Category Archive 'Class Distinctions'

30 Jan 2012

“How Thick is Your Bubble?”

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Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, August 27, 1960 (click to enlarge)

As the paintings of Norman Rockwell frequently attest, pre-1960s America was not nearly so thoroughly divided by class as today’s America.

We recently linked the New Criterion article by Charles Murray, excerpted from his forthcoming book, on the damaging impact to both sides of class separation in contemporary America.

To illustrate his theses, Mr. Murray subsequently offered a 25 Question test, designed to indicate exactly how isolated from ordinary America the individual subject may be.

Murray’s test seems pretty accurate, as I got a score of 67, placing me in the “first- generation middle-class person with working-class parents and average television and moviegoing habits” category, which is quite right. I’m the descendant of Turn-of-the-Last-Century Lithuanian immigrants, and grew up in the Anthracite coal mining town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. My father and grandfathers were coal miners. As a consequence, I think Murray is right in believing that I’m much less infatuated with the moral and intellectual superiority of the urban community of fashion.

08 Jan 2012

Class Separation in America

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Charles Murray, in the New Criterion, discusses the threat of American upper middle class arrogance and provincialism to American exceptionalism.

As recently as half a century ago, Americans across all classes showed only minor differences on the Founding virtues. When Americans resisted the idea of being thought part of an upper class or lower class, they were responding to a reality: there really was such a thing as a civic culture that embraced all of them. Today, that is no longer true. Americans have formed a new lower class and a new upper class that have no precedent in our history. American exceptionalism is deteriorating in tandem with this development. …

The members of America’s new upper class tend not to watch the same movies and television shows that the rest of America watches, don’t go to kinds of restaurants the rest of America frequents, tend to buy different kinds of automobiles, and have passions for being green, maintaining the proper degree of body fat, and supporting gay marriage that most Americans don’t share. Their child-raising practices are distinctive, and they typically take care to enroll their children in schools dominated by the offspring of the upper middle class—or, better yet, of the new upper class. They take their vacations in different kinds of places than other Americans go and are often indifferent to the professional sports that are so popular among other Americans. Few have served in the military, and few of their children either.

Worst of all, a growing proportion of the people who run the institutions of our country have never known any other culture. They are the children of upper-middle-class parents, have always lived in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and gone to upper-middle-class schools. Many have never worked at a job that caused a body part to hurt at the end of the day, never had a conversation with an evangelical Christian, never seen a factory floor, never had a friend who didn’t have a college degree, never hunted or fished. They are likely to know that Garrison Keillor’s monologue on Prairie Home Companion is the source of the phrase “all of the children are above average,” but they have never walked on a prairie and never known someone well whose IQ actually was below average.

When people are making decisions that affect the lives of many other people, the cultural isolation that has grown up around America’s new upper class can be disastrous. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale law professors. It is a problem if Yale law professors, or producers of the nightly news, or CEOs of great corporations, or the President’s advisors, cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. …

Tocqueville, when explaining why the American system ensured that a despot could never successfully divide Americans against each other, wrote that “local freedom . . . perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them. In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day.” That’s not true any more. Our propensities do sever us, and the new upper class shows no inclination to reach out across the widening divide. And so the unraveling of the civic culture in Fishtown occurs without the knowledge or the concern of Belmont, let alone with any attempt by Belmont to assist the people of Fishtown who are still trying to do the right thing. Fishtown is flyover country, or those ugly suburbs that the people of the new upper class view from afar as they drive from their enclave in Greenwich to their office in midtown Manhattan.

30 Oct 2011

A House Divided

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Anne Applebaum contends that the really important class division in the United States isn’t between the infinitesimally small category of the Super Rich and everybody else, but the ever enlarging fissure between the haute bourgeoisie and the ordinary middle class.

I would argue that the growing divisions within the American middle class are far more important than the gap between the very richest and everybody else. They are important because to be “middle class”, in America, has such positive connotations, and because most Americans think they belong in it. The middle class is the “heartland”, the middle class is the “backbone of the country”. In 1970, Time magazine described middle America as people who “sing the national anthem at football games – and mean it”.

“Middle America” also once implied the existence of a broad group of people who had similar values and a similar lifestyle. If you had a small suburban home, a car, a child at a state university, an annual holiday on a Michigan lake, you were part of it. But, at some point in the past 20 years, a family living at that level lost the sense that it was doing “well”, and probably struggled even to stay there. Now it seems you need a McMansion, children at private universities, two cars, a ski trip in the winter and a summer vacation in Europe in order to feel as if you are doing minimally “well”. You also need a decent retirement fund, since what the state pays is so risible, as well as an employer who can give you a generous health-care plan, since health care is so expensive.

Anne Applebaum focuses her brief discussion on the economic gap between the community of fashion elite and the old-fashioned middle classes, but I think that the cultural and political division is even more important.

The American Upper Middle Class constitutes the constituency of Progressivism, Scientism, Statism, Collectivism. They are the people who consider eating at the newest restaurant vitally important, but who never attend church. Members of the American community of fashion elite feel more comfortable and at home in Rome and Paris than they do in Akron or Bakersfield. They are more sympathetic to Islamic insurgents overseas than they are to tax protestors at home.

A certain small number of Americans (myself and a number of the contributors to Maggie’s Farm are typical) have a foot in both camps, having acquired elite educations and expensive tastes, but somehow mysteriously having avoided complete assimilation to haute bourgeois liberalism. From our uniquely privileged perspective, it is exceptionally clear just how deep, and how bitter, the recent new class divisions really are.

It isn’t only, as Anne Applebaum notes, that the upper middle class and ordinary middle class have become increasingly distinct and different. They now really detest one another.

18 Aug 2008

Britain Elite Hates Fat People

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Jenny McCarthy posts dispatches from the front lines of Britain’s class war.

The old-fashioned stereotype of a Tory used to be someone “very fat, very lazy, and very clever,” someone rather like Evelyn Waugh. But embonpoint today is looked upon in Britain, not as an indication of access to good dining and fine wine, but as a sure indicator of indiscipline and low achievement. Basically, Britain’s elite is today firmly Puritan, at least with respect to body image.

Jeremy Clarkson… wrote last week of his experiences driving the new Rolls-Royce coupé around town: “It’s been a genuinely alarming insight into the bitterness of Britain’s obese and stupid underclass.”

When he drove past a bus queue, he said, he realised that “hate is something you can touch and see and smell.”

The “obese and stupid” people at the bus stop hadn’t done anything specific, it seemed: presumably they had simply failed to light up with sufficient admiration as Clarkson coasted by in his swanky car.

Still, you don’t have to be Karl Marx to reflect that if you were waiting for a bus while fretting about the rising cost of heating the family home, the sudden appearance of Clarkson in a £296,500 vehicle might not fill the heart with unalloyed joy.

In July, the Sunday Times and Spectator columnist Rod Liddle saw a fat woman and her plump children in a supermarket.

She didn’t say or do anything discourteous, it appeared, nor did the children, but the mere glimpse of “this hag”, her “vile lardy brood” and the contents of her shopping trolley prompted the writer to a bizarre rant which culminated in the fantasy that “I set the fat mother on fire with my Zippo lighter, and on the way out I kicked the smallest fat child hard in the gut.”

It is worth pointing out that while both Clarkson and Liddle are normal-looking men, neither would exactly be in line to win the Weight Watchers Slimmer of the Year Award. But then middle-class fat is, for them, texturally different from underclass fat. Good things have poured into middle-class fat, you see: steak, Roquefort, red wine and a heartily robust enjoyment of life. Underclass fat, however, being composed entirely of chicken nuggets, chips and wilful idleness, is a mark of moral degeneracy.

The people who are quickest to sneer at “chavs” and the perceived physical shortcomings of the “underclass” often seem to be those most obsessed with flaunting their own “bling” and extending their unprovoked rudeness to those with far less social and financial clout. Odd, that. It does sometimes leave you wondering, though, just what the term “to behave with class” really means.

The interior-linked anti-obesity rants are hilarious.


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