Class

Jan. 2003

Those of us who were born after Watergate are lucky to have pre-modern social standards documented whether it is in the works of Jane Austin, Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens or even Frank Capra or Alfred Hitchcock. Upon perusing the classic films of the 1930s-50s and browsing the literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, I have finally found a consistent source of social standard by which I would eagerly model my own social behavior.

To my surprise, there is actually an overabundance of material illustrating this gratifying decorum. It seems nearly every film, novel, play or speech of the age, the popular ones included, were produced with the most graceful care and strict attention to taste. Even love letters, memoranda and advertisements of the day were founded in class worthy of respect. The bygone communication that wasn't as refined was no less creative and at the very least, courteous—two characteristics that elude the modern social landscape in addition to class. To the average American my age or younger, there is no reason to question the class of the culture about us today. We have been raised in a whirlwind of MTV, CNN and Madonna that has monopolized most of our jittery attention spans since birth disallowing any disparate perspective a challenge. One would hear questions like "isn't Titian that guy who wrote the thing?" or "court-ship?" if one wandered through a seminar on discerned taste for those in the Millennial Generation. It is not that the teenagers and twenty-somethings are unintelligent—they are by some standards the most intelligent generation ever—it's just that they use this intelligence and every other freedom they have (wealth, population) to perpetuate the most unsophisticated culture since before the Renaissance. Modern society's lack of class is a predicament that introduces the prospect of returning to the very depression in humanity's harvest that preceded the Renaissance—the Dark Ages.

A couple points immediately surface when the subjects of class and culture are analyzed. The first arises especially when some naïve, ambitious theorist implies that the culture in which we live is lacking while somewhere in the past lies some perfect life of style and morality. It just so happens that, although I am not asserting the notion that a perfect society could be found during any historical era, my claim that the culture of previous generations had much more class than today's might well be mistaken for the former while both statements counter a popular stance on the reflection of culture. The popular stance is founded in the notion that there has always been and will always be a pundit who disparages the modern culture and romanticizes a past one, including the time periods that a contemporary pundit so idealizes. This premise is enough foundation for most to form the conclusion that there is no good or bad in any time's culture and anyone who fabricates such a notion is falsely promoting the grass on the other side to be greener.

Superficially, this should seem to be a fair stance considering that it is an incomplete analysis of current and past conditions which leads one to believe that these days are all bad and the past was all good. While the negatives bog down the present, it incorrectly appears only negative to the casual analyst and while the reflections of the past are gilded ones, it appears all positive, again incorrectly. It is much more scientific to view both the past and present as a little good, a little bad and a lot of in-between.

Science, though, is a major factor in how we should approach a new analysis. Technology, along with other social factors, has presented the world a completely different cultural universe since the 1920s. To listen to the pop music of the day one had to learn how to play it on one's own piano, now we just download it. In the past, the only reason one would shorten a sentence or use improper grammar was when he was paying for each word, now we do it because communication has been thoroughly perverted by its ease. There is little question that technology has altered our lives and, inevitably, humanity's product as a whole.

Still, some would maintain that since the dawn of pottery, there have always been a few who dreaded the advance of technology, saw it as some evil influence on the culture and these apprehensive few have caused more human grief than cultural enhancement. It is true that technology is merely a tool by which we humans can produce whatever we want to produce—it does not tell us what to produce, and to many, this is why it cannot be blamed for any cultural faults. Technology, however, is also a tool by which we determine how we produce and consume our culture and today, technology does so with the dominant form of cultural dissemination of the last half century, television.

Presentation of culture by television is quite unique in comparison to literature, radio and even film. In contrast to literature and radio, it is highly visual and leaves very little to the imagination. In contrast with film, it is geared to do its job quickly—within and hour or less—leaving very little opportunity for a sophisticated development of story or theme. The time that is available is then broken up with flashes of consumerism. Unimaginative and unsophisticated are characteristics that exemplify the majority of content on television whether one considers The Real World or Friends or Sex in the City. This doesn't seem to reduce television's popularity, most likely because the masses do not want anything that is imaginative or sophisticated. They want to sit down and have their eyes and ears massaged by visions of Jennifer Aniston and sounds of anything having to do with sex.

On the other hand, there is some imaginative and sophisticated content on television somewhere in the great virtual mess, or in film with Waking Life or The Sixth Sense. Literature offers as much quality as it ever has and even the radio provides a creative show here and there. Even though most of science money is devoted to weightloss drugs and personality pills, science is as progressive as ever with genetics, robotics and nanotechnology taking shape. It could be said, then, that though the best cultural output we have today is not the popular output, it is as good as the best cultural output of any other era in history. So, how can one disregard this quality and contend that we live in a time of diminished culture?

This is the first challenge that confronts my argument concerning class. The second may lead to the solution of the first. This subsequent point is that class is a versatile word whose definitions may be confused when exploring the notions of propriety's change over time and the want of decent entertainment. One definition is specific to propriety and etiquette as in, "the graceful lady has a great deal of class"; and the other definition is specific to the classification of socioeconomic groups as in, "America is one huge middle class." It may be unclear as to which of these two kinds of classes I am referring at this point in the argument for the following reason.

Above, I have made a clear case that our culture provides us with at least some quality product, and this quality was defined by the achievement of a level of imagination and sophistication. These two characteristics may well correlate with the two characteristics of the propriety / etiquette kind of class in that all of these characteristics can be found in a similar kind of culture—that of pre-modern society for instance. So, one could conclude that the propriety / etiquette class is available to us. Conversely, the case could well be made that we have rid ourselves of the second kind of class, the classification kind of class. With the inception of America, the class system of social structure that had been such a force in Europe and Asia and the catalyst to manifold revolutions there was made obsolete. The patriarchs of the American democratic-republic made clear that no leadership stemmed from lineage or poverty from blood—every man is created equal. To many, equality very well implies the successful upheaval of the socioeconomic class.

Granted America had stayed true to its forefathers' doctrines, it could be said that there are no socioeconomic classes in America, and there is little evidence that we have strayed from the goals of the Jeffersons and Franklins and Hamiltons of 1776. Even the classes formed during Industrialization have been muted with Progressivism and eliminated by the Equal Rights movement of the 1960s, affirmative action since the 1970s and the necessitation of diversity in the 1990s.
Given these premises, it would seem logical that my statement on the lack of class in modern society concerned the socioeconomic kind of class, not the propriety / etiquette kind of class. But the opposite is true. We do have socioeconomic classes and do not have the refinement kind of class, and it is this strange truth—maintaining an upper class without propriety—that presents us with our unique predicament.

It is easy to assume that to have socioeconomic classes is to have ingrained in the political structure these distinct tiers of status if only because these are the sort of socioeconomic classes that were in the aristocratic or monarchical states of Europe. But socioeconomic class is not necessarily a function of the political infrastructure. With the birth of America and the extension of government to any citizen regardless of pocketbook size or last name, eliminated was the political connection to class. With the free market as a pillar of the new nation, there inevitably remained, however, diversity in pocketbook size and last names and therefore, the socioeconomic classes persisted as well. The fact that a person can be raised into a poor family and still end up a billionaire president does not abolish the fact that poverty still lives next door to opulence.

Socioeconomic class exists today in America if only evidenced by the exaltation of the socioeconomic idols like Gwyneth Paltrow and Beck. The middle class devotes their time and money to the adulation of these elite social beings, plasters their images on the covers of Rolling Stone and Vogue and indulges in the fantasies of running into them on Sunset or actually being a part of the class one day. This middle and lower class behavior most likely could be found in past class systems as well. We hear of total resentment toward the gentlemen and ladies through stories like Scorcese's The Gangs of New York or Dicken's A Tale of two Cities, but who in the lower class did not want to be among the privileged upper class? There may not have been Rolling Stone covers to feature the social icons in the 1890s or even the 1920s, but there sure was general understanding of them and their status in society, just as there is today. That understanding was and is that the lives of these socioeconomic elites are good and to gain that position would be greatly desired. The revolution so vividly depicted in Dicken's masterpiece is evidence of this truth.

There is one major difference between the socioeconomic classes of pre-1960s America and today, however. This difference may be the cause for the common perception that the classifications are absent from modern culture but certainly evidence of a more urgent social trend. The difference concerns the reason lower class folks look up to those in the upper class. To uncover this point, I will analyze an age that I refer to as the Victorian Period, a period in and around the reign of Queen Victoria in England (1837 - 1901) that inspired a cultural renaissance around Europe and America in addition to the home country.

The age itself coincided with others, specifically, Moralism and Industrialization, which underscored the values that the queen embodied: Elevated ethics in social interaction and steady, intentional progress. After the excesses of Romantic Period's culture embodied by Victoria's predecessors, William IV (1830 - 1837) and the scandalous George IV (1820 - 1830), the queen's monarchy served primarily as a revitalization of morality and culture. This leadership role, auxiliary to the political leadership of parliament, was decided for her by the Reform Act of 1832 which effectively removed the monarch from direct political power. Influence, however, turned out to be more effective than any vote or veto as the country expanded and grew happier under Victoria. Throughout the empire and beyond, a rejection of loose principles and an embrace of ambition to live lives of righteous intent impregnated the minds of the citizenry. Necklines began to rise, manners and custom flourished as did familial piety. Government-based national education systems began to form as an effort to solidify a self-reliant ethic of work and social interaction. Rejuvenation of the arts, especially painting and literature, was seen in the Pre-Raphaelite, Impressionist, Baeux, Realist and Art Nouveau movements. Writers Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Honoré de Balzac expanded literature's scope and precision, but also intensified moral judgment. Lord Alfred Tennyson and William Butler Yeats made poetic the custom and ceremony of the age.

The elevation of correctness and social decorum was made possible in large part by the wild technological advancement experienced in the age. After the innovations of the steam locomotive (1812), electromagneticism (1825), the typewriter (1829), the sewing machine (1830), the telegraph (1837), pasteurization (1856), the telephone (1876) and the light bulb (1879), life was a lot easier, more productive and accelerated all of which lent well to the eagerness of focusing on the significance and realization of a consummated life, one based in the morality of Victoria and the mentality that maintained the word "prude" as complimentary. Due to technology, the Victorians were able to focus on the respectability promoted by the arts of the period; due to their expanding freedoms, they were able to maintain that class.

Growth of technology was not without its shortcomings, however, and one major shortcoming persists as a case against the refinement so enjoyed by the Victorians. The case could well be made that as industry grew, required to support its fantastic expansion was nothing else but a lower class of citizens whose job it was to keep the machine going. Sure, the efficiency and power of industrialization was based on the notion of having a machine do some of the work of the laborers, but the case was that people were still required to operate the towering machinery with their arms and legs. Someone had to turn the two-story levers and shovel the 30 tons of coal.
Although the work was needed, it was dangerous, dirty and monotonous as evidenced in the works of Tolstoy or Upton Sinclair, and for these reasons, the work was greatly objectionable. In order to provide this labor, the pioneers of industry would have to find and maintain a large amount of people who were willing to perform these disagreeable tasks. They did so in the lower class. This lower class was made up of immigrants, former slaves, farmers who had lost their land for one reason or another or, in Europe, peasants. To these citizens, many of whom had no skills to perform administrative or clerical tasks found a home for the talents they did possess—physical labor. Factory work, janitorial work, manual labor were jobs available for these unskilled workers and though they didn't pay much, they paid; and that was enough to attract the workers.

Had the industrializing nations been without a full class of people who were in need like the lower class was, it is doubtful that the growth could have taken place. It could be said that not only did industry require the lower class to exist, but that it was responsible in creating the lower class. This claim has validity when considering the great distance between the poor and the rich caused by the industrialization period, one that had definite figures—7 and 10 figures—related to it for the first time ever. The theory is not maintained, however, when considering the notion that industrialists intentionally kept their workers underpaid, underskilled and in danger so that they could protect their lucrative businesses. The system of supply and demand does not force people to be poor, uneducated and jeopardized. It simply allows what is rationally desired to be achieved. Unfortunately, for many in the lower class, 15¢ an hour seemed rationally desirable compared with what seemed to be the only other option, starvation.

Poverty was not initiated in with the invention of steal. The lives of the poor was minimally positive prior to it as well, just witness A Tale of Two Cities. This fact was largely overlooked due in large part to the fact that notwithstanding industrialization's role in creating a lower class, it certainly affected it. It could be said that after industrialization, the lower class was in more peril as a result of their class. Prior to modernization, the impoverished doubtless had to worry about terrible evils in starvation, sanitation and shelter. But by 1900, injury or death at work was tragically not abnormal and even the consequences of social activities in cities turned dangerous with large machinery flashing about the streets.

It did not go unnoticed that while the wealthy experienced a period of more productivity and efficiency in their quest for fulfilled lives, the poor experienced a period of greater danger in their quest for life. Even though the upper class was faced with a lot of the same danger that the lower class was—street cars, electric fires, etc.—it was rightly assessed that the lower class was quite unjustly dejected during this time. As a result of this acknowledgement, it was accordingly assessed, unrightly this time, that the way to raise the level of the lower class was to eliminate the upper class. Since the culture as a whole had made industrialization irreversible, it seemed that the only way to improve the problems caused by it was to eliminate whatever benefits were realized by it.

This impulse compounded with theories by the likes of Marx and Engles and resulted in events that changed the world for the entire 20th century: Rebellions in China (1900) and Russia (1905); assationations of Italian King Umberto I (1900), US President William McKinley (1901), Japanese Prince Ito (1909) and Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1914); and revolutions in Turkey (1908), China (1911) and Russia (1917). The battle between the classes at the turn of the century was not a bloodless one. Anarchists, terrorists, Marxists, communists all marched to raise the prospect of the lower classes by destroying the upper.

Revolution wasn't limited to political efforts. In a trend that was seeded by the Impressionists and encouraged by the advent of photography, painting moved into Cubism, Surrealism and Dadism, effectively putting the mustache on all of what was formerly considered beautiful and skillful. Theater and literature of the new century introduced the anti-hero as the protagonist, whose stupidity, buffoonery, ambivalence or even immorality dictates the progression of the plot—witness James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which serves as "the" literary model for the 20th century. Science reinforced this antithetical mentality with theories that overturned the common perception of the universe that surrounds us in Max Planck's Quantum Theory (1900), Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity (1905). World War I completed a thorough transition from a progressive, potential culture to one of hedonism and decadence.

Granted, though this cultural revocation was thorough, it was not absolute. Some culture was positive in nature as a practical rejection of the rejection of culture. Such work was epitomized with Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, an admittedly intentional promotion of the true hero and rebuff of the anti-hero. Still, western society had made up its mind and over the course of the 20th century, culture's goal has become its own elimination to the extent that even examples of heroism were tinted with ambivalence and beauty with ugliness. This was true to the extent that the imaginative arts of today's culture are intertwined with antithetical tones. Beck's brilliant fusion of musical genres is spliced with chaotic noise of violent electronics. Radiohead's phenomenal musical genius is plagues with relentless derision. Waking Life's creativity is bruised by senseless violence. The Baby Boomer's counter culture served as evidence to the fulfillment of popularizing this decline. By now, the anti-hero and counter culture has become so predominant, so prosaic as to serve as the ambition of most young artists—consider the Tate gallery in London has featured artists who display soiled bedding or elephant dung as art. Where painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa was seen in the early 20th century as a rejection of a culture, the like is often regarded by today's artists as classic art.

By the close of the 20th century the upheaval had been complete. Beauty was ugliness, alternative was popular, ideal was harmful, heroes were villains, rich was poor. The extent of the elimination of the upper class was the style of fashion worn by the wealthy of the day that resembled, impeccably, the style of the urban impoverished of the prior decades. By 1999, there was no more class in western culture and the revolution was successful—or so it would seem. Those who attempted to raise the lower class by eliminating the upper class seemed to be triumphant. After all, none of that propriety or etiquette or morality or refinement so cultivated in the Victorian age was seen or at least promoted as the goal for society at the turn of the millennium. This was the purpose of the revolution, wasn't it?

Despite the apparent success of socioeconomic reversal, the failure of it can be expressed in the fact that there are still those with an abundance and there are still those without the essentials. Indeed, the gap between rich and poor is expanding at a dazzling rate. The difference between 1899 and 1999, then, is the existence not of the socioeconomic classes, but the refinement kind of class. What started as a possibly noble cause ended up settling for a consolation that resulted in causing more trouble than the original problem, itself.

Without the refinement kind of class, the socioeconomic elite serve as powerful examples of how to self-mutilate, alienate, to belie and defy rather than ones of how to perfect, unite, produce and create as would the upper class of Victoria's day serve. Business executives are seen as thieves not visionaries, celebrities' popularity is commensurate with their sexual extravagance and artists are extolled for saying, "I like bad things." The masses seek to obtain authentic artlessness, ugliness and indecorousness or at the very least do not care to rid themselves of such attributes. Lowly lifestyles, hence, are promoted and encouraged and in striking irony, the lower class is perpetuated by the exaltation of its ill-favored consequences—all a result of the attempt to raise the poor from the lower class.

It is this attempt to remove the upper class that has perpetuated the lower class's existence. As such, we are then faced with the question on whether the revolutionaries really wanted to get rid of the lower class at all, of if they in fact wanted to expand the lower class to everyone. With equality as the goal for so many, it could be said that a necessarily higher standard of living was not their goal—standard of living could have been low as long as it was universal. This unremarkable aim was not a coincidence, however. As discovered above, during the Victorian age, the fortunate lifestyle of the upper class was dependent on the unfortunate lifestyles of the lower class. To maintain the goal of cultivated living one would force someone else to live in destitution. As destitution was unacceptable for the lower class, so was it unacceptable for anyone. Therefore, the poor believed they couldn't promote higher living as a goal; equality would have to do.

What is evident now, however, since the culture has been adequately dismantled, since removed from society's consciousness was the ambition of ideal living, is the veneer of emancipation from terribly encumbered life necessarily coexisting with a universal attainment of a comfortable, fortunate existence. Of course, civilization has not achieved this plateau, but as technology advances, humanity moves further away from the condition that poverty and discomfort must accompany affluence and comfort. It is not unlikely that robotics and the general pervasiveness of technology will allow current generations to witness a society when everyone has the wherewithal to live in the manner that best suits their aspirations. It will be at that point when everyone will have the ability to devote their attention toward either the family, righteousness and God as the Victorians did or the sex, drugs and Korn as the moderns do. It will be their choice to make. Then everyone will have the ability to dress, behave, speak, socialize, produce and think with the refinement kind of class, regardless of socioeconomic class.

We are not far from this great dream at our point in history, indeed we are many times closer than we were 100 years ago. Class is within reach of the vast majority of Americans and westerners as a whole. Our status as a classless society is, hence, our own deed, but accordingly is not one that is irreversible. It will not be an easy transition back to a society of class, but it is only our will that is required to make it. Indeed, one could find if one searched hard enough, plenty of instances throughout culture that promotes and instills class—rare gems of a growing effort to make life productive and virtuous again, to return our focus to God.

When the band the White Stripes sings about finding it harder to be a gentleman everyday there is the acknowledgement of the lacking class. When the band Spoon sings about longing for the days when they used to say, 'Ma'am and yes sir,' it is a call for ambitious, young citizens to find the virtue in propriety. Theses by writers Mark Gauvreau Judge, Wendy Shalit and Elizabeth Austin and filmmaker Whit Stillman reinforce these notions with solid, logical rhetoric for an elevated social environment. There is virtue in this production. It says that there is a reason for life and that to achieve it requires a sustained, conscious effort for that purpose. A culture does not exist for antithetical cynicism, it exists for progressive creativity devoted to God. The groundwork is laid for a new century of decorum and grace. It is our fortune that such an age of class is available without the strife of a whole class of people. It is up to us to realize this fortune and facilitate its realization.