Friday, October 24, 2008

Joe the Plumber: Ordinary People?

I can't possibly imagine that anyone who actually inhabits the Planet Earth is unfamiliar with a man named Joe the Plumber.

For those of you from Betelgeuse who have deigned to fuse your hive computer with the World Wide Web, Joe the Plumber is some random guy from some random place who asked Barack Obama some random question that got him called a socialist. For those of you from Venus who have not brushed up on American politics, a socialist is something most Democrats basically are but don't like to admit it.

I think we're all up to speed. Let us continue.

The question I'd like to raise is about a very popular concept in modern American politics and culture - the "elite." I think we've probably heard more about the so-called in this election than any other in American history - and none of it was very good. When John McCain calls Barack Obama a "member of the liberal elite," he doesn't mean that as a compliment; when Sarah Palin says she's not a "member of the Washington elite," she doesn't mean she wants to join. "Elite" has become synonymous with "elitist" - rich, snobbish, out of touch. The elite, it's implied, are superior sumbitches - convinced their wealth and education make them better than the Average Joe. Or the Average Plumber. see where I'm going with this.

My question, then, is this: what makes the elite, elite?

The reason I ask is pretty personal: when a conservative talks about the "liberal elite," he pretty much means me. I went to a private grade school, attended a competitive high school, and am now in college on my parents' dime - and eager for a position in scholarly academia. I am also - in what many would see as no coincidence - aggressively liberal. The current political discourse, particularly the conservative discourse, would love to argue that those characteristics make me a card-carrying member of the "liberal elite."

But let's take another look at Joe the Plumber - the reason, you may recall, that he was irritated with Obama is because he'd been planning to buy the plumbing business for which he'd worked these last 100,000 years. If he bought it, however, he'd be making more than $250,000 a year, and Obama's tax plan would 'unfairly' increase his tax burden. No sooner had he asked his question than Joe the Plumber became a symbol of working-class ill-will towards Obama; and so John McCain, friend to the working man, echoed Joe's question to Obama. Why?

Now, my father, under whose auspices I might be considered a member of the "liberal elite" made - in a good year - $60-70,000. That was before his retirement, and only during those years in which he sold a book, or made particularly generous royalties. Joe, on the other hand, that blue-collar Everyman, is complaining because he might be about to make over a quarter of a million dollars.

To return to my original question, what makes Joe the Plumber 'working-class' and me 'elite?' Doesn't the working-class cease to become an actual 'class' when it starts running the gamut from six-figure salaries to just above the poverty line? Doesn't the 'elite' stop being 'elite' when the supposedly average characters who hate them make four to five times as much - or does 'elite' perhaps mean more than just an economic class? If so, is the entire vocabulary of this debate faulty? Do these terms have a practical definition?

This is an idea in progress, and I feel as though I have not yet gotten to the heart of the matter. The fundamental paradox, though, is that Americans who are just plain rich - big houses, fast cars, trophy wives - have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the dirt-poor and struggling and said "Washington economic policies privilege the elite at our expense."

Who are they talking about?

UPDATE: Apparently, Joe the Plumber just revealed that he had misunderstood Obama's tax plan, and would NOT be making more than $250,000 a year. What? Ordinary, salt-of-the-earth Americans don't make a quarter million dollars? Will wonders never cease?

1 comment:

Mister Lavos said...
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