A MODEST PROPOSAL
All you hear of late is how we’re coming apart. Rich folks are getting richer, while the rest of us are barely hanging on. The gap between the highly educated and those academically deficient widen, as does the gulf between the exceptionally skilled and broadly competent and those with but limited abilities and opportunities. Add in the split between retirees and workers young and old, between Evangelicals and Secularists, between Wall Street and Main Street. The Pluribus has clearly trumped the Unum.
And there’s no end in sight. Many believe we’re a Christian nation, but Christians are deeply divided into a multitude of competing sects and denominations. The public school system long-celebrated as a powerful engine of unity is losing that capacity, thanks to private schools, home schooling, the spread of charter schools and the glaring gaps in school performance across America. Wars, we once believed, could unite our society, but recent conflicts have demonstrated otherwise. A common culture has dissolved leaving us fragmented into mutually opaque clusters.
The splintering continues. Demographers have observed a growing physical separation among these divergent groups, a pulling away from each other. Gated enclaves, retirement communities, together with the advance of gentrification, all reflect these trends. Increasingly we speak of the Red State-Blue State schism, as well as our coasts being separate and distinct from the interior expanses of the US. In Washington, D.C., political party members sit separately and rarely socialize across the aisle. Little wonder legislative logjams bedevil Congress. Flag buttons grace more lapels than ever, but they’ve not healed the rift. Are we left with only the Super Bowl to bring us together? At least for a day?
At the core of the problem is the separation that exists among the social classes of our society. Made worse recently because social mobility has slowed to a crawl. Think of it – how many friends do you have not of your own class? Acquaintances perhaps, but friends that you socialize with regularly? Where is that likely to happen – the workplace, your house of worship, the gym, a bar, a book club? Unlikely. Accordingly the information we get about others is second hand – newspapers, TV, movies, books, observations of others within our own social set. That leaves us relying upon hearsay, stereotypes and other often prejudicial pronouncements. No longer, as in many legends, do princes disguise themselves and pass undetected among the common people. “Slumming”, once fashionable among certain middling classes, no longer has the same allure. Unless these barriers are breached, the gap and gulf that we’ve noted will remain and efforts at mutual understanding and collaboration will fail.
So, here’s my modest proposal to get us moving in the right direction. How about establishing a Museum of the Social Classes. This stand-alone, multi-level structure will offer ample living space for representatives of our many social classes, including the very poor, lower class, lower middle class, middle, upper middle class, together with the nouveau riche and established wealthy. A representative family or a congenial but unrelated collection of individuals from each strata would be invited to live in one of these apartments for a year (at the end of which they’d be replaced by a similar group). To fill the museum each group would live rent-free (plus additional incentives for the well-to-do). Each would furnish and decorate their apartment (including class appropriate amenities) to their taste and would be encouraged to conduct themselves as they might typically do. (Remember the Loud family back in 1973 allowed TV cameras into their home and into their lives for an extended period of time. Given the current popularity of reality shows, there should be little concern about vacancies here.)
Once everyone moves in, the museum would be open to the public free of charge, the rooms constructed so as to allow visitors to view (through one-way mirrors) the occupants of each apartment and to observe the various life styles, conversation, exchanges and other interactions within several apartments. Voyeurism? No doubt. But can you imagine a more direct way to bridge the information gaps that exist? Locate such museums in a multitude of cities and before long you might well succeed in enabling people to move beyond the stereotypes and received wisdom about otherst toward greater understanding, even empathy. That just might make a difference.
Applications for museum residences are now being accepted.