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02/08/2007 Archived Entry: "Snow Man by Carolyn Chute/"up or down" of society"

I'VE JUST FINISHED THE NOVEL Snow Man by Carolyn Chute. This book reduced Ms. Chute from the darling of the literati to (as the best Amazon review puts it) "an unperson among the literary elite."

Why? Because (among other things), Chute paints a sympathetic portrait of a militiaman who has just assassinated a senator and plans, if he survives, to shoot another.

Robert Drummond, wounded member of Maine's Snow Men Militia, is hidden and nursed back to health by the second senator's wife and grown daughter. They find him strangely alluring -- yet baffling. Expecting a neo-Nazi "right-wing extremist," they discover that his personal heroes are leftist guerrillas and that his views often don't fit their preconceptions.

Here's a bit of dialog that sticks with me:

Robert stands up fast, sneers, "It ain't left or right. It's up and down. You're either up or you're down. That's all there is to it. OK?"

Connie narrows her eyes. "Could you be a little clearer, Mr. Drummond?"

Robert frowns.

Kristy says, "He means either you are a financier up there. Or you are a Mayan or a ... Mainer way down in the pits."

Connie asks, "How many lefty militias are there in this country. This is really shocking." ...

Kristy says, "Mom, it's not left or right for most people. It's just a big mess."

We libertarian types have rejected left and right for years. But most of us also reject up or down -- seeing in such black and white class distinctions classic Marxist economic errors -- the politics of envy -- the lazy grasping at the wealth of the productive. Rooted firmly in Ayn Rand and the myth of the American Dream, we still like to believe that hard, smart work always leads to well-earned rewards. Therefore, all class distinctions in America are, if they exist at all, temporary and maleable. You belong to whatever class you strive -- or fail to strive -- yourself into.

But as I read that passage I thought how true it's become. Functionally, we are either Up or Down. Not in the Marxist sense. Not in the sense of some slum-dweller growing fat in front of her TV set while she whines in envy of those who simply make more effort than she does. But in the sense that we now have two broad, increasingly rigid, and ominously out-of-our-control classes here in America. Those classes are still somewhat flexible, but they become more entrenched and more fixed as time goes on.

They are the class of those favored by government and those unfavored by government.

On one hand, you have bureaucrats, police, politicians, lobbyists, contractors, and managers of large corporate bodies -- privileged, immune, enforcing the will of the state. In the same class you have favored minorities, granted special privileges under law. The Up class.

On the other, you have those who pay more in taxes than they receive. You have prisoners of the drug war. Prisoners of bureaucratic violations. Small business people who find themselves more laden with burdens every day. Working slobs who can't get ahead because the opportunities of a free market forever recede from their grasp. Minorities (like "rednecks" or non-custodial fathers) who receive only contempt. The Down class.

You're either with government or you're a victim of it, either a beneficiary of the power ascendency or one who carries that ascendency on your back. It is as Silver wrote the other day about the two productive members of his family carrying the five unproductive.

Having grown up in an era where the "capitalists" were the good guys and the class-focused "commies" were Evil Incarnate, I hate perceiving the nation divided in terms of class. It's an uncomfortable perception. It feels wrong. I fight it. I can't see any good coming of it. But increasingly I believe it's so.

What's ironic, of course, is that to a very great extent, this new Up vs Down class has been created and justified by government pretenses of reducing class differences. The Up class has grown via creation of vast poverty programs, social security, Medi-this-and-that, affirmative action, yada yada yada. Each pretended attempt to equalize class differences requires vast, entrenched bureaucracies, favored subjects, and -- naturally (although it's never stated) harsh enforcers and multitudes of net losers. Each "equalization" means that somebody else pays for the Up class to become more privileged.

There are other ironies here. Multigenerational recipients of welfare programs, Down though they may feel, are members of the Up class because they serve its purposes so well -- and because they have chosen to sell their souls for its 30 meager pieces of silver, however little that sum actually buys them. Some successful business people, who may feel very Up in status, are in the Down class because they're forced to support the very people who make achievement more of a struggle than it needs to be.

Left and right are definitely meaningless. The circles and diamonds we freedom-lovers have tried to replace them with are useful if you're talking solely about philosophical beliefs. But if you're talking about the reality of living in government-ridden America, we are, as Chute's elemental militiaman says, either Up or Down.

Posted by Claire @ 02:05 PM CST

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