18 Feb 2024

Rob Henderson on the Luxury Beliefs of the Elect

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Rob Henderson

Back in 1966, extreme social mobility consisted of high scores on standardized tests delivering a free travel pass from a dying Appalachian coal town to somewhere like Yale. But I grew up with two married parents and a large extended family in what was really essentially a more backward and provincial version of Norman Rockwell’s America.

Rob Henderson, coming along about half a century later, had a rougher path, but made it to Yale anyway. He and I have in common the same skeptical resistance to conformity with the stupider aspects of the outlook of the national elect. Like me, he is an outlier who tasted the ambrosial privilege of the life of the top tier national elite but resisted intellectually and was not fully assimmilated. I have already pre-ordered his book.

A choice excerpt appeared in the latest Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition.

In the same way that you don’t notice the specifics of your own culture until you travel elsewhere, you don’t really notice your social class until you enter another one. As an undergraduate at Yale a decade ago, I came to see that my peers had experienced a totally different social reality than me. I had grown up poor, a biracial product of family dysfunction, foster care and military service. Suddenly ensconced in affluence at an elite university—more Yale students come from families in the top 1% of income than from the bottom 60%—I found myself thinking a lot about class divides and social hierarchies.

I’d thought that by entering a place like Yale, we were being given a privilege as well as a duty to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves. Instead, I often found among my fellow students what I call “luxury beliefs”—ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class but often inflict real costs on the lower classes. For example, a classmate told me “monogamy is kind of outdated” and not good for society. I asked her what her background was and if she planned to marry. She said she came from an affluent, stable, two-parent home—just like most of our classmates. She added that, yes, she personally planned to have a monogamous marriage, but quickly insisted that traditional families are old-fashioned and that society should “evolve” beyond them.

My classmate’s promotion of one ideal (“monogamy is outdated”) while living by another (“I plan to get married”) was echoed by other students in different ways. Some would, for instance, tell me about the admiration they had for the military, or how trade schools were just as respectable as college, or how college was not necessary to be successful. But when I asked them if they would encourage their own children to enlist or become a plumber or an electrician rather than apply to college, they would demur or change the subject.

In the past, people displayed their membership in the upper class with their material accouterments. As the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen famously observed in his 1899 book “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” status symbols must be difficult to obtain and costly to purchase. In Veblen’s day, people exhibited their status with delicate and restrictive clothing, such as top hats and evening gowns, or by partaking in time-consuming activities, such as golf or beagling. The value of these goods and activities, argued Veblen, was in the very fact that they were so pricey and wasteful that only the wealthy could afford them.

Today, when luxury goods are more accessible to ordinary people than ever before, the elite need other ways to broadcast their social position. This helps explain why so many are now decoupling class from material goods and attaching it to beliefs.

Take vocabulary. Your typical working-class American could not tell you what “heteronormative” or “cisgender” means. When someone uses the phrase “cultural appropriation,” what they are really saying is, “I was educated at a top college.” Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary. Ordinary people have real problems to worry about.

When my classmates at Yale talked about abolishing the police or decriminalizing drugs, they seemed unaware of the attending costs because they were largely insulated from them. Reflecting on my own experiences with alcohol, if drugs had been legal and easily accessible when I was 15, you wouldn’t be reading this. My birth mother succumbed to drug addiction soon after I was born. I haven’t seen her since I was a child. All my foster siblings’ parents were addicts or had a mental health condition, often triggered by drug use.

A well-heeled student at an elite university can experiment with cocaine and will probably be just fine. A kid from a dysfunctional home with absentee parents is more likely to ride that first hit of meth to self-destruction. This may explain why a 2019 survey conducted by the Cato Institute found that more than 60% of Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree were in favor of legalizing drugs, while less than half of Americans without a college degree thought it was a good idea. Drugs may be a recreational pastime for the rich, but for the poor they are often a gateway to further pain.

RTWT

They will not forgive him.

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class by Rob Henderson (Y ’18 -Calhoun) — available February 20.

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One Feedback on "Rob Henderson on the Luxury Beliefs of the Elect"

David Poe

Maybe all ivy league students should be required to spend their summers working at menial, lower class jobs under assumed names and not be allowed to share their true background with their fellow workers. A hitch in the Marine Corps wouldn’t hurt them, either. (Unless they got killed, but there are so many of them already.)
You might like this essay of mine:
https://drp314.substack.com/p/to-ride-shoot-straight-and-speak



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