This country is in shackles; its thought, character and public policy locked in distortion and lies.

The deceit stands at the root of federal and state budgetary chaos and corrodes every aspect of national life. It causes the chief executive to expatiate on the defense of "our lifestyle" as though the way of life of the privileged were universal. And that obliviousness is but a minor symptom of a vast, country-wide self-deception.Several hallowed concepts - independence, individualism, choice - are woven into the web of illusion and self-deception. But presiding over the whole is the icon of classlessness.

George Bush asserts that class is "for European democracies or something else - it isn't for the United States of America. We are not going to be divided by class." The forces behind this icon of classlessness range from the media to the national experience of public education.

The myth of classlessness has a history, of course. Caught up in that history, the framers of the Constitution refused to impose land and property qualifications for federal office; and eight out of 10 Americans in the Depression claimed to be middle class.

In our time the myth not only lives deep in people's nerves but exerts an evermore destructive influence on public policy.

And the myth directly affects the distribution of privileges, bounties and hazards in every sector of life.

Every year a federal housing donation of close to $40 billion is awarded to millions earning more than $50,000 annually. The donation takes the form of tax abatements, such as the mortgage interest and property tax exemptions, and the capital gains deferral on housing sales.

Only the faith that America is a classless society prevents this charity to the propertied from being recognized for what it is: an indefensible class rip-off.

And the myth of classlessness figures in corporate decisions that strip the work force of its dignity and skills by killing off one industry after an other, from steel to semiconductors. The assumption is workers aren't shaped by their skills; when quality jobs disappear, workers can just do - and be - something else.

Classlessness functions as the ultimate unspoken excuse for a range of inequities stretching from regressive Social Security taxes to pauperization requirements for care for the disabled, from Attorney General Dick Thornburgh's rejection of guidelines mandating prison terms for white collar criminals to the denial of proper medical care to heart-disease patients lacking private insurance and wholly dependent on Medicare.

The Vietnam "draft," the upper income "bubble," tracking in the public schools, "vocational" education - all these episodes of state-administered injustice reflect the influence of the myth of classlessness.

And always that influence is masked, obscured, downplayed. Work-related accidents and illnesses kill 70,000 a year - but those people are nearly invisible. `

We shall not shake the monster in our midst until we take serious account of the idea of difference - differences between, for one more example, youngsters for whom opportunity means college and youngsters for whom opportunity can only mean the Army.

The task is nothing less than that of laying bare the links between the perpetuation of the myth of social sameness and the perpetuation of social wrong. We have all too little time in which to get on with it.

(Benjamin DeMott, professor of humanities at Amherst College, is author of "The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class.")