Tuesday, July 11, 2017

David Brooks' latest column on class in America is typical of his keen social insight, but perhaps most interesting for what it tactfully omits, rather than what it actually says.  Most of the attention has focused on his discussion of the cultural signals that upper-middle-class Americans use to identify themselves--and thus, implicitly, to exclude everyone else--in both social and workplace contexts.  But the column actually begins with a look at how hard America's elite class works to pass its status on to its children, particularly by pouring enormous resources into education.

And that's where the tactful elision comes in.  Historically, aristocracies have always constructed elaborate systems of social signals to distinguish themselves from commoners, for a simple reason:  such signals are far easier to pass on to descendants reliably than the kinds of traits--intelligence, talent, discipline, diligence--that would allow those children to attain elite status based on merit alone.  Consider accent, for instance--long at the core of the British class system's social sorting process.  The most worthless wastrel can be taught a posh accent simply by being raised among others speaking in it, while only a few talented mimics are capable of overcoming a childhood steeped in lower-class argot.  Americans, as it happens, aren't nearly as attuned as the British to the subtleties of speech--most Americans can't pinpoint a countryman's place of birth more precisely than, say, "South" or "not South", let alone his social status, by listening to his accent.  So members of the American elite instead instill class markers in their children based on domains they're more deeply immersed in:  pop culture and politics.

Of course, America's upper-middle class thinks of itself as meritocratic--college-educated, industrious, talented and ambitious.  And that was largely true of the high achievers of the postwar and baby-boom generations, most of whom climbed the ladder of success on their own merits.  But much of today's upper-middle class is third- or fourth-generation, and regression to the mean is an awfully hard trend to combat, even with the best schools and neighborhoods.  And that's why this aristocracy, like the ones before it, is--as Brooks deftly observes--forced to fall back on cultural signals, rather than truly admirable traits, as its class markers.

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