Skip to content
April 21, 2009 | 16 Comments

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell

Recommendation: read

When Fussell wrote in 1982 (and published in 1983), he said that acknowledging the class divisions that exist in America exist was poor form and that doing so would likely lead to argument. Florence King writes, “The subject skims across our minds like a hair blown across the face: a constant ticklish irritation, invisible but very much felt.” Class distinctions are as alive as ever and the subject is as taboo now as then—our fierce egalitarian heritage guarantees this—but a certain amount of fun can be had in their study.

We’ll look at changes in the specific indicators that Fussell chose to characterize his class taxonomy, in the fine distinctions between tiers, of which he found three:

Top Center Bottom
1. Top out-of-sight 4. Middle 8. Destitute
2. Upper 5. High Proletarian 9. Bottom out-of-sight
3. Upper Middle 6. Mid-Proletarian
7. Low Proletarian.


Class book cover

Those at the apex never earn their money, nor do inhabitants of the nadir. Both groups are rare and avoid public notice, and are thus difficult to study. Class is only weakly correlated with money. New money separates upper and upper middle from top out-of-sight. The truism “money can’t buy class” explains why high “proles” like actors and pop singers are barred from the upper classes despite their wealth.

Where you lived, in 1982, was a reliable indicator of class. New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, “upstate” New York, Connecticut implied a higher class than those who lived in Los Angeles, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and “Parma, Ohio, a city of 100,000 without a newspaper, bus system, hotel, or map of itself.” These locations have not remained static, as the uppers have discovered the West, at least for their vacation residences.

Like it or not—and we have seen that most do not—Fussell insists appearance matters. The top and bottom tiers are skinnier than those in the middle. The lower the rank, the less likely a man is to wear a jacket. The top tier layers its clothes: shirts over shirts, shirts under or over sweaters, and of course jackets. Softer, earthier or pastel “preppy” colors are preferred, and the clothes, while elegant, are lived in and constructed of natural fibers.

A definitive marker is a purple garment: only proles wear them. Jeans and black outerwear begin at the middle-class, as does the use of polyester (it was Dacron in 1982). Fascinatingly, there is a sociological term called legible clothing; that is, clothes and accessories displaying words or logos. Proles don sweaters that plead, “Ask me about my grandchildren”, or hats and t-shirts carrying advertising for automotive products or sports franchises. The middle-class, anxious to separate itself from those below and desiring to emphasize their aspirations to climb higher, carries tote bags from NPR with Beethoven’s image, t-shirts with university names or logos, and bags touting expensive shops. This hasn’t changed. I regularly see female commuters use Victoria Secret bags as supplementary purses.

Language use, particularly pronunciation, is a firm separator. Fussell enjoys the example patina: those in the top tier emphasize the first syllable; the others stress the second. I imagine straining to hear this word while you are out class watching guarantees a lengthy wait.

Better is the demarcation made by those who use house (top tier) and its alternative home. Proles will say limo, middles limousine, while uppers use car as in, “We’ll need the car at 10, please, Jones.” I think that limo is now the most common usage. Middles talk about traveling and uppers discuss summering.

If a woman does a lot of knitting for family and friends [indicating copious leisure time], chances are she’s upper-middle-class. But if when she finishes a sweater she sews in a little label reading

     Handmade by Gertrude Willis

she’s middle-class. If the label reads

     Hand-crafted by Gertrude Willis

she’s high-prole.

Proles and below drop gs. Upper middles and above avoid euphemism and curse as freely, but more creatively, than proles. It’s the middle-class that is most anxious to appear sophisticated and so routinely “complexifies” and softens its language. They prefer utilize to use and would rather utilize the bathroom than the toilet. A man is an alcoholic or has problems with alcohol and is not a drunk. The more syllables packed into a phrase, the better.

In 1982, there was a greater emphasis on the university one attended. Harvard, Yale, the other Ivies, and Stanford indicated top tier. Attendance there is no longer a perfectly reliable class marker as these schools have significantly expanded their student bodies. However, the choice of school still matters.

The assumption that “a college degree” means something without the college’s being specified is woven so deeply into the American myth that it dies very hard, even when confronted with the facts of the class system and its complicity with the hierarchies of higher learning.

In other words, Fussell says, graduating from Syracuse, Seton Hall, University of Wyoming, or Virginia Tech (“a good basketball school”) indicate middle-class. Those universities, which until recently were colleges, and before that were normal schools or teacher’s colleges, are attended by proles.

Finally, Fussell tires of the traditional segregations and hopes that more people will voluntarily join “class X”, a group which has changed more than any other, and which can best be described as those who live in Ithaca, New York, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, CO, or Park Slope, Brooklyn. Creativity, intelligence, independence, pleasantness, and willingness to engage in “experiments in living” were and still are reliable markers of this group.

In 1982, these folk were not as political as today, where they now comprise the vocal left. An enjoyable test of X-hood is to say to your subject that you noticed something on FOX news. If your listener, who is ordinarily lucid and tolerant, begins an excited, extended rant about that network being “reactionary”, then she is likely an X. More evidence is if she wears a knit skull cap, dresses down, sports an Obama decoration, drives a hybrid, eschews makeup, or boasts of shopping at Whole Foods to buy “organic” food.

Fussell argued that Xers rightly did not give a damn about class distinction, and this is still true but in a different sense. Just as Uppers believe they culturally superior to the upper middles, who are sure of their ascendancy over the middle-class etc., Xers are convinced they are more enlightened than everybody else.

This, then, is the overt reading of Class: a hierarchical strata of semi-permeable class boundaries exists. Escape from a stratum is unlikely: though it is easier to descend than to climb or to become an X. The struggle to better or to differentiate oneself determines most behavior. Not all neatly fit into a slot: for example, engineers of every stripe and physicians exhibit significant cross-class deportment.

Covertly, the work can be called a guide to proper behavior and style. Fussell writes approvingly of top tier demeanor and acerbically of displays by the middle-class and proles. He laments prole drift, which is the (inexorable?) tendency of culture to devolve. He says, for example, Princeton

used to be a great center of wit, but now it’s subject to prole drift…Everything in the modern world drifts prole-ward all the time. Even the better classes have to wait in long lines, the quality of food degenerates, airline seating grows more cramped.

Whether or not cultural decay is true in all areas, as Fussell maintains, prole drift has had vicious consequences in music. You cannot go anywhere today without being aurally assaulted by vile, vesicated music.

Fussell proudly accepts the damning insult of elitist. But he doesn’t want us to interpret the word pejoratively. There are aspects of culture that are better than others. One painting can be superior to another (compare any Caravaggio with your best reproduction of it). A novel by Twain rates higher than one typed by Nora Roberts. Our system of justice is sounder than China’s. What really distinguishes the classes, Fussell says, is the ability to know and acknowledge these distinctions and to aspire to what is better or best.

——————————————

Update: I forgot to tip the hat to Arts & Letters Daily, which last week linked to this article reviewing Fussell’s book.

April 18, 2009 | 37 Comments

The Great Government CO2 Power Grab

The inevitable has happened.

The Obama government has declared CO2—a nutrient required by plants to live, and a gas exhaled with your every breath—a pollutant. Let there be rejoicing in the ranks of activists. Do what we say!

Now, when I say that what occurred was “inevitable” it means that there was nothing anybody could have done to stop the government from doing what it lusted to do.

No facts would have stopped them, no arguments, no evidence, no sober quantifications of uncertainty. This was going to happen as soon as Obama was elected.

Control is what was wanted and control is what was had.

The EPA, an agency of our ever-expanding government, has no direct electoral oversight, by which I mean there is nothing you or I or any ordinary citizen can do to influence any of its actions.

The president can influence it and occasionally rein in its excesses, as can congress indirectly, but we folk are out of the loop.

I say this to make you feel a little better if you are upset at this, unfortunately not unprecedented, move to add more governmental control of our lives. There was nothing you could have done except possibly have voted for McCain—and it’s not clear that that would have helped either.

So this EPA ruling was as natural an occurrence as CO2 being released in the breath of spotted owls in old growth forests.

Again, this was going to happen, it was unstoppable. But, just for the fun of it, I will tell you why it was the wrong thing to do.

Those That Care created this ruling because they are concerned that human-caused changes in climate will be deleterious. There are two components to this belief.

The first is that humans influence the climate. I have said many times that this is trivially true. It is only a question of how much we do so.

So how much of the change in climate is due to us and how much is natural? Nobody knows. No body, not even an international body of climate scientists. There are some guesses, mainly in the form of forecasts that say temperatures will rise dramatically. But those models’ predictions have, so far, been wrong in the sense that they say we should have been hotter than we have been.

But bad models that make wrong or unskillful predictions are certainly not a sufficiently powerful reason to restrain unavoidable bureaucratic zeal coupled to the belief that any change in anything (including climate) is some body‘s fault.

The second component is the most important part, so pay attention. It is the belief—and it is only a belief, a faith—that whatever changes in the climate that occur will be bad changes, or changes that will in some way be harmful to humans.

This is a belief because there is no direct evidence that shows climate change will be deleterious. There are scads of statistical studies that says that if the climate changes and if a laundry list of other conditions hold, then this or that bad thing will happen.

Understand: a changing climate itself is meaningless. The only interesting question is how that changing climate affects humans.

There have been hundreds, thousands, of studies that make guesses of how climate change will influence humans. The conclusions of these studies are statistical, and must be because by definition they are predictions. We have to wait and see whether these predictions are accurate. I can tell you that the level of statistical expertise in these publications has been poor at best and appalling at worst.

There is strong evidence of the investigator effect in these papers, which in these cases translates to an odd desire on the part of researchers to be the first to say how fast we are going to hell in a hand basket. My evidence for this is that there have been almost no studies that show any good thing that can happen in a warmer, more CO2 rich climate, and that it is impossible for there not to be good or helpful effects.

There is a hidden component here. Even if the climate changes significantly because of humans, and even if those changes might be harmful, then we must also believe that it will be impossible to avoid or mitigate the harm. We must believe that humans will not be able to effect a technological or economical solution to the problems we might face.

Now, if and only if all these things are true—if humans do significantly influence climate, and only harmful things can happen in a changed climate, and humans will be too stupid or will have no power to mitigate these harms—then the EPA has done the right thing.

Else it has done the wrong thing, which it obviously has.

April 16, 2009 | 10 Comments

Title IX in Science and Engineering

Your university’s science and engineering programs might be “Titled nined” if Those That Care have their way.

Title IX, or the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act”, is one of those government programs that sounds like a good idea to busybodies: mandate diversity in college sports so that just as many females as males play.

It turns out, in our horrible past, some universities that received federal funding had more males engaged in sports than females. This led to ill feelings on the part of some females who wanted to join intermural competition but found that football was closed to them.

So was born the enlightened legislation Title IX, which more or less says that athletic opportunities by sex must be substantially proportionate to the student enrollment.

All evidence of Title IX “discrimination”, or disproportionality, is statistical. Count up the enrolled males and females, take that ratio, which must equal the ratio of male to female athletes. If these ratios don’t match, the university is guilty of discrimination, and a lawyer somewhere smiles.

Let’s be clear. If disproportionality exists (in favor of males of course), there are two ways to fix it.

  1. Increase the number of females engaged in athletics
  2. Decrease the number of males engaged in athletics

Large, wealthy schools, with fairness in mind, have a go at (1) first. But after a while they, and at a start the smaller schools, opt for (2), because it’s cheaper and easy. (Cut the men’s table tennis funding, for example.) Well, losing a program or two is OK, because universities probably spend too much on athletics anyway.

Now it’s obvious to everybody that more males than females opt for science and engineering degrees—for whatever reason. But it will not be easy to attain proportionality in these fields as it was in sports.

For sports, a college could create a new program, say volleyball for females, where none existed before, thus boosting the number of females in line with option (1).

But this ploy can’t be done in science and engineering because there is no way to create a new chemistry. Unless, for example—and I hesitate to prophecy—“feminist chemistry” is defined to be “science”. (Postmodernist humanities programs had a go at these kinds of redefinitions, but their investigations appear to be on the wane.)

You can’t force matriculating females to select science and engineering as a major. But you can limit the enrollment of males.

Most universities probably—but only probably—won’t be as daring as to say “No more males in mathematics!” But they will be able to, for example, cut the meteorology program, or limit enrollment of males in electrical engineering.

I’d prefer that, if forced to by law, universities opt for method (1) and redefine science and engineering. Call English “the systematic and scientific study of literature.” Such a move would probably not only balance the proportion of males to females in “science”, but even boost it in females’ favor.

Who cares what is called “science”? It’s just a label, and often a misleading one. You often read “the science shows this” and “the science shows that.” “Science” doesn’t show anything, and can’t. A physicist might create a useful, predictive model, or a mathematician might prove a theorem, or a biologist might show what happens when organism A meets chemical B.

But those are just facts of a similar nature gathered under a description. Odd thing is that the description gets the credit, “science” is what is said to cause the results. Far better to let the facts and the people that discovered them get the credit.

So call the study of how to shelve and catalog books “science” and Those That Care can go on to care about something else.

April 15, 2009 | 2 Comments

Go, Bird, go!

Mark Fidrych You’ve all heard it by now. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych is dead. He was 54.

There are plenty of places to read about The Bird, like here and especially here.

I remember watching him when I was a kid, in that glorious bicentennial summer of 1976, back in old Tiger Stadium—at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull (which, incidentally, used to be called Briggs Stadium; family lore has it that the namesake was a relative gone bad).

Bird was the Young Phenom whose career ended like most other Phenoms: too early. Anyway, Fidrych was paid a whopping $16,500 in his all-star year. Not bad back then, but not great either.

My mother used to see him at an annual Winter Special Olympics fundraiser (she retired from Michigan SO). The Wertz Warriors (named for another all-star Tiger) gather in Traverse City and have a snowmobile parade to kick off the winter events. Fidrych was always invited and would show up in, according to my dad, a “silvery colored, flimsy, cruddy old snowmobile suit.” The Warriors felt bad for Fidrych and chipped in and bought him a new one.

Fidrych, who lived in The People’s Republic of Massachusetts, was never away from Detroit for long. Every now and then he’d pop up in the Tiger’s announcer’s booth wearing a Hawaiian shirt and say a few words. He was always grateful to be there, still amazed that the fans loved him.

We’ll miss you, Bird.