On occasion, dinner conversation can get somewhat, er, sticky at my home. The fact that my husband is Danish (meaning Danish first, Scandinavian second, and European third) and I am American accounts for rather diverse points of view on many topics, not the least of which is history. Although he can be quite easily amazed and offended by my appalling lack of knowledge of European history, it doesn’t bother him in the least that he (and I daresay most people living on the European side of the Big Pond) knows very little about American history, nor does he wish to know. Aside from its recent prominence in the world (usually seen in a negative light), the United States is a fairly new phenomenon, therefore those from around here tend to see Americans as little more than large, friendly children, culturally speaking.
Back to the dinner conversation. Somehow the subject of social classes was brought up, perhaps in relation of table manners or something equally banal. He made the point that “everybody in America comes from the lower class (as in working class) anyway, so there is not really any upper class there. The rich became rich but they weren’t that way to begin with,” and other thoughts along these lines. At the time, I was in no mood to rebut this argument, so I let it go. Today, however, I have been pondering this idea of social classes in the light of history. It is 2012, and most of us reading and writing these blogs live in the ‘first’ world, meaning modern, technologically advanced society. No matter how much money we have or do not have in the bank or under the mattress, I would presume that most of us bloggers and readers are educated, read books (or the internet, at least), keep up (more or less) with the news of the world at large, and have well-formed opinions about Life, our personal lives, the world which we inhabit, art, culture, music, civil society in general, as well as the Future and what we think about it. So I must ask: does social class have a role in our daily lives in the year 2012?
Earlier today I perused a large book belonging to my husband, entitled Beyond Impressionism, The Naturalist Impulse in European Art 1860-1905. This book is full of beautiful, extraordinarily realistic paintings by well-known European and Scandinavian artists from this period. What they all had in common was the ability to paint the people around them in amazing detail, capturing their expressions, their essences, and their daily lives. The majority of their subjects were the ‘simple folk,’ meaning peasant farmers and workers, families, and, yes indeed, the ‘lower classes.’ In other words, poor people. I think that most of us in 2012 hardly ever consider the fact that only a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago or so, the vast majority of us were peasants, farmers, and otherwise ‘lower classes.’
Not all of us, of course! The luckier among us had more wealth, and therefore more status, the wealthiest having the most prestige. In our day and age, even the poorest among us in the western world are rich compared with world standards of poverty. Most likely, none of us westerners can truly understand what it would be like to live in a cardboard hut with a mud floor somewhere in Asia or Africa, for example. That kind of poverty is simply beyond our comprehension by now. And yet.
When I look at these paintings from the rural areas of Europe in the late 1800s, I see clearly the effects of poverty in the way the people in the pictures carry themselves, the look on their faces, the stories written upon their souls. Our modern society has changed so dramatically during the past century, that if someone from that time was transported through time into today, they would be absolutely astounded. Today in Denmark, for example, the farmers are few and far between, and those who were once peasants have now evolved into denizens. Extreme poverty no longer exists here. Though of course there are still levels of wealth, in many ways the Danes have made their world much more equal for all people: the old class system is practically gone by now in theory, at least. And what of that large land across the Pond, America? What do the terms High Class and Low Class mean to us anymore?
Am I a low class person if my table manners are less than perfect? Does anyone even know what the term ‘good breeding’ means anymore? Are these concepts even relevant to our lives now, I wonder. Our culture is changing so quickly, only the young seem to be able to easily adapt. Kids in the school I am working at come with their iphones and I guess they would feel lost without them. We sat in a circle this morning, and I told them how lucky they are, to be able to know so much about the world in an instant, due to the internet. And how, when I was their age, this was not the case because we did not yet have the internet! I doubt that any of them had ever considered this fact before. We take so much for granted in our world now. We have a kind of collective amnesia, and no longer realize our links to the past or its importance to our present, and also to our future.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the majority of Europeans and Americans believed in God, and prayed to God, and went to church. In a way, it was necessary that they did this. Not simply because it was expected or because so much fear was instilled into them, but also because many people had such a difficult time of life, working and working until they one day finally laid down and died, that they had a real need to believe in a heavenly father and the heavenly host to help them in their lives. People have a basic need to believe in something greater than themselves, something greater than only what they can know through their senses and through learning on this physical plane. By now, fewer and fewer of us are still regular church-goers, and the kind of divinity people believe in has shifted dramatically. We now speak of ‘ Spirit’ and “Love” and ‘the Beyond” instead of using the word “God.” Some, like many people in Denmark, can no longer even bring themselves to speak openly about God or pray. Whatever it is they believe in has become a very inward experience for them, and they simply don’t have rituals or practices in their daily lives to express any kind of spirituality at all.
What have we become? Whereas we were once poor peasants, working in the fields and on the farms, praying to God for some kind of salvation from our earthly woes, we have now become technology-dependent worker drones who no longer pray to a higher power but instead worship shopping for useless material objects, allowing the media masters to spoonfeed us poison of every kind and accepting it as a good life. Dear Readers, I must shake my head at the utter absurdity of this world we have created for ourselves. Maybe we no longer have to live by the sweat of our brows, no longer live in such financial dire straits, but instead we have traded it for an absolute dearth of cultural wealth. Our class struggle has become one between those who have knowledge of Life, Art, Freedom, Wisdom, and Beauty, and those who do not. In my humble opinion, whether I have excellent table manners or not does not determine what class of human being I am, nor does the balance in my bank account. But, whether I have ever heard Beethoven, or seen Greek sculpture and architecture, whether I can distinguish between a really fine work of art from the Renaissance and a painting of soup cans which someone once called Art, whether I can read a poem by John Keats and understand its beauty, compared with the latest song lyrics from you-name-them-rapper-dudes: these examples and a thousand more are what can separate those who might have once been said to have class, or be in an upper class of society, from those who do not.
It no longer has to do with having money or not, or which strata of society one was raised in, but about having a sense of the valuable in the world. What do we value as human beings? That is one of the largest questions of the times. What are we teaching our children, our students, all the young people as a whole, to deem worthy of their time, energy and enthusiasm? How can we build a more perfect and beautiful future world, if we simply ignore and forget all the lessons from our past?
It seems likely that we need new words and concepts to describe people’s behaviour in society, no longer in terms of high or low, working or idle, as in the past; but in terms of value, of worthy of emulating, knowing, or being. We need to do this because it is important to think not only of our immediate, but also our distant, future. During the Renaissance, I imagine there were not so many people thinking about how or even if the art and architecture they were making would last. (A few wise souls did, however, to our great benefit.) Yet what they created has lasted hundreds of years already, and if the planet doesn’t go up in smoke before long, their cultural masterworks will hopefully endure far into the future. This is because the masters of that epoch knew what was valuable, what was beautiful, what was important. They honored humanity and connected it with divinity in sublime ways. Imagine how our world could be in the future if we were to take up that same spirit of connection between the human and the spiritual worlds in our time. Some people are doing this, and creating amazing works of art, of architecture, building creations which may well last into future days. However they are few in number and in vision when compared to the vast majority.
What will our world look like in a hundred years’ time? In 500? What, if anything, from our present culture, such as it is, will endure the test of time? May we be able to learn and preserve what was great from the past, while remembering what was despairing, in order to create a beautiful, valuable future.
- Social Class and Well-being (drhiphop85.com)
- Some Notes on Globalization and Class Struggle – Latin America, Europe and Asia (bravenewworld.in)
- Yes, the Rich Are Different…Or At Least We Think So According to New Pew Report (drhiphop85.com)