Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Class Acts

with 4 comments

So, I’m sitting here, reading through the comments from yesterday, and being thoroughly astonished–yes, of course, on one level and in one very small segment of the world, “social class” is about who gets to go to which parties–

But social class in the real world is about who gets to be Secretary of the Treasury, and who, born into poverty, makes his way out of it or gets stuck there.

Or, for that matter, who, born into a “good” family, ends up bombing out instead of making a good family of his own.

Or her.

I’m being grammatical today.

I think what happens in the US is that we tend to think of social class in one of two ways, both of which are largely wrong:

First, we think of social class is money.  If two guys have a million dollars, they’re both “upper class.”  If two families live in the same trailer park, they’re both “lower class.”

This has the virtue of being sometimes sort of true–if you were going to make odds, that’s the way you’d bet, because a larger percentage of each group would belong to the social class they seem to on the surface.

There are reasons for this that have nothing at all to do with chance. The higher up the social scale you get, the harder families work to insure that their children simply will not fit into any of the classes below them.

This is less a matter of snobbery than it is of protection.  Class is a set of attitudes and assumptions about the world, and as such it steers children into some sorts of behavior and not in others.  Middle class parents expect their children to attend class, be polite to their teachers, get their homework done, and have a job at least in the summer to show they have a decent work ethic.  They want those messages reinforced, not sabotaged by kids who think the world owes them a living or that school is for chumps on their way to making chump change.

A family whose parents work two jobs (at things like lawn care worker and convenience store clerk) each to keep the kids in parochial school, who show up at every parent-teacher conference, who  make sure their kids do their homework, who push college and scholarships at every turn–those people are middle class, whether they live in a nice development somewhere or in a trailer park.

It’s not about the money.

What it is about, though, or sort of half about, is the style–social class is distinctly about styles, because styles is the shorthand by which we recognize each other. 

And it’s the style that causes the problem.

Go back and listen, sometimes, to liberals talking about George Bush or conservatives talking about John Kerry–listen to just how much of it is not about substance but about style.

Think of that infamous ad during the 2004 elections about how we don’t want your brie-eating, wine-tasting, New York Times reading snobs out here in Iowa.

I had people on this blog defend that ad–and defend the idea of categorizing people by their tastes–as a good way of telling one side from the other.

The problem is, it’s only half a good way to tell one side from the other. 

The personal taste side of social class is essentially superficial.  It does not really connect to any of the core issues in class.  Both Ann Coulter and Bill Maher–who, by the way, dated each other in college–are “educated upper middle class” in tastes, habits, and assumptions about other people,  and they don’t agree on just about anything that would matter in electing them to office.

What we call the “culture wars” in the US is basically a war of class–of the middle class vs the educated upper middle class, to be precise.  We like to call the educated upper middle class the “elites,” but when we do it we’re using “elites” in a way that’s new. 

The way liberals responded to Bush–not in opposing his policies, which is sane, but in being driven nearly crazy by the very sight of him–was a result of the fact that Bush was so solidly, uncompromisingly middle class in superficial tastes. 

Bush may have gone to Andover and Yale, but he talked, walked, ate and responded to things like books and movies as if he’d gone to John F. Kennedy High and Missouri State. 

Bush opponents do not respond that way to Ann Coulter, for instance, because in spite of her political ideas, she’s as solidly educated upper middle class as they come.

In fact, at the moment, the educated upper middle class has a lock on the professions, from law and medicine and college teaching to administrative jobs in government, banking and major institutions.

That does not, of course, mean that somebody whose superficial tastes are otherwise cannot get where he wants to go in those areas.  It does mean that such a person will have a harder time than somebody who walks the walk and talks the talk.

And, in general, if you don’t have the superficial affect, you’re going to have a much harder time getting anyplace in those particular areas of work and life.

That’s what college is for for a lot of poorer kids–it’s a place they go where they can be initiated into what they have to look like in order to be accepted as what they want to be, in the careers they want to have.  You don’t walk into an interview with a law firm–or a good law school–in a mustard stained t-shirt talking about yo mama.  You could be a cross between Jesus Christ and Clarence Darrow and not seal the deal.

People who do seal the deal without the superficial trappings of taste tend to do it outside the institutional structures of official organizations.  One of the best contrasts of class I’ve ever seen comes in that movie I’ve been on about, Too Big To Fail, when Hank Paulson calls Warren Buffett to ask his advice.  Paulson is dressed in Upper Middle Class Impressive.  Warren Buffett is dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and is in the middle of buying his granddaughters ice cream at Dairy Queen.

If you want another good example, look at the characters of Charles van Doren and Herbert Stempel in the movie Quiz Show. 

Books about social class tend to concentrate on the superficial aspects of taste because those are the most visual markers of the issue.  They rely on things like who goes to which party because those are the most immediately dramatic possible events in stories about the issue.

But the issue itself isn’t about taste, or about parties.  It’s about how someone navigates a change in his own class status. 

And it is, I think, the quintessential subject of American culture.  Warren Buffett at the Dairy Queen.  Mark Zuckerberg forcing himself into a jacket to go to dinner with President Obama.  George H.W. Bush trying to eat pork rinds and then not knowing the price of a gallon of milk.

Of course, I don’t know the price of a gallon of milk at this moment, but that’s because almost everybody in this house is allergic to it.

Written by janeh

June 12th, 2011 at 8:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Class Acts'

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  1. I think I used to vastly underestimate the importance of the superficial – of being able to ‘fit in’, which I considered hypocritical at the best and possible deeply dishonest and a betrayal of yourself or your family/ culture/ background at the worst.

    But it is important. People decide on how seriously to take you – whether to listen to your arguments; whether to hire you or vote for you; even whether you are likely to be a congenial friend based on whether your appearance and manner of speech and behaviour signal that you are, well, of the right group.

    It’s amusing, really. I admit I don’t have the clothing or style to do ‘educated upper middle class’, but just by dressing in my normal casual weekend style, I can do ‘aging working class’. I can sometimes see peoples’ eyes skipping over me, not even seeing me.

    Except for the voice. I’ve picked up a certain kind of voice, and if I speak that way, I suddenly get taken a lot more seriously. It can be useful.

    It’s fascinating how we tend to identify each other as members of groups.


    12 Jun 11 at 8:53 am

  2. Hmmm. I did say money and power are different. You can’t say the dance and the club are merely suymbolic, not to be dismissed as trivial, then dismiss fantasy and science fiction as “not real.” F&SF are often far closer to Truth than JD Salinger.

    But I would balk at the usage “educated upper middle class.” It’s a euphemism which shades into being misleading. I shall now rant.

    “Educated” first: This is the usual Janespeak in which technical and scientific degrees don’t count. We’re not talking computer programers, engineers, farmers on whatever scale–or, for that matter, military officers. Those are “trained.” “Educated” means humanities. Oh, there will be an odd muttering that this ought to include science, but no one gets “educated” status revoked for worrying about pollution of the Lunar atmosphere, or being afraid Guam will tip over. It’s not as though they hadn’t read Plato, after all.
    And yet it is. Our “Educated Upper Middle Class” contains some spectacular examples of non-traditional majors and graduates who’ve pretty clearly missed most of the classics on the nature of man, the role of government and reason. Pardon me if I don’t embarass a sitting President by naming a few.
    They’re not educated based on what they’ve learned, and they’re not educated based on having degrees. They’re educated by what they HAVEN’T learned–pretty much anything having to do with physical reality–and by the sort of school which gave them a degree anyway, their tailors, shoes and official musical and literary preferences.

    Nor are they middle class. These are not the people who run our factories, our farms and our regiments. These are the people who make and interpret our laws, run our publishing houses and broadcasting networks and of course, administer our schools–little tin gods come to judgment. The “EUMC” is what Codevilla calls, more honestly, the Ruling Class. “Middle” implies another above. So there is–but only in terms of money, and of who gets into the club, which is where we started.

    It was interesting, when the local “EUMC” thought there was going to be a Kerry administration, to watch them salivating over formal dining at the White House. The declasse Bush, it seemed, had been dining at home with his family.
    I heard a story once of pre-Franco Spanish monarchists discussing the restoration. A young supporter asked them what they would do. “DO?” The senior asked. “DO? We shall DO nothing, but the King and I shall dine, and discuss the hunt.”

    What we have, and which you nsist on calling the “educated upper middle class” isn’t–quite–an hereditary aristocracy, but it’s an aristocracy for all that. And when you have an aristocracy, you should call them that. Go back to classical history and call them Optimates, if you will. That’s what they think they are. But don’t call them a middle class.


    12 Jun 11 at 11:16 am

  3. I live in a very small Appalachian town (population 300 in the off-season). Average income is low, jobs are few and mainly part-time, and the kids who plan to be successful leave and don’t come back. That kind of place.

    One major class marker is the centrality of family. Those who want to get their kids up a rung or two accept that the kids are gone for good. If you’re lucky they’ll be back for Thanksgiving sometimes. (Christmas is too snowy.)

    A lot of people here don’t want that. They’ve lived here for generations, and there’s a longing to keep it going. Besides, who would take care of the parents? Their kids seem to accept it happily enough, and get a job doing whatever. Delivering propane. Working at the grocery store. Their real lives are about the people they know, not the job they have.

    Another marker would be assertiveness with authority. The first group learns to question everyone, the second says, “Yes, ma’am.”


    12 Jun 11 at 11:46 am

  4. First, I want to thank Jane for her comments on Bush. Since I live in Australia, I do not follow US politics closely. I could understand objecting to his polices but was baffled by people spending 8 years running around in circles shouting “I HATE BUSH”.

    Second, I agree with Robert about education. The lack of technical training shows up every time I hear a politician talking about nuclear power or global warming.

    BTW, I eat Brie, drink wine and used to read the NY Times. I could happily live in Iowa. I probably could be happy in Anna’s town as long as there was an internet connection to Amazon!


    12 Jun 11 at 4:29 pm

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