Saturday, September 1, 2012

White Gloves

Editor's note:  I usually do not fill this space with political rants, but I am compelled by current events to express myself on this topic.  My apologies to readers who will find this essay uncomfortable to read. I understand if you prefer to simply skip it and wait for another, more familiar type of post.

I will start this essay with an observation on which I believe there is widespread agreement across cultural and language lines all over the globe, in every city and every hamlet, right down through history.
#1: You can learn a lot about a man by the way he treats a waiter.
Now, from a waiter's point of view--having waited on a lot of people over the past forty-plus years--I think it's fair to say that I have learned a lot about a lot of men and women, based just on how they treated me and/or my colleagues at a table.  There's no room for all that here, but from a political point of view, I do have one key observation for a certain former governor who is running for president this year:
It's the white gloves.
No, this is not exactly about those "47%" comments.  My observation here is more about the supporting subtext.  I want to look at the part we are just supposed to assume without examining.  Let me put it another way, with my second observation:
#2: Nothing is more classist than making servants wear white gloves.
That draws the line pretty clearly, I think.  Note, please, this observation is not a statement of outrage.  I am not offended by the candidate's 'inelegant remarks', although I do see how some folks might be.  This is just what I do here in my journal, make observations and comments.  And this is just how I see it, straight up as a lifelong waiter (servant) and a permanent member of the middle (lower) class.

So, in this now widely circulated video, while others were getting properly lathered up about the inelegance of the truth when spoken as the wealthy see it, I was pulled up short by the white gloves.  Specifically, it was the symbolism that struck me.  It was just so blatant that it actually took me by surprise.  My first thought was, "Where is this?  Who still does this?" but it didn't take long toput it together.  Ah, it was at the home of a wealthy landowner in the Deep South.

Shall I make this clearer?  Well, I do not intend to play a race card, though it might be an easy trick to take.  I'm after the tougher trick, the class card.

So, why white gloves?  What does this say about the person who wears them, and the people who require they be worn?

Answering these two questions will underscore my Observation #1 and point directly to the genuine character of the people who endorse this practice, and, by no coincidence, this particular candidate for president of the U.S.

Let's start with the most facile explanation for the white gloves, which will--considering the source--be unsurprisingly the first explanation tossed out by the candidate's apologists, the folks I call euphemistically, the 'seated' class.  They'll say:  "It's just a convention at these kinds of fancy parties.  It doesn't mean anything."  And, with a grand stage whisper, they might add that if we'd ever been to one of these parties, we'd already know that.

Well, I have been to more than a few of these fancy parties.  I've waited on the 1% and even the 1% of the 1%.  I'm not bragging nor name-dropping.  I know very well why they make the servants wear white gloves and it is not just a quaint meaningless expression--unless you consider 'darkie' or worse to be an meaningless expression.  I said I would not play the race card, so I leave this by saying that we all know that the hand inside the glove is likely to be several shades browner than the white satin given them to wear by the seated class.

Although multi-layered, the basic notion behind the white gloves is the given knowledge among the seated class that you really don't want them (the servants) touching your stuff.  While never stated outright, the 'ickyness' factor is, I believe, the underlying subtext that comes with the white gloves.

White gloves on a servant symbolizes the seated class's desire to be insulated or protected from the ickyness of the serving class.  This is not as germophobic as it sounds, although I do think there's that element present in the condition.  But I mean it in more of a plutocratic sense, as if the seated class fears being contaminated by our touch.  White gloves protect their clothing, their furniture, plates, glasses, cutlery and, of course, their food from their servant's basic ickyness.

To keep the servant from touching all their stuff with their usually olive-to-black and oh-so-sticky fingers, they require the gloves.  To measure the success of the gloves to remain between us and them, however, the gloves must be white.  Why white?  Certainly there are some subliminal factors, but the most obvious reason is not subtle at all.  White is a symbol of purity, to be sure.  It is also a color that can be measured, as to the state of said purity.

This is my classist card.  It is a viewpoint that is directly in line with my Observation #2 and this is where it leads me, to my conclusion.

When the servants are too poor to even pay tax, yet are considered by the upper class to be too weak and possessed of a false sense of entitlement to basic, human needs like food, health care and social security, that is a classist society.  Further, I believe, that when servants are also required to wear symbols of their class--as a means of identifying them and keeping the separate from other classes--we have moved to a dangerously classist society.

It's dangerous because it separates our whole society into two separate parts that are then set against each other in a way that benefits neither class.  It's not worth pretending that class doesn't exist, but it is worth our time mitigating the negative effects that class divisions can and do have on actual people.  We may all know that the rich think the poor are icky, but allowing the servants the dignity of not wearing white gloves is a small price to pay for some civility, don't you think?

After all, such civility is in everyone's best interest.  The argument can be made that the upper half of society is not so far from the lower half in real terms.  That is, when you think about it, many of those who consider them to be be upper class are just one bubble burst, one layoff, one medical bill from dropping into the lower half.

Now the political part.  Many of those who have convinced themselves that they 'built that' also realize, instinctively, that they are on the bubble, at risk of failing.  This is, quite frankly, a very uncomfortable place to be.  It's not so surprising, then, that these folks would transfer their troubles to an outside force.  They might say, for example, that our current President is a failed Moslem socialist apologist who may not even have been born here.  If you ask them, our 'job creator' class would say, alas, that they have become so demoralized in four years that they are no longer able to compete in the global marketplace without sufficient incentives to invest.  It's true, the rich are no different that you or me--we are just scared about different things.

The poor are scared of dying.  The rich are scared of being poor.  Until that changes, the servants will need to keep those gloves on.

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