17 March 2008
Stop Tricking Yourself, America
Today, the country has gone a long way toward an appearance of classlessness. Americans of all sorts are awash in luxuries that would have dazzled their grandparents. Social diversity has erased many of the old markers. It has become harder to read people's status in the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the votes they cast, the god they worship, the color of their skin. The contours of class have blurred; some say they have disappeared. But class is still a powerful force in American life.
—Fred R. Conrad, Class Matters, "Shadowy Lines That Still Divide"
What is class? According to Class Matters, "class is one way societies sort themselves out…. Classes are groups of people of similar economic and social position…. Put ten people in a room and a pecking order soon emerges" (8). The book Class Matters describes Americans' perception of class: "A recent New York Times poll on class found that 40 percent of Americans believed that the chance of moving up from one class to another had risen over the last thirty years, a period in which the new research shows that it has not. Thirty-five percent said it had not changed, and only 23 percent said it had dropped" (5). Seventy-five percent of Americans are disillusioned about the reality of class. Class summit is more difficult than they think. However, if the opportunity to arise from the dust is still available, typical Americans will continue to view class as normal American life. Class Matters describes Americans' stand on class: "There are poor and rich in the United States, of course, the argument goes, but as long as one can become the other, as long as there is something close to equality of opportunity, the differences between them do not add up to class barriers" (2-3). People will always organize themselves into classes. As long as the roles aren't written in stone, the American dream will continue to exist. According to the New York Times poll, however, Americans think it is easier to ascend up the pecking order when, in fact, it is harder. This misperception is because race, religion, political alignment, and appearance do not indicate class anymore. Class Matters states, "Diversity of all sorts—racial, ethnic, and gender—has complicated the class picture" (18). It also says, "Religious affiliation, too, is no longer the reliable class marker it once was" (Conrad 18). Explaining the change in political alignment, Class Matters states, "In the 1950s, professionals were reliably Republican; today they lean Democratic. Meanwhile, skilled labor has gone from being heavily Democratic to almost evenly split" (15). Class Matters explains appearance similarities: "Banks, more confident about measuring risk, now extend credit to low-income families, so that owning a home or driving a new car is no longer evidence that someone is middle class" (15). People can fake class presence nowadays. Are class barriers conquerable? Of course. We should listen to Ernie Frazier, a sixty-five-year-old real estate investor, and Diana Lackey, a sixty-year-old homemaker and wife of a retired contractor who were both quoted in Class Matters. Ernie Frazier states, "I don't think life is necessarily fair. But if you persevere, you can overcome adversity. It has to do with a person's willingness to work hard, and I think it's always been that way" (Conrad 5). Lackey says, "Times are much, much harder with all the downsizing, but we're still a wonderful country" (Conrad 7). Lower class Americans can still work hard and obtain an education in order to become upper class Americans. The question is: Will they, if they can appear like the wealthy with their cell phones and flat-screen TV's? When Americans can obtain "status" with the swipe of a credit card, when they distract themselves with chaotic schedules, ridiculous media, and unnecessary stuff that is portrayed as the "happy American life", will they be willing to work harder than in years past in order to actually become upper class and stop faking the upper-class life? America's perception and the reality of class are unlikely to change because Americans have become distracted with chaotic schedules, misleading media, and unnecessary stuff. Americans are tricking themselves.
Americans are way too busy. In the book The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Davidson, a fifth grade teacher, is quoted describing the life of many of his students: "Sadly, many…white, American, middle class parents [told me] that the 5th grade work was too hard on their kids, they couldn't possibly complete it and have time to 'be a kid.' Soccer, gymnastics, [music] lessons and dinner out squeezed their education time" (357). Education opens up the way to get out of lower class life. When "being a kid" is more important than being a successful adult and "being a kid" entails instant gratification, Americans won't discover what class is actually like in America, and lower class Americans won't get the essentials to overcome their fate. Thomas Friedman describes how parents need to buck up and show their children tough love. He says, "I am suggesting that we do more to push our young people to go beyond their comfort zones, to do things right, and to be ready to suffer some short-run pain for longer gain" (Friedman 397). Parents shouldn't expect their kids to excel at everything. Parents need to prioritize time so their children will have adequate time to perform well. Parents need to focus on their priorities and not let their kids give up and try something new when the going gets tough. If life revolves around the individual—doing this and doing that—the individual won't take time to discover the big picture of class in America, and Americans "stuck" in lower class life will be too busy to overcome their fate.
Americans are way too concerned with abstract, unreal, misleading media. They need to put down the remote. Thomas Friedman states, "Our love of television and video and online games helps to explain our third dirty little secret" which is Americans lack of ambition (354). Without ambition, lower-class Americans cannot change the reality of class in America, and many other Americans will be too busy talking about American Idol, the latest celebrity, and upcoming movies to get a hold on America's class barriers and how hard it is to move up in class. Thomas Friedman writes, "There comes a time when you've got to put away the Game Boys, turn off the television, shut off the iPod, and get your kids down to work" (395). This task is difficult when the kids are not the only ones addicted to brain-numbing pastimes. The March 2008 edition of Focus on the Family magazine describes the media's coverage of Paris Hilton, "when her partying led to a drunk driving arrest and a jail cell, the television news covered her story round the clock, devoting time to her that might have been given to more important topics, such as the war in Iraq. But the public ate it up" (19). Why would Americans want to feast on Paris Hilton's mistakes? How is it relevant? Thomas Friedman compares America's celebrities with China's saying "In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears—and that is our problem" (Friedman 365).When the world looks at Americans, they see rich people. Why? Because Americans like to sit at movie theaters, eat popcorn, and talk about how hard their lives are. Again, we need to put down the remote and buckle down. The world is not always going to want to serve us.
Lastly, Americans are way too concerned with stuff. In the Yakima Herald Republic on Saturday, March 1st, 2008, Cal Thomas writes,
Some of the lust for bigger and better is human nature, but a lot is the result of consumerism. The Timex watch is no longer enough. We now must have a Rolex, though both accurately tell time. The adequate low-end automobile is insufficient. We must trade up to a luxury car with numbers and letters on the rear that mean nothing, but convey "status." And the house we are living in, which would have been more than adequate for our parents and certainly our grandparents, must be upgraded to larger digs in order to impress, if not growing families, than enlarged egos.
Americans won't escape their low-end situations if they don't sacrifice some of their wants. In the book Class Matters, the author, Angel Franco, writes about Juan Manuel Peralta who illegally came to the United States seeking a better life. After fifteen years without moving up the economic ladder, Peralta has lost hope and ambition to arise from the dust. Yet, in his financially unstable situation, Peralta has "middle-class ornaments, like a cellphone and a DVD player" (Franco 123). He even admits he has other inhibiting factors like his temper, gambling, and drinking. If Peralta would sacrifice his cell phone, gambling, DVD player, then maybe he could get closer to getting out the apartment that he shares with nine other Mexicans. In the United States, it is harder than before to move up the economic ladder. Lower class Americans can't afford to buy the up-and-coming if they want to overcome their situation.
American's perception and the reality of class are unlikely to change because Americans have become distracted by chaotic schedules, misleading media, and unnecessary stuff. We need to sacrifice our wants for awhile and focus on our needs. This sacrifice will help lower class Americans change the reality of class and other Americans see the reality of class. Americans need to stop tricking themselves.