While reading Suzanna Andrews’s excellent piece on Elizabeth Warren in the current Vanity Fair, I came across this quote from a speech Warren gave to a conference of bankers:
We cannot run our country without a strong middle class. We cannot run a democracy without a strong middle class.
Until I read those words, I’d been mildly cynical about the use of the term “middle class” in political rhetoric. I thought politicians were using it because most people like to see themselves as middle class, and because for some reason championing the rights of the poor and working classes has become a no-no if you want to get elected in the U.S.
But in reading Warren’s words, I had a sudden flash of insight: A healthy middle class provides the real stability for a country. These are the people who have enough not just to get by, but to save for the future. They’re the people who expect to go to college, who expect to have careers rather than just jobs, who own houses, who expect their kids to have a good life.
Having spent many years working as legal services lawyer, I’ve always taken the side of the truly poor — the folks trying to get by on minimum wage or no job at all, the ones who don’t even have a chance at an adequate high school education, much less college — and the working people who have managed to get something, perhaps a home, but who are always one family crisis away from financial disaster.
The middle class — of which I am a part — often struck me as representing more of the problem than the solution.
But the growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else in the U.S. (not to mention in far too much of the rest of the world) sets society up for a world in which everyone but the very well-off is one health crisis, one car wreck, one job loss away from disaster. Obviously that is not the definition of a stable society.
Now a stable middle class can become complacent, which keeps it from questioning things done in its name. We’ve seen plenty of that in the U.S. The Occupy Wall Street movement owes some of its success to the fact that the middle class in the U.S. is now under siege along with the poor and working people. Perhaps it is politically valuable for the middle class to come under attack.
Warren’s words have convinced me that a strong middle class, and such seemingly mild reforms as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she championed — perhaps not such a mild reform given the incredible attacks against it — are important in keeping our country healthy.
As I sit here contemplating the value of the middle class, it occurs to me that science fiction is a particularly middle class genre. That is, many SF stories are about educated people trying to solve problems. They aren’t usually the richest people, and they aren’t usually in charge, but they are people with a stake in the system.
I’m sure some readers will immediately come up with examples of stories that don’t fit this mold, but I am willing to argue that the growth of SF as a genre is tied to the growth of an educated middle class that could look beyond its own needs.
For that matter, pursuit of science and technology is tied to the middle class as well. Yes, some people in the high tech world have become insanely rich, but I don’t think most of them dove into the work for the money. And the people I most associate with science and technology — the scientists and engineers who worked at NASA during the period leading up to the Moon landing — were solidly middle class. (I grew up near the Johnson Space Center and went to church with those folks.)
Now I’m not arguing for a class system here — I’d like everyone to have the security and opportunities commonly associated with the middle class — but only observing that the stability that comes from having a certain level of comfort and education provides value to society, not just to those who enjoy it.
U.S. SF is sometimes scorned as too conservative by those in other countries, but perhaps it is merely too unthinkingly middle class. Now would be a good time for U.S. SF writers to look at both the value and the weaknesses of the middle class and to incorporate it in their work.
(BTW, does it strike anybody but me as incredibly odd that Vanity Fair, a magazine chockful of ads for items only the rich can afford that wastes numerous pages on inane articles about celebrities, is also providing some of the hardest-hitting journalism about what’s going on in our society?)
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.