Thursday, May 18, 2017

Things of This World


The world is so full of a number of things
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
                                   Robert Louis Stevenson




     The greatest mass divestiture of material goods in history has begun, as the vast rich postwar generation tries, without success, to pass its vast riches on to its daughters and sons. For a variety of reasons the children of Boomers – called Millennials or Gen X or Gen Y or the Baby Boom echo or whatever – those born roughly between 1980 and 2000 – will not and cannot inherit their parents’ heritage or accept their inheritance. They reject our exotic dust-magnet tchotchkes, they have no use for our closets full of clothing groaning on the rack or our cupboards bulging with dishes and glasses and gadgets and gizmos, they won’t take our credenzas or escritoires or étagères or vanities or china cabinets or recliners or wedding silver or pianos, they don’t want our impressive lifelong collections or craft supplies or artwork or souvenirs or even family photos and home movies.





I will not come today.

“Cannot” is false, and that I dare not, falser.

I will not come today.
                                           from Julius Caesar



     The “will not” part has to do with the aesthetic of Less. The electronic reduction of films, music, photography and print to computer files, out of sight/out of mind, has played a huge role in the divestiture. Instead of lovingly preserving sensuous material objects, Boomers’ kids even tolerate the periodic loss of all their personal data in computer crashes. They seem to be less attached to “the things of this world” than we their parents could ever bring ourselves to be. Of course there is a positive aspect to this attitude. Possessions can tie one down and hold one back. Riches can be defined in many ways, both material and spiritual. It appears the postwar generation overbought. ...


     The “cannot” part has to do with the high cost of living which limits the housing size, storage space, cash flow and savings of this younger generation. The Boomers did very well for themselves even working parttime; now two fulltime earners are required to live the good life. And if you live in any American city, you don't want a car, not even a free one.




… The things I brought with me from far away,
compared with theirs, look strangely not the same:
in their great country they were living things,
but here they hold their breath, as if for shame.
              from “The Solitary,” Rainer Maria Rilke




     Possessing no current intentions of having their own progeny, the Boomers’ kids also turn their noses up at all the boxes of adorable infant and child toys and onesies and bibs and impossibly tiny t-shirts that read “Mama’s Angel Baby” and the darling children’s books with their gentle truths and beautiful illustrations. Indeed one of the saddest desertions, one of the most shocking betrayals, is the rejection of the Book itself.

     Boomers have already bravely faced up to the bitter downfall of their beloved LPs – record albums – vinyl … But books? Who doesn’t want books? Everybody, it turns out. You can’t give the things away; in fact you must pay to have them removed from your premises and dumped into (ironically) unmarked graves.

     Boomers’ kids do read, of course, but prefer Kindle-type interfaces. At least they do now: there is growing evidence that, like vinyl, material books are starting to make a comeback. There’s nothing like the feel of a vintage volume in the hand, the antique fragrance, the impression of the engraver’s plate on the bond paper …

     Such a typical Boomer utterance, that. We sure did love our “stuff.” We still do. It makes us feel secure, successful, complicated. The immense material edifice we have constructed will never be reconstructed. Its loss will impoverish future society and wipe out a great deal of social memory. Of more serious concern is the potential for the Internet alteration, “scrubbing” or "disappearing" of knowledge and history. How can biographies be recollected with no letters or pictures or tangible objects to refer to?

      The twilight years of these Things will pass silently, locked inside the thousands of square miles of storage units crowding the land. But much more will be carted off en masse to China or snapped up by immigrants at yard sales. Never to return.


Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
                                               Richard Wilbur



The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,

And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   

Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   

As false dawn.

                     Outside the open window   

The morning air is all awash with angels.



    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   

Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   

Now they are rising together in calm swells   

Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   

With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;



    Now they are flying in place, conveying

The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   

And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   

They swoon down into so rapt a quiet

That nobody seems to be there.

                                             The soul shrinks



    From all that it is about to remember,

From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,

And cries,

               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   

Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam

And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”



    Yet, as the sun acknowledges

With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   

The soul descends once more in bitter love   

To accept the waking body, saying now

In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   

    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;

Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   

Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   

And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   

Of dark habits,

                      keeping their difficult balance."

Sunday, March 12, 2017

National Hymns and Patriotic Anthems


Marian Kester Coombs
September 2016                   


National anthems originate as paeans to a people’s self. At the very least anthems inspire solidarity and express a people's self-image or -concept. They serve as the soundtrack of nascent nations and established empires as well as of smaller human cohorts. Their form and content range from the most bloody-minded of fight songs to the most Utopian of hymns to the Creator.

In modern times the massive expansion of global self-consciousness has led in some cases to anthems-by-committee being superimposed on native musical traditions, so a given anthem may no longer characterize a particular nation any more than all the people in that nation may belong to one original nationality.

But most modern national anthems began as hymns and were then transformed by political upheaval or nation-building. Nations – from natio, Latin for clan, race or tribe related by birth – are born believing in their own divine origin: that their people were fashioned by gods who condescended to descend to earth, or who at least continued to consider their creatures the unique "people of God." As such, the national hymn confidently invokes divine aid in smiting the foe and gaining victory on the battlefield.

The Old Testament is full of such accounts of the deeds of  Yahweh – Deus Sabaoth, Lord God of Hosts – all of which are anthemic for the people of Judah. "Rock of Ages" (“Ma’oz Tsur”) is an ancient hymn common to both Jewish and Christian faiths since at least the 14th century. It was translated from Hebrew to German in the 19th century, and to English not long after:


Thou amidst the raging foe / Wast our shelt'ring tower.
Furious they assailed us, / But Thine Arm availed us,
And Thy Word / broke their sword,
When our own strength failed us.

"Rock of Ages" is a classic example of simultaneous prostration at the feet of divine providence and of militant self-worship common to the root anthems of earth's peoples. In the Western tradition we can also begin with the paeans of ancient Greece, songs of triumph and thanksgiving that preceded, accompanied and followed battle. Paeans were as likely to be sung by private armies like Achilles's Myrmidons as they were to represent an entire city-state. The root of the word seems to be related to “healing”: a shaman’s chant to the gods for restoration after the stress of battle. Achilles has his men sing one after the slaying of Hector in the Iliad.

Before most Western peoples awoke to their nationhood, however, there was the greater body of Christendom, and Christian hymns that functioned to all intents and purposes as anthems. One of the earliest was "Fairest Lord Jesus" (Schoenster Jesu), also called the Crusaders' Hymn, sung to the tune well known today as "Morning So Fair to See." Its history is of interest in light of Islam's renewed attack upon the West.

When Muslim armies recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, Pope Innocent II called upon Europe's knights to answer that grievous provocation. But the knights were battle-weary. In the spring of 1212, however, a 15-year-old shepherd boy named Stephan inspired thousands of French children to follow him to the Holy Land. At the same time a German 10-year-old named Nicholas was rousing thousands of his own fellow boys and girls. "These unsuspecting lambs of Europe began to gather in flocks to begin their pilgrimage southward," records the Christian History Institute. This was the Children's Crusade. By tradition these young soldiers, "escorted by butterfly and bird," sang "Fairest Lord Jesus" as they marched – to slavery, starvation, disease and death.

Centuries later this hymn was finally collected in the 1677 Muenster Gesangbuch. Still later, in 1842, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who wrote the poem “Deutschland ueber alles,” heard Silesian peasants singing the hymn and recorded it in his Schlesische Volkslieder. The first known English translation was by Richard Storrs Willis, the Bostonian composer of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," who published it in his Church Chorals and Choir Studies (1850).

Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature,
O Thou of God to earth come down,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul's glory, joy and crown.

The verses go on to extol fair meadows, woodlands, sunshine, moonlight – than all of which is Christ more fair – which presage the degeneration of the text into the bland nature-worship of Vincent Silliman's 1934 version:

Morning so fair to see, night veiled in mystery,
Glor'ious the earth and resplendent skies!
Great God, we march along, singing our pilgrim song,
As through an earthly paradise.

As befits an ancient nation, Britain boasts the earliest and most varied national hymns and anthems, although to this day she has resisted picking an official one. Perhaps her first was the paean sung at a famous medieval victory. In Shakespeare's Henry V, after the English miracle at Agincourt in 1415, the king instructs his band of brothers, "Do we all holy rites./Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,/The dead with charity enclosed in clay ..."

Non nobis was the Latin version of Psalm 115, a prayer of humble thanksgiving:



Non nobis, Domine, Domine,
Non nobis, Domine,
Sed nomini, sed nomini tuo da gloriam.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to your name be the glory.

The victory soon afterwards inspired its own popular lay, which has become known as The Agincourt Song, Hymn or Carol, or simply as Deo gracias. The words' author is unknown but the melody is attributed to John Dunstable (? – 1453). As in a topical calypso number, there are six verses recounting the history of the campaign, of which the first is:

Our King went forth to Normandy
With grace and might of chivalry.
There God for him wrought marvellously,
Wherefore England may call and cry:
    Deo gracias, Deo gracias, Anglia redde pro victoria!

In 1740, it is well documented, "Rule, Britannia!" was written by Thomas Arne, a close colleague of Handel, and first performed at a masque for the Prince of Wales. While not quite an official anthem, it fit the bill beautifully, being born in bellicosity (that wildly emotional naval episode with Spain dubbed The War of Jenkins' Ear), oozing confidence in divine favor, and boasting the best fight-song chorus ever:

When Britain first at Heav'n's command
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
            Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves;
            Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!

But it is "God Save the King," whose roots are much older than the War of Jenkins' Ear, that bears the distinction of being the world's first proper national anthem, although its musical and lyrical histories are murkier.

Two key lines date from a gathering of the fleet at Portsmouth in 1545 during the reign of Henry VIII; the watchword was "God save the King" and the reply was "Long to reign over us." This song too was first performed in 1740, at a private royal dinner to celebrate the victory at Portobello. Thus 1740 would seem to be the year that Britain woke to national self-awareness, a pearl formed painfully by the constant irritation of rival empires. The first verse:

God save our gracious King! / Long live our noble King!
God save the King!
Send him victorious, / Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the King!

The second verse, no longer sung:

O Lord our God arise, / Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics, / Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all!

The earliest public performances of "GSTK" were at Drury Lane and Covent Garden in 1745, this time in a welter of rage and fear after the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had landed in Scotland with his band of doomed romantics. The lyricist is unknown. Traditionally a "John Bull" is cited – so perhaps the words were never formally composed but simply popped out of the popular subconscious. But it's in the music that the real controversy lies. An original melody is music’s Holy Grail. Lyrics: a dime a dozen. A good tune: priceless.

Handel, Purcell, Arne and Henry Carey have all been all credited with the melody, but the most specific evidence points to Jean-Baptiste Lully (Giambattista Lulli), Louis XIV's court composer. Lully supposedly was commissioned by the King's mistress to write a song for the opening of the St.-Cyr military academy in 1686. He based it on a paean already sung whenever French royalty put in an appearance, "Domine salvum fac Regem." The song was not heard again until 1745 – ironically chosen by the Old Pretender (James Stuart) as his own anthem as he prepared to invade England from France. The outcome of that exercise determined which force would claim the anthem for its own.

A dozen years later, an anonymous lyricist (thought to have been Charles Wesley) set new words to the melody, creating the hymn "Come, Thou Almighty King." Wesley’s motive was to counter the deification of royalty so pronounced in "GSTK." Yet it was not so long before that no one batted an eye at the identification of the mortal king with God himself.

Come, Thou almighty king / Help us Thy Name to sing,
Help us to praise:
Father, all glorious, o'er all victorious,
Come and reign over us, Ancient of Days.

Lyrics do matter, on occasion. When a band of British soldiers demanded that a Long Island congregation sing "GSTK" during the Revolutionary War, the colonials defiantly sang "Come, Thou Almighty King" instead. Nor would any Scot worth his salt ever submit to singing the verse of "GSTK" that exhorts His Majesty to "sedition hush, and like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush."

Lyrics matter, music matters, anthems matter. When the British conceded defeat at Yorktown, their band famously played "The World Turned Upside Down." And when the British handed Aden over to Egypt in 1967, the band played Lionel Bart's Cockney plaint "Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be."

The adoption of "God Save the King" kicked off a craze for national anthems that has never abated. Many nations simply took over the tune and translated the lyrics into their own tongue. Russia, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Liechtenstein all did so, and the latter continues to use it. As one musicologist wrote, "There is something alluring in the fact that the best-known tune in the world should have no known composer." Words come and go, political sentiments ebb and flow, but a great tune is forever.

Take Germany's anthem, "Deutschland Ueber Alles." This beautiful theme originally belonged to Austria-Hungary; it had been adapted by Haydn from an old Croatian folk song and set to a poem, "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" ("God Preserve Emperor Franz"), which poet Ludwig Haschka had modeled on the lyrics of "GSTK," and dedicated to Kaiser Franz II on his birthday in 1797. (The wee sovereign was five years old.) Haydn also employed it for a set of variations in one movement of his "Emperor" String Quartet #62 in C major, Op. 76 No. 3 (Poco adagio, cantabile).

All for naught: once the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to be in 1918, it lost its anthem to Germany, which had been lusting for it all the while (though it remains in hymnals as “Austria” or “The Austrian Hymn”). The song became the official – if stolen – Deutschlandslied in 1922 during the Weimar period, in a conscious effort to allay political doubts about the Republic. Hoffman von Fallersleben’s 1841 nationalist poem urging Germans to place the unification of the German people “above all else in the world” fit the melody like a glove.

Today only the third verse is sung; the others have been suppressed.

Unity and right and freedom / For the German fatherland.
Let us all strive to this goal, / Brotherly, with heart and hand …

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy has also been much coveted as an anthem. The European Union snagged it in 1972. Not if but when the EU finally folds, Joy will again be a free agent.

Meanwhile, Austria was in want of her own anthem. A nationwide contest was held in 1946 to procure one. The Austrian poet Paula von Preradovic, born in Vienna of an old Croatian family, contributed the winning verses, and the tune chosen is either by Mozart or his close contemporary and fellow Mason Johann Holzer. “Land of Mountains, Land on the River” eschews patriotic religiosity in favor of high-minded generalities – just what the postwar world wanted. Thus Austria’s anthem has gone from a Croatian melody with Austrian lyrics to an Austrian melody with Croatian lyrics.

The borrowing continued as Italy too gathered her forces for the leap to nationhood. As early as 1769, Felice de Giardini composed music explicitly for “Come, Thou Almighty King,” contrary to the usual practice of hijacking a tune by injecting it with new lyrics. His beautiful melody promptly became known as The Italian Hymn.

But it was a battle hymn that Italy’s patriots needed just then. That need was filled in 1847 by the poem “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”) by Goffredo Mameli, a comrade in arms of Garibaldi, which was immediately set to new, vigorously rhythmic and Italianate music by Michele Novaro. Sung around the country, it helped spread the fever for unity and independence.

When it comes to Italy, arguably the most musical nation on earth, we expect to hear an impassioned cascade of arias. But musician and philosopher Balint Vazsonyi once described Novaro and Mameli’s hymn as “mind-boggling triteness.” The poet Giusti wrote to Verdi as early as 1847: “You know that the tragic chord is the one that resounds most in our soul, but … the kind of sorrow that now fills the souls of us Italians is the sorrow of a people who feel the need of a better future.” Mazzini importuned Verdi to write “an Italian battle hymn – the Marseillaise of Italy.” But the great composer, whose operas were full of characters, plots and lyrics that patriots hungrily seized upon, never explicitly wrote such a hymn.

Mazzini was brilliant to ask for an Italian Marseillaise. No other anthem is more bound to the political fate of a nation than this masterpiece written in a white heat one night in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Revolutionary troops sang it on their march from Marseilles to Paris, and all France went mad for it, singing it over and over until their voices gave out. (Abel Gance’s film “Napoléon” immortalized this phenomenon.) The song practically forces you to start shouting and pumping your fist, especially when you arrive at

Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu’un sang impur abbreuve nos sillons!

Dutifully from time to time French politicians and do-gooders (but I repeat myself) cluck over “impure blood fertilizing our fields” and a few other lines, but so far even the French Communist Party refuses to “meddle with our heritage.” The Marseillaise was banned in Vichy France and all Nazi-occupied lands, and if it was good enough to drown out the Germans in “Casablanca,” it’s good enough to be whistled menacingly and offensively at France-Algeria football matches …

Singing the Marseillaise was and still can be a thrilling act of resistance. But it never invokes God’s help against “tyranny’s bloody standard” – rather, it calls upon “children of the fatherland” to defend Liberté in lieu of the discarded Dieu. La France catholique remains the secular, godless nation par excellence. Perhaps this explains her astounding difficulty in standing up to Muslim aggression.

In anthems of the Swiss type – the Austrian, Scottish, several of the American – there is almost a reversion to pantheism. God physically dwells and manifests Himself amid the sublime beauty of the homeland’s mountains and valleys, pools and groves, just as the Greek gods dwelt upon Olympus and Ida.

Few peoples have had a fiercer ride on the rollercoaster of history than the Russians – invasion, Oriental despotism, liberalization, world war, sectarian coup, forced industrialization, terror, collapse, rampant Westernization – and their anthems reflect this. From 1816 to 1833 it was our familiar old "God Save the Tsar!" From 1833 to 1917, a somewhat more individuated hymn prayed to Russia's Bog (God):
 
And should dread war arise, stretch forth Thy Hand,
To guard from wicked foes our dear, dear land.

Come 1917, the situation was obviously a free-for-all. Alongside the nationalist hymn "How Glorious Is Our Lord in Zion" and the Marseillaise itself, sung in French, there was a "Workers' Marseillaise" ("Rabochaya Marselyeza"). By 1918 the winner was the Internationale, sung with clenched fists. The Internationale, still the official anthem of the international Communist movement, has a great Marseillaise-like march melody composed in 1888 by Belgian socialist Pierre De Geyter to lyrics penned by Eugène Pottier eighteen years earlier, during the Paris Commune: "Arise, ye pris'ners of starvation,/Arise, ye wretched of the earth!"

By 1943, Stalin had decided that the Internationale's Russian lyrics, such as "Let's denounce the old world! Let's shake its dust from our feet!," made it sound as if the USSR had not already achieved these goals; moreover, like any grand artiste, Stalin had a better idea about nearly everything. With typical verve he rounded up twenty or so poets and composers and ordered them to create new words and music that "people will sing both in joy and in misfortune" (well, in misfortune at least!). At first the Poet of Steel planned to force Prokofiev or Shostakovich to cough up the melody, but he finally settled for a tune already used by the Bolshevik Party's own anthem.

The resultant "Hymn of the Soviet Union" lasted from 1944 to 1992, with a time-out in 1977 to remove all references to Stalin. After the break-up of the USSR, this hymn was retitled "Hymn of the Russian Federation" and given very different back-to-the-future lyrics:
Russia, our holy country, / Russia, our beloved country,
… You are unique in the world, inimitable,
Native land protected by God!

Having now arrived at the Putin era of revived Russian nationalism, we note that a major share of that effort involves bringing Russian Orthodoxy back from the dead – if possible.

Keeping in mind that true anthems are basically religious hymns to a people themselves, we can scan the rest of the globe rather quickly.

China’s anthem was written in 1935 by a jailed poet – a surefire method of producing heartfelt lyrics! – and “chose” as its object of worship none other than Chairman Mao.

India’s “Jana Gana Mana” was introduced

The United States has the largest number of competing anthems. Our country’s youth, deep religiosity, diversity and democratic vigor combined to make it a hotbed of hymnody. All told there have been least ten real contenders, eleven if you count the Johnson brothers’ anthem for black America “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Between the earliest introduction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its adoption in 1931, Americans poured forth their belief in our nation’s special pact with Almighty God in such wonderful compositions as “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “America” (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”), “God of Our Fathers,” “America the Beautiful” and last but not least, “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin, 1918).

“The Star-Spangled Banner” has a melody that was composed in 1775 for the Anacreontic Society of London’s paean to wine, wine, wine; the tune was popular in the U.S. even before it was chosen by Francis Scott Key for his acclaimed 1814 poem. “TSSB” was alternating with “Hail, Columbia!” as America’s national hymn by the beginning of the Civil War. The latter piece (music 1789, lyrics 1798) is set to a rather undistinguished march and deifies George Washington while also exalting “Columbia” as a goddess of Liberty like Britannia or France’s Marianne. Among its more noteworthy lyrics are “With equal skill, with God-like pow'r, / He governs in the fearful hour / Of horrid war ...” As the war dragged on, the North eventually adopted “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom” while the South went with “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Dixie.”

In 1861 a group of Manhattan businessmen calling themselves the National Hymn Committee recognized that the severely riven nation had better choose a formal unifying anthem, or rather hymn. The group nixed “Yankee Doodle” as “childish,” and many others as “pretentious” or various species of “boring.” It was not until the Great Depression that “The Star-Spangled Banner” burst through the ambivalence and finally gave America a paean of her own. At least up to this point.

I conclude with a lost verse of “TSSB” that gives voice to what any nation needs to survive: legitimate authority, belief in itself and in a power greater than itself, faith, ideals, a moral compass. Once gods are lost, they are not easily recovered.


O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us as a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just;
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What Middle Class?

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by Marian Kester Coombs
The American Conservative, September/October 2015

"She says we are bourgeois."
"What?"
"It means 'common,' but in a nice way."
                                  - "This Happy Breed," 1944
 
Everyone loves the middle class. Everyone claims to be middle class, some to put a gloss on their sketchy escutcheons, others to dodge chastisement for their awkward riches. But in fact both the socioeconomic reality and the concept of middle class have been turned on their heads, turned into their opposites, and at the same time trivialized into a mere lifestyle choice.

Economically, the middle classes were once proprietors, self-employed owners of property and their own labor. Morally, they were once the equivalent of “solid citizens”: decent, hard-working, law-abiding, temperate, proper, stable, staid, virtuous, and - well, moral. The qualifications for being middle class have gotten a whole lot looser, to say the least.

The European term “middle classes” originally served to describe merchants, tradesmen, investors and skilled craftsmen. The habitat of these classes was the walled City – the burg, bourg or borough – whence came their appellation, les bourgeois. The bourgeoisie occupied a middle ground between the nobility and the lower classes of peasants and servants.

As historian and professor Eugene Genovese used to say, “The bourgeoisie has been rising for about 500 years. They basically had to muscle in on the lords.” Two major traits defined this new class as it emerged from the chaotic end of feudalism: a close association with money (capital), banking and investment, and social independence. Their city walls, their gold, their commercial alliances, their education and their skills defended them from the rapacity of the nobles to the point where they could evolve into the leading citizens of a different kind of society.

G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate, in The Common People: 1746 – 1946, describe the aftermath of the battle of Culloden:

This extinction of the older society completed a process started long before, a process which alone made it possible for Britain in the next hundred years to become the workshop of the world. There were now no feudal lords to be conciliated or cajoled by the rising employing class. Land-owners, bankers and employers, each with their own type of property to support them, made their political bargaining and conducted their trading without any semi-baronial powers, private jurisdictions or infeodated supporters camped threateningly in the countryside.

Prior to the Revolution, France’s Etats-généraux (Estates-General) comprised the clergy, the aristocracy, and the People (everyone else). After 1789 the bourgeois element of the People – a serious and truly revolutionary class – came to the fore and used the rage of the sans-culottes and the foule to wipe out the aristocrats. George Rudé’s The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England 1730-1848 relates many instances of the doomed peasant and cottage-industrial classes – “the hard and black hands” – rising up to demand restoration of their ancient feudal rights, only to be suppressed by the bourgeoisie once Property itself came under attack. “Il faut en finir!” Order had to be restored. It was time for Louis-Philippe, the bourgeois king, to unfurl the banner of “Enrichissez-vous!

By the time Marx and Engels came along, the new antagonistic classes of capital and wage labor were well established. According to the Marxian model, just as the bourgeoisie had overthrown the absolute rule of church and noble, the working class (wage-earners, laborers, common people, lower classes, plebeians, the people, the mob, the masses) was destined to overthrow its new masters, the capitalists who capitalized upon its alienated labor. “Property is theft!” declared Proudhon. “We have been naught,/We shall be all!” “The middle class owner of property,” declared Marx in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, “must be swept out of the way and made impossible.” Prophetic words.

At its height, this original middle class radiated dominance, competence and rationality. It religiously embraced the sciences and their derived technologies and was swept upward with those powers into a world beyond the wildest Utopian dreams. In the words of Charles Morazé’s The Triumph of the Middle Classes:

The year 1900 was a wonderful one, when men were proud to be middle-class, and to be Europeans. The fate of the whole world was decided around green baize-covered tables in London, Paris or Berlin. … Mobilized by steam, the planet’s riches were being shifted … on orders flashed by telegraph in two or three minutes. … Not a single detail escaped the notice of Europe’s financial capitals: they fixed the price of a tram ticket in Rio de Janeiro, and the working hours of a coolie in Hong Kong.

The world the bourgeoisie made opened countless paths to wealth and self-reliance for even the humblest chrétien, as Paul Johnson documents so well in The Birth of the Modern. The greatest elevation of human beings in history had fashioned, out of “little men,” architects, engineers, shipwrights, road builders, agriculturalists, inventors, lawyers, bankers, brokers, journalists, industrialists, manufacturers, trader/adventurers, doctors, pharmacists, shop owners, highly educated theologians and natural philosophers, and pursuers of a hundred other useful professions.

Class Notes

Volume after volume has been devoted to the anthropology of class, its trappings, its contradictions, its “tells” and secret handshakes. Here it is enough to remind ourselves that today’s obsession with the middle class is rooted in the old, old story of human self-classification. People sort, grade, gauge and rank each other all day and all night.

Everyone wants to be middle class because human beings need to think well of themselves, or else endless misery and retribution ensue. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb called their book The Hidden Injuries of Class, but most of these injuries are either quite noticeable or hidden in plain sight. Sennett and Cobb discovered that the most marginal of America’s working class would rather be perceived as middle class than revolt and overthrow the rule of capital altogether – or even make more money.

Entire nations suffer class anxiety. Adam Nicolson quotes unusually candid Greek sources in National Geographic (March 2015):

When the Greeks joined the EU in 1981, we felt like a ship arriving in port, … that we were being treated as a proper part of Europe for the first time. The euro crisis was a moment of guilt, shared by all of us, a sense that somehow we were all responsible for the bad things that were happening to us. It was a huge, national blow to self-esteem, a confirmation of the Greeks’ worst fears, that we didn’t really belong in Europe at all.

Naturally such humiliation is intolerable, and accounts for the continuing “violence of shame” in Greece – herself, ironically, the birthplace of classical culture, sedulously aped for centuries.

Older societies are still processing their ancient class systems, which were actually castes: defined conditions into which people were born and where they remained all their lives. The New World posited itself as a classless society, although it never was one, even at the outset. But in place of the Old World’s “better than thou,” America’s mantra was “as good as thou.” Classes in the colonies founded by Great Britain were fluid and porous; for example, the bourgeois cult of romantic love, as opposed to arranged marriage, enabled many to “marry up”; and the still open frontier permitted little men to grow grand, liberated from the constant sucker punches of class.

The Center Cannot Hold

In contemporary usage, “bourgeois” has decayed to mean square, unfashionable, boring, ordinary, lowbrow, narrow-minded, suburban, etc. The exclamation “How bourgeois!” is not intended kindly. The word’s fate is similar to the way chrétien migrated over time from “Christian” (a fellow soul) to “cretin.” H.L. Mencken had this decay in mind when he invented the terms “booboisie” and “Boobus Americanus.” Paul Fussell’s Class ridicules their petty, shallow status fixations. From captains of industry back down to “little men,” the bourgeoisie has crumbled both linguistically and economically.

Circa 1800, 80% of Americans were self-employed. By 1870 it was 41%. By 1940 it was 18%. By 1967 it was only 9% (from Victoria Bonnell and Michael Reich, Workers in the American Economy: Data on the Labor Force). Now – we are told it is only One Percent. What once was an ideal – self-employment – is now damned as villainous greed.

Middle class, meanwhile, came to mean anyone who works for a living. It is not unusual to see “middle class” and “working class” used interchangeably, which has led to the cheesy equivalence of “white collar” and “blue collar.” Even the hardcore unemployed are now eligible for elevation to the great middle. Anyone who has clung to a part-time job or might get one via state largesse is potentially middle class. Only “the rich” don’t qualify.

Middle class, in other words, has completely lost its socioeconomic bearings. “High-end” signifiers are fetishized as much by the wanna-be middle classes as they are by the One Percent. The very concept of middle class has become confounded with global issues of modernization, imperialism and cultural hegemony. It is José Ortega y Gasset’s “revolt of the masses” on steroids.

The Muddled Middle

Everyone agrees that the middle class pays the lion’share of taxes. It is deep in debt – illiquid. It is “endangered.” It is being “squeezed,” “crippled,” “hollowed out.” It suffers from erosion of net worth. Its atrophy is blamed for the widening income gap. It is courted by both left and right with great vigor during election years, each striving to outdo the other with violent praise for its attributes. It is “the backbone of our economy.” The American middle class is tasked with lifting the entire world out of recession.

Taoist philosophy observes that the more a quality is spoken of - for instance, filial piety - the less it is found in real life. Obsessive talk of the middle class is everywhere. Opening a newspaper at random (The Washington Times of February 20, 2015), we read:

As he pushed a $500 billion federal investment in infrastructure, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said: … “The middle class has been slammed. They are in worse shape than they have ever been at any time since the ‘20s … What’s the way to grow the middle class? Jobs. What’s the way to get jobs?”

Biden’s answer: “Generate” jobs via the magic of Keynesian government spending, a repeat of the New Deal’s CCC and WPA.

A Google search on “Biden speech middle class” returns 702,000 hits; “Obama speech middle class” returns 19.3 million. According to Mr. Biden, the middle class is “the fabric that stitches together this country.” But it’s “currently being killed.” During one of the 38 mentions of middle class in his 2014 stump speech, the VP notoriously thundered that the middle class has been “left behind” and “buried” – by the Obama administration’s own policies.

Meanwhile, in his 2015 State of the Union address, the President preached the gospel of “middle-class economics.” According to his Marx-haunted ghostwriters, that means “Everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and plays by the same set of rules.” The actual meaning is another tax increase on those who still have enough wealth left to be worth swiping.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell gloated that the billions of dollars in subsidies disbursed to low-income people who sign up for Obamacare were “further proof that the Affordable Care Act is working for the middle class” in Food Stamp Nation. Robert Reich has said over and over that “inequality is bad for everyone, not just for the middle class and poor,” and that income redistribution must be engineered to raise the income of the middle class to “middle-class levels,” whatever those are.

Just after the 2012 election, Howard Dean revealed the left’s “radical” program to save the middle class by destroying it when he said, “This is, initially, gonna sound like heresy from a progressive. The truth is, everybody needs to pay more taxes, not just the rich.”

Elizabeth Warren talks the new class war better than most. She’d love to just be able to come out and yell about “the working class!” But she’s fanning the spent flames of a fantasy. André Thirion’s book about impotent red intellectuals in Paris between the wars was called Revolutionaries without Revolution. What Elizabeth Warren keeps jabbing her forefinger at is a workers’ movement without workers.

Like all other cynical champions of the mythic middle, Warren deliberately mischaracterizes it. Middle class is not an income level but a material relationship to society. What have vanished from all these leftist analyses are the key middle-class elements of freedom, independence, self-sufficiency, ownership, entrepreneurship, leadership and real social power. To echo Cole and Postgate, the essence of the once-great middle class was that they possessed “their own type of property to support them.”

In any event, the 24/7 spin cycle has finally gagged on the term middle class. Its untenability suddenly dawned on even the most zealously ideological political operatives. All at once it was only too obvious that there was no substantial middle class to rhapsodize over or pander to. As Amy Chozick writes in The New York Times (May 11, 2015):

The once ubiquitous term “middle class” has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach.

A family living paycheck to paycheck, heavily indebted and sometimes even “food-insecure” – that’s not a middle class family. And nearly half of Americans don’t even bother to pretend that’s what they are any more. So instead let’s call them “ordinary Americans” (Bernie Sanders). “Everyday Americans” (Hillary Clinton). “Hard-working men and women across America” (Ted Cruz). “Hard-working taxpayers” (Scott Walker). “People who work for the people who own businesses” (Rand Paul). Or simply “people who aren’t rich” (Marco Rubio).

Everyone wanted to be middle class, but the word that best describes our country now is proletarianization. In ancient Rome the proles (“offspring,” as in “prolific”) were “the class of society that had no wealth and didn't own property. The only things proletarians had to offer were their hard work and their children” (www.vocabulary.com). The overall scheme is to force what’s left of “the backbone of America” to pay for its own dispossession and disempowerment. Then our understandable class anxiety will be tranquilized by government transfers to give us an illusory “leg up” classwise.

The middle class could only be destroyed in the name of the middle class. Everyone loves the middle class, and everyone kills the thing he loves.