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A Story of Class & Morality

08/02/2012 11:04 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2012
  • Jane Devin Cultural critic, essayist, and author

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post, "Walmart Greeter Buys 6-Pack of Beer & Is Condemned," that touched (pinched) a few nerves. It is becoming, it seems, more and more acceptable to flog the poor for their perceived failings and abuses, while at the same time the capricious excesses of the rich are ignored -- or even applauded. A central point in my article was that moral judgments are not applied equally to all classes:

... morality arguments fall short when certain values are applied only to one class of people -- in this case the poor. If we believe that privileges should be earned, then all people should be held equally accountable for earning them. If we're going to damn the poor for their lack of contributions, then we should damn with equal vigor those wealthy people and corporations who go out of their way to contribute as little as possible. If we believe in the tenets of hard work and perseverance -- if we are disgusted by laziness, a sense of entitlement, a lack of circumspect behavior, or a failing of personal responsibility -- then these precepts should apply to all classes of people: rich, poor and in-between.

This week, I came upon two contrasting photographs that illustrate my point. Only one of them provoked a firestorm of debate.

The child in public housing was, of course, the one who ignited a heated discussion. All the usual myths, arguments, and judgments were brought into the public sphere. People living high on the hog on welfare. Hard working people having to support them while living on cabbage and canned goods. The welfare queen and her grocery cart full of steak. How poor people waste money and have the wrong priorities. How the cost of an iPad could have raised someone out of poverty, if only they had the good sense to spend money properly. Who's deserving / moral / responsible, and who's not.

"Maybe I should quit my job and sell drugs, too."

"The middle (class) are abused.. .we get to sit and watch as our hard work get us know where [sp] while the people under us are getting everything for free..."

But wait, say others. Maybe the iPad was a gift. Better an iPad than a gun. It's educational. Who's to say the kid didn't borrow it or get it from his school? Pawning it wouldn't save his family from poverty.

The same old discussion, the same old rage and apologetic defenses sparked anew by a photograph of a poor boy having something that many other people didn't think he deserved.

In the meantime, *crickets* on photos of wasteful trust fund teens with their gold AmEx cards and new Ferrari's. No hand-wringing questions over morality, responsibility, or deservedness.

No fiery public debates over which social, cultural and yes, governmental benefits, might go into the making of kids who brag about buying $4000 bottles of champagne.

No sense of middle-class outrage over helping pay for those bottles of champagne -- which we do -- through the increased costs of goods, exorbitant mark-ups, tax shelters, tax credits, and corporations that pay zero in taxes while decreasing benefits and pay for workers.

No equalizing, rich caricature to balance that of the poor person as Welfare Queen or King.

As I said, morality isn't really moral when it flows only one way. A middle-class that continues to perpetuate certain myths and myopic judgments -- that finds it easier to turn against themselves and poorer others rather than rationally examine the entire picture, is only hurting themselves more.

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