Reflections on working class identity

2 Jul

David Brooks New York Times piece Revolt of the Masses really resonated with me. Maybe its because I’m visiting family in the rural working class south where I grew up. I love coming home and I’m proud of my heritage. At the same time, I often feel like a foreigner or an outcast. My late mother would be quick to remind me those labels are self-imposed or “of my own doing” as she would say. “You were eager to leave from the minute you left the womb. Your first words were bye bye. No mommy or daddy, just bye, see ya, adios.”

It’s not that I’ve been running away, I explain, but rather running toward a better,  fuller life. I wanted more, not more money so much, as more experiences, more knowledge. As the years move on, I realize that what I was really running toward was connection, connection to people and places that felt like me, people who shared my values, my dreams, my soul. Although I’ve never regretted leaving,  I’ve always been conflicted, feeling guilty and sad that by leaving I was saying this life was not good enough, these people were not enough. No one in the family seems to understand, or if they do, they’re afraid to share it, afraid to appear to be siding with the outcast.

I’ve been re-reading Jung, Maslow, Viktor Frankl and Joseph Campbell, the quintessential experts on man’s search for meaning, while at the same time trying to make sense of Brexit and all things Trump. Being back home this week and adding my personal experience to the mix, adds another dimension I hadn’t thought about, at least not until I read David Brook’s piece.

Brooks talks about the decimation of the working class honor code and provides snippets from J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy.

Vance describes a culture of intense group loyalty. This loyalty culture helps people take care of their own, but it also means there can be hostility to those who want to move up and out. And there can be intense parochialism. “We do not like outsiders,” Vance writes, “or people who are different from us, whether difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.”

It’s also a culture that values physical toughness. It’s a culture that celebrates people who are willing to fight to defend their honor. This is something that progressives never get about gun control. They see a debate about mass murder, but for many people guns are about a family’s ability to stand up for itself in a dangerous world.

In order to truly understand an individual or a culture, it’s essential we understand their values. The cultural elements mentioned above clearly reflect a focus on Security and Belonging. When these are your predominant values and subsequently where your focus lies, outsiders are a threat. Even those who were once insiders and chose to move up or out. 

Much of this pride is nationalistic. Vance’s grandparents, he writes, “taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood.”

Think about that last line – “This fact gave meaning to my childhood.” When I read this line, suddenly a light bulb came on. Meaning, purpose, identity. That’s what Brexit is all about. It’s what Trump is capitalizing on.

But where did the divide come from? Can we not believe America is great and still be inclusive? David Brooks notes that…

From 1945 to 1995,  conservative and liberal elites shared variations of the same vision of the future. Liberals emphasized multilateral institutions and conservatives emphasized free trade. Either way, the future would be global, integrated and multiethnic.

But the elites pushed too hard, and now history is moving in the opposite direction. The less-educated masses have a different conception of the future, a vision that is more closed, collective, protective and segmented.

Their pain is indivisible: economic stress, community breakdown, ethnic bigotry and a loss of social status and self-worth. When people feel their world is vanishing, they are easy prey for fact-free magical thinking and demagogues who blame immigrants.

Wow. Suddenly it all makes sense, or at least is starting to make sense. It’s all about the loss of meaning, purpose and identity. Its a fight to hold onto the last vestiges of self-worth, honor, identity.

So what do we do? As I type the “we” it feels like a kind of royal, intellectual “we” and I feel bad for even thinking that way. Maybe I’m part of the problem, part of what Brooks refers to the modern meritocracy, which awards status to the individual who works with his mind, and devalues the class of people who work with their hands. I don’t think I am, but how do I know for sure?  And again, can we not have both? Can we not appreciate and honor both those who work with their minds AND those who work with their hands?

I don’t know how to solve this problem. Although we’ve made some tiny steps forward I don’t think we fully understand the problem, much less know how to solve it. What I do recognize, however, is that hate is driven by fear, and in this case, it’s fear of losing one’s self, one’s place, one’s sense of belonging and purpose. Maybe if we address that, we have a chance. And how do we deal with fear? The antidote to fear is love. Perhaps the best approach is to do what is most difficult, to love those who hate.

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