May 28, 2004

Class war in America

Over at 2blowhards today, Michael (the sole remaining Blowhard, truth be told: it's really a one-man shop these days) comes up with one of the bitterest blog postings I've ever read. Imagine a cross between Alf Garnett and Jedediah Purdy, and you might start getting close.

He starts off waxing reminiscent about his red-state upbringing (I have no idea whether he was actually raised in a red state or not, but there's lots of nostalgia here for his good-natured small-town roots). Then, he recalls, he went to a big Ivy League university, joined the New York culture scene, and, in his own words, "failed to make an impression". Cue the anger:

These days, I spend my work hours helping privileged people look good. I marvel that I ever hoped to find a more congenial place than that among them. After all, it's their world I live in; and so far as they're concerned, they're doing me a big, big favor by allowing me even to serve them.

He finishes off with Words Of Advice For Young People:

These glamourous people? These arty and intellectual people? Who you imagine are, underneath it all, nice people just like you? Well, baloney to that! Wise up! Because they're awful! They're vicious! They're full of themselves, and they're interested in nothing but their own fortunes, and in ways that are close to pathological! They lack empathy and honor, and they actively mean you ill! They not only don't like you, they've got contempt for you! They see you as nothing but a bunch of putzes and losers!

This is Marxism, really. There's Us, the Good People, and there's Them, the overprivileged, overeducated elite. The American Dream is dead: They wish Us ill, and will actively work to thwart any attempt on Our part to join Their ranks.

As a foreigner, I do sometimes wonder whether I'm completely oblivious to class distinctions which are keenly felt by Americans. Is it really true that someone born into East Coast privilege can smell a small-town upbringing even on the most seemingly urbane Havard grad? And will never let such a person into the Club?

Posted by Felix at 09:22 PM GMT

Felix - the unusual thing about the US isn't that there are no social hierarchies, it's that there are no universal social hierarchies. No one system of social rank exists, and so every person or group has their own. So if some twit from New Rochelle doesn't want me around because I'm too hoi-polloi, well, it's no skin off my ass because in MY hierarchy he has no special status. And in the US there's nothing resembling the fixation on diction and elocution as a status marker that I've seen in Britain (which is why George W. Bush's parents didn't subject him to years of speech lessons as a child and teenager).

It's seems like Michael's problem is that he's subscribed to someone else's hierarchy, and it happens to be one in which he has very little status.

Posted by: Sterling on May 29, 2004 12:33 AM

I agree with you, Sterling, but Michael seems to be saying more than that: he's saying that in the culturocracy in New York, it doesn't matter if you're really bright, have a degree from Yale, etc etc -- if you come from the wrong zip code, you'll never really fit in. In other words, he has little status in someone else's hierarchy simply because he didn't grow up in the right place -- and that's something which people can tell, somehow, when they meet him. (It's not an accent/dialect thing, either.) And it's that which surprises me.

Posted by: Felix on May 29, 2004 02:18 AM

I re-read the post, and I think you're over-intellectualizing it. The way it looks to me, he's simply coming to terms with the fact that highly-motivated, ambitious and accomplished people tend to view others as objects, and use them as means to an end. I figured that out in high school, and then figured it out again when I was about 25, having not initially extrapolated it to adults in the "real world".

For what it's worth, I grew up in a lower middle class town in New Jersey that is home to America's oldest functioning commercial nuclear reactor. A few years after I graduated, my public school alma mater produced its most famous alumnus, Melissa Drexler aka "The Prom Mom". Just last year the New York Times ran a piece in the Sunday Style section about my home town - the tone was mild, amused astonishment that such a bumblefuck town could somehow have managed to survive on the periphery of the glorious cultural beacon that is the New York Metropolitan Area.

And yet I've never felt anything but welcome in any social circle I've cared to enter.

Posted by: Sterling on May 29, 2004 02:45 AM

I lived a number of years in Savannah, GA, where is it still an accepted practice to look down on those who hail from Atlanta (for it is a very young town), while also knowing those who hail from Charleston could do likewise towards Savannah (Augusta was also seen more favorably than Atlanta). This occurs in the narrow world of old, old money, where such things are very carefully tracked, but it also trickled down into a sort of general civic pride (not dissimilar from the feeling one assumes the moment their feet are planted firmly in Manhattan that the rest of the continent is second rate on a list that has no thrid rate). Even as it might seem that in Savannah it was done as overcompensation for the fact that Atlanta was far more everything (cosmopolitan, successful, interesting, etc.), much as you get SF people who somehow carry the belief they are superior to NY, it was more nuanced that that. But, like all class issues in the US, superiority of place doesn't fall on an axis that is strictly defined top to bottom. I think there is some truth to his point, but in practice, I don't think it should be that debilitating. Whenever anyone decides to pull some biological or social determinism card, point out that JFK Sr. was a drug dealer.

Posted by: miss representation on May 29, 2004 03:35 PM

I don't see much interest in this post, Felix. I grew up in a mid-sized town that Norman Rockwell could have easily painted. I was privileged in the broad sense of being American, white, and having caring, educated middle-class parents. But I didn't go to Yale, and maybe I'm bright or maybe not, but I've always gotten on in ambitious big-city environments. Some leagues are a little too big for me, but that's not because of my socio-economic upbringing, but because of my personality and limited talents. Where you seek pathos in this link, I just hear whining.

Posted by: Jame on May 30, 2004 12:22 AM

The only thing I hate more than this kind of discrimination is people from Iowa.

Posted by: Tom Berman on May 30, 2004 10:06 AM

Yes Victoria, there really is a Social Register and no, you're not in it. The fact is that Fitgerald was right, the rich do live differently than the rest of us proles, and New Yorkers play their own status games. I've hung out in those circles and introductions go something like this:

The first round of questions fixes your academic pedigree, followed by questions regarding where you live and whether your family is new, old or no money. The bonus round of whether you're worth talking to gives extra credit for artistic ability, academic achievement, funny accents (English and French always go over well), and stirring or entertaining examples of "real honest folk".

Anyway, it's proof that New York isn't so different from High School. Everything you learned about cliques still applies, albeit on a grander scale. The rich kids hang out on the upper east side, the cool skater punks and art class types lunch table is in the village and Williamsburg, the jocks and academic achievers work in the financial sector, the nerds work in publishing or IT, etc.

Posted by: Gherimiah on June 1, 2004 02:27 PM