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The Middle Class is Magic

Posted: October 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Since August 2007, for perverse reasons of my own, I’ve had Google send an email that alerts me to the previous week’s uses of the terms “class warfare” and “class conflict.”* I’m perversely interested in class the way only people who spend childhood in one and adulthood amongst another seem to be. Don’t get me wrong; this is not undergraduate-style communism talking. It’s only the hyper awareness that money, and family resources, matter deeply. You don’t have to read Karl Marx to get that idea. Jane Austen will do just fine.

These Google alerts did not, at first, offer much that was surprising. Cranky right-wing pundits accused Democrats of stoking the fires of class warfare every time it was suggested that a return to Clinton-era tax rates might not spell the end of the union. Clearly, they argued, liberals hated successful people. For their part, left-wing pundits ranted about how the top income bracket waged class war by bending tax policy to their favor, contributing to a yawning income gap between the U.S.’s richest and poorest.

This is about what you’d expect. More surprising was the accusation from the right that those on the left, in desiring a tax policy that would ask more of the haves, were engaging in unwholesome, possibly even seditious activity. Class warfare, they denounced, was “un-American.”

Then Michelle Malkin saw class warfare in a wire story about a small plane crash. “BUTTE, Mont. (AP) – Three California families headed to a retreat for the ultrarich were among the 14 victims of a plane crash in Montana,” prompted Malkin to wonder:

“Was the reference to the “ultrarich” retreat necessary? What is the relevance of how much it costs to stay at the ski resort the families were headed to — and why does it belong in the lede? How dehumanizing. And gratuitously callous.”

I did not think “ultrarich” was all that dehumanizing, but many commenters agreed with Malkin: the AP had essentially written a story that said these people deserved to die, and because they were ultrarich, and this was more evidence that the lefty media hated rich people.

At this point in my career I’ve been in enough glossy offices to know that claim is bogus. Media people are rich.

But claiming that class warfare—or to put it in less incendiary terms, class resentment—is un-American, is a more interesting thing to claim. If by un-American one means something that is either not done, not condoned, or neither done nor condoned in the United States, then this claim is bogus too. We like class warfare and we’re good at it.

The face-offs between workers and owners in the nineteenth century were famously angry and bloody. An 1877 railroad strike over a 10% wage cut burbled into riots that spread from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, Chicago to San Francisco, and left 100 people dead. “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half,” financier Jay Gould boasted in 1886 during another series of violent strikes.

But class resentment, American-style, is generally more sublimated. We prefer our class warfare more subtle. We’ve developed an elaborate system by which one would know the rich—or poor—through their character flaws. One sees this all the time in movies and books as well as political chatter. If you’re ultrarich, you’re a flawed individual in such-and-such ways; if poor, then you’re likely to be intellectually and emotionally or spiritually challenged in these other ways.

The sins of the wealthy are in some ways the most interesting, or at least cinematic. The basic story line goes like this: Wealthy? Well, then you must be a snob, that is to say, practically adolescent in the way you like separating yourself from people you think inferior to yourself. Or maybe your dad’s money so sheltered your from life’s vicissitudes that you arrived at adulthood a moral midget. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the Buchanans in The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

The refrain regarding the poor has also been fairly consistent, whether you pick up a mid-century sociology book like Oscar Lewis’s The Children of Sanchez or listen to Ronald Reagan talk about “welfare queens”: they’re lazy, unreasonably demanding, and slutty.

Actually, Oscar Lewis’s long run-down of everything he found wrong with poor people is fascinating, if not a little horrifying. Read for yourself:

“Some of the social and psychological characteristics include living in crowded quarters, a lack of privacy, gregariousness, a high incidence of alcoholism, frequent resort to violence in the settlement of quarrels, frequent use of physical violence in the training of children, wife beating, early initiation into sex, free unions or consensual marriages, a relatively high incidence of the abandonment of mothers and children, a trend toward mother-centered families and a much greater knowledge of maternal relatives, the predominance of the nuclear family, a strong predisposition to authoritarianism, and a great emphases upon family solidarity—an ideal only rarely achieved. Other traits include a strong present time orientation with relatively little ability to defer gratification and plan for the future, a sense of resignation and fatalism based upon the realities of their different life situation, a belief in male superiority which reaches its crystallization in machismo or the cult of masculinity, a corresponding martyr complex among women, and finally, a high tolerance for psychological pathology of all sorts.”

A high tolerance for psychological pathology of all sorts. Now that is serious rhetorical class warfare.

But here’s the most interesting part—to me, at least. The class that gets a pass in this game of character assassination is typically the middle class. The middle class is in fact routinely and heartily patted on the back. They function, to hear some say it, as some sort of magical balm on the national psyche. The great middle class—and that is the preferred locution—hovers on puffy clouds of virtue and hard work, high above the heads of the morally compromised rich and poor. They’re sincere, live and breathe “authenticity,” and have an eye for value. They are good neighbors and citizens and, darnit, they’re plucky too.

Wait. I said “great middle class” was the preferred locution. Here’s a case for “strong middle class.”

Growing up in a family that identified as middle class, I absorbed a number of other lessons about my people that were never spoken but seemed, nonetheless, inescapable conclusions. When I heard a Ralph Lauren-clad girl at my middle school say the very idea of wearing second-hand clothes made her skin crawl, and when I thought back to my childhood wardrobe of hand-me-downs and consignment-shop Osh-Kosh B’Gosh, it seemed only reasonable to conclude that the rich were prissy, while us middle-class types were realists, unpretentious and unhysterical, and better informed about germ theory.

One evening, when I was around ten, my mother regaled us at the dinner-table with a story about how her one rich friend, Sheila, childless wife of a financier, was so flummoxed by the buttons on her own washing machine that she panicked and yanked the plug from the wall outlet to stop the rinse cycle. This was on an afternoon her housekeeper had been detained by an errand. More evidence that the rich are a little feeble, I thought. All good women, and all wise men, I thought, knew how to operate a washing machine. Of course.

It’s worth stopping and asking why any of this matters. Here’s a theory:

Our sublimated class warfare has its advantages. It’s less bloody. It helps people live with some of the psychic stresses of living in a meritocracy, a system that asks us to believe that high status is correlated to social utility and individual worth.

Thinking ugly thoughts about those who enjoy more stuff than you let you blow off steam. Comedian Chris Rock tried to elevate this to a rule of engagement in 2008, when some Wall Street bankers complained volubly about the bad rap they were getting in the press. The amount of trash talk you were allowed, Rock argued, was inversely proportional to your net worth. “Sometimes, the people with the most stuff get to say the least stuff, and the people with the least stuff, get to say the most stuff. So if you want to say more stuff… Get rid of some of your stuff.”**

That’s not the theory. Here’s the theory:

Our deeply ingrained habits of associating certain virtues with certain strata of society makes it immensely difficult to refer to someone’s socioeconomic status without causing offense. Unspoken (sometimes even un-thought) character judgments piggyback uninvited on the blandest statement of fact. I’ve experienced this  many times. Many times.

Once over dinner in the Hamptons, for instance, I ventured that a high-end New York interior designer we all knew—and whose commitment to her work was, unfairly, I felt, being called into question—had chosen that career because she came from a class that employed high-end interior designers. There was little barrier to entry, in other words. As dinner-party patter goes, I thought this was innocent enough. (And all the thought that had gone into my utterance was, “Huh, I never knew any interior designers growing up. That was the stuff of TV.”) But I might have as well have announced that after dessert I’d be selling bags of cocaine out of my third-floor guest room. I’d violated some rule.

Incidentally, Paul Fussell opened his 1983 book Class by alleging that when he told people what he was working on, when the book was still in progress, most reacted as if he’d said he was “working on a book urging the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals.”***

But back to the Hamptons. What this loosely but not perfectly illustrates is that we too quickly jump from point A, which is the simple pointing out that someone has something, a nice t-shirt, say, and point B, the question of whether they earned that t-shirt, and if so, if earning is the same as deserving, and if someone hasn’t earned something but was handed it instead, does that mean they didn’t really deserve it, and so on.

It gets confusing quickly. I never studied philosophy.

Here’s another theory:

Conflating a sturdy, friendly character with a middle-class existence probably has something to do with the fact that in study after study, more Americans identify as middle-class than can truthfully and accurately claim the label.

No less a weirdo than George Gilder once suggested that 90% of Americans identify as middle class precisely because it lets everyone bypass the aforementioned awkwardness. (That’s probably true for the upper reaches; i.e. a wealthy man pretends he’s not. I’m less convinced it holds true for those who were bought off with easy consumer credit. But that’s another book.)

However you slice it, it’s self-delusion on a massive scale. But even though it’s probably well-intended and certainly innocent, it’s not exactly harmless. In fact, I would imagine that the confusion makes it hard to have reasonable, productive debates about public policy, taxation, and reform proposals that, like money and family connections, truly do shape lives.

In 1940 a mellowed labor organizer Oscar Ameringer—arrested in his youth for throwing a brick a scab’s head—declared that he no longer accepted the notion “that every wage worker is a paragon of virtue for no better reason than that he has found no better way of making a living than by working for others.” That self-congratulatory fantasy ignored the hungry, self-interested beast that lurked inside us all. “We are all men, and men are predatory animals living by devouring other forms of life and each other. We therefore would no more blame capitalists for exploiting labor than we would blame wolves for devouring sheep or each other.”

Was Ameringer suggesting we return to the concept of original sin, and just keep reminding ourselves that we are ourselves depraved, and no better than anyone? That there is none righteous, no not one? Does the middle class need to remember that they’re just as capable of being horrible people as the rich and poor are?

Maybe. Here’s another historical assessment. From England, but bear with me. (They, too, enjoy their class warfare.) The writer, William Rathbone Greg, believed that the upper and lower classes WERE inferior to those toiling diligently and dutifully in the middle. Making matters – and the world — worse, he wrote in an 1868 article for Fraser’s Magazine, was the fact that rich and poor both tended to marry young and breed like bunnies.

And so “the imprudent, the desperate—those whose standard is low, those who have no hope, no ambition, no self-denial [ed: The poor] — on the one side, and the pampered favorites of fortune on the other [ed: That would be the ultrarich], take precedence in the race of fatherhood, to the disadvantage or the exclusion of the prudent, the resolute, the striving and the self-restrained [ed: The great middle class].”

He proposed a program mandated selected breeding before acknowledging that, alas, he could discern little political or popular support for such a measure.

Can’t say I agree with Greg. (Does understatement work on the web? Does “dry” work on the web? I still wonder!)

All of which to say: The temptation to flatter the middle class as a cure-all for a country’s social and economic ills is old news. But it’s worth treading carefully here.


* I’m using “perverse” in the sense of choosing high before low, twisted before straight. Here are the lines that sum “perverse” up best, in its broadest sense, for me. It’s from George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910-1914. He’s talking about pre-war feminism, a.k.a. the suffrage movement: “It was achieved in disorder, arrogance, and outrage. It was melodramatic, it was hysterical, it was in a hurry. It possibly deserves every bad epithet but one—it was not perverse. People very frequently damn the sins they have no mind to, whether in sex or literature or politics, by calling them perverse; but perversity, if it means anything at all, means the conscious and deliberate preference of something low before something high, of death before life. [emphasis mine] And this . . . was without any question a striving towards life.”

** Rock used a different word for stuff. I’m trying to swear less, though.

*** Simply using the word “class” itself can be problematic. Last year, I submitted an assignment to The Daily Beast with the line “Like a bargain-basement Edith Wharton, I’ve long been fascinated with what happens when different classes rub elbows.” My editor took out “class” and substituted “different strata of society.” I changed it back. She changed it again. I changed it back. Her version won in the end.

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