Tuesday, June 07, 2005

All classed up and nowhere to go [About NYT's Class Matters]

All classed up and nowhere to go

The New York Times goes slumming: How the paper’s allegiance to the ruling elite distorts its look at class in America

June 3 - 9, 2005

The Boston Phoenix

AT FIRST GLANCE, "Class Matters" — the New York Times’ epic inquiry into the widening economic divisions of the new millennium — appears to be what its editors solemnly claim: a well-intentioned effort to reckon with a serious social condition, one that notoriously eludes clear understanding in America, so long hymned as the planet’s pre-eminent land of opportunity. Alas, however, the New York Times is in no position to deliver. In contrast to, say, the paper’s conscientious reporting on the ’60s-era civil-rights movement in the South, its foray into class consciousness suffers from a fatal flaw. Social class is at the core of the Times’ institutional identity, which prevents the paper from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching discussion the subject demands.
Even as the paper takes hits for its alleged liberal bias, it retains a supremely undeviating affinity for the cultural habits of the rich and celebrated — most obviously in its Sunday Vows section, which features short celebratory biographies of newly consummated mateships from the overclass. The Sunday Styles section — along with the Home and Dining sections, the T: Style magazine, and the recently added Thursday Styles — delivers breathless dispatches on the mores, tastes, status worries, and modes of pecuniary display favored by the coming generation of anxious downtown arrivistes.
So the many installments of "Class Matters" — a now nearly completed work in progress — come across less like an authoritative exercise in social criticism than like an oddly anxious series of Tourette’s-style asides, desperately sidestepping the core economic inequities that the Times can never quite afford to mention outright. Getting the New York Times to explain the real operation of social class in America is, at the end of the day, a lot like granting your parents exclusive license to explain sex to you: there are simply far too many conflicts that run far too deep to result in any reliable account of how the thing works.
YOU CAN SEE the trouble early on, in what serves as the series’s mission statement: the pledge, in the May 15 first-installment "Overview" piece by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, that they will chart the way "class influences destiny in America."
For most people on the receiving end of class prerogatives in this country — unskilled service workers who find it all but illegal to form unions, say, or poor black voters in Ohio and Florida — there’s no "influences" about it: class is destiny in America, delimiting access to basic social benefits like health care, education, job training, and affordable housing. Yet for all sorts of painfully self-evident institutional reasons, the New York Times can’t afford to approach a subject this potent in a straightforward fashion.
Instead Scott and Leonhardt marshal their readers through a leisurely tour of hoary American social mythology. America, they purr, "has gone a long way toward the appearance of classlessness" — meaning, one supposes, that the downwardly mobile middle classes are actually thriving on the appearance of being in possession of wealth and disposable income, as though, by analogy, it would have been perfectly acceptable to report design upgrades in segregated Southern drinking fountains as a meaningful advance for black civil rights. "Social diversity," they explain, "has erased many of the markers" separating the country’s haves from the have-nots. Yet they fail to recognize that a more socially diverse ruling class remains a ruling class, after all — an uncomfortable truth easily overlooked when one is writing for an influential organ of said ruling class.
Not surprisingly, then, the closer Scott and Leonhardt circle toward the heart of the matter — how some Americans leverage social advantage into greater wealth and privilege, and how many, many more have seen wealth, educational opportunity, disposable income, and job security stagnate or decline while household debt and health-care costs soar — the more ungainly and vague everything becomes. Still, Scott and Leonhardt are forced to concede a stubborn social fact: "Americans are arguably more likely than they were 30 years ago to end up in the same class into which they were born."
Here the dogged reader is at last primed to reckon with a sharp point of analytical departure: the storied American Dream of social mobility across generations appears to be stalled. Instead, however, the authors lurch into more bootless mythmaking: "Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege.... But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education, and connections cultivate in their children the habits the meritocracy rewards."
Well, no. Parents with connections, education, and money place their considerable resources directly at their offspring’s disposal. What results has everything to do with openly legible lines of power, and very nearly nothing to do with the cultivation of meritocracy-pleasing behavioral "habits" — as any cursory glance at the Oval Office’s present occupant or the cast of The Simple Life will instantly confirm.
Meritocracy is an especially obtrusive and unstable term here, since neither Scott nor Leonhardt — nor scarcely any uncritical champion of meritocracy in our time — pauses to note the original meaning of the term. The concept of meritocracy first surfaced in a 1958 satirical political novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, by old-line British socialist Michael Young. Young’s coinage was not intended to describe a system of impartial upward advancement, but rather the diametric opposite: a dystopian social order wherein bureaucratic rank outstripped wealth and title as the measure of human advancement. The irony in Young’s book, of course, was that the egalitarian nomenclature of this brave new order — of which the word meritocracy was itself a prime example — masked a system of spoils and rewards that was fast becoming much less fair and balanced than the old British class society it was thought to have supplanted. Only in America — or more precisely, only in the A section of the New York Times — could a bitter term of Old World satire gain traction as a straight-faced descriptor of a sunny status quo.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, the twinned notions of Right Conduct and Meritocratic Worth have shaped every subsequent installment of "Class Matters." The first reported piece, by the redoubtable Janny Scott, explores the consequences of unequal access to quality health care, by reconstructing three heart-attack cases — affecting, in socially descending order, a well-heeled architect, an electric-company office worker, and an immigrant Polish maid. This comparative exercise does a pretty good job — how could it not? — of showing what happens when the basic right to critical health care is submitted to the market’s less-than-tender mercies.
Until, that is, Scott joins the hapless maid on a grocery-shopping junket and loses all patience: "Cruising the 99 Cent Wonder store in [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg, where the freezers were filled with products like Budget Gourmet Rigatoni with Cream Sauce, [the maid, Ms. Gora] pulled down a small package of pistachios: two and a half servings, 13 grams of fat per serving. ‘I can eat five of these,’ she confessed, ignoring the nutrition label. Not servings. Bags."
Not servings, people! Bags! When Times scribes are reduced to sentence fragments, you know their patrician forbearance is running dangerously low. And how can you blame them, considering that the pistachio episode follows a sobering litany of other trespasses? When first stricken with her heart attack, Gora dismissed her husband’s suggestion that she was seriously ill and needed an ambulance, and instead tried to collect herself with a glass of vodka; against explicit doctors’ advice, she sneaks cigarettes and doughnuts, and even clips a cockamamie diet from a Polish magazine that permits her to eat generous portions of fried food and steak. And so Scott’s telltale moment of exasperation carries an unmistakable subtext: There’s just nothing to be done with these people. Never mind that Gora’s behavior suggests that she is also suffering an extended, and completely understandable, bout of depression — an all-too-common health affliction among the working poor. Why extend anything like universally available health care to a group of people so willfully perverse?

Likewise, the next series installment, on marriage and class, completely neglects the subject抯 most historically significant recent development: how more affluent mates postpone marriage and childrearing through what抯 known euphemistically as "assortative mating" (i.e., the sort of closely vetted, intraclass pairings of the privileged featured every week in the Vows section of the Times), versus the considerable pressures within poor communities to marry early and procreate often. Instead, the main dispatch by Times reporter Tamar Lewin sets up elaborate social quandaries better suited to a Victorian novel than to 21st-century American life. It describes the course of a second marriage for both partners that抯 taken them beyond the reach of their familiar social stations: wife Cate Woolner is a rich heiress, husband Dan Croteau is a working-class car salesman. It抯 hard to suss out just what the social lesson of such a plainly atypical union is supposed to be. Apart, that is, from the manifest truth that, left to their own devices, the rich will always raise the most irritating children on earth ("[Woolner抯 son] Isaac fantasizes about opening a brewery-cum-performance space, traveling through South America, or operating a sunset massage cruise on the Caribbean").
By Sunday, May 22抯 entry, a piece by Laurie Goodstein and David Kirkpatrick on the evangelical mission called the Christian Union, which is targeting the Ivy League elite, the Times reverts to full-on barbarians-at-the-gates-style culture alarmism. The piece is not even, in any clear way, about social class (at least not the destiny-inhibiting type adumbrated in the series抯 mission statement), since Matt Bennett, the principal force behind the Christian Union, is heir to a Dallas-based hotel empire, and the one quasi-needy case in the piece, a sophomore missionary at Brown named Tim Havens, rather inconveniently declares himself pre-med by the story抯 end. And what is clearly meant to be a spit-take moment for Sunday-morning Times coffee drinkers ?Bennett抯 claim that God came to him in a vision and "was speaking to me very strongly that he wanted to see an increasing and dramatic spiritual revival in a place like Princeton" ?actually makes a good deal of sense when one recalls (as Kirkpatrick and Goodstein apparently do not) that Princeton was the intellectual capital of American fundamentalist theology in the early part of the last century. The reporters do mention briefly that most Ivy League schools in fact began life as "expressly Christian," but dwelling too long on such facts would clearly contradict the piece抯 half-baked social premise: that newer, and traditionally down-market, evangelical faiths are now storming the citadels of American intellectual privilege.
For May 24抯 installment ?the midpoint entry in the series ?Leonhardt offers a predictably baffled piece on the most perverse of working-class mores: the refusal to attend college for full four-year terms. Leonhardt telescopes this chilling trend through the saga of Andy Blevins, a 29-year-old produce buyer for a big-box retail warehouse in small-town rural Virginia. Blevins dropped out after his freshman year at Radford University; he plans to return to school part-time, though, in order to earn a degree and teaching credentials in elementary education, even though the vast majority of returning college dropouts never complete their degrees. The overall high failure and dropout rates among America抯 poor and working class admit to no "simple answer," Leonhardt writes. There is, to be sure, the vulgar question of money, he notes. Tuitions that routinely outstrip the rate of inflation, and the specter of contracting long-term five- or six-figure loans, are strong, sobering deterrents.
For Leonhardt, however, economic inequality can provide only a glancing explanation of class inequities ?culture has to be where the real action is. After ticking off the formidable financial obstacles posed by higher education, Leonhardt primly announces that "the deterrents to a [college] degree can also be homegrown. Many low-income teenagers know few people who have made it through college. A majority of the non-graduates are young men, and some come from towns where the factory work ethic, to get working as soon as possible, remains strong, even if the factories themselves are vanishing. Whatever the reason, college just does not feel normal." It抯 worth noting that such cultural delicacy did not seem to prevent FDR from signing the GI Bill into law, thereby dispatching the largest-ever contingent of working-class American men to elite university campuses. There was little apparent fuss about how these entering students processed their unfamiliar cultural surroundings, once the federal government brought tuition costs into reasonable alignment with their living standards.
Nonetheless, the paper of record, with its condescending cultural exoticism, once again dwells lovingly on behavior and culture rather than on cold economic facts. Leonhardt mentions the gruesome inequity that, thanks to the Bush administration抯 recent cuts to the Pell-grant program, "high-income students, on average, actually get slightly more financial aid than low-income students." But apart from some vague discussion of the emerging vogue for need-conscious class-based affirmative action, he can抰 connect the obvious dots here: that without universal, federally funded support, the prospect of a full tour in the world of higher education ranks somewhere alongside winning the lottery in the pantheon of plausible working-class life outcomes.
Instead, Leonhardt frets on and on about the boneheaded call the 19-year-old Blevins made when he dropped out, and the extreme unlikelihood, despite the guy抯 professed best intentions, that any good will come of his pitiful bid to reinvent himself. And should the wall-eyed voyeurism of the piece leave any doubt, the front-page photo speaks volumes: it shows Blevins indolently sprawled on his living-room sofa, gaping at a football game on TV, while keeping a bottle shoved in the gullet of his three-year-old son, Luke, whose head dangles perilously over the edge of the couch. This, the casual reader is urged to conclude, is just the sort of layabout behavioral pathology that keeps working-class families from achieving serious upward mobility. Yet the text makes clear that Blevins doesn抰 have a great deal of time to devote to semiconscious gridiron gawking, since he routinely works six-day weeks, at shifts of 10 hours or more. This image, like most feature subjects in "Class Matters," seems clearly intended to trigger a quiet shudder of patrician thanksgiving that Times readers really do not go there but for the grace of God.
SUBSEQUENT SERIES installments perform the same reassuring alchemy, transmuting the raw stuff of material deprivation into judiciously arm抯-length cultural perplexity. A May 25 dispatch on immigrant-laborer tensions at Uma Thurman抯 favorite diner trails off into puzzlement over how immigrant managers resist unionization of other immigrant workers in their employ. (Don抰 they know that social diversity abolishes class distinction? That a Greek restaurant owner is supposed to embrace his Latino busboys and waitstaff in a gorgeous mosaic of service-economy unity?) Another blowout Sunday entry, on May 29, found the Times returning with palpable relief to a subject on which it wields genuine authority: how and why luxury shopping is failing to perfectly mirror hard-core American socioeconomic divisions. Jennifer Steinhauer registers the perfect ruffled tone of disbelief as she reports on the decline of true luxury consumption in America, as more middle-class people get into deeper debt to make high-end purchases like cruises and designer chocolates. For a paper that routinely lavishes acres of adoring prose on the shopping preferences of the fabulously well-to-do, this sort of news has roughly the same effect that Andres Serrano抯 Piss Christ photograph exercised on the Catholic League: "Rising incomes, flattening prices, and easily available credit have given so many Americans access to such a wide array of high-end goods that traditional markers of status have lost much of their meanings." For devout Times scribes, this, truly, is the world turned upside down. An unintentionally hilarious graphic accompanying the main body of the piece ?"Swells and Ne抏r-Do-Wells: A Class Timeline" ?echoes the same clear longing for the snappy, superficial navigation of social distinction. Here is one of its final bullet points: "1989: The Berlin Wall falls. Marxism抯 vision of a classless society is out; global capitalism is in."
There you have it: a watershed moment in modern democratic revolution worded in the style of an America Idol ballot. Don抰 dare remind our glib Times editors that Marx himself foresaw the triumph of global capitalism as the precursor to his vision of a classless society. They抮e telling you what抯 in, and there could be no more fitting final word on the subject from a journalistic oracle of the Times?stature ?except, that is, to turn from all this messy, unresolved class nastiness to the crisp and clean business-as-usual digests in the Sunday抯 Vows column.

Chris Lehman is a writer based in Washington, DC, and author of Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm, 2003). He can be reached at lehmannchris@mac.com


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