Monday, July 30, 2007

Is Richistan seceding?

"Richistan" has all the trappings of a new blogging buzzword. It's snarky, a bit cloying, contrived and unabashedly neologistic. Like many bits of the blogger lexicon, "Richistan" is the title of a book. It's a dependable marketing strategy because as any circulation of the word is free press for the book. And, there it is - blogging, though vaunted as an alternative to the mainstream media, is structured at the very level of vocabulary by the big publishing houses and the corporate media that does much of the pushing in the market. But this article isn't about "Richistan" the newly minted catchphrase. It's about Richistan the place.

The use of a geographic metaphor is apt. In summarizing the lifestyles of the multi-millionaire second estate documented in Robert Frank's book, Paul Harris of the Observer writes:

a huge bubble of multi- millionaires lives almost in a parallel world of private education, private health care and gated mansions. They have their own schools and banks. They even travel apart - creating a booming industry of private jets and yachts.
And I would ad to that that they work separate jobs and tend to socialize with people of similar income. The wealthiest members of our society, for large portions of their lives, occupy spacially distinct social compartments that serve to reinforce class separation by ensuring that the rich and poor have few avenues by which to bond. Suburban secessionists pull their families and funds away from flagging inner cities and class apartheid is normalized through educational districting and zoning laws. We can all probably think of a few places - restaurants, schools, neighborhoods - that we think of being predominantly used by (or available only to) people of a certain class.

If we compared the schedules of rich, poor and middle-class in the US, we'd certainly find spacial differentials along the lines of: hours spent inside a social service, hours spent at a public health centers, number of trips to restaurants and grocery stores (and which ones?), and certainly many others.

And this leads to a question that has always puzzled me - why aren't social conservatives more concerned about class issues? I don't accept the answer that most conservatives, or even a substantial of conservatives, just "don't believe" in what they say. But once we grant the reality of their convictions one would have to note that the emerging American caste system leaves few avenues for social participation for the poor, and almost no avenues for cross-class mingling. Anyone who takes a serious concern to the moral character of the country should be wondering how we can expect to find common values amongst people who never eat together, work together or live together. People whose radically different experiences and day-to-day schedules leave them with few shared frames of reference, figures of speech or experientially tested principles - the very informal social cues, lore and vernacular from which more cognizable political and moral values emerge.

Throughout this piece I've compared the US class structure to apartheid, secessionism and the caste system. Some would object that these are too extreme, but I invite them to reflect on the specific manner in which those divisive classificatory sociopolitical practices impede conversation, and even mutual comprehensibility, between citizens. The idea that equal opportunity could ever be enough to hold a society so stratified together seems naive when consider the profound impacts of spatial separation on less tangible social codes. The separatist leanings of "Richistan" further demonstrates the impossibility of reconciling unity with inequality.

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