Friday, September 26, 2008

CLASS WAR

Middle class people don’t like talking about class, as I’ve noticed. Maybe because the middle class is often so large that you can easily choose to dismiss the lower and upper classes as “exceptions”.

Even I, who have been (in a slightly naïve way, I should say) making a big effort to display solidarity with the lower classes, recently realised that I had been very self-righteous about it.

My mum originally comes from “true” working class, where for generations the rule has been that single mothers bring up all their children alone on their meagre earnings while the fathers are absent and/or alcoholics. Her mum and her grandma were both cleaners or worked in factories. My dad was middle class – his mum worked in a store and his dad was a cartographer. They also had terrible problems at home, but they are still married today.
As I grew up, my family went through several “class shifts”, from lower middle class when I was born and my dad worked in the tyre factory and mum stayed at home as a housewife and textile artist; to upper middle class when I was in my lower teens, when dad had advanced to a CEO position in the tyre company; and down to working class when I was in high school and my parents divorced, leaving me, mum and our animals to rely on her low income as as a cleaner and waitress in hotels and restaurants and her unemployment compensation in the off-season months.

Back when we had a lot of money, I never really realised it, because our parents never made a big deal of it. We were put in the same average schools like everyone else, and we had the most embarrassing clothes in class until we got old and somewhat self-confident enough to fight for the right to choose our own clothes.

In hindsight it still becomes blatantly obvious what materially privileged lives me and my sister had as we were growing up. We travelled abroad on vacations, we could buy plenty of books and stuff with our pocket money, we lived in a nice apartment and had our own rooms, mum bought nice clothes and stuff for herself, dad always had plenty of expensive alcohol at hand, and due to dad’s work we had moved a few times to live in different countries and cities. We had certainly seen more – or at least different – things than most of the other kids in class.

When I “became working class” with mum during high school, I had to face people getting very quiet in some kind of pity and embarrassment if I mentioned that my mum was unemployed (they had been asking about my parents because they assumed that someone as talented as me must have interesting parents, and apparently unemployment made it impossible to be interesting), or feel bewildered when people complimented me on how creative I was that I’d sewn my prom dress myself, although that had nothing to do with creativity: there was no money to buy or rent a dress, but we did have a sewing machine, and, well, I’d learned enough in textile arts class to be able to use it to make a simple dress.
Having leftist sentiments already, I not only had solidarity with the “lower classes”, but I felt like I was working class myself.
Which wasn’t really true, of course. Although mum had her roots, and we lived in a small and cheap summer house in the middle of nowhere, that house was full of remains of more wealthy days – fancy porcelain, crystal glasses, silverware etc., nice furniture and carpets, loads of books, a computer. If we weren’t middle class anymore, we still weren’t working class, either. More like some kind of weird boheme/intelligentsia, who just happened to be poor at the moment.

One day I read in the local weekly newspaper about a program for 9th and 10th graders in a Berlin Hauptschule called “Windows on America”, a kind of cultural exchange where high school students visit the USA for two weeks, staying in host families and learning about the country. While the program in itself is kind of interesting from an ideological point of view, promoting a positive view on the USA among poor students, often from Muslim and immigrant background, the article also put a spotlight on the fact that the German educational system is blatantly upholding a class system.

After 6th grade, students continue to one of three possible schools: Hauptschule – vocational school, leading to blue collar workers/working class, Realschule – which leads to white collar workers/clerks/middle class, and Gymnasium – which leads to university and whatever path you choose there – maybe upper class if you’re not stupid and study humanities or arts or something “useless” like that. There is a theoretical possibility to fight for a Gymnasium degree even when you start out in one of the other schools, but that is pretty much only in theory, since it is quite obvious what you become – what you are – the moment you start 7th grade.

In this article it is stated black on white that students in Hauptschule already come from low-income backgrounds: “‘Windows on America’ is the name of the program, which in fact is not made for the normally in many different ways supported Gymnasium students, but for students in Hauptschule, for whom travelling abroad is usually already due to financial reasons unaccessible. […] ‘For these youths it’s really a special experience. Many of them could never afford such a trip otherwise. Unlike many Gymnasium students, they haven’t been all over with their parents on vacations.’”

Maybe I’m kind of stupid, because this article was a really shocking read. I got very angry and wondered how the hell this system can be tolerated, and how the liberals here can claim that “everyone gets the same chances, and if they don’t make it it’s only due to personality or not trying hard enough”. When it’s apparently such a self-evident non-issue that if you are in Hauptschule, you come from a poorer family, and if you are in Gymnasium, you come from a wealthier family.

In an info box next to the article there is mention of the program’s management, among others “… Janine C. White, who with her Turkish, French and German roots sees herself as the result of successful integration.”
I’ll bet you five bucks that Ms. White’s parents (“Turkish, French and German” to what exact percentages, I wonder?) did not live in the ghetto all their lives and work their asses off in a grocery store or a falafel stand, as cleaners, taxi drivers and periodically unemployed. I bet she had a “mixed” or “atypical” background quite similar to mine, which is NOT a result of “successful integration”, but an anomaly created by unusual circumstances.
In this Janine C. White I saw a mirror image of my own delusioned self, pretending to be of classic working class and of classic immigrant background and on one hand vainly making myself “different” among other white university-schooled professionals, and on the other hand also promoting myself as a “good example” of how you can “make it” (well, kind of, in my case) even when you’re “of working class and immigrant background”.

But if I really want to make a difference I need to be aware of where I myself stand.

"Ein anderes Bild von Amerika" was published in Der Tagesspiegel/Berlin-Mitte on Tuesday, June 3rd.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

10 REASONS YOU AREN'T RICH

Some stupid Finnish-language newspaper that mum reads on the net had published a list of "10 Reasons You Aren't Rich", taken from the US economy magazine The Street.

Mum isn't rich, so she read it out aloud and tried to see if it applied to her. But it occurred to us that this list wasn't about people who are actually poor, but about people who have a high income and pretty good jobs, but squander their income like idiots. I can kind of agree with the point about "You have no goals", but setting goals and following them through can be so much harder depending on your background and other circumstances.

Read the original article by Jeffrey Strain (pictured above left).

...

Now, here are 10 possible reasons for why you aren't rich when you really aren't rich:

1. You don't have enough education or work experience to be qualified for a job that will pay above minimum wage, or one that will even pay minimum wage.

2. You have no access to affordable health care, but you and/or your family are ill, and so, all your earnings go to paying for healthcare.

3. You are discriminated against in the education system, the labour market and society in general due to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, your looks, your name, your class or the area you live in.

4. Neoliberalism and globalisation took your job (and most other jobs you could get) to other countries where labour is cheaper. High unemployment makes it hard to get a job, while the government ignores the actual causes for unemployment and keeps blaming you, the unemployed, and implements all kinds of crazy methods for making unemployment go away on the paper, such as government-subsidized jobs, shifting people from unemployment benefit to welfare instead, or group "job hunting" for unemployed on the internet under surveillance of unemployment office workers.

5. Employers prefer to hire subsidized workers (such as government sponsored "trainees") or teenagers (who do not require good pay or good job conditions) instead of hiring you.

6. You have been born into poverty, making it hard to get a job (no networks, lack of examples or mentor figures to follow, discrimination, self-discrimination); without a job it is hard or impossible to pay for schooling, without a degree, you can't get a good job; without a good job, you can't support your family; and when you are not able to support your family it is, again, hard for them to break out of poverty.

7. Ownership of land in your area is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people who are only interested in enriching themselves - this applies to landowners in agriculture and also landlords who rent out apartments. There may be new agricultural policies in your country, geared towards cash crops and large-scale production in the hands of few, which are denying you the possibility to live off your family's small-scale farm and forcing your country to rely on imported basic foodstuffs.

8. Erosion, desertification, overgrazing, drought or deforestation has taken away your food or means of production, and you don't get enough (or any) help from your government.

9a. The wealthy in your country have shifted their assets to tax havens, or your government gives the wealthy generous tax cuts, depriving your government of tax revenue needed for education, healthcare, pensions and other things that would help fight poverty.

9b. Your government does take in tax revenues, but does not invest it in poverty-alleviating things like education and healthcare.

10. The ones who have superfluous resources still opt to keep them for themselves instead of sharing them with you who have not enough.