Since it’s cited pretty regularly around these parts, I finally undertook to read Paul Fussell’s book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.
Fussell writes with great perspicacity on the status indicators that separate the nine social classes he identifies, the most interesting of which are the “middle” and the “upper middle” classes. These two in particular exist in perpetual conflict: the middle aspires to upper-middle status; the upper-middle meanwhile strives to maintain its exclusivity. In many contexts, the upper-middle class of today is the SWPL class. I make this comparison not necessarily to insult – as I have written before, SWPLs like some pretty cool stuff – but in it’s effort to keep the middle-class in its place, it is in the SWPL interest to constantly change its status markers. Thus, while many of Fussell’s observations are timeless, his book could do with a significant update to make it current, with bi-annual revisions after that.
But the aspect of the book I want to address here is political. Half Sigma, a stern disciple of Fussell’s, has in the last 18 months gained notoriety for his attacks on Sarah Palin, the focus of which, when not descending into “Trig Trutherism”, have been the markers of her lower-class origins and lack of an Ivy League education. Now, on the one hand, I will be the first to admit that Sarah Palin has been a comedown from the high hopes I had for her in the fall of 2008. I don’t believe that her net effect on the conservative movement has been a good one, if for no other reason than she consumes oxygen better spent on more viable political figures.
But I was struck by the similarity of the criticisms that HS and others have leveled at her to Fussell’s description of the greatest president of the past century:
Ronald Reagan, of course, doesn’t need to affect the establishment style, sensing accurately that his lowbrow, God-fearing, intellect-distrusting constituency regards it as an affront (which, of course, to them it is). Regan’s style can be designated Los Angeles (or even Orange) County Wasp-Chutzpah. It registers the sense that if you stubbornly believe you’re as good as educated and civilized people – i.e., those Eastern dudes – then you are. He is the perfect representative of the mind and soul of the Sun Belt. He favors, of course, the two-button suit with maximum shoulder padding and with a Trumanesque squared white handkerchief in the breast pocket, which makes him look, when he’s dressed way up, like a prole setting off for church. Sometimes, for leisure activities (as he might express it), he affects the cowboy look, which, especially when one is aged, appeals mightily to the Sun Belt seniles. One hesitates even to speculate about the polyester levels of his outfits.
Indeed, Reagan violates virtually every canon of upper-class or even upper-middle-class presentation. The dyed hair is, as we’ve seen, an outrage, as is the rouge on the cheeks. (Will the President soon proceed to eye shadow and liner?) So is the white broadcloth shirt with its omnipresent hint of collar stays. (Anxiety about neatness.) The suite materials are scandalously bucolic middle-class: Plaid, but never Glen plaid. The necktie is tied with a full Windsor knot, the favorite of sophisticated high-school boys everywhere. When after a press conference Dan Rather, not everyone’s idea of Preppy, comes on to “summarize” and try to make sense of the President’s vagaries, his light-blue Oxford-cloth button-down and “regimental” tie make him, by contrast, look upper-middle-class. The acute student of men’s class signals could virtually infer Reagan’s politics of Midwestern small-town meanness from his getups, just as one might deduce Roosevelt’s politics of aristocratic magnanimity from such classy accessories as his naval cape, pince-nez, and cigarette holder.
Good. God. In. Heaven.
It lends little credibility to the argument that Sarah-Palin-is-no-Ronald-Reagan when the people making this argument are the same kind of people that made the same criticisms of Reagan himself at the very moment that he was restoring the economy and winning the Cold War. And I would further add that, in hindsight, it becomes pretty clear that one should cast a jaundiced eye on criticisms of your movement’s leaders when they are made my your movement’s sworn political enemies.