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Reflections on Grace Elizabeth Hale's A NATION OF OUTSIDERS (Book Review)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) January 17, 2011: My favorite author is the American cultural historian Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003). When I had the honor of serving as the senior editor of the 600-page anthology of his writings titled AN ONG READER: CHALLENGES FOR FURTHER STUDY (Hampton Press, 2002), I selected his 1962 essay "The Barbarian Within: Outsiders Inside Society Today" to be one of the twenty-eight selections in the book (pages 277-300).

As the title indicates, Ong works with the ancient Greek contrast of Greek/barbarian. Other ancient contrasts involving an in-group and an out-group include Jew/gentile and Christian/pagan. Whenever people organize themselves into a group with a group identity, they set up a contrast between themselves as members of the group and other people who are not members of the group, the out-group, outsiders. Thus for each group formed, there will be an out-group of non-members.

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Ong was amused by what he styles "the assembly-line beatnik" (page 280), As he points out, commercial outlets were advertising certain products that Americans could buy so that they could become beatniks, at least in their own imaginations. But beatniks were supposedly the out-group, not the in-group. But Ong does not explore who the members of the in-group were supposed to be, except to note that they were regarded as "squares." So we had the beatniks/squares contrast. By contrast with the squares, the beatniks fancied themselves to be "way out." Thus they imagined themselves to be the out-group. But their way of thinking of themselves as the out-group reverses the more conventional way of thinking in which the ascendant group fancies itself to be the in-group. For example, Greeks defined the outsiders as barbarians (i.e., non-Greeks); Jews defined the outsiders as gentiles (i.e., non-Jews); and Christians defined outsiders as pagans (i.e., non-Christians). But paradoxically, in the 1950s and 1960s, beatniks defined themselves as the outsiders, the out-group. Conversely, they defined squares as the in-group.

Even though Ong continued to publish essays and books almost up to the time of his death at the age of 90 in 2003, he did not return to exploring further the theme of outsiders inside American society as it developed over the 40 years or so after the publication of his essay on this theme in 1962.

As amusing as the assembly-line outsiders seemed to Ong in the early 1960s, the themes of being outsiders supposedly caught on big time among white middle-class Americans. In A NATION OF OUTSIDERS: HOW THE WHITE MIDDLE CLASS FELL IN LOVE WITH REBELLION IN POSTWAR AMERICA (Oxford University Press, 2011), Grace Elizabeth Hale, who is herself a white woman in history at the University of Virginia, shows that across a wide spectrum of white people, it became fashionable for middle-class whites to think of themselves as outsiders. She shows how a wide array of American groups defined themselves as outsiders, as though there were an assembly-line that somehow kept turning out white middle-class outsiders. Of course these supposed outsiders often formed interest groups that competing with one another. Nevertheless, the members of each group nurtured the group's self-identity as outsiders.

For example, in the abortion debate, the anti-abortion people imagined themselves as the outsiders because the 1973 Supreme court ruling in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States. They were against legalized abortion, so they considered themselves to be the outsiders with the law of the land representing the supposed insiders.

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But the defenders of legalized abortion focused on the tradition of patriarchy that the 1973 ruling overturned. For the defenders of legalized abortion, the anti-abortion people represent patriarchy. Thus the defenders of legalized abortion stood outside the patriarchy and so they fancied themselves to be outsiders.

William F. Buckley, Jr., spearheaded the formation of radical conservatives who saw themselves as outsiders against big government as represented by the New Deal. To this day, radical conservatives fancy themselves to be outsiders against big government and New Deal liberalism, even though the deregulation policies they advocate benefit Wall Street insiders and the super rich.

Tom Hayden and others formed the New Left as outsiders against the old liberalism of the New Deal. For the New Left, New Deal liberals such as President John F. Kennedy represented the supposed in-group against which they are working.

And so on. To be sure, each different group that fancies itself to be a group of outsiders also fancies non-group-members as the supposed in-group against which they are pitted. It appears to be extremely fashionable for middle-class whites to fancy themselves to be outsiders, even though they are arguably the privileged beneficiaries for whom the American socioeconomic system has worked reasonably well, at least when they are compared with the poor.

The American socioeconomic system has not worked so well for many other Americans, especially not for poor African Americans and poor Mexican Americans. Thus the poor would seem to have the most natural claim on seeing themselves as outsiders, not white middle-class Americans.

However, instead of the poor benefiting as a result of the widespread popularity of outsider imagery in American culture during the past 60 years or so, we have seen the great expansion of income inequality over roughly the last 40 years in the United States. QUESTION: Has the widespread popularity of outsider imagery among white middle-class Americans contributed to the development of income inequality? It seems so.

In their book WINNER-TAKE-ALL POLITICS: HOW WASHINGTON MADE THE RICH RICHER AND TURNED ITS BACK ON THE MIDDLE CLASS [and on the lower class as well] (Simon & Schuster, 2010), two young political scientists, Jacob S. Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of Berkeley, have examined in great detail the political and legislative developments that produced the great expansion of income inequality over roughly the last 30 years or so in the United States.

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Because of their strong interest in redistributing material wealth through legislative interventions, Hacker and Pierson work with the terms "nonmaterial" issues/grounds and "postmaterialist" to characterize various issues that would do little to help redistribute material wealth to the middle class and lower class.

For example, they characterize both pro-choice and pro-life advocates as being concerned with nonmaterial issues. Regarding nonmaterial issues, the authors' neutrality about them can be summed up in their rather crudely worded statement, "We have no dog in this fight" (page 204). Other nonmaterial issues include affirmative action, women's rights, civil rights, and environmental concerns, which the authors see as upper-middle-class issues that would do little to help redistribute material wealth to the middle class and lower class. In plain English, "the Democrats lost their capacity to speak of the economic concerns of the little guy" (page 184).

Even though I understand their terminology about the little guy, I myself prefer to refer to the poor. Nevertheless, I agree with their analysis: The emphasis on nonmaterial issues, important as they may be in and of themselves, undoubtedly contributed to the neglect of the poor in the Democratic party. In addition, I would suggest that the outsider imagery that usually went hand-in-glove with the advocacy of nonmaterialist issues contributed to and compounded the Democratic party's neglect of the poor.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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