What the fuck is wrong with people?
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into 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 [Ed. I have no idea what any of these things are]. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
The writer here is New York Times Columnist David Brooks, who originally wrote the article “How We Are Ruining America”–an article decrying the idea that the upper-middle class is destroying America by, well, as far as I can figure, raising their children correctly.
But let me stop right here.
What the fuck, dude? What the bloody fuck?
Okay, some context. My earliest memories are of living in Fresno; I really have no memories of the other towns my parents lived in until we came to Fresno when I was very young. And when my parents first moved to Fresno we were in the lower-middle class: we weren’t poor–in that I do not recall any interactions with government agencies involving things like food stamps and the like.
One of my first memories was of a small get together with people in the back yard near the apartment complex where my parents lived near the Fresno Fair Grounds. (I don’t remember if the apartment had the yard or if it was at a neighbors.) I remember when my parents bought their first house–and had to make major repairs by digging up a big chunk of the front yard. My father borrowed the down payment on the house–a fact he told us was a secret, since we were supposed to save up the down payment–but I’m sure the statute of limitations has passed.
Over my life, from my first memories, we moved up from the lower-middle class through the middle class to the upper middle class. I would later attend Caltech, and with my parent’s help, I started my life on a solid upward trajectory that never included the lower-middle class. And I remember as my mother got into the home construction business–first starting by helping with “fire jobs”: drawing plans for houses damaged in fire, to moving on designing multi-million dollar custom homes, I remember being around people with serious amounts of money.
I point this out to point out a couple of things.
Having lived my own life from my earliest memories in a wide variety of socio-economic situations, I’ve seen people like Mr. Brooks in person more often than I like. I remember attending a gathering of local Fresno politicians my brother was invited to; I remember meeting local Democratic politicians, so called “champions of the poor”, crack racist jokes and look uncomfortable around “those people”–the ones who happened to have darker skin than they. I know too many liberals (and some conservatives–but liberals hold themselves to a “higher standard”) who would run scared from a back-yard family gathering of Mexican-Americans playing loud music and banging around piñatas as small children run hither and fro. I know too many people who freaked out when I decided to walk the length of Los Angeles’ “Skid Row” so I could see how the homeless were living with my own eyes.
I’ve encountered people who are inadvertently racist and sexist and worst: classist–believing that socio-economic class was somehow ingrained, almost genetic, rather than simply a lack of experience and an opportunity for education or learning.
“I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.”
This is the one-sentence equivalent to something that happened with my wife and I when we visited Pasadena, Texas: we were young, and at the time I had long hair, my wife as going through a Goth phase, and we were visiting extended family for a wedding in Texas. We stopped to eat at a Denny’s.
The waitress at the Denny’s took one look at us, and sat us with the black people.
Another one sentence statement which pretty much sums up Pasadena, Texas twenty years ago in my mind. That we were scruffy enough we needed to be segregated from the other, more “polite” customers–so they moved us to where they were segregating the black people–that is just half the problem. The other half is that they were segregating black people away from the others.
And Mr. Brooks’ revelation here? That his lower-class friend was uncomfortable that he took her to an upper-class place, and in his “class sensitivity” took his uncomfortable friend to a lower-class restaurant instead.
Let’s kick this dead horse one more time before I launch into my greater rant here.
The problem is not that his friend was unfamiliar with the menu. Hell, I have no idea what the items on the menu are–so I’d go up to the counter and ask. If the minimum wage + 3 bearded hipster cuts me attitude (as sometimes happens), I’d get snappish, maybe throw in a “fuck you”, and act accordingly. Because rude is rude. Snobbish is just rude mixed with an attitude of superiority. And in my long experience sliding up the socio-economic ladder, if you act superior, it’s because you are not superior.
(Superiority is self-evident. If you have to act in a way which announces your superiority, it’s because you are not superior. You’re an asshole with an inferiority complex.)
The problem is not that he then later suggested Mexican food. Hell, I love Mexican food–especially authentic Mexican cuisine made by a family recently moved from the old country and who know that good Mexican cuisine isn’t all about tacos and burritos. (Though tacos rule.)
The problem is the classist assholery of David Brooks’ presumption that his friend’s lack of familiarity with the menu was a sign of his friend’s lower-class upbringing, one that could be rectified by taking her to a more comfortable lower-class surrounding. He describes it as if he accidentally took a wrong turn and wound up at his private country club restaurant, then discovered she could not be admitted because her shoes were from K-Mart and not from Saks Fifth Avenue.
There is nothing wrong, by the way, with going into a restaurant, looking around, and asking your friend “is this okay? If not I know a good little place down the street.” That’s all about options; perhaps your friend doesn’t want a sandwich and really craves a chili relleno.
But turning this into an upper class/lower class morality play?
What. The. Actual. Fuck?
Let’s launch into the bulk of the original essay. I promise not to bore you too much.
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”
“You are not welcome here.”
Was it that his friend was not welcomed by the hipster sandwich shop?
Or was it David Brooks’ own belief, that his friend was not welcome, that caused him to enforce a perceived classist segregation?
Was it the hipster sandwich shop that made his friend sit with the black people? Or was it David Brooks?
And let’s parse an implication of the second:
Brooks has his own take on why economically integrated neighborhoods aren’t a panacea. He argues that lower class folk won’t “feel at home in opportunity-rich areas” because “the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.”
Yet we have Brooks actually promoting this segregation, by deciding to take his friend away from a restaurant where she may have the opportunity to learn and possess the “rarefied information” of how to order an “upper-middle class” hipster sandwich.
Who is the gate keeper here?
And if we do what Brooks implies:
The solution, implied by Brooks and embraced by the left, is government action to bring poor people into affluent neighborhoods — AFFH, and all that. But is this really a solution?
Will they learn and become upper-middle class themselves? Will the unknown pathogen of upper-middle class success take root?
Or will the poor starve to death, fixated by menus full of dry salamis, cured pork and small white bread rolls in the same way deer are fixated by headlights before being run over by a truck?
Look, I’m being sarcastic as fuck here, but it’s David Brooks’ world; we just live in it.
Of course the real problem is that David Brooks is conflating the cultural attitudes which provide success in today’s culture–the desire to work hard, the ability to work in the face of opposition, the desire to engage in continuous life-long learning that benefits your career–with supposed upper-class signifiers, such as the ability to order Italian salami on toast with cheese.
And in conflating winning behavior codes with meaningless signifiers that David Brooks reads as markers of success (such as knowing how to order food at a hipster sandwich shop, knowledge he was unwilling to impart on his presumably lower-class female friend), he reduces the markers of success: working hard, learning, working well with others into a meaningless display of feathers, or into a badge flashed at the entrance of a “white’s only” country club.
We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!
From his essay, it’s pretty clear I would never want to meet David Brooks in person.
He strikes me as a stuffy and arrogant asshole whose head is so far up his own asshole he thinks his farts smell good.
I find such people useless.
And needlessly “superior”, which, as I pointed out above, is the surest sign that you are not actually superior.