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April 23, 2008


Class acts

SOMETIMES THE NEWS sounds like it’s a literal translation from Albanian. The words are familiar. But they don’t make any sense… Maybe Humpty Dumpty has been running the show. You remember, the ovoid figure Alice encounters in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,’”Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Like Alice, my head is spinning.

YESTERDAY BEGAN COLD & GRAY, so I made a strong cup of coffee & curled up on the couch with the San Francisco Chronicle. I don’t mean to pick on the Chron. It could have been any newspaper… Outside, the fog hovered far off, outside the Golden Gate. In my living room, even though the words on the page in front of me were bright & clear, their meaning was decidedly fuzzy. I considered importing a foghorn from the bridge… Reasoning that bellowing never solved anything, I didn’t. Instead, I got lost in the pea soup that passed for news. Floundering like the Cosco Busan, I crashed right into the first story.

A STUDY conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Washington found,

A long, steady rise in life expectancy in the United States apparently isn’t being shared by everyone, and hasn’t been for years….

Race appears less a factor in health disparities than income.

Americans — even white Americans — are dying early. Scary stuff. But what’s this “income” stuff?

Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Anthony Iton added some local observations:

We found the same thing in Alameda County. Blacks in the flatlands live less long than blacks in the hills; whites in the flatlands live less long than whites in the hills.

Even scarier. What’s going on?

The Humpty Dumpty reporters masterfully avoided using the one word that would best explain the situation: class. The story circled all around it, like a parent playing hide & seek with a toddler, but the word never appears. Never.

Why not? It’s a perfectly good word. But Humpty Dumpty hasn’t mastered it.

AS EVERYBODY KNOWS, there are races in the United States & genders. But only one class. And all of us — Bill Gates & Joe Sixpack alike — are part of it… Everybody but Harvard University knows that. In a recent roundtable discussion, Harvard social scientists asked, “Is the United States Coming Apart As a Society?” Their response:

The shocking fact is that segregation by class has increased.

The shocking fact is that they used the word class at all. But Harvard being Harvard, I guess it can afford to shock. They continue,

too often in our public discourse in America class is taken as a code for talking about race.

Public discourse. That’s the substance of our political discussions. As the present presidential campaign has made clear, American politics is all about race & gender. The smart folks at Harvard have noticed the problem as well:

American politics is notable for never having been sharply polarized along class lines. There isn’t an ideology that one can use to organize around these issues. And that seems to be a really powerful constraint on doing anything about this through standard political mechanisms.

Yup. It’s hard to pay much attention to a problem that has no name.

The issue is figuring out how to find language and a framework that move the white middle and upper-middle classes to see it as in their interest to support progressive policies.

Kinda sends chills up your spine, doesn’t it, to hear that word spoken out loud in polite company… But Harvard takes its role as educator of the elite very seriously.

Can you be the head of a major corporation without really understanding these issues? I would say it’s our responsibility at the very least to ensure that nobody should graduate from Harvard without understanding the nature of inequality in the world.

Maybe they could give a class on the subject to reporters as well.

AS THE DAY WENT ON, Humpty Dumpty continued his disconnect between the world as he defined it and the world we live in… Early in the evening, SFGate updated its website with the news people had waited for all day:


Clinton defeats Obama in Pennsylvania primary

DAVID ESPO and BETH FOUHY, Associated Press Writers
(04-22) 18:16 PDT PHILADELPHIA, (AP) —

Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary Tuesday night, defeating Barack Obama and staving off elimination in a riveting race for the Democratic presidential nomination….

She showed her blue collar bona fides one night by knocking down a shot of whiskey, then taking a mug of beer as a chaser. Obama went bowling in his attempt to win over working-class [sic!] voters.

And in the manner that bloggers worldwide have come to know and love, the story concluded:

Share your thoughts on this story.

MY FIRST THOUGHTS were unprintable. So were my second… How does a thoughtful person respond to an election that’s based on bowling and beer? Then I remembered the words of a writer far more skilled than I:

Things have been going swimmingly at the Adults for Change headquarters. Our motto, “Yes, we’re elitist: You want to make something out of it?,” has gained new currency, and people are flocking to the idea that, yes, actually, they do want a president who’s smarter than a shiftless layabout, and I mean here no disrespect to shiftless layabouts….

We are a pressure group dedicated to the proposition that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are experienced and intelligent public servants, and we’d really like to hear their opinions on a wide variety of non-gotcha issues….

Clinton is a lifelong wonk, and Obama comes from a farm state — they know what the real issues are. We’ve had 7.5 years of a president who couldn’t find an issue with a flashlight and three valets. Could we please put the Swiftboaters and the Beltway insiders in a cage, and let the candidates talk sensibly about sensible things?

Hooray for Jon Carroll! Forget about that foghorn on the Golden Gate Bridge. It just makes a lot of noise anyway… Cut & paste Carroll’s column onto an email form & send it to every politician & media maven you can think of.

Start at the top:

Barack Obama

Hillary Clinton

John McCain

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Friday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008