What can be said about a snobby man who alienates the riffraff worried that other people’s snobbiness is alienating the riffraff? David Brooks stumbled around in an article yesterday talking about social capital and how it’s wielded to keep those of the lower classes alienated from those of the upper classes. His article was a giggle-worthy exercise in obliviousness. He said this:
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. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
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.”
Wow. There’s a lot to unpack there. Why do I get the impression that David Brooks is trying hard to fit in with the Important People? Every post like this screams insecurity and encapsulates the problem that Brooks claims worry him. He reminds me of the Pharisee written about in Luke 9:
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector.’
David Brooks wonders how to help those people who just don’t understand Italian Deli Meats. Thank God, he isn’t one of them. Remember his soliloquy about Obama’s amazing graces? You can read it all here. The righteous, better people.
Rather than make fun of Brooks’ cherished and questionable elitism [Brad Slager did it better anyway], let’s take the social capital conundrum seriously. What can be done to solve a problem like David Brooks who uses language and behavioral norms to separate himself from the hoi polloi? Brooks’ elite heart was pricked after reading the work of Richard Reeves which decries the “structural ways the well educated rig the system.” This is true. There are a myriad ways guys like David Brooks, who are often of the credentialed class, rig the system:
Government incentives separate the classes and make life more difficult for people trying to move up. It’s a leftist impulse and it’s intentional, but always under the guise of “the environment” or “for the children” or some such.
Speaking of the government, what about primary education? Are parents free to choose a school that will help them be upwardly mobile? What’s that? No? So children are stuck in failing schools and parents can’t move them where they’ll succeed.
What about parenting? Middle class people tend to talk to their children more. They tend to be married. They intervene more. Annette Lareau calls this “concerted cultivation.” This phenomenon can only occur if a parent has the time and resources to help his child.
Being parented by a mother who is stressed and must rely on family, friends and neighbors to mind the kids is another thing altogether. Regardless of socioeconomic class, a child of divorce will be less likely to go to an elite college. After going through the process with my child, one reason is that it’s nearly a full-time job filling out the paperwork and navigating this labyrinthine system. It is arduous, technical, and mystifying. But it’s that way because, like all bureaucracies, colleges rely on government money and the layers of regulations cost money. There’s that pesky government again.
There is human nature to consider. People like the things and groups and people they like. They might prefer McDonald’s to Italian sausage. Choice. Freedom and all that.
A kid might not want to go to an elite college. A friend of a friend admitted feeling uncomfortable that her son had decided to get certified in welding and forgo college. He was excited and had business lined up. The social pressure was college attendance above all else.
Conversely, a kid from a working-class background may feel like he’s betraying his socioeconomic status if he decides to try to step up and out. There’s many a rap lyric about leaving the hood behind, or more likely, explaining why he will always be of and from and in the hood. There’s a great scene in the movie (snobby iteration “film”) Good Will Hunting where Will talks about the nobility of being a bricklayer and why going into academia isn’t desirable even though he’s a genius. His best friend Chuckie will have none of it:
Will: “Gonna be a f–kin’ lab rat.”
Chuckie: “Better than this s–t. Way outta here.”
“What I want a way outta here for? I mean, I’m uh gonna live here for the rest of my f–kin’ life. You know. Be neighbors, you know. We’ll have little kids. F–kin’ take them to Little League together up at Foley Field.”
“Look, you’re my best friend so don’t take this the wrong way, but in twenty years if you’re still living here comin’ over to my house watching the Patriots’ games, still working construction, I’ll f–kin’ kill ya. That’s not a threat, that’s a fact.”
“What the f–k are you talkin’ about?”
“You got somethin’ none of us has.”
“Oh come on, why is it always you owe it to yourself to do this or that. What if I don’t want to?”
“No. No, naw, no, f–k you! You don’t owe it to yourself, you owe it to me. ’Cuz tomorrow I’m going to wake up and I’m gonna be fifty and I’ll still be doing this s–t and that’s alright, that’s fine. But you’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in and that’s bulls–t ‘cuz I’d do f–king anything to have what you got. So would any of these f–king guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years.”
But that’s the Hollywood version. Often, children who lack social capital like Will who was beaten by his real dad, orphaned and then beaten by a series of foster parents, don’t have that one person encouraging them to use talents and push into an uncomfortable social situation. Perhaps the people surrounding that child don’t see the need to get out. Why get out from something that’s good enough? Why risk feeling uncomfortable?
What are the solutions to government, educational, and familial systems rigged against a person wanting upward mobility?
Regarding the latter, my goodness. Megan McArdle wrote yesterday that it’s difficult to not sound horrible while describing this issue. It may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Don’t write about your friend in your column, for a start. Don’t make knowing Italian deli meat the dividing line for the elites. Stop dehumanizing those who don’t talk and act like you.
Poor people are people not some alien species. They love their children. They want the best schools. They’d like safer neighborhoods. They’d like jobs. They like food, even Italian deli meat.
If David Brooks wanted to make a difference, he’d stop being such an obnoxious snob and be impressed with substance and action of a person instead of diction and pressed pants. So much of the distance between the classes is the arrogance and self-importance of the supposed elites or elites wannabes. When guys like Brooks and his beloved Obama think they have all the answers (causing the oceans to recede or give everyone crappy insurance) and then so thoroughly screw things up, and still believe they’re infallible and everyone else’s betters, it tends to distance them from regular people.
A solution for narcissistic elitism: Humility. Or Donald Trump. Take your pick.
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