Limbo revisited

Phil writes at Racing in the Street on his perspective on a discussion we had here a couple weeks ago about Alfred Lubrano’s book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams. Phil is coming at this topic from the other end, which is what makes his post worth reading. (The original Limbo post and discussion can be found here.)

A quick further comment of my own on this discussion. I always thought the “middle class” was not supposed to be a rung on a ladder, so much as a breathing-space or workspace for all Americans, regardless of where they came from in life. It was supposed to be a “place” where the ordinary process or “rules” of the so-called “class struggle” were suspended. Therefore, no matter where one’s personal story originates, one has a right to participate in this space where the American experiment takes place (and it’s important to “come as you are”). I personally feel that today, this vision of the American middle class has been somehow lost and that it has become more of a “class,” a mere ladder-rung, and less of a workspace or breathing space… if that makes any sense. I do not relish the possibility of a backlash in the other direction. Perhaps the “limbo” of which Lubrano writes (and which we’ve commented on from various angles) is not a purgatory, but indeed is the whole point.

On the subject of steel and struggle, via BuffaloPundit I discovered
Burgh Diaspora, a Pittsburgh-area blog seeking solidarity among Rust Belt bloggers. They don’t seem to be thinking as far east as Syracuse, but I thought I’d pass along their call anyway. The thinking of this blog is kind of interesting:

Pittsburgh is more than a city or a region. Recent decades of out-migration have resulted in a significant diaspora population that retains strong ties to its homeland. The aim of GlobalBurgh is to intensify this network in hopes of realizing a new geographic understanding of Pittsburgh.

Substitute “Syracuse” for Pittsburgh and I think you’re onto something. (I know this blog is read by at least a few North Carolinians…)

6 thoughts on “Limbo revisited

  1. Robinia

    Thanks for directing me back to the “Limbo” discussion, and Phil’s off-shoot. Very, very interesting– I had just added the book to my wishlist and kept reading… did not note the comments that came thereafter, which are sublime.

    As a born working-class kid in an ivy league town, I always had the “limbo” experience when the folks I was working with in progressive organizations would start in with the liberal guilt talk “Of course, we all come from a place of privelege, so we can’t really presume to….” White person that I am (although with the crooked teeth and “different communication norms”), I could never seem to get across that well, maybe “we” weren’t all as alike and priveleged as was being assumed. It did, often enough, give me the impression of not really belonging there… although, pardoxically, the conversations’ point was often how to truly involve those of other backgrounds!

    Think you are right about journalists– writers, generally, even– being more comfortable in “limbo” than some other professions. The “outsider” perspective is more of an advantage than a disadvantage, in that kind of work.

    Interesting reflection on the “middle class” as space anybody can access, not a rung on the ladder– surely not how I have come to see it, but, a very nice ideal. I’m more likely to see the “middle class” as a huge series of unspoken norms that I will never successfully master (and so, always be kept back from accomplishing what I otherwise, in a meritocracy, might). Communication norms, norms of dress and bearing, ability to give vast amounts of insincere praise and compliment, having nothing to ever be angry, sad, or aggressive about. Social drinking to excess. Experiencing liberal guilt when thinking or talking about people who are discriminated against or oppressed.

    Lately, I think that a better attitude toward immigrants is what is most likely to get us closer to that “breathing space” concept– equal opportunity for all. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of my immigrant grandparents and their Italian neighborhood lately, since I found out that they were the victims of a major environmental justice issue– depleted uranium pollution in their neighborhood from a munitions plant incinerating this low-level radioactive waste for decades. How, exactly, do you progress through hard work into the middle class if they were poisoining the neighborhood your people lived in, so that you died of cancer before you got there?

  2. sean

    one observation i’d make based on a few trips to europe, and people with more knowledge in this area are free to say i’m full of it – it seems as if, because of the sharper class distinctions overseas, the middle or working class is much more content to live a more conservative material existence, often staying in modern homes and neighborhoods in the same cities for generations, using the extra money for ‘holiday’ – but is also flat-out happier without all the anxiety about the need to always push on and push out. i found myself drawn to that, maybe because i grew up with aunts and uncles who came over from scotland – but i think more so because i admire the ability to step away from the hunger, to do the tom bombadil bit and flip the ring up in the air without desiring it. and you can make an argument, i think, that the great subterranean american nostalgia for the cities – the whole longing for used-to-bes in downtowns and neighborhoods – is more deeply linked to the idea that something profound was traded away in the hunt for big and better. that feeling, maybe, is the real limbo.


  3. Phil

    Thanks for the link, NYCO and for the ideas. I’m kind of intrigued by your notion that perhaps limbo, purgatory etc. is sort of the default position in our society. In older cultures, class movement was unthinkable. There are still people in England who refer to Margaret Thatcher as a shopkeeper’s daughter. In America, the voyage is the thing, not the landing. All our angst about status and what we don’t have is a result of the psychic friction we create when we make a move.

    Managing our own thoughts is difficult, but preferable to the alternative of the rigged game of other cultures.

    As for liberal guilt, I would like to put a plug in for my profession, community organizing. We do not suffer from this malady owing to the difference between an organizer and an advocate. We help train people to fight for themselves, using the skills they have. Advocates presume to speak for others, poor benighted souls that can’t do for themselves. As I stated in my post, my longing for a more authentic working class experience is due to my disgust with the banality and boring sameness of the modern suburban lifestyle, not a sense of guilt.

  4. Robinia

    Yep, righto, Phil– community organizers are just a complete pleasure, truly empowering, and we do have quite a few. But,the folks that I run into around Ithaca are more often either advocates (some are ok, others seem to have the guilt thing going) or “progressive” grad students/academics– these are something of a pestilence, always thinking that their clever surveys and workshop projects are about to “transform” some poor lady’s life, when all she wants is for them to let her be. And maybe stop driving up the rents by paying too much for their apartments.

  5. Ellen

    Yes, I admit I always wonder why local academics don’t ever seem to want to train the locals to get a posse together and kick some treehouse arse.

  6. JS

    I think Jane Jacobs does a great job explaining the academic disconnection in her book, “Dark Age Ahead”. She writes about credentialing versus actually educating, that modern academia is mired in its isolated world of theories, studies and workshops, most times focusing on esoteric, unhelpful subjects that are completely detached from reality.

    Worst is that society sees these academics as experts, and funds them with big money for community revitalization, social and other projects, as well as applied research projects. That’s bad news.

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