Science, class, and democracy
September 4, 2017 1:50 AM   Subscribe

"I’m going to repeat that dictate: 'In democratic times, one ties the poor to oneself more by manners than by benefits.' As the front row acts more like aristocrats, their ability to win the goodwill of the populace wanes. Period. You can’t just institute, say, a universal basic income and expect the rabble to shut up at last and love you. ... To the extent that scientists and researchers are enveloped in front-row culture, I think many of them are deeply unable to see this. A lot of my exasperated scientists friends wring their hands about the need to explain things to regular people. Few of them think about the need to connect with those people, on a democratic basis – not through representative politics, but through democratic interactions, as equals."

There is a suggestion in the comments on the article that this is primarily an American phenomenon.
posted by clawsoon (51 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh great. Populism for science now, not just politics. It's a repeat of all the other articles I've seen for the last year of "How we need to understand, identify with and band with the working class". Hint: the "working class" they're referring to would happily see me and mine dead.

And then you have utter sophistry like this:

The relative cultural equality that characterized the early American Republic is being challenged by something more like a caste system.

Relative cultural equality for WHO exactly? for black people? Native Americans? Mexican-Americans? Chinese or Japanese? Women? Who were the benefits of this system?

Yeah, despite the author's disclaimer, it's obvious that in this article, just like all in the ones before, the intended people who "need respect", are again, white males.

Frankly, I'm tired of kowtowing to xenophobic racists who deny climate change. It's tiring, and it doesn't do any good.
posted by happyroach at 2:05 AM on September 4 [59 favorites]


The article references Chris Arnade, and looking into him brought me to one of his articles on residents in a neighborhood in Milwaukee. I'm glad Arnade is branching out from his Trump Supporter interviews a little and hope he keeps up the good work.

Connor Wood's arguments in his article, though, seem to make a bunch of wierd leaps and have a lot of exclusions which make me suspicious of how informed he really is. For example, he emphasizes that academia is "socially liberal" (with a weird 'virtue signalling' phrasing: "You show off that you’re a good front-row kid") when that depends a lot on context and even avowed socially liberal academic spaces are unfriendly to anyone deviating from the dominant category (see: sexual harassment; assaults; marginalization of women; marginalization of people of color; double or triple marginalization of women of color). As a weird echo of this, all of his citations are from white men (Timothy Ferris, Bertrand Russel, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Dewey, Steven Pinker, Peter Thiel, Michael Shermer, Caleb Crain, Philip D. Zelikow). Even when discussing class he references Chris Arnade who is an academic, white, male outsider who has only recently begun interviewing people outside of his experience.

In addition, the people he cites as setting themselves up as a ruling class are exceptions to the socially liberal tone he claims all of academia has, not examples of it. Peter Thiel is literally a Trump ally who has paid for inhumane human research using vulnerable populations outside of the US while decrying the ethical boards of the FDA. Steven Pinker is an Evolutionary Psychologist. And even on the side of the people nominally claiming democracy requires equality, his citation of Michael Shermer is weird given that he's a libertarian and sexual assaulter who endorses Stefan Molyneux, and that both of them have an extended romance with racist beliefs bolstered by questionable IQ research.

There are a few interesting articles written about class, mostly by people who have moved away from it in one way or another. Mefi's Own Scalzi's article on Being Poor comes to mind, as does Cracked's John Cheese's articles on his own childhood. This was where I was going to add in other articles from people who weren't white men, but I depressingly realized I didn't have any on tap and I was unwilling to pretend I'm any less racist/sexist than I am by scaring up additional links to people I found through clever use of search terms. That being said, I'd love any references or sources people could recommend; class is one of the major gaps in my understanding (I was raised by a single mom PhD who worked for the government; I'm still not sure where I exist class wise).
posted by Deoridhe at 2:59 AM on September 4 [25 favorites]


the "working class" they're referring to would happily see me and mine dead.

That's sort of what the article is trying to unpack though - the 'why' of that situation. I though it did a pretty good job of getting to the heart of the issue:

"It’s great to be a scientist! But just don’t forget that someone else is growing your food, filling potholes, and maintaining your electrical grid. You depend on these people. Remembering this makes it easy to keep the channels of goodwill open. And if the channels of goodwill are open, non-PhD-holding people will be happy to keep voting public money for research."
posted by freya_lamb at 3:03 AM on September 4 [13 favorites]


^ Oh, and with ref to the above, I'm coming at this as a non-scientist front-row kid from a deeply entrenched back-row family, working in a major scientific research institute with a Phd-having friend group. The inherent tension around humility in paths towards, and attainment of, prestige occupations is really interesting to me, and I'd love to read more on this. Thanks for posting.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:11 AM on September 4 [12 favorites]


There's a pretty strong whiff of condescension in the article, even though the author is theoretically arguing against it. The whole tone is that those of "us" who are educated and smart have to be nicer to what he seems to see as the ignorant masses -- and "we" have to do so for practical reasons, because we need working people to do stuff for us and for democracy to work.

There's no acknowledgement that working class people are plenty smart, and have a whole host of knowledge and wisdom besides the ability to grow food and fix potholes. Perhaps that's not so true if you're only considering Trump supporters, but most of the working class did not support him, and many are out on the streets raising hell to oppose him.

It's true that there's a level of cluelessness among the privileged and academics, but the author seems to suffer from it as well.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 3:14 AM on September 4 [27 favorites]



Oh great. Populism for science now, not just politics. It's a repeat of all the other articles I've seen for the last year of "How we need to understand, identify with and band with the working class". Hint: the "working class" they're referring to would happily see me and mine dead.

Yeah, despite the author's disclaimer, it's obvious that in this article, just like all in the ones before, the intended people who "need respect", are again, white males.


Questionable assertion about historical cultural equality aside, this comment seems like it's skipping most of his actual points.

Unfortunately while I think there is a small part of this piece that's on point there's quite a bit that's lazy or a mess in how he breaks down class, politics and the relationship between the two. Plus he absolutely does not escape this:

It's true that there's a level of cluelessness among the privileged and academics, but the author seems to suffer from it as well.
posted by atoxyl at 3:30 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Like most binaries, the analogy used here is a gross oversimplification. Class markers cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional yes/no, as Vispa Teresa goes into - the norms for Wall Street and Silicon Valley, or even the pharma world, are pretty different to most academia, for example. And the analogy is bullshit too - plenty of front row teacher's pets were dumb as a bag of hammers, and a bunch of the back-talking, no-homework-ever back row kids were super fucking artistic or smart, and did very well at school.
posted by Dysk at 3:31 AM on September 4 [9 favorites]


Also, "cruddy service jobs, which nobody enjoys and which it is not possible to be either good or bad at, because they require so little intelligence or skill"? This is condescending bullshit. I hate retail, and I am terrible at it, because I lack people skills. I have had enough harsh feedback and been pushed out of enough jobs to know that it isn't just me that thinks so either. Meanwhile, other people are great at it. But I guess their skills just don't count?
posted by Dysk at 3:36 AM on September 4 [38 favorites]


I mean if I could edit this I'd probably make the title "being socially liberal in principle doesn't get you off the hook" and then remove the text.
posted by atoxyl at 3:55 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Or focus on the importance of and threat to democracy but other people have done that in greater depth already.
posted by atoxyl at 3:58 AM on September 4


there's quite a bit that's lazy or a mess in how he breaks down class, politics and the relationship between the two

And the analogy is bullshit too

Isn't this reaction part of the problem though? One of the reasons that scientists are seen as elitist is the demand for absolute clarity and reductionist rigor in discussing things that are more to do with perception and feeling. Here the author is using someone else's 'pithy' metaphorical construct to frame a particular line for discussion. The idea of the 'row type' is clumsy but it's being used as short-hand for the opposite ends of a spectrum of behaviours that can lead to division in discourse around the point and benefit of scientific research. It's not a literal statement of fact. Metaphors can be really helpful for many people. If this one isn't working for you fair enough, but focusing on that is sort of missing the broader point.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:13 AM on September 4 [7 favorites]


But what of the kids who sat in the back row at their expensive liberal arts colleges and R1 graduate schools? I DEMAND TO KNOW WHERE I FIT IN THIS OVERLY-SIMPLISTIC CLICKBAITY MODEL
posted by turbowombat at 4:25 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


plenty of front row teacher's pets were dumb as a bag of hammers, and a bunch of the back-talking, no-homework-ever back row kids were super fucking artistic or smart, and did very well at school.

Yeah, that equation of academic achievement with critical thinking is deeply spurious. You can easily become a straight-A student in the field of your choice and not have an original thought in your head. And what about all those kids in the middle rows, who grew up to become health care workers, teachers, librarians or administrators? They're still reading the news, visiting museums and participating in their communities. It's not like the working classes never had any kind of intellectual life either. Where does he think the trade union movement came from?

Honestly, now I think of it, the whole premise of the article is a straw man. Science isn't only the professional practice of a group of people who happened to follow a particular career path, it's a body of empirically tested knowledge we can use to understand and shape the world. You may as well ask Is Healthcare Religious? because lots of hospitals are named after saints.

In other contexts I'd be happy to leave it at that, but here I find the politicising of science slightly disturbing. I can see what he's driving at, but I think he's mistaken in his assessment of the cultural forces at work. When science comes under attack, it's always because its practice challenges certain hierarchies of social control. History tells us so, from Galileo to Darwin to climate science denial.

Scientists aren't the elite in this economy, far from it. They're up against it as much as everyone else, and no amount of cuddly science outreach is going to change that.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 4:33 AM on September 4 [20 favorites]


The author also takes great pains to clarify how social class or prestige and wealth aren't necessarily correlated, and that he's talking about the former not the latter because scientists aren't necessarily rich, then goes on to make several extensive points contrasting the rich and non-rich. Wait, I thought he'd just established that plumbers might well be rich and academics poor? Who's he impugning here?
posted by Dysk at 4:40 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Can you write on Class in America without referencing Paul Fussell?
posted by infini at 4:56 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


The whole front row/back row kids thing is bullshit and I wish it would die in a fire. Has Arnade offered any research to back up his assertions? Any evidence of correlation between high school class seating position and grades, college admission, future income, etc? What if you were in different positions for different classes? What if the math teacher assigned seats but the English teacher had you put your desks in a circle? What if you're sitting in the front because you can't afford glasses? What if you're sitting in the front row because you have ADHD and it helps you stay on task? What if you're sitting in the back row because the guy who used to sit behind you would pull your hair or snap your bra strap or because the teacher is a creeper and you'd like to wear a skirt occasionally? What if you don't go to class because attendance isn't a factor in your grade but you do the reading and still ace the tests? What if you sit in the back and fail all of your classes, but invent an app that makes millions or saves lives or whatever metric of "value" you want to use?

Do kids even have a choice over where they sit in class most of the time?
posted by melissasaurus at 5:14 AM on September 4 [9 favorites]


freya_lamb: I'm coming at this as a non-scientist front-row kid from a deeply entrenched back-row family, working in a major scientific research institute with a Phd-having friend group. The inherent tension around humility in paths towards, and attainment of, prestige occupations is really interesting to me, and I'd love to read more on this.

I wonder if articles like this - and appreciation for them - comes mostly from well-educated people who came from working-class backgrounds, who find that their family and old friends, people they value and respect, are reflexively despised by their new peers.

I remember the shock of recognition I had when I read Education and the Working Class, despite the fact that it was about people an ocean and a couple of generations away from me.
posted by clawsoon at 5:39 AM on September 4 [6 favorites]


I get the impression - though I have nothing solid to back this up - that it's different for people from working-class backgrounds who despise their family and old peers and find the move into higher education and new peer groups liberating. I happen to not be one of those people, but I know a few.
posted by clawsoon at 5:45 AM on September 4 [3 favorites]


Peter Thiel? Really? Peter Thiel is supposed to be an exemplar of social liberalism? Ditto Michael Shermer. Many of the "liberal" science types talked about in TFA might well say with Tennyson, "Man with the head and woman with the heart/Man to command and woman to obey" and applaud James Damore's ill-thought-out manifesto of sexism.

Now I think that the premise of "front row kids" (!) as universally smart and woke and on the side of the angels and the lumpen "back row kids" should listen and obey, is bullshit - it's not that simple! Really! and was I the only one who spent time in classrooms where we were seated alphabetically? - I did find something thought-provoking in TFA.

And that was: "Eww, Wisconsin!" People with college educations are moving to cities because that is where the jobs are. Increasingly, well-paying jobs are in a few big cities, what Timothy Lee of Vox calls the Pokemon Go economy. And the people left behind increasingly can't compete in the job market and/or value family and place more than economic success, which does, as TFA notes, put them at odds with those who would rather move to where the jobs are.

The problem is not "front row kids" versus "back row kids" but that people are increasingly self-segregating - The Big Sort and The Vanishing Neighbor. These are big problems, I think, but aren't going to be solved by getting the Back Row Kids to sit up straight and do their homework.

(And if Peter Thiel is a front-row kid then I'm sitting in the back!)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:49 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, other people are great at it. But I guess their skills just don't count?

I was just talking about this with a friend, the myth of "unskilled labor"; it's just an ideological wedge to divide working people up into groups because almost all work involves a lot more skill than people credit. Even something as manual labor intensive as moving furniture takes technique and experience to do well (as a delivery crew recently demonstrated to me, managing to finagle a sofa through an entry in my new rental house that would have seemed impossible to anybody with less experience and intuitive grasp of the geometry of space).

Truth is, there is a lot of contempt in academia for less educated, working class populations in practice, even while the rhetoric of academia can be almost imposingly and radically egalitarian from a more provincial perspective. Coming into an academic setting from a more rural background myself, it was impossible not to notice the dynamic, but I don't think it's fair to put the blame only at the feet of academia. There's a gap between the perception of how much elitism there is and how much there really is. Many academics I've known at least sincerely do try to live in a way that keeps them connected to everybody else. I think it can feel inauthentic to others because it is an intentional choice and some people find it off-putting and contrived when educated people code switch between different audiences. There's still a dominant cultural ethos about authenticity and consistency of identity that idealizes identity as unified and self-consistent. The truth is we're all to a greater or lesser degree mutts who might have any number of "native languages" in terms of our social personae and deeper personal values.

Tl;dr: People aren't as one dimensional as a lot of these simplifying narratives suggest and it's natural to bristle against that, but there often is a little whiff of elitism in the mix, too, and I do think that makes it easier for the opportunists in our society and politics to exploit anti-intellectual resentment and social and cultural cleavages and tensions to create the kind of disunity and mistrust at the ground level that makes maintaining any kind of sustained social consensus and political opposition that might lead to meaningful universal improvement much harder than it ought to be to achieve, considering the natural alignment of economic and social interests all working people share to some extent or another.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:08 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]


I guess the fundamental gist of this article is "scientists harbor prejudice, too", which can't help but resemble the kind of bad faith symmetry that's embedded in "both sides do it" or "all lives matter". While I appreciate the author's appeal to find common ground, it seems doomed to failure when your argument comes down to "these people also kind of suck".
posted by dmh at 6:38 AM on September 4


Also, this guy should just go spend 10 minutes at Cornell's Ag school and he'll realize that farmers can be rich pretentious exclusionary pieces of shit just like everyone else. Or they can be very nice people who happen to like obscure literature and social justice and expensive wines and maybe they want to learn about those things before they go back to work on their family farm (hey - did you know that wine is grown on farms too?). Or they can be children of migrant workers or day laborers, who may have tons of farming knowledge and skill but no land or capital yet - does he consider them to be "farmers"? Does he realize that there are farms in California and Hawaii and New York and Vermont? Or that a lot of the food he eats probably comes from a farm in another country? Or that there are car repair shops in cities too? I feel like this guy has met like 10 people total in his entire life.

Interesting how he presents an argument about the wealthy class's exploitation of the "people who grow our food" without discussing slavery or reparations or "the people who pave our roads" without discussing the exploitation of Chinese laborers or the destruction of black communities to construct interstates or "the people who pick up garbage" without mentioning the Memphis sanitation strike or or or......
The coal that generates my electricity comes from mines.
Dude lives in Boston. Most of his energy comes from natural gas, only a tiny fraction of the energy consumed in Massachusetts is from coal.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:08 AM on September 4 [12 favorites]


I am a scientist who grew up in the rural Southeastern US, where the school bus went by trailer parks and cow farms, and now teaches at a suburban commuter college in Georgia where our students are a mix of urban, rural, and suburban, black and white children of multi-generational Georgia families, and lots of brand new immigrants from the whole world.

Most of the people he cites are huge misogynists, but he probably assumes scientists are men anyway.

I can never even vaguely relate to these articles.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:54 AM on September 4 [18 favorites]


Hey, Melissasaurus, I went to Cornell's Ag School, and almost nothing this guy says reflects my reality. I have to live in rural areas, because I work in agricultural science. I have to be able to talk to growers, because my funding comes from them. It's not hard to talk to them because they are smart and a lot of them *also* went to Ag school. That's not to say that scientists aren't classist: some are. That's one of the problems of this country: undiagnosed classism. Personally, I've never met a college professor or scientist who sounds like the people described in this article. The real problem I see is that I and many of my colleagues have an inability to communicate without using specialized language. I have to answer questions about GMOs and honeybees whenever I'm at an outreach table, and it takes practice to not be completely incomprehensible. Ask me about honeybees and I will go on for 20 minutes about the complexity of modern bee husbandry and the multiple stresses on bees and the interaction of those stresses.

At any rate, I get along with my car mechanic and my plumber, because we are all master diagnosticians. It takes one to know one.
posted by acrasis at 8:05 AM on September 4 [8 favorites]


Yeah, despite the author's disclaimer, it's obvious that in this article, just like all in the ones before, the intended people who "need respect", are again, white males.


I don't know about the article's author, but the underlying source (Chris Arnade) spends a lot of his time as a journalist documenting the plight of non-white communities as well.

I do think his shtick is somewhat oversimplified, but there's no denying there's a kernel of truth in what he's saying -- a lot of well-educated progressive folks express a significant degree of contempt and disdain for those in flyover country. Yes, it's a lot more complex and nuanced than that, but as generalizations go, it's something to think about.
posted by mikeand1 at 9:07 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


I couldn't finish the article, but this seems to me to be a case of Correct Title, Incorrect Essay and I find it hard to think that any progressive, liberal academic would really strongly disagree with the idea. Science privilege is not an unknown concept to people in the ivory tower. I can think of several scientists who write who would basically be sympathetic to it even if somewhat helpless, and academic scientists and are the intended audience anyways. And of course what's supposed to be enticing about this piece is the author claims upfront that they have a solution. But again academics have heard this narrative before.
posted by polymodus at 9:21 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


hydropsyche: I can never even vaguely relate to these articles.

Are your family and old friends reflexively despised by your progressive peers? (Maybe - and I'm merely guessing here - that's the differentiator between relating or not relating to these articles? I recognize that I could well be wrong on this.)

Most of the people he cites are huge misogynists, but he probably assumes scientists are men anyway.

He works as a post-doc with women, so hopefully not, though it does appear that he has only invited male colleagues to do guest columns on his blog.
posted by clawsoon at 9:56 AM on September 4


I actually really enjoyed the essay and found a lot to love there - I think a lot of the criticism is with the kind of clickbaity headline and the initial lead-up to the framing, but the piece about democracy needing the consent of the governed, and people needing to see value in what you do or they won't fund it, is spot fucking on - that is exactly the problem I see.

The reflexive "climate change isn't real" denials, for example, come more from a disconnect with scientists living in elite cities who are perceived to be bringing elite political values to science than distaste for science itself - as a few commenters touch on, AG science is highly valued, and a lot of farmers are scientists now, without thinking of themselves as Scientists.

And there's a lot of unjustified, unwarranted sneering at the stereotypes and culture of blue-collar workers that absolutely doesn't need to exist and is absolutely counterproductive. And no, I'm not just talking about the disconnect in social liberalism - I'm talking, like, sneering at the kind of handcrafts they like to make and decorate their homes with, or their "tacky" taste in furniture, or the lowbrow television shows, or the "anything but country" tastes in music. We sneer about those. We sneer about those all the time and it has absolutely nothing to do with enlightened politics.
posted by corb at 10:38 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


I wonder if articles like this - and appreciation for them - comes mostly from well-educated people who came from working-class backgrounds, who find that their family and old friends, people they value and respect, are reflexively despised by their new peers.

I don't think so. Because we (my immediate family moved back and forth over the line during my childhood, and much of my extended family was firmly below it) don't romanticize the working class, which seems to be very very easy for a certain species of guilt-ridden liberal white man to do. Like, don't talk smack about my mom, but my racist-ass cousin? Yes, he's a menace to his community, especially when you add to the mix that peculiar veteran solipsism he unfortunately picked up during his time in the service.

The reflexive "climate change isn't real" denials, for example, come more from a disconnect with scientists living in elite cities who are perceived to be bringing elite political values to science

If the "elite political values" include such values as "cooperation with those damn foreigners to change consumption and thus pollution patterns" and "caring how much effect pollution has on brown people," then we've got a problem here, because those "elite values" are absolutely necessary for the planet to still be habitable by humans in a few generations. Sometimes your values are just wrong and harmful and there's no way around it, no way to pretend to you that you're not having to do something you don't want to do. Often the passage of time manages to solve this problem, but we don't always have the luxury of letting a couple generations go by.
posted by praemunire at 11:03 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


I'm going to take this into more of a "but what IS class, even" direction.

Like, if you think about how we use the word "classy" to mean restrained and indirect, the rarification of those within a status class becomes clearer. This also has a racist component - the Welsh began as the "emotional" sub-class, which English Colonization rapidly moved into being "from South America" pretty rapidly in their media, at least. In the US it's one of the few projections which bypass Black people to land squarely on "fiery" or "passionate" Latinx people (which also ignores that Black and Latinx often overlap). It also has a strong poverty association; a lot of stereotypes of the poor have them being inappropriately emotional, and class insults are often over public behavior involving being very emotional.

"Able to purchase seemingly expensive luxury items" is another major class marker that also seems to cross racial lines (at least Black and Latinx lines) if you think about how Hennessy and expensive cars are coded within rap and hip hop. The emphasis on purchased class markers seems to show up a lot in the most disempowered communities - I'm thinking of the Dandies in the Congo whose expensive and meticulous suits stand in stark contrast to the poverty and danger of their lives.

I don't know if I'd add "able to identify attractive versus unattractive things" to the above, so I'm giving it it's own category. The other place class insults are most often deployed, in my experience, is over what (usually but not always women) wear. Clothing that is "too tight" or "too short" or "shows too much skin" or is made of inexpensive materials is often cited as indicators of low class, especially when the person is more fiscally rich. Likewise, the class insults against overly gaudy or decorated or metallicized things can be used to distinguish between "old money" and "nouveau riche" even when those distinctions are inaccurate because the latter category is several generations old.

Then there are the taste things which seem both squirrely and stereotypical.

I'm fairly certain there are at least six classes in the US: Upper class. New money. Middle class. Working class. Working poor. Poverty level. I'm not sure if "Educated Class" and "Entertainment Class" should be added on their own or not - both seem to bridge multiple classes due to the nature of how one enters them and the wide variety of fiscal reward within them, but that may just result in members of both of these classes falling into the existing six classes based on their tastes and financials.

Upper class - I associate this with fundraising banquets, automatic admission to Ivy League schools, owning 3+ homes, all family members having trust funds which will cover their lifetime living expenses, prestige businesses, and attending high profile worldwide events like the Canne Film Festival, hiring servants (but without the Noblesse Oblige of taking care of them for life), owning prestige livestock like horses, expensive and limited access hobbies like golf and polo, etc. I'd expect professed admiration for Opera, Broadway, Theatre, etc. but not necessarily actual admiration of the same.

New money - I'd break this into two categories personally - the "good" new money which apes the Upper Class and the "bad" new money which apes the Working Class or are wealthier/more successful upstarts from the middle class. The Entertainment class could fit here, too. I associate this with 1-2 expensive homes, regular vacations, being "flashier" than the Upper Class but more likely to be philanthropic rather than just go to the events - I'm thinking like the Gates, the Clintons, the Carter-Knowles on the "good" side and the Kardashians on the "bad" side. Weirdly, the "bad" side seems to include a few old money individuals, usually female and tied up with going to a lot of clubs and being on reality TV shows, but they might be doing their version of "slumming"?

Middle class - My best guess is I'm here. White members tend to be liberal individualists (trending libertarian), tend to be colorblind racist and buy into benevolent sexism, benefited from the wealth redistribution after WW2 and inexpensive schooling during that same period which briefly led to single income families but are in denial that these things were forms of social welfare. Members of color clawed their way into the middle class using a limited set of degrees (business, law, medicine), are holding on by their nail tips, and deal with intense levels of micro-aggression and police harassment, especially if they're black. I think all members value education, college, jobs in offices, graduate degrees, not sweating when they work, individuality, and a weird sort of conservative liberalism which emphasizes free speech over justice, and aspirations to join the upper class through leveraging well paying jobs. I'd place most geeks solidly here, along with government employees with degrees, politicians who don't come from money, and the entire category of white and pink collar workers. Hobbies tend to include television, video games, judging reality tv stars and celebrities, the internet in general, organized sports via a distancing medium after college, music, the classier sort of bar, and for the pretentious among us books and media like theater. They might have a "poor but socially responsible" wing in the working poor via teachers, librarians, social workers, etc.

Working class - My sense is the working class is actually more fiscally solid than the middle class, but the type of work they do and their hobbies set them apart and lead to the other classes ranking them lower than middle class. Jobs tend to involve physical labor but with acknowledged skill and good money - plumbers, electricians, construction management, security, independent and commissioned military, mechanics, etc... They tend to be conservative, trust what they see with their own eyes, pretty socially savvy, and members of strong social networks with traditional gender roles. White members would say they aren't sexist or racist but funnel their fiscal discomfort into disliking the women and/or people of color of the middle class. Male members would say they value women for how they are different from them and don't understand why people call this sexist - they love their wife/mom/daughter. I have difficulty seeing how white women fit in except as auxiliaries to men, or whether any people of color are included at all, but that could be 100% stereotype on my part. Hobbies tend to be exciting and violent, like racing, wrestling, being in person at sports games with tailgating and taking part in drunken events afterwards, and a lot of drinking in general. I expect open disdain for books, science, theater, etc... with individuals born into this class who are attracted to those things moving laterally into the middle class.

Working poor - I see the biggest distinction between working class and working poor to be fiscal rather than cultural, and the second biggest distinction being this is where working women and people of color are if they don't pull off middle class or higher. The police, firemen, enlisted military, factory workers, miners, public works employees, non-degreed government employees, janitors, individual farmers, etc. If the "educated class" had to be put someplace I'd put it here - teachers, adjunct professors, librarians, social workers, etc.; they form essentially a separate wing with more in common with the middle class socially even while unable to pay their bills effectively. I'm only not here due to significant family support resulting from the white person welfare after WW2 and a family member in the top end of the Middle Class.

Poverty level - People who are homeless, people who live entirely on government welfare with no prospect of getting off of it, people who are disabled or mentally ill, and the very elderly. I'm not sure there is a commonality among these groups except for fiscal situation; I think all of them would tend to hang onto the social markers of their original class, even if it's to their detriment (e.g. a middle class poverty level person refusing government assistance or condescending to others receiving the same assistance and isolating themselves because they view themselves a superior).

Thoughts?
posted by Deoridhe at 11:25 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


It's very strange to see a blog which devotes itself to a scientific exploration of religion so blithely ignore one of religion's most universal and powerful explanations for what's going on in the world: the existence of Evil.

Because the 'back row' isn't merely uninformed, it is profoundly misinformed by malignant ideas which render it highly resistant if not altogether impervious to the truths of science, ideas which spread and establish themselves in people's minds far more easily than the ideas of science ever could, and have been carefully crafted to do just that.

And no amount of aping the manners and mannerisms of the back row -- an effort which looks a whole lot more like protective mimicry than any kind of true empathy to me -- is going to make one single step of progress toward rooting out and destroying those Evil ideas.

In the white English speaking world, as befits it's protean nature, that malignant Evil goes under many names -- Koch, Sinclair, ALEC, and etc., but among that multitude one is preeminent: Murdoch.

So why is the author of this essay so willfully ignorant? Fear, I would say; or more precisely, cowardice.
posted by jamjam at 11:42 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


So I find myself in the ironic (according to this article) position of moving away from a bunch of working class relatives (though my parents are engineers) in Seattle to get a PhD studying astrophysics in Wisconsin.

And honestly, what he said about front row versus back row culture really did resonate with me.

Buuut, holy moley did I get lost fast when he started going for the old respect these blue collar jobs because they matter routine.

The full-time farmers I knew of were someone's rich uncle who they did seasonal work for in high school for not much pay. The kids whose dads were construction contractors were the ones with the big fancy houses and all the toys. This isn't about the ordinary people. This "populism" is still elite vs. elite. Just old school industry and agriculture elite vs newcomer technology elite.

If you are actually "working class," picking what kind of work you do is a luxury. You straight up need to get paid. Prestige doesn't buy food and prestige doesn't pay rent. Instead of all these patronizing and dewy-eyed appeals to how we should respect all these dirty and hands-on jobs, how about paying people of all professions enough and giving them enough security that they have the luxury of some control over their lives?

If people who wanted prestige could actually afford to get into a profession that offered it, well there might just be a little bit more of that cross cultural communication this guy wants. And if the person serving your coffee was getting paid enough that they had the free time and money to spend getting educated and doing all these morally enriching things, or even screwing off as they saw fit, then maybe it would be harder to act like they just have to be living in unenlightened squalor.

You know what? Jerks are going to jerk. But honestly there's holier than though crap on both sides of the far fuzzier than portrayed in thinkpieces "cultural divide." I've certainly run into plenty of folks who automatically assumed I was arrogant and what I did too complicated to understand just because I was studying physics just because they had been taught by media and culture and everything scientists are supposed to be elitist and out of touch. So that's what they were expecting and that's what they read into my words and actions. I guarantee they didn't learn that from interacting with actual physicists, but from media portrayals and political messaging.

Look, we should definitely call people out when they're being sneering about someone's line of work or tastes or what have you as being too low brow. But I'm gonna call out this "real American with a Real Job" crap is elitist, too.

I guess that's the thing that bothers me most here. He starts out mentioning retail and service work and then... ignores it completely when he starts lecturing on how "scientists" need to understand the "working class." He goes straight for the jobs with blue-collar prestige if not white collar prestige. Most of the struggling people I know are working flipping burgers and part time warehouse workers and fancy store clerks with fancy job titles to drum up "enthusiasm." Owning a farm or snagging an electrician's apprenticeship or getting regular and decent paid construction work would be a step up in prestige and pay. They aren't doing jobs that are that critical to society: they are doing what they can get money for to eat and have a roof over their heads.

This post also has made me think back to a lot of the observations I made with regards to class and the institutions of science over the course of my PhD but it's already long enough, so I'll just leave it here for now.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:55 AM on September 4 [8 favorites]


Deoridhe: I'm going to take this into more of a "but what IS class, even" direction.

One thing I read (in this book, I think): You're lower class if you think class is defined by money. You're middle class if you think class is defined by education. And you're upper class if you think class is defined by taste.

It's not completely accurate, but it's pithy and easy to remember.
posted by clawsoon at 11:58 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


If the "elite political values" include such values as "cooperation with those damn foreigners to change consumption and thus pollution patterns" and "caring how much effect pollution has on brown people," then we've got a problem here, because those "elite values" are absolutely necessary for the planet to still be habitable by humans in a few generations.

No, that's not what I'm talking about. I've talked on Metafilter before about the need to enlist hunters and farmers on the climate change issue. They are natural allies. Hunters see changes to the ecosystem often before others do, and are highly motivated to change it. But there have been zero attempts to appeal along that axis, and I think in some part it's because people associate hunting with a low class pursuit, and they associate it with gun ownership which they view as low class.

Similarly, there is almost no mention of the "Dust Bowl" when we are talking about climate change - no linking of simple, observable phenomena to the cultural history of people who are primed to listen, and I think it's because people in the cities have no memory or transmitted memory of why it was so horrible, so it never occurs to them to talk about.

It seems like there's this elite sneering of "we don't have to look at your backwards frameworks in order to convince you, you should just listen to what we tell you, peons" that results in nothing but opposition. So why not try something different?
posted by corb at 12:07 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


I guess that's the thing that bothers me most here. He starts out mentioning retail and service work and then... ignores it completely when he starts lecturing on how "scientists" need to understand the "working class." He goes straight for the jobs with blue-collar prestige if not white collar prestige.

This isn't just TFA - it seems to be a theme in many, if not most, discussions of the working class, particularly from the center through the right. Traditionally male-coded jobs like electrician, farmer, and coal miner (!) get all the press, but more female-coded jobs like retail work, personal care attendant, etc. get crickets.

Retail jobs are vanishing, but all we hear about is the plight of the coal miner and the factory worker. Not that I think Cheeto and the neo-Nazi right wing in general give a shit about real-life coal miners - all they care about is the symbol of Manly White Manliness.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:13 PM on September 4 [7 favorites]


Zalzidrax: This post also has made me think back to a lot of the observations I made with regards to class and the institutions of science over the course of my PhD but it's already long enough, so I'll just leave it here for now.

If this is something you've thought about in depth, I for one would be interested in reading more.

Tangentially, I remember seeing a graph once (linked from Metafilter, I think, though I haven't been able to find it again) of parental income vs child's income and occupation. A few things stood out: Doctors had the biggest average income jump over their parents, going from middling income to high income. Artists had the biggest drop; they tended to have high-income parents and a low-income adult life. I was surprised to find scientists at the top right of the graph: Relatively high income, and relatively high-income parents.

I'm not sure what I should've expected, or even what I did expect. But I was surprised by that.

(Based on everything I've read from dirt-poor postdocs since then, the average income of scientists may have changed since the time period covered by the graph.)
posted by clawsoon at 12:29 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


It seems like there's this elite sneering of "we don't have to look at your backwards frameworks in order to convince you, you should just listen to what we tell you, peons" that results in nothing but opposition. So why not try something different?

I'm far from convinced that's what's going on here, at least in the case of climate change. If this were so, the message would have been sinking in steadily with every increasingly disastrous hurricane season. My understanding is that the propaganda efforts of the various vested interests have been so effective that for many Republicans, climate change denial is by now an article of faith - less class war, more culture war. There are no end of talking points available to anyone who wants to make that case and anyway, siding with your own is far more important than, y'know, actual evidence for some people.

It may seem as if the elite are sneering as you put it, and yes, some people are undoubtedly snobs. But what might read as elitism could also be enormous frustration at those who are not willing, prepared, or in some cases even equipped to engage in basic reasoning because they're enculturated not to do so.

Look, we need to stop doubting ourselves and go on the defensive when the overriding political message is not to listen to the "experts". Expertise isn't the effete ruse of an over-educated imaginary cabal, it's people in the field and in laboratories, making it their life's work to find out about things and understand them. This narrative has nothing to do with the academic classes being out of touch, it's because the ruling classes have an interest in disempowering them.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 1:22 PM on September 4 [11 favorites]


Similarly, there is almost no mention of the "Dust Bowl" when we are talking about climate change - no linking of simple, observable phenomena to the cultural history of people who are primed to listen

Pretty much every single article about climate change refers to any number of past, present, or possible future phenomena that should be relatable to both urban and rural people. This has included the descriptions of not only the mid-1930s Dust Bowl in the US, but the drying up of regions across the world in recent memory.

and I think it's because people in the cities have no memory or transmitted memory of why it was so horrible, so it never occurs to them to talk about.

This is an unsupported assertion, and ridiculous on the face of it when you consider that it's damn near impossible to find people who have no memory or familial/cultural history of some sort of climate catastrophe. If we're going to be criticising blanket assumptions, let's not turn around and do the exact same thing with the alleged "sneering elitism" of city-dwellers who are so insular and uncooperative that they somehow can't conceive of a natural disaster that affected the livelihoods of those around them and in other areas.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:45 PM on September 4 [5 favorites]


Are your family and old friends reflexively despised by your progressive peers? (Maybe - and I'm merely guessing here - that's the differentiator between relating or not relating to these articles? I recognize that I could well be wrong on this.)

No. That would be weird. Our students have a ton in common with the people I grew up with as do the people who live throughout the area that we live. We don't despise our students or their parents or our neighbors. Maybe this is one of those "coastal" things (that inexplicably doesn't include the southeastern US even though we have a honking gigantic coastline) (that is currently being slammed by hurricanes, which other "coastal" people in the US don't have)?
posted by hydropsyche at 2:41 PM on September 4 [5 favorites]


1) I thought this was great:
You can’t just institute, say, a universal basic income and expect the rabble to shut up at last and love you.
How does he know? Anyone reading that would think we tried a UBI and it didn't work. Maybe it would make the rabble shut up at last and love us! Let's give it a shot!

2) Is cultural snobbery even morally wrong? Like, I'm sure that high-fashion types would look down on me because all my clothes are from cheap department stores. But that doesn't actually hurt me. We just care about different things. What matters are money and power -- if those are unequal, they should be redistributed. After that, if you want to decide you're better than everyone else based on some weird criteria, it should be your right as an American to go for it.

Someone more cynical than me would even start to suspect that essays like this are written to distract from actual oppression. "Liberals care about material inequality, while we care about bullshit that doesn't matter. Oh well, different moral foundations." Get the hell out of here.
posted by officer_fred at 3:22 PM on September 4 [9 favorites]


hydropsyche: No. That would be weird. Our students have a ton in common with the people I grew up with as do the people who live throughout the area that we live. We don't despise our students or their parents or our neighbors.

Huh. But you don't even notice it here on Metafilter? For me, it's a semi-regular experience to see the culture of my rural, flyover, working-class upbringing/neighbours/extended family/old friends mocked on Metafilter without concern. Pick a thread/comment on... I dunno... Thomas Kinkade. Evangelical Christians. Budweiser. Pickup trucks. Self-reliance. Popular modern country music. Mudding. Hunting. Spraying pesticides. Some of that is harmful and should be opposed, but most of it gets casually mocked just because it's associated with the wrong kind of people. It's part of an effort to dehumanize them, and, like the linked blog post points out, that makes it harder to achieve a working democracy.

Some of those people dehumanize progressives, too, of course. That also makes it hard to achieve a working democracy. But it doesn't make it any better for us to do it to them. One can say, "I'm tired of seeing yet another piece saying that we're being mean to those people," but that'll probably keep happening as long as a) the mockery keeps happening alongside b) people like me with mockable backgrounds being attracted to progressive groups because they promise kindness and inclusion.
posted by clawsoon at 3:48 PM on September 4 [4 favorites]


But you don't even notice it here on Metafilter? For me, it's a semi-regular experience to see the culture of my rural, flyover, working-class upbringing/neighbours/extended family/old friends mocked on Metafilter without concern.

I've seen it on MetaFilter and pushed back against it when I can; it came up most around Trump who does a lot of coded-lower-class things while being Upper Class (George Bush & Co do the same) as part of reaching out to their Republican base. I wouldn't call it semi-regular, though, or something that my academic/scientific circles were prone too.

I see it a LOT in media created by wealthy white men and white men who want to be them. I suspect it's common in groups dominated by those wealthy white men along with their other biases, even the ones who call themselves "liberal". It seems to exist in common with the hand-wringing about Millennials not buying enough houses because AVOCADO TOAST and women ruining Western Culture because FEELINGS.

I rarely see it in diverse groups I'd consider Left; in fact those groups seem most dedicated to making it practical for people with limited means to participate by arranging for child care, for example.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:54 PM on September 4 [3 favorites]



The reflexive "climate change isn't real" denials, for example, come more from a disconnect with scientists living in elite cities who are perceived to be bringing elite political values to science than distaste for science itself


Key words: perceived to be.

I live on the left bank of the Charles River. I run a gauntlet of scientists on my commute twice a day. I worked for scientists as a support staffer for 4 years, just one rung on the latter above unambiguously labeled service sector work. These scientists he's talking about do not exist, except as strawmen on Fox News and characters on prime time sitcoms and crime shows. And it's ridiculous to consider science a prestige occupation nowadays when the price for being in it is not having enough money to put your own kids through the same path (assuming you can afford to fucking have any.)
posted by ocschwar at 6:06 PM on September 4 [5 favorites]


"But there have been zero attempts to appeal along that axis, and I think in some part it's because people associate hunting with a low class pursuit, and they associate it with gun ownership which they view as low class."

I ... what? Like, enormous quantities of effort go into recruiting hunters and farmers to global warming activism. Having served on the board of a county farming extension, I don't really know any farmers who don't "believe" in global warming and who aren't fairly activist about it -- literally including the Amish. Hunters are a somewhat tougher row to hoe because they're not economically dependent upon the environment (virtually all of them are recreational hunters), but there's ENORMOUS outreach by environmentalist groups to hunters, and they've been hugely instrumental in the establishment of protected wetlands in Illinois. Many of them are excellent allies on global warming as well, but they're super-reliable allies on environmental protection.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:35 PM on September 4 [15 favorites]


(re: weird perceptions of the American working class)
I have difficulty seeing how white women fit in except as auxiliaries to men

holy jesus hell did Roseanne live nine years and die in vain and sink like a stone

guess so
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:50 PM on September 4 [6 favorites]


Working poor - I see the biggest distinction between working class and working poor to be fiscal rather than cultural, and the second biggest distinction being this is where working women and people of color are if they don't pull off middle class or higher. The police, firemen, enlisted military, factory workers, miners, public works employees, non-degreed government employees, janitors, individual farmers, etc.

That's quite a spread of people! In most places police and firemen are economically in the upper working / lower-middle class. Enlisted military as well if they're career-minded and stay in. These jobs have good health benefits and defined benefit pension schemes which kick in at a relatively young age (because of the physical toll these jobs can take). The only category of worker in your list that I would think of as usually working poor is janitors and the job that most comes to mind in this class is hourly retail work.
posted by atrazine at 2:11 AM on September 5


But you don't even notice it here on Metafilter? For me, it's a semi-regular experience to see the culture of my rural, flyover, working-class upbringing/neighbours/extended family/old friends mocked on Metafilter without concern.

Overall, I think MetaFilter is doing soooo much better on regional and class issues than we were 10 years ago. I for sure know of one MeFite who likes to pop-up and trash open access regional commuter colleges like the one where I teach. He is arguably among the most conservative active MeFites and is proudly not a scientist.

But my peers, my fellow scientists, an awful lot of us went to grad school in rural areas, we take what jobs we can where we can, and none of us are like the people depicted in this terrible article.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:39 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


holy jesus hell did Roseanne live nine years and die in vain and sink like a stone

I would class Rosanne's family as working poor, not working class - with the stipulation that the main differential between the two seems to be fiscal and not cultural. I could easily be wrong on this, but they had a dual income family with her working in a factory and him working as a drywall contractor (not a construction owner or trade skill) with a very limited income - hence working poor.

Specifically within the context of working class, I thought the rather vehement discrimination against white women in trade skill and high paying blue collar jobs would impair their ability to progress much as many professional working women are also members of the working poor despite skills that would net them higher paying and higher status jobs if they were male (assume additional impediments for people of color, particularly women of color).
posted by Deoridhe at 7:53 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


The only category of worker in your list that I would think of as usually working poor is janitors and the job that most comes to mind in this class is hourly retail work.

I'm entirely open to being wrong on this. I was considering ~50K being the cutoff between working class and working poor, and while some teachers would qualify a lot wouldn't. I work a job that required a Master's and making ~30K; 8K less than I made as an Office Manager which required no degree; if I wasn't getting sustained help from my family I'd be very close to if not homeless where I'm living. $24,257 is the poverty minimum, but my understanding is that the ability to not live paycheck to paycheck kicks in at between 50K and 75K, so I was basing my mental math off of that.
posted by Deoridhe at 8:02 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


But you don't even notice it here on Metafilter? For me, it's a semi-regular experience to see the culture of my rural, flyover, working-class upbringing/neighbours/extended family/old friends mocked on Metafilter without concern.

So Metafilter is getting a little better about it, but I think alot of that is overcoming the idea that a red state is 100% red instead of what it really is which is anywhere from 80-20 (Utah in 2016) to 55-45 (Georgia in 2016). One huge thing that I think feeds into this is the standard internet position of "[your favorite thing] sucks"

Also, this is a two-way street. There's alot of making fun of red/flyover state on metafilter because it's blue. There's plenty of the same thing coming from the other side (not even counting the not-like-me-phobia, see: gluten-free, dirty cities, weird music/art/food, etc.) But I don't really see any articles about getting rural, working class, etc. to connect with urban elites.
posted by LizBoBiz at 8:34 AM on September 6 [2 favorites]




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