Friday, April 30, 2010

Fussell on Reagan

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.


trumwill said...

Looking at class behavior, there are a lot of points against Reagan whatever you think of how good a president he was. Had Reagan been liberal, it's not unlikely that conservatives would have been making many of the same arguments. Which goes to your point, I guess, but I think that some people fall into the trap of assuming that any criticism that comes from the other side is invalid. Sometimes the other side is actually quite right.

The primary question is relevance. I'm not hugely important to me the lifestyle that our leaders lead. For some, it is. However, if you're going to say it's important, you (collective second person) ought to be consistent about it. I get annoyed when what clearly wouldn't matter in their own guy suddenly becomes crucial when it's the other guy.

Regarding Palin, I would argue that her personal life is slightly more relevant simply because that's the prism through which a lot of people relate to her. What she's done as a public official has been completely eclipsed, by both her critics and her supporters, by who she is. It makes it pretty difficult to avoid. It's more true of her than I think it was of Reagan.

samsonsjawbone said...

Well, here's another perspective: Reagan was before my time. My conception of him, gleaned from history and from the typical rightist hagiography, is that whatever he may have been, he did not present himself as being "of the lower class" the way Palin does. He may have actively tried not to appear upper-middle, but that's not the same

In other words, not having known his era and only basing my perception of him on others' accounts, I certainly picture him as a conservative hero, but I equally do not envision as a lower-class hero. In fact, I think I sort of imagine him to belong to that era in which conservatism did not yet necessarily have to entail a certain amount of redneckery; I imagine him to have been a "classy" conservative. But perhaps I've got it all wrong?

samsonsjawbone said...

Great Zeus, Phi, can you pretty please fix my typos? Can you add the period after the first paragraph, change "envision" to "envision him"?

(I'd also request you de-italicize "equally" and instead italicize "lower-class", but that may be asking too much.)

Φ said...

Trumwill: since you seem to be having trouble with this, let me highlight the obvious: "intellect-distrusting", "prole setting off to church", "good as educated and civilized people", "Sun Belt Seniles", "polyester levels", "Midwestern small-town meanness". For starters.

I came of political age in the Reagan years, and no, none of this even remotely occurred to me. That Fussell wrote it demonstrates that conservatives Republicans are going to get called low-class regardless. That it may actually be true does nothing for their credibility: even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I will concede your observation that Palin, in the heat of the campaign, was sold to us as a conservative on the basis of lifestyle rather than ideas, and that the ideas never materialized in any kind of substantive way. That doesn't make the class hatred of such as Fussell and HS any more illuminating.

Φ said...

Samson: how do I edit comments on blogger? I've never even done that before.

samsonsjawbone said...

*shrug* If you don't know how, don't sweat it.

Dexter said...

Samson, Reagan was during my time. He did not "try" to send prole signals, but I don't think Palin "tries" to send those signals, either. Nevertheless, both sent prole signals, and in my view the elites of the 1980s *thought* Reagan was as much of a prole as the elites of today think Palin is. The main difference is that Reagan did not jeopardize the electoral success of a media darling the way Palin seemed to jeopardize Bambi's chances in 2008. Therefore, the elites reacted to Reagan with resignation, as opposed to the rage Palin caused them.

My recollection of the 1980s is that the elites thought, and treated, conservatism as a redneck movement, and associated Reagan with that redneckery. They did not view him as a "classy" conservative; that was reserved for William F. Buckley and other effete East Coast types (now known as neocons).

It is certainly true that Reagan actually had conservative ideas and values, whereas Palin is merely sold as having them. The substance of this remains unclear.

samsonsjawbone said...

Well, isn't that interesting. Thanks for the insight.