We are told that we are divided. Rural against urban, rich over poor, white and colorful, cis-men and… In our lived experiences these are real divisions, albeit old and entrenched long before the media took up the story. But the media aren’t really talking about these biophysical, geographic and economic divisions, are they. They focus on abstract political differences, particularly of those who have affective power and those affected by that power.
So we should ask, these opposed labels of the powerful, are they real? Red state vs blue state? What exactly is a “red state”? I’ve never met one; have you? What does it look like? Do the people who live there eat, sleep, laugh and love? Probably. In fact, I sort of doubt life is measurably different no matter the color of your county on the political map and the ideological allegiance of your congressional representative.
What about actual Republicans and Democrats? Is that a real divide? Ha! They prove regularly that they’re all the same political creatures with but one agenda — re-election. Liberal, Neoliberal, Conservative. Note that the second two are used interchangeably, and the first two have the same root word. So… perhaps not a large degree of difference there. The liberals preen and pose, claiming superiority through pantomimed woke-ness. The conservatives grumble and growl, setting themselves against and above the moral bankruptcy of the Enemy (defined by them as “all not-myself”). But they all act the same. And they have more commonality with each other than they do with the rest of us.
I rather think these oppositions are more or less nonsense from the pundit genus. Perhaps pundits are naive about the real divide in our society. More likely, they are in collusion to keep it hidden. Whatever the motive, they tell us that we are all divided. Moreover, this division is portrayed as a recent and rapid change, one that is blamed for all the new ills in society, for the destruction of society. We are divided. All this misery is our fault because we are divided. So say the media.
They tell us provocative tales with much hand-wringing and head-shaking. Whatever are we to do about our unreconcilable differences? How have we come to this? Will X-group ever learn to get along with Y-group? Why can’t we just be civil and get back to business? I think this is all smoke and mirrors, a screen on the true division in our society which is neither new nor ever brought into media focus. The true division in our culture is the principle feature of our culture, but it is taboo to speak of it or even name it. The true division is not a recent anomaly; it’s an original and essential feature, the definition of our culture. And it is the same as it has always been — some powerful white men in opposition to and in conflict with every other thing on the planet.
The division is nominally economic. One group contains those who have power based on property and thereby the ability to control access to the means to meet our bodily needs. Let’s call them the propertied class. The other group must wrest the means to meet their bodily needs from the propertied class with labor and wealth transfer, a process that further enriches the powerful, impoverishes the poor, and deepens the true divide. Let’s call them… us.
However, the propertied class is not defined solely by wealth. There are members of the class that have relatively little property — though none are truly poor — and there are wealthy people who will never be part of the propertied class. The division is gendered and racialized. One must be white and male to wield property power in this culture, no matter how much property is actually possessed. No Black woman will ever exercise the same sort of command over others that is assumed by an average white man — even if he has nothing else but that intrinsic power. A poor white man has higher status and greater ability to wield power than a rich person of any other group. Furthermore, any white man has a better chance of rising in status than a person from any other group — though it must be said that the potential for change is slim these days even for Himself. Still, it is that possibility and that intrinsic power over others given to white males in this, their culture that has proven deadly divisive.
Within the propertied class there are further ranks and divisions. With the propertied class everything is a division of hierarchy and power. They view all relationship as relative status. Those who have belonged to the propertied class longest and who therefore possess the most wealth and power are superiors and do not willingly consort with the poorer, may even openly sneer at the chewing tobacco set. Even among the wealthy and powerful there is relative rank and continual jockeying for mastery. Everything is a competition for status. A division between us and them, where ideally us is the royal we for every individual man of power. (It must be so very tiresome to be them…)
Of course the society ruled and made by these people will be one of division and competition. And indeed, throughout this culture, there is a tendency view the entire world through a hierarchical lens. Most people in this culture seem to be unable to imagine the world any other way. When I say I would like to see a world without leaders, even those who do not consider themselves part of the powerful propertied class — but who, significantly, have had their world view molded by the powerful in our society — begin to splutter about the chaos that will ensue if we don’t have a kingly class and proper management. This, despite all evidence that we aren’t doing very well under these managers and kings and even more evidence that this is a recent development that destroyed generally anarchic systems that worked quite well for most humans for thousands of years.
So the propertied class has erected this caste system of kings and managers. They have instituted and enshrined competition for status; “every man for himself” is a noble motive in our society. They use and abuse each other almost as much as they use and abuse those in other groups. However, these few white men — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, powerful and less so — they are all on the same side of the root divide in our nation. They all turn as one, baring vicious teeth to the world outside their pack and fiercely unite under the aegis of wealth and accumulation. They all equally, consistently, and violently support the same ideology — that of the domination of individual property rights over all other rights, up to and including the right to exist, and the definition of “property” as everything but themselves. Whatever they have the power to utterly control. And destroy.
White men see themselves in the superiors and leaders in this culture, in those who have power. Poor white men identify with rich white men, treating them as strong father figures and aspiring to join that group in time. In turn these aspirational men expect to be treated as strong father figures themselves by all those they deem of lower status. (And “lower status” is everyone but the powerful propertied class.) All who are in or expecting to join the propertied class demand not merely respect, but deference. In fact, true respect seems to be missing entirely. The under-men would quite willingly stab anyone in the back to achieve higher status. It is not respect they show to the powerful, but fealty — fealty that lasts only as long as the powerful actively maintain their power over. And this is the same relationship they expect from friends, co-workers, and particularly family. A master does not need or want respect. He does not value the opinions of others enough to care much if he is respected. He demands submission. He must feel stronger and superior to those around him, while he looks to those who he feels are presently stronger and superior to himself as role models. He feels it his birthright as a white male to have power over.
Yet the daily lives of poor white men (or even wealthy white men denied access to power over others) are generally mired in desperation. They wield very little power over anything. Their lived lives are dominated by anxious uncertainty and stress — how to pay the bills, choosing between eating and paying rent, working long strenuous hours for little reward. It is this desperation that fuels anger against those who are perceived to be blocking entry to the class status they feel they deserve as birthright. They are white men; they deserve white men power. If they don’t have that power, it must be because someone is holding them down. But because they identify with the powerful group and want to join that group, they can not — or maybe will not — recognize that the obstruction is coming from that group. They are excluded from the innermost rings of power by the propertied men in those innermost rings. However, they are not cast out altogether. The wealthy need these desperate white men. These desperate white men are necessary. They are the means to control other groups through the violence the wealthy are loathe to execute.
This story of division we are told fuels acts of aggression by those who feel that they should be in the propertied class by right, but are not. Manifestly. This narrative has caused hatred, despair, destruction and death. Telling a desperate white male that those blue state folks don’t like him and are conspiring to keep him in misery gives him a target, a locus upon which to cast blame for all the desperation he feels. He will lash out. Because our culture of white male privilege encourages him to do so. He will attack. Because he will face no repercussions when he does. He will destroy and be destroyed. Because that is his role. He is the disposable tool of the truly powerful. His gun is aimed at, not his own personal opponents, but the opponents of the propertied class. Or at least some symbolic group of those opponents to white male privilege. His actions are essential to maintaining white male privilege. That this is true is underlined by the fact that the punishments meted out by those in power are rarely commensurate with the crimes when the criminal is white and male. This does not justify his actions, but it does reveal that he does not act autonomously and without context.
Aggression reinforces existing hierarchies through fear. We are reluctant to upset white men because they are violent and unpredictable. They are aggressive. It seems almost daily that we hear news stories of how violence is used to terrorize those in out groups and how, wielded by white men, it goes unpunished. It is perhaps even enabled and encouraged. But violence comes in all forms — from the brute eruptions like the 6 January insurrection to more subtle but often more traumatizing internalized forms of terror and coercion. Violence is entailed in the very words and names we use and in the ways we see the world. Hierarchy is itself a form of violence, damaging people and relationship at all levels of status, powerful as well as those in submissive roles. In fact, I believe that the campaign to tell us we are divided is itself a devastating weapon aimed at society, a massive exercise in gaslighting to spread confusion and distrust. To in fact create division where there was none so that we do not unite against those in power. To hold us all down by creating hatred and fear, by creating a world where we live in terror of our neighbors.
I also do not think this campaign is working quite as well as the propertied class would prefer.
I did not hate my Trumpian neighbors. I was not overfond of their political yard décor and was more than a bit concerned when they steadfastly refused to wear masks even as the pandemic claimed lives in our small town. But I did not hate them. If I felt anything, it was sadness, and anger, directed not at them, but at the culture that made them. In many ways, we had a great deal in common. We were both engaged in turning old, somewhat derelict properties into sustainable homes. We loved the New Hampshire mountains and snow and small town life. We had library cards to the same adorable library that was quite literally in our shared back yard and ate pizza from the cafe that was across the street. We even had a fair degree of similarity in taste, though they went in for grandiose scale more than I do. So hating them would be akin to hating myself.
If I were to follow the official narrative of division, there should have been a fortified wall between our properties complete with cannon on the parapets. (Or on their side anyway. I have issues with bearing arms that they did not share. “Live free and die” and all that…) They were as glaring red as could be and I lived in an actual blue house — with “Hate has no home here” signs out front. Yet there were no open hostilities. There was no division at all but a ragged line of old maples and white pines.
Even as the patriarch next door aspired to be part of that wealthy white male group — in fact, he is wealthy, he lives in an actual million dollar property — he had more in common with me, the crazy witch next door, than he ever will with those in power. He does not and will not ever wield power because he has been assigned — by mere geography — to the class of desperate white men. He has been designated a tool of those in power. A tool and no more than that. Ever.
It took me months to recognize this, time in which our relationship was eliminated by my own personal life upheavals. I never got to talk with him after the Trump sign came down not long after Biden’s inauguration. Yes, the Trump sign did come down. There are others who still have the orange menace’s name floating over their doorsteps. I’d like to think that my neighbor, too, came to realize that the enemy is not next door. I hope he, too, saw that the true division is between those who wield power and everyone else. I’m fairly certain he eventually recognized that those in power use people like him to create discord that concentrates power in the center and harms those on the edges. Harms those who live next door and share similar stories and dreams and tastes. Perhaps over time he realized that Trump and Biden were in the same group — and he was not.
I don’t doubt that he is still a racist and probably deeply misogynist. I am not his friend and do not particularly like the idea of him. I surely don’t want him at my table at Thanksgiving (have enough of that to deal with already, thank you very much). However, he very publicly announced to our small town that he valued those he lived with more than the powerful group he’d formerly aspired to join. And I don’t feel divided from him as much as I do from those who hold power — even those who are nominally feminist and anti-racist. His actions are more real than their words.
I’ll readily wager that there are millions of stories like mine. In this country, in practical living, we are more united than we are divided — even across obvious and irreconcilable political differences. We live together. We share our world. We feed each other and tend to our needs together. We cooperate and celebrate communally. We shop in the same stores and frequent the same restaurants. We volunteer at the same charities and send our children to the same schools. We stroll down our neighborhood streets and call out greetings to people we know — even when we know those people think in ways that we despise. Because those ideas are not as real as the life we are living together. And living together, being a community, has a tendency to mold ideas to the benefit of all and erase those that cause division and hurt. We create new ideologies out of our practical experiences, not the other way round. I think that in practical living, we are learning this in spite of all the divisive messaging. It takes quite a lot of that messaging to maintain this delusion of divisiveness, after all.
So this is not the narrative we are served in the news and social media. We are told that we are divided. We are told that these divisions are relatively recent and getting deeper very quickly. We are told that we hate each other and that this hate is destroying our communities. Some of us may even believe that story and in so doing give it power over us. But is it real? Or air. Is this story of division told to us to try to create division where there is very little? Is it, rather, masking the true divisions and the cause of all this divisiveness?
The divided narrative does seem to have been chosen explicitly to keep us all that way, divided. And truly, the propertied class needs us divided. There are many times more of us than them. We outnumber them in every metric except wealth and power. In the United States, white men make up 31% of the total population, less than one third. But they hold 65% of elected offices in the US. They make up nearly two thirds of those who lead, legislate and judge in our society. By this metric, their influence is roughly double all the rest of us, the two thirds of the population who are not elected officials. Globally, white men account for over 90% of CEOs and billionaires, those who have an almost ludicrous level of power and influence on all aspects of life, yet they are a tiny insignificant sliver of the world’s population (as are CEOs and billionaires…). The propertied class is vanishingly small, quite literally as it continues to contract as wealth becomes further and further concentrated and the rules for wielding power exclude more and more people — even wealthy white males like my former neighbor. The propertied class is small and meaningless in the context of all the rest of us. And they know it. To maintain this house of cards, they have aimed their media and their desperate vassals at the rest of us. Thus we are told that we are divided.
We are told we are divided. The narrative of division reinforces white male privilege by setting us against ourselves and not them. But this propertied class that is in opposition to us contains far deeper divisions. They are not cohesive in lived experience. Those who wield power do not consort with those who wield weapons. They are not neighbors. They are not part of the same communities. They do not know each other by name. They surely do not send their children to the same schools. They are divided in actuality, united by abstractions and beliefs, not life. They are the fun-house mirror image of this narrative of division.
They must know this also. Rationally, how could they not? They have forged a culture based on competition and aggression, in which there is no loyalty and no trust and no shared reality. But I often feel that maybe they don’t know how fragile their system is, that maybe long entitlement has created a kind of complacent idiocy. I mean, is it not astonishing that they put actual weapons into the hands of desperate men who will not fail to turn on them at the first opportunity?
We are told that we are divided. But the propertied class that must create this illusion of division is itself riddled with fractures. Division is its nature. While we who have no cultural power except in numbers are not as divided as they say, as they would like us to be, as they need us to be to retain power over us. I think, despite all messaging to the contrary, that in our lived experiences we are beginning to know this. Gaslighting only works when the victim is isolated, and we share our lives with too many others — many who are not at all like us — to be completely taken in by this message. We are told that we are divided, but our actually experienced, immutable reality begs to differ. We are told that we are divided, but we know otherwise. We are in fact amazingly united, despite difference, bound together by the communities we share, the dreams we harbor, and the lives we live.
We are told that we are divided but we do not appear to be listening. And those who tell us we are divided lose power over us every time we come together.
This, too, I’m fairly certain they know… and are desperately afraid.
For another perspective on division in our culture and the failure of both politics and media to address it, please read Richard Eckersley’s “America’s deepest and most dangerous divide isn’t between Democrats and Republicans” published in Salon in January 2022.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022