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The Epitome Of Class

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The BBC has taken it upon themselves to redefine class. ‘Well of course’ you say ‘and we do love Downton Abby, Call The Midwife and Mr. Selfridge.’ Yes, those decadent and indulgent shows are lavish examples of the British class system in play. But I refer instead to the questionnaire the BBC posted online that over 160,000 completed. Ignoring for a moment the completely unscientific method of this ‘survey’ and also putting aside the very stark reality of who completes online surveys, let us instead consider this tricky terrain.

The British have always been quite transparent about their views and demarcations of class. What (and where) one is born into is often where one stays. There are examples of upward mobility in British society (beyond that of Eliza Doolittle.) But for the most part, where you started is where you’ll stay. If for no other reason than the British are wonderfully observant of clues. (Hello? Sherlock, Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, anyone?) The slightest hint of a flat ‘a’ or the improper wearing of wellies, and they’ve got you pegged. They have graciously exported this gift to previously colonized locales. You could probably travel the globe and identify where the United Kingdom has ruled simply by observing the (seemingly) arbitrary ‘you’re in’ you’re out’ class systems.

Americans have always prided themselves in eschewing this structure. We still like to fancy ourselves the little rebels who fled from the tyranny of such structure. The truth is that what we do is less honest and more destructive. We pretend that social class doesn’t exist. Oh, we’re happy to discuss real dollars and sense. We take great comfort (or distress) in determining if we economically fall into the middle-class. Politicians love to talk about the middle class. We don’t talk of the lower class or even working class anymore however. No, we call it ‘working families.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s just one person in that ‘family’ or twenty. It’s funny how liberal we can be discussing families in terms of poverty levels but not in terms of legal union.

Taking pains to never associate class with anything but money creates problems. To discuss class in terms of values and cultural proclivities is anathema to Americans. We discuss education and achievement in terms of poverty which is often a thin guise for race. We discuss poverty and race as if they have anything whatsoever to do with achievement, which of course they don’t. There is nothing about any race that impacts learning. There is nothing about how much money a household has which impacts learning. Underfunded and improperly staffed schools impact learning, as do households in which learning is not a priority. We avoid discussing public health and lifestyle behaviors in terms of class. We think nothing of imposing middle values on lower class people, but we’ll never admit that’s what we’re doing. Our entire social and child services structure is built on that very premise.

It’s important to Americans to ignore the real differences of class. But yet we’re wedded to creating a very us vs. them culture. We’re much more comfortable attributing our opposing outlooks and proclivities to religious or political ideals. Sociologists (versus online questionnaires) often explore the gravitation of like-peoples. (Think: lunchroom table configuration studies.) Much more often than not the ‘like-people’ means people of our own religious and ethnic group. But outside of laboratories and research studies what you’re most likely to find in the real world, is that people gravitate towards those of their own class. Being of the same racial/ethnic/religious group is less of an indicator of our shared values than that of class. Would the Rothschilds understand the seder at Sadie’s on Orchard Street? Of course, but after the seder (at 2:00 AM) what in the world would they talk about? If you take a look around at the people with whom you feel most connected they are those with similar values and cultural proclivities. They don’t have identical incomes, they don’t worship in the same way, and their complexions vary in hue. But you all share a similar outlook and a view of the world. That’s class.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Pow, Poo, Ooblee-pooh*

If you have waited in line to make a purchase in a chain store lately, I’m pretty certain you have been called forward by the nonsensical phrase; “the following customer.”  I admit, the first few times I actually waited to hear what came next.  The befuddling phrase does get my attention, I’ll give them that.  “The following customer will receive all of her items free.  Come on down Brenda!”  “The following customer really shouldn’t be buying those leather pants.  Sorry Brenda.”  What’s even more curious than the incomplete phrase is the fact that it has caught on like wildfire.  Is there some sort of chain store customer service standard of practice national convention.  Was there a vote?  How else do we begin to explain how so many salesclerks (not working for the same parent company) are spouting the same gibberish?  The trouble maker in me sees a wonderful opportunity for foul play.  We could sneak into the next (c.s.c.s.s.o.p) national conference and persuade them to beckon the customer forward with Ubbi Dubbi or Pig Latin.

I’m all in favor of creating or adjusting words.  Language should stay current to fulfill its mission.  But used incorrectly (which no doubt I’ve done several times already) just makes me nuts.  When did Americans decide that the word “anyway” needed an “s” on the end?  (Twenty years ago or so, if memory serves.)  Why?  What purpose does it serve?  It’s not just teenagers who add the letter, NPR commentators do it as well.  I can (mostly) ignore words such as “ironic” and “awkward” being thrown into the conversation willy nilly.  (Just so we’re all clear though, “ironic” is not synonymous with “coincidence.”)  Misuse is not the same as flat out cuckoo.  When I thank someone, what does it mean when the thanked replies “no problem?”  Who exactly has the problem?  I don’t even understand the origin of that reply.

I find myself starting to navigate my world as if I was in France.  I have mastered French at the level of a 4 year old slow learner.  Most of my request for directions, food and shoes in my size are pretty much dependent on gist.  As I go through my day in these United States, I must use all my senses.  Luckily, I know a smattering of sign language too.

My personal daily Nell ministrations aside, I worry about the apparent unconsciousness of this bastardization of language.  Like anything, if you’re going to do something, do it with intent.  My assertion of unconsciousness is egged on by the recent spate of “period” television.  I personally do not have memories of the Mad Men or PanAm time period.  But I will bet the farm that no one was slapping on an extraneous “s” to “anyway” in the 1960s.  I also don’t think people tossed around phrases like “workaholic” or “postpartum depression.”  It’s just a hunch.  Maybe I’m too binary, but what this says to me is that there isn’t anyone working on these shows who was alive during the portrayed period.  Not surprising by the way, is the fact that the British do a far better job at avoiding anachronism on the The Hour.  They did invent the language after all.

*Arthur Laurents’ slang for West Side Story (1956)

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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