There’s plenty going on with conservatives in D.C. — like their attempt to portray Donald Trump Jr.’s Russian escapades as a youthful indiscretion, rather than as conspiracy in furtherance of a crime — but sometimes a smaller story can give us a better view of the bigger picture. Case in point: a dumb New York Times column about class distinctions and the reason conservatives defended it.
Last week, the Times’ David Brooks wrote a column called “How We Are Ruining America.” By “we” he meant the “upper middle class” — which he did not define, as it’s gauche in Brooks’s circle to discuss money, especially when doing sociology. Rather, he described the upper-middle as an “educated class” that had “created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible.”
Did Brooks mean redlining? The downward pressure of the sharing economy? Don’t be vulgar. He elaborated with a bizarre anecdote about taking “a friend with only a high school degree” to lunch at a gourmet sandwich shop: “Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo, and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.”
“Cultural signifiers” such as the names of Italian deli meats, Brooks went on to say, keep poor people from advancing because “they play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion.” Educated people also repel class invaders, he claimed, by requiring that new entrants “understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine, and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms, and intersectionality.”
Thus in Brooks’s view do the New Toffs exclude people who don’t know whether Infinite Jest is the shit or de trop, or what the hot new terms for the sufferings of minorities are — sort of the way old English aristos used to keep the riffraff out with their complicated salad forks and soup spoons, before they got sound cannons.
Brooks was merrily roasted alive in several internet outlets, mostly for the huh-what nature of his sandwich shop scene. And some rightbloggers were down on Brooks, too, for implying people with money owed anything to people without. “According to Brooks, however, the upper middle class has now become exclusionary,” fumed Ben Shapiro at the Daily Wire. “How so?”
But many top conservatives rushed to Brooks’s defense — and, almost uniformly, they agreed that money wasn’t the issue, snooty liberals were.
“I wonder how many people are snarking at Brooks to avoid grappling with his point,” mused Erick Erickson at the Resurgent. “Increasingly, I see the people who shape and report the news and those most fixated with it living lives far removed from the struggles many Americans face. Not only are their lives far removed, but they themselves are far removed. They have an upward mobility that poorer Americans do not have.” (Unlike Erick Erickson and his many heroes in Congress, who may have a lot of money, but they sure don’t take barre classes!)
Worse, added Erickson, these edumacated liberals “push government policies that they think help the poor, but often hurt the poor” — just like their forebears, the Limousine Liberals of the 1960s. “Expansion of Medicaid,” he added, “is one such issue.” If liberals were in touch with the working class like Erickson, they’d see “how few doctors accept [Medicaid] and the poor care given in the program,” and would agree with him that we should just get rid of it — despite what polls suggest the actual Salt of the Earth think. (Maybe they’re too confused by the big words in pollster surveys to say how they really feel. Another invisible barrier!)
Theoscold Rod Dreher penned not one but two columns defending Brooks. “This, by the way, is why I have a very short fuse for front-row pretenses to ‘diversity,’ which are usually only skin deep,” he wrote in one. “The white man who only has a high school education, and who lives in a trailer park on the outskirts of Bunkie, La., will never enjoy the privilege of, say, Jerelyn Luther, the black Yale student whose name lives in deserved infamy as Shrieking Girl.” White people can’t get a break, at least in this no doubt representative example.
To make sure everyone was getting the point, Dreher updated his post with one of his patented reader mailbag tales, this one about a “wealthy, prominent lawyer and poet in a cosmopolitan area,” a silly liberal who “cooed” over a Nepalese fellow until “she realized he was Christian,” at which point “her face dropped in ruined hopes and she walked away bored. His value as an exotic artifact to stimulate her enjoyment of her love of diversity was shattered.” Hey hey hey, it happened just that way!
Dreher’s column also contained our Sentence of the Week: “The soppressata sandwich is a condensed symbol — shorthand for an entire worldview.”
Megan McArdle of Bloomberg, offended by the flak Brooks was taking, demanded on Twitter to know “how many of you have taken a genuine working class person to lunch?” This spurred further mockery, requiring McArdle to sputter in her own defense on an episode of the Federalist podcast.
“Picture two women living next door to each other, both single mothers in San Francisco in 1973, having a baby,” McArdle said. “And each of them has a baby, and one of those mothers is a Salvadoran immigrant refugee, the other one is hippie who has become pregnant by one of the ninety men she’s been hanging out with in her commune for the last, right [laughs]? But she’s settled down, found herself a rent-controlled apartment, gonna raise the kid. Now let’s sort of follow their lives, say both have near-poverty incomes, kind of floating around the poverty line, a little above it — hippie woman is making macrame or whatever [laughs]…maybe she did a few too many drugs in the commune…”
Cutting to the chase: The macrame hippie slut’s father is a doctor, revealed McArdle, but even if her parents and grandparents refused to contribute to the kid’s upkeep, her kid would easily get into college (while the Salvadoran kid presumably wouldn’t) because the kid has “certain expectations about going to college” and “knows how the system works…all this incredibly subtle stuff about how you self-present,” etc.
Incredibly subtle indeed. The hippie’s kid has “social capital,” McArdle explained, and “social capital helps you get financial capital” — which is the exact opposite of what McArdle argued a few years earlier at AEI, but never mind. What it sounds like she was actually describing is not social capital but complexion capital — unlike the Salvadoran woman, the drug-addled hippie is almost certainly white (I don’t think even McArdle would have the nerve to posit a nymphomaniac black hippie chick, nor to imagine her son’s “knowing how the system works” would lead to his success), which is why anyone would imagine her son winning that matchup.
In fact, Brooks and his defenders generally avoided any overt mention of race as a factor in income inequality. As for other self-evident causes, Brooks did mention “housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities,” but attributed them to places “well-educated people tend to live” such as “Portland, New York, and San Francisco” — a super-obvious way of saying that it’s liberal cities that keep their poor down (and picked up by rightbloggers such as the Resurgent’s Marc Giller: “I thought Democrats were supposed to be for the little guy”). That such patterns are at least as clear in, say, St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, didn’t come up even as an afterthought.
If the idea that liberal snobbery oppresses the needful seems farfetched to you, you haven’t been keeping up. Once upon a time, propagandists had to take care not to go too far — one couldn’t, for example, suggest that it was cool for government officials to collude with a hostile foreign government, or that the president should be congratulated for making an exception to his own Muslim ban for PR purposes. Well, those days are gone. Now that even the obvious can be denied, why not tell people that income inequality is caused not by wealth concentration and racial prejudice, but by sexually promiscuous hippies holding down the poor with the soppressata signifier, the post-modern novelist, and the Pilates reformer? Half the voters in America stopped believing their lying eyes long ago.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 17, 2017