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What happened to class?

It's cyclical," said my friend Mark Brennan, an NYU professor, as he executed a perfect "uchimata" during judo practice.

"Perhaps over here," I answered, "but in Europe it's a way of life." "Just look at the 1890s, followed by the crash of 1907, then the roaring twenties before the great depression, and then the '80s and '90s followed by the crash of 2008," insisted Mark.

By then I was too out of breath to counter him, literally as well as metaphorically. The only way to put the pain of extreme effort out of mind, however temporarily, is to discuss politics while trying to throw one's opponent, and that, of course, depends who the opponent is. Some of the people I've come up against still think the Nazis executed our Lord Jesus somewhere in Mexico. Mark Brennan is not one of them. Our discussion during an extremely tiring session was about class warfare, or what Obama and the Democrats and the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post insist are tax breaks only for billionaires who vote Republican.

Mark is an American, but having lived in Europe most of my life, I think I'm right in saying that what Obama and his media catamites have to say about the rich I've been hearing all my life in the Old Continent. My old man blamed it on the class system, one that did swimmingly since Roman times until well past World War I. People knew their place and stuck to it. Pliny the Younger had two houses, one more showy than the other, where elegant food was matched by deep thought, clever chat, and stunning scenery. It was a Platonic ideal of dining, an event where all the elements were in perfect harmony, although I'm not sure the slave-servants agreed.

Listening to some European protesters nowadays, one would think that nothing has changed since Pliny's time. A leftist Oxford professor I know once told me it was the blitheness of the upper class's unrepentance that drives him up the wall. When I suggested he get real, he called me a fascist then asked me to buy him a drink.

The European welfare state has turned our prosperous society to an advanced state of moral decay with a trashy, vulgar culture of neither spiritual nor aesthetic value. Repulsive behavior has become the norm, crime rates have gone through the roof, and the idea prevails that those who are less fortunate than the most fortunate members of society are rendered by their relative deprivation incapable of improving their lot without an army of publicly funded bureaucrats to help them.

Mind you, the upstairs-downstairs system of yesteryear had something to do with it. It began with a healthy challenge to deference from below and it became a crisis of nerves from above. The people who belonged to the Establishment, the old authority figures--and by that I don't mean only lords of the manor and millionaires--but teachers, religious leaders, and politicians, no longer believe in the ethos that made them what they were, they no longer feel able to uphold the values they traditionally stood for. Parents, bombarded by generations of lifestyle gurus on bringing up their children, simply lost the plot. Respect for one's elders is now an alien concept, like dining chez Pliny the Younger.

Personally, I put 90 percent of the blame on intellectuals and educationalists, who have consistently derided all standards of decency over the last forty years. They lost faith in the moral and cultural traditions which they inherited in order to be trendy, seeing them after a while as smokescreens for oppression and hypocrisy. The result has been a barbarous nihilism that reigns in so many British inner cities, and to my ever lasting horror, at universities themselves.

Manners, of course, were the first casualty. Four-letter expletives are part of the culture of triumphant ignorance--the belief that to behave like a slob is an indication of manhood. Alas, the very rich, the rich, the middle classes, and the working poor all use them.

Between Hollywood and rock stars, and our beloved sports idols, the f-word has become proof of some sort of celebrity. Yet I remember the time when hard working people were appalled if someone said Jesus Christ, especially in front of women and children. Most people I grew up with never swore, and I don't think my mother would have recognized a swear word if she heard it. She was kinder to people who worked for a living than, say, a countess or a princess of the blood, and in a way I'm glad she's no longer around to see the mess we're in. I only hope Americans don't turn into Europeans. Let them hate the rich and privileged in cycles, unlike us Europeans who hate everyone and everything.
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Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:4E
Date:May 1, 2012
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