life, especially in rural provincial areas.

The History of Progressive Opposition to Gun Control

For a progressive to take a stand against gun control is a pretty lonely place. However I’m not utterly alone. There’s a 1979 book edited by Don Kates entitled Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. There’s also an organization called the Liberal Gun Club, whose mission is to “provide a voice for gun-owing liberals and moderates in the national conversation on gun rights, gun legalization, firearms safety, and shooting sports.”

Then there’s Sam Smith’s excellent article in the Preogressive Review: “Why Progressives Should Stop Pushing for More Gun Control Laws.” Among Smith’s numerous arguments, three leap out at me: the exacerbation of “cultural conflict” between rural and urban and wealthy and not so well off, the tendency for gun restrictions and prohibition to be intersect with a drive to restrict other civil liberties, and the need for progressives to stop treating average Americans as though they were “alien creatures.” He seems to share my view that progressives lose elections as much because of their condescending attitudes as their issues.

In January  2011 (following Representative Gifford’s shooting and renewed calls for gun control), Dan Baum wrote in the Huffington Post that progressives have wasted a generation of progress on health care, women’s rights, immigration reform, income fairness and climate change because “we keep messing with people’s guns.” He likens gun control as to marijuana prohibition – all it does is turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals and create divisiveness and resentment.

How Progressives Came to Oppose the 2nd Amendment

None of this explains how progressives got on the wrong side of this issue. US gun manufacturers wrote the first gun control legislation in 1958, in an effort to restrict Americans’ access to cheap imports. However, owing to civil liberties implications, the bill encountered stiff Congressional opposition. Finally in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson played the race card and used the inner city riots to pass a watered down version of the industry’s original gun control bill. It required gun dealers to register guns and ammunition, banned the mail order and interstate sale of guns, and instituted a lifelong ban on felons (even on non-violent convictions) owning guns.

Progressive research into gun control generally makes two equally salient points: 1) the aim of gun control legislation is to control people (mainly disenfranchised minorities and the poor), not guns and 2) in countries with strict gun control laws, the use of deadly force is restricted to the police and army, as ordinary citizens aren’t trusted to play any role (including self-defense) in maintaining law and order.

Using Gun Control to Control African Americans

America’s extreme preoccupation with gun control appears directly related to their 200 year history of slavery and oppressive Jim Crow laws that followed emancipation. As Steve Ekwall writes in the Racist Origins of US Gun Control,and Clayton Cramer in Racist Roots of Gun Control, the targeting of blacks with early gun control laws is extremely blatant.

In the south, pre-civil war “Slave Codes” prohibited slaves from owing guns. Following emancipation, many southern states still prohibited blacks from owning guns under “Black Codes.” This was on the basis that they weren’t citizens and not entitled to Second Amendment rights. After the 1878 adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which formally acknowledged blacks as citizens, southern states imposed high taxes or banned inexpensive guns, so as to price blacks and poor whites out of the market.

Ekwall also quotes gun control advocate Robert Sherrill, author of The Saturday Night Special and Other Guns (1972). Sherill states unequivocally that “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, not to control guns, but to control blacks.”

Ekwall goes on to describe the unprecedented 1965-68 race riots in 125 American cities, in which the violence was graphically magnified by extensive TV coverage. The paranoia this engendered in the corporate and political elite was greatly heightened by Stokely Carmichael and other Black Panthers openly advocating violent revolution and the well-publicized protests (and police riot) at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The Last Pro-Gun Democrat

As Joe Bageant writes in Deer Hunting with Jesus, the 1968 pro-war Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey uttered the last breath of Democratic sanity over the gun control issue. It’s really sad how radical he sounds in 2014:

“The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.”

photo credit: Whiskeygonebad via photopin cc