Class Warfare at Tea Time

If you’re retired you can find yourself keeping an eye on CNBC – the business channel – during the day. It not as if you watch the shows that explain everything, or purport to, but it’s always on in the other room. You walk by and glance at the numbers, but only now and then – just to get a sense of what’s happening to what money you have left. There are certain things you really don’t want to consider, but you know you need to consider – how long it will be before you’re living under a bridge in a cardboard box – that sort of thing.

 

The problem is that sometimes you find yourself listening to what they’re saying – you just don’t hit the mute button fast enough. And one of the on-air folks, or all of them, is suddenly screaming about class warfare, and Obama’s War on Achievement. Of course the classic was Rick Santelli mocking the losers who are losing their homes to foreclosure – they didn’t deserve any bailout, as they should have known better, and he did not see why he, or any other American, should bail them out, or bail anyone out – that was discussed previously, and endlessly in the media. As for that war, see Obama Leads War on Achievement from Rush Limbaugh, who echoes the money folks on CNBC – “The Obama bailout plan is not about creating jobs; it’s about targeting achievers, propping up losers, making as many people dependent on government as possible, and telling as many businesses [as they can] how they have to operate.” The folks on CNBC are a bit more subtle – angry that corporations who have been kept alive by government intervention are being told it might be wise to limit executive pay and forget the new fifty million dollar private jet. The idea is yes, the government now pretty much owns AIG and whatever, but that doesn’t mean the government gets a say in how to run the business, even if they’re paying to keep it afloat. Businessmen know best. They know how to run things, and should get paid big bucks, and get all the perks.

 

But it’s the class warfare business that comes up most often – the losers are rising up against the winners, claiming they should have a say. And this demand that the top one precent of the wealthy should go back to the old tax rates, before Bush cut them for the very wealthy, is outrageous. It is in fact a war – class warfare. It is the nobodies with nothing demanding that those who earned vast wealth give up what they earned. See CNBC’s Cliff Mason:

 

We have a center-left President, a Congress dominated by the Democratic Party, a budget that looks like a liberal’s wish-list, and all of a sudden it feels like full on class war is about to break out. Bonus recipients at AIG are afraid for their lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if some enterprising citizen who’s mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore tosses a Molotov cocktail at any number of targets on Wall Street. Something is very wrong with this picture.

 

We just spent eight years under radical (or is the word reactionary) laissez-faire Republican government, and there was nary a peep from the American public about skyrocketing executive pay packages. Now the good guys, at least from the perspective of your average class warrior, have taken control and I’m worried people might start throwing up barricades a la 1848 all across America.

 

I’m sorry America, you can’t have been complacent for decades while the masters of the universe padded their paychecks and only get furious when the whole edifice comes crashing down and we have to bail out the bankers. If the people running Citigroup or Bank of America are really so terrible, then maybe it would’ve been a good idea to get up in arms about their activities a little sooner.

 

The angry people were stupid – they had their chance – and they know nothing:

 

What we’re seeing now isn’t legitimate proletarian outrage. This is pure petulance, justifiable petulance, but petulance all the same.

 

The message here seems to be clear – know your place. You thought these business guys were great when things were rosy, so you have no right to bitch now. What do you know?

 

But underlying this all is the whole idea of class in America – which, as we’re not British, isn’t supposed to exist. We are a classless society. But of course we are not a classless society – the Wall Street executive is not the propane salesman in Texas, and those that patronize Denny’s are not those who fly off to Paris for dinner at Taillevent and so on. There are lots of class-markers – what you wear, what you drive, how you talk. And it’s more than money – poor people can do classy things, which seems to be a matter of graciousness and generosity, and the rich can be real trash (see Donald Trump).

 

It gets complicated. The wealthy in America have always been appalled by New Money – as they call it. If it hasn’t been in the family for years it not of much use – these people won’t know what to do with it. A lottery winner will never have real class, perhaps. And you get those who react to that class system – the Proud to be a Redneck crowd (see Sarah Palin). They hate New York City, San Francisco, Europe, and France in particular. That’s a bit of a Southern thing, as Matthew Yglesias discusses here, reviewing recent polling data. And this has become the core of conservative political thought these days:

 

It’s not really clear why you would think that “disdain for cosmopolitan cities and Europe” should be constitutive of conservatism, but it does seem to be a widespread element of the southern worldview, and it’s increasingly been adopted as the overwhelming posture of conservatism as such.

 

There are many class wars going on – which are cast often as cultural wars, about gay marriage or respecting Jesus or rap music or whatever. But they do come down to class, in a way.

 

So CNBC – fuming that those who have been screwed over for a decade, or two or three, are waking up and now have the temerity to ask that they also get a fair chance at the goodies – are playing with much larger issues, with some central concepts relating to the idea of who we are, and who is worthy and who is not. It’s almost as if they’re saying that these gauche, foolish and trashy people don’t know their place – what do they know about what a bank CEO should earn? That is playing with fire – and they’re broadcasting from midtown Manhattan, of all places.

 

Class in America is an odd thing – we have our classes, or castes, or what you will. We just pretend we don’t. For a perspective on this one could turn to Sandra Tsing Loh. Okay, the perspective of someone who grew up in Malibu, before they had the high school, and thus had to ride the school bus to Santa Monica High every day with a very young Sean Penn, who then got her degree in Physics from Cal Tech and her MA from USC in professional writing, who is a performance artist and on the radio all the time – well she, Sandra Tsing Loh, with her German mother and Chinese father, may be the wrong person to turn to on matters of class in America. But she might be exactly the right person.

 

She touches on some of this in her new piece in the Atlantic, Class Dismissed – suggesting we still have a lot to work out.

 

Much of what she says was occasioned by the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Paul Fussell book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Now Fussell is the Rutgers Swift scholar who also wrote The Great War and Modern Memory and much else, but the book on class is what Loh says is akin to wiping goggles one didn’t know were fogged. She calls it a naughty treat:

 

I think this quarter-century mark merits the raising of either a yachting pennant, an American flag, or a wind sock with the Budweiser logo (corresponding to Fussell’s demarcations of Upper Class, Middle Class, and Prole). For readers who somehow missed this snide, martini-dry American classic, do have your assistant Tessa run out and get it immediately (Upper), or at least be sure to worriedly skim this magazine summary over a low-fat bagel (Middle), because Fussell’s bibelot-rich tropes still resonate.

 

She points out that somehow, here in America, class was never defined by money. Fussell had it right. Class here is defined by taste:

 

To be sure, Fussell’s universe is somewhat passé, in that its population is almost exclusively white (with the Mafia thrown in for color), and the three “classes” in his opening primer conform to clichés we might think of as Old-Money Wasp, Midwestern Insurance Salesman, and Southern Trailer Trash. The top classes, according to Fussell (with a hint of Nancy Mitford), drink Scotch on the rocks in a tumbler decorated with sailboats and say “Grandfather died”; Middles say “Martooni” and “Grandma passed away”; Proles drink domestic beer in a can and say “Uncle was taken to Jesus.”

 

But it is more than that:

 

By chapter two, Fussell is revealing that he believes there are actually nine classes (Top Out-of-Sight, Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, High Proletarian, Mid-Proletarian, Low Proletarian, Destitute, Bottom Out-of-Sight). His Heart of Darkness journey wends boldly past unicorns (High Prole), ladies’ thimble collections (Middle), men’s hobbies (“One must learn that fishing in fresh water is classier than in salt, and that if salmon and trout are the things to catch, a catfish is something by all means to avoid catching”), the Sunbrella hat (for which he reserves a timeless – and I think appropriate – ire), “parody” hats favored by the upper-middle class such as Pat Moynihan’s tweedy bog cap, and the perils of the dark-blue visored “Greek fisherman’s cap” as advertised in The New Yorker (New Yorker ads themselves being, Fussell explains, crucibles of middle-class high anxiety). God forbid you get that cap in black leather (“Only six things can be made of black leather without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes”). He even threads through the subtle lexicon of tie patterns – from “amoeba-like foulard blobs” (Upper), signal flags (Upper Middle), musical notes (sliding downward), to Oh Hell, It’s Monday (quite low), with special horror reserved for the southwestern bola (“Says the bola, ‘The person wearing me is a child of nature, even though actually eighty years old'”). Literally no stone – or soapstone – goes unturned.

 

She goes on to update his classes for these times. It’s rather fascinating. And she comments on her attempt to escape form this madness:

 

Fussell believed in an escape pod from this tyranny of classhood: residence in a special American psycho-emotional space called “category X.” (Fussell borrowed his notion from Matthew Arnold’s analysis of the three British classes -even a century earlier; Arnold was describing this fourth set of “aliens.”) Fussell’s Xs were essentially bohemians, the young people who flocked to cities in search of “art,” “writing,” and “creative work,” ideally without a supervisor. Xs disregarded authority; they dressed down on every occasion; they drank no-name liquor (“Beefeater Gin and Cutty Sark Scotch betray the credulous victim of advertising, and hence the middle class”); they wore moccasins and down vests (in 1983, Fussell considered L. L. Bean and Lands’ End natural X clothiers); they carelessly threw out, unread, their college alumni magazines.

 

Roger that. Even today, I think one’s relation to one’s alma mater is fraught with haute-bourgeois peril. In descending order of coolness are:

 

1. Dropped out of prestigious college;

 

2. Graduated from prestigious school, never bring it up unless asked—then as joke;

 

3. Graduated from prestigious school with honors, bring up quickly, no irony;

 

4. Graduated, have become garish, cheerful head of alumni booster committee.

 

I say “coolness” instead of “class” because that’s how desperately I cling to my tattered X membership card, even as I creep toward 50 (What? Haven’t you heard? Fifty is the new 36! Clock? What’s a clock? I obey no clock!).

 

And this is Hollywood:

 

At network-TV meetings, millionaire 20-something comedy writers see how low they can go with torn jeans, T-shirts, and grimy Red Sox caps, while the only guys in coat and tie on the lot are the Honduran valet parkers. That grimy baseball cap signifies Harvard Lampoon alum, which opens the door to Hollywood comedy riches, in a process that can seem, to the uninitiated, truly bewildering and mysterious. X people offer jobs to those they recognize, by certain nuanced clues, as members of their creative tribe, which makes people fear that they might mistransmit a code – bringing us back to Fussell’s rubric of class being announced in clothing, lifestyle, and speech. What will best fire the small talk, and the resulting intimate connection, that invigorates the start of a pitch meeting? Mets cap? Cubs cap? Yankees cap? What if you went to UC Davis instead of Harvard – are you not as funny? What is the right note of irony to apply to your hip-hop speech, given that you are, in actuality, suburban, 33, and white? Oh, yes, the newfangled Xs now have not only the money, but also the anxiety. It’s easy to be banished from the land of affluent hipdom – especially now that the scratch that pays for all that hipness has been depleted. When I see those TV commercials of silverback Baby Boomers sprinting with vintage surfboards toward ever-higher-yielding money-market funds, I feel both Boomer derision and a gnawing dread that my own funds are not similarly accruing (and in fact they are not – but maybe, to offset the losses, Brian Grazer will option my book?). Although in Fussell’s day, the denizens of the middle class were the more piquant sufferers of “status panic,” today the most metaphysically fearful group is, in fact, the Xs.

 

No one is safe from class. And she adds this:

 

It will be interesting to see, now that the apocalypse has arrived, how various modes of American status-striving will be rejiggered, particularly those predicated on amassing large amounts of debt.

 

Well, be that as it may, that brings us to the class uprising of 2009, one April 15, Tax Day, the Tea Bag Parties, which Paul Krugman in the New York Times covers in Tea Parties Forever:

 

Today’s GOP is, after all, very much a minority party. It retains some limited ability to obstruct the Democrats, but has no ability to make or even significantly shape policy. Beyond that, Republicans have become embarrassing to watch. And it doesn’t feel right to make fun of crazy people. Better, perhaps, to focus on the real policy debates, which are all among Democrats.

 

But here’s the thing: the GOP looked as crazy 10 or 15 years ago as it does now. That didn’t stop Republicans from taking control of both Congress and the White House. And they could return to power if the Democrats stumble. So it behooves us to look closely at the state of what is, after all, one of our nation’s two great political parties.

 

And that brings us to the events:

 

These parties – anti-taxation demonstrations that are supposed to evoke the memory of the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution —-have been the subject of considerable mockery, and rightly so.

 

But everything that critics mock about these parties has long been standard practice within the Republican Party.

 

Thus, President Obama is being called a “socialist” who seeks to destroy capitalism. Why? Because he wants to raise the tax rate on the highest-income Americans back to, um, about 10 percentage points less than it was for most of the Reagan administration. Bizarre.

 

But the charge of socialism is being thrown around only because “liberal” doesn’t seem to carry the punch it used to. And if you go back just a few years, you find top Republican figures making equally bizarre claims about what liberals were up to. Remember when Karl Rove declared that liberals wanted to offer “therapy and understanding” to the 9/11 terrorists?

 

Then there are the claims made at some recent tea-party events that Mr. Obama wasn’t born in America, which follow on earlier claims that he is a secret Muslim. Crazy stuff – but nowhere near as crazy as the claims, during the last Democratic administration, that the Clintons were murderers, claims that were supported by a campaign of innuendo on the part of big-league conservative media outlets and figures, especially Rush Limbaugh.

 

And they are a bit of a farce:

 

…it turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.

 

But that’s nothing new, and AstroTurf has worked well for Republicans in the past. The most notable example was the “spontaneous” riot back in 2000 – actually orchestrated by GOP strategists – that shut down the presidential vote recount in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.

 

Actually, the tea parties, or tea bag parties, seem like a class revolt – orchestrated or not – against big city ways and a cosmopolitan young president. It’s all about what you resent. As Mark Thompson explains, things just got a bit out of hand:

 

The concept started out as a relatively small idea organized by a handful of libertarian activists. Movement conservatives saw an opportunity to co-opt it – and they did.

 

To them, the Tea Parties aren’t just an outlet for expressing frustration over the recent orgy of government spending, they are an opportunity to complain about gay marriage, affirmative action programs in government hiring policies, and just about everything else that movement conservatives oppose even more vehemently now that they’ve been beaten – badly – in consecutive national elections. Never mind that the original point of the Tea Parties, so far as I can tell, was completely libertarian in nature and was to be as much a protest of the Republicans as it was of the Democrats.

 

Of course, if the Tea Parties had remained the sole province of a handful of libertarian activists, they never would have received the national attention they’re now able to receive, and thus would have had even less impact. By accepting the involvement of the movement conservative multitudes, the originators have lost control of their message even as the message has access to an ever-larger platform. The result? An incoherent jumble of protests that is going to wind up resembling the same sort of incoherence that has characterized large-scale protests and demonstrations for decades.

 

See a first-hand account:

 

For some it was wildly excessive and confusing tax laws. Others were there out of concern for their children and grandchildren. Some were there because they’re maddened that the same glorious policies that have made Detroit look like Bangladesh after a garbage haulers strike are being introduced on a national level, a few were upset because the same people who created these massive problems are charged with fixing them, others don’t want their country sold out to some global entity, and one man I saw had a sign that said “‘Government job’ is a contradiction in terms.” Many were there for the reason of “all of the above.”

 

Andrew Sullivan:

 

This is, of course, a dog’s breakfast. And it does indeed recall the loony left marches and protests of the recent past. End the War! But which one? And how? I guess one theme is that government should have no proactive role in a recession like the one we’re grappling with. But as those governors trying to refuse stimulus money will attest, this is not exactly a popular meme right now.

 

Here’s a suggestion that will fall on ears with hands clasped tightly around them: why not just make them tax simplification rallies?

 

That’s something that appeals beyond a Palin base; most of us feel angry about it at this time of year; it can rail against the rich and the special interests for carving out privileges that hurt everyone else; and it’s a dagger at the heart of the lobbying industry.

 

No takers? One senses that this is essentially a counter-cultural protest event – against the result of the last election (with some muted disgruntlement with the eight years that preceded it). And it suggests that the right is returning to its 1950s roots – kooks, cranks, disaffected and paranoid gun-nuts, born-again culture-warriors, Birchers, book-burners, and black helicopter worriers.

 

And now it’s Rupert Murdoch’s party. “It’s now my great duty to promote the tea parties. Here we go!” – Fox News host, Stuart Varney.

 

But the class war, or cultural war, like the election, is over. James Dobson says so:

 

“We tried to defend the unborn child, the dignity of the family, but it was a holding action,” he said. “We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”

 

Andrew Sullivan offers perspective:

 

I don’t see the younger generation believing that abortion is a no-brainer; most see it as a tragedy that should nonetheless remain a choice in the first trimester. Abortion rates have indeed gone down since the 1980s. So has crime. Divorce rates have leveled off and are in a small decline. In the White House, we have a model black family. Gays, if only Dobson could see it, have matured, entered the mainstream, embraced institutions like the military and civil marriage; drug use is down.

 

I could go on. Of course, among those parts of America most beleaguered by some of the problems Dobson sites are red states, where his brand of Christianism still dominates.

 

The boomers keep fighting the war between the 1960s and the 1980s. What they don’t seem to have absorbed is that the younger generations have taken many of the gains of the 1960s – more equality and freedom for women, racial minorities and gays – and integrated them into a mode of living that is neither counter-cultural as such nor old-school. It’s a more humane, more inclusive and more small-c conservative culture. For some of it, we can thank those who worried about the dangers of social and sexual excess. And for the rest of it, we can thank those sane liberals who didn’t throw the liberty out with the license.

 

If Sullivan is right, we may be becoming somewhat classless. That’s an odd thought, but Fussell was right – we’ve always had classes, and a bit of class warfare. And afternoon tea used to be so civilized and elegant.

 

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Class Warfare, CNBC, Cultural Conservatives, Cultural Notes, Republicans – Party of the South, Sandra Tsing Loh, Tea Bag Parties, War on the Rich. Bookmark the permalink.

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