Knowing your place

by Henry on May 5, 2009

I really, really liked this insight from a post by Jo Walton on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Some critics have suggested it’s implausible that a whole class of people could be created to donate and die and yet been permitted to drive around from centre to centre and go into shops and service stations. I have no problem with it. The worst tortures are the ones you do to yourself. They are a class, they know their place.


Never Let Me Go is an intensely British book, as is The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro was born in Japan and emigrated to Britain as a child and grew up there. I think these are books that could only be written by someone utterly steeped in a culture who has nevertheless always been something of an outsider in it. The donors in Never Let Me Go grumble and accept and go on in a scarily recognisable way. I was once in the Lake District with a group of friends. We came to a hotel advertising “afternoon teas.“ It was afternoon and we were tired and wanted tea—but my friends, of working class origin, all felt that going into the hotel wouldn’t be appropriate, that it wasn’t for them. I dragged them in and as we sat there (drinking better tea for less money and in much nicer chairs than we’d have had if we’d walked another mile into the village) I realised that they were all acting as if they’d got away with something, and that they weren’t comfortable. This entirely trivial incident sticks with me because it’s the way the British class system works—it’s not got much to do with money, nothing stops people from going where they don’t belong except their sense that it isn’t where they belong. This is the inexorable pressure that keeps Ishiguro’s clones where they belong, and it’s a lot scarier than barbed wire and dogs.

It’s a cliche to say that English fiction is obsessed with class, but like many cliches, it has a fair amount of truth to it (my favourite piece of English cinema is Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, which is all about the intersection of class and family assumptions). As an Irish person, visiting England (when I do ) is an interesting experience, now that the hostilities and vague anti-Irish racism of the past have gone away. Irish people don’t map well onto the English class system. We’re not entirely foreigners (we were after all part of the same country for centuries), but we don’t fit neatly into the obvious categories, have accents which can be easily assigned to social categories etc (which is not to say, obviously, that these accents are socially opaque to Irish people; they aren’t, and Ireland has its own subtle but quite emphatic class divisions and social expectations).

Living in the US is more interesting still. The Irish experience – a small country where you very nearly know everyone, and everyone very nearly knows you (or at least, can place your family and mutual connections within a few minutes of starting to talk to you – Kieran had a post on this years ago) is probably quite foreign to most Americans. And getting away from it is liberating – it’s nice to live in a place where nobody knows about your background, and nobody would care if they did know. But there’s also a certain degree of comfort to knowing your place too. This is perhaps the source of the subtle horror that Walton detects in Ishiguro – the possibility that even if the clones could conceive of other possibilities than dying to have their organs harvested, they might not find these possibilities attractive. The disturbing element of Ishiguro’s work for left-liberals (and here, it might be interesting to trace out the relationships between NLMG and The Remains of the Day) is his suggestion that human beings may not want the kinds of autonomy that liberals presume they do, and that they might actively prefer to be defined by their social situation (even if this situation is one that we find distressing, upsetting and ethically unjustifiable).

{ 60 comments }

1

kid bitzer 05.05.09 at 6:38 pm

i always bless the name of jo walton for the following line:

As Jo Walton remarked to me in Glasgow last weekend, explaining her reluctance to visit the US any more, “Being a middle-aged white woman is kind of like having civil rights, but not really an adequate substitute.”

http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/006624.html

2

Kieran Healy 05.05.09 at 6:44 pm

And getting away from it is liberating – it’s nice to live in a place where nobody knows about your background, and nobody would care if they did know.

And then everyone is on FaceBook all of a sudden.

3

RS 05.05.09 at 6:50 pm

Are there any other literary works you (or other fellow readers) might recommend that deal with the subject of self-imposed constraints, one’s “invisible knapsack”, or internalised class systems? As an aside, this phenomenon is commonly described in terms of the struggle for womens’ rights; whether it’s the CWA in the US or the majority of female quota legislators in Iraq, it would appear that one can frequently observe people constrained through their lives defending those constraints through the tropes of dignity, propriety, moral rectitude or duty.

4

Russell Arben Fox 05.05.09 at 6:54 pm

The disturbing element of Ishiguro’s work for left-liberals…is his suggestion that human beings may not want the kinds of autonomy that liberals presume they do, and that they might actively prefer to be defined by their social situation (even if this situation is one that we find distressing, upsetting and ethically unjustifiable).

A fair expression of the central, recurring–and, I think, more often than not morally astute–insight of communitarian (and hence some though not all forms of conservative) thought.

5

The Raven 05.05.09 at 7:04 pm

“…human beings may not want the kinds of autonomy that liberals presume they do…”

I think that, for many human beings, that is very clear. Yet part of being human is a response to autonomy. Many people would prefer to avoid that response entirely (which I take to be one of Ishiguro’s themes), but doing so makes for stunted lives.

Krawk!

6

Kieran Healy 05.05.09 at 7:09 pm

Krawk!

Spare us, please.

7

akatsuki 05.05.09 at 7:21 pm

“…human beings may not want the kinds of autonomy that liberals presume they do…”

or they may not be yearning for democracy the way conservative warmongers presume they do…

Not a big surprise, slaves have functioned in societies (e.g. Rome) without much fanfare. It is easy to create class distinctions and then to have them maintained by the ones who gain the least – look at politics today for plenty of examples.

8

The Raven 05.05.09 at 7:26 pm

Oh, all right. I just got so tired of complaints about depressing posts that I decided to, hmm, embrace the dark side.

9

chrismealy 05.05.09 at 7:34 pm

Huh, rational utility maximizers possess at least some ability to shape their own preferences? Impossible.

If I wuz smarter I’d link this up to Elster’s “Sour Grapes” or Veyne’s “Bread and Circuses.”

10

dsquared 05.05.09 at 7:37 pm

I’m not really sure that this is that much of a new problem for liberals; the phenomenon of “Ladies Against Women” has been around roughly as long as the theory that women are human beings. It’s also there in Steven Lukes writing about the untouchables in India, or for that matter the widespread debate about Muslim women’s headgear. Basically, the answer is surely that a) liberalism won’t tell you what to do if you really really want to live as a second class citizen or as a means to an end for others but b) anyone who wants to create such a set of institutions is certainly going to have to achieve it without the assistance of state power, and c) in fact, the state power of a liberal state is going to regularly take a hard look at the seeming consent of the Dalits, donors, newlywed daughters, etc, in order to make sure that their acquiescence to a situation which prima facie appears to be giving them the shaft is the genuine result of free and informed choice.

11

OO 05.05.09 at 7:38 pm

“Some critics have suggested it’s implausible that a whole class of people could be created to donate and die and yet been permitted to drive around from centre to centre and go into shops and service stations. I have no problem with it. The worst tortures are the ones you do to yourself. They are a class, they know their place.”

No, really, it was implausible based entirely on the immanent logic of the story. What is clear in the story is that the clones did find possibilities other than having their organs harvested very attractive. That’s why Kathy H. and Tommy seek out Madame. In fact, the Cottages are pervaded with the clones’ desperation for an alternative other than dying.

Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is, if anything, too Millian liberal (and it isn’t surprising that it got such rave reviews). It struck me that he has such a horror of being tagged as “ideological,” that he robs his characters of any psychological depth.

12

rm 05.05.09 at 7:39 pm

That’s a great novel. My whole comment is pretty much “what Jo Walton said,” but, well . . .

I think if the donors did try to run, or rebel, or live under false identities, they’d be subject to the law the way other criminals are — in fear of being tracked down, exposed, punished. The horror is that they are law-abiding under the circumstances.

The liberals in the book are the people who ran the “school” where donors were encouraged to make art as if they were human beings, to show the world that these creatures have something resembling human feelings, though of course not as real or strong as what you or I feel, naturally. But they should be treated humanely before being cut up for parts.

What got to me most in the novel is when you think through the liberals’ position, you realize some assumptions that this entire society is based upon: clones were invented in the 1950s, and everyone was told, assumed, knows that these new lab-created creatures are just things. They live in horror of these unnatural monstrosities, the clones, who are obviously not human. Most clones are housed in cells and refused all nurture, and the “school” the characters attended was an experiment to demonstrate that these objects might respond to nurture if they were given any.

It’s a parable of dehumanization, like Philip K. Dick’s in Do Androids Dream but a lot less bizarre, and more chilling because it’s so plausible, or in other words, what Jo Walton said.

I imagine that NLMG is in continuity with The Remains of the Day where the employer got his way and helped the Nazis take over England, and the advances in cloning are the results of having no ethical restraints on science.

13

Farah 05.05.09 at 7:43 pm

The class of people conditioned to “know their place” ie slaves, went around poisoning their masters and trying to run away. As well as forelock tugging workers there were unionists and saboteurs.

I could have accepted some, even most, of the clones “knowing their place”, but the idea that all of them just accepted it was straight out of Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional Life (1959), and remains what it was then, a consoling lie.

14

Ted Lemon 05.05.09 at 7:44 pm

With respect to your comment about how people don’t really want freedom, and that this is a problem for liberals, there’s a big gaping omission in your theory. What is it? It’s that you haven’t shown that this conformant behavior is innate. The reason this is such a big omission is that in fact there’s good reason to believe that this behavior *isn’t* innate. Social training starts young.

So, speaking as a liberal myself, this is no problem for me at all; rather, it is symptomatic of a societal problem that needs solving. Which is, of course, what liberals aspire to do.

15

Martin 05.05.09 at 7:46 pm

It strikes me as the sort of insight only an ex-pat could have. I agree this element of Ishiguro’s work is disturbing but it is also bollocks.

And I’m not sure about Walton’s swipe at Piercy either.

16

Russell Arben Fox 05.05.09 at 7:53 pm

Basically, the answer is surely that a) liberalism won’t tell you what to do if you really really want to live as a second class citizen or as a means to an end for others but b) anyone who wants to create such a set of institutio0ns is certainly going to have to achieve it without the assistance of state power, and c) in fact, the state power of a liberal state is going to regularly take a hard look at the seeming consent of the Dalits, donors, newlywed daughters, etc, in order to make sure that their acquiescence to a situation which prima facie appears to be giving them the shaft is the genuine result of free and informed choice.

A good answer, dsquared, but–as you’re probably entirely willing to acknowledge–an incomplete one. For example, when you say “without the assistance of state power,” that leaves unresolved all those ways in which the ordinary operations of state (or corporate, for that matter) power will privilege–through the language it uses, through the schools it constructs, etc.–one choice over another. And of course, that “free and informed choice”–what sort of instrumentalities or bureaucracies might have to come into play to satisfy liberals that the child from a religious family, or the resident of a small, rural community, really were making “informed” choices? This gets to the heart of an old dispute between Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka, over what degree, if any, of disruption of a way of life (the social worker coming into a home, the religious leader submitting reports to a supervisor) is justifiable to make sure that those who embrace that way of life are doing so in a “liberal” way…keeping in mind that every disruption is going to be changing that way of life in some way.

Of course, one could also argue that liberalism is, by definition, interventionary, and that so long as you’re not invading Iraq or some other fool thing like that, liberals have to be at peace with mucking around in other peoples’ lives, and the power relations which govern them, for the sake of the choices individuals make. I think it was Stephen Macedo who talked pleasantly about the “moderate hegemony of liberalism,” after all.

17

dsquared 05.05.09 at 8:54 pm

#15: I had a response to that but it got eaten, sorry Russell – basically, I think this is more of a problem in theory than in practice. The Cohen seminar is relevant here in that there are plenty of ways in which actually existing liberal societies might make compromises with illiberal ways of life in the interests of reducing the bureaucracy payroll to something consistent with the tax base, and in the interests of minimising the deadweight loss of the inconvenience of being harassed all the time. Also, the liberal society has to be prepared to take no for an answer, as is often the case with respect to Muslim women’s headscarves, for example. But if a social or religious group wants to systematically keep its members uninformed about important things which they need to know about in order to be full and autonomous citizens, then I think the consensus is correctly that this is one of the bright lines of a liberal society worthy of the name, only to be compromised on in cases when it literally physically can’t be enforced.

I’m also, personally not too imprworried about the idea of a liberal state’s language, propaganda, etc privileging one form of life over another. Things like education and public health information have to be organised, which means they have to be organised in some specific way. While members of a minority religious community might find that irksome, their right to live their own way doesn’t extend to a right not to be irked – any more than the rights which a liberal society promises to defend for apostates of such a group include the right to keep all their own mates and stay on speaking terms with their parents.

18

rm 05.05.09 at 9:00 pm

I’ll second Ted Lemon’s comment in response to Farah and others. The problem posed by the novel is only partly how a screwed class internalizes their “place.” If it were only that it would be a problem for liberalism and for anti-racism and so on, and it might be a lie. But it goes deeper into a person’s fundamental ideas about basic facts of humanity — people in this society, even the liberals, share a gut-level revulsion at the touch of the clones, at the idea of their existence. They don’t touch them much, or have sex with them. The clones assume something fundamental is different about themselves. It’s not just “why not resist?,” it’s “why were we made so alien and different?” That this is entirely a cultural construct is the point. The parable reflects on times when sex, race, foreign-ness, disability, mental illness, deafness, etc. have seen an alien substance where they should have been seen as human.

I don’t know nothin’ about political philosophy, but I reckon some people in that field must look into the ways that culture and political arrangements support or create each other. A belief that goes deep enough culturally can get people to behave in some surprising ways politically. You might be shocked to learn.

19

Anderson 05.05.09 at 9:16 pm

Wow. I never knew what the book was about. If the movie turns out anything like the description of the book, audiences will be staggering out into the open air looking like they got clobbered in the head with a 2×4.

20

Ted Lemon 05.05.09 at 9:54 pm

rm @17, when you say you “don’t know nothin’ about political philosophy,” is that a statement of actual ignorance, or a statement of conformance to the norm for your class?

21

novakant 05.05.09 at 10:36 pm

Sapere aude!

But it can be pretty stressful, granted.

22

Barry 05.06.09 at 1:30 am

Anderson 05.05.09 at 9:16 pm

“Wow. I never knew what the book was about. If the movie turns out anything like the description of the book, audiences will be staggering out into the open air looking like they got clobbered in the head with a 2×4.”

If they don’t change the ending.

23

rm 05.06.09 at 2:35 am

Ted, it means I teach English, and I really do not know about political philosophy, and it feels odd to me for a discussion of a novel to jump right to its political consequences. Instead of to, like, its brilliance with language or its literary allusions or its plot or something.

I figure the relation of culture to politics must be a commonplace, obvious topic in the field, though, because it would be dumb if that were not. To me, the influence of culture on people’s behavior looms much larger and more obvious than the influence of political structures, but I’m sure that’s because I am so much more interested in culture.

In this novel, for instance, it seems clear to me that freedom for clones is practically unthinkable for the characters; it would be like freedom for zoo animals. Their cultural frame shapes their thinking so profoundly that it does not occur to them that they are the same, biologically or morally, as non-clones. They want what they want for themselves, but cannot think one step farther to conceive of having a right to anything they want.

24

rm 05.06.09 at 2:45 am

I thought they made that movie years ago. It was a lot more action-packed than the novel.

In response to Henry: everyone very nearly knows you (or at least, can place your family and mutual connections within a few minutes of starting to talk to you) — that is what it seems to be like for the Kentuckians I live among. They know each other’s last names even if they don’t know each other, and it matters a lot who your people are. A much smaller proportion of out-of-staters here than in most states. I guess Kentucky is about the size and population of Ireland.

25

Laura 05.06.09 at 3:09 am

I teach English too and while I found the discussion here very interesting it also seems to me to begin by taking too easily for granted that the novel is a parable or allegory or other instrument for thinking about history and politics.

As a teacher I let and even encourage my students to treat novels in this instrumental way to some degree but I always try to also ask them, at some point, why they think the author wrote a novel rather than an essay or a text in some other genre.

26

Doug 05.06.09 at 4:57 am

rm at 24: That holds true for large swathes of the South. For example, I once traveled more than 500 miles across the South, only to find that the parents of the friend I was staying with (and whom I had never met before) had introduced my childhood soccer coach to his future wife.

27

Chris Bertram 05.06.09 at 5:21 am

_This entirely trivial incident sticks with me because it’s the way the British class system works—it’s not got much to do with money, nothing stops people from going where they don’t belong except their sense that it isn’t where they belong. This is the inexorable pressure that keeps Ishiguro’s clones where they belong,_

Je ne suis pas sociologue, mais …..

Isn’t it a consequence of Bourdieu’s view that this isn’t as distinctive of the _British_ as people generally think? At least, this “not for the likes of us” dynamic happens in France too, and probably most other places.

28

Zamfir 05.06.09 at 7:17 am

Isn’t it a consequence of Bourdieu’s view that this isn’t as distinctive of the British as people generally think? At least, this “not for the likes of us” dynamic happens in France too, and probably most other places.

I always thought that the pecularity of the British was that they are relatively outspoken and conscious of their classes.

My weirdest experience in England classes was a time I went to some local pub, and when I left someone walked over to me and said literally that this really wasn’t a place for my kind of people. Nothing subtle about it. I said I wasn’t English, and the man apologized, said I was welcome anytime and bought me some weird cider drink. I guess this resembles Henry’s Irish-don’t-fit-in-the-system experience.

In most countries, when you walk into a wrong-class pub you just get hostile stares, and they don’t go away when you turn out to be foreign.

29

Tracy W 05.06.09 at 8:09 am

The counterpoint I would say to this is that the “lower class” people who immigrated to NZ from Britain were definitely not trying to recreate the British class system. I’ve read accounts by people like Lady Barker’s story of station life of what the early colonists were like, and it wasn’t a case of the poorer people keeping in their place. Lady Barker tells about a servant wanting to borrow her riding habit and hat to go with a horse someone else had lent her to go to the Christchurch races (as a spectator, not a competor). Of course to hop on a sailing ship in the mid 19th century and go over halfway round the world, leaving your family behind for good, means that you must be pretty weird to start with.

And more recently, I know a number of Asian female students who have moved to NZ to study and then refused to go back home because they much prefer the casual feminism of NZ to a much more restricted life in their home countries.

Of course this is not everyone, most people did not emigrate from Britain in the 19th century, even ones who could have afforded to do so, and a number of those who did didn’t do so voluntarily, and most Asian female students do choose to go back home. But autonomy does seem fairly attractive, even if people also find attractions in family and friends.

I’m also curious about one thing you say – you talk about people who might prefer to be defined by their social sitaution, what would someone who wasn’t defined by their social situation look like? I know that I have a lot more control over my social situation than most people, particularly other women, did through most of history and around the world, but I would still say that I am defined by whatever one I pick.

30

Ah 05.06.09 at 8:36 am

For me the best feature of NLMG was how perfectly it captured the atomsphere of being a 10 year old in an English boarding school. A world of rules where rebellion didn’t arise as a serious option. By the time we were 15, things were very different.

31

Stuart 05.06.09 at 8:58 am

Out of interest is there a website that a British person who doesn’t know what class they are can find out by answering a questionairre or similar? Preferably it would have a list of places I would/wouldn’t be welcome in based on the answer. It seems like it would be a useful thing to know.

32

ajay 05.06.09 at 9:02 am

a British person who doesn’t know what class they are

Ain’t no such animal.

33

Chris Bertram 05.06.09 at 9:55 am

Well a good class-marker historically was whether a person went to public school (that, for the benefit of non-Brits is an expensive _private_ school). A test of colleagues over coffee showed that those people at least were rather bad at guessing which type of school others attended. Class — in the Brit/cultural sense – isn’t that hard to fake or change (if you want to).

34

John M. 05.06.09 at 12:11 pm

#24 “I thought they made that movie years ago. It was a lot more action-packed than the novel.”

Not only that, they wrote the book in 1996 – see “Spares” by Michael Marshall Smith. I must admit avoiding the subject of the post for this reason. A ridiculous prejudice I know, but having tried “The Time Traveller’s Wife” and found it to be a dull remix of every time travelling sci-fi book concept couched in a “literary” love story, its put me off for life.

35

Anderson 05.06.09 at 1:14 pm

Not only that, they wrote the book in 1996 – see “Spares” by Michael Marshall Smith.

Larry Niven solved the organ-donor problem without resort to cloning in “The Jigsaw Man.” Gotta watch those traffic violations, though.

36

A. Y. Mous 05.06.09 at 1:26 pm

“Knowing your place” is “good” in the sense that a local maxima is good. Even within a given class, you always strive to achieve the topmost position. And good is defined by the amount energy required to move from point A to point B where Less is More.

As to finding out which class you belong to, if you can relate to the following sentence, you would have a fair idea. “I have never been poor. I am just perpetually broke.” Contrary to popular notions, class is directly proportional to debt. The current (esrtwhile?) masters of the universe is proof enough.

37

Salient 05.06.09 at 1:30 pm

but I always try to also ask them, at some point, why they think the author wrote a novel rather than an essay or a text in some other genre.

Perhaps because philosophizing by anecdote is both more widely compelling than, and significantly easier than, reasoning claims out explicitly? We’re liable to form emotional connections with entities we recognize as fellow beings, even through the gauze of a story, and that provides a convenient vehicle for philosophical commentary. Setting aside the obvious examples like Swift and Orwell, there’s philosophizing-by-anecdote aplenty in most canonical works, and to good effect: e.g. I found Gravity’s Rainbow to be a more immediately persuasive critique of behaviorism than the standard criticisms (though the latter provided a more rigorous & thorough case).

Or, perhaps because the desire to write was motivated in part by wanting to develop and express a broad understanding of the world and who its inhabitants are, which is essentially philosophic. The ideal phrasing of this idea escapes me.

Anyway. I can think of novels that I wouldn’t call philosophical, but I can’t think of any novels that are free of philosophy.

38

rm 05.06.09 at 2:11 pm

John M., if you read the Jo Walton post, one of her points is that although high-art-lit versions of SF are usually not good (because the authors don’t respect the stage props and fx devices of the genre, and so deploy them clumsily), this example is transcendently great. I urge you to give this one a try. Chabon is also good at it. Franzen in The Corrections has a more subtle undertone of SF and fantasy, but he seems to use the genre elements with skill.

39

Doctor Science 05.06.09 at 2:55 pm

people in this society, even the liberals, share a gut-level revulsion at the touch of the clones, at the idea of their existence. They don’t touch them much, or have sex with them.

Really?!? I can buy that there are clones, that they’re a separate, despised caste, that no-one thinks of them as “real people”. I can’t buy that they aren’t sexually exploited. *That* would be against human nature — or at least against every similar example in history or anthropology that I can think of.

40

rm 05.06.09 at 5:06 pm

Dr. Sc., I agree with you on that. I didn’t re-read the novel before writing that, but I’m pretty sure that sexual exploitation is not mentioned in the novel. It doesn’t enter the story, iirc. If that means the fictional world does not include it, then there must be a really basic taboo. There is not a lot of sexual exploitation of zoo animals in the real world. Even of farm animals — old jokes aside, I guess it’s pretty rare, except among Republican candidates for Governor of Georgia.

41

Doctor Science 05.06.09 at 5:18 pm

rm:

But animals, even apes, do not look human. Even if everyone said and thought the clones were taboo, the fact is that they’re biologically, functionally human — which means they’d be used as sex toys. That’s what people do.

42

rm 05.06.09 at 5:37 pm

Yeah. You’ll have to ask Ishiguro about that next time you see him, and I’ll have to re-read the novel now to see if it’s between the lines.

43

nick s 05.06.09 at 7:59 pm

Well a good class-marker historically was whether a person went to public school (that, for the benefit of non-Brits is an expensive private school).

A 1980s Hunter Davies book o’lists from my teenage library (the kind that the internets may have rendered obsolete) defined “upper class” as “grandfather had a title of nobility” and working class as “father worked in manual labour”.

Class—in the Brit/cultural sense – isn’t that hard to fake or change (if you want to).

But there are ways and means, and one of the most effective (lernin’t’talk posh, like) is also potentially the biggest wrench. Cf. Daniel’s CiF piece on the role of accents and Will Self’s related line in Junk Mail: “In Britain, you can make the ascent from working to middle class in one generation, but you can’t top out at the summit. If you have any kind of strong regional accent, you can’t possibly be pukka.”

The “We’re free! Now what?” plotline seems more common and less peculiarly English these days. My suspicion is that it was globalised by the “Yes! We’re all individuals!” scene in The Life of Brian.

44

virgil xenophon 05.06.09 at 11:34 pm

RE: “Class” in England. It used to be said (circa as late as the 70s–don’t know if the view obtains anymore) that one could always tell who were products of the upper class among college-age youth at any sit-down meal in more or less formal settings–they were invariably the ones with the worst table manners..

BTW, I’ve also had the same sort of experience in a couple of English pubs that Zamfir describes @28 Of course this can also happen if you walk into the wrong Cajun/Creole bar almost anywhere in small-town SW Louisiana.

45

Robert the Red 05.06.09 at 11:37 pm

I felt that a major theme of NLMG was the gathering impression of what life is like inside a society built on an omnipresent evil, so pervading that even the victims are unable to fully conceive of an alternative way of life. Which then in turn made me think about what is it in our society that might be corresponding. Candidates are not so hard to find.

46

Doctor Science 05.07.09 at 12:58 am

Zamfir:

I am gobsmacked by your pub story. Clearly the pubman wasn’t parsing “race” the way I’m used to — you’re acceptable because you’re not trying to be English, and hence above your station, but that means you can drink in the pub…? No, I don’t get it.

47

Phil 05.07.09 at 10:24 am

Clearly the pubman wasn’t parsing “race” the way I’m used to

I knew people like that when I was growing up in the South-East of England. You could sum up the attitude as “I’m a racist, no offence intended”.

Each to their own, OK? It works for us and it works for them. So if one of them tried it on by coming in here, obviously we’d put them straight, wouldn’t we? But you, well, you weren’t to know, were you? You’ll know another time, eh? No harm done – can I get you one for the road?

I didn’t really like the South-East.

48

Zamfir 05.07.09 at 12:17 pm

I am gobsmacked by your pub story. Clearly the pubman wasn’t parsing “race” the way I’m used to—you’re acceptable because you’re not trying to be English, and hence above your station, but that means you can drink in the pub…? No, I don’t get it.

It was very friendly on the whole, even when they wanted me out. The pub didn’t want posh people in, for a very large category of posh or it wouldn’t include me. But they only had a problem with English posh people, perhaps because foreigners cannot be really posh by definition.

I told them I didn’t understand their class system, and recognizing that it exists without understanding it was apparently the correct position.

49

belle le triste 05.07.09 at 12:42 pm

I grew up in the agricultural west midlands, and there I think the provisional hospitality/hostility shift was similar — “Your kind not welcome if your being here means lots of like-you will be following; if you’re a random one-off drop-in, then we’re honoured by your exotic presence and what are you having, it’s lovely to meet you?”

And it applied class-wise (to other Britons) as well as race-wise.

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RS 05.07.09 at 1:14 pm

Is it not a myth that class is some uniquely British concept? Ireland and the US are just as full of it in my experience. I imagine it is probably true of pretty much any country.

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RS2 05.07.09 at 1:18 pm

oops – different RS from further above

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rm 05.07.09 at 1:34 pm

45: Well said, Robert the Red. That’s totally it.

RS, don’t you think in the US we pretend we have no classes — we’re an egalitarian society where anyone can get ahead like Horatio Alger — even though class obviously matters and we are less socially mobile than some other countries? And people don’t say “class” as much as they say “snooty,” “stuck-up,” “white trash,” “redneck,” “rough,” and so on.

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RS2 05.07.09 at 1:34 pm

Getting back to the book – isn’t it an inherent weakness of any of this kind of literature/entertainment – that is stories premised on a society that has deemed clones, or artificial intelligence, or whatever as being ipso facto subhuman and with degraded or absent rights – that it tends to fall at the hurdle of plausibility.

Not that it isn’t plausible that people would do this – human history of slavery is proof enough of that – but more that no one seems to be truly engaging intellectually with the question in these (usually) futuristic societies – it is painted as just an accepted fact about the world rather than what would presumably be a massively contentious issue rending society.

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RS2 05.07.09 at 1:38 pm

Oh sure – the US likes to think it doesn’t have classes (and has rather different meanings for terms like ‘working’ or ‘middle’ class) but that doesn’t change the rather stark and obvious existence of them (and to a large extent their inter-relatoonshop with race).

I find Americans talk to me a lot about the British class system, and view it as some quaint idiosyncrasy, but here in DC class is so in your face I don’t understand how people can’t see it.

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 05.07.09 at 3:11 pm

” Irish people don’t map well onto the English class system. We’re not entirely foreigners (we were after all part of the same country for centuries), but we don’t fit neatly into the obvious categories, have accents which can be easily assigned to social categories etc “

Very true.

Despite growing up in Northern Ireland, and spending more than five years in the U.K., I realised I would never truly grok the English class system. But it’s definitely better to have a Dublin, Belfast or lowland Scots accent than having a Scouser, Yorkshire, or God forgive, Brummie accent if you want to work in the City or Inns of Court.

Adapting to the West Coast of the U.S. was a breeze by comparison, although how elites are formed int he U.S. is much less obvious than in the U.K.: the East Coast seems a lot closer to the U.K. in terms of important of family background & private school than the West Coast.

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lemmy caution 05.07.09 at 5:40 pm

Is it not a myth that class is some uniquely British concept? Ireland and the US are just as full of it in my experience. I imagine it is probably true of pretty much any country.

That is probably true. It still can be the case that class is a more prominent feature in certain countries than others.

Race and ethnic issues are more prominent in the US. For example, in many California restaurants, the kitchen workers are almost all Hispanic but none of the waiters are Hispanic. Who the hell knows what is going on, but this kind of thing is a lot more prominent than class differences among whites which, of course, do exist.

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RS2 05.07.09 at 5:50 pm

Here in DC class and race are strongly correlated – that doesn’t mean that the reason I see so many black faces working in admin and retail in NW DC/MD while so few are in other jobs, or residents, is to do with race rather than class.

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lemmy caution 05.07.09 at 6:01 pm

The book “Unequal Childhoods” is the one that really brought out the real class issues in the united states for me:

http://www.amazon.com/Unequal-Childhoods-Class-Race-Family/dp/0520239504

Both the in the very different child rearing styles of the two groups and in the book’s insistence that the lower middle class is stunting their kids in some way. “If only you did things our way, we would be would welcome you with open arms”

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rm 05.07.09 at 6:38 pm

lemmy, that looks great. The amazon reviews don’t give the impression of the bias, but it looks valuable anyway. Reminds me of this 1983 classic that takes the opposite bias — it insists that school should adapt to the kids’ culture instead of stigmatizing parents.

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lemmy caution 05.07.09 at 6:46 pm

It is a great book.

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