We are an egalitarian society where social class doesn’t matter at all, but we follow the royal family far more closely than the Brits. No one quite knows why. Yes, Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say – you know the song – one cannot take such things too seriously. But we do, and this must puzzle the Brits mightily. And it was odd that those teenage girls back in the day told their English teacher they actually did read a lot – every book ever written by Barbara Cartland. Those books seemed to be what are called bodice-rippers – a genre of romance novel involving dashing rogues and sweet young things hovering about the edges of the aristocracy. The fifteen-year-old girls in upstate New York devoured them all. And it must have been a bonus when many years later Cartland started to say bad things about her step-granddaughter, Diana, Princess of Wales. The divorce from the Prince of Wales was the issue – bad form, no class. And in Tina Brown’s book on Diana, Cartland is said to have said this – “The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren’t awfully good for her.” That’s a hoot.
But there is that fascination with class. George Bernard Shaw did a goof on it all with his play Pygmalion. Most of us know it in its less acerbic and cheerier form as My Fair Lady – class is a fiction, because you can take a cockney flower girl and make her a lady if she just learns a convincing Oxbridge accent (fruity and sleek Oxford and Cambridge mixed). It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you say it. Yes there’s the scene at the Ascot races where, in a fit of enthusiasm, she shouts at the racehorse to “move its bloody arse” – but that just proves the point. She overcomes that by redoubling her efforts to sound classy, and it works. And it’s a common theme. There’s the American movie Pretty Woman – substitute the big polo field at Will Rogers Park over in Pacific Palisades for Ascot – it’s the same sort of thing. Class is the appearance of class.
And the back-in-the-day mentioned above was the late seventies at an expensive prep school in Rochester where sometimes it seemed like every third girl was named Muffy. The place was indeed preppy – and for a young teacher who grew up in working-class Pittsburgh, where everyone was Czech or Polish or whatever, and who did the big suburban public high school thing, it was a bit disconcerting. A good number of these kids came from old money. One family did the fox hunting thing – the oldest continually running fox hunt in America. There was lots of privilege hanging in the air. You almost needed a pocket guide to figure it all out.
But there was one. And now there’s a new one. See Mark Oppenheimer on taking the new Preppy Handbook for a test drive – a review of Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd’s True Prep which is a sequel to Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook from 1981:
I was glad to have The Preppy Handbook as a user’s guide, one that explains, for example, how prep-schoolers achieve the right look (gaffing tape on the Top-Siders, the importance of madras, etc.) and how they pick a sport (the smaller the ball, the preppier the sport – hence squash, not racquet ball). The book can be splendidly utilitarian. There’s a helpful guide to the right stores in different parts of the country: Murray’s Toggery Shop on Nantucket; J. Press in New Haven, Conn.; and Cable Car Clothiers in San Francisco. There is a list of the right post-grad fellowships. (If you can’t get the Rhodes, the Keasbey “is the best-kept secret in the world.”) And there is a “prep pantheon” to provide models, including Katharine Hepburn, John Lindsay, and Elliot Richardson.
Even for people in prep schools, these codes, modeled by the most confident, and often wealthiest, students, are difficult to break. It’s not immediately apparent why frayed clothes are preppier than new clothes, or the ways in which George H. W. Bush was preppy but Gerald Ford was not. Here was a book that explained it all.
But the new book is a disappointment:
The new book, True Prep, is positioned as an updated version of the old, but the tone is more knowing – in fact, too knowing. It’s both a sequel to the original and a slightly embarrassed commentary on it. The book is subtitled “It’s a Whole New Old World,” and on the first page it announces, “Wake up, Muffy, we’re back.” Right there, the true fan of The Preppy Handbook has to be disappointed. It’s clear that, at least as far as Birnbach and Kidd see it, the leavening earnestness is gone. It’s all irony now. There are no true preps, to be both admired and needled – instead, we’re all just performing prep.
It seems all those waves of cynical irony simply washed away all that leavening earnestness – or maybe all the classy people are long gone. Or we’re all confused about class. See Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide through the American Status System from 1992 or read Sandra Tsing Loh from last year:
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 gets to the basics:
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.”
Yes, it’s simplistic, and there are lots more categories and subcategories, but it works:
The experience of reading (and re-reading) Class is akin to wiping goggles one didn’t know were fogged. Fussell’s methodology settles into the brain like a virus; one soon cannot stop nanocategorizing one’s world. A quarter century later, most of Fussell’s categories live on – if with some fiscal damage. Fussell’s topmost denizens were “out of sight” in hilltop manses at the end of long, curving driveways.
And in her long essay on the Fussell book Loh drops 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.
It seems that day is here. Things are being rearranged. One doesn’t need a Preppy Handbook, one needs a guide to how to dress like Sarah Palin and say the right things – you betcha – and know how to analyze history like Glenn Beck or be all perky like Christine O’Donnell, our next president. Being classy has been redefined – it’s being admired for your rejection of complexity and you’re easy dismissal of big shots and so-called big ideas and ambiguity and so-called expertise, and your love for Jesus. We have our new aristocracy. These folks – except for O’Donnell – rake in their millions, as everyone knows they should. All news revolves around them, and around Newt Gingrich – who certainly is not the Fat Elvis of American politics. There’s a certain kind of class that rules the world. And that’s another definition of class – the people who matter, as opposed to those useless losers who really don’t. That’s one of those things you learn, quickly, when you’re teaching Muffy and her friends. You’re the hired help. And there’s a natural aristocracy.
And of course they stick together. It’s not surprising that the Tea Party crowd is almost hysterically opposed to the notion that it might be wise to extend the massive Bush tax cuts only for the bottom ninety-eight percent of the population and let the tax rates revert to their normal level for the top two percent, those who earn the big bucks. That cannot be allowed to happen. One has to stick up for one’s class.
So the ruling class – and those who know that they should be in the ruling class – does what they do. Joe Lieberman, one of the wannabe hangers-on, is organizing Senate Democrats and Republicans to temporarily extend Bush tax cuts for high-income Americans:
This afternoon, on his way into a weekly Democratic caucus policy lunch, he explained that he’d like to head up another bipartisan “gang” to reach a tax cut compromise.
“All I’m saying now is that this is a place where we really do need – it’s an awful word – but we need another gang. We need a bipartisan gang to come to a bipartisan agreement on tax cuts,” Lieberman said.
It’s a matter of those on top sticking together. And Lieberman is there to help. Maybe there’ll be some crumbs left over for him. He is a bit of a groupie.
But who are these classy people? Well, there’s Ben Stein:
I am a fairly upper income taxpayer. Not anything even remotely close to sports stars or movie stars or financial big boys. But I am above the level Mr. Obama says makes me rich. So, in the midst of a severe recession, I am to have my taxes raised dramatically.
I am not quite sure what my sin is.
I worked for almost every dollar I have, except for a small percentage my parents left me by virtue of hard work and Spartan living, and most of that was taken by the federal estate tax. I have a hell of a lot less than I did before the stock market and real estate market crashes. I didn’t get a bailout or any part of a stimulus program, except for traffic jams as the roads in Beverly Hills got worked on for the 10th time in the last 10 years (or so it seems).
I pay my income taxes, and after them and the commissions I pay my agent, I am left with about 35 cents for every dollar I earn.
I own some real estate in California and Idaho and the District of Columbia. Naturally, I pay property tax, supposedly mostly to educate local children. Not far from me, the city of Los Angeles just spent about $600 million to build the most lavish school in America for about 4,000 children. That’s my money. Naturally, I had no say in it. My wife and I have no children in public schools and only did for about eighteen months long ago. I still pay my school tax ever year.
Digby here finds another so-called (self-identified) hard-working, wealth-creating salt-of-the-earth classy guy complaining about the possibility of higher taxes, and is not happy:
Another wealthy, whining conservative telling everyone how good he has it while complaining that he has to pay taxes.
As far as I’m concerned, his “sin” is being a spoiled, talentless, arrogant cartoon celebrity who adds no value to anything in this misbegotten society and yet thinks he’s some kind of Galtian hero. If I have to listen to one more of these petulant scumbags argue about how they’re being punished for their “hard work” I’m going to stab my ears with chopsticks. It is class warfare all right – launched by crude, wealthy American slobs who have no class.
Or there’s a University of Chicago professor, who earns nearly a half millions a year, here:
Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby…. We have less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income. We occasionally eat out but with a baby sitter, these nights take a toll on our budget. Life in America is wonderful, but expensive. If our taxes rise significantly… the (legal) immigrant from Mexico who owns the lawn service we employ will suffer, as will the (legal) immigrant from Poland who cleans our house a few times a month. We can cancel our cell phones and some cable channels, as well as take our daughter from her art class at the community art center…
And the economist Brad Delong’s comments:
[The professor’s] problem is that he thinks that he ought to be able to pay off student loans, contribute to retirement savings vehicles, build equity, drive new cars, live in a big expensive house, send his children to private school, and still have plenty of cash at the end of the month for the $200 restaurant meals, the $1000 a night resort hotel rooms, and the $75,000 automobiles. And even half a million dollars a year cannot buy you all of that.
But if he values the high-end consumption so much, why doesn’t he rearrange his budget? Why not stop the retirement savings contributions, why not rent rather than buy, why not send the kids to public school? Then the disposable cash at the end of the month would flow like water. His problem is that some of these decisions would strike him as imprudent. And all of them would strike him as degradations – doctor-law professor couples ought to send their kids to private schools, and live in big houses, and contribute to their 401(k)’s, and also still have lots of cash for splurges. That is the way things should be.
But this fellow feels he has been cheated. It’s a class thing. After all, Ben Stein did say this – “I worked for almost every dollar I have, except for a small percentage my parents left me by virtue of hard work and Spartan living, and most of that was taken by the federal estate tax.”
See Paul Krugman:
Okay, the late, great – and I mean that – Herbert Stein died in 1999. At that time the first $650,000 of an estate was tax-free – $1.3 million for a couple, provided it did what CBO calls “minimally competent estate planning” – with a 55% tax on the amount above that.
So either Ben Stein inherited several million dollars – which, although this may be news to him, is not the experience of most Americans – or he’s just making stuff up.
Ah, but this isn’t about facts, it’s about class, and about the current unnatural (perverse) assault on the natural aristocracy. It’s like the “lamestream” press thinking they have the right to just up and ask Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell actual questions. Who do they think they are? People know who these three are and what they represent. It’s sure a bother. And it’s just not classy.
Oddly, Michael O’Hare suggests that there seems to be a lack of class in our upper class:
Real class is what the economic aristocracy of our country has almost entirely lost. The American rich are wallowing in a moral slough, grasping for more and more money they have no clue what to do with, and venting their frustration that climbing over each other to new heights of wretched excess brings no satisfaction by lashing out at every social institution, and at a government whose largesse is never enough for them.
And there’s this:
I wish I had more class; I certainly had ample opportunity to learn it. But I’m sure I know what it is, often I can tell when I’m getting closer to it and when I’m not, and it’s not what I’m seeing in our upper class today. High wealth and low class: it’s ugly and it’s dangerous.
The whole problem is, of course, defining class, and he has quite a story:
Like many in my generation, I first met social class distinctions growing up, in my case in New York as a red-diaper baby, in a family with the kind of unusually diverse associations the city facilitates, and that a ‘mixed marriage’ between the son of Midwestern English-Scotch-Irish socialist leaders and a Polish Jewish immigrant who was the first in her family to go to college especially accretes. Accompanying my father to print shops, binderies, machine shops and other places where things were made I had some contact with blue-collar workers, but I mostly associated with the children of solidly middle-class business people and professionals; and because of summer camp friendships with well-cared-for private-school girls from quite wealthy families, mostly but not entirely Jewish, got to dance at coming-out parties.
Heck, that’s like growing up in Pittsburgh, but instead of Duke, O’Hare ended up at the Duke of the North:
Then I went to Harvard and met (for example) perhaps the tenth Protestant of my life followed by zillions more, and more important, people from a real American upper class. At that time, Republicans were the liberals in New England politics, and the WASP aristocracy constituted a confident, stable, enduring society, even as it fairly gracefully ceded political power to the Irish and Italians – yes, and even as it was sometimes insouciantly anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. I know a lot of these families made their fortunes in the slave trade, but a lot of them were also abolitionists and one of them (for example) was Robert Gould Shaw and another was Oliver Wendell Holmes and still another was Oliver Wendell H Jr. and still another was Joseph Welch. While I could immediately see that many of them wouldn’t have had a chance academically in my high school (the Bronx High School of Science), I had a persistent sense that many of them had, and almost all valued as a conscious part of their social capital, something important that I had met more randomly distributed in my prior life but never quite distinguished or identified.
And that was class, or really, class in another sense of the word. It wasn’t what he says is the real thing:
One diagnostic of class is being comfortable, and making others comfortable, in any company. This is harder than it looks, because getting self-confidence mixed up with arrogance or pride, or dissembling actual membership in the group you’ve fallen among, are both fatal. A real lady or gentleman adds value to any group without taking it over or getting lost in it, including groups of peers. Such a person is welcome back again, and does not have to hide out in a gated community. Julia Child had class that sat on her like a halo.
It’s not your pedigree:
I realized I had seen it in people I admired across all socioeconomic divisions, and that I had seen plenty of people who lacked it across classes as well. It wasn’t a monopoly of those Yankee WASPs, and it didn’t immunize them against bad behavior, but respecting it and hoping to display it was a distinctive part of their norms. Some people are just classy by family upbringing, or maybe they won the genetic lottery, and others with every advantage aren’t, like Larry Summers. I think people in the latter category sort of realize this and it hurts them, but the pain often stimulates maladaptive behavior that makes it worse. In any case, I think the right social conventions in your upbringing improve the odds.
And there’s this:
When you have real class, you can accept compliments gracefully, neither deflecting nor expecting them. When you have real class, you can set good things in motion and step out of the way so your group carries it forward and doesn’t depend on you more than necessary. Real class is not whining and demanding rights but looking for duties and seeing them as a piece of good fortune. It involves a fair amount of turning the other cheek, and is much more easily displayed going to bat for the people who aren’t as rich or smart or lucky as you than by standing on your rights and privileges. Henry Lee Higginson subsidized the Boston Symphony for years (and didn’t ask to have its building named Higginson Hall): that’s class.
That and much more is why he says real class is what the economic aristocracy of our country has almost entirely lost.
And Kevin Drum extends the discussion:
To a dispiriting extent, the top stratum in America no longer really seems to care about America. They care about themselves, and their money, and keeping themselves safe from the huddled masses, but for all too many of them that’s about it. I’m not sure I have quite the rose-colored view of the ancien regime that Mike does, but he’s certainly right about today’s millionaires. No class, no gratefulness for their success, and no sense of bond to the broader society they live in. This is not a winning combination for a country that aims to lead the world.
Nope, whining and going on and on about your seething resentment, and asking others to admire it, isn’t exactly classy. We may have a fascination with class, but we need to define it better. Even Muffy grew up.