Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Class Divide.

Another one of the impressions that America left me with was with regard to the class divide. Compared to Australia, I certainly felt that there was a far more overt stratification in society. The effect was most marked to me in both Los Angeles and Charleston. Now, I don't have a particular problem with societal stratification (provided that people can live decently) but one of the things that struck me about America was that there appeared to be a subtle caste like structure in place, with the workers being the inferior class of human beings. I want to emphasise that it was a subtle phenomenon.

To give you an example of what I mean; in many places when I struck up a conversation with some sales member or supermarket cashier, they initially seemed taken aback that I wanted to speak with them in a normal social way. The impression that I got was that they were somewhat unsure as to why a customer would want to speak to them on a social level.  I found many of these people to delightfully warm, helpful and quite conversational. However, I could not help but form an impression that many of them did not get spoken to unless someone wanted something from them.

Don't get me wrong, this sort of stuff happens in Australia as well. For one of my summer jobs I worked as a cleaner in the local mall and noticed that people treated me differently whilst I was in uniform and when I wasn't. The thing is, the effect seemed more pronounced in the U.S.

The other thing that I noticed was that people who appeared to be wealthy wanted to be recognised as being "apart" from the rest. Once again, I've noticed this phenomenon in other parts of the world and at home, but it appeared to be far more overt in the U.S. (The other place where I noticed similar behaviour was in Eastern Europe, where the wives of the biznis men behaved in a similar fashion) Apparently wealthy women would barge in front of you, not acknowledge your existence and bark orders to the sales staff and I can tell the difference between prole rude and snob rude. These were snob rude.

Overall I got the impression that in the U.S. there seemed to a subtle  "successful caste" and "prole caste" and that the successful caste wanted to emphasise the difference.  Now in Australia,  as commentator Horst noted, we do have an entrenched culture of "tall poppy syndrome" with the effect that the rich or successful are far less likely to assert any superiority. As a popular local beer commercial emphasised, "Australians sit in the front seat of the taxi" apparently both an allusion to our society's egalitarianism and by implication the un-Australianess of doing so otherwise.  Like all popular myths, it is just that. But I have to admit the class divide seems much smaller over here.

This egalitarianism has both negative and positive effects. On one hand, it does tend to enforce a cultural equality, on the other, it suppresses any form of excellence. (Which is usually appreciated and rewarded outside of Australia). America, on the other hand, seems to have a culture which accepts and rewards success almost to a degree that Australia doesn't. On one hand, it seems to attract the best and brightest to your country, both for their benefit and for the benefit of America. On the other hand, it does seem to create a bigger class divide.