Ph.D. Octopus

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by Bronwen

In case you were getting discouraged by the state of the media in America, take a look at the newest ‘-gate’ to hit Britain: Pastygate.

Yes, that’s right: the Chancellor has added VAT to hot takeaway foods from places other than restaurants.  Apparently this is unfair because Osborne hasn’t had anything from Greggs lately.  This has ignited the popular press of the country, as well as launching new ad campaigns for pasty proprietors.










This in turn was followed by a predictable stampede of politicians to the local Greggs, Cornish Pasty Company, etc.

Dave prefers West Cornwall Pasty Company

As the Economist notes:

Like a glacé cherry topping off a Greggs iced tart, the media day culminated with Ed Balls, the Labour shadow chancellor of the exchequer, inviting the television cameras to film him confidently striding into a branch of Greggs to order eight sausage rolls. These were not all for him it emerged (though he is a big chap, and in training for a marathon). Some were for the awkward, besuited southerner behind him who turned out to be his party leader, Ed Miliband.

We love Greggs!

But the Economist points out that this is all about class and the perceived end of British institutions.  I can see that, I guess. The Greggs ad pointedly uses George Osborne’s real first name, Gideon, for instance.  And the Daily Mail pretty much comes right out and says that Cameron is out of touch with normal people.  This is veering pretty close to the dangerous ‘real America’ territory of Fox News.

But as a neutral observer, what I really see is further indication that The Thick of It is spot on in its depiction of the complete lack of control that politicians have over the media here.  Unlike in the US, where the Right thinks there’s a ‘Liberal Media Bias’ and liberals know that Fox News is basically a paid propaganda arm of the Republican Party, in Britain it’s pretty obvious that no one in the media likes or has any respect for any political or governmental figures.  Add to that newspapers’ desire to make anything into a scandal, and you have tabloid gold.

Fittingly this all emerged in the same week that The New Yorker ran a piece on Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail.  But really, nothing says it better than the Daily Show.

Moat Gate


Written by apini

March 30, 2012 at 06:52

Posted in class, politics

The Feminism of Dirty Dancing

with 4 comments

by David

I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time on Monday night. I know, the fact that it took me this long to see it is a real shanda (scandal).

I saw it on the big screen, with my wife and some friends and a few hundred screaming feminists (screaming with glee at the sight of a shirtless Patrick Swayze, that is). Prior to the film, one of the event organizers, my friend Irin, interviewed the movie’s screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein. The evening was organized by Jezebel, with proceeds going to benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund, an all-volunteer organization that helps provide funds to poor pregnant women who want abortions but cannot afford them.

Much has already been written about this showing, by Irin herself, by the Wall Street Journal‘s Sarah Seltzer, and by Esther Zuckerman of The Village Voice. Indeed, between these articles and Irin’s earlier piece arguing that Dirty Dancing is “the greatest movie of all time,” I’m not sure what I can really add to the conversation. Nevertheless, I’ll share my main take-aways from the evening [spoiler alert]:

1) I knew the movie was popular, a cult classic seen countless times by North American girls and women, but I had no idea how big it was internationally. In Australia, truck drivers watched it at repeatedly at rest stops. In Germany, the dubbers were so obsessed with having the mouth movement at least resemble German words that they translated Johnny Castle’s signature line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” to “My Baby belongs to me. Is this clear?” And apparently that’s the line they love and remember. Ah, the Germans: always thinking everything belongs to them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

August 11, 2011 at 07:19


with 5 comments

by Bronwen

There is a new, serious crisis in East Africa.  I recently saw a facebook meme that expressed what is officially referred to as ‘aid fatigue’ or ‘crisis fatigue’.

BREAKING NEWS: We need to send money to the following country: USA. There are many without food, shelter, and clean drinking water. Residents are going without heat for the winter, no a/c for the summer. Millions are without jobs. Need health care for the sick. Stop sending money overseas. We have people here that lack basic human needs. Do you have the guts to re-post this?? AMERICA FIRST!

In a time when life is uncertain for so many Americans (see Peter’s post on this blog last week), it’s not surprising that this should emerge.  Middle class life is perceived to be (and could very well be) perched on the edge of a steep decline.

So these Americans would probably be delighted to know that they do not have to carry the whole burden by themselves.  The Daily Nation also has an interesting, and a number of letters to the editor that point out a side of the crisis which will probably not make it into the US or UK news:  Kenyan contributions to the relief efforts through a variety of initiatives, like Kenyans for Kenya.

A number of recent projects have been dedicated to stories about the emergence of an African middle class.  This one is particularly good, although its choice of sample countries is perhaps a bit odd.  The blog Africa is a Country focuses on ‘everyday’ Africa.  The FT has also recently started a quarterly magazine, This is Africa, which brings business and investment stories and interviews from the continent to readers in the US and Europe.

However, in general there is both less interest in and a certain discomfort about the African middle class.  Why?  I think there are a couple of important reasons. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

August 5, 2011 at 07:23

Posted in Academia, Africa, class

The New American Underclass, the Unraveling of America, and Bruce Springsteen: A Review of Someplace like America

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By Peter

According to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project, the vast majority of new hires made since the Great Recession has started have been in low wage jobs. People are losing mid or high wage jobs and gaining low-wage jobs. Meanwhile the wealth gap between races is the worst in 25 years. Black families have lost half their median family assets, and Hispanics have lost a shocking 2/3rds of their median household assets.

From a bird’s eye view, then, the Great Collapse of 2008, which many of us thought would be the death-knell of neoliberalism, has turned out to be its best friend. As is often the case, capitalism will come out of the crisis reorganized and restructured, with access to desperate low-wage workers, who no longer even expect mid-range wages, a larger reserve army of the unemployed in order to keep those with jobs in line, and a radical Tea-Party led (and Democratic- abetted) assault on unions, government regulation, and social services. Those who still have jobs are working more hours and seeing their responsibilities multiply, while getting paid less. The age of austerity may finally realize Milton, Barry, and Ronald’s dream of destroying the post-war social compact.

And yet, as Dale Maharidge points out in Someplace like America, a new book of photographs and stories from the Great Recession, for most low-income America, the Great Recession (or as he calls it “The New Great Depression), began decades ago. Since at least the 80s, Reaganite economic policy has created a growing underclass of Americans, who have largely seemed invisible to American society. For a brief moment in 2009, Mahardige remembers, journalists were interested in the tent cities springing up outside of cities in California and Florida. But they wanted to hear about people who had just lost their jobs. In fact, most of the residents had been struggling for years, even during the supposedly good times of the 90s. The Crash simply broke the camel’s back.

In some ways its an underclass whose lives seem familiar to us: the men and women who ride railroads, sleep under bridges, squat in abandoned factories, hover outside of overcrowded breadlines, and drift from town to town drawn by rumors of work seem all reminiscent of Woody Guthrie songs and John Steinbeck novels. But it also deeply alien to see it today, which is why many of the most jaring photographs juxtapose images of 21st century American consumption (a Kenny Rogers ad, a faded Office Depot sign, a Wal-Mart, etc…) next to images of 21st century poverty, to familiarize us with a phenomenon we were told doesn’t exist anymore. Suburbanization and the creation of highways has, to a large degree, pushed this poverty out of sight. The poverty rate in the suburbs, where poverty tends to be much less visible, has been skyrocketing.

In many cases, these are men and women who have known better. Much better. There is a sense of bewilderment to the unraveling of the Fordist social compact, as people can’t quite understand why they don’t have the opportunities their parents did. There is B.T., found selling his life’s possessions alongside a highway in Tennessee, in order to buy food. He was an auto mechanic for years, and was laid off a year and a half ago. “I’m ashamed. I’m the kind of guy who works. I always worked… I haven’t gone to the church yet, because I’m a little embarrassed,” he says. His area of Tennessee was devastated by NAFTA, as the Oshkosh factory closed up and went to Honduras.

The authors go to Youngstown and follow the diaspora of workers, scattered after the devastating closures of the steel mills. In a shack outside of Houston, they find one. His grandfather had worked in the mills in Youngstown, he had hauled steel. When it all crashed down, he lost his job, drank, and drifted. Now he “babbled nonsense… a creature that once was a man,” and lived on the streets. They interview Sally, an “upper-middle class” mother, whose husband was a business-owner. Now she’s waiting outside a food bank in Michigan with a crowd of people. “None of the 224 faces,” she stands with, “register as being any different from those you’d see in a suburban shopping mall.”

One picture is of a family—the baby stares directly at the camera– while the family is too embarrassed to look-up —in line at a free health care clinic in rural Virginia. The caption is the kicker: The Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps used to only work with the “desperately poor” in third-world countries. Now it operates largely in rural America.

True poverty, Maharidge points out, takes some time to kick in. At first, when people lost their jobs in Youngstown, they survived. Some found new jobs, others accepted lower pay. Many drifted on unemployment or disability. But eventually these supports dry up, and the longer you’re out of work, the harder it is to get new employment. You are evicted or foreclosed, your family or friend gets sick of you crashing with them, and you move on. Maybe you hear about an opportunity a couple of towns over, but can’t afford a hotel room or a deposit on a rental. So you begin sleeping in your car. Gas and maintenance becomes too much, so you hitch or walk. Many sell blood or begin scrounging food from wastebins, at first in moments of despair, later as an everyday activity. The embarrassment and stress gets to people, who begin abusing drugs or alcohol. Many are victims of theft, murder, or rape, and rarely do the police investigate.

As the Great Recession continues (and it is continuing for most people…) the middle class is falling into the lower class, the lower class falling into the poor, and the poor falling off the social map into the informal economy of scrounging, subsistence farming, petty thievery, homelessness, prostitution, and the like. There are almost certainly more Americans who live like this then, say, Americans who watch the Daily Show. Mahardige and Williamson introduce us to “Edge men,” people who have completely given up on the prospect of employment, and squat or set up tents outside of cities, to live permanently outside of society. With years of high unemployment, and millions of so called ‘99ers approaching the end of their benefits, we better get used to seeing these people.

The authors of Someplace like America had previously collaborated on Journey to Nowhere, which had the distinction of inspiring a number of Bruce Springsteen songs, including Youngstown. There is a line in that song, “those big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do,” referring to the destruction of the steel mills. It comes directly from an unemployed steel worker Joe Marshall Sr. There is an odd section of Someplace like America, where the authors meet Springsteen and sneak into the abandoned Jeanette blast furnace (the “Jenny”) to contemplate what’s happening to America. I’ll give Bruce, who wrote the introduction to this book, credit. In his own way he’s been warning about this stuff for decades, while much of the left couldn’t even use the word “class.” During the heady days of Morning in America, while the Democratic Party began its now unbreakable marriage with Wall Street, he was writing about the consequences of these policies. He saw the future better than most political pundits did.

Even many of us on the left aren’t nearly as comfortable talking about poverty and class, as we were in the 30s. We’re comfortable with racialized urban poverty, which makes sense in our post-68, urbanized, information-age worldview, but have pushed rural poverty (white or black) completely out of our imaginations. We live in Brooklyn or Cambridge or San Francisco or Portland, little bubbles that have done much better than the rest of the country. Our discourse is almost completely unable to talk about poverty except as a technocratic problem. The moral core of the problem—that some have so much and some have so little, and that this is a result of collective decisions we have made—can not fit into our ideological imaginations.

Which is why the photographs by Michael Williamson are so important. I wish there were more. It’s a book that is self-consciously in the tradition of Let us now Praise Famous Men (the authors previously had done a follow-up, called And Their Children After them) and Dorthea Lange. The photos are stark black and white images, often of destroyed mills or houses, with only slight traces of human activity. When he focuses on a human subject, often the faces are obscured, as the child pumping water by hand, from the only source of fresh water in Bayview Virginia, a rusty iron spigot. B.T., the unemployed mechanic selling his life’s possessions from the back of his truck, looks down, ashamed of what he’s doing. Perhaps my favorite photography is of “Edge Man Ed.” You only see him in silhouette against a gigantic garish photograph of smiling Kenny Rogers smoking a cigar. Ed had saved the plastic sheeting from a Rogers’ billboard and was using it to make a tent out of.

Williamson walks a fine line, between drawing attention to the poverty and helplessness of his subjects and trying to find the dignity and resolve in their faces. It’s hard not to see the same tension in how Mahardige talks about the subjects or we think about them. Too much pity makes them degraded victims; too little anger is inappropriate.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

July 28, 2011 at 14:34

X-Men: First Class – a Fun Movie for Historians

with 2 comments

by Weiner


I saw X-Men: First Class last night. Really good movie. It was especially fun for historians, and not only because it fictionally ties in to real events like the Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War. It also deals with the modern academic trifecta of race, class, and gender in relatively interesting ways, of course using the notion of mutants to complicate these matters (oh, no I used the term complicate! the next thing you know I’ll be trying to problematize something!).

I’m not sure I have anything to add that hasn’t already been said better by Matt Yglesias or by Susan Polo or by Neo-Prodigy at The Chronicle. So check those posts out, but BEWARE OF SPOILERS.

What I will say is that January Jones must be the world’s worst actress. Unless she was supposed to play a mutant super-villain in the same way she does Betty Draper. Still, it was an awesome movie, and you should see it.

Written by David Weinfeld

June 8, 2011 at 19:21

Posted in class, film, gender, pop culture, race

Grant Hill vs Jalen Rose: The “Uncle Tom” Controversy in Historical Context

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by Weiner

With the Final Four coming up this weekend, I figure it’s better late than never to weigh in on the Grant Hill vs Jalen Rose controversy. Well not exactly weigh in, as I don’t really feel the need to pick a “side,” but rather to put their spat in some kind of historical context.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a nice summary with far better commentary than I can offer over here. But I’ll give you some basics:

Rose (left) was a member of the 1990s Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team, known as the “Fab Five” for their five African American stars, including Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson. As wikipedia notes, the “Fab Five” became well-known for bringing a hip hop style into college basketball, and later into the NBA. The team reached two NCAA championships, losing both, including the 1992 championship to the Duke University Blue Devils, led by future NBA star Grant Hill.

The class contrast was stark. Hill’s father, an NFL running back, had been educated at Yale, his mother at Wellesley College, where she roomed with Hillary Clinton.

In the recent  ESPN documentary, The Fab Five (which Rose produced), Rose, who grew up poor and never knew his father, reflected on this divide:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

April 1, 2011 at 19:31

The Trial

with 10 comments

by Luce

I went to jury duty last week at the sleepy Middlesex County Courthouse in Somerville, MA and ended up sitting on what appeared to be an open-and-shut civil trial with relatively low stakes. I was there at 8 and out by 3, and within those 7 hours something I’d always abstractly known was brought home experientially: that the legal cards are really stacked up against certain segments of society.

It is not a profound thing for an historian to say that her legal system is flawed. And yet, as someone who has invested her life in “knowing more,” it was jarring to be asked to make a decision directly impacting two people’s financial situations on evidence that would  hardly support half an undergraduate term paper. As historians we are taught to keep digging through the archives, to distrust every seemingly obvious discourse, to employ a hermeneutics of suspicion, to doubt the possibility of ever discovering a “truth,” to consider the entire intellectual, social, cultural, political context of one’s narrative. For historians everything is a relative “lie,” since every claim depends on the claimant’s positionality.

In order to determine whether a woman should be awarded damages from an apartment manager she had accused of negligence due to a loose railing that ostensibly caused her to fall and break her collar bone, a jury of 6 (plus 1 alternate) listened to 2.5 hours of testimony by 3 witnesses–one the manager, one the woman, and one the woman’s friend. The questioning was constrained by legalese, yes and no answers to cross-examination, constant interruptions by the judge asking the lawyers to rephrase their questions or rephrasing their questions for them to make them understandable to the witnesses. Photos were shown of the staircase, though they had been taken at some vague time after the incident and so provided no real evidence of the situation of the staircase at the time of the incident. But significantly this point was hardly emphasized, and my fellow jurors kept referring to the photos as if they represented the exact same situation the woman herself had encountered.

Here’s the thing. At the end of the day this was basically a “he said, she said” case. She said that she had gone to the owner’s apartment building at 2am to bum a cigarette from a friend, had walked up two flights of stairs hanging onto the railing, fell back when the railing loosened and broke, lay on the floor for five minutes calling for help and then walked home, called a personal injury lawyer first thing in the morning, but waited 9 days to go to the hospital after the pain failed to subside. He said that everything she said was a lie, that the railing was in good condition, and that he was an excellent apartment manager.

I relied on the questioning of two smarmy lawyers who used their time both to ask leading questions and to engage in character assassinations. To the woman from the defense lawyer: “Isn’t it true that there’s a picture of you drinking a bottle of alcohol outside that building?… You don’t work during the day, correct? You just lie around all day?… You are on the following medications…” To the manager from the plaintiff lawyer: “You’re not from this country, are you? Lebanese?”

In order to decide a case that in the end turned on the plaintiff’s inconsistencies and the defendant’s more polished responses, the judge told us that we would need to judge the credibility of the witnesses in order to judge their evidence. Easy enough, right? Just decide if we believed them based on whether, to us, they were believable.

And yet how was I to judge what was credible for a woman on the margins of society? “The moment she said she was going out to bum a cig at 2am I knew this thing was bogus,” a fellow juror said. But why? The definition of negligence runs along the lines of a resident or guest experiencing injury due to lack of upkeep by the owner. A woman going out to score coke at 2am could still be the victim of a faulty railing, right?

This is when the sociology of the trial became both interesting and determinative. My fellow jurors were mostly middle-class native-born Bostonians — mothers, a school cafeteria worker, a musician/tech guy. There was one biology PhD, who convinced me even further of the need for analytical thinking developed through the humanities. I of course was the effete humanities academic. And as such I was the self-designated devil’s advocate; to my fellow jurors, the naif and fool. Because despite inconsistencies in the woman’s story, despite her decision to call a personal injury lawyer before visiting the hospital, and despite, or in fact because — a stance that makes my a priori assumptions just as problematic as my fellow jurors’ — this was a woman who was not in great physical or mental shape, who had a 9th grade education and apparently no job, who according to her own testimony lay around all day and then stayed up all night watching TV, I wasn’t so sure that her testimony was discreditable.

No she didn’t act as I would have. Yet from the beginning she inhabited a body vastly different from my own: older, heavier, much more unwieldly. A fall for her would likely have been an almost-tumble for me. If I were a woman without a paycheck or health insurance, maybe I would have first called a personal injury lawyer to discuss whether I could get the landlord to cover any potential bills. Perhaps I would have had a friend who’d had a similar experience, or maybe I would have watched so much TV with its ubiquitous ads for personal injury lawyers that that just seemed the natural first call. Maybe I would have waited 9 days to go to the hospital, because it’s easier to make a call than board a bus, because my body already hurt and I was used to everyday discomforts, because I was lazy, yet in the end still had a broken collar bone. Yet her story was inconsistent even on which part of the railing had fallen off and at which step she had fallen. But if it were 2am and I was on a number of medications, including a possible sedative (information that was never extracted though a sleeping pill was listed amongst her prescribed medications) and had had a bad fall, would I necessarily remember? Would I then remember to remember to get my story straight?

Trials encourage a lack of imagination and in their emphasis on judging what is “credible” to you, rather than, perhaps, what is “conceivable,” they encourage judgments often rooted in subjective socioeconomic positions. I was struck by the class politics involved in the jury’s deliberations–something I don’t often focus on very much in my own historical writing.

“This is a huge waste of our time. She’s a bum,” said one of the middle class working women as if that point were decisive. I felt the need to suggest that even bums have legal rights.

“It’s all a scam–they’re a bunch of scammers trying to take a hard-working man. Look at her, can’t even make $75 rent on section 8 housing some days, all her money going to cigarettes when she has asthma” said another about the woman’s friend. I countered that even those whose life decisions we don’t agree with might conceivably be telling the truth about a negligently managed stairwell. Yet all my fellow jurors’ minds were made up before they entered the deliberation room. And to be honest, so was mine.

Perhaps I’ve felt the need to write this blog post to make up for the fact that in the end I voted with the other jurors in a unanimous judgment finding the apartment manager not negligent. Despite my feeling that we couldn’t possibly really know what had happened, that the woman might at base have been telling the truth despite her inconsistencies, and that the entire process actively discouraged empathy and imagination, there was simultaneously no way to find the manager negligent. He could just as easily have been telling the truth as she, and favor fell on the side of inertia.

On the other hand, the jury didn’t need my vote — they only needed 5 of the 6 — and so I could have registered a symbolic vote against a system in which a person who existed outside the dominant behavioral norm was never going to receive a fair trial within the legal norm. Yet despite my counters and protestations during jury deliberations, I didn’t. I’m still not sure why.

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 19, 2011 at 00:30