Encounters with Class

I wrote this in 2005 when the New York Times was doing a summer long expose on "Class in America".

Because the New York Times hasn’t asked me to contribute to their Encounters with Class series, I’m going to make my entry here.

My offering to the Times could conceivably discuss my first day at a “faux Eton” boarding school outside of Boston; or perhaps a rollicking fist fight I had with one big son of bitch in the woods of Maine over the last beer on our lumbering site; or my time working the streets of northwest New Mexico selling media advertising to small town businessmen; or, maybe even my introduction to my sister’s new mother-in law at her Loire Valley chateau. These experiences and others have helped develop my view of how class works in America… and the world.

But it was a small event in the back of a classroom at the United States Marine Corps Basic School in Quantico, Virginia that probably did the most to shape my view of this often dangerous subject.

The Basic School is where newly minted officers go for their initial training. It’s a six month course where lieutenants spend endless hours learning the various aspects of warfare. During one such classroom lesson, I was sitting in the far back row when another bored lieutenant passed me a well thumbed book entitled
Class, by Paul Fussell. The book is a comedic treatment of American class that, in its final chapter, includes a multiple choice exam. Take the test and Professor Fussell will tell you in which social class you belong. Bored by whatever we were doing, I dove right in.

Some of the questions were pretty straight-forward. Had you graduated from college (positive ten points)? Did your family have more than one car (positive three points)? Which of the following would best describe your summer vacation: motel on the Jersey Shore, cottage on a lake in the Poconos, summer house on the Maine coast? But many were a bit more “nuanced”. Did the toilet in your bathroom at home have one of those fuzzy lid covers (negative five points)? Did you have portraits of ancestors on your living room walls (positive twenty points)? When describing your pregnant sister would you say she was: “Knocked up” (negative ten points), “With child” (negative five points), or “pregnant” (two points)? Things like that.

I diligently answered the numerous questions. No, my (parent’s) house did not have a TV in the living room (positive five points). Yes, we had several 18th century portraits scattered throughout the house (positive fifty points). And yes, we raced a good sized sailboat in Maine in the summers (positive seventy points, twenty for the boat, thirty for the yacht club, and twenty for Maine), etc, etc. Soon the points began to pile up, but being somewhat distracted, I failed to foresee impending danger.

Finally finished, I checked around to see that some other lieutenants had taken the test and were comparing scores. “Nice score man, you got a fifty, boy life must be rough”, or “Negative 22, what, did you grow up in the outhouse?” Not thinking, I scribbled my score down - 243 - and flashed it down the row of seats. Suddenly there was a change in some of the faces. “What? You can’t get a score that high?” “Amazing, who are you, Little Lord Fauntleroy?” “What the fuck…”

I will note here that of all the institutions in American society, the military, and particularly the Marines, is a strict meritocracy. The only things we knew of each other were how well we did in military academics, how well we performed on the athletic field, and who were the emerging as leaders. It was pretty much your shaved head, your utility uniform and your performance. And to succeed, you needed to impress your peers. Peer evaluations accounted for one third of your final class ranking, which in turn provided the hierarchy for duty stations and job specialties. Ground-pounder or fly boy? You need a lot of peer respect to make it to 30,000 feet.

But after that little incident in the back of class, some of the guys in the back row started acting differently toward me. Not all the guys, but some, and that’s my point here. The guys from the poor backgrounds were not changed by knowing my score. They didn’t give a damn if I was Little Lord Fauntleroy or the Man in the Moon. They knew class existed and weren’t much bothered by it. They moved on.

But the guys – well, let me blunt – the middle class guys, they were different. They were made uncomfortable by my score, and it showed. There was something that they didn’t understand and didn’t like. It meant I was “rich”, or so they (wrongly) thought. In any case, it made me different, and a little scary. No one was really a jerk about it, but there is no doubt that it was a “thing”. All I know is that it didn’t help my peer evaluations.

Eventually, however, we all graduated and went on our way. I got my first choices of duty station and job specialty. Off to Okinawa as a grunt, no harm, no foul.

Now back to The New York Times and their survey on class in America (this part I don’t send to the Times). The general thrust of their treatise on class is that, although we Americans think we live in a “classless” society, we in fact do not. This may be a revelation to our media “elites”, but to the poor guys in the back of the class and me, well, we’re not hearing much new here. But I suppose it’s not meant for us. It’s meant for the other guys in the back row of my class at Quantico.

For as first generation Ivy Leaguers, compassionate Democrats, worshippers of upward mobility, our betters at the Times have learned, and not from their parents, that it isn’t money that brings them status. David Brooks tells them that the new measures of class are schools, professions, knowledge, and charity (as if that were something new). He tells them that they are different and, with the appropriate tinge of humor, better. He even calls them “the new upper class”. They like this and don’t mind announcing it in their important national newspapers.

So this is the voice of our national media. Freed from the bonds of their middle class origins, they are free to preach to us. As with Hollywood movies like Million Dollar Baby and American Beauty, they comfortably disparage the lower echelons of “white America”, not quite yet appreciating the irony in that. These Columbia Journalism grads, the people who Red State America calls “biased” and Heritage Foundation conservatives disdain for an “unchallenged and uniform world view”, have “arrived”, and they are not shy about letting us know.

But to me, they just seem to be an upper middle class who, rather than building schools and hospitals and churches, now write in newspapers.