Monday, July 8, 2013

A quick thought on American middle-class individualism

I finished A Storm of Swords a few days ago. Yeesh. It's nuts. Emily and I have plans to read the last two books together, which will slow them down considerably, reducing the amount of time we will have no new A Song of Ice and Fire content to consume, a consumption which has become something of a compulsion. This means I have time to read something else when I read on my own. I've started West from Appomattox, Heather Cox Richardson's history of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. I haven't read much, but was struck by a passage in the introduction about the rise of an American middle-class after the Civil War:
Middle-class ideology was both the greatest triumph and the greatest tragedy of reconstruction. It was an astonishingly inclusive way to run a country, making certain former slaves and impoverished immigrants welcomed participants in middle-class America, offering to them opportunities they could not have imagined in other countries, and it advanced women's position in a dramatically short time. But this ideology also rendered Americans unable to recognize systematic inequalities in American society. Anyone who embraced the mainstream vision came to believe he or she was on the road to a middle-class life, no matter what the reality of his or her position actually was. When things went wrong, individuals had no one but themselves to blame for failure, even if its causes lay outside their control. A man unemployed during a recession or a woman beaten by her husband could find little sympathy in the middle-class worldview. More strikingly, though, this mindset deliberately repressed anyone who called for government action to level the American economic, social, or political playing field. If a group as a whole came to be perceived as looking for government handouts its members were aggressively prohibited from participating equally in American society, and all of the self-help in the world wasn't going to change that.
I think this is a really well-observed interpretation of the way a normative class justifies its own privilege without necessarily recognizing that its privilege exists. She continues:
The powerful new American identity permitted many individuals to succeed far beyond what they might have achieved elsewhere, but that exceptional openness depended on class, gender, and racial bias.
And that's the rub. The inconsistency in what Richardson calls the "middle-class ideology"--complete individual responsibility coupled with a desire for increased federal involvement in everyday life--was only possible because it had a scapegoat. If it wasn't for Those Other People, everything would be perfect. Therefore, all problems could be blamed on Them, a strategy that enables Us to move forward without considering Our own complicity in said problems. If this sounds familiar and contemporary, that's because it is, and Richardson knows this. Her interpretation holds that the America made during Reconstruction is the one we inherited.

I tend to agree with that interpretation, insofar as the story of modern America cannot be told without an explanation of Reconstruction's various ambitions and failings, but I'm interested in how she goes about proving it.

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