The Sorrow & Pity of the Status Hunt

We all yearn for the respect of others and want the comfort of knowing we fit in. For some blue staters, their divide with red staters is a satisfying sign they belong; they are the kind of people who vote for John Kerry; that is a different kind of person than those who vote for Bush. Indeed, some quite openly remarked that they didn’t want “that kind of person” in their party. Some red staters had similar feelings. For some, politics is a social arbiter.

Our complicated feelings about belonging and insecurity about status were brought home as we began minor remodeling. I asked a friend’s advice on books & one he suggested was Class: A Guide Through the American Class System by Paul Fussell. It doesn’t deal with aesthetics but status. Since we are not going to convince anyone we range very far into middle class, status advice isn’t terribly useful. (While I am used to being held in some esteem by my colleagues and students, my status dropped under withering looks from the Home Depot advisor. There is my own lack of style in figure & clothes; in addition, somehow I had never noticed the basics of knob – excuse me, fixture – configurations.)

Fussell doesn’t help much with determining proportions for mirrors or what to do with our almost aggressively unstylish house. Square and stolid and firm, it was built by an engineer to house his beloved wife and four sons – Georgian meets hunting lodge. But we’ll talk about that another day since Fussell has nothing to say about such a quirky place but does demonstrate beautifully some points in the culture war.

Published in 1983, Class is sometimes dated. Political correctness as well as the spread and variety of technology have affected us. The eighties were remarkably careerist: the first large crop of professional women was being dumped on the market place and finding their way in what were still men’s worlds, they needed guidance. He mentions John T. Malloy’s Dress for Success. Of course, today’s executives, partners in professional firms, and members of hiring committees came out of college during those years.

With wit, Fussell piles up perceptive details that remain accurate. He seems ridiculously Anglophilic, but this is a tendency of those of us in lit and it wasn’t surprising in a man who made his reputation with The Great War and Modern Memory. Contemplating this and my own tendencies to find the English style attractive, I drove my daughter to a sleep-over. At the edge of town, surrounded by flat prairie, three fountains and a huge castle-looking entrance welcomed us to their subdivision. The entrance hinted at a fortress town as it separated the roads going in and out with two arches, higher than two stories. Across the arch is a vast expanse of Tudor-allusion windows; within was a staffed information office. (Perhaps a modern innovation to scare off the barbarians?) As we followed directions down a series of British named streets, I acknowledged to myself that Fussell’s point retains validity twenty years later. Those developers wouldn’t have spent all that space and money unless they thought it added status (that is, increased market value).

Fussell finished his teaching career at the University of Pennsylvania. His initial field of study was the era of satire – eighteenth century British. He learned from it, for here he eviscerates American culture as he defines class distinctions. Apparently published the year he was hired at Penn, his section on the pretensions of lesser colleges & sullen bitterness of those denied tenure is biting. (And he weights the academic: I have my doubts many non-academics read The Hudson Review which he gives a hefty +8 in his living room ranking). His tone moves from irony to sarcasm to a condescending sympathy: “I feel very sorry for this woman” who shows her thimble collection, feeling it is both interesting and valuable. The three – irony, sarcasm, condescension – are braided, making the book one long painfully funny tirade. He sees Americans as defensive, nervous, insecure – always fumbling about, trying to hit it right.

Certainly divisions in terms of style, looks, education, speech, food, recreation are clear. We don’t need to be told that bowling signifies a class different from the horse set, but most of his perceptions are subtler. And we sense that much of what he notices remains true twenty years later. Often, indeed, he puts his finger on what makes us self-conscious, yes, insecure. He finds both upper and lower cultures quite wanting, but (not surprisingly) he spends much of his sarcasm on the middle classes. In his final short chapter he changes his tone to praise for the Xers – people who choose comfort and act authentically, who are bohemian and cosmopolitan. They are self-defined – though as so often in twentieth century thinking, this praises the self (the will?) moving unencumbered through the world, defining itself by its chosen, self-conscious actions. He sees this strenuous endeavor to find the self as unrelated to the worries of status seekers.

”X” people are better conceived as belonging to a category than a class because you re not born an X person, as you are born and reared a prole or a middle. You become an X person, or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable. And in discovering that you can become an X person you find the only escape from class. Entering category X often requires flight from parents and forebears. The young flocking to the cities to devote themselves to “art,” “writing,” “creative work”—anything, virtually, that liberates them from the presence of a boss or supervisor—are aspirant X people, and if they succeed in capitalizing on their talents, they may end as fully fledged X types.

What kind of people are Xs? The old-fashioned term bohemian gives some idea; so does the term talented. Some Xs are intellectuals, but a lot are not: they are actors, musicians, artists, sports stars, “celebrities,” well-to-do former hippies, confirmed residents abroad, and the more gifted journalists, those whose by-lines intelligent readers recognize with pleasant anticipation. X people can be described (to use C. Wright Mills’s term) “self-cultivated.” They tend to be self-employed, doing what social scientists call autonomous work. If, as Mills has said, the middle-class person is “always somebody’s man,” the X person is nobody’s, his freedom from supervisors is one of his most obvious characteristics. X people are independent-minded, free of anxious regard for popular shibboleths, loose in carriage and demeanor. They adore the work they do, and they do it until they are finally carried out, retirement being a concept meaningful only to hired personnel or wage slaves who despise their work. Being an X person is like having much of the freedom and some of the power of a top-out-of-sight or upper-class person, but without the money. X category is a sort of unmonied aristocracy. (179-80)

“Unmonied aristocracy” gives his game away. Fussell has defined a category into which the like-minded can be admitted; nonetheless, it is not outside but rather at the top of the elaborate set of classes he has spent the rest of the book building. The X attitudes dominant twenty years ago shape the markers of such groups today. X is rootless, alienated from family, secular, leftist, bookish, cynical, relatively libertine in drink and sex.

These people, Fussell would say, are outside the hierarchy:

They occupy the one social place in the U.S.A. where the ethic of buying and selling is not all-powerful. Impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit, X people have escaped out the back doors of those theaters of class which enclose others. (186)

He believes they don’t care about their status. But they do. Does he think they want to appear “people with small imaginations and limited understandings” who would “aspire to get into the paper-middle class.” Obviously, they prefer to be known as one of “the few with notable gifts of mind and perception [who] aspire to disencumber themselves into X people.” (187)

He sees this class as characterized by “insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit.” In a telling moment early in the book he observes: “Occupational class depends very largely on doing work for which the consequences of error or failure are distant or remote, or better, invisible, rather than immediately apparent to a superior and thus instantly humiliating to the performer” (48). A reputation for intelligence and irony are best achieved by those with the ability to critique others without being critiqued. That is, of course, practically a role description for the media; it can be the role of State Department bureaucrats, and this has become more and more (with the theories of post-modernism and post-colonialism) the role in which academics see themselves.

But these groups exert powerful peer pressure. Peggy Noonan, worked for Dan Rather and had sympathy for him long after others of her political persuasion, explained why in a column a few years ago:

Back in the ’60s he made his name covering hurricanes, a bright, young, handsome guy who’d stand waist-deep in floating rats to get the story. He came to the attention of CBS News, which brought him to New York and offered him a job. He took it, but at first he wasn’t comfortable in the CBS culture. He felt like a hick from Texas, untutored and un-Eastern; he had an accent and a funny haircut.

He was patronized by the snooty CBS of William S. Paley and his erudite executives. One of Mr. Paley’s men turned to me one day in 1980 and told me he’d known Dan since they covered Vietnam together for the network.

“Oh,” I said, “what was he like in those days?” I figured he’d tell me stories of late nights and derring-do.

“He wore yellow socks with his suits,” the exec sniffed.

I don’t think Dan started out caring too much about politics. I think he cared about reporting and stardom, appropriate interests for a young broadcast journalist in the 60s. I think he adopted a political philosophy to fit in, to rise. He wanted Mr. Paley’s men to think he was sophisticated. . . . So Dan cloaked himself in liberalism . . . .When he got in a little trouble for being an administration tormentor during the Nixon years it made him very famous–and very attractive to half the country, including his bosses at CBS, who were themselves hostile to Nixon and energetically supportive of his demise.

She sees this pressure to conform shape Rather. Such shaping makes for the often remarked upon homogeneity in media and academia. These are two groups in which positions on certain issues (abortion, Iraq, religion, family—we could go on) is a given and where the only question at drinks or over coffee is whether a vote for Nader is an appropriate gesture. For some, this indicates intelligent positions, but most might find moribund institutions.

Fussell (a quite thoughtful essayist) discusses the style of politics – but here style becomes much more a moral choice than even Henry James would assess it. He repeatedly refers to the Kennedys as exemplars. Even though written twenty years ago, this seems naïve. I’d always assumed that those who deeply admired the Kennedy style collected knick-knacks with Queen Elizabeth’s picture (which I must admit I did in my youth). While this cries out for irony, he has a point: at times that self-conscious & staged style stood the country well. The triumphal tour of Europe with Jackie in tow made Jack’s speech at the Berlin Wall resonate. Her obsession with the historical funeral ritual gave a dignity to the country’s mourning. Those of us from the red states suspect a certain lack of authenticity in their manners – but sometimes those not born to the forms, to which they do not come naturally, are best at understanding them. And they are useful in expressing a national sorrow with a truly national ritual.

Deeply and thoroughly immersed in academia, Fussell expresses the values of his culture: Republicans are not classy, Democrats are. Rather silenced his discomfort; he changed the color of his socks and began attacking those outside his own community, defining its parameters. Fussell spends several pages discussing the lower class (education, style, politics) of Nixon and Reagan, noting in passing that next to Reagan even Rather managed to look upper-middle. Here is an example: “The acute student of men’s class signals could virtually infer Reagan’s politics of Midwestern small-town meanness from his getups, just as one might deduce Roosevelt’s politics of aristocratic magnanimity from such class accessories as his naval cape, pince-nez, and cigarette holder” (62). After a chapter like that, only a pretty hearty (or hopelessly naïve) grad student at Penn would voice conservative politics in a Fussell class. All would no doubt prefer to be known as magnanimous rather than mean.

While Fussell describes the “upper” as aloof, the Xers are ironic. Playful he might say, but unattached. We lose the power of objectivity, the power of control when we are passionate about ideas or art or. . . well, life. This is not the style of the impulsive or the passionate. To become a critic often means other commitments, various other ways of belonging, are sloughed off.

Politics are chosen. But what is sloughed off? Well, family. Fussell notes that Xers flee family and forbears. The deep ties of ethnicity he sees as prole – and of course, such socializing within the family is often blue-collar and more often true of communities in which the tribal still has some power. We suspect that to an X much about such commitments would be lost because of their “callings” or “art.” Besides the heady doses of liquor and open sexuality we see as Bohemian counter much commitment to those who begat them or whom they begat. The warmth and support (as well as commitments and distractions) of family are clearly remade with the self at the center: some Xers “have been known to become pregnant at socially inappropriate moments. Their infant issue they may tote about in ways that appear novel if not shocking, to the idle class: in slings, for example, or backpack papoose carriers” (181).

Religion, in Fussell’s discussion, is “embarrassing.” In a revealing approach, he begins a paragraph discussing the Xer’s creativity: “they adopt toward cultural objects the attitude of makers, and of course critics.” As the paragraph continues, we find such people “[a]lthough they know a great deal about European ecclesiastical architecture and even about the niceties of fifteen centuries of liturgical usage, X people never go to church, except for the odd wedding or funeral. Furthermore, they don’t know anyone who does go, and the whole idea would strike them as embarrassing” (185). Disencumbering oneself of religion is necessary. (At a dinner party in the last year, the host announced that his father had been right – those in church were only the halt and the lame, the weak and the needy. Then he played a religious passage of music and proclaimed melodramatically, Ah, but this almost makes me want to believe. Another guest, with a theology degree, reassured him that all could feel the spiritual power of the music. The romantic self, free & feeling, was what our host projected – or at least thought he did.

Nor do Xers feel a strong sense of place, since they are “instinctively unprovincial” and therefore interested in such things as the street layouts of London. While much of this would seem to describe the quirky scientists I’ve known, Fussell tends to emphasize abilities with which he is more familiar – interests in history, literature, architecture, as well as having strong verbal abilities and speaking other languages.

If we weren’t convinced by the definition of Xers as “nonmonied aristocracy” we now have a fairly strong sense that he is defining quite specific characteristics of a quite specific class. That is the class that has, in the last twenty years, come to be called the “cultural elite.” The very act of “disencumbering” themselves to reach this position left them with little support. Only their peer’s regard and their own estimations of themselves give meaning. While this group would be ironic about the word self-esteem, it clearly must see them through each day. This leaves them edgy – always needing to prove their credentials as Xers. The power of peer pressure can be gauged by the automatic and predictable responses to challenges. Few of us want to marginalize ourselves. Xers are especially vulnerable—this life, the one Fussell describes, is the only air they breathe, food they eat

That automatic response has been observed by an acute observer, Tom Wolfe. He remarked that even indicating a vote for Bush was a possibility was shocking.. Wolfe argues for a set of values he chooses; he is not playing games.

So what is it about his liberal neighbors and fellow diners in his adoptive New York that Wolfe cannot abide? “I cannot stand the lock-step among everyone in my particular world. They all do the same thing, without variation. It gets so boring. There is something in me that particularly wants it registered that I am not one of them.”

The writer who has most often and most powerfully made the arguments within the establishment but against its preoccupations is Christopher Hitchens, a man who adores contrarians throughout history. This is the man who spends much energy trying to debunk Mother Theresa.

But of course, we think. That has always been true. Insiders are conservative; they affirm the established order, breathe its ideas as if they were air and ingest them without thinking. One of the great insights of Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity was that the people who risked themselves and transcended the local bigotry & cowardice of Vichy France were people already marginalized. Their heroism was no less because of this, but it gave them a perspective. Of course, America’s great example is Huck Finn; standing outside society, he sees slavery for what it is. Fussell buried so far in academia may not see the pressure on his Xers, but he does sees Huck as an embodiment of what he wants to praise.

Ophuls’ great documentary helps us understand human nature. It explains some neo-cons and even the stray journalist or academic today. A Republican in the State Department, a neo-conservative in a sociology department, a charismatic journalist – all would be marginalized, aware of their differences, less likely to accept the given wisdom. The neo-cons are a quirky bunch; they may have been a part of the left, but they clearly were not as assimilated. We’ve always valued such marginalization because it leads to contrarian positions – at their best, they lead to theories more original, perspectives more perceptive.

In the end, each of us needs to balance our desire to belong with our sense of what we believe, our emotionally communitarianism with our rational empiricism, our desire to find a comfortable niche with our desire for the stimulating confrontation of opposing arguments. (Personally, I prefer the comfortable but tend to speak impulsively – we all have different ways of managing this balance.) One problem with the lock-step of some of those institutions today is how few other places their members have to go to be affirmed. Cut off from family & place, from religion and the humanist tradition, they have only one another and a few thread-bare ideologies to offer support. No wonder they discipline one another to keep that comfort zone and respond angrily to any questions of those thread-bare ideologies. (Ah, we are questioning their patriotism when we are actually questioning their judgment; Ah, our positions are unworthy because of who we are, where we came from, what we do.)

In a sense, I suspect, people are more willing to stand at the margin if they have other forms of support. When a group of graduate students gathered for discussions hearkening back to the old traditions and using the heretical great books approach, each brought a marker of their marginalization from the culture Fussell describes: one (a University of Chicago product) was a devout Roman Catholic, one the wife of a Greek Orthodox minister, and the third a Mormon. I’m not sure they are politically conservative; they do respect tradition within literature. These people stand on the margins, but are not likely to feel alone. Not, perhaps, of rebellious natures, the paradox of their marginality and their faiths allow them true freedom. But, of course, they are closer to the spirit Fussell finds in X They take their perspectives from the margins and see the world of the liberal arts whole. Today, the rebel is not the successful hippie Fussell wants us to revere; his Xers people the establishment—report for the New York Times and chair departments.

Fussell mocks those who think themselves sophisticated, but he believes a worldly and ironic sophistication characterizes the Xers. But they are (perhaps always were) deeply conventional–their conventions are merely different. To be an Xer requires disburdening oneself of all the passions that drive us and give our lives meaning, all duty-bound commitments. This empties a man no less than does wearing a gray flannel suit to an office on Madison Avenue.

But, we protest, it is human nature to want to fit in. As Noonan observes, Dan Rather “adopted a political philosophy to fit in, to rise. He wanted Mr. Paley’s men to think he was sophisticated.” To the Xer this is marked not by the depth of understanding – of evolution, of foreign policy, of the tax system – but rather by the ability to wield irony against others’ arguments. The cynic’s task is to diss – and he relishes it. Today those truly of the margins bring the passions and beliefs so hastily discarded back into the discussion. Doing so, they put into contrast the willed self-definition – one that chooses coffee, faith, aesthetics, car, and politics to “fit in.” Status is important, but it can be superseded in various ways. And it is never as important as integrity. Again, we remember Franklin, for to worry abut status, as to worry abut money, is to confuse the means with the end. We need respect for who we are and what we do – not for a cynicism accompanied by disencumbrances that threaten our integrity. A society that encourages cynicism is not likely to get productivity, a society that discourages passion will not be able to revive itself.

Sorting out books today, I realized it was Marcel Ophuls and not Max. I’ve changed other passages for clarity or grammar, but this one was from earlier stupidity.

10 thoughts on “The Sorrow & Pity of the Status Hunt”

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  3. Excellent post, Ginny.

    “As Noonan observes, Dan Rather ‘adopted a political philosophy to fit in, to rise. He wanted Mr. Paley’s men to think he was sophisticated.’ To the Xer this is marked not by the depth of understanding – of evolution, of foreign policy, of the tax system – but rather by the ability to wield irony against others’ arguments. The cynic’s task is to diss – and he relishes it.”

    I wonder whether journalists are particularly prone to this, though I’ve seen it a great deal in academe too. Maybe journalists and academics, among others, are particularly vulnerable to this vice because their stock in trade is words. It’s sometimes very easy to mistake glibness for wisdom. When I read in Ginny’s post what I quote above, I couldn’t help remembering an exchange in the great play (and movie) INHERIT THE WIND. Henry Drummond (the Clarence Darrow character) tells E. K. Hornbeck (the H. L. Menken character): “I’m getting tired of you, Hornbeck. You never push a noun against a verb without trying to blow up something.” Drummond then adds: “You poor slob! You’re all alone. When you go to your grave, there won’t be anybody to pull the grass up over your head. Nobody to mourn you. Nobody to give a damn. You’re all alone.” Sort of ironic when a desire to be loved, we might infer, thanks to Ginny’s insights, is what impels Hornbeck’s cynicism.

    (Of course, Hornbeck does retort, with plausibility: “You’re wrong, Henry. You’ll be there. You’re the type. Who else would defend my right to be lonely?”)

  4. “Occupational class depends very largely on doing work for which the consequences of error or failure are distant or remote, or better, invisible, rather than immediately apparent to a superior and thus instantly humiliating to the performer” (48)

    This passage struck me as extremely relevant to the problem of class and political bias in academia. Although academics tend to be liberal, and good departments more liberal still, the bias is especially pronounced in departments of the humanities or softer social sciences.

    Within a university — no matter how leftwing — the harder and more technical the subject, the less monolithic is the hold of leftism. Even at Berkeley, Physics and Economics are likely to have more conservatives and to have liberals who hold positions that would get them labelled as neocons in Art or Lit departments.

    Of course, the residue of liberal bias that remains then points to the important role of conformity. I know many a professor whose stance on most individual issues makes him effectively a Republican, but who always votes Democrat, because he can’t stand to be thought of as one of those Red Staters.

  5. I finished Class wanting to smack Fussell upside the head with his own book. Metaphorically speaking, Fussell is a callow Ivy League undergrad raised by a very conventional and conservative and somewhat distant — though very fond — maiden aunt. He mocks her to his friends, behind her back, congratulating himself on his all-around superior understanding of the world, without ever appreciating that it is her money, her ideas, and her standards which have fitted him to be the sniggering little prick he is.

    I didn’t like BAD, either. It was a diatribe against hype and excess, distinguishing things which are merely bad (McDonald’s food, which is crappy fast food, but doesn’t pretend to be anything else, so it’s OK), from things that are BAD (I don’t remember the specific example, but trendy restaurants with lousy service and mediocre food which nevertheless charge through the nose would be the type of thing he meant). Unfortunately the book, which started out amusing and entertaining, ended up shrill, smug, and entirely too impressed with itself, becoming, in the end, BAD.

  6. “Occupational class depends very largely on doing work for which the consequences of error or failure are distant or remote, or better, invisible”…this is only partly true. Most people would agree that “CEO” and “movie star” are relatively high-status jobs, yet the consequences of failure are usually pretty visible.

    It’s true, though, that trends are in the direction of more emphasis on non-measurable jobs. I suspect that people who have been exposed to years of “self-esteem building,” as defined by today’s public schools, often have egos that are so inflated and fragile that they can’t risk anything that might deflate them.

  7. “Most people would agree that ‘CEO’ and ‘movie star’ are relatively high-status jobs, yet the consequences of failure are usually pretty visible.” I’m not so sure David. A failed CEO is still more likely to get a “golden parachute” than a prison term, and Hollywood producers don’t seem to have lost Angelina Jolie’s phone number yet (more’s the pity).

  8. Scotus…failure isn’t illegal. There’s no reason why a failed CEO should get a prison term unless he did something unlawful. More likely, he just missed his numbers because of bad decisions or just bad luck.

    People who have a lot of emotional investment in their jobs–and that includes most CEOs–usually regard losing them as very painful, regardless of the size of the golden parachute.

  9. David, my reference to prison was an attempt at humor, alluding to such recent events as Enron, Worldcom, and Martha Stewart. As for CEO’s with golden parachutes finding the loss of their positions very painful, to borrow a line from the late showman Liberace, I’m sure they cry all the way to the bank.

  10. Shortly after the above post, A&LDaily linked to Sholto Burns interview of Roger Scruton; the entire rather depressing & introspective discussion focuses on his estrangement. Like the French villagers

    “It could have some role in explaining why I’ve always been a bit outsiderish,” says Roger . . . .”Even when I’m included in a certain circle, or a particular society, I seem to do all the wrong things and arouse hostility straight away.”

    His remarks reinforce the argument above:

    For the most part there’s a kind of cynical scepticism that prevails, and it nourishes itself by attacking people like me. You don’t have to believe anything yourself, but at least you can sharpen your wits on the kinds of things that I say. I’ve become institutionalised as a bogeyman. It would be very damaging to the intellectual world for me to be accepted as something else, because I’ve been incorporated into the scheme of things.

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