A Country of Have-Nots?

November 12, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

At a Republican fundraiser in 2000 where the minium buy-in was $800, George W. Bush referred to those in attendance as “the haves and the have-mores.”

Talk about “the haves and the have-nots” – the phrase Bush was alluding to – seemed old-fashioned at the time. To my ear, the terms sound like something out of the Depression. But the concept of haves and have-nots is making a comeback. The perception of inequality may be catching up to the reality.

In 1998, more than 70% of the US population rejected the idea that the country was divided between the haves and the have-nots. Today, as many people agree with that proposition as disagree (numbers are from the Gallup poll).

My first impulse is to trace it all to Bush– to see the shift as the chickens of false consciousness finally coming home to roost. After all, Bush did refer to the have-mores as “my base,” and his policies have rewarded them handsomely. But as the chart shows, the largest part of the change in perception was happening in the 1990s.

Along with their perception of an economically divided country, more Americans see themselves as being on the wrong side of the divide. (Numbers are from a recent Pew survey.)
In 1998, even among those in the lower third of the income distribution, 42% saw themselves as being among the “haves.” That percentage has since declined, of course, but so has the percentage of self-perceived “haves” in the middle and upper thirds of the distribution. That middle-group is especially interesting, with the percent thinking of themselves as among the “haves” declining from 61% to 43%.

Politically, this shift in perceptions would seem to work for the Democrats, who are more likely to be seen as the party for the have-nots. It’s certainly what John Edwards has been saying in his “two Americas” speeches. To counter the idea of a divided country, the Republicans seem to be relying on the unifying force of an external enemy. If we see ourselves as under attack from outside evildoers, terrorists, Islamofascists, et. al., we will have to rally together and ignore or deny internal divisions.

A Fine and Public Place

November 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
We try to do right by the dead, to give them the best possible resting place. But what’s best? Apparently, Americans and French have very different ideas, as Polly’s pictures last week of a Paris cemetery reminded me.

I’m not much drawn to cemeteries, but Père Lachaise gets two stars in the Michelin Guide. It’s the final resting place of Chopin and Comte, Abelard and Heloise, Oscar Wilde, Modigiliani, Proust . . . . I was in Paris (this was many years ago) with some free time, so I went.

It didn’t look at all like a cemetery, at least not the cemeteries I had seen in the US. The one across from the University here seems typical.

The cemetery road curves gently through the lawns. Grass separates the headstones, with some space even between family members. The headstones are low, some even flat on the ground.

But at Père Lachaise, the lanes were narrower, with no grass to be seen. Instead of headstones, there were building-like structures tall enough that you might walk inside, crowded together with little or no space in between.

Sometimes, the structures were built right behind one another on a steep incline.

You could climb the steps and look down at the brick footpath below.

Nowhere to be found were the rolling lawns that I thought would be more appropriate for the eminent figures of a culture - Molière, Piaf, and the rest. Instead, what I was seeing was more like a scaled-down urban scene, the mausoleums resembling the stone apartment buildings of the city.

Then I realized : Our visions of the ideal life are reflected in the landscapes we provide for the dead. When Americans die, they go to the countryside. When the French die, they go to Paris.

Let's Do the Time Warp Again

November 5, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

A piece on Facebook and advertising this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition quoted students at Berkeley as to what’s on their Facebook pages. The first voice was that of a girl (she sounded like she couldn't have been much older than first or second year) saying, “My favorite bands, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys . . . .”

Much to be said here regarding generations (could you have found a Berkeley student of the sixties who listed Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters among her faves?). But I’ll leave it at that.

And of course, you can still go to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) and throw rice every Saturday midnight in Berkeley and many other cities around the world.

Faux Consciousness

November 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“False consciousness.” It’s the escape valve in Marxian theory that explains why the workers, the exploited, the oppressed, so often act, vote, and think against their own interests. They fail to see the reality of the system that exploits them. The Marxists try to enlighten the workers as to that realty, but too often, the Marxists’s target audience seems to be tuned into the Fox network. (Or is that the Faux network?)

Many years ago, I was riding the bus to work with my colleague Peter Freund. As we passed a Chicken Delight, he pointed out the window to its large iconic sign. “The perfect representation of false consciousness,” he said.

I haven’t seen that type of sign for a while, but I was reminded of it when I saw this French version of fausse conscience, posted by Polly in her expat blog.

“Members of a subordinate class (workers, peasants, serfs) suffer from false consciousness in that their mental representations of the social relations around them systematically conceal or obscure the realities of subordination, exploitation, and domination those relations embody.” (Daniel Little)

The chicken happily serving itself up on a platter to be devoured by its exploiters.