THE POOR AND WHITE MINSTREL SHOW

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The other day, I came across the OK Cupid Juggalos Tumblr via Facebook then Buzzfeed. While reading the Buzzfeed comments section – snark akin to high school bullying – I questioned whether it would be acceptable if the Juggalos were solely African American. Juggalos – fans of the Detroit-based ‘horrorcore’ group the Insane Clown Posse – have combined hip hop culture with suburban White working class culture; Black meets redneck but almost entirely White. Watching the short documentary “American Juggalo”, filmed at the Gathering of the Juggalos Festival for Vice Music, I had feelings of admiration that these people – often from difficult backgrounds – had found a home, but also felt pity for their aesthetic.

We live in times where direct public bigotry is unacceptable. Any insinuation from politicians, celebrities, journalists, clergy, or public caught on camera phone is usually met with blanket media coverage and Facebook links followed by a pile-on of supporting comments. Society is not only more socially tolerant, there is an increased pressure to prove we’re not bigots. Buzzfeed is usually socially liberal, anti-Republican and an avid reporter of bigotry, yet their approach and reader response to Juggalos is indicative of acceptable intolerance of bad taste and, given the Juggalo context, trivialises class.

The concept of class – the acknowledgement of economic, social, and environmental limitations of many to access to the same opportunities available to those with more wealth – has disappeared from political lexicon unless preceded by the word ‘middle’. With the decline of a far more generous welfare state and the rise of a market economy during the 1980s, our economic, media, and political institutions have been imbued with notions of self-reliance and hard work as the only factors in life outcomes – in spite of evidence of increasing poverty and the resulting social impacts. Without class, the political left can only promote social liberal tolerance of racial, gender, and sexuality differences as the key to life outcomes, but that still leaves everyone regardless of race, gender, and sexuality dependent on self-reliance. Both market and social liberals accept poverty, low wages, and welfare are seen as ‘lifestyle choice’. The continued use of the term ‘middle class’ is indicative that we should have the same opportunities.

As a lifestyle choice, politicians, media and public alike regularly blames working class for social ills such as racism, violence, and public drunkenness. In the past year, the Australian media and public has taken to exposing racists rants on public transport filmed on camera-phone, often attributed to bogan racism. This attitude is similar to the 2005 Cronulla Riots.

Lifestyle choice transcends life outcome akin to consumer choice is the most important marker of social divides. All regardless of race, gender, and sexuality are judged by their decisions and tastes, hence the names bogan, chav, redneck or – universally – white trash. The advent of Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle, or Police 10-7/ Cops indicates the continued popularity of white trash bear-baiting – angry, drunk, badly dressed and poorly spoken people. Much of societal sympathy for poverty exists insofar as it ends their bad choices.Christian Lander, author of ‘Stuff White People Like’, reflects on his past guilt:

So much of my life, I believed that people in these situations had no free will, like they shopped at Wal-Mart just because they have no choice. It was unbelievable, and I thought, “Oh, if only they had money and education, they could be just like me.”

We think solving poverty might save them from their bad choices without acknowledging their experiences – a self-important mindset akin to Kony 2012 or Live Aid. Australian author Christos Tsiolkas writes in the essay ‘The Toxicity of Smugness’ that a shallow attitude alienates working class people from participation in political life.

… there is also something revealing about the evasions and fears of the bourgeois Left in the contempt for the ‘bogan’. A smug, easy term; again, it lets us off the hook, and it deflects us from the real work that needs to be done… The toxicity of progressive bourgeois smugness can be ascertained by how contemptuous is the language used to define the behaviour and expressions for working-class and welfare-class lives. The danger of this smugness is clear in how few working-class and welfare-class voices are given space to articulate an alternative Left politics to one founded either on identity politics or categories of morality”.

Common dislike exists for those working class who make good. ‘Cashed-up bogans’ in the suburban cul-de-sac McMansions with flat screen TVs and big cars are mocked for their ostentatiousness when they should be grateful for the welfare state instead of choosing consumerism and opulence. British Prime Minister David Cameron – whose breeding, Etonian and Oxbridge education, and posh accent fits the caricature of the comical conservative tyrant – contrasts with new money Chav celebrities like David and Victoria Beckham, Jordan, and Cheryl Cole. Over drunken party conversations, I’ve felt embarrassed when self-declared left wingers mock New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s Kiwi accent, pronunciation of the word “actually”, his modern mansion in Parnell, and his favourite film Johnny English. Politics aside, they mock them for not being as cultured and grateful as we are. Tsiolkas addresses this contradiction:

The ‘cashed up bogan’ is condemned for wanting to live in a McMansion on the outskirts of the city. The ‘aspirationalists’ are castigated for wanting to send their children to a private school rather than the local high school. The worker stood down from a power plant in the Latrobe Valley is mocked as a ‘redneck’ for questioning the promises made by environmentalists about the creation of ‘green’ jobs. That condemnation often comes from progressives living in the unaffordable inner city; that castigation from former university radicals who do not recognise the cultural capital their children are privy to; and the mockery from people who have no first-hand knowledge of the humiliation that comes from receiving the dole in the age of ‘mutual obligation’”.

When criticising their consumerism and aspirationalism, we are denying comparison with our own lifestyles. What are Fair Trade coffee, organic veges, urban gentrification, Herschel bags, and HBO box sets but aspirations for certain ideal of culture, sophistication, and social status? But, we made the right choices.

The denial of class dehumanises and denies the working class a stake in addressing societal issues. Class has not disappeared but evolved. Owen Jones, author of the book ‘Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class’, claims:

Instead of working in factories, mines and docks, most working-class people now earn their keep in call centres, supermarkets and offices. There are a million call centre workers: that’s as many as worked in pits at the peak of mining. A woman who works part-time in a supermarket is as good a symbol for working-class Britain as any… Denying class has proved all-too-convenient in ignoring the concerns of working-class people. We don’t talk about the fact that people from unskilled backgrounds are ten times more likely to be unemployed than professional people or that five million working-class people are languishing on social housing waiting lists. Nothing makes sense without class”.

However, media occasionally provides class satire, the best recent example being the Australian comedy Kath and Kim. Kath, Kim, Kel, Brett, and Sharon are cashed up bogans of the Melbourne suburban fringe mall culture, which translates for any metropolis in Australia or globally. We make fun of their pronunciation of “Kardonay” wine and mall culture, but the characters were created with love and we love them. It uses gift shop owners True and Prue to satirise old money – the Toorak crowd previously portrayed in Jane Riley, Janine Turner, and Madga Szubanski’s previous show Big Girls Blouse – as the other side of the same coin: consumer choice. Kath and Kim successfully portrays consumerism as the ultimate benchmark of modern social status, and we are all guilty of it.

To define the success by consumer choice trivialises societal ills as a matter of bad decisions rather than indicative of the structure of institutions. Though social liberalism has been good, without class it’s as useful as a one-oared rowboat. Tolerance only works insofar as it supports those with attributes that can’t change, but to deny the same for class trivialises poverty. Only class and social liberalism together can engender real tolerance.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: RED PEAK WAS ALWAYS A MIDDLE CLASS GANG-PATCH | Fine Tooth Column

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