Myth-busting for May Day: false dichotomies and syncretic opportunities

I want to talk a little bit, in honor of International Workers’ Day, about class and classism. I notice that every now and then, in the posts or in blog responses, that protests are raised in response to the idea of using class analysis as a lens. I’m actually really curious about the discomfort and distaste some people feel in response to the term “classism.” Since an analysis of classism was a major driving factor in the formation of the elegant solution that is laid out in “The Remedy,” I think it’s useful to revisit from time to time.

US citizens may be unique in their denial of class structures. As we have had seen lately, politicians almost exclusively preach to the middle class (most citizens, apparently, identifying as members of that group); and of course for there to be a middle there have to be ends, but the ends somehow do not bear looking at. John Edwards, that fire-breathing radical, did have his brief moment of talking about helping the poor and working class, but remember how relatively remarkable (dare I say refreshing?) that was, especially from someone running for such a high office?

Some of this denial and discomfort is clearly rooted in the US-American romance of the Individual. We are supposed to be able to Pull Ourselves Up by our Own Bootstraps. This can take on an interesting twist in circles populated by those of us who have succumbed to the romance of Eastern Philosophies (including acupuncture). The Bootstraps that we are required to pull are Spiritual. We should work on our personal karma, and purify our emotions, and (I suppose) the distasteful karma of the collective will sort itself out. We’re too spiritual to be worried about the material (by which I think we mostly mean the material conditions of other peoples’ lives - we certainly worry about or rationalize our own.)

But wait! We’re acupuncturists, people!!!!! Remember the inseparability of yin and yang? Remember the beautiful and sometimes kooky syncretism of Chinese Medicine, the way we have three treasures and four levels and five phases and six stages and eight parameters, etc., etc.? Why this false dichotomy between questions of spirit and questions of matter? Between the individual and the community? Between the temporal and the eternal? Why should we be afraid of thinking about classism, if that’s something that can help us understand our patients and our personal histories and our place in the wider world, as acupuncturists and humans?

Sure, I too think that people who think class analysis explains everything are weird (I feel the same about strict Five-Element folks, frankly). NO ONE on CAN is like that - no one is asking you to use one lens, or to be a martyr. That’s part of why I love it. Seems to me CAN is populated by smart, big-hearted people who are using all kinds of frames of reference to figure out their right livelihood, to help each other and their patients. They’re able to simultaneously think different things, like “classism sucks” and “I should step up my meditation practice” and “I’d like to harness my anger about classism so I can channel it towards making the world a more equitable and peaceful place” and “what’s for dinner?” It’s a little like being able to say that the attacks of September 11th 2001 were horrible and tragic, and at the same time be able to wonder about the negative impacts of US foreign policy and cultural and economic imperialism. (Note: don’t try to wonder this aloud if you are an African-American minister with a large flock.)

In closing, here’s a toast to the folks who brought us the weekend, whether we choose to spend it on a cushion or in the clinic or on the streets.

This story was posted on May 1 2008 by Nora.
Tags: classism

Comments

  • May 1 2008 at 9:27 PM
    Diana writes:

    I love this post (and all three before it, too!)

    Nora, I agree this needed to be said again, and you said it beautifully.  Class doesn’t explain everything, but it explains a lot, especially about access to health care.  (And isn’t it interesting/nauseating to see the tv news persons decide that one of the three millionaire Senators running for president might be “gasp” an elitist?!?)

    In the community where I live, there isn’t much obvious working class identity or working class pride.  When affluent folks from somewhere else started buying up this penninsula about 50 years ago, most working class locals began the shift towards thinking of themselves as middle class.  I think this has made things harder, in some ways.  There isn’t the solidarity around financial struggle that would be helpful—everyone thinks they are the only one struggling to stay afloat and not move somewhere with a lower cost of living.  I have plenty of patients whose background and income would catagorize them as working class, even if they wouldn’t choose the term.  It’s because of CAN and WCA that I’ve been able to make my door wide enough to let these folks in.   I am grateful to be providing acupuncture to lots of underserved folks whom alternative medicine (and sometimes mainstream medicine as well) have written off as not very important.  I’m also grateful for for folks who are willing to name names and -isms and talk about why things are the way they are.

     

    Happy Worker’s Day to all from this happy worker ! http://www.pocacoop.com/images/blog_uploads/smiley-cool.gif

    Diana 

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  • May 2 2008 at 12:58 AM
    Mark M writes:

    Nora,
    thanks for your post.

    Nora,

    thanks for your post. It has gotten me to thinking about class in my practice and my neck of the woods, southern Utah, where things are generally—-overwhelmingly—-viewed in terms of religion: “Are you Mormon or not?” Class almost becomes invisible here because of the preponderance of that particular lens. It is rendered even more complex in my clinic because I opened it and share it with my wife who is a cranio-sacral therapist who charges $75 per treatment and was emphatic about creating a beautiful, even elegant space. I guess that’s confusing to me because the WCA physical plant seems to be so “working-classedly funky” ( I don’t think you get more working class than a converted printing shop) and part of me has thought you had to do it the way they do it to be “authentic”—-as though anything else was treason to the CA model. I guess a question here is:  does setting up a clinic that I think is very beautiful (from the point of view of my middle-class taste) represent a form of classism? On the one hand that seems ridiculous, like saying working class people don’t want or need beauty. On the other hand, it opens the question of examining the extent to which the expression of my taste is exclusive or sends subtle messages to the people who come to my clinic(“don’t you dare spill tea on that expensive sofa!”). To make it even more intresting, I ran a clinic before I ever heard about WCA, though it certainly wasn’t as successful—-or fun—-as what I’ve been doing since. Learning about this model has shown me the classist underpinnings of my previous model (“I’m so noble for offering cheap acupuncture for these poor people”). A last, bizarre twist is that, in addition to the clinic which we’ve just opened in a new location I work part-time as staff acupuncturist in a very expensive, “world-class” destination spa. That charges $172.50 per treatment! I know that probably sounds borderline psychotic/multiple acupuncturist personality for someone who claims to subscribe to this model and I frequently debate with myself the ethics of continuing to practice under these conditions, but in addition to the income I have to say I really enjoy treating most of the people I see there—-there are a lot of very thoughtful, good rich people, most of whom deeply appreciate the treatments I give them and for whom acupuncture appears to be a doorway to looking at things in a way they may not have done before…

    So, I hope this raises the confusion to a higher level. I look forward to any comments other may have.

    Mark

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  • May 2 2008 at 3:02 PM
    Skip writes:

    Mark-o!

    Great to hear from you Mark!  Here’s a small answer from me about your wonderings:

     

    a) Since we met I’ve visited a whole bunch of CA clinics.  Most of them are beautiful and I think even your wife would agree with my assessment.  So you can do this model and still be elegant.  Even at WCA we’ve laid down new floors and done other design improvements.  You have to remember Lisa and I started out with much less than $0 in the bank.  What would we have done if we had $10,000 lying around?  If you think nothing than you don’t understand us. 

     

    b) At the same time, your tastes (and some other acupunks’ tastes) might well be classist.  Do this imagination exercise with me:  Imagine setting up a new clinic (you just graduated from school) and you are married to a doctor who makes $350,000/year and you have a big house, etc.  Now imagine opening a clinic and your spouse is oh a librarian and you have two little kids and live month to month.  Hopefully you see that the clinics would look different because the resources used to set them up are different. The first person would hire help and would tend to pick out expensive Nic-nacs to decorate them with.  (Nic-nacs?  Sorry that person would use a feng shui expert…)  

     

    The librarian’s spouse would probably fix things up on their own with maybe their spouse and a friend or two to pitch in.  Both clinics would look nice I think and with all other things being equal both would be appealing to most people. ( I have to say here that income is not by any means the sole determinant of class but it does play a role.)

     But here’s where it gets dicey: I’ve seen clinics where so much emphasis is put on the owner’s idea of what elegant design is is that they cripple their chances to make a living.  Acupunks get so carried away with woo-woo shit that they totally lose sight of what they are trying to accomplish: make a living.  To my mind these acupunks are so busy trying to hide their own self-doubts about their abilities that they try to hide behind lofty and empty words and designs. (If you act rich then you must be okay and so your treatments are good.) THAT to me is classist: an unwillingness to come to terms with one’s reality by pretending they are something they are not.  They think that since upper class people do things a certain way then it must be more valid.  Since acu-schools persist in presenting both an upper class view of the world (the spa model) or an upper middle class model (the medical model) acupunks routinely think that these models are the only valid ways to practice.

    I’ll say it again: I have no problem with an upper class person living an upper class life.  I do have a problem in someone saying that the upper class life is the best way to live.  IMO that’s what the acu-world says quite often. 

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  • May 2 2008 at 3:51 PM
    Dana writes:

    $172.50?  What do you think

    $172.50?  What do you think they do with that last fifty cents?

      0 likes
  • May 3 2008 at 11:46 AM
    River Jordan writes:

    scattered thoughts on class

    Hi Nora,

     Thanks for your thoughtful and enlightening post. Of course classism is a useful lens to better understand how to help create a more just world and end people’s suffering.

    I think both Buddhism and acupuncture in America share a very similar pattern of evolution in being embraced mostly by upper middle/middle class citizens (excepting immigrant niche populations).

    From what I understand, working class people by and large haven’t found either of them useful in their struggle to obtain the basics of life - at least until WCA/CAN came along in the case of acupuncture. I’m still working at our Buddhist center to try to get people to see the classism involved in saying on the one hand….“The Dharma is not for sale”, and on the other hand, putting out a"Suggested Donation” of $135 for a week long series of lectures.

    In general, I see classism as a form of ignorance. Discussing it informs us about our attachments - where are our blind spots? Where are the smudges (and the smugness) on my spiritual lens which prevents me from really developing compassion and wisdom.

    Yesterday, Serena gave me a treatment after my morning shift. Now I realize I would like to upgrade a few of our recliner chairs….from $25 Craigs List models to something a bit more spiffy…maybe $75 or $100. I want to be able to offer basic comfort to everyone, regardless of class. So there is a middle ground…we don’t need to cling to being “working class” and use only barely functional recliners found on street corners. It’s like WCA’s new floor. Everyone benefits from that and its not extravagant but a gift to the community. 

    Similarly, there is that stained ceiling tile with a big ugly spot on it. Aesthetically, it would be nice to have that replaced so people didn’t have to look at that first thing upon opening their eyes after a treatment. Classism, as Skip put it, is where we start thinking we need perfect chairs and exotic interior designing in order to impress (middle/upper class people) and make them think we are worthy and capable of giving them good treatments.

    Saying all of this, I wonder what class am I? Conventionally, I have roots in upper middle class - so that conditioning still affects me. Currently my lifestyle is getting more and more working class even though I obviously enjoy a good measure of privilege which needs to be seen - educational advantages, skin color, life experiences, gender, etc.

    From a Buddhist perspective my class is “sentient being”....unenlightened conscious being with the potential to become fully enlightened. Ultimately, I am class-less….just another conception. All are valid perspectives. 

     Anyways, those are a few scattered thoughts I offer to the community (in between conversations with my five year old). 

     Cynicism is a smokescreen for laziness and fear. Clear light mind awaken! Pierce through all layers of doubt and delusion! Inspire me onwards in ceaseless waves of selfless activity.

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  • May 3 2008 at 1:39 PM
    lumiel writes:

    That ugly ceiling stain.

    When I have a problem like that, I get a spiritual poster and cover the spot with that, and the patients enjoy the poster, not realizing the ugliness behind it.  A spiritual metaphor there for us all.

     I grew up working class, but have always craved elegance.  I think the working class embraces a huge spectrum of tastes, but suspect that most of us CAPs, if given the means, would provide our clinics with a refined but comfortable ambience that all our patients would appreciate.  One of the charming features of our “movement” is that when we visit each others’ clinics, we see how unique and creative each one of us is!

      0 likes
  • May 3 2008 at 3:21 PM
    Mark M writes:

    Your thinking is very

    Your thinking is very helpful, Skip. Thanks.

      0 likes
  • May 4 2008 at 3:59 PM
    Nora writes:

    addendum

    Thanks everybody for your thoughtful comments.  I love this community.  In case anybody else reads this, I’m pasting something below from the “Class Matters” website (linked to from Lisa’s newest post).  This rubric was at the bottom of another article on that website:  http://www.classmatters.org/working_definitions.php

    I found it really interesting.
     

    Class Self-Identifications

    It’s not true, as sometimes is said, that almost all Americans call themselves
    “middle class.” That’s only the answer when the choices are lower, middle,
    and upper. Few people want to call themselves “low class.”

    When “working class” is one of the options, then there’s a big self-identified
    working class.

    By Self-Identification
    1998
    Average of all years 1972-1998
    Lower class
    5%
    5%
    Working class
    45%
    46%
    Middle class
    46%
    46%
    Upper class
    4%
    3%

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  • May 4 2008 at 4:04 PM
    Nora writes:

    sorry - the columns didn’t come out right

    So, the upper number in each group is “By Self-Identification, 1998” and the lower number is “Average of all years 1972 - 1998.”  The really interesting things are that the same %s of people identify as “working class” and as “middle class,” and that the numbers haven’t changed AT ALL, on average, in over 35 years.  So much for bootstrappin’.

     

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