In Praise of the Middle
It’s good to be average. Wiser men than myself have thought so. Aristotle for example, measured extremes on either side of the line and found those things in the middle were always the best.
It’s not so bad to be in the middle. It might even be a point of pride. It’s not too high and mighty to be corrected, neither is it too low to see some improvement. It survives on practical virtues like prudence, stewardship, and patience. Middle class is those behaviours which draw you into a community. It’s hard to be a middle class individual, by definition. You are defined in context with your group. In my case, I grew up mainly in Peterborough Ontario which was THE community that marketers considered to be the best cross-section of Canadian society. You had a bit of everything from factory workers to university students. It was very egalitarian. I don’t remember being conscious of class at all when I lived there.
The first inkling I had that my life experience might be uncommon, was when I came in to Toronto to interview for acceptance to the Ontario College of Art. I arrived on a Greyhound bus with a garbage bag full of paintings. Those waiting for the same interview had been through fancy vocational schools for the arts. They had leatherbound portfolios and were clad in tweed instead of denim. Most of them looked me over, and I wondered how I would ever get accepted.
That was a while ago. Looking back on life and my career, is to see everything through that lens of being so average. Those are my values and they are important to me. Here is why:
Middle class is mostly defined by real work. You don’t get to be middle class for free. Identity does not come by way of inherited money, neither by the advantage of connections. There is no figurehead position. Middle class people are as common as dirt. They see themselves pretty much like everybody else, and therein lies their virtue.
Middle class is perhaps best described by pride in self-sufficiency. You are self-governed, and don’t want to be part of some government assistance program. You hoe your own row. Middle class recognizes the value of merit - things legitimately earned, that require skill, courage, and hard work.
There is also loyalty, a virtue not to be diminished. Middle-class stands for the underdog who is your neighbour because in the fortunes of time, that underdog may soon be you.
You fix broken things. You don’t outsource skills. Cottage industry skills count. Make-do also counts. Counting your blessings in the little things when the big things have not arrived yet.
Middle class also has some concept of honour and civic-mindedness. Of basic honesty. They expect some standard of real accountability in those they elect to public office.
Middle class people live in a steady way that supports the common weal. If you don’t remember the common weal, it is also related to things like common law - the thing judged to be most fair in situational ethics. It’s particularly Anglo Saxon, and might explain some of the best successes of that group. WASP is a term which catches some heat. White Anglo Saxon Protestant. Still, we all got enough religion growing up to count. I can recall looking up and down the street on a Sunday morning and everybody was doing the same thing, getting their family off to church. We also had the Lord’s prayer and a Bible story as part of our morning routine in school. For anybody who finds that culturally homogenous and boring, I would also add that people in those days did not have to lock their doors at night.
Margaret Thatcher once said that “the facts of life are conservative”. Middle class concepts do not tend to be overly complicated. You don’t need to arm-twist middle class people - they believe what they see in front of their own eyeballs. You can’t tell a middle class person for example, that there is virtue in toppling statues or looting. They see in their mind’s eye, their own community and neighbours being violated. They see the stuff they worked hard for being taken away by people who have not yet learned what to respect and how to be grateful.
What destroys middle class values? First of all, those things which erode the possibility of earning your own way. Credit cards. Drugs. Easy money from things like unemployment insurance. Decadence that is celebrated. Devaluation of the family and the institution of marriage. Being told top-down what to value by so-called experts. Peterborough now, is awash with drug use, facilitated by needle exchanges, and treatment centres. Easy access to drugs and a lax attitude from government has not helped. The “services” they provide to addicts should not be necessary in anybody’s world. I see too much government as part of this whole decline.
I have been thinking about the nasty name given to working-class people by Hillary Clinton, who strode through life on the red carpet of an elite. She called those she didn’t like, deplorables. She had better learning, but worse manners apparently. She did not see any virtue in the middle class. She also could not likely define it.
That is also Trudeau’s problem in Canada. At a certain point he seized on a good idea, that he should appeal to the middle class. He just could not figure out what that was. He could not determine it by income markers. He could also not really identify what it stood for. I thought to forward this essay to Trudeau and to give him a bit of a hand but I realized he would be in over his head. Too much privilege has warped his judgement.
Middle class is the experiment that happens when you jettison the advantage of money and connections, and reward responsible behaviour instead. You want a good society? Make it middle class. Make it possible for people to prosper from the work of their own hands. Foster pride in the kind of civic values that allow that to happen. Support the family. It’s the bedrock of everything, an intact family with a mom and dad at home. This is not what is presently happening in Canada. Here, the middle class is being destroyed, overtaxed and squeezed hard. Laugh at middle class values at your peril. They are a code of ethics that has sustained traditional societies everywhere.
Looking back in time, and all around the world, separation of society into tiers has been the norm. But I remember the virtue of being in the middle. This tiny egalitarian blip of history - right here in Canada after the Second World War, may have been where the most common of people shone best. Looking back, I count myself proud to have been part of all this, and I don’t need to be any higher, up than where I am. Middle class will work just fine.