Two Problems With Hierarchical Class

Mark SanfordIn New York Magazine Jim Rutenberg has written a profile of disgraced and redemed Representative Mark Sanford, Path of Most Resistance. I’m sure you remember Sanford, who while governor of South Carolina disappeared. It was claimed that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail but was really just having an ex-marital affair with an Argentinian woman. He claimed she was his soul mate, but after five years of trying, they have not been able to leverage that into a stable relationship or, you know, marriage. I don’t think I’m out on a limb in noting that the relationship is probably more about flesh than soul. But whatever.

Ed Kilgore explained what the story of Mark Sanford means to him and I think he has it exactly right:

The title of the piece—”Mark Sanford’s Path of Most Resistance”—is supposed, I guess, to connote a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress, if not actual martyrdom, for the former conservative titan. But to me it comes across as a tale as old as the South and as new as its current GOP hegemons: a tale of the power of privilege to salve all wounds and forgive all sins, for those in the right social station with the right ideology.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I wrote about the film Brave yesterday, Brave Is Kind of a Mess but Enjoyable. I bristle at the very idea of class and I think to a lot of people, that comes off as naive. After all, a society is always going to have some people who are smarter, some people who are stronger, some people who are better at macrame, and so on. Isn’t that going to lead to some kind of social order? Well, sure. But there are two important points, one more theoretical and one intensely practical that stares us all in the face every day.

The theoretical issue is that we can have a social order that is not hierarchical. And in fact, our capitalist system is such that certain kinds of social goods (like commodity distribution and golfing ability) are vastly over compensated—both monetarily and socially. I see society needing a whole bunch of people doing a whole bunch of things. We make a big deal out of great football players, but boiler engineers are far more important to the comfort and safety of the people in our society. I don’t envision an economically flat society, but what we have is a society that is ridiculously warped. And that brings us to the practical issue.

Mark Sanford is not an exceptional man. But he was born into the right social class with the right race in the right place at the right time. Sanford’s father was a cardiologist. As Wikipedia notes, “Before his senior year of high school, Sanford moved with his family from Fort Lauderdale to the 3,000-acre Coosaw Plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina.” And then, Sanford married well. His ex-wife’s great-grandfather was co-founding the Skil Corporation when black people of that time and place were living under a terrorist regime. So Mark Sanford’s rise to power was entirely due to the luck of his birth. And then, when he fell in a way that showed that he wasn’t even good at the one thing he was known for (politics), he was given a second chance. And he didn’t need a second chance. Financially, he had long been set for life.

Compare the life of Mark Sanford to that of the vast majority of Americans—to say nothing of the people of the world. Even on its own terms, does our hierarchical class system work? As I discussed yesterday about torture, it doesn’t work because the opportunity costs are so much higher than value we get from the system. But as Frederick Douglass wrote over a hundred years ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The system we have works very well for Mark Sanford and the rest of the power elite. And things will only change if we demand it.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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