We need a literature about being spoiled.… Most people who read in this country are spoiled and boring, yet all they want to read about is struggle and adventure. — William Upski Wimsatt, No More Prisons
To be fair, income inequality must have been much greater in the colonial period than it is today. Income gaps must have been wide up through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I’ll allow that the 1890s in the USA were even worse than the 1990s.
Still, in the century or so since the United States became a world power, income inequality has never been greater than it is now. Class-defining inequality reached a new high in 2006, when the richest tenth of the population cornered half of all the earnings made in America that year. That surpasses the previous record set in 1928.
The financial crisis has destroyed much of the wealth charted in 2006, but that wealth is being rebuilt. Jobs and affordable housing are not, and so the gap is set to widen further.
And no one much cares.
Increasing inequality is simply not something that American culture, even liberal culture, has had much to say about. Instead, the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad, say, the Holocaust was.
Our fashionable meditations on our past crimes and our progress, he suggests, are good ways to distract ourselves from the evidence of our routine cruelty and selfishness. Our collective focus on issues of individualism, sexual preference, and cultural difference substitute for less pleasant social conflicts between the rich and (gasp) the American poor.
When we say “race doesn’t matter,” we’re really trying to pretend that wealth doesn’t matter. And of course, in America, nothing matters more.
This is heady stuff, isn’t it, because the very mention of the poor in America — or the income gap, or exploitative finance, or unionism — why, that’s “class warfare.” It is a mortal sin against individualism. It’s ideological. We are Americans, and we’re getting over all that.
We’ve even elected a black president! We’ve sent money to Haiti! We’re good people!
Michaels’s article doesn’t have a political program. He only wishes, since we’re in for a hard time, that Americans would write better novels. Put some ideology into art, since we’re not going to put it in our politics.