Friday, January 6, 2012

Muse of the Week: Vampires and Zombies

I recently came across a fascinating (and amusing) column posted to the New York Times Web site by University of Massachusetts economist Nancy Folbre. Folbre analyzes current class dynamics in the United States, perceptively observing the myriad characterizations of the wealthy (among liberals) as "vampires" and of the poor (among conservatives) as "zombies." (Or, if you're Ron Paul, evidently a "zombie" constitutes anyone who pays income tax.) Folbre suggests that our proclivities toward such characterizations depend upon whether we most fear the dominance or the dependence of others.

Citizens' reactions to class arguments depend upon myriad factors, from how we define "middle class" to the terms we use to define those above or below this elusive category. Both "vampires" and "zombies," however, testify to the state of class anxiety in which we find ourselves.

I find these categories interesting, not only because Folbre sets forth one possible explanation for why these mythical creatures are suddenly so prevalent in popular culture, but because history suggests that the bulk of the citizenry we would identify as "middle class" has been simultaneously vampire and zombie -- dominant and dependent -- throughout the American past. The very fabric of American identity before the Civil War was predicated upon a dependent class. "American" meant white, a "dominant" construction only possible where "dependent" African American slaves, freedmen and Native Americans existed. This construction faded only slowly, of course, following the war, although developments like the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments made it possible for the dependent to assert their rights to citizenship against the dominant. On the other hand, the long struggle of the American labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries asserted the rights of the "dependent" working classes (groups that by the mid-twentieth century would self-identify as middle class) against "dominant" captains of industry and their allies in government.

The ease with which I can paint middle class Americans as dominant or dependent, vampire or zombie (and I could carry on these examples for quite some time) does not mean that dominance and dependence are equal. I would argue that elimination of dependence is possible only through mitigation of dominance -- by providing adequate funding, for example, for an educational system that will provide all citizens with the equality of opportunity (not outcome -- that's dependence -- but opportunity) that allows for true independence. Others do come to different conclusions. Still, the hybrid identity of the American middle class indicates that solutions will come only when we move past the habit of demonizing one mythical creature at the expense of the other. After all, vampires and zombies alike will always be most likely to attack when they feel threatened...

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