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Class can't be dismissed; before we can solve class problems, we have to recognize they exist.

James Fallows is Washington editor of the Atlantic and a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly.

* The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class. Benjamin DeMott. Morrow, $18.95.

Before we can solve class problems, we have to recognize they exist

What is good and brave about this book deserves notice, despite the parts that are exasperating and overdone. DeMott's main argument is that class differences and class barriers are a central reality of American life-but that we find ways to pretend they don't exist, creating a class system that is even crueler and more demoralizing than it would otherwise be. When people discuss each others' backgrounds-"And where do your children go to school?" "We know them from 'the country' -or even use terms like "preppie" or "bridge-and-tunnel crowd," they are, DeMott says, clearly talking about distinct American classes. But, as he devotes most of the book to demonstrating, our politics and pop culture make these look like some other kind of division--especially of taste and broad-mindedness. The "Living" section of The New York Times is in reality directed at those with the money to throw around on antiques and second homes, but it acts as if the audience were defined merely by good taste: Some people appreciate the Hamptons, some prefer mobile homes. When George Bush advertises the fact that he eats pork rinds and listens to Loretta Lynn, the message is that there really isn't any difference between this And-over-educated senator's son and the average working guy. Professional-class Americans imagine "rednecks" to be jingoistic and bigoted-after all, look who's doing most of the flag-waving and cheering at Support Our Troops rallies. DeMott says that the working class was forced into bearing the burden of the Vietnam war, and is giving a natural response: "You call us working stiff types, says the talkback message. You chuckle at vulgar slobbish stupid macho jingos. But tell us this, draft boards and recruiters and admen: Who made the jingo? Who made the patriot into the man of hate 9 Drowning in class

The strongest part of this analysis, I think, is DeMott's discussion of schools. Viewed coldly, the school system is obviously the main transmission belt of American class standing. Public schools are increasingly segregated by neighborhood, which means by income and class. Parents with money increasingly buy their way out of the public schools altogether. The more money your parents have, the more likely you are to go to a good high school-either a prep school or a fancy suburban campus-and then to college and professional school; the more college and professional training you get, the more money you are likely to make, so you can start your kids on the cycle again. At the same time, the school system is open enough and fair enough to create exceptions to this general pattern: the small-town kid at Harvard, the dropout who makes a fortune as an entrepreneur. As a result, the school system is viewed as a more-or-less fair competition that sorts Americans according to their effort and merit. (A pop culture illustration that appeared too recently to make it into DeMott's book is the cartoon series "The Simpsons." The bumbling father, Homer, is always pointing out that he's stuck in his terrible job because he never studied when he was at Springfield High. In one episode, when Homer thought he was about to die from food poisoning, he passed on to his son Bart the phrase that had stood him in best stead through his working life: "Good idea, boss!") Nearly 20 years ago, in their book The Hidden Injuries of Class, Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb brilliantly described how this internalized sense of failure affected the noncollege class. DeMott portrays the awful smugness of people who succeed: "If, as a millionaire president in the White House put it, life is unfair, school wasn't. I earned my edge, shaped my future, under the rule of fairness; the race that settled things was the same length for all. "

DeMott has dozens of other illustrations, culled from books, newspapers, movies, and TV, of the gap between the class-bound reality of daily life and the idea of classlessness. For example, Gary Gilmore, the Utah murderer, had been in jail when he should have been learning the unwritten rules of social intercourse. Therefore, when he got out of jail, he took seriously an employer's talk about "not treating me like a boss," and broke class taboos by showing up at the boss's house on Sunday morning to spend some time with his new pal. DeMott is (as best I know) the first person to point out in print that David Letterman's humor often boils down to mockery of working-class taste. The most wrenching anecdote in the book concerns a black student who had just enrolled at Amherst. He dove into the pool for the compulsory swimming test-and drowned; the school hadn't imagined that one of its students would never have learned how to swim.

The main defect of this book is a tone that is probably meant to be arch but which strikes me as pretentious and gassy. ("More than once in recent times the resulting state-administered class injustice has been not less than appalling in its human cost.") There is a certain built-in gracelessness to a university professor writing, from the Berkshires, that no one else sympathizes with the downtrodden quite as much as he. For better and worse the book is structured as pure "cultural commentary": little first-hand reporting, lots of set-piece essays on Bruce Springsteen or George Plimpton or Oliver North. And DeMott is so intent on demolishing the myth of classlessness that he tends to portray it as totally a myth, which distorts and omits the ways in which America can be an unusually mobile society. Still, the problem DeMott is writing about is (along with race, to which it is connected) our fundamental social disorder, and his book takes us a significant step closer to dealing with it.
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Title Annotation:"The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can't Think About Class"
Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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