Forty Inches and a Mule: The American Class War Goes HD

28 Sep 2009

Part One: How Many Kids = 1 Vizio?


For Christmas last year, I wanted to buy my family a flat-screen television. Nothing too extravagant: a 40” LCD to replace the aging boulder we have now. But the bank that owns my house had recently readjusted my escrow to cover an assessment by the town where I live that reflected a rise in property taxes in the state of New York which resulted in my mortgage going up 20%. So my credit card payments had fallen behind, and I was denied.

Since then, I’ve been haunted by flat-screens. They show up at my house in the color supplements of the newspaper. They mock me in the store, as I saunter up the darkened aisles and they swell like my dreams, from the rustic 20” bumpkin gathering dust, to the magnificent Mitsubishi 82″ Class/1080p/120Hz/DLP HDTV, surely the Moby Dick of televisions, where, like that other whale, hosts of resentments and promises are “visibly personified and made practically assailable.” Or purchasable, anyway.

And now flat-screens are popping up in the Populist rhetoric, such as in Glenn Beck’s use of The Flat Screen Factor, an economic graphic designed to boil every economic issue down into how many 42″ plasmas can be bought with a corresponding amount of money. (The average family spends $1175 on gas each year, for instance, which would otherwise get them 1.203 plasmas.) They have also featured heavily in the fallout over the recent School Supplies Scandal here in New York. The state, in collaboration with George Soros’ Open Society Institute, a private organization, gave grants of $200 per child to families on welfare intended to help them get ready for school. The money went straight to the families. Soros was quoted as saying that his intention was to help people in need, as he had once been helped.

In execution, the program touched every nerve in the corpus populisti, like a bad game of Operation. The outcry was huge. In fact, the first I heard about it was on a news program focusing on Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, who had just appeared on Fox Business News, citing “widespread, rampant abuse,” and whose office issued a press release which reads, in part:

Instead of providing necessary property tax relief to our hard-working middle class families, politicians in Albany have decided to write a blank check to public assistance and food stamp recipients without any assurances that it will be spent on the intended purpose of back-to-school supplies . . . In fact, a significant portion of the recipients are abusing this program and purchasing luxury items such as flat-screen TVs and video gaming systems.

Now, the press release does not define “in fact” and “significant portion,” nor does it explain how $200-per-child constitutes a “blank check” unless, like so many other people, Brooks believes welfare families will keep producing babies as withdrawal slips. But no matter — stock phrases are just rabble rousers, and these work fine. More importantly, it hammers on the wedge between “us” and “them” and, in what has turned out to be a masterful linguistic flourish, it even names names.

I went to my desk to look up the actual details of the program, and Googled “new york state” and “school supplies.” A wall of commentary blocked the way. I scrolled and trolled and browsed, and finally found what I wanted at But by then I’d gone through some pretty nasty stuff.

  • “That’s why America is in the state it’s in… Sam pick pockets those of us who pursued the American dream (hard work) and hand out our cash to lazy slobs with a sense of entitlement.”
  • “I have students who recieve free lunches yet they have new clothes all the time and their parents drive escalades.”
  • “so paying for people who choose not to get healthcare in favor of big screens and SUV’s is my moral obligation?”
  • “In the early 1990s I worked for a local non-profit program which serves those with income below the poverty line. I was paid minimum wage with a B.S. degree and when I made home visits, they had more than I did in my home – and they always had their cable tv (which we were unable to afford at the time).”
  • “Now we are giving them $200 per child to buy TV’s, I-Pods, or any other luxury items not related to school supplies.”
  • “President Obama. What a joke we’ve elected to ‘rule’ our country… The hardworking Americans get shit on while everyone collecting welfare sit home w/their huge flatscreen tvs…while their ‘baby momma’ is sitting in the bedroom popping out another kid every 9 months…”
  • “I guess when you play by the rules, Drive a car that gets more than 18 mpg, pay your mortgage on time and don’t default on something you agreed to pay, You get no stimulus money. But have kids you can’t afford, buy cars that get bad gas mileage, and don’t pay your bills you get all kinds of Obama dollars.”
  • “It’s a CHOICE to “buy” an oversized flat screen TV at rent-a-center financed for 84 months at $12 per week. Its a CHOICE to go out and buy an new car, with FREE MONEY FROM OBAMA, financed with payments you can barely afford instead of getting buy with the car you have.”
  • This is ranting in earnest. People are furious, and understandably so: The job market is crumbling, and New York State has the highest property taxes in the nation, with Monroe County and two of its neighbors topping the list.

    Still, most of this stuff is rote, as folksy as the Declaration of Independence. Familiar phrases are tossed around like baseballs on the 4th of July. Boot straps are pulled. Foxholes get dug or deepened. The American narrative continues to run its course, only now it has been freshened by some hot new consumer items and the shocking fact that the President is one of “them.” The undercurrent of hatred quickens.

    All the comments made me curious about the number of flat-screens the Obamas have in the White House (which is, after all, the grandest taxpayer-supported pile in the nation). When I Googled “obama’ and “flat screen,” the very first hit was a Populist blog with the American flag making up its entire banner image and the name, Here is the reference:

    After months of ragging about his constant use of teleprompters for everything Obama switched to a huge flat screen TV in order to stay on script because without something to tell him what to say he becomes a babbling baboon.

    Next on the list, at the web site, was an article about a group of nurses who accidentally ran into a health care rally held by Mark Phillips, ‘conservative activist and sometime Fox News commentator.’ Phillips said this to a group of senior citizens in Nevada:

    “Barack Obama wants to steal your money through taxes, just like some guy off the street wants to steal my big-screen TV.”

    With our class structure suddenly turning as flat as our televisions, the president has become a mash-up between Jim Crow and John Brown. Instead of Harper’s Ferry, though, he’s raiding the superstores and trying to instigate a plasma-fueled race war.

    Part Two: Rather Serious Embarrassment

    America has a history of looking at certain people getting their hands on proprietary items with a mixture of alarm and scorn, an impulse easily manipulated by savvy politicians and journalists. Urban rioting is an ongoing example. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots that occurred after the Rodney King verdict, for instance, crowds quickly started looting stores. According to on-the-spot reports from the Emergency Response & Research Institute,

    Much looting appeared to [be] “opportunistic” in scope and origin. Entire families were seen working together to steal from stores in their own neighborhoods. Often, what was being stolen was not of any necessity, but rather luxury items such as designer gym shoes, radios, and starter jackets. Frequently, it just appeared that it was those “without” were taking from those “with,” because they could.

    lootingThis kind of looting is generally posited as the real driving force behind urban unrest. After all, it’s a much easier notion to get a grip on than an abstract set of grievances that may actually be the cause. (I hear an echo of this attitude in a comment by Michele Malkin in her recent book, Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies: “In the Chicago patronage culture that made Michelle Obama, the color that matters most is neither black nor white, it is green — the color of money.”)

    Going back a bit, during the 1920’s, there was a huge migration of workers from the South to the North, causing worries in both areas of the country. At the same time, thanks to companies like Sears, houses were becoming available to almost everyone, and could even be ordered from a catalogue. In 1924, the New York Times ran a letter by F. A. Werthman, Secretary of a division of the New York State Association of Real Estate Boards, wondering how to combat a concern of some new home buyers:

    As a result of the great influx of negroes…some of them are purchasing homes and home sites in the very heart of the residential sections of our cities, to the great detriment of values of neighborhood properties. We seem powerless to stem such encroachment, and you can readily appreciate what a property owner can do to his street and neighborhood in the way of depreciating property values.

    Sam C. Starke, Secretary of the Birmingham, AL, Real Estate Board, replied that for them “no city ordinance or State law [was needed] to prevent” such a thing, since, “It would be distinctly prejudicial to a prominent white man” to sell a home is such a way. “I can only guess,” Starke concludes, “that the purchaser under these circumstances would be running the risk of rather serious embarrassment of some sort or other.” Neither man needed to worry, though — they were in the process of creating the suburbs.

    thresholdGoing back even further, in the early 20th Century and the latter part of the 19th, those too poor to own houses or land could at least share in the defense of their women. Most stories of lynching involve retribution for attacks on white women in poor communities. And in the months leading up to the Civil War, fear was used to persuade the working poor in the South to oppose the abolition of slavery. James McPherson, in his book Battle Cry of Freedom, quotes one Georgia secessionist as asking non-slaveholders, “Do you love your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter?” And a Baptist clergyman from South Carolina warned that “abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.” With no other real possessions to lose, the landless poor were stoked with fear and loathing using a fever dream straight out of Birth of a Nation.

    It goes back even more, to 1858, when the economic and political climates were strikingly similar to our own. According to historian Allen C. Guelzo, in his book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debate that Defined America, that year brought a recession to the state of Illinois that deflated land values and reduced the money supply of banknotes. National imports fell, religious movements rose, and talk of abolition was shaking up the old order. The town of Freeport, IL, which hosted one of the debates, was a money town, embracing “principles of small business, finance, and markets.” It also had 5 carriage makers, and Stephen Douglas knew what he was doing when he told a Freeport crowd this story about abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass:

    “The last time I came here to make a speech,” he said, recalling an incident from a speaking tour in northern Illinois in 1854, “I saw a carriage . . . drive up” in which “a beautiful young lady was sitting on the box seat, whilst Fred. Douglas and her mother reclined inside, and the owner of the carriage acted as driver.’ Imagine: a white man and white woman playing the roles of servants, while a black abolitionist and a white woman “reclined inside.” If they liked this sort of arrangement, with “the nigger . . . on a social equality with your wives and daughters” or riding “in a carriage with your wife, whilst you drive the team,” then they should vote for the “Black Republicans.” This drove the crown into a frenzy…

    And with a lurch, we’re back in the Escalade, or in the TV room with Mark Phillips and Maggie Brooks.

    Part Three: A Star is Born

    fairy_talesNot every generation can be there at the birth of a Myth, but we seem to be lucky.

    Of all the comments I read about the School Supply scandal, this one is my favorite:

  • “And didn’t I read somewhere that some of these parents were buying X boxes and other crap with their money and NOT spending it on school supplies????”
  • First of all, it’s comparatively humane, and despite the extra question marks, it doesn’t snap in my face like a whip. Also, it calls all the crap people are talking about, “crap,” instead of the incendiary default expression, “luxury items”. These are not luxuries, at all. They are basics, and fall squarely inside working class territory. (Some of the them are a tad outside, but that’s pretty much the point: they are something to work for.)  “The standard of living is more than plenty of food,” wrote sociologist William T. Ogburn, in a New York Times article way back in 1929.

    Most primitive people had plenty of food most of the time… The luxuries of yesterday are the necessities of today. It was not long ago that underwear was not in general use. And it has only been a few years that we have been wearing night gowns and pajamas. There was a time when the fork was unknown, and we have been using the match only about a century. Now we must all have tooth brushes.

    Not to mention TVs and gaming systems. We call these things luxuries because we like to think they are, and the anger over welfare families having such “luxuries” as electronic toys and clothes not scavenged from a Goodwill box says more about our own frustrations than anything else.

    Toshiba-TVThe people who are buying yachts, Upper West Side addresses, and Bugatti Veyrons—i.e. the real luxury items—are strangely silent on this issue. To them, “$200″ is an abstraction. To the rest of us, it’s something we can almost smell, something to pay the electric bill and the car loan with, or toss to the bank when it calls about the mortgage. The thought of someone else getting their hands on those two crisp Franklins, or that modest 40” LCD we can’t have, is maddening.

    The above comment also starts with the tell-tale words, “Didn’t I read somewhere…” This vague anxiety, of “them” stealing “our” televisions and hanging them on the walls of Section 8 bedrooms, signals the birth of a Myth: an honest-to-goodness Urban Myth. (Never mind Sasquatch; this is the real deal.) Certainly, it’s based on a kernel of truth. All myths are. There is no doubt in my mind that some New Yorkers saw the school supply money in their bank accounts and immediately bought flat-screens. But it’s gone beyond that, deeper, somehow, into the place where fear, hope, freedom, and other such amorphous ideas take possession of things—electronics, greenbacks, human bodies—and turn them into metaphors, actors in the stories through which we live our lives.

    George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, studies the way metaphors shape and express thought. In the book Whose Freedom?, he writes that they are used continuously and unconsciously, structuring our thinking into “deep frames,” which define how we see the world and “characterize moral and political principles that are so deep they are part of [our] very identity.” They are so systemic, that any “fact” or piece of evidence we take in either gets drawn into the frame or, if it contradicts the frame, it becomes a non-reality. There are also “surface frames,” particular words and images that are our normal modes of expression. We use them constantly in our language, at once revealing and reinforcing that which lies beneath. In an argument, whoever controls the surface frames, controls the ideas.

    summitcoveFlat-screens act as surface frames. As bits of plastic and metal, they are a new species—along with X Box’s, iPods, and cell phones—in the genus, trophidiae. They hang on the wall like antlers, or the way iron nails were driven into the front doors of 17th Century houses. As storytellers, they provide visual narratives that deliver our myths and provide us with communal identity. (The title sequence of Amazing Stories, Stephen Spielberg’s television series from the 1980’s, showed a tribe of Neanderthals telling stories around a fire, which gradually morphed into a TV set.)

    In times of economic hardship and social change, they offer still more. “In the post-9/11 era,” writes Joe Abelson, vice president of displays for consumer electronics advisers, iSuppli,

    a new phrase entered the lexicon: ‘cocooning,’ a trend among fear-struck citizens to avoid travel and remain in the safety of their homes. Amid the current economic downturn, a new wave of cocooning has hit, with recession-wary U.S. consumers eschewing travel, staying home and watching their televisions. However, they still are finding enough money to buy new flat-panel sets that offer superior pictures and larger sizes. (When Times Get Tough, the Tough Watch Television)

    Holing up in a cave or going down a burrow is about as deep as framing gets. Combine that with ideas about freedom and success, and it’s easy to see why, as Lakoff says, “Deep framing is where the action is.”

    Deep framing also helps to explain the persistence of stories like these:

  • Snapple features a slave ship on its lable and is owned by the KKK.
  • Maya Angelou wrote a poem saying Timberland is owned by the KKK, and the Timberland Tree represents lynching.
  • Tommy Hilfiger has said he does not want black people wearing his clothes. Liz Claiborne also said the same thing on Oprah.
  • Church’s Fried Chicken contains a chemical that makes black men sterile.
  • Frederic Rouzaud, the managing director of the winery that makes Cristal Champagne (a favorite of rap stars), said that he would be “delighted” if rappers bought another brand, instead.
  • When I brought these Myths up in one of my classes, most of the students laughed (a few merely nodded their heads). Their only response was that whoever believes these things must be “crazy.” The Urban Legends web site,, called the stories “slander,” and said, “These are common rumor types, and such tales should be dismissed as gossip not even worth the effort of repeating.” Yet a Legend is not a Myth, and it’s not so easy to dismiss the fact that these stories are indeed repeated over, and over, and over again.

    A Youtube video that showed Geraldo Rivera interviewing people about these stories (since deleted) focused on a group of well-dressed professionals in an attempt to highlight their bizarre nature. When confronted with evidence that Liz Claiborne never said anything about black people wearing her clothes, and that Oprah had transcripts to prove it, one woman told Geraldo she still believed it had been said at one time or another. “You must understand,” she told him, simply, “We are used to the idea of other people owning things.” And is it so hard to believe that some deep frames have been built differently than others when, for over 150 years, ownership has been used as both a wall and a badge? Or when there were such things as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment? Or when the the story about Cristal Champagne is actually true?

    103-inch-plasma-panasonicNow, how do we explain the deep frames that shore up the nightmares of the Populists? Would the words “crazy” and “slanderous” apply? Every day at the college where I teach, I see people waiting patiently for the bus back to downtown. One of my students, who had to withdraw after the first semester, lived in a studio apartment and owned a small radio. The grandmother of a high schooler that I tutored struggled for funding in order to send him to a high school where he might actually graduate, and on his birthday she bought him a new cell phone. (Yikes.) What do these folks think about all the flat-screens they’re supposed to be finagling?

    Hopefully, they’ll understand that a large segment of the American population is just used to the idea of certain people stealing things.

    108-inchWe are all more or less prisoners of our metaphors, and the impulses that pull us toward larger and larger screen sizes are the same ones that feed our hatred for real human beings. On the one hand, the crystallization of the popular ideal of freedom: self-sufficiency, hard work, limited government, and the right to acquire and keep property. On the other, the grotesque embodiment of its opposite: dependence, sloth, taxation and home invasions. It’s little wonder that sexy, mid-level consumer items drive the debates. Just slap words like “flat-screens” and “welfare cheats” onto the deep frames, plop them into a narrative of fear, and you have yourself a Myth. Do it consciously, and you have yourself a political party.

    So was I angry when I couldn’t buy a flat-screen last year? You betcha. Also frustrated, embarrassed, and a little depressed. Watching my family open the package would have made me feel like a hunter bringing home a grizzly, and hanging that pelt on the wall would really be saying something — to them, to the world, and to someone who would gladly work several jobs to provide for his loved ones. If there were jobs. That’s a lot of weight to hang on a television, especially when measured diagonally.

    Yet I try not to channel my anger into a shiny black frame, and bite-sized numbers like “40” and “200” don’t get me worked up. Here are some that do:

  • In 2008, the graduation rate in the Rochester City School District was 52%. This is considered a success, and when it’s compared to the 37% who graduated in 2006, I suppose it is. (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)
  • 872 Rochester students were arrested in school during the 2008-2009 school year, compared to 414 the year before. (City Newspaper)
  • Of the 15 adults I had at a class in the city last Spring, 6 were unable to open Microsoft Word, 2 weren’t sure how to turn on the computer, and 1 couldn’t find the space bar.
  • This is where the real crime lies, not with a “significant portion” of “them” buying toys with “my” money because they “won’t” get jobs, but with an ingrained, ongoing denial of the most basic requisites for enjoying the life of work in the first place. It’s a crime against the people involved, a crime against the future of America, and a crime against humanity.

    I doubt, though, that these numbers will ever get the sustained attention that’s lavished on flat-screens. For one thing, they’re complicated, and have—de facto and de jure—been adding up for centuries. But at the end of the day they’re just vague and amorphous, and lack the mythic heft of the story about the Vizio, the Pair of Bootstraps, and the Welfare Queen with a Walmart gift card.


    One Response to “Forty Inches and a Mule: The American Class War Goes HD”

    1. […] prisoners, welfare queens, and other moral misfits. Actually, I’m amazed he didn’t drag flat screen TV’s into it, as […]

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