[Paleopsych] Boston Phoenix: All classed up and nowhere to go

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All classed up and nowhere to go
Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005

[Part 2 appended.]

      The New York Times goes slumming: How the papers allegiance to the
              ruling elite distorts its look at class in America
                               BY CHRIS LEHMANN

    AT FIRST GLANCE, "Class Matters" the New York Times epic inquiry into
    the widening economic divisions of the new millennium appears to be
    what its editors solemnly claim: a well-intentioned effort to reckon
    with a serious social condition, one that notoriously eludes clear
    understanding in America, so long hymned as the planets pre-eminent
    land of opportunity. Alas, however, the New York Times is in no
    position to deliver. In contrast to, say, the papers conscientious
    reporting on the 60s-era civil-rights movement in the South, its foray
    into class consciousness suffers from a fatal flaw. Social class is at
    the core of the Times institutional identity, which prevents the paper
    from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching
    discussion the subject demands.

    Even as the paper takes hits for its alleged liberal bias, it retains
    a supremely undeviating affinity for the cultural habits of the rich
    and celebrated most obviously in its Sunday Vows section, which
    features short celebratory biographies of newly consummated mateships
    from the overclass. The Sunday Styles section along with the Home and
    Dining sections, the T: Style magazine, and the recently added
    Thursday Styles delivers breathless dispatches on the mores, tastes,
    status worries, and modes of pecuniary display favored by the coming
    generation of anxious downtown arrivistes.

    So the many installments of "Class Matters" a now nearly completed
    work in progress come across less like an authoritative exercise in
    social criticism than like an oddly anxious series of Tourettes-style
    asides, desperately sidestepping the core economic inequities that the
    Times can never quite afford to mention outright. Getting the New York
    Times to explain the real operation of social class in America is, at
    the end of the day, a lot like granting your parents exclusive license
    to explain sex to you: there are simply far too many conflicts that
    run far too deep to result in any reliable account of how the thing

    YOU CAN SEE the trouble early on, in what serves as the seriess
    mission statement: the pledge, in the May 15 first-installment
    "Overview" piece by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, that they will
    chart the way "class influences destiny in America."

    For most people on the receiving end of class prerogatives in this
    country unskilled service workers who find it all but illegal to form
    unions, say, or poor black voters in Ohio and Florida theres no
    "influences" about it: class is destiny in America, delimiting access
    to basic social benefits like health care, education, job training,
    and affordable housing. Yet for all sorts of painfully self-evident
    institutional reasons, the New York Times cant afford to approach a
    subject this potent in a straightforward fashion.

    Instead Scott and Leonhardt marshal their readers through a leisurely
    tour of hoary American social mythology. America, they purr, "has gone
    a long way toward the appearance of classlessness" meaning, one
    supposes, that the downwardly mobile middle classes are actually
    thriving on the appearance of being in possession of wealth and
    disposable income, as though, by analogy, it would have been perfectly
    acceptable to report design upgrades in segregated Southern drinking
    fountains as a meaningful advance for black civil rights. "Social
    diversity," they explain, "has erased many of the markers" separating
    the countrys haves from the have-nots. Yet they fail to recognize that
    a more socially diverse ruling class remains a ruling class, after all
    an uncomfortable truth easily overlooked when one is writing for an
    influential organ of said ruling class.

    Not surprisingly, then, the closer Scott and Leonhardt circle toward
    the heart of the matter how some Americans leverage social advantage
    into greater wealth and privilege, and how many, many more have seen
    wealth, educational opportunity, disposable income, and job security
    stagnate or decline while household debt and health-care costs soar
    the more ungainly and vague everything becomes. Still, Scott and
    Leonhardt are forced to concede a stubborn social fact: "Americans are
    arguably more likely than they were 30 years ago to end up in the same
    class into which they were born."

    Here the dogged reader is at last primed to reckon with a sharp point
    of analytical departure: the storied American Dream of social mobility
    across generations appears to be stalled. Instead, however, the
    authors lurch into more bootless mythmaking: "Merit has replaced the
    old system of inherited privilege.... But merit, it turns out, is at
    least partly class-based. Parents with money, education, and
    connections cultivate in their children the habits the meritocracy

    Well, no. Parents with connections, education, and money place their
    considerable resources directly at their offsprings disposal. What
    results has everything to do with openly legible lines of power, and
    very nearly nothing to do with the cultivation of meritocracy-pleasing
    behavioral "habits" as any cursory glance at the Oval Offices present
    occupant or the cast of The Simple Life will instantly confirm.

    Meritocracy is an especially obtrusive and unstable term here, since
    neither Scott nor Leonhardt nor scarcely any uncritical champion of
    meritocracy in our time pauses to note the original meaning of the
    term. The concept of meritocracy first surfaced in a 1958 satirical
    political novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, by old-line British
    socialist Michael Young. Youngs coinage was not intended to describe a
    system of impartial upward advancement, but rather the diametric
    opposite: a dystopian social order wherein bureaucratic rank
    outstripped wealth and title as the measure of human advancement. The
    irony in Youngs book, of course, was that the egalitarian nomenclature
    of this brave new order of which the word meritocracy was itself a
    prime example masked a system of spoils and rewards that was fast
    becoming much less fair and balanced than the old British class
    society it was thought to have supplanted. Only in America or more
    precisely, only in the A section of the New York Times could a bitter
    term of Old World satire gain traction as a straight-faced descriptor
    of a sunny status quo.

    NOT SURPRISINGLY, the twinned notions of Right Conduct and
    Meritocratic Worth have shaped every subsequent installment of "Class
    Matters." The first reported piece, by the redoubtable Janny Scott,
    explores the consequences of unequal access to quality health care, by
    reconstructing three heart-attack cases affecting, in socially
    descending order, a well-heeled architect, an electric-company office
    worker, and an immigrant Polish maid. This comparative exercise does a
    pretty good job how could it not? of showing what happens when the
    basic right to critical health care is submitted to the markets
    less-than-tender mercies.

    Until, that is, Scott joins the hapless maid on a grocery-shopping
    junket and loses all patience: "Cruising the 99 Cent Wonder store in
    [Brooklyns] Williamsburg, where the freezers were filled with products
    like Budget Gourmet Rigatoni with Cream Sauce, [the maid, Ms. Gora]
    pulled down a small package of pistachios: two and a half servings, 13
    grams of fat per serving. I can eat five of these, she confessed,
    ignoring the nutrition label. Not servings. Bags."

    Not servings, people! Bags! When Times scribes are reduced to sentence
    fragments, you know their patrician forbearance is running dangerously
    low. And how can you blame them, considering that the pistachio
    episode follows a sobering litany of other trespasses? When first
    stricken with her heart attack, Gora dismissed her husbands suggestion
    that she was seriously ill and needed an ambulance, and instead tried
    to collect herself with a glass of vodka; against explicit doctors
    advice, she sneaks cigarettes and doughnuts, and even clips a
    cockamamie diet from a Polish magazine that permits her to eat
    generous portions of fried food and steak. And so Scotts telltale
    moment of exasperation carries an unmistakable subtext: Theres just
    nothing to be done with these people. Never mind that Goras behavior
    suggests that she is also suffering an extended, and completely
    understandable, bout of depression an all-too-common health affliction
    among the working poor. Why extend anything like universally available
    health care to a group of people so willfully perverse?

All classed up and nowhere to go (continued)

    Likewise, the next series installment, on marriage and class,
    completely neglects the subjects most historically significant recent
    development: how more affluent mates postpone marriage and
    childrearing through whats known euphemistically as "assortative
    mating" (i.e., the sort of closely vetted, intraclass pairings of the
    privileged featured every week in the Vows section of the Times),
    versus the considerable pressures within poor communities to marry
    early and procreate often. Instead, the main dispatch by Times
    reporter Tamar Lewin sets up elaborate social quandaries better suited
    to a Victorian novel than to 21st-century American life. It describes
    the course of a second marriage for both partners thats taken them
    beyond the reach of their familiar social stations: wife Cate Woolner
    is a rich heiress, husband Dan Croteau is a working-class car
    salesman. Its hard to suss out just what the social lesson of such a
    plainly atypical union is supposed to be. Apart, that is, from the
    manifest truth that, left to their own devices, the rich will always
    raise the most irritating children on earth ("[Woolners son] Isaac
    fantasizes about opening a brewery-cum-performance space, traveling
    through South America, or operating a sunset massage cruise on the

    By Sunday, May 22s entry, a piece by Laurie Goodstein and David
    Kirkpatrick on the evangelical mission called the Christian Union,
    which is targeting the Ivy League elite, the Times reverts to full-on
    barbarians-at-the-gates-style culture alarmism. The piece is not even,
    in any clear way, about social class (at least not the
    destiny-inhibiting type adumbrated in the seriess mission statement),
    since Matt Bennett, the principal force behind the Christian Union, is
    heir to a Dallas-based hotel empire, and the one quasi-needy case in
    the piece, a sophomore missionary at Brown named Tim Havens, rather
    inconveniently declares himself pre-med by the storys end. And what is
    clearly meant to be a spit-take moment for Sunday-morning Times coffee
    drinkers Bennetts claim that God came to him in a vision and "was
    speaking to me very strongly that he wanted to see an increasing and
    dramatic spiritual revival in a place like Princeton" actually makes a
    good deal of sense when one recalls (as Kirkpatrick and Goodstein
    apparently do not) that Princeton was the intellectual capital of
    American fundamentalist theology in the early part of the last
    century. The reporters do mention briefly that most Ivy League schools
    in fact began life as "expressly Christian," but dwelling too long on
    such facts would clearly contradict the pieces half-baked social
    premise: that newer, and traditionally down-market, evangelical faiths
    are now storming the citadels of American intellectual privilege.

    For May 24s installment the midpoint entry in the series Leonhardt
    offers a predictably baffled piece on the most perverse of
    working-class mores: the refusal to attend college for full four-year
    terms. Leonhardt telescopes this chilling trend through the saga of
    Andy Blevins, a 29-year-old produce buyer for a big-box retail
    warehouse in small-town rural Virginia. Blevins dropped out after his
    freshman year at Radford University; he plans to return to school
    part-time, though, in order to earn a degree and teaching credentials
    in elementary education, even though the vast majority of returning
    college dropouts never complete their degrees. The overall high
    failure and dropout rates among Americas poor and working class admit
    to no "simple answer," Leonhardt writes. There is, to be sure, the
    vulgar question of money, he notes. Tuitions that routinely outstrip
    the rate of inflation, and the specter of contracting long-term five-
    or six-figure loans, are strong, sobering deterrents.

    For Leonhardt, however, economic inequality can provide only a
    glancing explanation of class inequities culture has to be where the
    real action is. After ticking off the formidable financial obstacles
    posed by higher education, Leonhardt primly announces that "the
    deterrents to a [college] degree can also be homegrown. Many
    low-income teenagers know few people who have made it through college.
    A majority of the non-graduates are young men, and some come from
    towns where the factory work ethic, to get working as soon as
    possible, remains strong, even if the factories themselves are
    vanishing. Whatever the reason, college just does not feel normal."
    Its worth noting that such cultural delicacy did not seem to prevent
    FDR from signing the GI Bill into law, thereby dispatching the
    largest-ever contingent of working-class American men to elite
    university campuses. There was little apparent fuss about how these
    entering students processed their unfamiliar cultural surroundings,
    once the federal government brought tuition costs into reasonable
    alignment with their living standards.

    Nonetheless, the paper of record, with its condescending cultural
    exoticism, once again dwells lovingly on behavior and culture rather
    than on cold economic facts. Leonhardt mentions the gruesome inequity
    that, thanks to the Bush administrations recent cuts to the Pell-grant
    program, "high-income students, on average, actually get slightly more
    financial aid than low-income students." But apart from some vague
    discussion of the emerging vogue for need-conscious class-based
    affirmative action, he cant connect the obvious dots here: that
    without universal, federally funded support, the prospect of a full
    tour in the world of higher education ranks somewhere alongside
    winning the lottery in the pantheon of plausible working-class life

    Instead, Leonhardt frets on and on about the boneheaded call the
    19-year-old Blevins made when he dropped out, and the extreme
    unlikelihood, despite the guys professed best intentions, that any
    good will come of his pitiful bid to reinvent himself. And should the
    wall-eyed voyeurism of the piece leave any doubt, the front-page photo
    speaks volumes: it shows Blevins indolently sprawled on his
    living-room sofa, gaping at a football game on TV, while keeping a
    bottle shoved in the gullet of his three-year-old son, Luke, whose
    head dangles perilously over the edge of the couch. This, the casual
    reader is urged to conclude, is just the sort of layabout behavioral
    pathology that keeps working-class families from achieving serious
    upward mobility. Yet the text makes clear that Blevins doesnt have a
    great deal of time to devote to semiconscious gridiron gawking, since
    he routinely works six-day weeks, at shifts of 10 hours or more. This
    image, like most feature subjects in "Class Matters," seems clearly
    intended to trigger a quiet shudder of patrician thanksgiving that
    Times readers really do not go there but for the grace of God.

    SUBSEQUENT SERIES installments perform the same reassuring alchemy,
    transmuting the raw stuff of material deprivation into judiciously
    arms-length cultural perplexity. A May 25 dispatch on
    immigrant-laborer tensions at Uma Thurmans favorite diner trails off
    into puzzlement over how immigrant managers resist unionization of
    other immigrant workers in their employ. (Dont they know that social
    diversity abolishes class distinction? That a Greek restaurant owner
    is supposed to embrace his Latino busboys and waitstaff in a gorgeous
    mosaic of service-economy unity?) Another blowout Sunday entry, on May
    29, found the Times returning with palpable relief to a subject on
    which it wields genuine authority: how and why luxury shopping is
    failing to perfectly mirror hard-core American socioeconomic
    divisions. Jennifer Steinhauer registers the perfect ruffled tone of
    disbelief as she reports on the decline of true luxury consumption in
    America, as more middle-class people get into deeper debt to make
    high-end purchases like cruises and designer chocolates. For a paper
    that routinely lavishes acres of adoring prose on the shopping
    preferences of the fabulously well-to-do, this sort of news has
    roughly the same effect that Andres Serranos Piss Christ photograph
    exercised on the Catholic League: "Rising incomes, flattening prices,
    and easily available credit have given so many Americans access to
    such a wide array of high-end goods that traditional markers of status
    have lost much of their meanings." For devout Times scribes, this,
    truly, is the world turned upside down. An unintentionally hilarious
    graphic accompanying the main body of the piece "Swells and
    Neer-Do-Wells: A Class Timeline" echoes the same clear longing for the
    snappy, superficial navigation of social distinction. Here is one of
    its final bullet points: "1989: The Berlin Wall falls. Marxisms vision
    of a classless society is out; global capitalism is in."

    There you have it: a watershed moment in modern democratic revolution
    worded in the style of an America Idol ballot. Dont dare remind our
    glib Times editors that Marx himself foresaw the triumph of global
    capitalism as the precursor to his vision of a classless society.
    Theyre telling you whats in, and there could be no more fitting final
    word on the subject from a journalistic oracle of the Times stature
    except, that is, to turn from all this messy, unresolved class
    nastiness to the crisp and clean business-as-usual digests in the
    Sundays Vows column.

    Chris Lehman is a writer based in Washington, DC, and author of Revolt
    of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm, 2003). He can be reached at
    [47]lehmannchris at mac.com

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