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Who? What, me?

 It seems Privilege is a loaded word.

When my American friends talk class and social level, they're not talking the same language as me.  It may be that the American Victorians copied many of the upper class affectations of the British, but they weren't and couldn't be the same thing.  Your country is built on the idea that aristocracy is of no value, and the mutation of your national psyche has elevated the idea that anyone can become anything, including a leading light of society.  This is not a concept that flies well in the class-bound structure of my homeland.

Do not confuse my use of the word class to mean elegance, manners, education, intelligence, or worth of any kind other than monetary.  Money is the great key that opens all doors.  Whatever you do once you have that money, you will be sucked up to by others.  Some may disapprove of your shenanigans, but if you keep making vast sums of money, your star will never fade.

Unfortunately (or maybe not), most people are not smart enough to hang on to their money for long.  In England, this problem was solved by the idea that your family tree was more imortant than your current bank statement, but this doesn't work in the American "classless" society, except in enclaves where everyone agrees that it matters.  As soon as that person moves from that enclave, who they knew or were descended from doesn't matter, no matter how hard they try to make it seem important (imagine a descendant of the Mayflower pilgrims trying to persuade a Hollywood producer of their importance, and you'll see what I'm getting at).

Some would say that the basis of class in the US is fame - after all, how many people do you know of who are famous simply for being obscenely rich?  But how many disappear without a trace if they lose that money?  It comes back to the money.  Britney Spears may be considered a white trash cheetos-snorking disaster, but as long as she's rich, she'll have far more influence on society than I ever will, and ultimately, being of a higher level means more influence.  Money is power.  In the UK, breeding is power.  It opens doors, gets you invites to great parties, allows you to marry Princes and Dukes.  In the US, money stands in for being the second cousin of the Marchioness of Queensbury.

The thing is, you guys have it better.  Anyone can become rich, and while this means that the people at the top change with alarming frequency, and you can't quite believe who's up there some of the time, it at least means you'll always have someone new to look at.  We just get lots of pictures of Prince Charles.  This is a good thing.  Yes, some of those rich people wouldn't know good taste if it bit them on the bum, but there's always a chance you'll strike it rich, and then you can educate them.

Now, privilege, that's harder.  Privilege, as the originators of that little meme say, is basically something unearned that you really should appreciate and not take for granted, you ungrateful little creatures (I'm paraphrasing).  I'm privileged, there are no excuses for that.  I had it easy compared to lots of you.  But if I keep that in mind and don't take it for granted, I can appreciate when that privilege can be extended to help others - when rich people talk about things that need to be done for the betterment of everyone, then governments listen.  I think the point is to learn how to use that privilege and social status for the greater good.

I don't think money or bloodline have value in themselves - if there's one thing my mother taught me, it's that hard work is always of value, and manners, compassion, and care matter far more than who one's grandfather ruled in the southern half of India in 1920 (yes, my grandfather was an evil Raj oppressor; what price privilege now?).  I have stuffed envelopes, picked up cigarette butts, and run statistical analyses, and would be hard pressed to tell you which had more value.  I know what they paid, and I know what level society rates them at, but their real value? 

(I'd say the envelopes - I dealt with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of insurance checks.)

I also think that what you start out as matters so much less than what you turn into.  And I think that's a philosophy worth disemminating.  Kind of like you Americans did with your crazy ideas about reaching the moon and becoming anything you want to be.

Clearly a lesson some of our most overprivileged still need to learn.  Let's steal their money. 

Comments

( 34 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )
duchesspadr
Jan. 2nd, 2008 06:59 pm (UTC)
I posit that many Americans do not like to think of themselves as being "privilged", or even admit to it if they are/were. My guess is that the word privilege does infer "not earned", and we Americans have that crazy, Puritan work-ethic. We must earn! We must prove ourselves worthy! We must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, even if we already started higher up than others! Those who have monetary privilege, and who also have a higher social class (because I chooser to disagree; we DO have social classes in America, but only those in the highest social class choose to recognize them), probably see no reason to deny privilege, because they don't recongine or care that it was unearned.
isabelladangelo
Jan. 2nd, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
I think the differance between the American caste system and the English caste system is very simple; in the American caste you can be of a lower class than your parents.
I don't see it hindging on money, as stated previously. The American society is a melting pot. We take what we like and call whatever we don't stupid. We like the idea of class being something more than money. We like indoctrating cultural values into people and we like grumbling about our ancestors (I can trace mine back to the 9th c on one side, 16th c on the other). I have plenty of books written on the class system and heirarchy in socital evolution if you would like to read any of them...and most of it is written by Americans looking at the American system in comparision to those silly lesser nations around the world. (Hey, it says it in one of the articles!)

Edited at 2008-01-02 07:25 pm (UTC)
femkederoas
Jan. 2nd, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
Hmmm, Americans like to think and claim that we're a classless society. We're not. Even if you can manage to scale the money ladder, it does not necessarily admit one into the Upper Classes. Nor does education, by itself. In other words - you can take white trash out of the trailer park, but you cannot take the trailer park out of the white trash. Witness the Spears family.

I think my sister and I were the first in our family to manage an actual degree. (My mother has her RN, as do several of her sisters. Various certificates and such - but Bachelor's? Not till we came along). And yet we were raised with an eye toward How Things Were Done. Now - this was sometimes tongue-in-cheek. Dinner served after 7 or 8 PM would elicit the comment "Just like the rich - only the menu is different."

The link to "class" in the US is economic. And strongly linked to education. Dad refers to College as "finishing school." And he's right. But a lot of it also features in what is valued. If you look at some of the larger studies, working class families tend to teach their children that conformity is of utmost importance and that you must obey Authority. Upper class families tend to put more emphasis on curiosity and independence of thought. The veneer is paper thin, but it sticks like glue.

I don't think you can simplify things enough to claim salary is the lone determining factor. My husband grew up quite poor, but in a family that had been quite Upper Crust for centuries. The southern-born officers in the Marine Corps tended to treat him as the impoverished son of aristocracy - utterly unrelated to the other Noncoms he was serving with and a different kettle of fish altogether.

So in sum-uppage: Class in the country is PART how much money you have. And PART how you act and in what company you feel comfortable.
tudorlady
Jan. 2nd, 2008 08:17 pm (UTC)
you can take white trash out of the trailer park, but you cannot take the trailer park out of the white trash

Exactly. I've said this many times.

Proud to be shabby-genteel,
EB
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xntryk
Jan. 2nd, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
Ah, but to have the true discussion of privilege and social rank in America, you also have to turn to the disturbing nature of today's media. Members of the media are an entirely different class of their own -- posing themselves as the "Fourth Estate" (or "Fifth Estate" -- some disagree on each) and putting on airs (Hay thar... I'z importint... I'z on the TayVay!) that glorify publicity and the ability to control the mass media above all else.

Unfortunately, you end up with so many people who want to be media-enhanced and popular, that today's television stations are full of college kids willing to work for butt-cheap, just for the chance that someone at the networks will see them and elevate them to instant stardom. With such a lowest-bidder availability for newsrooms across our country, veterans of journalism are finding themselves out on the street.

The result? Celebrity-laden, information-light, content-free "newscasts" that purport themselves to be the best possible choice for information in the broadcast world today. No wonder so many are turning to the Intarwebz for the unclouded information they seek.

Ah... but that's a whole 'nother discussion.

I will leave it at this -- if you'd truly like to see a strange caste division in America, go somewhere where "newsmakers" are being covered and watch the media. Many are rude, lots are there just as much for the free food as for the story they are covering. After my years on the inside, I am sometimes startled by the ferocity of such hungry young folks. But not that surprised.
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duchesspadr
Jan. 2nd, 2008 07:42 pm (UTC)
I agree with your comment about the blue collar class. I grew up in a blue collar family, and while were were certainly not "rich", we weren't poor, either. We were comfortable in terms of money, but i always felt like i was of a lower class than others, even than that of my classmates, who were also blue collar. Even within a class, there are distinctions.
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sarahbellem
Jan. 2nd, 2008 07:39 pm (UTC)
I see your point, and I will say that having observed English attitudes towards class and privilege in their natural habitat, I agree. As an American, quasi-living in England for a time, there were times I felt as though I had stepped into a Jane Austen novel, hearing of dinner invitiations from the Manor On Yonder Hill. Being an American, and therefore devoid of any pretention to importance in anyone other than myself, it was amusing to see the self-deprication, the condencention (in the literal sense of the word) and the general excitement involved in being asked to have dinner with what appeared to me as some guy who owned a big house.

You don't get that in America. I can't even fathom an instance here where you'd see someone giddy over the prospect of having lunch with a Rockefeller (the closest equivillent I could come up with to a gentry surname in American terms). Even the fact that I'm personally blood related to U.S. Grant and the Rooseveldt clan, and can trace my ancestry back to the 12th Century Low Lands, and had a forefather who was an ambassador to QEI and ruled Holland... Pfft. Big deal! Doesn't make for anything other than a mildly boring anecdote.

In short, amen. We have socio-economic rankings here, but they ain't anything like the class/caste system, even in modern day England. Not by a long shot.

Edited at 2008-01-02 07:50 pm (UTC)
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kass_rants
Jan. 2nd, 2008 07:39 pm (UTC)
Once upon a time, I thought I wasn't every American. I'd never been out of the country, but I was certain that I couldn't love Monty Python and Dr. Who this much and really be a Yank.

And then I lived in Japan for a year. The first thing I noticed is that they can't do anything they want, be anything they want. Women can't really have careers because everyone expects them to quit when they get married. And no amount of protesting or evidence to the contrary would convince employers elsewise.

That's when I realised I was an American. I couldn't tolerate the idea of being restricted to my parents' class. I couldn't tolerate the idea of being restricted at all. I really hate being told what to do and, well, my home culture wasn't doing that. So I guess I must be a damn Yank after all! Hee hee hee.

But I wish I wish I wish we were a society based on intellect (and the development of that intellect) rather than money or class or anything else. I really do. I think it would be a better world.
attack_laurel
Jan. 3rd, 2008 11:17 am (UTC)
I do, too. Education is valued, but not valued enough. In part I blame the idea of celebrity and the feeling that athletes and movie stars are somehow better than scientists and artists, but I think it is in part the idea that everyone should be equal taken too far. Anyone can become famous, but being truly intelligent takes work. :)
wakeupmagy
Jan. 2nd, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)
some of those rich people wouldn't know good taste if it bit them on the bum

Agreed and so sad, but true. I see it first-hand with my sister's in-laws. We fondly refer to them as Nouveau Redneck. (they aren't new at being rednecks, but very new at being rich) Just because you can afford it does NOT mean you should buy it.
isabelladangelo
Jan. 2nd, 2008 09:55 pm (UTC)
Just to add to this discussion in an off shoot sorta way:
http://apnews.excite.com/article/20080102/D8TU0EH00.html
quatrefoil
Jan. 2nd, 2008 11:51 pm (UTC)
The American singer Kristina Olsen said while on tour in Australia 'the difference between America and Australia is that America was founded by a group of religious fundamentalists, and Australia was founded by a bunch of convicted criminals and Australia's ended up with a much freer society'. I think there's a certain amount of truth to that. I'm a citizen of both Britain and Australia, and I know that in Australia, despite wealth equating to a certain amount of power, there is a real meritocracy. To count in this society you have to stand up and be counted. I don't have a background of either wealth or breeding, but I've been able to work for prestigious national organisations, influence members of parliament, make a difference to public policy, and have my voice heard in public debate. While Australia isn't quite the classless society it's sometimes presented as, it's still a society where money and connections are much less important than what you actually do.
odettedamboise
Jan. 4th, 2008 02:14 pm (UTC)
I have always said the US was founded by people who were so uptight that England threw them out.
cathgrace
Jan. 3rd, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC)
sorry it's long, that's why I didn't post yesterday.....
I thought I would comment here rather then your most recent post because I didn’t want to open up something that was sort of moved past. The interesting thing for me is I have very closely seen the class system in the US alive and well, and having very little to do with money or education, so I feel like I really can understand what you mean (I hope.) Being in the military first as enlisted, and then as officers, I have really been able to see the distinct divisions that have been created by the two sects. The enlisted most frequently have beer and BBQ / potluck parties; where there are paper plates and children running amuck (now I’m not saying those parties can’t be fun.) But most of the officer parties are wine and cocktail parties where there is catering and one is asked to get a sitter. The distinction is purely self-imposed by each group, the enlisted have their own blue-collar snobbery about intentionally being lower class so as to not be mistaken for putting on airs, and the officers have mentally absorbed a “bloodline” equivalent in the heritage of being an officer and a gentleman. There are those enlisted people that just don’t fit the mold, and they are ostracized as snobs, and then there are the slightly white trash officers that everyone just sort of patently ignores as “new money”

I also grew up with my best friend being the daughter of a lawyer and a homemaker, they have the most beautiful Tudor style home ever, it’s about 12,000 sq ft (we had our wedding reception there), it’s in the US but on 14 acres of what had been a tree nursery, with 7 large ponds and waterfalls, a stable, a barn, a pool house, and guest cottage. They did have some money but the most important thing was their family, in the state we were from they were the shit, they came from mayors and historical society founders. Mrs Daines is the classiest women I have ever met; she had been a ballerina for the New York Ballet and had a mass of jet black hair, the way she moves is always with such purpose, and everything in her environment from her morning velour tracksuits to her hunter green damask wallpaper, is designed to compliment her quiet beauty. Her home is the epitome of taste blending European antiques with livable and eclectic style. Mr Daines (who looks a little like Rex Harris) is a lawyer that has a hearing problem that required a hearing aid, and caused a slight lisp that made him sound very upper class. He is widely known to be a shoe in for governor if he wanted to run, but feels that he wouldn’t want to (as of yet) move his family into that circle and is happily the president of the UT bar association instead. He owns 2 banks in town and has revitalized “Old Main” in Logan UT by heading the committee that is restoring all the city buildings back to their Victorian glory. They ooze class, their children have married into other classy (frequently wealthy too) families and everyone is either a doctor or a lawyer, their oldest son who tragically died before I met them, (adding to the quiet dignity of the family) name was Newell the 3rd and the other kids had the slightly eccentric names of Micah, Gabrielle, Marjolaine, Emerie, and Rex. We were friends because my mother was head girl of her private school in S.Africa and my father was British from a decent connected family with a posh accent (really posh not like posh spice) And we all got on fairly well, misbehavior as children wasn’t tolerated in either family, and living with quality antiques was expected to be done comfortably and without mishap (no stickers or pen on the furniture children.) I am of the opinion that most Americans are not aware of the class distinctions that do exist, because they are not privy to the really top ones, not the Stars or the new money, but the old families that avoid fame as a nuisance and unnecessary to who they are, they all know who each other are and couldn’t give a fuck if you know. I have always been a little fringe with those groups because I never had the long line of quality American blood in me, but I can play nice with them and have learned that the level of education, or the amount of money is redundant to these people as compared to just BEING classy, they wouldn’t know how to not be that way, it’s who they are.
( 34 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )

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