Sunday, January 04, 2004

A Working Class Hero

For a couple of years at the end of the 1980s I wrote a weekly column called "Tales" for In Pittsburgh, an alternative weekly. It was a pretty popular column around town, and the particular column reproduced below, "Changing Classes," probably got the most response. There were poignant letters to the editor from women and men who identified with it. I even heard of a young man who read it during his lunch hour at work and had to take the rest of the day off, it had stirred up so much emotion in him.

It's a very Pittsburgh, western Pennsylvania story, but with obvious resonances for people in other places who've grown up in similar circumstances. Class and its particular contemporary American effects aren't much discussed or written about. But some observers are realizing that class trumps even race and gender in its determining impact. That's even more true in the early twenty-first century than it was in the last decades of the twentieth.

It is masked in part by the ubiquitous consumer culture, by the American faith in classlessness many of us grew up with, and by the economically and politically powerful whose interests are protected by ignorance of class. For one thing, in just about any year of the 20th century, that sentence alone would be enough to get you branded a communist. These days the code would be that you're engaging in "class warfare," which amounts to exactly the same thing.

As this piece indicates, class can be subtly cultural as well as economic. When I was growing up, industrial workers were comparatively prosperous. Steelworkers could suddenly afford not only their own homes but maybe a second one, as well as a new car every year, and maybe two. Others who were a generation removed from the mills and the mines before unions were strong (like my father) benefited from the penetration of prosperity, so their lives---our lives---were crossing into the middle class. It was definitely the lower middle class in many instances (ours included) but there was new economic freedom not associated with the immigrant working class of previous generations, or the paradigmatic British working class.

I also happened to be of the generation that had a sudden opportunity to go away to college. It didn't last all that long, but it was possible for awhile without plunging oneself or one's family into massive debt. I also knowingly benefited by the informal version of affirmative action of those years, which was called "geographical distribution" but was also an attempt by colleges to create a little spice if not too much diversity in admissions. I'm sure I got admissions and even a scholarship partly because I didn't fit the profile of their typical applicants.

But then those of us who went away to college or otherwise fostered ambitions we derived more from books and movies and TV than anyone or anything around us came up against the ethnic working class culture hidden within the lower middle class economic status. The culture was much slower to change, and still is, which is not all together a bad thing, but did cause much grief and confusion.

It was many years before I began to realize this. I absorbed the British working class "kitchen sink" films, plays and novels. I read D.H. Lawrence with keen interest. When I was in college, the English working class was a very fashionable source of style, thanks to the Beatles. But except subliminally and tangentially, I didn't really relate the working class part of it to my own experience, not even in 1970 when the raw emotion of Lennon's "Working Class Hero" grabbed at my gut. But the tenets of the working class culture were deep and pervasive, as I began to see when I returned from the eastern cities to western PA.

So at about the time I wrote this column, it was becoming clearer to me what was going on inside me, and what the conflicts and drawbacks were. I had seen enough of Boston and Washington and especially New York---the book business, media, the arts, national politics, etc.---to realize how hampered I was by not understanding middle class and upper middle class cultural attitudes, and not having those skills or those resources to draw on for support, savvy and counsel. When I was fighting for my book---will it be published, will it not?--- as it was buffeted by New York publisher politics, while living in western PA, there was no one to turn to for help or advice in practical matters, and my psychological state was a mystery to everyone, including me.

Part of the paradox always remains: aside from knowing the right things to do and say that middle class kids learn even before their ABCs, in order to hold on and keep going you must believe in yourself. But how can you? Nothing in your background, none of your friends, really believes you can succeed, or maybe even that you should. For some it's just bewilderment. They've heard stories of people from our background succeeding, but they don't know them, and don't know how they did it, except by getting lucky, by winning the lottery so to speak. For others who are more worldly wise in the unspoken class system of America, you're a fool for even dreaming. And those voices are never stilled.

I was beginning to see this part of myself, this part of an experience more common to my generation in western Pennsylvania than I even knew, when I wrote this column.

Tales/Changing Classes/A Working Class Hero is Something To Be

It is in many ways the most powerful theme in the lives of the younger Pittsburgh generations right now, and the most characteristic phenomenon of the changes this city is still going through, yet it remains almost spookily unspoken. Let's call it the phenomenon of changing classes.

Changing classes is the movement from the working class culture to the middle class culture. It isn't often intended to be simply that: it's not social climbing, but a product of vocations aspired to, or of economic necessity. But changing classes is what these other changes inevitably involve.

Although changing classes has been a matter of choice for some, it is especially apparent now because it has been forced on others. With the decline of manufacturing jobs, former mill workers face the choice of dropping down economically or, in trying to move up, of adopting the necessary middle class cultural attitudes. Their children are faced with that same choice.

Working class culture, deeply rooted in western Pennsylvania, stayed strong even after the upward economic movement of industrial workers after World War II, and the accompanying diversification. Even with the more abrupt changes since the 1970s, this city and region are still characterized by economically middle class people living in a mostly working class culture.

This is the culture that Pittsburghers like to brag about, when they describe it as family-oriented, down to earth, day's work for a day's pay, no frills and no nonsense. It means being honest and forthright with others, and not putting on airs or lording it over anyone.

However overstated and cliched, some of these positive elements have been tested recently by this movement away from working class jobs, and there's a certain poignancy about it. If workers wanted factory jobs when local mills closed, they often had to choose moving away, which meant abandoning family and local roots. If they wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, they had to look for new kinds of jobs, which not only required retraining but learning such middle class skills as how to slant a resume and how to say only what job interviewers want to hear. In other words, how to be less than honest and forthright. How to play middle class games.

There are all kinds of other choices they must consider that are so loaded with class feelings and violate so many sacred tenets about belonging to tribal Pittsburgh. Like trying to lose the local accent. Or realizing that hundreds of dollars in clothes and hair styling does not register with the powers-that- be as much as a mouthful of chewing gum.

But before this latest round of workers and their sons and daughters forced to try changing classes (mostly without admitting it, especially to themselves), there were pioneers: the sons and daughters of the working class who confounded their parents, their peers and their culture by trying to become more than their class could comprehend: artists, writers, scholars, or any vocation that so foreign that it is mostly practiced in New York or Los Angeles.

They were the ones most acutely aware of the destructive side of the ideal and often sentimental image of the working class culture. Some of these elements simply don't prepare people for life outside the working class. And some of them are just destructive in themselves, turning vital and sensitive people into emotional cripples.

For someone raised in a working class culture, just paging through a book like Lillian Breslow Rubin's Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family is itself an acutely painful experience. The pain this time is that of recognition.

The working class home, loud voices and smoke, always noisy, always with the television on, rarely with an adequate reading lamp; anyone wanting privacy is considered strange and uppity. Mothers in constant nervous motion, fueled by anxiety, usually about money; beaten down, silent fathers sitting stunned after work. Alcohol abuse in many homes (Rubin found a rate of 40%); loud bickering and wife-beating, treatment of children that at best often qualifies as low-level abuse. Psychiatry is as alien as Buddhism. Through it all, a basic insecurity--one layoff, one big expense away from financial disaster--adding up to a pervasive feeling of helplessness, transmitted from parent to child invisibly and effortlessly.

So what is the result? John Lennon knew: "When they've tortured and scared you for twenty odd years/then they expect you to pick a career/when you can't really function you're so full of fear/ A working class hero is something to be..." There is no better description in all of literature of what it's like than the lyrics of this song.

The effects are most poignant perhaps in the area of education, which traditionally has been the escape route to a bigger if not better life. Although some lip service is paid to it in the early grades, a child who wants an education is threatening. Especially during the heyday of the mills, they were laughed at and discouraged: Why spend all that time and money with books when you have a good lifetime paycheck waiting for you at the plant? And if such notions persisted, particularly if they weren't channeled into something understandable like engineering or dentistry, incomprehension could turn to hostility.

Even now, when it comes time for college, novelist Mary Gordon describes the difference this way: "Those in the middle class get special coaching and have guidance counselors who tell them what to write on their applications. They work with their parents on the application essay. Who are working class kids going to talk to? Are they going to ask their mother who works in K mart how to write a jazzy application that will get them into Amherst?"

If middle class kids show any artistic talent, as Rubin notes, their parents most likely have the knowledge and the inclination to see that they get encouragement and training.

Working class kids are brought up to think of non-representational, non-landscape painting as ridiculous. Literature is beyond comprehension, dance and music are for sissies and snobs. Art isn't gainful employment, and even if it were, they could offer no more guidance or support than they could to Harvard.

For those who persist anyway, and who pursue the arts (including the popular arts, like rock and roll music), there is another rude awakening: the working class culture just doesn't prepare you for dealing with the middle class outside world-- of the entertainment business, for example. You don't know how those people think, and you don't know what their words mean or how to talk to them. You just don't know how things work outside the working class.

It isn't just lack of knowledge; it's an inbred sense of fated failure. When you aren't prepared for middle class machinations, you take your mistakes personally, as further confirmation of what you were always told you were: crazy and worthless. " Working class parents bring up children to think the world is a dangerous place and 'they'll get you,'" Gordon says. "The middle and upper classes assumed that the world is theirs and they should go out and take it." Rubin makes the same point and adds that without the middle class resources to back up plans, thinking of a future different from the present seems so fantastic that it seems insane--or it's just unthinkable altogether. "...the inability to envisage a future...most sharply distinguishes the consciousness of the working class from that of the more privileged classes."

The results are plain to see. As Tillie Olsen points out in her book Silences, it's been barely a century since any children of the working class have become writers. (One of the pioneers, then, was D.H. Lawrence, whose first subject was the working class family conflict brought about by artistic aspirations.) Mary Gordon makes clear an additional local burden: "You don't see a lot of Catholics in American writing, and that's not an accident...That kind of creativity was not valued in the American Catholic Church; it was seen as a threat because it would get you outside the parish, open you to the world and let you think in ways that could be threatening or dangerous."

If you go away, you find yourself in truly alien territory without a compass, shelterless. If you stay, your efforts seem so strange they become invisible, or at best get the characteristic reaction, "Well, it's different"--the curse wrapped up in a compliment.

Yet if you have aspirations, if you've pursued your talent, you are no longer just a member of your own working class culture. Your aspirations have changed you. And everybody in the working class culture knows it, which may account for its mixed attitudes towards the achievement and fame of its own sons and daughters. Actor Michael Caine recently bought the plush London home where his mother once worked as a cleaning lady. What do the working class neighbors of his childhood think of his riches now? "They think it's great." But what did they say when he told them he wanted to be an actor? "They said, 'Who do you think you are?'"

"Who do you think you are?" That is the heart of the matter. When you're changing classes, but you carry the working class culture inside you, it is a question that dogs you like the hounds of hell.