This is a sweet little nugget I ran into on Twitter.
“Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?”
— Lucy Van Pelt, A Charlie Brown Christmas
Lucy puts the football down and then pulls it away at the last moment, leaving Charlie Brown sprawled across the lawn. Time after time, Charlie commits to the kick whole-heartedly, despite all evidence that the game is rigged. He’s going for the touchback. He throws himself into the task. Lucy cheats him. He tries again. Lucy pulls the ball away again. It’s downright sociopathic.
Anyone who was a good, productive worker at the beginning of 2008, but finds themselves on unemployment today — that “pre-paid vacation for freeloaders,” as Ronald Reagan so quaintly put it — probably feels a great deal of sympathy for poor Charlie. Those who side with Reagan probably find it funny. This football scene is a sort of paradigm for capitalism: a system of fairness, merit, and opportunity that easily, often, and by its own rules, implodes. When poor Charlie misses the ball during the homecoming game — again because Lucy pulls it away — it isn’t Lucy who gets the blame.
The façade of working class life has changed dramatically for most Americans over the last three decades. Working people are more likely to hold a service job today than a factory job, and to interact daily with people from across the economic spectrum. Opportunities for conspicuous consumption have been extended to small town and ghetto by malls and the Internet. Distinctions of high and low culture have all but been erased. Families of every income level watch “Survivor.” In talking about poetry and class, we’re trying to pin down social classes that are in more flux than usual, even by shifting American standards. Assume from the very beginning that this is, at best, a seriously flawed discussion.
Let’s think about being “poor” for a moment. Lucy contrasts the idea of a “good” Christmas tree with the “poor” one that Charlie bought. Here it’s unclear whether she intends poor in the sense of low-quality or in the sense of low-class. The tree is both. (Does it have to be both?) That in itself is telling: poor meant “not wealthy” long before it meant “of low quality,” and the pun is ingrained in American speech. The use of “good” is interesting as well. Much of the English-speaking world might use “nice” or even “fine” to impart a level of quality (although I would bet that the more American good has taken hold). The word good carries with it a whole array of ethical connotations, and Lucy’s is a uniquely American contrast: good things (or people) are not poor in either sense of the word. The so-called (and inaccurately-named) Protestant Work Ethic value system is reflected in / imposed by the language we casually use. More: