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Socialist Social Snobbery

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Excerpt from The Trees Were Singing by Richard Marcus; Unpublished, 2005 p.19-20:

At first, he would simply duck his head or avert his eyes in hopes of avoiding the scorn and derision of his father and older brothers. It was even worse if his sisters or mother came to his defence. Then there would be the hoots of “girly” and “maybe he should just stay in the kitchen with the hens.”

So he learned how to be a proper guy. You hung out and talked of stuff. Stood in the shed and drank beer; talked about cars, motors, and sports. Told dirty jokes, complained about work, people who weren’t there, the government, and anything different was wrong and to be stamped out or ridiculed. This was his world so he had to fit or be lost. There was nothing else, was there?

The women gathered around the kitchen table, coffee, tea, and beer in hands, dissecting the lives of family members and neighbours with the knives of Christian piety, propriety, and white trash vindictiveness. Adhering to some old code of behaviour that dictated the segregation of the sexes, only coming together for meals, they played roles that had long lost any meaning.

In some ways I lived a very typical upper middle-class, liberal life in my formative years. Put aside the sexual abuse and you would have said my family’s main distinction from those of the people I went to school with were their politics and sense of social justice. (Which is what makes the sexual abuse even more of a betrayal, but that’s another story for another day.)

My parents were both die-hard supporters of the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.), Canada’s equivalent of Britain’s Labour party. This meant I grew up in a house where equality was taken for granted and tolerance was preached across the dining room table. We worshiped the Canadian trinity of social justice: The Canada Health Act, which guaranteed Universal Medical care, The Canada Welfare Act that guaranteed nobody would do without, and the great myth of racial equality in Canada.

My father belonged to the intellectual wing of the party. These were the people who understood the theory behind supporting the rights of workers and unions, but would never want to spend any time amongst them. It was an attitude he inherited from his poor-as-church-mice but ever so proper parents. You don’t mix with the hired help. For all his social justice beliefs, he was still more concerned with looking “proper” (the ironies are amazing when you remember the man was a rapist) than anything else.

I never lacked for anything as a kid in the way of food or shelter or material needs. Material wants were a different story, as my mother believed that I should learn the value of goods by always having to contribute money to the purchase of any item I wanted. All in all, I lived a pretty sheltered existence, seeing how only a small percentage of my society lived.

That didn’t change when I went out into the world after University and began working in theatre. I switched from one sheltered environment to another. It was a much smaller community of professional theatre people in Toronto back in the 1980s than it is now. The mega musicals hadn’t hit the city yet and it was still the preserve of the minority.

It wasn’t until I met my wife that I became aware of a whole different world. I was astounded the first time I attended one of her family’s functions and pretty much witnessed the scene described in the paragraphs that opened this article.

My wife was the only woman who was sitting with men in the living room of her uncle’s house. The other women were being conducted by her aunt in the orchestration of serving, preparing, and ensuring a steady supply of beer to the men.

Tables were laden with plates of cold cuts, processed cheeses, macaroni salads, jello salads; a cornucopia of blandness the likes of which I had never seen before. I had thought that once the food was transferred from the kitchen to the table around which we all were seated that the segregation would come to an end and everyone would be together.

Nope, in fact I don’t think I saw one of the women eat, let alone sit down with husband or boyfriend. They were all back in the kitchen hunkered in around the coffee urn, filling the air with cigarette smoke and the drone of their conversation. I looked around at the men I was sitting with and none of them seemed to act as if anything was out of the ordinary.

I caught my wife’s eye, she smiled a slight smile from where she was sitting with her dad and I could see her mentally shrugging. I felt like I had stepped into a black hole where the world was stuck in the forties and fifties and equality between the sexes was something that had never happened. It was Steven Harper’s idea of traditional family values down to the last detail.

As we were walking home that night, I turned to my wife after we had only traveled a block and asked her how she had survived growing up in that environment. She laughed, shook her head, and answered my question by saying she had as little to do with the family as possible.

Her dad and his two brothers had grown up near Golden Lake, Ontario in a rural farming community. The family homestead didn’t have indoor plumbing until well into the sixties and electrical service came in at around the same time. He had been sent to live with his aunt at a young age because his mother had been institutionalized and his father had run off. At fifteen, he and his two younger brothers moved on down to Kingston.

The youngest brother was placed with a family that raised him and he eventually married one of the daughters, while both my wife’s dad and the next in age tried to make a go of it as musicians. They both married young and gave up their music for their first wives until their first wives gave up on them.

Out at the homestead, when it was farming season, the men would be working in the fields from dawn until dusk. The women of the family would prepare their meals for them as a simple division of labour, and that’s just the way things were done. It had been done like that back in the Frissen Islands where the family came from, and it was continued on here.

But the logic for that type of division of labour vanishes when you get into the city. Men and women are working equally at jobs these days, getting up and going to work at the same time everyday. Why then does this behaviour continue to exist among so many women?

The occasional individual like my wife won’t be content to sit in the kitchen, and she’s looked on as some sort of freak. But as she says, what do I have to say to a bunch of women whose interests don’t extend beyond the wall of their kitchen? Indeed, what does any woman of my generation or younger have to say, or have in common with them?

The answer to why comes from what you saw when you were growing up. I saw and heard people talking about equality. My mother had a university degree and went back to school to get another degree while I was in high school. I’m considered the academic failure because I didn’t finish my university education, leaving after second year to go work in the theatre.

In my wife’s family, she’s a rarity in that not only did she graduate from high school, but also she went on to community college to get degrees and diplomas in an attempt to accomplish something and learn a little more about what lay beyond the boundaries of her world. As far as women in her family go, she was the first one to have a post-secondary education.

We’re not talking about a developing country or the 1930s; we’re talking about Kingston, Ontario, Canada, circa 1980. We talk about the opportunities denied women in other countries because of their inability to get an education when we’re missing the fact that those same conditions exist here in a so-called developed nation.

How many thousands and millions of women across North America are still being conditioned to believe it is their role in life to serve men? People below a certain level of income don’t believe that they can ever obtain any type of education beyond high school because the costs are just too high. How many men from the same backgrounds are in the same position?

When people are unable to be exposed to new ideas, they won’t grow and our society will stagnate. We are leaving people behind at an alarming rate as across fees for North American universities are rising. It’s becoming more and more difficult to raise the funds necessary to attend.

I grew up in a cloistered environment where social justice was idealized but was also a type of snobbery. Never having experienced the effects of generations of poverty or witnessing the effects it has on people, my initial reactions to it was to judge and find the people wanting.

But it is society that is wanting in that we have allowed them to slip through the cracks. By denying people access to the means to improve their lots in life and by stealing the hope from generation after generation, our society has created the permanent underclass we sneeringly call “White Trash.”

If we continue to dangle the opportunities offered to everybody else out of their reach, and if we continue along this path of higher education becoming a privilege, we continue to hold segments of our society in stasis and encourage the intolerance we preach against.

Perhaps it is time for all of us to climb out of the ivory towers that we use as our speakers’ platforms and protection from the messiness of reality. If we truly value equality and tolerance then there are no excuses anymore for not climbing down from the artificial heights of snobbery and social elitism.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • “If we truly value equality and tolerance then there are no excuses anymore for not climbing down from the artificial heights of snobbery and social elitism.”

    And therein lies the “why” of it all. If one has to come down from the ivory tower, then one might realize what a horrible world it really is for others — and more importantly, one might feel an overwhelming need to do something about it in order to abate one’s overwhelming sense of guilt. It’s so much easier to remain aloft, high above (both figuratively and literally) the stench and decay that is so often the state of poverty.

    The general mentality of those up there who doing nothing for others is selfish, myopic, and dangerous. The truly incorrigible, more so even than those who have been privileged their entire lives, are those who used to be poor and who still turn their backs. For whatever reason, they are able to distance themselves enough from any visual reminder of their own potentially empathizing experiences such that they feel no obligation toward their fellow (poor) human being.

    While those up there may say they don’t feel and would never feel some sense of responsibility for those below, it’s worth noting why they stay up there. There’s way more to it than physical comfort and material wealth:
    If I don’t have to live with it (see it, smell it, sleep on it, eat it, send my kids to school in it, wear it, and breathe it) then I don’t have to deal with it, address it, or resolve it. It’s not my problem. I’m not reminded of my own pains. I’ve worked hard and pulled myself up from down there. Never mind how much I would have appreciated the least helping hand so as to have gotten here twenty years earlier, maybe even being able to have brought my own children out of it rather than now only seeing my grandchildren coming out of it. I’m finally warmed, fed, comfortable, and safe. That’s it for me.

    Just try to make sure none of these “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine” types (well to do and formerly poor alike) aren’t around when you’re in a car wreck, trip down a flight of stairs, or are choking on a bite of food in public.
    It’s not their problem.

  • RedTard

    Did you ever consider that “those people” may enjoy their lives. Why do you feel the need to look down on others and create more class hatred where less existed? Does everyone need to place their values where you do?

    Maybe they don’t need you to save them from their own lives. I’ve lived among rural poor, inner city ghettos, and middle to upper middle class neighborhoods and I can tell you the rural poor gave off the impression of being most content with their lives, with middle class in second, and the city poor with a seeming chip on their shoulder. (the message of class hatred gets more airtime there)

    To the price of college, most community colleges are unbelievably cheap in my area (some counties you go for free if you graduated high school there) and if you stay in this state the credits transfer to the big universities who also have fairly reasonable in state tuition. The only way it could be any easier is if you were being paid to go.

    A recurring theme in my political experience is this desire by socialists to use the government to force everyone to think, act, and place their values as they do. If people are content with their family barbecue and beer swills behind the trailer and they aren’t hurting anyone who the hell are you to try and tell them they need to change?

  • RedTard

    Diana, I don’t think you have anything to worry about climbing down from the artifical heights of snobbery, you are well entrenched. It’s good though that you have decided to come to the window of the ivory tower and show yourself as a self serving measure to alleviate your guilt. That’s what poor people need another elitist snob using them for self gratification.

  • I’m kind of curious about the ethnic background of Richard’s wife’s family and whether they were recent immigrants. Here in the US you didn’t find this kind of gender segregation even among the poor in the 20th century, except among certain immigrant groups.


  • Dave, interesting question and observation, and not one I had given too much thought too. Her father’s family were from the Frissen Isalnds, which is Dutch/German extraction, and that’s the side of the family I’m refering too.

    Now, like I said I hadn’t seen this behaviour until I moved to Kingston either, and I have some Orthadox Jews on my Mother’s side of the family who don’t segragate as much as these people do.

    But from what I’ve seen it’s not unique to her dad’s family, and I here people in this town commenly refer to women gathering in kitchens as Hen parties. I think the behaviour has it’s roots in the rural/farming communities like I described earlier, but I’m not sure either.

    You know how my sensitive bleeding heart hate to make generalizations, but it really seems to be a common behaviour among people who come from the less urban centres in Eastern Ontario. The majority of the working class in this part of the world are the descendants of poor Irish labour that came over in the 1830’s to dig the Rideau Canal from the St. Lawrence River to Ottawa.

    In this part of the world the upper classes were all those who had been loyal to the crown in the American war of Independance, and for their troubles were given massive amounts of land along the water ways (main source of transportation)

    When the waves of poor Irish immagrints showed up here during the famine years they found their usual Lords and Master already installed, and that things were’nt much different here than at home. Except for the soil sucked for growing potatos becasue there was so much clay in it.

    This isn’t helping explain the male/female segregation thing is it? I say it’s just a hang over from the farming days(some of my wife’s family still have working farms up at the homestead)

    The only other guess I can even try to make is that the poor workers might have been imitating the British nobility habit of the women leaving the men after dinner, so the men can have their ciggars and port, but in their case it’s whiskey and cigarettes.

    I’d always just accepted it as something that happened here, and never gave the ethnic root much thought. That’s a really good point though Dave, I’m going to talk to my wife about it. The thing is her dad’s family had been here for at least two generations before him.


  • lumpy

    my grndfather used to make anyone under 12 eat in the barn with the pigs and chickens.

  • There are very strong elements of this segregation in Anglo immigrant cultures – I saw it in the Australia in which I grew up and lived until around a decade ago (both working class and middle class). It is also quite evident from the glimpses I get into traditional working-class lives on the council estate on which I live in central London. Men talk football; women talk children.

    As for just leaving the culture as it is, the problem is that the people it produces are very poorly equipped, or not equipped at all, to function in the modern world – to get and keep jobs, to deal with bureaucracies (form-filling etc) – and that is an enormous waste of talent.

  • nugget

    ohmahgosh you guys sound like that TOOL Thomas Friedman!

    (in an automaton voice) “Everyone must have lexus. Everyone must eat at Chic-fil-a 3 times a week. Everyone must have smile on face and listen to Beatles.”


  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Richard, in writing a piece about the Canadian class system, you should note for American readers that it differs considerably from the American class system.

    Because it does. I got a small dose of this at Canadian restaurants in the late ’70’s when my ex and I made a cross continental trip – spending a lot of time in Canada.

    That said, does it really matter if your in-laws choose to segregate themselves by sex? Are they happy? Both the men and the women?

  • Earl

    I didn’t think Canadians smoked.

    I did a bit of growing up around my relatives up in Northern Michigan. It was very rural, Grandma spoke only Czech and a few choice english curses. The women worked hard in town, kept house. The men worked at the cement plant, fished, drank, smoked and they played cards with the women. Winters were long and cold. The kids went to school, played sports, and worked summer jobs at grocery stores or soda fountains.

    Grandma was cooking breakfast one morning back in 30’s, laid down on the kitchen floor and out popped her 14th child. Right there (that’s the stuff family legends are made of).

    T.V. reception sucked. Some relatives had indoor plumbing (some). Jack Nickolaus was the king, along with stars from the Detroit Lions and the Tigers.

    One summer my sister and cousin went to the Venetian festival and won 2 ducks at a ring toss. They came home, made up a little cubby in the mud room. The next morning as my uncle and I prepared for a day of fishing, Grandma came out to put some wood in the kitchen stove, walked out to the mud room, saw the ducks all cozy and comfortable in their straw cubby. She uttered an unutterable phrase snatch them up by the neck, walked out side and cracked them like whips.

    When we got home later with the fish, the ducks were in the oven roasting away, the girls were sobbing and we had a wonderful dinner of duck, lake trout, fried roe, buttermilk, and beer.

    Then a lively came of spades. The kids didn’t play, we ran around outside playing kick ball, soft ball… what ever. One summer evening I went inside at dark and the entire house was one huge smoke filled, beer infested card game (big family night). Years later I still remember that sight, having been in many VFW bars and other unseemly hangouts, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that compared, unless it was that Shriners New Years Party back in ’74…. that was close, but nobody was playing spades and everyone was boozing and dancing rather than sucking brews and trumping.

    Oh well I’ve rattled enough, and thanks for stirring up the miry memory bank for a bit. I guess I’ll go do my taxes before I get sidetracked.


  • Nugget, I would hardly compare Richard Marcus’ argument to Thomas Friedman. There is a large difference between economic equality and cultural imperialism. There is no reason why everyone in the world ought to drive a Lexus and eat Chic-Fil-A and smile and listen to the Beatles (although I don’t see what’s wrong with those last two things), but there is certainly a compelling reason why we all ought to be on more-or-less equal footing. Not that certain jobs shouldn’t offer more compensation than others, but the wealth gap should be considerably shortened.

    Thomas Friedman, on the other hand, is a douchebag who supports military enforced economic and cultural imperialism, although he lamely suggests “glocalization” – the maintanance of local traditions in the face of an expanding global arena. Friedman believes that the forces of global capitalism have empowered third world nations and levelled the playing field when in fact they’ve actually heightened the economic tensions between industrialized and “developing” nations.

    Sorry for the digression, but I couldn’t stand to have our friend Richard Marcus compared to Thomas Friedman 😉

  • RedTard posts: “Diana, I don’t think you have anything to worry about climbing down from the artifical heights of snobbery, you are well entrenched. It’s good though that you have decided to come to the window of the ivory tower and show yourself as a self serving measure to alleviate your guilt. That’s what poor people need another elitist snob using them for self gratification.”

    I’m pretty sure you have to make more money than I do to even get pass into the ivory tower, much less a room with a view. What in the world did you read of my post that you would come away with the impression you did?

  • RedTard posts: “Did you ever consider that “those people” may enjoy their lives. Why do you feel the need to look down on others and create more class hatred where less existed? Does everyone need to place their values where you do?”

    Having come to a sense of acceptance and subsequent peace of mind about one’s state in life is NOT the same as “Hot dog! It’s good to be poor!”
    Comparing a full refrigerator to a damned near empty refrigerator and thinking there’s an inequity is not the same as looking down on someone.
    If I’m personally looking down on anyone, it would be those who (of any income) actually think poverty is just a lifestyle choice. It may make someone feel better to think poverty is all about someone else’s irresponsibility but that doesn’t mean this is the reality. Making it in life is made up of several steps: having (viable, not passable) educational and employment opportunities, the health and healthcare necessary to take advantage of those opportunities, and sometimes sheer luck.
    This idea that most of those who don’t make it stay behind of their own free will is a tired argument only suited for those who have no idea what in the hell they’re talking about.

  • RedTard

    “This idea that most of those who don’t make it stay behind of their own free will is a tired argument”

    What makes you believe that? If given the verbal choice between rich and poor certainly they would choose rich. The real choices are laid out when they’re in school and they could either study or party, play sports, or join a gang, when they are 18 and they choose between having a child or going to college, when it comes to moving out of their area to take advantage of economic opportunities or staying with their friends and family. In those cases they make their choice.

    Anyone poor person who wants to choose a ‘better’ life should have that opportunity but we have no right to actively attack the others lifestyle just because it doesn’t conform to our standards.

    A person living in an old, crummy 800sqft private abode with enough access to food to make them obese, free libraries with internet, medical care, electricity, television, clean running water, and education in the US may spend alot of time in bitterness because they’re not ‘rich’. Meanwhile a large part of the world’s population would kill to have just a couple of those things. Why do you think that is, what drives the anger in those that are getting all the necessities and conveniences of the modern world (many times for free) and more importantly, who benefits?

  • nugget

    That’s fair, Bryan. I wouldn’t necessarily call Thomas Friedman an imperialist. I don’t think he ever advocated a call to arms in the name of cultural assimilation. He just got all giddy because he has “friends” across the globe in Bangalore et al that are doing some impressive IT work. He wrongly assumes that capitalism is going to magically grow gardens in the back of every poor person’s yard.

    As far as Richard Marcus goes, I’m sure comparing him to Thomas Friedman was a stretch. But anyone that has good intentions for the masses is suspect in the realms of control freakdom, imo. The true test for someone who wishes well to others is one who wishes well to individuals on a daily basis. That is, they uphold a servant’s attitude; humble and yielding. Most people that talk like Marcus, in my experience, do not esteem or present such a quality.

    Calling random people to randomly quit being snobby is, well, snobby. Snobbery sucks, but it’s not just rich people that are snobby. Poor people in shacks are snobby too! They talk about white collar folks like they are scum and would rather shoot them with high-powered rifles than receive “charity.” Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that all poor people are wretched, unfortunate souls that never had a chance. Being the underdog is just too fun for some people.

  • johnsmith

    “selfish, myopic, and dangerous”!”used to be poor”
    This slander isn’t exactly encouraging unison. Are you saying the aspiring bourgious are worse than aristocrats?