Legitimate and illegitimate means

Thinking further about my situation, I’m thinking about a chapter I recently read by Robert Merton.[1] He highlights a discrepancy between socially approved goals and the available means for achieving those goals. And I’m remembering that as my life fell apart—which might be said to have occurred at any or some or all of multiple points along my journey—it was apparent to me that this society kicks people who are down. It does not act humanely; rather it stigmatizes them and, for the most part, never lets them up.[2]

In my own experience this appears as, no matter what skills I acquire, the jobs are exported or I will not be hired; no matter what jobs I accept, I am abused and paid less than what it costs to live; and now, no matter how high a level of education I acquire, higher education will be defunded, so my employment prospects remain dim. As I’ve noted, I’ve been resisting taking this personally. But it is apparent that some way, some how, I ended up on the wrong side of a merciless and unforgiving society whose ethical basis is challenged.

It is possible to argue that the rich aren’t doing this on purpose; indeed, Jeffrey Reiman and Herbert Gans are both careful to distinguish between malice and the perpetuation of a status quo that the elite benefit from.[3] Philip Zimbardo, in turn, argues for “the power of the situation” as explaining why good people do bad things, and yet he is careful not to excuse anyone—especially the elite—from culpability.[4] In my dire need for justice, I need accountability: The elite have harmed me and I cannot allow them to excuse themselves when somehow, at some level, they surely must know that what they are doing is exploitive, that when Max Weber explains that any exchange system privileges whomever is most able to say no,[5] the advantage they accrue inevitably comes at the cost of whomever is less able to say no, and that in essence this means the rich get richer by kicking the poor down.

I have occasionally heard the class situation in the United States described as a war on the poor. My old favorite professor at California State University East Bay once offered this argument. It appears in what Warren Buffett has told the New York Times.[6] It appears in a warning from George Soros.[7] I did not look for this war, but as Buffett said, the rich are winning, and I am among the losers.

I have been left without a legitimate means of finding prosperity or even, because a vast majority of women are unwilling to consider a man who is not financially stable, the opportunity to find a woman. Sure, when my mother dies (with her heredity, I expect her to live the better part of twenty more years—I would then be in my seventies), I may inherit her house, but I would not have the income for its upkeep, so I would nonetheless be forced out on the streets. I face the prospect of dying poor and alone, and not having had anything like a tolerable life in the meantime.

I have no choice but to make a different choice. And if that costs the rich, then all I can say is that I have more than paid for it.

  1. [1]Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie,” Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, 4th ed., ed. Charles Lemert (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 229-242.
  2. [2]Claude S. Fischer, Michael Hout, Martin Sanchez Jankowski, Samuel R. Lucas, Ann Swidler, and Kim Voss, “Why Inequality?” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 9-15; Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94.
  3. [3]Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness;” Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  4. [4]Philip G. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).
  5. [5]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, 4th. ed., ed. Charles Lemert (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010).
  6. [6]Ben Stein, “In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning,” New York Times, November 26, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/business/yourmoney/26every.html
  7. [7]John Arlidge, “George Soros on the Coming U.S. Class War,” Daily Beast, January 23, 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/01/22/george-soros-on-the-coming-u-s-class-war.html

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