Sunday, May 9, 2010

Those Enduring Divisions

Watching Mike Wallace briefly on C-Span yesterday (the man was born in 1918 and is still going strong!) got me thinking about journalism. The thought that came was: Journalism, the Media—that’s really a modern sort of thing, isn’t it? The Romans had no media, did they. Did the Egyptians, the Chinese? Next came the memory that once—before the term “media” surfaced—we spoke of journalism as the Fourth Estate. The others (memory of which obviously suggested this fourth) were the Clergy, Nobility, and Peasantry. And thinking of these three suggested the castes of India.

Being on one’s daily walk one can’t reach for the keyboard, and all I could remember was the Brahmins—and that the name of the warrior caste started with a K. But it seemed to me that there were more than three. I confirmed this later. Brahmins (teachers, scholars, priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers, warriors), Vaishyas (landowners, traders), Shudras (craftsmen and servants of all kinds), and, beneath the salt, as it were, not even viewed as a caste, were the Parjana (the Untouchables).

Now I was off and running. Interesting subject. It seemed to me that the younger a culture the fewer its estates. Japan, it seemed to me, only had had two, possibly three: the warriors (samurai) and the peasants. The high regard in which the Japanese held (and still hold) the the wise old man might be a stand-in for the clergy. But the formal clergy, it seemed to me, the Shinto clergy, hadn’t had much heft; it was a kind of ritual craft. The clergy, as an estate, did not emerge until Buddhism came and it became fashionable for famous men of the nobility to end their life as monks with shaven heads. I left the resolution of this for later, my ignorance being deep, and went on. The older a culture the more its estates differentiate, I thought, until it seems as if they’d disappeared—but that’s just an illusion, isn’t it? There are too many orders and too sharply differentiated. With that I began to outline the caste system of our Modernity, my mind still linked back by a thread to the notion that began my reflections, wondering where I should place Mike Wallace in the hierarchy of castes.

Well, let’s start at the top, with Academia—people who think, who deal in concepts, words. But this class, while it includes the scientists as well, is not yet all of what we once classified as “clergy.” We have to add all teachers—the whole huge educational sector. We have to include the clergy itself, its ministers and priests. We have to add the upper layer of the legal profession—law professors, judges. And, to be sure, we really should include in this class the totality of the Media. It makes sense. Its professionals deal in words, in concepts. Its most achieved—its columnists and editorial writers—are in the persuasion game; they too are missionaries. And we might label this entire structure the Intelligentsia. Now, of course, it might seem odd to assign a group that features paparazzi, grubby cub reporters, and substitute teachers into so exalted an estate—but here we might recall that, in medieval times, the Clergy itself included mendicant monks and sister. Within each estate, as I will emphasize later, the total layering of society is once more reproduced. There is an intelligentsia within the Intelligentsia; it has its own “rulers”; and its lowest class mirrors the bottom, if not the very bottom, of society.

The next layer is also mixed and organized in layers. At its summit are politicians and politically appointed and confirmed high level administrative and military leaders. The middle level is the administrative apparatus of power, the agencies, the civil services—the great departments of the state, including the Pentagon. And at the lowest are those who carry out the will of the nobility—the armed forces, police, FBI agents, border guards, etc., etc. All those who are members of this estate ultimately deal with force and its application, whether it is expressed in abstract concepts or as actual physical might. Thus the person who actually turns the switch at an electrocution or administers poison with a needle is as much a member of the “nobility” as is the president, senator, four-star general, or cabinet secretary. Here, too, the high-to-low functionalities of the greater society are once more reproduced.

Where should I place the medical profession—indeed, more broadly, the helping professions? I would divide them between the first two presented up to this point. They represent deep knowledge in the first, the estate of the mind; they represent its application for the benefit of all, in the second, the nobility of force. And the elements that—unfortunately for us, today—manages its financial base, I would assign to the third estate, the estate of ownership. The description of that order comes next.

This third estate represents our own Vaishyas, our owners of productive property (great or small) and our traders. This is the business class. At its top are the great banking firms and multinationals; its middle class are all manner of corporations; small business and farmers form its proletariat; this layer’s humility is clearly indicated by the fact that it is treated with a patronizing benevolence by the Intelligentsia and the Nobility. Our social tensions are in part explained by the unusually high power exercised by this, our third estate (in modern not medieval definition). But I would point out that it was Congress that called Goldman Sachs before its bench. Senator Levin sat higher than Lloyd Blankfein, looked down on Blankfein—while Blankfein looked up at Levin. This arrangement tells us all we need to know. To be sure, within his own estate, Blankfein is at the top. But in the social order he cannot command a Senator Levin to appear before a panel of investment bankers convened on Wall Street. The central focus of this estate is money. Yes, money is another form of power, but in the arrangements of humanity, ultimately, force ranks money and mind ranks force. It might not seem like that, but it’s the truth. All of our worst problem are traceable to false conceptions of reality—and the formation of ideas is the clergy’s responsibility. They have the gift—and therefore the duty—to get this one right!

But we’re not yet done. We have two more orders to go—but the last one no more counts as an estate with us than it did with the Hindus. We have the class that works. Here the telling difference is jobs. If you have one, you are a member of this class. If you lose it, you’re in trouble. And, yes, things do become complicated here. That is because the work is always performed for, and under the supervision of, the three orders that lie above, the orders of thought, of force, of ownership. But at this level what matters is the job. Within this order, too, a hierarchy extends from high level jobs rich with skill and education down to the miserable labors at the bottom of the mine. At, at the bottom, some members of this class earn so little, or so infrequently, that they form a kind of shadowy transition zone between this, the last estate, and the next, the one beyond the pale.

And that last one, alas, consists of our own Untouchables, a class we sometimes we call the Underclass. These are also our Unfortunates. Whatever their background, race, or history, they have one thing in common. They are outside the caste system. But why do I say that?

As I’ve already begun to say above, the curious aspect of our modern society is that every estate reflects the total in miniature. Thus, for instance, there is a business intelligentsia within the business class; there is also an executive layer, its chiefs and rulers; and it has its own functionaries, workers, and laborers. The bottom layers have dual citizenship, estateship: nominally they belong to the estate in which they work; actually they belong into the Laboring Estate. We find the same pattern with the Intelligentsia as well—and in the working class. One thinks of tenured professors, department heads and presidents of universities, one thinks of teaching assistants, of lab assistants. One thinks of unions and union stewards, of publishers, editors, reporters, and of stringers. And so on. But the underclass is absent in these hierarchical arrangements—absent, absent, absent. Sometimes their members are briefly permitted to labor, like the Indian untouchables, to do the dirtiest work for next to nothing. But on the whole, they are outside even of the lowest ranks of the four big estates.

Now all this—as history surely teaches—is nature. All this comes about. All we are permitted to do is name it when we see it. But we can also judge it. Each of these classes has its legitimacy—except the fifth. And each has the duty of doing its job right. It might surprise some to see me classify journalism so high, into the top estate in terms of responsibility. But the complaint arises not because of the placement of journalism but because the profession falls short of its appointed role. When it performs its job, we don’t berate its behavior.

Strange vistas… There’s always more to say, but my walk is ending; the thoughts begin to fray. It’ll soon be time for dinner. But in this process I did manage to get a fairly good idea of what Mike Wallace is all about. I understand now why, in remembering his deep past, Wallace talked there, to that audience, about the nobility of his profession, which, as he put it, was to be a servant of the truth. Spoken like a member of his true estate. Yes, spoken like a clergyman.
Image credit is Wikipedia.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting thoughts. I sort of wish you'd have put these layers into a nice graphic... not a piramid some much as... a pie chart, so I could see your classification scheme more clearly. But I like they way you work in ohter culture's schemes. I never knew the various castes in the Indian caste system and found you description very interesting.