Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams
by Alfred Lubrano
Limbo is based on the premise that working class Americans (regardless of ethnic background) have their own distinct culture, values, language and world view. This cultural conditioning, based on early childhood experiences, provides an instinctive approach to the world that persists throughout adulthood – regardless of advanced education or changes in social status.
Lubrano starts his book with an analysis of fundamental working class values that distinguish them from the middle class:
1. A strong work ethic (unlike the middle class, which places higher value on getting something for nothing).
2. A strong, unambivalent respect for parents that persists into adulthood.
3. Strong ties to extended family..
4. A forthright approach to interpersonal communication devoid of hidden agendas.
5. Intense personal loyalty.
6. Firm limit setting for children.
7. A preference for common sense problem solving as opposed to book learning.
8. Comfort in openly displaying affection and anger.
American’s Loss of Class Identity
Most college educated Americans are totally unaware that working class people have their own distinct culture. They unconsciously cling to the myth that class differences have vanished in the US – that all Americans have an equal opportunity to become billionaires if they work hard enough.
Meanwhile, thanks to a steady diet of pro-corporate propaganda, low income Americans have lost any sense of working class identity or solidarity. They, too, cling to the myth that all Americans are “middle class.” This is unsurprising, given that TV is often their sole source of information and entertainment. The average American watches an average of 5 hours of TV a day, with most viewers coming from low income households
Based on income, 70 to 80% of Americans qualify as working class. Yet nearly all the characters we see in TV dramas and sitcom are distinctly “middle class.”* Recession-themed programming (where people are are foreclosed on and evicted, work three jobs, wait in line at the food bank or struggle to see a doctor) is virtually unheard of. Instead we get reality TV, cooking and renovation shows, and dystopian fiction (with or without vampires).
Lubrano coins a new word in Limbo: “straddler.” It describes a professional of working class origin, who based on cultural differences, never totally fits in with middle class colleagues. As this perfectly describes me in relation to the medical profession, it’s a subject very dear to my heart.
I was only able to attend medical school thanks to the Health Professions Student Loan Program Kennedy started in the early sixties. Although I did well academically, it was an immense culture shock. I had absolutely nothing in common with my middle class classmates. They often complained my typical working class candor and emotional openness (both taboo in polite middle class circles) made them extremely uncomfortable.
*I can count working class TV series on one hand and most are pre-1980: Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, Amos and Andy, Roseanne, Cheers, and All in the Family.